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.

How Did We Get Here?

For God’s people in exile, there was no question about how that journey came about. They were conquered by a nation from the outside: Babylon. They were taken from the homeland they knew to an unfamiliar place. They were trained in the ways of another culture. As we see the parallels to exile today, it’s odd to think that we are in the same place. Things have changed around us.
In his book, Live No Lies: Resist the Three Enemies That Sabotage Your Peace, John Mark Comer explains three “tectonic shifts in Western culture” that have brought about our current reality. (These are not the three enemies from the book’s title.)
  • The shift from the majority to the minority
    “While 49 percent of millennials and 65 percent of American adults as a whole still identify as ‘Christian’ in national surveys. A recent in-depth analysis by the Barna Group, a Christian think tank, put the number of young adults who are “resilient disciples” at 10 percent.”
  • The shift from a place of honor to a place of shame
    “Walk around the downtown core of any major American city, and just look at the buildings: carved into them is the language of Scripture. The Christian vision so penetrated our nation’s early imagination that it was literally chiseled into the stone of our earliest architecture. That time is a distant memory, if that. Most people today want nothing to do with faith in the public square. The church is seen as part of the problem, not the solution.”
  • The shift from widespread tolerance to a rising hostility
    “A growing number of our secular friends and neighbors think of us not just as weird—because we eschew premarital sex, give away a percentage of our income, and refuse to be held captive by a political party or ideology—but as dangerous. As a threat to secularism’s alternative vision of human flourishing. At the risk of mixing metaphors, the literary motif used by the writers of Scripture for this kind of a cultural experience is that of exile.”
Trying to understand how we got here is a worthwhile exercise, but the key is this. We are here. Since this is our reality, how does God call his people to live in exile? We see the answer in the people we have studied so far. We live faithfully. We work diligently. We practice humility. We honor God above all else. We are loyal to Him. We know that He is sovereign and the source of all power. When we feel alone, we remember that we are together with the family of God.

Life Together

So far in our Sunday evening study of Theology, we have talked about the church and our part in God’s mission and who God is. Currently we are thinking about who Jesus is and what He does. As we gradually put these pieces together, we see a bigger picture come into focus.
God intends for His mission today to be working through His church. He longs for us to unify as a team in that work. We know that because we are made in His image. He exists in perfect community. To help us see more clearly how to walk in the way He designed for us, we have the example of the life of Jesus. We talked just last Sunday about ways that we should follow that example.
As people set out to be more like Jesus, many make the mistake of trying to do it alone. In the book, Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World, J.R. Woodward explains how the need to go alone has been ingrained in us, and why God instead wants us to walk in community.
“Individualism saturates American culture to the point that we no longer notice it. Individualism tells us we can become more like Jesus by ourselves, through a self-help program or more effort. But the gospel tells us transformation happens as we embrace the work of the Spirit in our lives together. Becoming more like Jesus is not a matter of trying but yielding, setting the sails of our lives to catch the wind of the Spirit. It happens when we develop a communal rhythm of life—a collection of thick, bodily (church) practices that engage our senses, grab our hearts, form our identities and reshape our desires toward God and his kingdom. As we collectively engage in grace-filled spiritual practices, we cultivate particular environments that help to create a missional culture, which in turn reshapes us.”
In a society that values individualism so much, let’s remember that we are better together. Scripture teaches us about one another, because God intends for us to work together in His mission in the world.

A Place to Belong

Belonging can be a conundrum. At Southwest, we have a large number of members who have extended family who are also members. I have been here for over five years, and it is not unusual even now to find out about a member’s family relation to another member that I was unaware of. Many churches are like this. This means many church members are already very connected through family bonds, but some of us might struggle finding a place to belong.
There are lots of things that you can do to strengthen your sense of belonging within a congregation. Consider these four ways to get better connected.
  • Consistent worship service attendance: Obviously the focus of our worship time should be coming before God to glorify Him. His grace provides blessings to us during that time as well. Being there connects us with the mission and direction of the church. It is a time to be encouraged and a time to be together.
  • Bible class or group participation: Worship service attendance is just the starting point of our weekly connection. Bible class takes that attendance to another level by increasing the depth of our Bible study. It also serves as another group connection with fewer people. This provides an opportunity for interaction and accountability.
  • Fellowship: Meals and activities at the church building are a good starting point, but true fellowship moves beyond that. In Acts 2:46, church members were together “day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes.” Don’t wait for the next church-wide fellowship event. Spend time getting to know someone better.
  • Ministry involvement: This is more than just the people we see up front on Sundays. There are numerous areas where you can serve and maybe even some we have not thought of yet. The teachings of Jesus were never intended to simply give more knowledge. They are things to be put into practice. When we work together, we make lasting bonds.
In the beauty of God’s design for the church, belonging will benefit you, the church and our part in God’s mission. You are needed, valued and loved. You belong here!