Thursday, June 14, 2018

When Doing Nothing Is Something

As I mentioned in last week’s blog (here), I have been stuck in a couple of areas lately. Neither area is critical at this moment, but both are important for me to complete – and the sooner the better. Thus, I have reason to be focused, but perhaps, a part of my challenge has been a lack of motivation. So, how have I done, or specifically, what have I done towards either effort this week? Nothing! And I feel good about that.

Technically, I have moved forward in one of the books I mentioned last week (Smarter, Faster, Better). I have picked up some points that are helping me to process a bigger picture and to take an even better inventory of my life than I have done in the past. I have not yet really begun this process, but I am re-considering the importance of it. However, the idea of motivation is, in part, why I have done so little. And not because of the lack of motivation, but because my motivation is returning – and is changing.

In my sermon this past week, I spoke about motivation using the first couple of chapters from 2 Samuel. A particular Amalekite was motivated by greed (looking for some kind of reward from David). David and the men of Jabesh-Gilead were motivated, at the very least, by respect for the king (Saul). And, if we expanded the study, we can find others within the Bible who are motivated by many different factors. And so are we. And so am I. So, my challenge to the congregation (which includes myself) was to align our motivation with the Great Commandment – to love God and love others. Now, this is not easy. As I mentioned, living a life of love is tiring, and that is true because some people are tiresome. And, although, I am one of those people whom God might find tiresome, He loved me enough to send Jesus to die for me, and loves me enough to guide me through these times of being stuck so that when I overcome, I can serve Him better than before (at least, that is my hope).

The application for the week was to do something you normally not do from a motivation of love. Just one thing. The idea being that if we do one thing, we might do more. Well, my one thing was already scheduled on my calendar, but it is something I do not do often enough, and I found myself having a magnificent day because of it although I “accomplished” nothing. But, in doing what I did, I accomplished a great deal, and I was refreshed as well.

What did I do? I listened. Yes, I talked some too. And depending on the interaction, I talked less and more. In fact, I would characterize the day by saying I listened much, listened equally, listened some, and when those scheduled opportunities were done, I listened a lot more. But I did not “do” anything yesterday. I checked a couple of emails on my phone, and had some texts related to an issue that I needed to review, but I did not get on a computer, because it was a day to listen and to hear – and to do that requires some aspect of love.

I listened to a student whom I have have known for a little more than a year who is facing several transitions in his life. I listened to him describe the excitement he experienced over this past week, and the concerns he faces regarding one particular decision that must be made within the coming months.

I listened to another student whom I have known for approximately 10 years and would consider a friend as we were in school together for part of that time. Now, I listened as we caught up with each other on our ministries and, specifically, on some goals he has related to finishing his dissertation in the coming months.

I listened to an uncle who has provided a great deal of guidance for many young men and women over the past several decades including myself. We both shared some of the challenges we face, challenges our country faces, and life in general. A conversation with this uncle can go any direction and cover nearly any topic, but are nearly always rewarding and yesterday’s conversation was no different.

Apart from those scheduled encounters, I listened to my daughter describe her current social happenings, hopes for the coming weekend, plans for a trip she is planning, etc. Later, I listened to my son-in-law describes with great enthusiasm how God had worked in a particular situation to not only allow him to take a class that is needed, but provided the materials necessary free of charge!

Thinking my day was largely done I returned home from the city and had a short conversation with a church member who recently battled some health issues. I listened to my wife as she described her day while I had traveled to KC. Then, I received a call from a church member and friend who needed to simply vent about an ongoing challenge her family is facing.

It was a good day of listening. And as I thought about it while lying in bed, it was tiring, because I had listened with love. None of the people were tiring, but the day was. However, as physically tired as I was (leaving early/returning late), my mind was refreshed. Why? Because friendships were strengthened, students were helped, family bonds were deepened. And all because of love.

So, while I did not check off one item on my to-do list, I had a productive day. And that day showed me the truth of the statement that we can get so busy do ministry that we forget to minister. Yesterday, I ministered. Now, I must return to ministry. But I do so moving out of a place where I have felt stuck, knowing that doing ministry in love will mean I better minister as well, and realizing that taking time to simply listen (and talk some) is something to schedule – not as a task to check off a list, but as a way to both refresh myself and refresh others as well.

Perhaps this post might encourage you to find a new way to find a way to be purposeful by doing something not on your typical to-do list. If so, I hope you find yourself as refreshed as I am.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Beginning to Break Free from Blah...

Over the past several months, much of my life has been going well; however, I cannot seem to get over the hump in a couple of areas. The main part of the challenge is in completing two primary goals – each of which contain several tasks. I largely know what to do, but have struggled to get there. The problem is that I have prided myself so long on accomplishing the goals before me at a relatively quick pace (not burnout pace). Both of these goals are important to complete for various reasons, and I definitely have the motivation to complete them, but I have not been able to find the usual drive to do so.

Additionally, I have found myself reading less this year. While last year’s reading goal of one book per week was rather aggressive, this year, I have only read a handful so far (although two were VERY lengthy biographies on John Adams and Thomas Jefferson). (Incidentally, my usual “reading” of bios is by listening to them while driving.) Overall, I estimate I have read about 6-8 books this year, which is ok, far less than usual. However, recently, I have begun to snap out of the reading funk, and I believe that will assist me to snap out of my overall lack of productivity.

In 2017, one of the books I read was What’s Best Next by Matt Perman. I highly recommend the book, and awaited the sequel which was released at the end of April. I am reading this book more slowly, in part, because the title, Unstuck, is exactly what I need to be! But alongside this book, I have recently listened to The Power of Habit and now Smarter Faster Better (both by Charles Duhigg). (I will purchase these in print later, but for now, the idea was immersion in all of these ideas.) Overall, these four books are giving me the “courage” to get moving again, in part, by understanding why I have not been able to engage as I usually do. Ultimately, I am realizing that the issue I face is common while I am responsible, my ability to move forward relies on my ability to incorporate (or help) others as well.

In the coming weeks, I will likely fuse some of the thoughts I am having with the usual reflections I share from my weekly sermon. The sermon series begins this week on the life of David from 2 Samuel, so personal effectiveness and understanding is certainly in play. However, I also see the principles of these books at play in the series I have planned for this Fall related to the Church, and specifically our church. How might The Habit Loop or Personal Effectiveness impact our individual lives so as to impact the collective life of the church? These ideas are just beginning to take shape in my mind, but I suspect I will flesh out many of them in this blog over the coming months. Hopefully my reflections here will not only help me to process my thoughts, but perhaps they can encourage each one who reads this as well. Either way, what I share here will only touch on certain aspects of each book. I highly recommend the four books mentioned above to stir your thinking, and to help you move forward in whatever direction God has for you to move.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

True Authority

This week, I preached on the final two verses of Matthew 7. The sermon was the last in a series of 22 messages that began at the beginning of the year. As I have commented a few times over these past few weeks, studying Jesus’ words at a level I had not done previously gave me an understanding of how well Jesus’ message was truly crafted, and how powerful it was then, and should be today. I guess what I am saying is that like the people who heard the Sermon on the Mount nearly 2000 years ago, I recognize the authority with which Jesus taught.

As one who has pastored for several years, been in ministry for many, has a doctorate in educational ministry, teaches part-time at a seminary, and has recently started a training organization to equip pastors and church leaders in under-resourced areas around the world, I take the Word of God seriously. That is, I take the written Word of God seriously. And I do that because I follow the living Word of God. I recognize the authority of Jesus and desire Him to have authority over me (most of the time, at least – I am not perfect!). Additionally, I appreciate the Kingdom perspective of His great sermon, for it is this sermon that has helped form my understanding of living beyond a church or denomination (as important as those can be) for the sake of the Kingdom. However, despite having read Matthew 5-7 many times and studying it to some degree multiple times, I never comprehended it like I do now. And one of the aspects I appreciate better is the authority of Jesus to teach (preach) that message.

Last week, I taught many church leaders in Kenya. It was the first instance of connecting with these pastors over the internet to provide the training we hope to do around the world. Having trained dozens of pastors while in Kenya on my two trips there so far, some who were in attendance, knew me. Additionally, my friend Simon is well-trusted by the individuals in the area. Simon set up this training and is helping to establish other sites for training, and because he knows and trusts me, I had instant credibility with each of the pastors and leaders in attendance even though I was not there physically. Such a truth is humbling because some of these individuals had little background with the Bible (others had a solid background), so they placed great trust in my words. In other words, my words and teaching had authority. I certainly did not want to misrepresent myself, but more importantly, I did not want to misrepresent God’s Word. In other words, I did not want to mislead them and betray whatever authority I had.

Any authority I may have had, however, was really no different than that of the scribes as per Matthew’s comments in Matthew 7.29. Like me, the scribes had their sources to gather understanding on the sacred texts. For them, the text was what we call the Old Testament, and the sources were tradition (oral and written) and comparing the teachings of other religious leaders in their present and past. For me, the sources represent trusted commentaries and lexicons (dictionaries to help with the Greek or Hebrew). But, in both situations (the scribes and myself), the authority we have comes from rightly proclaiming God’s Word, not from restating or re-interpreting truths from a higher perspective. That is what Jesus did – and He did so because He was, and is, the true authority. For the written Word of God (the Bible) is fully encompassed within the Living Word (Jesus).

Again, I cannot express how much this series has helped me to understand Jesus and to better appreciate His authority. But appreciation does not necessarily lead to obedience. As I wrote last week, Jesus is looking for people, who, “hear these words of mine and does them,” not just people who find them intriguing or challenging. So, the best I can do is to seek to observe what Jesus taught in this great sermon He preached and then to teach others not only what He said, but how to observe these truths as well. Doing so, will show Jesus that I not only know Jesus is the true Authority, but that I believe it as well. And in Jesus words (Matthew 7.24-25), all those who wish to be considered wise, will do the same thing.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Wise, But Worn

Many have likely been keeping up with my daily posts on Facebook regarding the training this week. This training is the first attempt to train pastors there over the internet through our new organization – Pastor Training Community. As I mentioned last week, the training opportunity arose very quickly although the planning has been in stages for months (and was set for May during my trip there in January). But the rains and flooding have postponed it, and then with all of the added burden the people of Kenya have right now, many would not have been able to attend with the financial support we requested and received.

So, thank you again to all who donated. We did reach the goal of $700 and surpassed it by almost $100.

The training has been going well, but given the eight-hour difference in time, I have been training them from 1 am to 9 am CT here in the US. Given my usual responsibilities during the week and a funeral yesterday, my sleep has been disrupted greatly and, in fact, I was not able to answer the bell for the last two hours of scheduled training today. That is, at 7 am, I had to rest, so one of the pastors who is also serving as a translator did the teaching for the last two hours.

And that is a direct tie-in to last week’s sermon. On Sunday, I preached about the wise and foolish builders from Matthew 7.24-27. Jesus said those who hear and do are wise and those who hear and don’t do are fools. But what He doesn’t say is that those who do will do perfectly all the time. This week, I have been doing what I know God has asked me to do. I have been doing it to the best of my ability. And, without a doubt, I have been doing it in His strength (Colossians 1.29). But this morning, my strength ran out. That was not God’s fault, it is my lack of sleep this week. Just because we rely on God’s strength does not mean that we are invincible. I have tried to rest as often as I can, but although I have laid down, I have not always been able to sleep (day or evening). And, thus, after almost four full days of training, I was worn out. And so, I was not able to finish this morning’s training.

But tomorrow is a new day. And my day today has less overall responsibilities, even though what I have scheduled is important (sermon preparation, primarily). But taking the extra couple of hours this morning has given me more rest today and should allow me to finish strong overnight tonight. But, to truly be wise, I must apply what I have learned. As I have said many times (because it is my number one mantra in life), “When we stop learning, we start dying.” But learning is more that just taking in information; rather, it is about processing that information and doing something with it. That is wisdom. And that is what Jesus was saying nearly 2000 years ago as He concluded His message on the mountain. Many people may hear, but only the wise will do.

So, this week, I believe I have been wise because I have done what God began to lay on my heart nearly two years ago. I believe I have been wise because the plans we have made over the past many months have now come to fruition in Kenya and are being scheduled for Honduras. But, if I am truly wise, I cannot stop doing what He has commanded now. No, I must continue to do “these words of mine” (as Jesus said), for as long as I shall live. Doing so may make me tired, and may wear me out at times, but it is the only way I will hear the words I desire to hear someday – “Well done, good and faithful servant.” If I hear those words, I know, I will indeed have been wise – not in my eyes, but in the eyes of the only One who truly matters, the eyes of Jesus.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

A Request

For the full details of this request, please read the rest of the post below. If you would simply like to make a donation to help us reach our Flash Goal of $700, you may click here to do so. The link is included at the bottom of this post as well.

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I am breaking from my normal blogging this week to present a financial request. Last summer on this blog, I announced that a new organization had been created to train pastors around the world. (You can see the website for Pastor Training Community (PTC) and get more information here.) Until very recently, we have not had much to report since I returned from Kenya in January. However, over the past three weeks much has happened. The most recent PTC blog post details a couple of key items including our recent approval as a 501(c)3 corporation. However, one item is missing from that post and is the basis for my request.

Due to the heavy flooding in Kenya, the training I was supposed to do was postponed. While I am comfortably situated in America ready to train over the internet, the pastors were not able to travel to the selected site due to high waters and washed out roads. However, roads are reopening and I learned this week that we can train next week, so plans are being made. 40 pastors are scheduled to attend the training and the topics will be The Gospels in the morning and Spiritual Disciplines in the afternoons. It is an abbreviated class for both, but the two important matters are that a foundation will be laid for these pastors AND our internet training will be officially underway. That is the good news. The challenge is that our ministry partners in Kenya are in need of financial help to make this training fully possible. The biggest challenge is having the money to feed the pastors who come for the training, but a few other expenses bring the the total need to nearly $700 for the week.

When PTC was conceptualized the idea was to provide more of a Q&A time after the pastors/church leaders had done some pre-work. The Q&A would be one to two hours in duration and then each would go, do some more work, and reconvene a few weeks later. However, in Kenya (and presumably other places), this approach will not work. The desire of PTC is to reach under-resourced leaders in under-resourced areas. Most leaders from these “areas” will be required to travel many hours (often by foot) which makes a one or two-hour training session not worth the time for most. For the leaders to benefit from travelling a few hours means they need to stay for a few days and that requires added expense. In my trips to Kenya the expense of providing food and shelter was built into our cost, but I had not properly considered this aspect of the online training based upon the Q&A aspect mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph.

The PTC Board is evaluating how we will approach this issue long-term. But with the class now scheduled for next week, the need is real now. I should let you know that I am an advocate of the phrase, “Your lack of planning does not constitute an emergency on my part.” But as I considered that thought this morning, I began to wonder how God might respond. In speaking with the other Board members today, we agreed to expedite our efforts to get our online donations up and running today to see if / how people might respond to this urgent need. (We just received our tax-exempt approval a couple of weeks ago, so we were preparing to launch an appeal for donations soon, but this issue has expedited our efforts.) So, we are making this appeal to see what happens within 72 hours in our effort to not only train, but to also provide food and some shelter cost for the forty pastors in Eastern Kenya next week.

I appreciate your indulging my request. If you cannot give, please pray that we will reach our goal and for the training next week. Whatever happens in these next 72 hours and beyond, may God receive the glory!

If you would like to make a donation, you may do so through PayPal by clicking on this link. You do not need a PayPal account to make a donation. We have also included a Donate link on our FaceBook page (@pastortrainingcommunity – look immediately under the banner on the page), and on our website (click on Give, then on the PayPal link).

As of May 17 at 1:50 am, we already have over $100 towards the goal. I will post an update on the PTC Facebook page (in the comments of the post with the original request) each day through Sunday. Please note: If we exceed the goal, any extra money will be used to provide food and shelter the next time training occurs at this same location.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Helping Others Along The Hard Way

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the primary teaching of Jesus regarding judging. As I mentioned here, we are to judge, but with the proper measure. A part of that measure is then further described as Jesus begins to conclude His sermon with the following statement – do to others what you want them to do to you (Matthew 7.12).

As I mentioned in my sermon blog this week, this command is active, not passive. It requires doing something to fulfill it rather than doing nothing because we don’t want something done to us. (You can read more here.) In the context of what Jesus has just taught, that certainly applies to judging others. Again, we are to judge (Paul even says we will judge the angels – 1 Corinthians 6.3), but it is how we prepare ourselves that is critical. First, we pull the plank from our eye and the we can see clearly to help another (Matthew 7.5). And the key word is help. And helping is important because the way is hard (Matthew 7.14). We are certainly to correct others when they stumble, just as we would want to be helped if we stumble (consider Ecclesiastes 4.9-10).

In recent weeks and months, many high-profile Christian leaders have “fallen” publicly due to something they have done or said. And because the profiles of these individuals is high, the criticism has been swift – from within the Church and without. Certainly each leader should be held accountable by those with the authority to do so. Furthermore, each of these individuals have put themselves in a position where others will question the authenticity of their faith as well as their past teaching, their intent and motives, etc. And certainly, each will have a difficult time building trust in the future. But that is why the previous paragraph is so important.

Christians who try to walk along the hard path realize the temptations of the world. We see those on the easy way. We notice the gate that is wide. And, we stumble. Like Peter when he walked on the water, we take our eyes off of Jesus for a moment and we stumble. But, oftentimes, we catch ourselves, and justify our actions that no one was hurt. So, in time, we take another step towards that wide gate –perhaps, hoping to just get our foot in far enough to experience the “pleasures” offered along the easier path. But eventually, we stumble hard. And, we soon realize that we cannot get up easily. And that is where Jesus command, directly within the context of this passage, is so necessary. We want to be lifted to our feet. We want to be restored to our place – whatever that place is. A place of leadership may not be possible at that point (again, responsibility and accountability matter), but most importantly we want to know our place with Jesus is secure. Therefore, having someone come along to help us – someone who has a clear eye with which to see – can lift us up to help get us back on the right path.

As you read this perhaps you are unaware of some of the issues I mention. But the issue of stumbling does not have to be national news to have an impact on the Kingdom. Whether the issue is related to our sexual impulses, fraud, fits of anger, gossip, or some “lesser” sin, we all fall short somewhere. And, thus, knowing how hard it is to stay true to our Lord, we should seek to help others along the way as we would have others help us. Again, that is the essence of the Golden Rule in the context in which it was preached.

So, my encouragement to each of us is to take Jesus’ words to heart when we hear of someone “falling.” We may not be in a position to physically pick them up, but we can spiritually lift them up through prayer. Yes, accountability matters, and actions do have consequences, but as recipients of grace, we must learn to extend it as well. Accountability is not condemnation; rather, it should lead to restoration. So, seek to help another who has fallen knowing next time it may be you who needs to be lifted up.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

What Is “It?”

Most weeks on my personal blog I reflect on something that personally affected me from my sermon the previous Sunday. This week is no different, but really I am just extending my thoughts from the sermon. (You can read the sermon blogs each week at our church’s blog – ffxbc.blogspot.com or listen at http://www.fairfaxbaptistchurch.org/listen.html.)

Before I get to the heart of the post, I must state that I realize many consider the latter part of Matthew 7 (if not all of it) as individual bits of teaching that were later added to Jesus sermon because the information does not seem to mesh as well with the earlier portion. However, I think such thinking is unnecessary because Chapter 6 is quite different than Chapter 5 and yet the common theme of righteousness is prevalent in both – and in Chapter 7 as well (although the term itself is not be explicitly stated). But the concept is very much present and I intend to show that here.

Beginning in Matthew 7.11, Jesus does take a bit of a new direction in His sermon. But really He is circling back to the idea of prayer which is explicitly mentioned in Matthew 6.5-13 (and really through 15), and is a part of the fabric of storing up treasures in heaven, serving the right master, and not being anxious that concludes Matthew 6. And, I would argue, that judging with the proper perspective can only be done by coming before God which involves prayer as well (see last week’s post for the tie-in from the end of Matthew 6 to the judgment passage in Matthew 7). So the concept of prayer has been present for more than one full chapter in Matthew’s text. And now, Jesus gives some specific commands about prayer. We are to ask, seek, and knock. But the question we must consider is for what are to to ask or seek? And where are we to knock?

The answer is not given clearly for Jesus uses a pronoun – “it” – to describe what we will be given for our asking. But a key word in verse 8 can help us determine the antecedent for this pronoun. In verse 8, Jesus states that God promises those who ask will receive “it,” that those who seek will find, and that those who knock will find “it” opened. So what is “it” and what is the key word that unlocks the answer?

The key to understanding what “it” is to to realize that Jesus has promised that God will honor “everyone” who is actively asking, seeking, and knocking. Jesus does not say those who believe will receive their request or those who do not believe will find. He says the promises are for “everyone.” So, if everyone who asks receives, and everyone who seeks finds, and everyone who knocks will find something opened, what could it be that could allow Jesus to make such a promise and not compromise the integrity of God. I believe the answer is quite evident if we look at the text. The problem is too many people isolate the text at hand, and the answer lies just a few sentences prior to this statement and is the theme of all that Jesus has taught in His sermon thus far.

The answer: the righteousness of God (which includes God’s Kingdom, Matt 6.33). Again, chapter breaks in the Bible do us a disservice. Certainly, the indexing system of ascribing chapters and verses allow us to find information more quickly, but most people do not realize that ask, seek, and knock are only nine (9!) verses away from Jesus command to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. With that realized, let me explain why I believe this answer makes the most sense for the text.

First, if everyone receives, finds, or has the door/gate opened (see Matthew 7.14), then God is not restricting this to any one group of people. Of course, Jesus could be using hyperbole here, but must He be? I don’t think so. I think everyone means everyone. Thus, if Jesus is not going to trap God into keeping promises He can’t keep, then the answer must be something that could be given to anyone and everyone. In the context of the text, we can either consider the answer to be food (such as the fish and bread in the same paragraph), something related to judging others (in the previous paragraph), or the righteousness of God from the paragraph before that. And the righteousness of God has been the primary theme of the sermon (see Matthew 5.6; 5.20; 6.33). Plus, although we have been instructed to ask for our daily bread (6.11), we are instructed not to be anxious about it (6.25, 31, 34). And while we must seek God to measure our judgment properly, seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness is the prerequisite for doing so. So contextually, righteousness is the answer.

Secondly, everyone needs the righteousness of God to be satisfied (Matthew 5.6). Those who do not believe may ask and have it given to them. They may seek the Kingdom and find it. They may approach the gate (again 7.14) and find it opened to them. But for those who are already a part of the Kingdom, the righteousness of God must still be desired. I am still far from perfect. However, if I ask and keep asking, seek and keep seeking, knock and keep knocking day after day after day, then I receive, find, and have the gate opened continually that I might be a little closer to the man God wants me to be tomorrow than I am today. Thus, those who do not believe need to ask to receive, seek to find, and knock to have the Kingdom of God and His righteousness made available to them, and those who do believe need to keep asking, to keep seeking, and to keep knocking so that we can continue to grow in Him and be satisfied. Thus, everyone (the pronoun in verse 8) is covered, and God’s promise can be perfectly fulfilled to “everyone” who earnestly asks, seeks, and knocks.

As we will see in the remaining verses of this sermon, Jesus then divides all people into two groups – those that ask, seek, and knock, and those that do not. The ones that heed Jesus’ command take the narrow road will “find” the hidden gate, bear good fruit, and are considered wise for building on a solid foundation. Those that do not heed Jesus' words take the easy road, bear bad fruit (if they bear any at all) and are considered foolish by using sand as their foundation.

The choice is up to each one of us. “Everyone” has the same opportunity – if we will simply ask, seek, and knock. Which will you choose?

Thursday, April 26, 2018

To Judge or Not to Judge

Matthew 7.1 is, perhaps, the most commonly quoted verse in the Bible today. But just because it is oft-quoted does not mean it is properly understood. Jesus does say not to judge, but then just a few sentences later says we are to judge. Is Jesus speaking out of both sides of His mouth? The answer is, "No"; rather, the truth is that we are to judge in an evaluative way, but not in a condemning way. True judgment comes from God, but we are to determine right from wrong which includes making a judgment on people (such as the false prophets in Matthew 7.15).

The challenge for us as humans is that we tend to judge based upon our emotions rather than on facts. However, for those occasions when we do have facts, we never have all of the facts. And furthermore, even if we did have all of the facts, we still have our own issues to deal with as well. 

That is the point of the first few verses in Matthew 7. Again, Jesus does say not to judge, but then He turns around and says that we should help another who has an issue (which requires us to judge that an issue is real). The challenge then is to deal with the issue, not the person.

Ultimately, these verses come down to two primary points. First, we must realize that the chapter break does us a great disservice. Matthew 6.33 is a command to seek God and His righteousness. Just a couple of sentences later (7.1) we get the command about judgment. That is issue number one. The second point is found in Matthew 7.5, just a couple of sentences after the command about judgment. In that verse, we are told to take the log out of our own eye and THEN help the other person. These two aspects fit very well with one another – especially as bookends to the central piece about judging others.

To elaborate, if we are seeking God’s Kingdom and righteousness first, then we will realize our own issues before God and know we have an offense against Him to be reconciled (a log to remove from our eye). Once removed, we can see clearly – because we are seeing things from God’s perspective – which will allow us to help the other person deal with their issue. The key here is that we are to help, not crush the other person. And this is important because we seek the help (mercy) of God whom we offend with our sin far more than anyone could offend us with theirs. So, the idea here is about judging with perspective, or as verse 2 says, with the proper measure.

Several years ago, I developed the following guide to keep the measure proper. This guide may not be perfect, but I do find it helpful, and after a recent re-evaluation, I believe it is still quite proper. In preparing to judge another, first consider these four questions.

1) Have I come before God to make sure my vision is clear?

2) If I confront another person, am I seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness or my own?

3) Do I believe this person is a Christian?

   a) Yes. Ask God how to approach the situation.
   b) No. Ask God for His grace to be revealed in you so you are not seen as merely judgmental.

4) What does the Word of God say about the matter?


The guides takes into account the verses mentioned in this post (primarily Matthew 6.33 and 7.5). I hope it will help you as it has helped me. (I am not perfect by any means, but this process keeps me in check quite often.)

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Right Idea, But Stronger Meaning

The passage for this week’s sermon was Matthew 6.33-34. Verse 33 is one of those hallmark verses for Christian thought. You might have memorized it and maybe even recite it sometimes. As a pastor and educator, I do mention the passage often, but misquote the verse often. Let me use me state it as I usually do here, and without looking it up for yourself (yet), see if you can see my error.

“Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” – Matthew 6.33

Now, let me say that the capitalization of “Kingdom” and “His” are my typing techniques related to God, so you may omit these two possibilities. Also, you may omit “to” and is “to you” instead of “unto you” because that is merely a difference in translation, but it does not impact the meaning. With those items removed, do you see my error? Perhaps, perhaps not. The error is that I left off the first word of the sentence – But.

In the original Greek, the word “de” which means “but” or “however” is actually the second word of the sentence, but that is because the Greek language places emphasis on words depending upon where they lie within the sentence (particularly a word being first or last within the sentence). In this verse, Matthew wrote the first word as “seek” (Greek, zeteite), so the emphasis of our action is to seek. However, that is not the main point. The main point is that Jesus is contrasting what He has just said with this statement. The statement could certainly stand alone, and if we quote the verse as I did above, we certainly get the right idea. However the meaning of Jesus words, with the inclusion of the “but” is much stronger because of the contrast He draws (thus, the title of this post).

Matthew 6 fits together so well. If this verse is the climax of the sermon (as I believe it is), then consider how well the rest of Matthew 6 fits. We should seek first God’s Kingdom and righteousness instead of our own righteousness, which we often do by:
  • wanting others to know how much we give (verses 1-4).
  • speaking eloquently or not want to speak at all – when in public (verses 5-8).
  • bringing attention to our sacrifice as we fast (verses 16-18).
  • chasing what the world has to offer (verses 19-23).
  • serving our desires instead of God (verse 24).
  • being worried about what we do and don’t have (verses 25-32).

In the midst of these items is the prayer Jesus taught His disciples as an anchor for us to remember God and His provision throughout each of these aspects of our lives. And then, in verse 31, Jesus says that we do not need to worry about our food, drink, and clothing, because our Father, the one which is in heaven (v. 9), knows what we need (v. 32; cf. verse 8).

Therefore, when we seek God and His righteousness, we are seeking the things of heaven (v. 20). Again, these truths are well understood in the context with some study and the application of logic. But, we cannot forget the “but.” That “But” at the beginning of verse 33 is a staunch reminder to the truth that we DO often seek our own pleasures, our own kingdoms, and our own righteousness instead of seeking after what God desires for us. And, of course, a mature believer realizes that s/he does this to their own detriment, but we (yes, I include myself as guilty) struggle to let go of this world, and cling to everything of God. So, Jesus used this contrasting word to emphasize His point.

The question for you and I, as always, is how will we respond? Last week, the same basic question was in play about whether or not to worry (be anxious). Again, the two are very much related. If we are seeking God (and His Kingdom and righteousness), then our concerns are much different than if we are seeking our own. And, as I have mentioned countless times in this series (if not here, then in conversations, or on the church’s blog – ffxbc.blogspot.com), it is in seeking God’s righteousness that we will be satisfied (Matt. 5.6), not in seeking our own.

So, please heed the words of Jesus to “seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness.” But to do so, you and I must first realize the importance of giving up more trivial concerns in order to truly focus on the concerns of God.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Commandment Against Being Anxious

The Sermon on the Mount contains many different commands from Jesus. As I have mentioned before and elsewhere, this makes sense as it is God speaking to His people through His servant (in this case, the Son) about matters of how He desires them to live. This harkens back perfectly to God speaking to His people through His servant (Moses) on the mountain in the Old Testament. We know that God gave many commands for the new nation of Israel and codified a few on two stone tablets – commands we call the Ten Commandments.

Jesus clarified these ten and other commandments within His sermon as recorded in Matthew 5-7. For example, do not murder was “enhanced” to include hatred against another (Matt 5.22). Jesus further clarified what true giving, true prayer, and true fasting were. But in my preparations this week, I came across a new command. It is a command I have read many times. It is a command I have said before. But until this past week, I had never included the thought with the severity of a command – and yet, it uses the same language as many of the Ten Commandments used. That is, Jesus began this command with “Do not...” Do not be anxious (Matthew 6.25, 31, 34).

Now, at first glance, you might object to this being a command. If so, you likely object because you, like me, had simply not thought about it in these terms before. But we cannot dispute that the phrase used is identical to “Do not murder,” “Do not lie,” “Do not commit adultery,” etc. The difference is that those earlier commandments have to do with action while Jesus command here about anxiety has to do with thought. Yet, isn’t that exactly what Jesus did in the latter half of Matthew 5? He took the actions of murder, adultery, lying, etc. and made it about our thoughts, not just the act. So, we cannot dispute that thought is paramount to kingdom-living. Of course, our actions are important, but we cannot fool God if we do the right actions even though we do not have the right thoughts.

This concept truly struck me this past week as I was preparing my sermon. Jesus’ words truly jump off the page as He says the same words three different times within just a few short sentences. And while we may still be hesitant to lump “Do not be anxious” with the Ten Commandments, the idea of our anxiety is rooted in not trusting God which can be like having another god before the one true God.

Jesus does not say that we cannot have concern. Jesus was concerned about what was before Him as He prayed in Gethsemane. But the question is: Does our concern go into overdrive? Being concerned about the past is foolish – nothing can be changed. However, we can learn from the past. Being concerned about the future can lead to making better decisions. But if we are concerned about the future, we really only have two viable options if we are to avoid becoming anxious. First, we must deduce if something can be done about the projected future. If we can affect the future (even potentially), then we should do it (this would include prayer). If our efforts (beyond prayer) cannot change anything, forget it. Let me restate this – if you cannot do anything about the future, then why worry about it? It is going to happen. Make plans for it, don’t worry about it.

As I type this, I realize the idea of not being anxious is much easier said (typed) than done. But the command not to be anxious does not come from me, it comes from the one who created the universe. He is in control. And that will not change.

I do realize that some are medically diagnosed with various disorders which are called anxiety. I am not suggesting medication cannot help or that it should not be used. Just at the heart can be helped with medication, so can the brain. (After all, both are organs, right?) But apart from that, most of us worry over a variety of matters which, truly, do not matter – especially, when we are busy seeking first (primarily) the kingdom of God and His righteousness (but that part will have to wait for next week’s post).

So, do not worry. Do not be anxious. Do not fret over what might happen. Either do something about it, or let it go. Whether or not you agree that His words represent a commandment on par with the Ten Commandments, your choice, and mine, is to follow these words or ignore them – just like every other command God has given. But, for those who claim to follow Jesus, to ignore His words is as impractical as it is unwise. Let us wisely choose to follow and, therefore, learn how to not be anxious about anything.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Because Jesus Is Alive

I am certain that some in our church were disappointed not to hear a complete message on the resurrection this past Sunday. But really, how many messages can be preached on the topic? I do not ask that to suggest that the answer is minimal, but the reality is that most people who attend church on the day the resurrection is remembered (celebrated!), already know the story – and know it well. Now, that doesn’t excuse not mentioning the resurrection because it is the proof for our faith in Jesus and some who come will not have heard the story or will not know its significance. (Yes, the blood sacrifice on the cross is critical but without the resurrection would we know that Jesus was any different than others who were crucified?)

My message this past Sunday was in continuation of Jesus’ message from the Sermon on the Mount. We looked at Matthew 6.19-24 and the comparison of two types of treasures, two types of eyes, and two distinct masters. As I outlined the series, I could only think of one better passage from Jesus’ sermon for Resurrection Day – Matthew 6.33 and seeking first the kingdom and the righteousness of God. But the dates didn’t work, so Matthew 6.19-24 were the choice. Why do I say it is such a good passage for the day?

Matthew 6.19-34 are all one unit and fit extraordinarily well with what precedes (it is as if Jesus knew what He was doing as a preacher!). In the preceding verses, Jesus has taught His disciples to pray to a Father who cares for them and their needs. In the verses for this week, Jesus says that His disciples must choose what is truly important to them. And then the chapter closes with the proof that the Father will supply what His children need if they trust Him. And that leads us back to the resurrection.

The choice of treasures is easy to make if we keep our focus on the resurrection over and against the offerings of the world. The choice of eyes to have is easy to make if we want the light of Jesus to be a part of our lives as opposed to living in darkness. And the choice of masters is easy to make if we realize that money (mammon, all possessions) cannot truly do anything for us and certainly doesn’t care for us like the Master (God) who sent His Son to die and rise again that we might choose to follow Him.

The problem is that far too many people want to celebrate the holiday known as Easter without allowing the truth of the resurrection affect their lives every other day of the year. But if we truly understand that Jesus did die for us (and He did), and now lives for us (and He does), then shouldn’t we also choose to live for Him? And by choosing to live for Jesus, then we should bring all of our decisions into line with the ideas presented within His great sermon recorded by Matthew.

Of course, if Jesus is not alive, then nothing He said matters. And, if Jesus is not alive, then, as Paul, said, “if in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15.19, read 1 Cor. 15.12-28 for complete context). If Jesus is not alive, then I urge you to quit reading this blog because it is a waste of your time. In fact, I should stop writing it weekly, because it is a waste of mine. But I will not stop because I believe Jesus IS alive, and hope you will keep reading (whether you believe that or not) to find encouragement, to be challenged, or perhaps to one day realize that the same Savior who died and rose for me did the same for you and desires to have a relationship with you.

So, yes, this past Sunday’s sermon was a bit different. But my church realizes that I do things differently from time to time. However, my intent is to live my life because Jesus is alive and, therefore, to help others do the same. If that means that I use the day we celebrate the resurrection to talk about the choices we should make to live for Jesus, then maybe it is because we, as people of faith, as a church in Fairfax, or even as the global Church need to arise from our slumber to serve our Lord who rose from the dead. I know I need the reminder sometimes, and Sunday was a good day to remind many others as well.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Fasting - Another Gut Check

My current sermon series continually provides gut checks for me. As I have stated a few times already, I am quite familiar with the Sermon on the Mount, but in studying it again, and living with it week after week (now 13 weeks with another 8 or 9 to go), the words of Jesus continue to convict me in ways I have not felt in quite some time.

This past Sunday focused on the few verses on fasting from Matthew 6 (vv 16-18). I have fasted – many times. I have done several extended fasts including periods of 40 and 50 days (twice), and others not quite as long. I do not say this to impress anyone because that would go against the very purpose of Jesus message. I reveal this information here because my reward for those fasts was already secured – not from others, but from myself. Not all of my fasts were self-rewarded, but in my zealousness to fast in prior years,  I did so with a partial intent on focusing on God, and a partial intent on seeing if I could do it (thus the 50 days, essentially I gave up food for lent). Why? Not because I was called, but to see if I could. And I can honestly say those two 50-day fasts did not draw me closer to God, as I recall. Now, thankfully, other fasts have brought extreme moments of intimacy with God in addition to a greater trust in His provision. I do not mention those fasts here because my reward with God is secure if I hold them close to my heart, so I simply mention the fact that not all of my fasts have been (partially) selfishly motivated, but some definitely have.

Thus, the words of Jesus spoke directly to me this week. I have always tried to maintain my personal appearance and not allow others to know I was fasting. Of course, with the weight loss that ensues, it is hard to prevent questions, and when you are invited to eat with others, it causes a challenge, but overall, I did well to conceal my fasting each time from most everyone. And while fasting, I studied the concept (such as Isaiah 58), and was frustrated I could not give more to others because  my food bill often increased as I supplemented water with various types of juice (non high-fructose types). I would say I learned a lot about fasting, about myself, and about God, especially on the fasts when my focus was completely upon Him.

Overall, I am thankful for the opportunities when I have fasted. I say that because I now have diabetes and do not know that I can safely fast from food. If God calls me to fast, and I am certain of His call, I still will, but it has been a few years now since that has happened. Nonetheless, I need to be ready to respond if He does call. However, the need for me to find times to be intimate with Him are what is critical. He should not need to ask me to fast, and I should not need to fast, for that to happen. But to fast for an extended period with the potential health hazards does require some assurance (within the context of faith) that He is the one asking it at this point.

If you have not fasted, I would encourage it. Start small – perhaps fasting for lunch. It is more than skipping a meal, it is replacing the meal with a focus on God. Over time, perhaps you will fast for a day or longer. An extended fast certainly has its physical challenges at times, but it has so many blessings along the way that I literally would get to a point I didn’t care if I ate again (other than having a desire to chew something!) So, try it. See where God leads you. I assure you (because of Jesus’ words), if you fast to seek God, you will be satisfied (Matthew 5.6).

As for me, I need to determine how I might now fast in a non-traditional sense. I am certain He has ideas in mind for me, and this past week of study and preparation to preach Jesus’ words has resurfaced the idea in my mind. For now, I have no clear answers, but I am certain that if I truly want to know Him better, some type of fast will lead me where I (should) long to go.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Most Difficult Command?

What might you consider the most difficult command in the Bible? Let’s face it, some commands are easier to keep than others. And that list of easier commands will differ depending upon the person. For instance, and I am only referring to those who believe the Bible should be followed, some may have more of a temptation to lie. Others may have difficulty with coveting. Still others may find it a challenge to honor their parents. And the list could go on. And, this is only three of the Big 10 – the Ten Commandments, and then only at face value. For as Jesus commented on the commands in Matthew 5, He elevated hatred to murder, and lust to adultery and coveting, etc. Thus, presumably, if we use the understanding Jesus provided a person might change which command they find most difficult to keep. And because the Bible is filled with so many commands, and so many are so challenging, a great number of people choose to follow only some, make excuses for ignoring them, or choose to not to follow them at all. GK Chesterton said well, when he coined the following quote.

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” – GK Chesterton

How true that is. But if I step back from myself, and try to picture the greatest challenge of all commands, I think it would come down to loving others. Of course, loving God properly (with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength) is not easy, but if one believes in God, the one will love God, and so the issues is one of degree, not of doing it at all. That is, the challenge is how much (or how well) we love God, not in loving Him, that is the challenge. But loving others is difficult – except, of course, for the people we love. And thus, the real challenge is to love the unlovable, not those whom we find it easy to love.

But why is it difficult to love some and not others? And why is it difficult at times to love even those we usually love? The answers to these questions are different, but one of the biggest considerations in whether or not we love someone is if we can/will forgive them. Therefore, I will argue that although love might be most difficult overall, our ability to forgive is almost equal and plays a distinct role in our capacity to love just as our love for others is a critical aspect in our ability to forgive.

So, to love is to forgive and to forgive is to love. The reason forgiveness is difficult is because it is only necessary when we have been caused some type of pain. It is easy to love someone when no problems exist, but when conflict arises, love is tested. That conflict could be the result of any type – physical, emotional, spiritual, etc. and the pain that results can then lead to anger and bitterness over time or can be resolved by forgiving the other person and loving them regardless of the issue.

In my sermon this week, I preached on Matthew 6.12, 14-15 where Jesus taught His disciples to pray to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” and then expanded on the thought by saying that when we forgive others, God forgives us and likewise if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us. These are strong statements, but they go to show how important the concept of forgiveness is. Essentially, what Jesus is saying if we understand what God has done for us, how can we not forgive others?

Forgiveness is not easy, and thus it is often lacking in our relationships. We might say we forgive someone, but then have mixed feelings every time that person comes near. To forgive is not to forget, but it is to not hold anything against another person. (I encourage you to see my sermon blog for more on this as I do not wish to repeat it here.) But the fact that we are human and have been hurt by another human is why the concept of forgiveness is so difficult. And yet, we desire to be forgiven when we make mistakes toward others, so we should follow the maxim of “Do unto others” let alone forgiving because we desire God to forgive us.

The beauty of forgiving others is the freedom that we find ourselves. As we forgive, we allow the bitterness and anger to be released, and we are the ones who are freed from bondage, not the other party. This week, I encourage you to find that freedom as difficult as it may be. Consider the person(s) who have wronged you and the pain you have been caused. Don’t excuse their behavior, but forgive them. I know what some may think. “But Andy, you do not know what they have done.” You are right, I do not, but God does. And He is willing to forgive them, so you should be too. More importantly, He will forgive you if you take the step of forgiving that person (those persons). Because remember, you have likely asked God to forgive your debts as you forgive your debtors.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Convicted!

Truly learning to live by the Bible can be broken into three distinct aspects. Reading the Bible exposes us to the contents. Studying the Bible brings understanding of its principles. And applying the principles helps transform us into the people God has designed us to be. Far too many people are content with reading (or hearing content) and not moving to true understanding. For these individuals, any attempts to apply what they have read/heard is often abandoned when resistance is met or they often focus on applying minor details rather than major principles. Those who move to studying the Bible may have a better understanding, but the danger is that by knowing more one must develop a stronger fortitude to withstand the challenges that will come. Regardless, the Bible is not meant to be a book of entertainment; rather, it is to encourage, exhort, or even inspire us (for all kinds of reasons and in all kinds of ways)  to apply the principles to our lives.

For the last couple of months, I have been preaching a series from Matthew 5-7 (the Sermon on the Mount). Like many long-term Christians, I have read this sermon many times, studied parts of it multiple times, reviewed all of it a few times, etc. But like many who have read certain parts of the Bible many times, sometimes as I read, or even study, I do not take sufficient time to dig deep enough into the meaning and then rush off to another task without giving myself enough time to properly apply what I have learned. As I mentioned in the post a few weeks ago, being a teacher or preacher adds an measure of accountability (see James 3.1; to view the prior post, click here). As a person who espouses Kingdom-first for our church and in other conversations, I am paying particular attention to what I am reading, studying, and teaching in expectation that I will not just preach what Jesus preached, but will better live out what He preached (and how He lived).

So, this past Sunday’s message was on praying righteously (Matthew 6.5-8, and the Disciples’ Prayer – vv. 9-13). These verses should be convicting in themselves. Before giving the model prayer to the disciples, He mentions not praying “empty phrases” (ESV) or “vain repetitions” (KJV). In other words, don’t just say your prayers, and don’t simply repeat the Lord’s Prayer (or Disciples’ Prayer as I call it – we have no record of Jesus praying it, just telling the disciples how to pray – Matthew 6, Luke 11). We should be intentional in praying to God (and not simply for ourselves) and in what we pray. After the prayer, Jesus then elaborates on our need to show forgiveness to others as part of our being forgiven by God. Again, all of that is, or could be, convicting for myself or any number of people. But...

What truly struck me last week was a particular comment found in the commentary on Matthew from the Intervarsity Press. Craig Keener wrote the following note related to verse 5: “Because prayer promises the hearing of an Advocate more powerful than any other, it goes without saying that those who spend little time in prayer do not in practice believe much in a God who answers prayer;....”(1) Keener continued the paragraph with the basic thought of how foolish (my word, not his) are those who pray for their prestige rather than truly praying to God.

Now, I hope I am not guilty of praying to make a scene. I do not believe I am, but I can recall times in the past I was concerned with what others might think of my prayer. That is not something I think about now. But...do I pray enough or do I “spend little time in prayer” per Keener’s comment? No, I do not. And thus, in His words, I am a functional atheist in the power of God as it relates to my prayer life. I do not dismiss these words as hyperbole. I think Keener is right in general, and has nailed me specifically. To pray righteously begins with praying to God (Matthew 5.5-6) and with intention (Matthew 5.7-8), but it must include a belief AND A FREQUENCY that proves belief in who God is.

Apart from Jesus, I doubt anyone will ever stand before God and say, “I prayed enough during my lifetime.” We cannot change the past, but we can alter our projected future. As I consider what Jesus said about prayer and what Keener wrote about being a functional atheist, I have been convicted. But that is simply the reading and the studying portion of learning. Next, I must apply the principle in order to truly make it stick and become the man God wants me to be. It begins now with one small prayer (to be more faithful in my praying), but if I follow through, I will reap great rewards because I will know my God much more intimately than I do now. And isn’t that the point of a conversation – to know more about one another? He may already know everything about me, but the fact He wants to hear from me, and wants to share Himself with me is a pure reflection of the love that He has for me. And, of course, the same is true for all who believe.

So, how you do respond? I hope you will be like me and choose to pray more, pray longer, and perhaps pray better. But, however your prayer life needs to improve, it can only do so if you do one thing – pray! Again, that is why I intend to do and this post is my public commitment to do so.

(1) (Keener, C. S. (1997). Matthew (Vol. 1, Mt 6:5). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

A True Gift

I have expressed many times how much I like teaching the Bible. One of the reasons is seeing God’s truths unfold before my eyes as I prepare a lesson or sermon. Other times, the insights come from reflecting back on what I have taught. For me, this week, the joy has been in seeing how well Matthew 6 truly fits together within the chapter and within Jesus’ overall sermon. I am very familiar with the passage, but God is opening my mind to understand something new and fresh as I study and prepare each week.

Of course, Matthew 6 transitions to Jesus revealing the importance of our attitude in giving, praying, and fasting before challenging the devotion of our hearts later in the chapter. And, of course, the section about giving (verses 1-4) speak of the act of giving money. But as I have said for years, God does not care about your money, He cares about you. You can give all the money in the world, but such an act will not bring you any closer to God or make Him love you any more (or less). When we give money, we give something, but God cares about us as people. If He gets us, then our money will follow, but the inverse is not necessarily true.

This principle is true throughout Jesus’ sermon, but is especially evident in Matthew 6. Jesus is calling for His followers to be righteous (begins in Matthew 5.6, then continues in 5.20, 6.1, etc.). Related to giving, Jesus wants our hearts to be involved when we give money, which is most easily accomplished when we have given ourselves to God. Certainly, the giving of our money shows an appreciation for the gifts God has given us, a proper understanding that we are truly stewards of those gifts, and a trust that God will continue to provide for our needs (the latter portion of Chapter 6). But again, it is not the money or financial resources God wants – it is us.

When we give ourselves to God, we are revealing in a larger way that we appreciate the gifts and talents He has given, showing that we are simply stewards of the body, the time, and other resources we have been given, and show a trust that God will honor us for placing our faith in Him (Hebrews 11.6). Of course, it is far more difficult to give up our thoughts, our dreams, and our purpose (let alone our resources), but it is only difficult because we treat these things as “ours” when ultimately they are His. (The previous sentence is easy to type, but not nearly as easy to live by on a daily basis – at least for me.)

If what I have just said is true, we can truly offer God what is already His. Thus, our money is truly not the most important item to be given. Sure, churches have budgets and ministries need money (we all do) to function. The monetary aspect should not be neglected! However, many people make a financial contribution and consider their work done. This understanding lacks a proper understanding of what God has truly done.

Jesus died for us. Did He have to die? Yes, the way God decreed it. But think about this, if God wanted to purchase our salvation, and if money were the primary currency for the transaction, it would not have been an issue for God to raise the necessary funds. After all, God owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50.10), but the hills belong to Him as well! So, Jesus gave Himself. Jesus was and is the inexpressible gift (2 Corinthians 9.15). Jesus is the true gift that God has given us. Not money, not a house, not a car, nor anything material – the gift was Him in the flesh.

The consideration we must make is that if God’s truest gift to us was personal (not material), then why do we consider our material gifts as significant to God. Again, the act of giving is important, but it is us – the person – that He wants. Each individual that gives himself/herself to God is significant. When we give ourselves to God, we give back to Him all of us – our time, our talents, and our treasure.

So, in learning to give from a perspective of righteousness, give yourself first to God, just as God gave Himself first for you. No truer gift exists. No greater gift is possible. But the choice is up to each one of us to make the decision to truly give as we have been given.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

A Hermeneutic of Love

One of the most important principles in hermeneutics (proper interpretation) is to seek to understand what the message originally meant. Although the principles of the Bible are timeless, the actual stories happened to real people and the words were recorded so real people could remember them. The same is true with the various New Testament letters. They were written to real people making up real churches dealing with real problems. And the same is true with the various teachings of the Bible, including Jesus sermon in Matthew 5-7. His teaching was not random; rather, it was very purposeful. He was teaching those who were with Him near the very beginning of His ministry to know what life was like from a Kingdom perspective.

Over the past several weeks, I have been preaching through this magnificent sermon and reflecting on some thoughts here in this blog. The ultimate idea is that Jesus wants His followers to think in terms of “on earth as it is in heaven” and thus is teaching those listening (and now reading) what living in the Kingdom of God is like. In the first part of this sermon, Jesus began by sharing about the blessings of being a true followers (the Beatitudes), then said that true righteousness must be greater than those who parade themselves around as righteous people (the Pharisees), and finally gave His commentary on several commands that had been tainted over the years. Then, at the conclusion of what we call Matthew 5, Jesus said that those listening (“you”) must be perfect because our Father is perfect.

Everything Jesus has said to this point in His sermon has one single theme – love. The first verses point to a God who loves us, and then Jesus turns to how our love for God and others should be lived out in our daily lives. Of course, living in this manner is difficult, but a part of that is due to perspective.

In preaching this series, I have been especially focused on trying to get to how the people listening to Jesus that day may have considered His words. Again, the words were originally said to people living in a context that was 2000 years ago. Certainly, Jesus’ words are timeless, but He said them to the people then, and thus we must realize that He said particular words and used particular examples for a reason. (I often use the analogy of baseball here. If someone were to describe the game of baseball they might talk about hitting a ball with a bat. But the context matters. For instance, telling a similar story 200 years ago would cause the listener to think something very different for bats would only be known as the flying mammal.) Thus, as we begin to understand what the words meant then, we can better relate the words to what they mean now and how we should live accordingly. The challenge is that records of the past are much more difficult to find and so sometimes assumptions must be made.

However, all of the teaching Jesus did in this first part of this sermon (Matthew 5) leads to the unmistakable purpose to love. In fact, the last of the commands Jesus mentions is that we should love even our enemies and we do so because our Father does so. Thus, Jesus ends this portion by saying that we should be perfect because our Father is perfect. Contextually, Jesus is speaking about being perfect in love, not in action. Of course, neither is possible. We have sinned and will continue to do so until we are made complete on the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1.6). But our nature can be perfect because Christ’s righteousness becomes our own when we place our faith in Him. Thus, we may not live perfectly, but we may be considered perfect by our Father because of our faith in the Son. As such, we must grow in our capacity to love – even as Jesus showed us what it means to love others, including our enemies.

I am the first to admit that this is not easy. I fail miserably sometimes. But if Jesus said we should do so, then I cannot dismiss my need to do so if I truly want to be a follower. I thank God for giving me a demeanor that is not hateful or spiteful. But to actively love requires intentionality, and sometimes I am not as intentional as I need to be. This series has reminded me that I must focus more on loving in all aspects of my life. As Paul wrote, we may do many things excellently, but if we do not do it with love, then we miss out on the real purpose of life. Jesus knew this. Jesus taught this. Jesus lived this. And we should too. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Distracted

This past week I preached from Matthew 5.31-37 as I continue to preach from Jesus’ great sermon that we refer to as the Sermon on the Mount. These verses are about promises made – in marriage, and in general. The latter verses speak of the oaths that people attach to their promises to make them more believable. The problem, as Jesus states, is that the items Jews used for their oats were not theirs to swear by (heaven, earth, Jerusalem, hair). But the bigger problem is the need to swear by anything because our words are not trustworthy on their own. For followers of Jesus (Jesus’ audience in this sermon), that is unacceptable.

But it isn’t just promises made to others, it is promises made to ourselves that can be broken. I am usually a person who is very focused and driven to accomplish whatever it is my mind is set to do. A part of that comes from an addictive personality that can get overly focused at times. This tendency is part of the reason why I do not engage in activities like smoking or drinking. I do not like the taste of either, but have partook of each many years ago. But just because I do not engage in these “vices” does not mean I do not have my own challenges.

For years one of the challenges was food. I was constantly overeating and my body showed it. The problem is that in most churches, gluttony is not considered the same type of sin as drinking. In fact, many churches (and pastors) will joke about eating too much while condemning someone for getting drunk. My intention is not to engage in this argument here, but to show that I, like many, must stay focused on what is important to me or I can get distracted by lesser items.

Recently, I have faced such distractions. Since my return from Kenya, I have had more time than usual. Ordinarily I would take the time to be productive, but lately I am finding myself engaged in a hobby that has taken too much of my time. The hobby is not bad, but instead of spending thirty minutes or even an hour engaged in the hobby, I find myself spending two-plus hours at a time. For me the hobby (managing a soccer club in a video game) is mostly relaxing while allowing me to engage my mind in a manner apart from my normal duties as a pastor, seminary professor, leading a new ministry, in addition to being a husband and father (to grown children).

Now, in fairness, we do not have cable television for most of the year, so I do not watch sports like some (this was a hard transition for me at first). We do subscribe to a service for each Fall so I can host a group of people to watch football as a ministry opportunity; however, that is only for seventeen weeks each year. So, instead of placing myself in front of a tv to watch sports for several hours each week, I play a video a game. But the problem is that I have much to do to fulfill my promise to achieve my vision which is to become the man God wants me to be. That is an aspiring vision and one I cannot reach on my own on this side of eternity in any case. But it is made more difficult by spending too much time trying to get a second-rate soccer club to a championship in a top-tier league.

So, in light of the message I preached Sunday, regarding Jesus’ message from nearly 2000 years ago, I pledge to re-orient my focus. I will still play the game some – it is a form of re-creation for me. But my priorities must be to reengage myself where I am called to serve – as a husband, father, pastor, teacher, leader, etc. Time is too short to do anything else. I need not pledge an oath on anything to make this happen, but I must be true to who I know I am and more importantly who God has called me to be.