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?

Either/Or or Both/And

Many times in life we assume there is a dichotomy. When presented with two options, it has to be one or the other. It’s an either/or situation. Sometimes we do not ask whether the answer might be both/and instead. In church life, we can have that same struggle about the focus of the ministry we do. Is our call to spread the gospel or to serve others? The answer is yes. In the life of Jesus, we see Him do both. Moreover, we see how his love and compassion for people with physical needs often opens the door to their spiritual needs. Timothy Keller writes in his book, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, about how service to others demonstrates the gospel.
“Ultimately, it is impossible to separate word and deed ministry because human beings are integrated wholes — body and soul. It is both natural and necessary that ministers of mercy also minister the Word while they are in the process of meeting human needs, and that communicators of the gospel also show compassion with regard to the material needs of the people they are trying to reach. An integrative ministry means weaving together word and deed ministry as much as possible. When Jesus raised the dead son of the widow of Nain, he spoke words of comfort (Luke 7:13). After he healed the blind man, he returned with a gospel charge (John 9:35 – 38). These go hand in hand. In Acts 2, explosive growth in numbers (v. 41) leads to radical sharing with the needy (vv. 44 – 45). In Acts 4, economic sharing by people inside the church accompanied the preaching of the resurrection outside the church with great power (vv. 32 – 35). The practical actions of Christians on behalf of people in need demonstrated the truth and power of the gospel.”
Jesus cared deeply about each person He encountered. He also knew that many of them would not be forever changed. We do not read about those fed by the loaves and fishes or lepers who were cleansed following Him by the thousands all the way to His last week in Jerusalem. He served them anyway. Their response was not the criteria He used to decide who to serve. His love was. As people who are loved by Him, we serve because of Him.
– Brian
“Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” – 1 Peter 4:9-10

The End of Exile

This week our Living in Exile series comes to a close. The end of the series has me thinking about the end of exile. Israel may have marked that by returning to Jerusalem, rebuilding the wall or rebuilding the temple. But did they feel for the generations to come like the exile was really over? Biblical scholar, N.T. Wright, has a shared a theory that even in the time of Jesus, the Jewish people had many of the same struggles with Rome that their ancestors had with the time in exile. Exile had come to them. As we have mentioned during the series, sometimes we might feel as if exile has come to us. In the book, Exile: A Conversation With N.T. Wright, several scholars interact with Wright’s concept of exile during the New Testament. Scot McKnight writes about what would signify the end of exile.
“The southern tribe, Judah, was sent by God into exile to Babylon as discipline for unfaithfulness. In Babylon the ideas of ending their exile and returning to the land converged into a story of hope. Some seventy years later the exiles returned, but not all of the promises were fulfilled when they returned. So Wright argues that even though the children of Israel were back in the land, the exile had not yet completely ended. The question then is this: When would it end? When God once again sat on the throne and ruled the land. The exile will only truly end when God rules, when the glowing words of Isaiah 40–66 are more than glimpsed in the realities in the land, when—in other words—the damage of 1 Samuel 8 is undone and redeemed. Until Jerusalem is ruled by God and God alone, the exile is still on.”
We have been reminded several times this summer that God was sovereign through the entire exile and return, and He is still sovereign today. But since Israel first demanded a human king in 1 Samuel 8, people have sought someone else to be in charge. As God warned them in verse 18, “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” They would cry out because of their own king and the kings who would make their exile so difficult.
The exile ends when God rules. Applying that idea to the walk of Christians in 2023, until we are “ruled by God and God alone, the exile is still on.” Like Israel, we must remember that God is our king, and there can be no substitute. He gives us life, freedom and hope.

Working Side by Side

As we have talked this summer about living in exile, I have been frequently reminded that it is not possible to cover every detail. There are so many stories and events that have to be summarized in a minute or two, or passed over altogether. I would encourage you to study along and spend some time filling in those gaps.
One of the things that just got a quick mention last week was the way everyone worked side by side building the wall in Nehemiah 3. There is a lot we can learn about the nature of work and our attitudes toward it from how the people work in that chapter. The Preaching the Word Bible Commentary points out four things that are worth noting.
  • “Not all work is equally distributed, but all workers are equally responsible.” Especially when lots of people are working together on a project, some people are always going to work harder than others, and some work is always going to take longer than other work. But each part of the work and each worker matters.
  • “Not all the work is equally pleasant, but it is all equally important.” Our family spent a Saturday putting up a fence a few years ago. Measurements had to be made. Holes had to be dug. Cement had to be mixed. Poles had to be set. Fence panels had to be assembled. Some of those jobs are more enjoyable than others. Without any one of those things, the fence would not last.
  • “Not all workers are equally gifted, but all are equally valuable.” If you have a child or grandchild in the preschool Bible class, I hope you noticed how great the bullrushes looked on the wall that became the river where baby Moses was placed in a basket. My wife (the creative one) did 98% of the design and execution of that scene. I cut out bullrushes, because it’s hard to mess that up. Don’t listen to that voice that says your work is less important or not valuable. That is not God speaking to you.
  • “Not all workers are equally enthusiastic, but all work repays personal investment.” I will have to admit that I was not enthusiastic about putting up a fence or cutting out bullrushes. I would imagine that some of those in Nehemiah 3 were much more excited about having a wall than building it themselves. Still when we are willing to do the work, it pays off. And if we are enthusiastic about it, that might encourage the next worker on the wall.
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”   Ephesians 4:15-16

The Speed of God

For many of us, summer can be a time when things slow down a little. Our students and educators especially have a time where there are fewer deadlines and assignments. This is the week that all begins to change: back to school! In his book, The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World, Andy Crouch talks about how much technology has changed our world. One of the biggest changes is the pace at which life moves.
“Almost all of human history was carried on at the speed of roughly three miles an hour—the speed of walking. The Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama provocatively called three miles an hour ‘the speed of God’ since it was the speed at which Jesus of Nazareth moved for almost his entire life. Before the invention of modern engines, any increase in speed above this natural threshold would have taken notable physical effort—the exertion of the sprinter or the endurance of the marathon runner, the counterpoised strength and balance of horse and rider, the sailor harnessing the wildness of the wind on the ocean.”
Three miles an hour—can you imagine?! How hard would it be to slow down to that pace? Everything in our world wants to move faster. God’s encouragement in scripture seems to point in the opposite direction: slow down.
  • “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10)
  • “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:14)
  • “But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)
  • “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient.” (James 5:7-8a)
As life gets hectic and the pace speeds up over the coming weeks, don’t forget to slow down. Take some time at “the speed of God” to see His presence more clearly in your life and our world.