Stop to Reflect

19 The person who made the idol never stops to reflect, “Why, it’s just a block of wood! I burned half of it for heat and used it to bake my bread and roast my meat. How can the rest of it be a god? Should I bow down to worship a piece of wood?” 20 The poor, deluded fool feeds on ashes. He trusts something that can’t help him at all. Yet he cannot bring himself to ask, “Is this idol that I’m holding in my hand a lie?”

                                                           Isaiah 44.19-20 NLT

Isaiah 44 was part of my morning devotion today and I have to admit these verses made me stop in my tracks.  The entire thought that we create “idols” in which we put our trust to secure our future and never stop to assess if it is working.  As a matter of fact, the Scripture says we cannot bring ourselves to even asking the question.  My guess is that it is pride that stands in our way.  Or maybe busyness  prevents a solid examination of our ways and their ends.

How often do I step back and examine my life?   Really think through how I am spending my time, my money, my energy, my talent and my passion?  Am I too caught up in the moment to see that the moment has turned into a couple of years and instead of being in a Promised Land I am in a desert land completely unfulfilling and even destructive?

Yep.  I admit that is me at times.  I’ll bet I’m not alone either.  No better time than the present to assess where you are mind, body and spirit and make course corrections before you spend anymore time striving into a future that leads to a dead-end.

Here is some advice from a fellow traveler.  Find someone to help you assess where things are in your life.  Even our best effort to reflect is blinded by seeing all trees in front of us and not finding the forest in our lives.  So find a trusted friend, confidant, or here’s an idea…your pastor…and spend some time in prayer and candid conversation.  None of us wants to spend a lifetime and find out we didn’t get where we thought we were going.  And none of us has to.

A Different Take – Good Times or Calamity

cropped-p_1600_1200_05d8dc43-f0d1-4db6-8232-59c9e16bf964.jpeg

I’m reading through Isaiah in my devotions and it struck me this morning how often it takes calamity to create momentum toward God for the people of Israel.  Here is a quick couple of verses to show this in Chapter 30 of Isaiah:

12b “Because you despise what I tell you and trust instead in oppression and lies,
13 calamity will come upon you suddenly— like a bulging wall that bursts and falls.
In an instant it will collapse and come crashing down.

18 So the Lord must wait for you to come to him so he can show you his love and compassion. For the Lord is a faithful God. Blessed are those who wait for his help.

God waits for us to come to him so he can show you his love and compassion.  And why so often does it take calamity to cause us to turn to God?  Why can’t it be in the good seasons of life?  If I could change one thing about human nature, it would be that the good times in life create a desire to draw close to God like the difficult times.

The Bible tries to warn us.  The Old Testament speaks of times of remembrance and sacrifices of thanksgiving that bring us to God in and out of seasons of life.  It is the genuine desire of God for us to stay close at all times.  But let’s face it.  We tend to drop our guard during good times and begin to rely upon our own strength.  I don’t know why that happens, but from personal experience I know that is the case at least for me.

So here is the bottom line:  Why wait for a difficult season to re-establish or strengthen your relationship with God?  Why not make the turn today and not wait for things to get bad?  I believe God wants to be our first response and not our last chance in life.  Why wait?  As a new school year starts for many of us, let’s make it a new start in our faith journey as well.

Relationships to grow from

If you ask almost any adult about the impact of church school on his or her growth, he or she will not tell you about books or curriculum or Bible stories or anything like that.  The central memory is of the teacher, learning is meeting.  This poses problems for the characteristically American way of thinking about education for competence even in the church.  Meeting never made anybody competent.  Surely we need competence, unless we mean to dismantle much of our made world.  But our business is not competence.  It is meeting.  We are learning slowly and late that education for competence without education as meeting promises us deadly values and scary options.  And anyway, one can’t become “competent” in morality.  But one can have life-changing meetings that open one to new kinds of existence.  And that surely is what church education must be about…                                          

from Living Toward A Vision by Walter Brueggemann

p_1600_1200_EA904500-7101-48FE-9D51-FAAF518E01B0.jpeg 
I wanted to share the quote above with you because it really spoke to me over the last few months after Teddy Ray sent it to me.

 

In a nutshell, Brueggemann says that the greatest gift we can give to one of our group members is a relationship.  Now, please don’t hear me saying we shouldn’t prepare and bring a quality lesson each week for that is important.  But the most important part of people being transformed is not the quality of the curriculum but the depth of the relationship.
 
As we begin a new season of Sunday School, I want to remind us all of a few vital aspects of building relationships.  Much of what I am about to say is already taking place within our classes, but I believe we all could stand to spend some time thinking through and maybe even freshening up our approach.
 
We need to create space for our class to build relationships.  I believe that we need to be getting together a minimum of 4-6 times per year outside of Sunday morning if we are to signicantly grow our relationships with each other.  Maybe that is a bi-monthly lunch, cook-out or dinner club?  Perhaps you choose to attend a ballgame or arts event?  I trust that you will know what works best for your class.  And I challenge us all to intentionally plan, or have a group within your class plan, 4-6 social gatherings each year.
 

Intentionally and regularly connecting with the members of our class is also important.  Whatever that looks like for you is fine.  I know that the Friendship class has a weekly email prayer list that has become a “must read” for class members and is a way to keep them involved in each other’s lives during the week.  Again, you will know what works best for your group but it is vital we have contact on a regular basis outside the Sunday morning time slot.  So often, regular attendance may only be 2 out of 4 Sundays each month.  How we keep these folks engaged while they are away is the key to keeping them engaged and attending when they are in town.

Making time to pray for our class by name is an act of servant leadership.  Maybe you take a picture of the class and use it as a reminder to pray for people by name?  Perhaps you make a list and rotate through the group on a quarterly basis?  My encouragement is to make praying for your group a regular part of your devotional time if it isn’t already for you.

 

Now, let me pull the curtain back and tell you why I’ve chosen these three aspects of relationship building to focus on.  They are the three I struggle with the most!  So it is part for accountability and part because I am probably not too alone in my struggle that I highlight these areas.  I know that we can together work toward creating a place where “neighbors become friends and friends become family.”  If we do that, this year will have been a huge success as I’m convinced we will make disciples of Jesus Christ as a result.
CL_tgQoWcAAK_hN
Thanks to Kevin Burney for this great quote and picture from the King Center in Atlanta, GA.

Covenant Keeping – Disciple Making

p_1600_1200_2AA17165-070D-446F-A98D-7F61C0665AB9.jpeg
16:10 (NLT-SE)    “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities. 
Matt. 25:23 (NLT-SE)    “The master said, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities
Luke 19:17 (NLT-SE) “And he said to him, ‘Well done, good slave, because you have been faithful in a very little thing, you are to be in authority over ten cities.’ 
Jesus told three different parables which included or ended in the teaching “if you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones.”  While we do not intend to argue for or against a definition of what is small and large from God’s perspective at this point, we do believe that the movement toward increasing future responsibility is based upon fidelity to the present day responsibilities in our life.  Or in other words, promise keeping is the foundation from which to become more involved in the Kingdom movement.  We simply must learn to be promise keepers if we are to be used by God.
As always, God does not give us a command and set us free to figure it out on our own.  God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the ultimate example of promise maker and a promise keeper.  Whether that be with Noah, Abraham, the nation of Israel, David, or the New Testament Church, God has shown to be trustworthy at every turn.  That trustworthiness leads to a confidence that what God says will happen does happen.  And confidence is the platform we build our lives upon while lack of confidence leads to personal and corporate chaos.  For example, since God is trustworthy, then we can rest assured that my past sins are forgiven and they are a learning event instead of an event for shame.  Or, since God is trustworthy then we know a place is being prepared for all who have faith Jesus which allows me to look at death as a doorway and not destination.
Therefore, to be a disciple of Jesus means to be one who can be trusted by others.  In order to become that person of trust, we make promises and keep them over and over for a lifetime.  Little promises.  Big promises. Painless promises.  Sacrificial promises.  All lead to develop a character of integrity as a promise keeper and therefore someone God and the world can have confidence in.
We truly believe that a fundamental part of any discipleship process SHOULD be to develop within a person a character of promise keeping/integrity.   The discipleship process should foster growing in our ability to be responsible in small, large, public, private, easy, sacrificial, seemingly meaningless, and make or break ways.
Our chosen way to model and develop promise keeping is through the group covenant process.  This is not a management technique to make the group more effective (although it will).  Nor is the group covenant process a shame tool to make us feel bad about our failures nor is it an gold star reward for good behavior.  Rather is a tool to not shame but shape and a tool not to reward behavior but reveal character being formed so we may be confident that the person is ready for increasing responsibility.
WHAT IS A PROMISE?
“A Promise is a Form of Language Where the Action is Postponed and the Person Making the Promise Guarantees the Union of Word and Deed.”
                                                                      — Reese and Shivers “On Change”

How To Tell If You Are On God’s Path? Part 2

If delay and/or uncertainty do not diminish desire then you have cause to believe you are on God’s path.

The eastern people placed their hopes on a star from God.  Nothing else except was revealed except to follow until it was no longer possible.  You know there were cloudy nights when the star was not visible.  You also know that the daytime was not conducive to stargazing nor was the path of their journey conducive to speed.  They set out on a long trip in the face of great uncertainty and yet were determined to persevere. 

Uncertainty clarifies God’s revelation.  Delay distinguishes between Godly and personal desire.  I know that sounds strange, but not having all the information at once helps us determine if we are moving forward because God inspired us or we dreamed it up.  St. Gregory said, “All holy desires heighten in intensity with the delay of fulfillment, and desires which fade with delay were never holy desires at all.”  

And so it is true for us as well.  When God places a path before you, the desire to be on that path will not wain when times get uncertain or delays present themselves.  How I wish it were not that way!  It would be much easier if all Godly paths were smooth and quick.  But that is simply not how God has done things.  Ask Moses how that worked out?  Or King David?  Or just about anyone else in Scripture for that matter.

 

How to tell if you are on God’s path? Part 1

Passion.  Important.  Determination.  Important.  But just as important is to have passion and determination about the right thing.  And for those of us who follow Christ, the right thing is always God’s way.  How do we know when we are chasing God’s desire for our lives and not our made up desires?  The first thing to know is that God always reveals the path to us.

 

We need to look for what God reveals just as the magi looked and saw a star in the sky that seemed to match the stories they remembered about a sign for a Jewish king being born.  We in the church tend to over-spiritualize and lay things on God that are really, in the end, just what we want.  That is why I can’t stress enough for us to be in prayer and Scripture regularly as well as in small group and worship often.  These are some of the places that God works through to reveal our path.  If we are not willing to be a part of these practices then we have determined to go our own way and set our own course.

It is also helpful for us to be reminded that the eastern people followed the star as far as they could, and then they asked for help.  They asked questions.  They admitted that they didn’t have it all figured out.  And they submitted to the knowledge of others to continue in the direction God had for them.  When God reveals a path for us, God brings along people and circumstances to affirm the direction.

Let’s put this all together.  For the magi, God’s revelation was a star, a narrative/prophecy of a Jewish king, and a group of people to help clarify this direction.  Here is what I want us to see…God’s direction is tough to miss!  We often miss it because God’s direction does not align with the desires of our heart and not because the direction was difficult to find.

Growing in Grace – Receptive Attitude

One of the greatest enemies to a growing relationship with God is called the status quo.  What did Jesus say in Revelation 21.5? ” I come to make all things NEW”.  As much as we want to rewrite that to say all things the same, comfortable, easy, assured of success, Jesus said all things new.  And for those of us who dislike change…which is all of us in some way, shape or fashion, this means we must push out of the familiar and into new territories.  It begins with an openness to hearing from God and moving in God’s direction. 

You would agree that it is much easier to receive something with open hands than closed fists.  We need to develop this same receptive attitude as we go through our lives.  Let me give you one practice which will keep you aware of our need for openness this year.  It is a palms up approach.  Pray with hands open toward the sky.  As Scripture is read, turn your hands upward to show God and remind yourself of your openness to God’s new word making its way into your life.  The basis of our openness is spiritual disciplines.  We pray and give God our attention and heart.  We read Scripture and listen for God’s direction.  We meet together in small groups and explore God’s word and God’s leading together. 

If we are not consistently in prayer, Scripture and small group experiences, I believe we have already decided which way we want out lives to go and are simply wanting God to bless our mess instead of lead our lives.