New Strength for a New Year

All the research indicates the same thing. More and more young people are shying away from attending church on Sundays. They’re feeling it’s become old school and irrelevant.

Of course, the reality is, it’s not just young people, but people of all ages who have determined to ditch church for greener pastures. And I kind of get it.

Listening to music that might not be anywhere near my preferred musical style, followed by a lengthy monologue — even a relatively interesting one — and then after all that, being asked to fork over some of my hard-earned cash. That kind of sounds like a recipe for disaster in today’s fast-paced, attention grabbing, economically challenged world.

Who wants this anymore? This is supposed to build up our spirits and give us strength to face life’s challenges? How does that work?

I’m going to take a stab at responding to these questions. More than that, I’m going to take on the even more daunting task of challenging you to make getting back to church on Sundays your number 1 New Year’s resolution.

In Old Testament times, the children of Israel had been serving a sentence of exile that lasted — for many of them — over 70 years. When they finally returned from Babylon to their homeland, they were so grateful to be home that they demanded their “pastor” Ezra come out, read the Bible, and teach them.

The sermon lasted something like 6 hours. Yikes!

But something strange happened. The people listened like their lives depended on it. The people stood still, perked their ears up, and asked themselves, “How is this relevant to me? How does it apply to my life?”

What they heard from God’s word brought them to their knees. It grounded them in divine, spiritual reality. It rang true in their hearts and compared favorably to their life’s experiences. “Amen!” (“This is absolutely true!”) sprang from their lips.

So many people were eager to learn that they broke into small groups where they could ask their questions, and have other teachers respond. The Levites dove back into the Bible and worked with the people, explaining the meaning so they could be clear on what God was telling them.

Then their leader Nehemiah stood up and reminded them why they had so strenuously sought to have Ezra and the Levites teach them. It was to bring them out of their grief and restore their strength.

And where would that strength come from? God’s words and promises would remind them always. The joy they receive from the Lord would be their strength. God’s love, mercy, grace, the Lord’s peace, provision and protection — these would be their joy. And that joy would be their daily strength.

Who doesn’t need peace, joy and strength in their lives? My challenge to you this New Year’s is simply this: Take a serious look at the Israelites’ example. They believed the Bible’s teaching would give them these things and they gave God a chance to make good on his promises.

How about you? Will you give God a chance to make good on his promises in 2016?

It might just lead to surprising new strength for you in this new year!

“All the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’ Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

The Levites… instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength'” (Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-8, 10, NIV).

Lord Jesus, let your joy — the joy of the Lord — be my strength. Help me to stay faithful to you and your word in the coming year, and grant me your Holy Spirit so that I may live in your love, forgiveness and power in the coming year.

Our Bible reading for Sunday, December 27, is Nehemiah 7:4 – 8:18, Revelation 18:17 – 19:10 and Psalm 148:1-6.

Header image based on "2016 Calendar..." by Jeff Djevdet, CC By 2.0

Near the Church, Far from God?

There’s an old French proverb that states, “He who is near the church is often far from God.”

The church can seem like a very harsh and uncaring place. Church people can seem judgmental and hypocritical. Empathy and authenticity sometimes just don’t seem to be found in great abundance.

Even 2000 years ago, the apostle Paul knew how important it was for the church to demonstrate compassion, offer encouragement, and extend care and comfort to people. He knew how critical it was for Christ-followers to meet people where they’re at.

It was pure joy for Paul to share the gospel. But as he tells the Thessalonians, he also found great joy in sharing more than the gospel — in sharing his very life with them.

He worked day and night to support himself so he could selflessly teach people about Jesus, without needing their financial support. He lived a life that showed the Thessalonians step-by-step how a life with God is lived — an unselfish, righteous and pure life.

In this way, when the Thessalonians got near to Paul, they got a good picture of who Jesus is. They got a good picture of what the church is meant to be, too.

The good news about Jesus’ forgiveness. The love of Jesus reflected in actions. The power of Jesus for life-change. Hope. Encouragement. Comfort. And the challenge to grow in faith and obedience. That’s what the Thessalonians witnessed and received.

So when they got near the church, they also drew near to God.

“Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:7b-12, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Friday, October 9, is Jeremiah 18:1 – 20:18, 1 Thessalonians 1:1 – 2:16 and Psalm 119:1-8.

Lord, help me to love others as you first loved me. I ask you to strengthen me to follow the example of the apostle Paul, to share the gospel with those around me, and to sacrificially share myself as well.

Header image based on "St. Mary's, Stamford" by DncnH, CC By 2.0

God-Given Disabilities

Paul was one of the most well-educated and brilliant scholars of his day. He had a gift for leading and communicating. He was energetic and hard-working. He was a man with a huge heart and a passion for people.

And he loved God deeply.

So why would God allow him to be imprisoned in a Roman cell, locked up and left to rot? Why would the God he loved disable him that way? Why sideline him?

It’s a great question. And the answer is that our disabilities play an important role in God’s kingdom. Our weaknesses can allow others to step up and grow stronger. Sometimes our being on the sideline can allow someone else to step on to the playing field.

That’s what happened when the apostle Paul was put in prison. Others had to step forward. They had to be strong and confident. As Paul had been doing, they would now need to get past their fear and proclaim the gospel. They had to act daringly, by faith in Jesus.

So yes, God gives us both our abilities and our disabilities.

Because he doesn’t want any of us thinking we’re indispensable to the work of the kingdom, or that we can do it all on our own. Our disabilities persuade us to work together with those whose abilities match our disabilities.

And so the church functions together as one for the glory of God.

“And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear” (Philippians 1:14, NIV).

Lord, help me to be content with both my abilities and my disabilities. Lead me to see that my disabilities can be part of your plan to include others in the vital work of your kingdom. Lord, thank you that you have built the church in such a way that we all need each other to function.

Our Bible reading for Tuesday, September 29, is Zephaniah 1:1 – 3:20, Philippians 1:1-26 and Proverbs 23:29 – 24:4.

Header image based on "There's an Injured Player Down on the Field" by Ron Cogswell, CC By 2.0

Solving World Poverty

What’s the work of the church?

It is firstly to solve the problem of spiritual poverty. This is why Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3, NIV).

We have the gospel. As we share the gospel, we share the kingdom of heaven with those around us. And that’s exactly what the apostle Paul and his team loved to do as they reached out to the Gentile people of their day. They were solving world spiritual poverty by giving people Jesus.

When Paul spoke with the pillars of the early church, though, they emphasized that one could not divorce solving spiritual poverty from working to solve physical poverty as well. So these godly men made only one request of Paul as he asked them for their blessing to take the gospel to the Gentiles.

“As you teach people about Jesus, and share the beautiful gospel message with them,” they said, “continue to remember the poor. Extend a helping hand not just to the spiritually poor, but to the physically poor as well.”

And Paul’s response was, “That’s the very thing I’m eager to do!”

There’s no question that the first work of the church is to help people know Jesus. We want to be Christ’s ambassadors to share Jesus as the world’s Lord and Savior.

But it’s also clear that God wants us to help people know the love of Jesus. This love of Jesus is the very thing that caused him not only to forgive sins and offer reconciliation and peace with God, but also to assist those who needed his help and healing.

For Jesus, the work of the kingdom was not an either/or choice between the spiritual and the physical. It was a both/and proposition. Clearly, this subsequently became the commitment of the early church as well.

And still today, the work of the church is a both/and proposition. It is solving world poverty — spiritual poverty first, while always remembering to work on the problem of physical poverty as well.

What an amazing privilege! What an awesome responsibility! What an outstanding opportunity!

“On the contrary, they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. “For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along”(Galatians 2:7-10, NIV).

Lord Jesus, thank you for saving me from my spiritual poverty. Thank you for richly and daily providing for me. Give me the same heart for those who struggle with poverty — spiritual or physical — as you have for an entire world struggling with poverty.

Our Bible reading for Tuesday, September 15, is Isaiah 36:1 – 37:38, Galatians 2:1-10 and Psalm 107:23-32.

Header image based on "Poverty: Damaged Child," Oklahoma City, OK, USA, 1936" by Kelly Short, CC By-SA 2.0

Give Honor, For You Have Received Honor

God’s love for us is amazing. His mercy and grace are astonishing.

When so many others dismiss you and say, “I don’t need you any more,” God says, “I want you near me. And I will always want you near me. My love for you is faithful.”

When others disparage you and say, “You are too weak. You have nothing to offer us,” God says, “I will strengthen you. You are indispensable to me. My purpose for you is glorious.”

When others disdain you and say, “You are worthless. it would be better for you not to be seen or heard from,” God says, ‘You are my honored child, whom I love. Speak to me in prayer. I do see you every day. My ears, for you, are always open.”

When others despise you and say, “You don’t belong here,” God says, “You absolutely belong here, because you are my treasured possession. My bond with you is unbreakable.”

When others disregard you and say, “I have no time for your suffering,” Jesus says, “I have suffered in your place. Come to me, you who are weary and burdened. My grace and mercy toward you will always be abundant beyond measure.”

Paul speaks to the Corinthian Christians, and his encouragement is clear.

The way we treat each other in the church is not the way we’ve been treated by other selfish sinners. The way we treat each other in the church is a reflection of the way God first treated us.

The way we honor each other in the church is the way God first honored us…

…with his unconditional, unearned, and unimaginable love.

“The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:21-26, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Tuesday, August 18, is Song of Songs 1:1 – 4:16, 1 Corinthians 12:1-26 and Psalm 99:1-9.

Lord, help me to honor others with love and kindness, as you have first honored me with love and kindness. Jesus, your cross reconciled me and brought me close to our Father. Now may your cross be the inspiration for me to remain close with my brothers and sisters in the church.

Header image based on "India - Chennai - Inspirational wall slogan" by McKay Savage, CC By 2.0

Two Are Better and Three Is Best

Most of us recognize intuitively that being dependent well into adulthood is not healthy or correct. So we often strive for independence. We get a job, we move into our own apartment, we start to pay the bills. We take responsibility for our own lives.

But the trap in this is that we can come to believe that this is as far as we need to go. We feel we’ve arrived, so we don’t perceive any need to ask ourselves if there’s something more.

But Solomon tells us there is. There’s something far better, he claims. And this is the true destination we should be stepping towards.

It’s not independence. It’s interdependence.

It’s understanding that the reason we need to learn how to take care of ourselves is really so that we can get into position to be able to take care of the needs of others, and have them also take care of our needs in a mutually beneficial relationship.

This is all the more true if God is in the midst of the relationship. Solomon’s father David had experienced a relationship like this. It was his relationship with his best friend, Jonathan. And right in the middle of that relationship with each other was their mutual relationship with the Lord.

It’s true. Two are better than one. And, as Jonathan and David demonstrate clearly, when the third party is God, three is best of all.

“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Wednesday, August 12, is Ecclesiastes 4:1 – 6:12, 1 Corinthians 7:17-35 and Proverbs 19:23 – 20:4.

Jesus, thank you for coming to love and support me. I know that I am dependent on you and your love for forgiveness, peace, and eternal life. Help me to grow beyond independence to interdependence, so that I can fulfill the purpose you’ve given me to love others as you first loved me.

Header image based on "119/365" by Anna Gutermuth, CC By 2.0

Tangible vs. Intangible

As human beings we are so attached to the tangible. Because of that we tend to want to turn the practice of our faith toward physical things — things we can see, taste, hear, touch.

For the Christians in first-century Rome this became a thing about what food believers should eat, and what food they shouldn’t eat.

Over the years, there have been various manifestations of this same debate, all of them involving things that God gives us complete freedom to choose. I’m talking about things like…

  • What Christians should wear
  • How Christians should have fun
  • What music Christians should listen to
  • What are the only “correct” worship practices for Christians
  • What habits should Christians have
  • What jewelry Christians should wear

Paul instructs the Romans that God has left certain things in the area of Christian freedom. He’s left it up to us to make choices, and we are completely free to make our choices. Choose to eat, or not to eat. Choose to wear it, or don’t choose to wear it. There’s no commandment from God on this particular aspect of life, so it’s up to you.

The only check on our choices is that we would make loving choices, taking into account the consciences of others, and not going out of our way to trip others up in their faith.

Where Paul wants our focus to be is on the intangibles. He mentions the important ones specifically.

  • Righteousness
  • Peace
  • Joy

Pursuing these is what pleases God. Pursuing these is what builds faith. Pursuing these will often, Paul notes, even lead to the admiration and respect of those around us.

Interestingly, pursuing righteousness, peace and joy — in God’s way of working things — really means not running away from them. Because in reality, we’re not the ones pursuing God. God is the one pursuing us, and he is the one who wants to give us righteousness, peace and joy.

How does he pursue us with these gifts? He sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to be our Savior. Jesus pursued us through living a perfect life in our place, by going to the cross for us, and most of all, by rising from the tomb. He did this all so he could give us his divine, perfect righteousness, peace and joy.

And he still pursues us with these gifts. Today he pursues us by sending the Holy Spirit, which he promises to do when we read and listen to the Bible, or when we have the waters of baptism poured on us, or when we eat and drink Christ’s body and blood in communion.

And where do we get these things? Most of us find them at church.

So, what are you waiting for? Get yourself down there!

“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval” (Romans 14:17-18, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Friday, July 31, 1 Chronicles 9:1 – 10:14, Romans 14:1-18 and Proverbs 18:17 – 19:2.

Lord, help me to enjoy my Christian freedom in the areas where you have left things open to my judgment. Most of all, help me keep my eyes and my heart focused on the pursuit of your righteousness, peace and joy, which I find in my Savior Jesus.

Header image based on "Roadside Church" by Nicholas A. Tonelli, CC By 2.0