Identity

Identity is a word we hear thrown around often in our world today. We hear it attached to ethnicity, nationality, gender, politics, school affiliation and a number of other things. While driving my mother back from a medical appointment this week, she noticed that the car in front of us had an Oklahoma license plate that looked different than most that she has seen. I explained that various tribes have unique license plates. It’s another way of marking identity. Psychology Today describes identity in this way: “Identity encompasses the memories, experiences, relationships, and values that create one’s sense of self.” As Christians, what is our identity? I like to think of it in terms of two things: who we are and what we do. If we wanted to describe it using two concise words, I would use awareness and intentionality.
 
Awareness begins with ourselves. We know our identity as Christians involves being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and being clothed in Christ (Galatians 3:27). Even though we share those things in common, we also know that we are each a unique part of the body (1 Corinthians 12 & Ephesians 4). With the guidance of the Spirit, we are able to discern how we can serve God in His kingdom. It is up to us to seek out that awareness.
 
Awareness also involves the world in which we live. When we encounter people we disagree with, people who have different values or people whose reasoning we do not understand; do we try to learn more about them? Do we try to understand what makes them think differently? Our world tries to push us toward agreement, and we tend to push back. However, it is difficult to love people if we do not take the time to listen and be aware. Understanding and awareness about others is something Jesus models for us throughout the gospels. We should follow that example.
 
As we become more aware of ourselves and our world, we must be more intentional in our actions. Our faith was always intended to lead us to action (James 2). As we become more aware, it should cause us to act based on that awareness (John 14). We are supposed to be transformed into what God desires for us to be (Romans 12). If we know God’s primary mission for His people is to love Him, love others and make disciples; then the way we understand ourselves and others affects all of those things. We have to find ways to connect with people who do not yet know Him, and being more aware of how they see their identity is an important step toward that end. As we talked about recently in our study of spiritual disciplines, these things are not just going to happen on their own. We have to take intentional steps to get there. God is faithful to bless the process.
 
In our current crisis, it is essential that we have awareness and intentionality. Most of us have been forced into a change of routine. We have been forced to reconsider what is really important to us. We better understand the value of church, family and relationships. Let’s consider what we should do differently moving forward. Let’s find ways to show the love of Christ. Let’s be intentional about what we do as we gradually return to our new normal life.
 
– Brian
 
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. – Romans 6:4


Private Faith in Public

This week I read about privatization. Usually when we see that term, it refers to taking something that is done by our government and having it done by private company. Instead I was reading about the privatization of Christianity. The idea of a personal relationship with God sounds like a good thing, but as that faith becomes more personal it often becomes more private. A life intended to be a city on a hill instead becomes hidden away. As this happens, our world gets used to not seeing our faith, and as a result our faith becomes unwelcome in their eyes. Peter Berger put it this way. “Faith does not simply have a new home in our private lives; it is no longer accepted outside of that sphere.”
 
Living in a culture that views talking about faith as something that is unwelcome creates a difficult situation for Christians whose call mandated by scripture is to share their faith. Talking about faith has become socially unwelcome the way men wearing a hat indoors once was (and still is in some places). The greater struggle is not only do we not understand that it is viewed that way, we are also disproportionately concerned about hats being worn indoors and similar traditional ideas. We raise many traditional issues to the level of doctrine which in turn makes a world that is already skewed against hearing from us about our faith even less likely to want to hear from us. That has a negative impact on our ability to share the gospel. I was raised in the south. I do not like to see hats indoors either, but my thoughts about those kinds of issues should never lessen my ability to share the gospel. I can hold back some of my opinions in that effort.
 
In his book, unChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity. . .And Why It Matters, David Kinnaman found that more than eighty percent of young Americans described Christianity as judgmental and hypocritical. Seventy percent described Christianity as insensitive to others. Most of us would consider those descriptors to be inaccurate or unfair, but that is how they see us. As I read the list of those and other descriptors, I thought of them filling in the blank of a phrase we know. “They will know we are Christians by our ___________.” When our world fills in that blank with anything other than love, we have work to do. It does not require that we ignore sin or lower our moral standards. It does require us to love others at the level Jesus did. The world around Jesus (especially those outside of the religious leadership) saw His love and compassion first.
 
If we can get loving to be higher on the list of descriptors of Christianity, maybe the world would be more open to hear about our faith. The message of Jesus is too important for our world to miss hearing.
 
Brian


Life in Exile

In his recent Wednesday Bible class videos, David Dirrim has talked about some Old Testament events that have many similar characteristics with current world events. One of those events is the exile. Israel spent time in exile in Babylon and faced many challenges as a result. We may feel like we are experiencing the opposite. After all, they were taken from their homes, while we are stuck in ours. Still we face many of the same challenges, feelings and attitudes.
One of my favorite scriptures about that time in the story of Israel if Jeremiah 29:4-7, which details God’s instructions about what it means to live in exile as a follower of God. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” We can learn at least four things from Jeremiah about living during this time of isolation while still being a part of our community.
 
  1. See God’s hand in our world. I first want to step back when I read “to the exiles whom I have sent into exile.” Even in the midst of struggle we can find evidence that God is working, if we will take the time to look.
  2. Keep living life. It is easy to get out of our routines when so many pieces of those routines are removed. What Jeremiah describes in these verses is regular life in a time of irregularity. We need to recognize that a change in location and circumstances does not have to change everything about our lives and good practices, both physically and spiritually.
  3. Be a good neighbor. Jeremiah tells Israel that God says to “seek the welfare of the city” where they live. As we see God at work, some of that work is providing us with opportunities to love our neighbors. Even while distancing, we can check on others, offer to help when possible and be considerate of the needs of others.
  4. Pray. Specifically, notice where that prayer should begin: others. In our current pandemic the welfare of others does directly impact our own welfare, but our praying for their welfare goes beyond that motivation. It is following the example of Jesus to put the welfare of others above our own.
 
A few verses later is the one that people usually quote from Jeremiah 29, where God explains that He knows His plans for the exiles. He knows His plans for us too. Take heart in that in exile this week.
 
Brian


Dwelling Place

It would be an understatement to say that this has been a week full of new and unprecedented challenges. The need for social distancing suggested by world leaders and medical experts is nothing like we have seen in our lifetimes. Business, schools, churches and families are all working to better understand what to do over the coming weeks for the good of one another and our world. Because of changes our congregation had to make, I have found myself drawn back to a story we talked about at the end of January: the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4.
 
Because of the limits of our time together on Sunday mornings, sometimes details in a story are left out or mentioned quickly. One of those details we did not spend much time on in John 4 reminds me of our current situation. The woman tries to change the subject of their conversation to the physical location where worship should take place. The Samaritans worshipped on Mt. Gerizim, while the Jews worshipped in Jerusalem. He answers her question starting in verse 21, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” Jesus opened her eyes to a much more important idea: the where is not nearly important as who is being worshipped and the heart of the worshippers. That is an encouraging thought for us in these strange times in our world.
 
Illness, weather, travel, work, caring for family members and other things of life have kept most of out of the church building on occasional Sundays of our lives. All of us not being there for more than one Sunday is unusual though. Yet we will still worship. We will worship wherever we are, because we know that God does not need a temple, a mountain, a tent or a church building to dwell in. God became flesh and dwelled among us. God continues to dwell with His people. We are His temple. We are His dwelling place. We will celebrate in different locations now and rejoice in the reunion when we are all together in person again.
 
Brian
 
“And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Ephesians 2:17-22


The Shipwreck

Our Wednesday evening auditorium class is nearing the end of the book of Acts. Paul travels all over his part of the world throughout the second half of the book. If you have traveled very often, you know it is only a matter of time before at least one trip does not go according to plan. In Acts 27, Paul is on a ship with 275 other people when that happens. It is not the Caribbean or Alaskan cruise that a lot of people dream. It is just the quickest, most direct method of transportation to get Paul from one place of imprisonment and sham trials to the next place of imprisonment and sham trials. That is what everyone probably all they thought it would be as they set out from Caesarea. In reality, it was a journey none of them would ever forget. Everyone aboard knew that sailing at that time of year was dangerous, but they were likely still hopeful for an uneventful journey. Instead they experienced day after day of storms. They tried to hold the ship together with ropes. They threw things overboard to lighten the load. They worked so hard and worried so much, that they did not even take the time to eat through two solid weeks of stormy winds and waves. Eventually they were relieved to find themselves run aground.
 
Some days we might feel like Paul. It seems like everything is not going our way, and then things only get worse. How do we react to those situations? If Paul had to be imprisoned, it would seem reasonable that he could at least have a safe journey to get from one prison to another. Some of us already discouraged by imprisonment would be even more discouraged by the difficult journey. Instead Paul does everything he can to reassure those on the ship. He warns them of danger and encourages them with the message that God has guaranteed their safety. He even gives thanks to God in front of them. He not only trusts in what God is doing, but he takes the opportunity to live that example out to the others on the ship. I want to be more like Paul at times like that. I want to have the confidence that Paul has that God will do what He promises.
 
When the winds and waves in our lives try to overtake us, let’s recognize that as a chance to show our trust in God. Let’s be an example to others how God can still work through the storms. Let’s remember that He still does exactly what He says.
 
– Brian
 
“So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.” Acts 27:25
 
 
 


A Short Time

In Acts 26, Paul continues the same pattern that he has throughout his trials. He tells the story. This time with King Agrippa, he tells the story of Jesus and how coming to know him has changed Paul’s life. Although Festus thinks it all sounds crazy, Agrippa seems to be intrigued by the story. He responds in verse 28, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”
 
Paul knows that the amount of time it takes for someone to believe is not really an issue unless time runs out. Whether it is a quick process or one that takes a lifetime, the important thing is that a person comes to know the story of Jesus and be changed by it. No one knows that better than Paul. After living a life committed to putting an end to Christianity, he was completely changed by an encounter with Jesus. He knew that his most important task was to offer that same chance to as many people as he could. That boldness and his faith in the resurrection is what landed him in prison in the first place. But even with a lack of freedom, he saw the opportunity to keep telling the story.
 
Paul understands what we all should. Encountering Jesus changes people. Like Paul, we should all pray that people come to know Christ. Like Paul, we must continue telling the story as many times as we can. Like Paul, we need to understand that each person we meet is a person who needs to know the story. Paul sees that need in Jews, in Gentiles and even in the Roman officials and kings that he is called to testify before. Each of them is a soul who is valued by their Creator.
What about us? How do we see the people we encounter every day? We meet people that society says are at a higher or lower level than us. How can we relay the story of God to them? Earlier in Acts, Paul’s example is clear to prisoners and a jailer. Here it even causes a king to think about his words. A life lived for Christ does that.
 
Let’s look for those open doors to tell the story this week. Let’s remember those open doors are often in unexpected places.
 
All people need to hear the story.
 
Brian


Good Conscience

In Acts 24, Paul finds himself in what is quickly becoming a familiar situation: defending himself in front of religious or political authorities. This time he stands before Felix in Caesarea to state his case. After explaining where the accusations against him fall short, Paul talks in verse 16 about the way he tries to live his life. “So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.” However things are going for him, he wants to lead a life lived in good conscience before God. Even if it is inconvenient or takes great effort, he wants to live without regrets. Isn’t that the kind of life we are looking for?
 
Through the good and bad, the ups and downs, we want to live our lives in a way that pleases God. I think that Paul would tell us the key to that life is letting love guide our actions. That does not mean always agreeing with everyone. Paul had sharp disagreements with people. That does not mean assuming that every action people take is alright. Several times Paul lists ungodly actions to avoid. It does not guarantee a series of successes or a life of nothing but happiness. Paul gets in difficult situations because of his love for God and others. Still, love guiding our actions help us with that life lived in good conscience.
 
Love changes how we approach other people. Love should change how others see us. Love lets us give the benefit of the doubt. Love helps us forgive. Love allows us to live our lives in good conscience before God, just as Paul did. Paul was clearly bold, knowledgeable and driven; but all of those characteristics were built on a foundation of love for God, love for the church and love for people. When Paul faced false accusations from people who were threatened by his ability to motivate and lead, he knew he was acting in love. He knew he was pleasing God.
 
We should all let love be the foundation of our conversations and encounters with people this week. Let’s live lives of good conscience because we share in the hope that Paul had.
 
– Brian
 
“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” – 1 Peter 4:8


Marshall Keeble (1878-1968)

On a shelf in my office, I have a record album of sermons by Marshall Keeble. His might not be a familiar name to some (especially more than 50 years after his death, but he had a great impact on the church during the 20th century. Below is an excerpt from an article about Marshall Keeble from The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement. I thought you might enjoy learning more about his life and ministry. His story is a great reminder that even under difficult circumstances, we can make a difference in the lives of people and in the kingdom of God. – Brian
 
Born to former slaves near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Marshall Keeble became in time the most successful evangelist among Churches of Christ, baptizing as many as 30,000. As a youth with a seventh-grade education, Keeble labored in a soap factory until he married Minnie Womack, a daughter of minister, S. W. Womack. The newly married couple opened a grocery store in Nashville. Under the tutelage of his wife and his father-in-law, Keeble began preaching in Nashville churches by 1897, and by 1914 was traveling on his own as an itinerant evangelist while his wife minded the store.
 
In 1918 Keeble planted a church at Oak Grove, near Henderson, Tennessee, baptizing eighty-four persons and coming to the attention of N. B. Hardeman, influential president of nearby Freed-Hardeman College. From 1920 until his death, Keeble traveled throughout the American South and, ultimately, worldwide at the expense of Nashville millionaire A. M. Burton…In Bradenton, Florida, Keeble and his helpers baptized 115 persons in one day and a total of 286 during that campaign.
After 1942, Keeble was nominally president of Nashville Christian Institute (NCI), a private academy designed to educate young blacks for ministry and evangelism. He traveled extensively in the company of young “preacher boys” evangelizing and raising money for the school. His fees for preaching were paid directly to NCI, since A. M. Burton provided Keeble’s salary and expenses…NCI continued until desegregation and the civil rights movement had made it an anachronism; it closed in 1967, less than a year before Keeble’s death.
 
Keeble’s life had been hard in many ways. His first wife and all five of his children preceded him in death. He suffered indignity, insult, and injury from racists in and out of the church. Such assaults did not deter him, but neither did he resist them directly. When Keeble died two weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., many of his white eulogists offered invidious comparisons between Keeble and King. Yet one of his “preacher boys,” Fred D. Gray, inspired by Keeble’s preaching and example, had by then become the attorney who helped overturn…segregation and discrimination in the American South, representing Rosa Parks, King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and many other activists and causes in the civil rights struggle.


What Are You Waiting For?

Last summer we looked at the first twelve chapters of the book of Acts on Sunday mornings. If you are not in our auditorium class on Wednesday evenings, you might not realize that we have been gradually working our way through the rest of the book. Last Wednesday we studied the first of Paul’s five defenses.
 
In Acts 22, Paul tells the story of what happened to him on the road to Damascus 13 chapters earlier. He tells how he saw a bright light and was blinded. He recalls hearing the voice of Jesus. He shares about meeting Ananias and receiving his sight. In verse 16, he explains what Ananias says needed to happen next: “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” I like the way the NIV words the question asked by Ananias: “What are you waiting for?”
 
For many people who stand on the verge of following Jesus, they need an Ananias to ask that question. For many more of us who have already taken that step and are living that new life, we need an Ananias to ask that question of us. In our Christian stories, the step of conversion is supposed to be the first step, not the last one. It is only the beginning of our new life, and like Paul, we need to tell the story.
 
I shared a statistic Wednesday night that probably came as a surprise to many people. In his book, The Unchurched Next Door, Thom Rainer writes that 8 out of 10 unchurched people in their survey would attend a church service if invited. The same survey found that only 2 out of 10 Christians invite someone to a church service each year. That’s right, only 2 out of 10 people are doing something that has the potential for an 80% success rate. I wonder how many would just be willing to what Paul did and share the story of how they came to follow Christ. As those stories connect with people, they can learn more about the story of Jesus.
 
Whether it’s in regard to telling the story, inviting someone to a church service or even just living out the example of Christ, the question of Ananias should be a reminder to us today. What are you waiting for?
 
Brian
 
You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. (Acts 1:8b)



Dangerous Unselfishness

I shared this two years ago, but I believe the thoughts are worth repeating. On Monday our nation will set aside time to recognize the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Growing up in Alabama, I lived 150 miles from where he marched in Selma. For 17 years living in Arkansas, I lived 100 miles from where he was killed in Memphis. It is undeniable that he played a significant role in a time of turmoil and change. Regardless of what people may think about the man, his methods or his politics, for many he symbolizes the desire for unity, service and concern for our fellow man. You have probably heard his “I Have a Dream” speech repeated around this time of year. Below is a section of another speech he gave the day before his assassination.
 
“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base. Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the ‘I’ into the ‘thou,’ and to be concerned about his brother.”
 
That kind of concern for brothers is something the young church at the end of Acts 2 places a lot of importance on. They learned together. They prayed together. They shared what they had. They took care of one another’s needs. Their number grew as a result.
 
So many of the things that God tells us to do involve how we treat each other. Honor your father and mother. Turn the other cheek. Forgive. Value others above yourselves. Love your neighbor.
 
To be followers of Christ we have to see every person we encounter as a valuable creation of the Father. Each person is someone that He wants to bring closer to Him. It is up to us to show them His love. It’s not always easy, and it might be a little uncomfortable. Maybe we all should develop that same kind of dangerous unselfishness that Dr. King spoke about.
 
Brian