A Faith That Grows

I love stories in scripture of faith that progresses in the lives of people who encounter Jesus. We looked at one of those stories last month in John 9. The blind man who Jesus heals changes the way he describes Jesus as the chapter goes on. He calls Jesus a man, then calls Him a prophet and recognizes that He must be from God before finally calling Him Lord towards the end of the chapter. There is a similar faith progression that happens in the life of another person mentioned in a few instances throughout John’s gospel.
We are first introduced to Nicodemus in John 3. He comes to learn from Jesus at night. Although it is not spelled out for us, that timing of his visits with Jesus indicate that he does not want to be seen with Him. Jesus explains to him that a person must be born again to have a new life with God. He is clearly confused by this teaching, but we do not know in chapter 3 if his life is changed.
We next find Nicodemus in John 7. Jesus has gained popularity, but people are divided about who He is and what His teaching and miracles might mean. As the Pharisees are ready to condemn, Nicodemus speaks up in verse 51: “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” There are not many people in John’s gospel other than Jesus who challenge the Pharisees. Nicodemus does here.
We last hear about Him in chapter 19 after Jesus is crucified. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea take the body of Jesus and place Him in the tomb. In verse 39, John reminds us who he is and tells us what he does now. “Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight.”
Nicodemus went from visiting under the cover of darkness, to speaking words of reason in a tense situation to caring for Jesus after His own apostles were nowhere to be found. What changed from chapter 3 to chapter 19? He encountered Jesus. If Jesus could transform Nicodemus so completely, how could He change your life?
“But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” – John 3:21

Ebb and Flow

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, ebb and flow is “used to describe something that changes in a regular and repeated way.“ That could describe many things in our world. We experience the changing of seasons in nature. Baseball fans are ready tor a new season to begin. We are only a couple of months away from another school year coming to an end. Even in church life, there are regular changes.
Last Sunday, Stacey and I visited the congregation in Arkansas where we spent 14 years. Although it was good to reconnect with old friends, we were struck by how many familiar faces were gone and had been replaced by new faces we did not know. Here at Southwest, we experience the same thing.
Within the last few months, the Neill and Conley families have both moved away. Although I have no doubt they will be great additions to new congregations, they will be missed here. Their entire families were active in so many of the ministries that make Southwest the church family that it is. They will be hard to replace, yet the work they did here still needs to be done.
We have suffered losses as people we love dearly have gone on to their reward. We celebrate lives well lived to God’s glory. We know we will meet again, but their absence here is still felt.
On the other side of the ebb and flow, we have regular additions and changes to our church family. New members have joined us. Some are old friends, while others are new ones. The sounds of babies and children are a regular part of our gatherings. We have rejoiced as we witnessed transformed lives rise from the waters of baptism.
The ebb and flow is all part of the life of the church. It is such a blessing to be a part of the Southwest family. The God who unites us is the One who will always remain.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. – Ecclesiastes 3:1

True Love

Since we are talking about love on Sunday evenings in March, I was reminded of this Valentine’s Day breakdown from CNN.com that I ran across several years ago. Americans spend quite a bit of money to show their love on Valentine’s Day Here’s a breakdown, by the numbers:
  • $130.97 — The per person average estimated amount that people spend on Valentine’s Day
  • 224 million — The estimated number of roses grown for Valentine’s Day
  • 51% — The percentage of people who buy red roses for this holiday
  • 64% — The percentage of men who buy flowers for Valentine’s Day
  • 36% — The percentage of women who buy flowers for Valentine’s Day
  • $18.6 billion — The total spending that is reached by Valentine’s Day
  • $1.6 billion — The amount people spend on candy
  • $1.9 billion — The amount people spend on flowers
  • $4.4 billion — The amount people spend on diamonds, gold and silver
And one of the best statistics: there are 1400 varieties of Valentine’s cards available at Hallmark. 1400 ways to express love. As eloquent as Hallmark may be, we looked at the best description of love last week in 1 Corinthians 13 and it has little to do with the kind of romance we find in cards.
Love is foundational to our relationships. It gives meaning to our actions. It teaches the world around us about the God we serve. Best of all, you do not need to spend $130.97 today to show God’s love to the people you meet. It can be freely given and still holds immeasurable value.

The Most Important Question

This week Jet and I will finish our Wednesday night class series. I have mentioned to several people how much I have enjoyed teaching this class. Obviously some of the credit for that belongs to Jet, but I think there’s another piece. I love good questions. There have been a lot of good and difficult questions throughout our study.
I am currently reading John Mark Comer’s book, Practicing the Way: Be With Jesus. Become Like Him. Do As He Did. As someone who loves a good question, the author got my attention when I read the words, “The single most important question is…” Usually we reserve that description for the question asked during someone’s confession of Christ before baptism. Comer writes to people who have already answered the question of who Jesus is, and they desire to be more like Him. It is in that context he asks this question:
“Are we becoming more loving?”
He has a point. It’s a great question. He continues:
“Are we becoming more loving? Not, Are we becoming more biblically educated? Or practicing more spiritual disciplines? Or more involved in church? Those are all good things, but not the most important thing. If you want to chart your progress on the spirituality journey, test the quality of your closest relationships—namely, by love and the fruit of the Spirit. Would the people who know you best say you are becoming more loving, joyful, and at peace? More patient and less frustrated? Kinder, gentler, softening with time, and pervaded by goodness? Faithful, especially in hard times, and self-controlled? Are you growing in love not just for your friends and family but for your enemies? When you are hurt, wounded, and treated unjustly (as we all are), are you finding yourself increasingly able to emotionally release the bitterness, to absorb the pain and not give it back in kind? To pray for and even ‘bless those who curse you’? [Luke 6:28] And is all this feeling more and more natural and less forced? More and more like this is just who you are? If not, then no matter how well you know the Bible, how many books you read, how many insights you amass, or how many practices you build into your Rule of Life, you’re not on track.”
Love is where the Bible we know, the disciplines we practice and the church involvement we value turn into action toward others. Let’s all become more loving.

The Home We Long For

It seems like each year there are more books being written about why people are leaving church. One of 2023’s most popular was The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back? Although much of the book deals with the questions mentioned in the title, the authors frequently return to point out what makes the church and our worship assemblies so important for our relationship with God. One of the writers, Jim Davis, makes this great analogy about our gatherings.
“When I lived overseas, every so often I would go onto a US military base. Immediately when you pass the gates, you are on US soil. All the signs are in English, the fashion is American, and you begin to see great dining establishments like Pizza Hut and Burger King. You pay in American dollars, and you see glimpses of home in things like free refills, American architecture, and police cars that make the ‘correct’ siren sound. When on base, we were a small group of very different people far from home but, in a way, home at the same time. That is what the Sunday gathering is for us. We come together as a diverse group of people feeling acutely that we are not home—a people who, in some mysterious way, leave the world we live in to worship the King of our new kingdom. And, for a moment, even if we aren’t truly there, we can taste the home we long for. Our Sunday gathering has a centering effect on us, and to the degree we make the gathering a priority in our lives, we will taste our true home and flourish as citizens of heaven on earth.”
As we gather again this week, I pray that you will be blessed by the reunion and long even more for the home we will all share with the God who loves us.

True Friends

Paul closes his letter to the Colossians in the same way he closes many of his writings. He mentions by name several people who have made an impact on his life and ministry. Although many people would look to Paul as someone who had accomplished great things on behalf of God and his church, Paul is quick to remind anyone who will listen that he cannot do those things on his own. He is fully dependent on the power of God, and he works together with the people God has placed in his life.
We have people like that in our lives, too. In his book, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts, James K. A. Smith describes what people like that are like. He calls them true friends.
“A friend is not an enabler. Love doesn’t always look like agreement. A true friend is the other who hopes you’ll answer the call, who’s willing to challenge you and upset you in order to get you to look at yourself and ask yourself: What am I doing? What do I love? Who am I? The true friend is the other who has the courage to impose a conviction, who paints a substantive picture of the good, who prods and prompts you to change course and chase it, and promises to join you on the way.”
We need friends like that in our lives, and we need to be friends like that to the people we care about. Even for someone with the faith and perseverance of Paul, those kinds of relationships matter.
“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” – Proverbs 17:17

Are We Growing?

As we talked on Sunday morning about Colossians 3 and on Wednesday night about praying continually, it struck me that those two studies are interrelated. If we are becoming the transformed people Paul describes in Colossians, regular prayer will be a part of that life. Could Paul present us “mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28) based on the lives we are living?
Far too many Christians get stuck at the beginning. That is why Paul reminds the church in Colossians 3 about who they once were, and what their new lives should look like. God has in mind that even if we are living well according to His design, we should continue to move forward. ‌​“Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1). The people Paul wrote to were walking well, but he encouraged them to “do so more and more”. He wanted them to grow and mature.
‌In fact, growth and maturity are constant themes within Paul’s letters. He moves from the general call to “grow up in every way” (Ephesians 4:15) to more specific areas where their Christian walk should be changing in a positive way. They should “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). He tells them that their “faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing” (2 Thessalonians 1:3). He either notices growth or desires growth in their understanding (1 Corinthians 14:20) and their thinking and reasoning (1 Corinthians 13:11).
As these Christians hear Paul’s words and begin to grow and mature inwardly, outward results become apparent. Their love for one another increases (1 Thessalonians 3:12). Their language becomes more mature (1 Corinthians 13:11). They are more fruitful (John 15:1-2). As they bear this fruit they can be seen by the world (Matthew 5:13) and be witnesses to the one they follow (Acts 1:8). How does all this growth come about, and why does it elude so many Christians?
God has given us the tools we need for growth. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3). If God has really given us all that we need for “life and godliness,” it us up to us to better recognize these resources and become experts in their use. Only then can we grow into the mature Christians we can be through His grace and power.

Spiritual Food

As I write this, we have given out the last of the Thanksgiving food boxes, and I am beginning to anticipate the Thanksgiving meal that I will be enjoying with family on Thursday. As you read this, you have likely had your fill of turkey, potatoes and multiple desserts. Most of us enjoy a good meal, and we understand the need for physical sustenance. When is the last time you thought about the importance of spiritual food?
One of the best ways to be spiritual fed is through reading, studying and meditating on the word of God. In his book, Fear No Evil: A Personal Struggle With Cancer, David Watson writes about how much we need that spiritual food that scripture provides to get us through each day.
“As I spent time chewing over the endless assurances and promises to be found in the Bible, so my faith in the living God grew stronger and held me safe in his hands. God’s word to us, especially his word spoken by his Spirit through the Bible, is the very ingredient that feeds our faith. If we feed our souls regularly on God’s word, several times each day, we should become robust spiritually just as we feed on ordinary food several times each day, and become robust physically. Nothing is more important than hearing and obeying the word of God.”
Many of us are still recovering from a huge Thanksgiving meal. In the town where I grew up, there was a 10K run each year that was preceded by a big spaghetti dinner the night before. Runners were carb loading to get the energy needed for the race to come. Too many Christians treat scripture that way. They will look to it here and there, but it is not a regular part of life. It should be a part of our lives everyday. After all, we still eat the day after Thanksgiving. Show God your thankfulness for His word by taking it in daily.
“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” – 1 Thessalonians 2:13

What are we praying about?

Wednesday night, Jet McCoy and I started a class that will cover several topics, but we began by talking about prayer. We spent most of the time talking about the case that scripture makes for prayer being worthwhile, essential and effective. It is part of God’s design for our relationship with Him. If we can understand why prayer matters, we might next ask ourselves about the subjects within our prayers.
In the last chapter of his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul (as he often does) begins with a request for prayer. Reading his request makes me think about our own prayer requests. Many of us have things that we share with the church when we feel the need for prayer. Often those requests deal with illness, family or job issues, comfort after the loss of a loved one or other major life changes. Those are all things that we should be praying about. We need God’s help at those difficult times. Paul asks for prayers in tough times as well, but I’m struck by his initial request in verse 1: “Pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored.”
How often do we in our personal prayers spend time praying for the spread of the gospel? I believe that we truly want the gospel to spread and that we would like to see more people baptized into Christ, but do our prayers indicate that? I would encourage each of us to add that to our conversations with God. It is partly a general request for the gospel spreading in our community and around the world. Closer to home, there are people you know personally that need to know Christ. Pray for them by name. Pray that God can help each of us find those people that we can share His story with. God hears all of our prayers, but isn’t it great when the desires of our hearts are also in line with His mission?
Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”    – Matthew 9:37-38

What are you thinking?

Sometimes I glance over at my wife and can see by the expression on her face that she is deep in thought. Actually, she is usually deep in thought—sometimes I actually notice. When I see that look I often ask the same question: “What are you thinking?” That might be a good question for all of us to consider.
What are you thinking?
In his short book, As a Man Thinketh, James Allen explores how our thinking influences who we are and what we do. “A noble and God like character is not a thing of favour or chance but is the natural result of continued effort in right thinking the effect of long cherished association with God-like thoughts An ignoble (not honorable) and bestial (like an animal) character by the same process is the result of the continued harbouring of grovelling thoughts. Man is made or unmade by himself in the armoury of thought he forges the weapons by which he destroys himself he also fashions the tools with which he builds for himself heavenly mansions of joy and strength and peace.”
What are you thinking?
The connection of thought, attitude, character and action was not new to Allen. We read about is in scripture. God’s reminders throughout scripture for His people not to fear encourages them also to take wiser actions not driven by that fear. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches to go beyond actions to the thoughts that lie beneath those actions. Later He teaches that our good or evil words originate with good or evil hearts.
What are you thinking?
In Philippians 4:8, we find the answer to that question that we should all strive for. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” When our minds are focused here, good character and actions are the result. The next verse makes that connection. “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Think about these things. Practice these things.
What are you thinking?