A forgotten spiritual discipline?

17 Jun

Image result for forgotten disciplinesIf you had to take a guess, what would you say is a spiritual discipline that has been incredibly important over the history of the church, and still is very important, but is rarely practiced in our contemporary American church?

It is a discipline that stems from our Faith Church Growth Process.

Our logo symbolizes our Growth Process.

The Growth Process is how we seek to help people grow as disciples of Jesus.  It stems from Matthew 7:21-23 where Jesus tells a story about people who looked like really strong disciples on the outside.  These people show up at the door of heaven fully expecting to enter in, but he shocks them by saying “Away from me, I never knew you.”  We don’t want any of you to be shocked like that!  So we look a bit further in the book of Matthew, chapter 16, where Jesus taught what true discipleship is.  There he says that we can be his disciples if we do three things: deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.  We call that crossing the Matthew 7 line, which is that center line in the logo.

See, the reality is that some of us have not crossed the Matthew 7 line.   Some of us are convinced that Jesus will welcome us into heaven, but when that day comes, he will actually say “Away from me, I never knew you.”  Some of us are staying to the left side of the line.  See those boxes on the left side of the line?  They represent worship and fellowship.  They are both incredibly important elements of our faith, of what it means to be a church family.   But we can worship and fellowship in a totally outward way, not having that inner change that Jesus talked about.  Jesus did not say that he wants worshipers and fellowshipers.   What he said is that he wants disciples.

And to be his disciples, we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.  Our Growth Process is designed to encourage everyone in our church family to cross the Matthew 7 line.  We can’t force anyone, of course, and we aren’t going to try.  But we do want to encourage everyone in the family of Faith Church to pursue discipleship to Jesus, so our Leadership Team members are going to be contacting every adult in the church family on a regular basis to talk about this.  It is that important to us.

What that means is that Jesus taught us that self-denial is critical to being his disciples.  How, then, do we deny ourselves?

Self-denial is the lost discipline.  Join us tomorrow at Faith Church, 9am, as we talk about self-denial in our ongoing summer sermon series on the spiritual disciplines.

5 important steps to help you read the Bible

12 Jun

Image result for how to read the bible

When you pick up a Bible, you’re not reading a book.  You’re holding in your hand a library of books.  66 books! (Well, 66 writing as a Protestant.  Other Christian traditions include additional books in the Bible.) 66 books, written by about 35-40 different authors, writing over a period of about 1500 years, inspired by God to tell one story.  It is an astounding book.  But for many it is also an intimidating book.

If you feel at all hesitant about reading the Bible, please know you’re not alone.  Many people think just like you do.  If we’re honest, we respond to our unpleasant feelings about the Bible by ignoring it.  Please hear me out when I say that if you have not read a Bible in years, I’d like to share five keys that can help make the Bible accessible to you.

As I said, the word “book” is actually not a very good description for the Bible itself because it is a library.  The word “book” is also not a good description for many of the 66 books of the Bible.  For example, I recently preached through 1st Timothy.  Was that a book?  No, it is a letter.  Obviously, letters are different from books in many ways.

We call this distinction “genre”.  What does the word “genre” mean?  “Genre” has French origins, stemming from the word “gender”.  That should help us understand what it means.  Gender is a type of person, either male or female.  Genre means “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content[1]”.  That is the first important step when reading the Bible:

Answer the question, “What genre is this?”

There are many genres of literature in the Bible.

The Bible includes Non-fiction and Fiction.  Real-life stories and ones that are made up.

You might think “Wait a minute, Joel, the Bible is true, it is non-fiction.  How can you say it includes fiction? Are you saying some of the Bible is false?”  Nope, I’m not.  What I am saying is that the Bible includes works of fiction.  Take, for example, Jesus’ parables.  Was he telling true stories, like news reports?  Maybe some were based on real-world stories, but generally Jesus created the stories to teach a main idea.  The parables are generally fiction.  Now to be precise, they are works of fiction within a non-fiction account of Jesus’ life.

There are many fiction and non-fiction genres of literature in the Bible.  In the Bible you’ll find History, Poetry, Wisdom Literature, Letters, Prophecy, Lists, Laws and more.  There are also some very unique biblical genres.  Take the four Gospels, for example, which are quite unique in the ancient world.  They are biographies, four accounts of the life of Jesus.  But they are biographies with a theological purpose. Each of the Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are endeavoring to tell the story of Jesus’ life, but they have purposes for telling that story.

I say all this about genres for a reason.  To try to explain that reason, I first want to talk about two specific genres of literature.

The first genre I encountered a few weeks ago when my son graduated from high school.  We showed up at the venue, and as we entered the room, ushers handed out commencement programs the school created for the event.  That commencement program is a work of literature, and as such, it is a particular genre of literature.  The program starts with an order of events for the evening, and then it includes lists.  Lists of award winners, lists of graduates and so on. When I read the commencement program, I expect that it will tell me lots of true information about the graduation ceremony and the participants.

On the other hand, the second genre is a book of poetry by GK Chesterton, a wonderful English Christian thinker, author and poet from the 20th century.  I have this book on my shelf at home, and it is called Poems For All Purposes.  As the title suggests, it includes a variety of Chesterton’s poetry.  When I read poetry, I have to use certain principles to understand it, right?  In poetry I know that there is likely going to be a lot of figurative language for example.  The poet might talk about a stone, but mean something very different.  Often poetry is mysterious and hard to understand.  We learn that about poetry when we study it in school.

So what would happen if I took the principles of reading and understand poetry and applied them to the commencement program?  I could try to find symbolism or metaphor in the names of the students and the awards.  I could try to count how many more boys or girls there are and discern a secret message about masculinity or feminism.  But that would be an improper way to read the commencement program!  It’s just a list.

Likewise it would be improper for us to read the Bible like we read, say, a novel by John Grisham.  The Bible is different from a novel.

So when we read the Bible, it will be very helpful to remember Genre.  If you are reading the book of Joshua, which is primarily a historical book, you will have a different approach than if you are reading the book of Proverbs, which is primarily a bunch one-liner wise sayings.

Once you have an idea of what genre you are reading, it is time to move to the next key.

Answer the question, “What was the cultural situation that led to this work of literature?”

Because the original situation of a particular portion of the Bible is so far removed from us, we should do a little bit of work to find out what was going on in that culture.

Think about it this way.  When you read The Lord of the Rings, you are familiar with the name J.R.R. Tolkien.  He is the author.  He is British.  He lived through the two World Wars.  He was a soldier in WW1, and when you consider the impact the World Wars had on Britain, that tells you something.  The Hobbit was published on the eve of WW2, as Hitler was rising to power, and The Lord of the Rings series came out in decade after the War.  Do you think knowing Tolkien’s cultural situation might help understand The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings books?  It absolutely will help.

The same thing goes with the Bible.  When we start to read a book of the Bible like Jeremiah, we should consider it important to answer a few basic questions.  Who wrote this?  When did they write it?  Why did they write?  Was there something going on in their lives or in the world that motivated them to write?  Who were they writing to?

Before we ever read one word of a passage of Scripture, we should take a few moments to answer these questions.  But where do we find these answers?   Not all Bibles include that information.  And that is why I am so thankful for Study Bibles.

I want to recommend two Study Bibles to you.  The NIV Study Bible or The Life Application Study BibleThe NIV Study Bible is a tad more scholarly, while the Life Application does what its title suggests, it helps you focus on applying the Bible to your life.  Both are excellent.

This Bible I hold every Sunday is a NIV Study Bible.  I’ve had it for nearly 25 years, and I love it.  In the palm of my hand I have not only the text of the Bible, but also loads of helpful resources.  Before the text of each book of the Bible, there is an introduction that seeks to answer the questions I just mentioned.  Who? What? Where?  When?  Why?  For every single book of the Bible.  Sometimes, for the shorter books, the introduction is about as long as the book itself!

The next major feature of a study Bible is the notes.  Many of the verses have explanatory comments helping you understand the text of the Bible.

Also, study Bibles have cross-references.  Not Jesus’ cross.  But references to other parts of the Bible that might relate to the one you are reading.  That is very helpful for study.  If one biblical author says something similar, you have a cross-reference telling you where to go in the Bible to find that similarity.  And when you read that other verse, it can help you have a more full understanding of the original passage you started reading.  This can be especially helpful for learning how New Testament passages are based on Old Testament passages.

Most study Bibles have additional resources like maps and concordances.  Have you ever been in that situation where you are trying to remember a verse or concept from the Bible, but you are not sure of the specific verse number?  Your concordance can help you. You think to yourself that the verse had, for example, the word “milk” in it, but you have no idea what verse that is.  You open up your concordance, scroll down to the word “milk”, and you find that “milk” is listed numerous times in the Bible.  You look them up until you find the right one.  Most study bibles only have partial concordances because an exhaustive concordance is massive.  An exhaustive concordance lists every single time every word in the Bible is used.

All of these resources are found in a good study Bible.  Each book has an intro, there are study notes, cross-references, maps, and a concordance.   Some will have other features too.  But those resources will help you study this ancient book.

In our day and age, all of these resources are available free online.  You can pay for Bible study programs that have astounding capabilities, or you can use free online services, which are amazing in their own right.  I recommend Bible Gateway or Blue Letter Bible. Frankly, there are plenty of times that it is much faster for me to do a search in Google than it is to flip through a concordance.  Google is a powerful Bible study tool too!

But for those of you not interested in computer tools, I urge you to purchase a Study Bible and practice using it.

So I have surveyed two key tools that are important for reading the Bible.  Learn the Genre and seek Introductory answers.  Before you even start reading do that.  You might think “Really, I have to do all that?  My life is too busy.  If I have to do that, I don’t think I’ll be reading the Bible.  And why can’t I just pick it up and start reading?”

First of all, with a Study Bible you will get through those introductory questions very rapidly.  It is all laid out for you.  Second, I urge you to consider reading through whole books of the Bible.   I often use this method in my preaching.  Don’t just pick a random verse here and there.  Go to the Gospel of Mark, for example, and slowly read through the whole thing, maybe a chapter per day.  But first, answer the introductory questions.  That way you aren’t doing introductory work every day on a new book of the Bible.  You do it once for Mark, and then, depending on how fast you read, you might not need to do the introductory material again for a few weeks because you are reading through Mark that whole time.

At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of you are thinking: “Joel, this still sounds like a lot of work.  Can’t I just pick up a Bible and read it, and expect to hear from God?”

Yes and no.

Hearing from God when we read the Bible is what I want to look at next.  I believe there is a vital attitude that we need to have when we read the Bible if we want to hear God speak through it.

Bring an attitude of humility to your reading and study of the Bible.

Humility says “Lord, teach me from your word.  Even though I may have read this passage 100 times, teach me.  Even though I may have Psalm 23 memorized, teach me when I read it again.”  Come to the reading of Scripture with a teachable, humble heart.  A humble heart will learn from God, and a humble heart says “I don’t have this Scripture all figured out.”  We should not come to Scripture arrogantly thinking that our reading, our interpretation is the only right one.

And that leads us to the necessity of prayer when you read Scripture.

In 1 Cor 2:12 we read that Spirit helps us understand the things that God has given us. There is no doubt that some parts of the Bible can be hard to understand.  We should not assume that we can just read them and understand them and easily apply them to our lives.  Instead we need to pray that the Spirit will help us understand them properly.

Every time we read and study Scripture, whether in private, at church, in small group, we should have a humble teachable attitude that asks the Spirit to help us understand.

Read with a mind to discover the author’s intent

And that brings us to a key issue in reading Scripture: Authorial Intent vs. Reader Response.  If you’re not familiar with those terms, let me illustrate.

Do we want a lawyer to read our last will and testament and interpret it however they want?  Imagine your will says the estate is going to be divided 10% to the church and the rest equally distributed to the children.  But the lawyer says “I interpret that to mean ‘give the money to whomever they cared about the most.’  And they clearly cared about me the most, so I will just take it all.”  How do you think that would go over?

That lawyer is using reader response theory to interpret the will.  Reader response theory says that the reader provides the meaning of the text.

When it comes to a last will and testament, we don’t do that.  We believe the author of the last will and testament had a will, which is why it is called a will.  They had a desire to use their estate in a certain way.  So when we read a last will and testament, we should strive to find out what their desire is. We cannot give it whatever meaning we want.  The same goes for the Bible.  We believe God was communicating his will to us.  That’s why we pray for the Spirit to help us understand it.  And that is why we use these tools and methods I’ve been talking about today.

We should avoid reading a passage of Scripture and saying, “Well, this is what the Scripture means to me.” Instead we should be asking, “What did God mean this Scripture to say?”  And then we strive hard to determine what God intended.  In addition to humility, then, we ask God’s Spirit to help us understand his Word.

Read the Bible personally and together in a community

Furthermore, reading and understanding Scripture should not simply be a solo effort.  Before the printing press it was exceedingly rare that someone would have their own copy of Scripture.  So people would have to come together in groups to hear it and discuss it.

Nowadays we have such easy access to the Bible.  Not just paper copies, but also on our phones and computers and via audio versions.  Because of this easy personal access, and because of our culture that prizes individualism, we can get the idea that reading and understanding the Bible should primarily be a personal thing.  No doubt it is healthy and important to read and study the Bible on our own.  But we should also see our interaction with God’s Word in community.

And by “community” I mean the church family, which could be your small group, your class, etc.  If you are thinking that God is speaking to you in his word, take what God is saying to the community and discuss it.  You might have it wrong and need to have your interpretation corrected.  Or you might have it right, and your word from God might impact others.

These five steps have helped me greatly in accessing and learning from what is often a very difficult book.  The Bible.  Are there any of these steps that you need to add to your life?

Do you feel intimidated by the Bible?

10 Jun

Image result for reading the bibleThis Sunday we continue our summer sermon series called Spiritual Exercises.  Last week we looked at How to Pray.  This week we are focusing on How to Read the Bible.

But the Bible can be very intimidating.  It is huge.  When we talk about reading a novel, we think in terms of weeks.  Days, if you are a fast reader.  Hours, if it is a real page-turner.  But when it comes to the Bible, we often think in terms of a year.  How many of you have endeavored to read the whole Bible in a year?  There are multitudes of reading plans to help guide you.

Life often gets in the way, we fall behind, and before you know it, we have given up reading the Bible in a year.

What we often try instead of reading the Bible in a year is a daily devotional reading.  Often that kind of Bible reading is one chapter per day.  When we do this, we’re not necessarily interested in reading the whole Bible consecutively.  We just want to read a bit on a regular basis so that we can have consistent spiritual input in our lives.  In other words, we want to hear from God.  Even the chapter per day approach has its difficulties.

There are parts of the Bible that are boring.

There are parts of the Bible that are really hard to understand.

There are stories that speak of people and places that we don’t know how to pronounce, and we have no idea who or where they are.

What do we do with all of this?

Sadly, we tend to leave our Bible on the shelf, on the nightstand, or as an unused app, maybe uninstalled.

Why?  There is no doubt, the Bible is intimidating.  It is a book with 66 books inside it, the most recent of which was written about 1900 years ago by people who spoke dead languages and lived in cultures extremely different from our own.

All that taken into consideration, I’m convinced that the Bible is accessible.  I admit that reading the Bible must be very different from reading a novel or the news.  So tomorrow at Faith Church, we’ll talk about some tools and attitudes that are vital to help you read the Bible.  Join us at 9am!

Practical suggestions to help you pray

5 Jun

Image result for prayerThis winter/spring I read an amazing book on prayer I wish I had come across years ago.  It is called Prayer: Conversing with God by a missionary named Rosalind Rinker.  She first published it in 1959, but it is so relevant.  Could have been written yesterday.  Easily one of the best books on prayer I’ve ever read.

She talks about her early experiences on a missionary team, when they had staff prayer meetings:

“We were all together on our knees in the same room, each with love for the other, and each with a common purpose. But I began to realize we were each making a little speech to the Lord when our turn came. I know we were supposed to pray silently with the one who was praying audibly, but when we all covered the same ground — well, I found that I was trying to think how I could start my prayer with more “colorful” words. How I could put more “action” into my prayer, how I could make it sound more “spiritual,” and how I could take hold of the promises with more faith than the others. I wanted to word it differently from the persons who had prayed before me, and make it sound more important and interesting.”

That spoke to me.  I’ve had the same thoughts many times.  As if the prayer time was a showcase of spirituality.  Who could get the most “Amens” or “Yes, Lords”?  I’m guilty of those thoughts each month when I attend my local ministerium prayer meeting or my denominational district pastors’ prayer lunch.  There are buzzwords you can pray and you know you will get a reaction!  Start talking about revival in your prayer, that’s guaranteed to get you some “Amens!”.  But is that how we should pray?

Rinker goes on to say:

“I used to choose a chair near the bookcases, so that when things got dull, I could quietly glance through the shelves and make a mental note, and often a penciled note, of the books I wanted to read.  Then there were the times I actually pulled out a book, and using my jacket around my shoulders as a shield, leafed through some of the books during the prayer meeting.  Sometimes I just plain fell asleep on my knees during those long sessions of prayer. After my turn was over, it wasn’t too hard to do.”

Yup.  Been there too.  When prayer becomes performance, who cares if we pay attention.  But is that how we should pray?

Rinker says that her relationship with God, and thus her practice of prayer, was revolutionized when she discovered that God desires us to talk with him as a friend.  If you read through Exodus, you see the example of Moses and God and how they talked.  It is amazing.  Real friendship.  Real conversation. And in fact in Exodus 33:11, we read “God talked with Moses face to face, as a man talks with his friend.”  You read through the Psalms, and you see David is like that too.  You watch the example of Jesus, and it is the same.  Real conversation in prayer.  Real emotion.  Truth.  Honesty. That’s how we should talk with God.

But what about rote prayers?  If we are supposed to talk with God as a friend, does that mean it is wrong to read or repeat prayers?   Hear me clearly: recited prayers, memorized or read, are not wrong.  In fact, I think they can be very helpful, and we probably need to use them a lot more than we do.

A resource like the Book of Common Prayer is excellent, and I would suggest you all use it, as least from time to time.  There are also numerous BCP apps for your smart phone.  You might look into other prayer books too, and there are many biblical prayers that are fantastic.  There is nothing wrong, for example, with saying the Lord’s Prayer every day, every worship service, as long as your heart is in it!

Along with that kind of written prayer, I believe that conversational, unprepared, ad lib prayer is also very important.   This is where Rosalind Rinker’s book is so helpful.  She has loads of excellent practical suggestions for how to have great conversations with God.

From time to time I hear the argument that says “Well, isn’t prayer unnecessary, because God already knows our thoughts and our needs and everything about us?”  God does know all that.  But that’s pretty one-sided isn’t it?  A real relationship involves equal give and take, both friends communicating as much as possible. How do you think God would feel if we never or rarely make an effort to talk with him?

Therefore, God desires us to be persistent and consistent in prayer.

David says in Psalm 5 that he prays in the morning and watches for God to answer.  I encourage you to read that this week.

Then there is the parable Jesus told in Luke 18 about the widow.  Another one to read this week.  Parables can sometimes be hard to understand, but Luke tells us exactly what Jesus was trying to accomplish in that parable. In Luke 18:1 he writes “Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”

You know what that means?  Prayer takes energy, investment, and commitment.  When I took prayer class in college, I heard a phrase that shocked me “prayer is hard work.”

It seems wrong to say “prayer is hard work”.  But anytime you do anything consistently and persistently, it can feel like hard work.  So let’s not fool ourselves by saying that prayer is supposed to be simple or carefree or effortless.  A healthy practice of prayer, like any healthy relationship will take work.

Here’s the beautiful thing, though.  Hard work can become heavenly.  How many of you have had the experience of learning to love and enjoy hard work?  Whether it is straight up physical labor, exercising, practicing a sport or maybe a musical instrument, you can grow to enjoy it.  Say you are on a sports team.  After you practice and practice, and after you put in the hard work, how many have found it to become delightful?

Jesus’ disciples once asked him “Teach us pray.”  Great question. That’s what this sermon is all about.  We want to learn How to Pray.  So, what should you actually do?  What will this hard work of prayer look like?  And will you work at it, practice it, till it becomes delightful to be in such regular, wonderful conversation with God?

Here are some practical suggestions:

  1. Plan to pray.  Carve out time.  It could mean cutting out something to make room for prayer.  I recently read an article where a guy made a commitment to wake up at 5am every day for a year.   Not necessarily to pray.  But it changed his life.  Would you wake up early to make time for prayer?  That might work for you.  Or would you cut out time on Facebook in order to have time to pray? In Matthew 6, right before he teaches the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus suggests that when we prayer, we get alone, be in secret, talk with God.  When I was a student at LBC, I used the private music listening booths in the library.
  2. Write down prayer requests.  Keep a journal.  I found a great free prayer app this week.  Prayer Mate.  It is available for both iPhones and Androids.
  3. Pray God’s word.  Write down this reference.  I preached it on Easter.  Ephesians 1:17-19.  Then the most famous prayer of all is the Lord’s Prayer.  Matthew 6:9-13.  Memorize it.  Use it both as a word-for-word prayer, but also as a model for prayer.  Take note of the elements that Jesus includes in the Lord’s Prayer.  Praise, Confessing sins, Requests, Thanksgiving.  Then go to the Psalms.  We need a steady diet of the Psalms.
  4. Just start talking.  Know that God loves you, that he is your friend.  And just start talking to him.  Tell him everything.  Have a conversation with him exactly like you do with your friends.  In a group setting, can I challenge you to take a risky step and pray out loud.  Even if it is just one sentence.

Learning to how to pray is not going to happen by reading a blog post or book about prayer.  If you want to learn how to pray, it all boils down to just starting.  Make a practical goal for yourself this week.

My personal goal is prayer walks through the church.  I need to get started.  When I walk through the various rooms and hallways of the church building, it reminds me to pray for various ministries, groups and people in our church family.  In the lobby, I see our Summer Lunch Club volunteer sign-up table.  That reminds me to pray for all the volunteers and participants in a wonderful outreach the helps families in need.  Down the hall, I walk past the nursery and I think about all the families in our congregation raising young children.  I pray for them during what is an emotionally and physically exhausting period of life.  Around the corner, I see the offices of The Door Christian Fellowship, an amazing congregation that rents space from Faith Church.  We’ve deeply appreciated our partnership with The Door, and I pray that God blesses them.  And on and on the prayer goes.

How about you?  What will you to work on prayer?

Here’s my one big action step I’d like you to consider.  Get a trainer.  Be a trainer.  Yup, just as you would get a trainer for your physical health, get a spiritual trainer to learn how to pray.  Jesus once said, “Where 2 or 3 are together, there am I with them.”  When you get together with people to pray, he is there.  What an outstanding promise!  So who will train you to pray?  Or, who will you train?

Then add Rosalind Rinker’s book to this.  Each of you get the book, and read one chapter per week.  Get together for an hour per week, and take 30 minutes to review the chapter, then take 30 minutes to pray.

Get started.  With expectancy.

With any habit, it can take a while for it to feel more comfortable. But that is the nature of anything you want to grow in.  Practice.  Practice. Practice.

You can see such a difference in people that practice.  Whether it is a musical instrument or athletics.  There is such a connection to the spiritual life.  We are not just spirits.  We are bodies too, so how we use our bodies affects our spirit.  That’s why we need to practice spiritually.

Remember God’s grace.  You don’t have to pray perfectly.  God doesn’t care about that.  Just start talking with him. Share your thoughts with him, and do it consistently.  It might feel awkward, but push through.  That’s what practice is like.  And watch your conversations with God grow and flourish.

Do you want to learn how to pray?

2 Jun

Image result for i don't know how to pray

Do you know how to pray?

Before we talk about that important question, let me back up a bit.  It took me a while to find this image. To be honest, it almost always takes longer than I want to find the right image for my posts, or for the PowerPoint slides I make to illustrate my sermons.  I use Google Image Search, and often the results returned are not quite what I’m looking for.  So I have to refine the search multiple times and scroll through row after row of images.  Sometimes the images help me think about my blog posts or sermons in a new way, and I decide to change the sermon.  But more often, I tire of not finding the right image.

This time, though, I had one phrase I was looking for: “I don’t know how to pray.”  I have heard people express that sentiment or something like it many times over the years.  That’s why my sermon this coming Sunday is called “How to Pray”.

All I wanted was one picture that said “I don’t know how to pray” or “How do I pray?”  As you can see the one I found is close.  Close enough for me.  I was surprised because I thought “How to Pray” would be a popular topic, and thus result in loads of images to choose from.

What was interesting, though, was that another result filled the page with images.  That other result was the question “What to Pray?”  It seems that people are talking about “What to Pray” rather than “How to Pray.”  Or at least people are posting more images about “What to Pray” than they are posting images about “How to Pray.”  The exception is that there were a few images referring to how to pray in specific circumstances.  I would suggest that “How to Pray (in a specific situation)” is just a variation of “What to Pray”.  So I didn’t want to use a picture that described, for example, “How to pray for your kids”.

I also didn’t want an image that referred to “What to Pray”; I wanted one about “How to Pray.”  If you learn how to pray, it will be much, much easier to determine what to pray.  Furthermore, I suspect that people, based on the input I have received from our Faith Church family, want to learn how to pray.

This morning I was talking with someone who mentioned prayer times before extended family meals. One older member of the family always does the praying.  They are not rote prayers.  But this person seems to be able to speak with eloquence in his prayers.  So that person always prays.

Is that the answer to “How to pray?”  Eloquence?  Do you have to be a good public speaker in order to pray?

Or what about those rote prayers?  I mentioned rote prayers above because that is another way people answer “How to pray?”  A rote prayer is a memorized prayer that is recited.  For example, The Lord’s Prayer which starts “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed by thy name…”  There are mealtime prayers, bedtime prayers, and so on.  Among the various religious traditions there are loads of rote prayers. Are rote prayers the answer to “How to pray?”  I would say “Yes.”  But only partially.  I love The Book of Common Prayer, as it helps us pray in many situations.  You can read and inhabit one of its meaningful prayers for a host of common life situations.  I believe we that we would do well to memorize and recite, or at least read, these pre-written prayers often.  But I also believe there is more to prayer.  Much more.

How about you?  Do you feel you have a good handle on prayer?  Are you wondering “How to Pray”?

At Faith Church on Sunday we begin a summer teaching series called Spiritual Exercises, and if you don’t have a church family, we invite you to join us at 9:00am.  For the next few months we’re going to be talking about the following habits/disciplines/exercises which are vital for helping us live eternal life now.  How to:  pray, read the Bible, fast (deny yourself), talk about God, worship, be humble, depend on God, serve, give, make disciples, have solitude, love God with your mind.

We start off tomorrow trying to answer the question: How to pray?

How the scariest Bible story helped us create our Faith Church Growth Process

22 May

Image result for scary bibleWhat do you think is the scariest, most haunting passage in the Bible?  Maybe something about demons or hell or something?  Could be.

For me it is Matthew 7:13-29, and especially verses 21-23 where Jesus says this:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

For me as a pastor, it haunts me.  Why?  Because there are people that assumed, and even were convinced, that they were in good standing with Jesus, that they were going to enter heaven.  But they are dead wrong.  He says to them, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.”

You know why that haunts me?  Those people were convinced they were good to go.  They were sure they were doing what Jesus wanted them to do.  They presented their evidence to Jesus.  In their minds, they were guaranteed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

But they were totally wrong.  Jesus says “Nope, all that stuff you think is important is not important.”  Jesus says, “Many will say to me on that day.”  We’re not talking about a small group.  We’re talking about “many.”  This relates to the previous part of the passage, verses 13-14 where Jesus says a large group of people are headed the wrong way.  Instead a small group finds the road that leads to life.

See how that could be freaky? This large group of people who are headed the wrong way are deceiving themselves by their evidence. Their so convinced the have the golden ticket to heaven, the people try to reply to Jesus that they should be allowed into heaven.  They even have evidence: “prophesying in his name, driving out demons in his name, and performing miracles.”  It seems convincing.  I can hardly imagine anyone, except a true disciple, doing these things.  In fact, I would say all those pieces of evidence seem to demonstrate the power of the Holy Spirit flowing through those people.

But there is a problem.  What do you notice about their evidence?  It’s all outward.  We look at them and on the outside they seem to be true followers.  But Jesus’ shocking response shows us that they are not.

Jesus’ response is what led to creating our new church logo. Take a look at the logo:

Each part of the logo symbolizes something.

There are four green squares, each representing a major focus of our church: Worship, Fellowship, Discipleship, and Outreach.  The third box from the left is a darker green, indicating it is a special focus. We call the line down the middle the Matthew 7 line.  Finally, the cut-out in the middle two boxes draws an imaginary horizontal line across the middle vertical line, thus giving us the image of the cross.

Every part of the logo tells a story, and it is all based in Jesus’ shocking response to the people in Matthew 7:23.

We call this story our Growth Process, and that is why the squares are colored green, symbolizing growth.  But it is not about growing the church numerically.  That might happen, of course, but our Growth is about how we grow as disciples of Jesus and how we reach out so that more people can become disciples of Jesus.

At the end of our recent teaching series through 1st Timothy we looked at a couple of statements Paul made about eternal life, what he called “the life that is truly life.”  Paul tells Timothy to take hold of eternal life now.  Eternal life is not just something that happens after we die.  It is that for sure.  But it is also now.  Followers of Jesus take hold of the life that is truly life.  That true life, or that eternal life now, is the life that Jesus said those people in Matthew 7 did not have.  Those people in Matthew 7 looked good on the outside doing their religious duties, but they were missing something inside. They had not taken hold of the life that is truly life, they were not living eternal life now.

Our Growth Process story explains how to take hold of eternal life now.  We don’t want anyone in our church family to stand before God one day and hear him say “Away from, I never knew you.”  Instead we want everyone to have a growing relationship with Jesus.

Let’s take a look at the first square, then.  This square represents Worship.  It is first because most people start their connection with our church family by attending Sunday morning worship services.  Not everyone starts there, and of course they don’t have to start there, but most do.

Considering what it means to be a true follower of Jesus, can we say that a person is a true follower of Jesus if attending worship services is pretty much the sum total of their expression of faith?

No.  Very much like the people in Matthew 7:21-23, they might look worshipful on the outside, but Jesus calls his followers to so much more.

So we ask everyone to evaluate themselves.  Are you in that first square?  Are you primarily just a Sunday morning Christian?  If so, that is a wonderful start, and because we do not want you to hear Jesus say “Away from me, I never knew you” we encourage you to add Fellowship to your worship.

I use the word “add” very purposefully.  When you move from square to square in the Growth Process, you are not leaving the previous square behind.  You are adding something.  That is key.

So if you have determined that you are primarily in the Worship square, we encourage you to add the Fellowship square.  Adding fellowship means going deeper, building relationships.  It might be joining one of our Sunday School classes.  It might be joining a small group.  It might be serving on a serve team.  It might be inviting people over for dinner, hanging out, etc.  It is anything that helps you build deep relationships with and care for others in the church family.

Again I ask you to evaluate yourself.  Would you say that your expression of faith in Jesus is in the Worship box, or maybe you have added Fellowship to Worship?

You know what though?  Attending worship services is important, and adding deep fellowship relationships to that is even better, but I’m convinced a person can do those things, and maybe even do them a lot, but still have primarily an outward appearance of faith.  That kind of person can still hear Jesus say “Away from me, I never knew you.”

That’s why the next part of our Growth Process story is the most important.  Crossing the Matthew 7 line.  We don’t want anyone to hear Jesus “Away from me, I never knew you.”  Instead we want everyone to experience his eternal life now, to hear him say “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into your rest.”  But how does that happen?

Jesus himself told us.  To cross over that Matthew 7 line, we need to learn to do what Jesus says in Matthew 7:21: those who enter the Kingdom of Heaven are the ones who do the will of his father in heaven.  What is the will of the father in Heaven?  Jesus would go on to tell his disciples precisely what he meant in Matthew 16:24, when he said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.”  That kind of full life commitment to Jesus means a person has had a deep inner change.  There are no hidden secrets, nothing held back.

He goes on in Matthew 16 to say “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”  We need to add discipleship to worship and fellowship.  The Discipleship box is a darker green color because it is the most important one.  Jesus later said to his disciples in Matthew 28:18-20 that he gave them a mission, a mission of making disciples all over the whole world, teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded.  That is what God desires for us: deep inward change, to be his disciples, giving our lives completely to him, and seeking to help others become Jesus’ disciples as well.

Now for the scary, but all-important question. Those people back in Matthew 7:21-23 assumed that they had crossed the Matthew 7 line, they assumed that they were true disciples, and they were wrong!  Those people looked at their outward expression of faith and assumed that was what God wanted. They were wrong. Is it possible that any of us might be wrong?

We would do well to assume that it is at least possible.  Therefore we have to talk about this.  Our Leadership Team cares so much about each and every person in our church family.  We don’t want anyone to assume that they are disciples of Jesus, only to be shocked one day to hear Jesus say, “Away from me, I never knew you.”  We leaders of the church would have utterly failed you if that happens.  That’s why we are placing so much weight on this discipleship square.  But there is one more square after that.

When a disciple of Jesus adds fellowship to worship, then crosses the Matthew 7 line, adding discipleship to worship and fellowship, something very obvious will happen. Go back to Matthew 7 and see verse 15.  That’s where Jesus talked about false prophets, comparing them to trees.  A bad tree cannot bear good fruit.  Only good trees can bear good fruit.  By your fruit you will know who is good or bad.  By your fruit you will know who has crossed over the Matthew 7 line into true discipleship.  True disciples will bear fruit.  Not raspberries or strawberries like in my garden, but the fruit of more people becoming disciples of Jesus.  That is why our logo has the final square.  A disciple is a worshipper, a fellowshipper, and finally a disciple reaches out.  It will be obvious.  Disciples make disciples.

And that is the story of our Growth Process.

That is the process that Jesus taught.  And that is the process that we want to see each and every one of you go through.

So how goes it with your soul?  Or, using the language of the Growth Process, what squares have you added to your life?  Have you crossed over the Matthew 7 line?  Are you a worshipper, a fellowshipper, a disciple, and reaching out?

How goes it with your soul? Our Leadership Team had a wonderful retreat last weekend, and we talked a lot about this Growth Process.  We feel the weight of leadership, and we feel convicted that our God-given role is to care for the spiritual growth of our entire church family.  To do that we are going to regularly start asking each of our church family a version of the question “How goes it with your soul?” because we care so much about everyone.  We don’t want anyone to hear Jesus say, “Away from me.”

So what will the Leadership Team do?  Each of them will be responsible to check in with people in the congregation.  They can not and will not try to force anything on anyone.

You could say in response that you don’t want to be involved in this.  We will honor that. But we encourage you to give yourself to this kind of important accountability.  I know “accountability” can sound like a scary word.  Maybe it sounds harsh.  I guarantee you that our leaders are not interested in being harsh or forcing anything on anyone. There was a unanimous agreement among our leaders that they simply want to care for each of you.

Also let me clarify something specific.  The leader is not there to be your mentor.  That kind of discipling/mentor relationship might happen between a leader and a person in the congregation, but that is not the purpose of the Growth Process.  Instead, the purpose is to have the leadership team intentionally supporting and encouraging people to be moving along the growth process.  If you agree together that you need a discipleship mentor, more than likely the Leadership Team member will direct you to another person in the congregation who can be that mentor for you, who can encourage your spiritual growth,

How many of you would want to be encouraged like that?

So we want everyone in our church family to begin a self-evaluation.  Where are you on the Growth Process?  Are you in the worship block?  Have you added the fellowship block?  Be very honest as you evaluate yourself.

Do that eval so that when the Leadership team contacts you, you’ll be ready to discuss this further.  Your self-eval will facilitate the conversation.  Remember that this will be confidential.

When you are in conversation with the Leadership Team, you may say to them that you want to move forward in the Growth Process, but you don’t know how to add the next block?  You might not know how to move from Worship to Fellowship.  You might not know how to cross the Matthew 7 line.  And that is where our Leadership Teams and Serve Teams are working hard to give you resources to help you.  For example, when you are conversing with the Leadership Team member, you might say that you are not sure you have crossed over into the Discipleship square, but you want to.  You want to be a true follower of Jesus.  That Leadership team member will be able to give you practical suggestions for next steps to take.  It might be getting you teamed up with a discipleship mentor.

We encourage you to take time to evaluate yourself, to take this Growth Process story in prayer to the Lord.  Ask him to give you wisdom and clarity about where you are on the process. Ask him to give you wisdom about how to move forward, growing as a disciple of Jesus.

If you have any questions, please contact anyone on the Leadership Team.

How goes it with your soul?

19 May

“How goes it with your soul?”

Anyone ever ask you that?  Probably not.  It kinda has an Old English sound to it, doesn’t it?  We don’t talk like that.  But maybe we should.

That question “How goes it with your soul?” used to be a standard question in our church circles long ago.

An Anglican priest in the 1700s became frustrated with the lack of piety in the church.  Piety is also a word we don’t use much, but it is a good one.  Piety refers to a practice of religion, but usually not a dead or empty religion.  Pious religion flows from a heart and mind that is joyful about loving and serving God.  This Anglican priest in England in the 1700s felt that pious expression of discipleship to Jesus was missing in the church of England.  His name?  John Wesley.  Wesley went on to have an encounter with God.  He referred to that encounter as a time when his heart was strangely warmed.  It changed everything for him.  Wesley went on to lead a movement within the Church of England called Methodism.

He never set out to start a new denomination, and in fact he never removed his credentials from the Church of England, but eventually his new group of churches became the Methodist church.  It was called Methodist because Wesley created methods for following Jesus.  These methods or habits or activities were designed to help people have a pious heart toward God, a true discipleship to Jesus.

One of these methods was the class meeting.  A class meeting was basically a house church, a small group of people.  Circuit-riding preachers, also called itinerant preachers (itinerant just means “someone who travels from place to place”) would ride on horseback traveling from class meeting to class meeting.  Each class meeting had a volunteer leader who would essentially pastor the small congregation, because in many cases the itinerant preacher couldn’t be there every week.  That lay leader was called a Class Leader, and they had a famous question they would ask each person.

“How goes it with your soul?”  It was an accountability question.  The heart behind Wesley’s question was care and concern for all.  The class leader cared for the people in his house church and wanted them to maintain a heart and mind and soul that was truly following and loving the Lord.  You know what happened?  That simple accountability and follow-up helped people grow as disciples of Jesus.

Do any of you feel that you could benefit from someone asking you this question on a regular basis?

When I was in college there was a guy who, almost anytime you saw him, would ask you “How are things going between you and God?”  That’s basically the same question.

If you’re tempted to follow a religion free of accountability, perhaps you’ll consider spending some time with Faith Church Sunday morning, May 21, 10am at East Lampeter Community Park.  We’re have worship in the park, and we’re going to talk a lot more about Wesley’s important question: “How goes it with your soul?”