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The Choice

Sunday, February 02, 2020

“Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

(Joshua 24:14-15)

God gave humanity something he didn’t give the rest of his creation: the dignity of moral choice. When we make decisions that go beyond mere animalistic survival, decisions based on principle, we reflect God’s image and glorify him in a unique way. God designed all of creation with an instinctual and irresistible impulse to “fulfill his word” (Psa. 148). Birds sing. Stars shine. Flowers bloom. They do what they are created to do. But God desires humans to choose to fulfill their purpose. Obeying a natural compulsion is one thing but weighing a decision and choosing obedience is a deeper and more profound action. It’s an action of love and it’s what we’re made for (Deut. 6:5).

After reading the Law to Israel before entering Canaan, Moses prophesied that future generations would fail to keep their promises to God. But after the curses of disobedience fell upon them, they would return and God would restore them (Deut. 30:1-14). In the shadow of this prophecy, Moses put the choice before his own generation between “life and good, death and evil” (Deut. 30:15). After conquering the land, Moses’ successor, Joshua, put the same choice before Israel (Josh. 24:14-15).

But this choice is not exclusive to the Jews. Today, the same choice is put before all people in the form of the good news of Jesus (Acts 17:30-31). There are three facets to our choice:

This is a personal choice. “Choose for yourselves…” Joshua said. In other words, no one else can make this choice for you. Even though Joshua decided how he was going to lead his family, he couldn’t force his wife and children to obey the Lord. All he could do was give them the best opportunity to choose for themselves (Eph. 5:25; 6:4). We are all personally accountable to God for our response to the gospel.

The is a daily choice. “Choose for yourselves today…” Though we may grow in our understanding on either side of that choice, there is a critical moment in which we make our determination to obey the Lord known. For ancient Israel, it was crossing the Red Sea or the Jordan River. For us, it means crossing over from death into the life of Jesus through baptism. We signify that death by being buried in a figurative grave of water and rising out of the water as Jesus rose from the tomb to “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:1ff; Col. 2:12; Acts 22:16). Our new way of life must continue to reflect that choice everyday. Joshua could have said, “Choose for yourselves today and everyday afterward whom you will serve.”

This is a choice of loyalty. In the words of the recently deceased Neil Peart, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” We all serve a master (Rom. 6:16-20) and we prove to be in the grip of the evil one either by putting off this choice for the future (Acts 24:25) or by believing we are our own master (Jn. 8:34; 2 Pet. 2:19). The truth of Jesus sets us free from this self-deception (Jn. 8:31-36) as we voluntarily come under his liberating and loving rule (Mt. 11:28-30).

Though this choice to serve the Lord, whether in the words of Moses and Joshua in the Old Testament or in the words of Jesus in the New, may sound like an ultimatum (“Serve God or else!”) it is much more of an appeal of grace. While it is true we will be held accountable for our choice it is still a choice nonetheless. The amazing thing is not that God would send those who have already rejected him away but that sinners could have the choice to live with him at all. God loves us and desires us to live (2 Pet. 3:9) but the choice is ours.

Making Space

Sunday, January 26, 2020

“Make room in your hearts for us…”

(2 Corinthians 7:2)

Have you ever been searching for a parking spot in a busy lot? You drive around in circles like a hunter stalking its prey. Then, that magical moment when you see a person walking to their car, keys in hand, “That spot is MINE!” you say to yourself. You position your car to make your claim on the spot clear to all in proximity. They open the door. They enter the car. They fasten their seatbelt. Their tail lights light up and the exhaust gases begin to putter. You wait for what seems like a reasonable amount of time for them to back out of the space so you can claim your prize… but they just sit there!

A study conducted with hundreds of drivers proved we actually take longer to leave a parking space if we know someone is waiting. The study also showed evidence that if the waiting car honks their horn or signals their rush in some way, drivers made them wait four times longer! Experts call this phenomenon “territorialism” and it can be witnessed in any crowded space: at the DMV, the doctor’s office, in traffic, in conversation, and at restaurants. The longer the line or bigger the crowd, the longer we linger when it’s ‘our turn.’

It is easy to become selfishly territorial and refuse to make space for others in these situations but nowhere is this mentality more dangerous than in our relationship with God. Our lives are filled with so many interests, pursuits, and obligations that we sometimes struggle to find space for the stuff that matters.

Try to imagine your life as a house and the things in that house represent all the stuff you’ve said “Yes” to. The house can only hold so much. What would it look like? Would you have to navigate through rooms of junk like a minefield? Would you see tilting stacks of papers like miniature skyscrapers? Would debris be scattered on every surface so that there is no place to sit on the couch or to eat at the kitchen table? Perhaps you’ve said “Yes” to so many unnecessary things that there is no room in your life for the really important things. How can we know when our life is overcrowded? Try asking yourself the following questions:

  • When you think of introducing any additional spiritual activity into your schedule, like trying to come to more of the worship services, or spending more time in prayer and personal study, does it feel like adding to an already crushing burden?
  • When you think of trying to be more hospitable or making more of an effort to get to know others, does it seem impossible to have the time and energy to make such investments?

We often think being busy is an inherently good thing. But what matters is what we’re busy with. An overcrowded life will actually pervert our priorities and values and turn spiritual pursuits into obligatory checklists. (Hag. 1:2-6; Amos 8:5) If you feel spiritually drained or just overloaded, God can help. Jesus lived the fullest, freest life possible (Col. 2:9) and he did so in part by using one special word very carefully: “No.” (Lk. 4:1-13)

It’s okay to say “No” to things, especially if they might damage or comprise you in some way. “No” is a powerful word in Scripture. Joseph was an expert on saying “No” (Gen. 39:8, 12) as were Daniel and his three friends in Babylon (Dan. 1:8; 3:18; 6:13).

When Nehemiah was helping to rebuild the walls and gates of Jerusalem the enemies of God tried to pull him away from his important work. He told them, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” (Neh. 6:3-4)

If we wield this one powerful, liberating word according to God’s wisdom, “No” can become the scalpel God uses to reshape our life. In fact, the more we say “Yes” to God and “No” to anything that pushes us away from him, the larger the capacity of our life grows until we are “filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:19)

Our God Is Near

Sunday, January 19, 2020

“We give thanks to you, O God; we give thanks, for your name is near. We recount your wondrous deeds.”

(Psalm 75:1)

Psalm 75 is a prayer celebrating the joy found in recounting God’s great reversals, when God “puts down one and lifts up another” (Psa. 75:7). Our God is one who turns the tables (Lk. 16:19-31), who exalts the humble and humbles the proud (Jas. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5; cf. Obad. 1:3-4), who has the power to shake up the status quo (cf. 1 Sam. 2; Lk. 1:46-55).

Our grateful praise springs from remembering and recounting those  times (cf. Psa. 78:4). In fact, Israel was to re-tell the story of God’s deliverance publicly every seven years (Deut. 31:10-13) on top of observing their monthly and annual feast and their daily routine of teaching the story to their children (Deut. 6:4-9).

Keeping the story fresh in the minds of God’s people still remains an integral part of our worship today. We are to take the Lord’s Supper every week to recount God’s wondrous deeds because when God’s story of redemption is retold, his “name is near” (Psa. 75:1). But what is meant by God’s “name” and how is it “near”?

God’s “name” stands for all he is. When God disclosed himself on Mount Sinai he gave his name: “YHWH, YWWH, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” (Ex. 34:6-7, cf. v.14)

God’s “name” is also an invitation to call upon him. Peter quoted from the prophet Joel, saying, “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Acts 2:21; 22:16; Rom. 10:13)

God’s name is brought “near” in all his actions. At no time was his name more clearly expressed than in the appearance of his Son. Jesus prayed to the Father, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world…” (Jn. 17:6) “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known.” (Jn. 17:26) When Jesus left heaven to dwell among us (Jn. 1:14), the unseen Father was “made known” to us in a way he never has before (Jn. 1:18; Heb. 1:3).

The clearest revelation of God’s “name” (his power, character, grace, glory, etc.) was manifested in his most “wondrous deed” of all, that ultimate act of self-sacrificial love, the death of Jesus on the cross. God is nearest to us, “with us” and even “in us,” in the person of Jesus (Mt. 1:23; Jn. 14:17).

But practically speaking, what does all this mean? How can we have access to the power of that name? God is closer than we think (Acts 17:27). The psalms  sing about the nearness of God.

He is near to all who call on him in truth. 

“The LORD is near to all who call on him,

    to all who call on him in truth.” (Psa. 145:18)

He is near to the brokenhearted and crushed in spirit.

“The LORD is near to the brokenhearted

    and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psa. 34:18)

He is near to all those who fear him.

  “Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him,

      that glory may dwell in our land.” (Psa. 85:9)

When something is “near,” it is close in distance, not far away. To be “near,” is to be close in relation, available. When someone is “near,” they are close in involvement, not idle. God’s nearness, in all its aspects, is found in Jesus today.

When you are hurting, discouraged, and weak you may feel like God is distant, aloof, and idle. But God sent his Son to walk through the valley of the shadow of death with you so that he could understand your suffering, share in it, and give you hope to overcome it (1 Pet. 2:21; Heb. 2:17-18; 4:14-16). Jesus is the Father’s final, ultimate revelation to us that his name is near.

Feeling Left Out?

Sunday, January 12, 2020

“…we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

(Ephesians 4:15-16)

Though it’s clear in many Scriptures like the one above (not least of which, 1 Corinthians 12) that every Christian has an integral part to play in the church, many still feel left out. We know that, in Christ, God has joined us together through faith and that these feelings of exclusion are out of step with the fellowship we share in the faith. So what are we to do if we still feel like we don’t belong? The answer Scripture gives is to take initiative and act.

If you feel left out, ask yourself the following questions:

When it is announced that someone is sick,

  • Do you: Send them a card, a text, an email, a phone call? Offer to help in some way? Go and visit them?
  • Or do you: Pay no attention? Forget them as soon as they are mentioned? Not even know the person being mentioned?

When you think we don’t get together enough,

  • Do you: Invite Christians into your home? Plan and carry out activities for other Christians?
  • Or do you: Wait for someone else to do something about it?Complain that no one is doing anything about it?

When a person becomes a Christian,

  • Do you: Invite them over to get to know them better? Organize a study to encourage them? Pray for them?
  • Or do you: Wait for someone else to do these things? Complain when the new convert shows signs of weakness?

When the church doesn’t seem friendly,

  • Do you: Go out of your way to greet guests warmly? Greet members you don’t normally talk to? Make efforts to get to know members you are not close with?
  • Or do you: Wait for others to do something about this unfriendly spirit? Complain no one is friendly to you?

When Bible classes seem dull & unimportant,

  • Do you: Make sure you are attending each class? Come prepared to make discussion and ask questions? Dig into the lesson to make the most of it?
  • Or do you: Not show up for class? Come to class but never contribute with questions or comments? Complain that the class is uninteresting and not challenging?

When a member misses the assembly,

  • Do you: Find out what is going on? Check up on him regularly? Make sure he has a ride to the assembly?
  • Or do you: Complain about his weak faith? Gossip about him to others? Not even notice he is missing?

If you feel left out, perhaps the first thing you should do is look inward instead of outward (2 Cor. 13:5; Mt. 7:1ff). Waiting for someone else to do something about it only perpetuates the problem; complaining behind closed doors or bickering to others only makes things worse. If you notice things are not the way they should be, take initiative and be the agent of change.

If you feel left out, get to work and you will quickly find your place. Souls need saving, classes need teaching, events need planning, the sick need visiting, saints need encouraging, prayers need leading, hearts need comforting. There is work to be done and we all have our role. We each find our place when our faith is working together through love (Gal. 5:6).

Taking Criticism

Sunday, January 05, 2020

“The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence. The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor.”

(Proverbs 15:31-33)

I dreaded critiques but they were unavoidable. In upper level painting class a project wasn’t finished until it had been raked over the coals of public scrutiny. We often think of critique as being negative but to critique something simply means to evaluate it. The goal of critique is to point out the good, the bad, and, in the case of many of my paintings, the ugly, so as to improve upon it. But it always seemed like a raw deal to me.

After spending forty-plus hours on a painting we were forced to endure an entire class period of round robin nit-picking, pretentious displays of knowledge, and worse, vague and unthoughtful comments such as “I like the color,” “It makes me feel sad,” “I wish it was bigger.” Oh, and don’t get me started on the endless search for subtext! “What is the significance of the green dress?” Significance? The model just happened to be wearing a green dress when she showed up that day!

These are the thoughts of College Jerome: impatient, puffed-up, and generally not interested in what you have to say. Even if there was a worthwhile critique, I wasn’t apt to hear it let alone allow it to shape me as a painter. Why, you ask? Because I was young and foolish. Now, all young people are not fools in the same way that all old people are not wise, but I certainly was a young fool.

Surely then, you think, Christian Jerome does better with criticism. Well, on a good day when I’m focused on the right things, yes. But old habits die hard. That’s no excuse but it’s the truth. At the very least, I’ve learned the value of critique. When it comes from a place of love, (hey, even if it doesn’t!) reproof is “life-giving” and makes wise the simple. We ignore it to our peril and we die as fools without it.

Of course, this is not just about critiquing the art of painting but, rather, the art of living which counts a great deal more. Receiving criticism requires humility. You would be hard pressed to find a quality emphasized more in the Bible than humility. Only the poor in spirit will inherit the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:3). If you’re full of yourself, there’s no room for anything else. If you’re self-righteous, you’ll never grow (Mt. 5:6). If humility is the precursor to grace, and it is (1 Pet. 5:5), how can we respond humbly to criticism? Here are some things I try to keep in mind when being criticized:

  1. Be slow to speak & quick to hear (Jas. 1:19)
  2. Be slow to anger (Jas. 1:19-20)
  3. Do not retaliate (1 Pet. 2:23; Prov. 24:29)
  4. Resist the urge to defend yourself
  5. Evaluate yourself in light of the critique (2 Cor. 13:5)
  6. Respond gently (Prov. 15:1)
  7. Consider the source

Don’t rush to that last one. We need to weigh the critique before we weigh the one giving it. Even if the critique is designed to injure or is given tactlessly, there may be some truth to it. We know that people, even (especially?) religious people, can judge others hypocritically (Mt. 7:1-5). Just remember, life follows repentance, repentance follows conviction, conviction follows knowledge of sin, and we don’t always see our own faults.

A true friend tells you when your fly is down, when your hair is sticking up, or when you have mustard on your chin. A true friend pulls you aside and tells you “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). A true friend calls you out when you’re out of line (Gal. 2:11; 2 Sam. 12:7). Humble critique is an act of sacrificial love that limits the reach of evil (1 Pet. 4:8). Receiving criticism is an important part of our Christian walk. We must have both the grace to take it and the love to give it.

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