How to Increase Your Love of God and People

You’ve seen art lovers. They go to museums on their time off. They buy paintings for their home and office.

You’ve seen sports lovers. They watch every college game on the weekend. They buy racquets and equipment and hit the courts three nights a week. They play hoops with other aging bodies even when it hurts.

You’ve seen food lovers. They take cooking classes. They purchase the best utensils for their kitchen. The art lover sees their presentation which resembles a masterpiece and asks to buy it for their home or office.

You know the principle even if you have never stated it: you are what you love. Each one of us becomes something that we love. And we are first what we want.

So says James Smith in his book, You are What You Love. Makes sense, doesn’t it? People know Jay Leno loves cars because Jay Leno owns around 286 vehicles. And people know you by what you love. And they know what you love because you have ordered your life around what you want.

That’s why Jesus asks the disciples who are following him, “What do you want?” He doesn’t ask “What do you believe?” or “What do you know?” Jesus wants to know “What do you want?” This is an important question—maybe “the” question—because as Smith writes, “You are what you love because you live toward what you want.”

The problem we face is that in following Jesus we often find we have wanted something other than him first. And so we have lived towards those things that occupy a higher place in our lives. We need our wants to be transformed.

It’s possible. One way we try to do this is by learning. We study. We attend Bible class, worship and hear sermons, we take online studies and read the Bible more and read more books. There’s nothing wrong with learning. At its basic definition a “learner” is what a “disciple” is: someone who learns to live the life Jesus would live if he were in our shoes.

What we often miss in our era is we think learning has to do with only the brain. So we try to cram more knowledge in it. And then we learn that Jesus says the greatest commandment is to “love” and we realize we have not become good at loving.

Biblical learning goes past head knowledge alone. Knowledge has a sidekick named Behavior. Classically, behavior can be formed in two ways. The first is imitation. Our culture values originality but the Bible values imitation. Jesus said “follow me.” Paul said, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”

Want to learn to love? Find people who love God well and love people well and spend time with them. Watch them. Ask questions. Invite input. Imitate them as they imitate God.

Then practice. Move what you are learning to your behavior. We listen to a virtuoso violinist and we marvel at how fluidly and flawlessly she plays. But what we don’t see is that because she loves the sound a violin makes she has spent hours and hours practicing. The Apostle Paul says our practice takes place in Christian worship. It happens when the church assembles for worship of God. And it happens when the church assembled dismisses into the world.

Jesus asked those disciples “What do you want?” They didn’t really know so they followed him. And what they saw they imitated. What Jesus did they practiced. Things they thought they wanted most they learned they needed least. What they wanted most was God. And so they learned to love him first.

This year may you love God first. Imitate God lovers you can find. Practice.

Before long people will look at you and say “That person is a God lover.”

Question: How well are you known as a “God Lover?” Who will you imitate and how will you practice this year?

Make 2017 Your Year of Transformation

When my boys were young they loved to watch The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. I’d watch it with them because I loved it…I mean…I wanted to be a good dad and spend quality time with them.

We watched each episode with anticipation because we knew the script. At some point these ordinary teenagers would be faced with an enemy. They would speak the words, “It’s morphin’ time!” and immediately transform into martial arts super heroes. We’d say the words along with them. But, other than in our imaginations, we did not change.

Wouldn’t it be nice if transformation were that easy? But you know as well as I from experience it seldom is. And yet, transformation is the crucial issue in your spiritual life today. We are to take it seriously because the New Testament writers took it seriously.

Paul uses the word “morphoo” in his writing. For example, Paul urges “…be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  Paul tells the churches of Galatia that he is in the pains of childbirth until “Christ is formed in you.”  He tells the Corinthian church that we are being “transformed” from one degree of glory to the next.  The word there is metamorphoo, from which we get our word metamorphosis.

When a person is following in the way of Jesus, transformation is expected to happen. John Ortberg has written in his book The Life You’ve Always Wanted that when we follow Jesus but don’t change, two bad things can happen. One thing that can happen is that we just give up on change. A person settles for the idea that they have done the minimal requirement necessary for “getting into heaven” but has given up on the hope of “heaven getting into them.”

The second thing that can happen is a person settles for pseudo-transformation. This occurs when a person or group focuses on external markers to give them some assurance they are different than those who are not following Jesus. James Dunn talks about these boundary markers in his commentary on Romans where he says that the rabbinical writings of the day talked a lot about circumcision, the Sabbath, and dietary laws. He says that if you were to ask a rabbi in the first century what the core of the Law was, they would quickly recite the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

Why then did they focus in their writings on circumcision, the Sabbath, and dietary laws? The answer is these were external boundary markers for who was in and who was out. It still happens today. Christians are often known for what they “don’t” do. Those are boundary markers. Even churches have them: “Spirit-filled, non-denominational, contemporary music vs. traditional music, a real discipling church, a real Bible-based church.” It happens whether we realize it or not. Those are boundary markers.  All groups have them.

But Jesus came along and had a different way of identifying.  “Love God.  Love people,” he said.  Paul said the same thing: “I might have a lot of boundary markers.  But if I don’t have love, I’m nothing.”  John agreed.  “Whoever loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God.”

If you go back and look at the conflicts Jesus had with the religious leaders, they mostly had to do with circumcision, dietary laws, or the Sabbath.  The Pharisees were concerned about the boundary markers.  But for Jesus the key question was their orientation. Were they moving in the direction of loving God and loving people?  That’s why he scandalized people by saying the tax collectors and prostitutes were in the kingdom ahead of the religious leaders.  His boundary marker was the heart, and it was a transformed heart.

Want real transformation this year? Then Paul says we need to go into training like athletes (1 Corinthians 9:24) because there is a huge difference between “trying” and “training.” If I “tried” to run a marathon tomorrow, I might make a few miles before having to stop. But if I “trained” for a marathon, there’s a good chance I would see the finish line.

Start training today. Find a spiritual gym, a church, who can help you train both spiritually and emotionally towards maturity. And see if by the end of the year you have moved further in the direction of loving God and people.

Go ahead and say it. I know you want to. “It’s morphin’ time!”

Question: What training do you need to begin to be the person you want to be?

Your Best Year Yet

We’re already into the New Year. Four days have already been marked off. And if you’re not careful you’ll be staring 2018 in the eyes and wonder, “What happened?”

Our years have a way of passing quickly. And the older one gets the faster they seem to fly by. That’s because we have more time that we have experienced. So one year to an 80-year-old seems shorter than a year does to a 5-year-old. (Remember how summers seemed to last forever when you were in elementary school but by high school it felt like you just got started and then it was time to hit the books again? Yeah, I thought you’d agree.)

So before this year takes control of you why don’t you take control of it? Here are a few steps that can make this your best year yet.

Decide what you want to say “yes” to. One of the regrets people have is what they did not do or people they did not spend enough time with or things they did not experience. In many instances the reason is they never decided they would give themselves permission to say “yes” to those things.

So right now take some time to answer the question: What do you want to say “yes” to this year? You may want to think in three basic categories I plan around each year:

  • Family. At the end of my life I cannot imagine ever thinking I had spent too much time with family. It seems with life demands there is never enough time. But if we plan to say “yes” to family we will plan time for family. Maybe it’s a bi-weekly date night with your spouse. Or a monthly outing with each of your children, separately, just to let them know they have your undivided attention. It may be planning trips to see extended family.
  • Faith. Faith is critical to my life, so each year I want to say “yes” to the things that will nurture and build my faith. Things like Bible reading and study, gathering with others for worship, investing myself in a few with whom we can mutually encourage each other. This takes time. But if you believe the benefits are eternal as I do, you’ll want to prioritize these things over other things that may be short lived.
  • Fitness. In order to give my best in any of the things I say “yes” to I know I need to do my best at staying fit. So I say “yes” to exercise and eating well. Moderation in everything is important. A doctor friend of ours from years back would say “the body is designed to handle just about anything you put into it, as long as you don’t put too much.” Mental fitness is part of the goal too, so how will you improve there this year? Are there books to read? Courses to take? Webinars to join? You have time to improve your fitness this year. You just have to say “yes” to it.

Once you have your “yes” list in hand you then need to decide what and/or who to say “no” to. You have time wasters in your life and you probably know what they are: television, gaming, social media, surfing the web. Feel free to add to the list. At the end of the day do these add quality to your life? Maybe some. But definitely not at the expense of the “yes’s” you just listed. You have to say “no” to these and keep them in balance.

There are people you may have to say “no” to also. If your boundaries are shaky you will let other people suck up your time. You will allow them to get you involved in things that keep you from your “yes” list. You will allow them to pull you into their problems. And before you know it a year has gone by and you have not said “yes” to many things you intended to.

Understand, your “yes” list is not an excuse to never help someone else. But it is your guide to knowing what to say “yes” and what to say “no” to.

Then calendar your “yes” list. Look at who you will spend time with and what you will spend time doing. Mark out most of this on your calendar for the year. If you said “yes” to bi-weekly dates with your spouse go ahead right now and put them on the calendar. For the most part stick to it. Then when someone asks you to join them for another event you can honestly say, “Thank you, but I already have a commitment on that date.” Your spouse will thank you for it. (Unless they were offering you tickets to go with them to a U2 concert. Then you say, “I think I can rearrange my schedule to make that work!”)

If you don’t fill your calendar, someone else or something else will.

And lastly, do your best when you are at your best.  For many people that best time is in the morning. Some studies indicate that morning people accomplish more (if you are a night owl don’t yell at me…I’m probably in bed so I can get up early). You can read some findings here. But at least in my personal experience I have found I accomplish more earlier in the day than later.

Whenever you are most productive, that’s when you need to produce. Do your best when you are at your best.

Get started with these steps and you can have your best year yet.

Question: How will you make this year your best year yet?

The Sign Will Lead You to Your Christmas Gift

Finding Christmas presents makes the giving fun. And giving clues as to where to find presents is even more fun. We’ve done that with our kids. Maybe you have with yours. You give them clues that lead to more clues which finally leads to the gift. It might go something like this:

  1. Rudolph is Santa’s #1 flyer. Your first clue is by the washer and (dryer).
  2. Santa’s suit is a very bright red. Now go look where at night you lay your (head).
  3. Santa’s lived long, he’s very old. Your next clue is where the food is kept (cold).
  4. To be on Santa’s nice list you can’t be a grouch. Now look under the living room (couch).
  5. The air in the house can get kind of stale. Get outside for the next clue and check the (mail).

On and on it could go until the last clue says: “You’re tired of looking. It’s almost done. Look under the tree and unwrap for some fun!

I admit. There would be something a little Grinchy about sending kids all around the house inside and out and then bringing them right back to the tree. But no matter how you go about it, the clues do what they are supposed to do. They lead them right to the gift they most want.

The best Giver gave his best gift the same way. There were shepherds out in the fields, watching their flock at night. The angel came to them and told them, “…this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

There is some evidence that there were shepherds around Bethlehem who were priestly shepherds. Some think they were tasked with spotting unspotted lambs for the Temple sacrifices. And some believe they would wrap them in bands to keep them from hurting themselves right after birth and then lay them in a crevice in the rocks called a manger until they were calmed.

We don’t know if all of this is true. The evidence is unclear. But we do know that according to the Torah two lambs were required every day for the daily sacrifice in the Temple. That’s 730 lambs each year and thousands more for other feasts and festivals. Bethlehem was known for sacrificial lambs.

Every day. Every month. Every year. Shepherds watched as these innocent, blameless lambs were offered for sin. They had time to reflect. They knew it was for their sin too. You see, they weren’t even allowed to the Temple to worship because their livelihood made them unclean.

And your livelihood makes you unclean too. No, not your 9-5 job. But the living you do every day. The way you speak to others. Your behavior. The way you go about your relationships.

Preachers aren’t immune. One holiday season I was heading home after a long day. I was almost home a little early one Friday afternoon. I was driving by a school and, out of habit, driving 20 mph due to the school zone even though school was already out for the holiday.

Suddenly the truck behind me sped up, moved over to the other lane, and passed me. I threw my hand up in the air and waved it around pointing my index finger at him thinking “Are you crazy! What kind of idiot are you?!” Then I saw him looking in his rear view mirror. Then I noticed my hand. I thought, “From his vantage point it probably doesn’t look like I’m giving him a neighborly wave. It probably looks like I’m waving one finger at him. Not the index finger.”

I didn’t feel too good about this. I felt worse when he turned into my subdivision. I slowed down a bit so he could get to his street before I got to mine. But then he turned onto my street. And then he turned into the driveway across the street from our house. I had gestured angrily at my neighbor! I waited down the street until he went inside his house. If he ever knew it was me he never said anything. But I didn’t like what was in me.

You and I need what the shepherds needed: a sign that leads to the Savior. “… wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” I’d like the story of the priestly shepherds to be accurate. It would make this sign have added significance if they in fact wrapped lambs in bands of cloth and laid them in a place called a manger.

I’d like that to be true, but we don’t need it to be true. The shepherds found exactly what they were supposed to find. Earlier Luke told us “…[Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them…”

Later, Luke will strike the same cadence when he writes of the crucified Savior: “Then [Simon] took [the body] down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid.”

This baby we celebrate at Christmas is our Savior. The shepherds needed one. I need one. And so do you. And that is the gift God gave you. A Savior. God gave you a sign: a baby wrapped in rags and lying in a manger.

May you find him this Christmas.

 

Even Angels Get Excited at Christmas

What is it that gets you excited about Christmas? Young children opening presents? Giving presents? Getting presents? (It’s OK to admit it.) The family reunion at grandma’s house? The travel? (You’re in a special class if this gets you excited.)

It didn’t take much to get me excited when I was a kid. It always started for me when the Sears Wish Book would show up. Some of you will remember those. It was the Google search engine of the day for kids who wanted to find just the right toy for Christmas.

I was a child of the 60’s and I lived for comic books: Superman, Batman, Spiderman. When I was six-years-old Ideal Toy Company put out its answer to the G.I. Joe action figure: Captain Action. He was great on his own but you could also get costumes to make him into all the other superheroes. I had to have it. So I circled it in the book. I wrote Santa.

And then I waited. I imagined waking up Christmas morning and finding Captain Action under the tree. Together he and I would save the world. And if the imaginary situation called for it, I could put him in his Batman costume and the Dark Knight would bring light to the dark nights in Memphis, Texas.

All the days leading up to Christmas Day you thought about what it would be like to have this toy. Going to bed on Christmas Eve was torturous. You’d try sleeping on your back, then one side, then the other. And you knew if you didn’t go to sleep Santa would not come. Sneaking some Eggnog helped.

It didn’t take much to get excited about Christmas when we were young, did it? But something happens as we get older. The problem is your world has changed. Demands of work. Long lines. Deadlines. Receding hair lines. Expanding waistlines. Bills to be paid. Once we have some money smaller gifts aren’t such a big deal, are they? You can go out and buy those yourself. And when you have pretty much all your basic needs in our First World living, what would ever cause you to get excited?

Imagine not only having your basic needs but having everything you could possibly need. The angels did. And yet they got excited about the birth of Christ. Angels are everywhere in the story of Jesus’ birth. Joseph encountered angels three times. Zechariah once. Mary once. Shepherds once.

Actually twice. The first angel announced the birth of “…a Savior, Christ the Lord.” Then the sky exploded with “a multitude of the heavenly host.” What got angels excited about the birth of Jesus?

The prevailing idea of angels in the first century was that they were like a tired, beleaguered army. Their mission to help watch the earth was frustrated by Satan and his minions. Mankind was helpless to help itself. The angels needed reinforcement.

And reinforcement came in the form of a child born in a manger. When God sent help he did not send another angel. He sent the Lord of all angels. The Lord of all.

That’s what got the angels excited. When Luke describes the multitude of them as the “heavenly host,” the word for “host” means “army, troops.” The angels are ready for battle. Their leader had come to save.

War leaves causalities in its wake. You may be one of them. Someone did something to you. Said something to you. You’ve done things and said things you regret that have shaped your life. The world is harsh. And you too are tired and beleaguered. You’re tired of fighting alone.

You don’t have to any longer. “For unto you … has been born a Savior. Christ the Lord.” The Lord of all has come to you and you need only come to him.  And so, when a Savior was born…that was all the Christmas the angels needed. And it’s all the Christmas you need too.

I woke up that Christmas morning and Captain Action had come. In my imagination he and I saved the world.  In my adulthood Christ has come and saved my world. He can save yours too. Because of Bethlehem you have a Savior. Christ the Lord.

That’s something to get excited about.

Question: What gets you excited about the real story of Christmas?

A Christmas Invitation You Won’t Want to Ignore

John and Bonnie invited us to our first event of the holiday season. Along with a handful of others we were included in a group we did not know to join them at their house.

I plugged their address into my Google maps and we headed to the party. Along the way I said to Karen, “Do you think we need to pull up the email and check the invitation?” “No, we’ve got their address,” she said. “I don’t think there was any other information we needed.”

We pulled into their subdivision, the gate was open, and we immediately saw a line of cars parked outside a house. Google maps informed us we had arrived so we parked our car and strolled up to the door. We met another couple who was reaching the door at about the same time. We didn’t recognize them but then we didn’t really know anyone on the list. I said, “Are you going to John and Bonnie’s party?” “Yes,” they said. We turned and rang the doorbell.

A Jr. High age boy answered the door. Karen and I looked at each other with puzzled looks since we knew our friends did not have a Jr. High age boy. Then a tall man came to greet us. We exchanged introductions. Peter invited us in and pointed towards the kitchen. “Funny,” I thought, “that John has asked someone else to greet his guests.”

We came around a corner and saw a number of people huddled around the island in the kitchen. They looked at us. We looked at them. John and Bonnie were not to be seen. I looked at Karen and said, “I think we’re at the wrong party.” We went back to the front door found our new friend Peter.

“Peter, I think we’re at the wrong party,” I said while making sure I didn’t see any firearms nearby. “Who are you looking for?” I told him and he said with a laugh, “Their house is right across the street.” I asked him if his party was going to be better than John’s, he said it probably would be, and that if we were disappointed we could come back over. We appreciated the thought, but we were not invited to that party.

Shepherds knew that feeling. Even the one named David did. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1). There are times in a life of faith that God seems to forget his own, and we feel like we are standing in a room full of strangers at a party we aren’t supposed to be at. Maybe Luke knew that. Maybe he wanted to use the story of the shepherds to strengthen our faith for the forgotten times.

The shepherds may have felt left out before that night but not after that night. They’re not used to anyone giving them the time of day. But now an angel is interrupting their time at night. He tells them a Savior had been born in the city of David: Bethlehem. The shepherds went to Bethlehem and found exactly what they were told they would find.  Mary and Joseph.  But most importantly, “the baby lying in a manger.”

We have to wonder why God would choose shepherds over kings or rabbis or the popular to receive the invitation to witness the birth of his son. Could it be that: Kings are paying too much attention to the important people to bother with babies? Rabbis are too busy crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s to be interrupted? The popular have too many things on their social calendar to squeeze in one more activity?

But shepherds? They lead a simple life. They don’t have many distractions. They have no reputation to uphold or social order to protect. God had time for the shepherds because the shepherds had time for God. This rag-tag group of smelly sheep herders the rabbis banned from testifying in court were invited by God himself to be the first ones to testify of the birth of his son.

And they did. What was “made known” to them they “made known” to others (Luke 2:15,17). What had been “told them” they “told” to others (Luke 2:18, 20).

Wouldn’t you love to be invited by God to hear the birth announcement of his son and then get the honor of telling others? Well, hold onto your Christmas hat because what happened to the shepherds has happened to you.

  • You have the same story that they had. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
  • You have the same sign they had. “…you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
  • And you have the same invitation they had. God has invited you into the story of his incarnation. He has included you in the birth of his son. Because of Bethlehem you are not forgotten. You don’t have to feel like an uninvited guest.

But you do have to respond. So spend time around the manger. Put your work down. Schedule some time. Check the directions again and make sure you look where the angels said to look.

When you get there you’ll find you are right where you’re supposed to be.

Question: How can you spend time at the manger this Christmas season?

Find Time to Ponder the Christ-child this Christmas

A baby changes everything. When our first was on his way someone gave us a card that said on the front page: “Congratulations!” It had the picture of the cutest baby you would ever see until ours was born. But then you opened it up and saw these words in large, bold print: “Life as you once knew it is over!”

It was. Babies do have a way of disrupting the routine of life. It starts as soon as their existence is announced.

“Guess what honey?” The young husband has no clue. “Did I forget our anniversary?” he wonders. He takes a stab at it: “It’s our anniversary! Happy anniversary!” he declares. She scowls and says, “No dear, that’s not for three months.”

After a few feeble attempts— “Birthday? First date anniversary? Your mother is coming to live with us?!”—he does what he usually does. He gives up. “Why don’t you just tell me?” This time she can’t hold it in any longer: “We’re pregnant!”

At first he thinks, “We’re pregnant? I’m a guy. Why would she say “we”?” And soon he realizes that although he will not have a bouncing baby boy or girl growing inside his body, he is indeed pregnant too. When she tosses and turns in a sleepless night, he doesn’t sleep either. When she is hungry for Baskin Robbins mint chocolate chip ice cream, he will be eating it too. When her back aches, his will too once he is done massaging hers.

I know. I’ve been there and maybe you have too. Those nine-months are designed for the baby to be nourished and grow. But they are also for the parents to prepare. Their routines become shaped by preparation for the arrival of the baby. A crib is assembled. A room is decorated. Diapers are stockpiled. Then the day arrives.

The problem is when he came Kris didn’t look like what I thought he would look like. Red-faced. Matted hair. Slime all over his body. Not the clean, days-old babies you see in the movies. I said, “Karen, he’s great. I think he favors your side of the family.”

Yes, when Kris was born our world changed. And when Jesus was born the whole world changed.

Mary’s world certainly did. The angel Gabriel appears and announces: “…you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” Gabriel explains that the natural will be replaced by the supernatural with words like “come upon” and “overshadow.” These are words found in the Greek Old Testament that describe the hovering of the Spirit of God over the waters at creation. The Holy Spirit that was part of the creation in the beginning would cause the creation of this child “…for nothing will be impossible with God.”

To this Mary simply responds in faith: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” The word “servant” is literally “slave.” We may not like this word so it gets softened to “servant.” But Mary understands her role. She is giving up her hopes and dreams and even her own body to submit herself to the plans of God. She is giving up her questions of what is happening, why it is happening, or where is her life going to end up to an understanding of herself as “slave.”

When the birth comes so do shepherds. They’ve seen angels too and come to see the child. They leave and like the end of Christmas day, after all the opening of presents and playing with toys and feasting on the Christmas ham or turkey and all the commotion and excitement of the day, the night becomes still.

And maybe for the first time since delivering the baby Mary has an opportunity to reflect. “…Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” She reviewed all that had happened to change her world and spent some moments “pondering” them in her heart.

“Ponder” comes from the compound verb symballo. “Sym” means “together” and “ballo” means “to throw.” So it means “to throw things together.” We sometimes picture Mary sitting over to the side of the activity somewhere, rocking her little baby boy, having a Hallmark kind of moment.

But much more is going on. This word is used to describe the work of a prophet, someone who would discern what God is up to and announces it to everyone else. That’s what Mary is doing. She gets it! This baby is the son of God. He’s going to change things. He’s bringing mercy. He will bring down the mighty and exalt those who are low. He will feed the hungry that the rich won’t help. Her little baby boy is going to rule in a way that Augustus never dreamed. In a short time, her world had changed and she is throwing things together to make sense of what God is doing in her life.

Maybe your world has changed too. Christmas time is not always the most wonderful time of the year for everyone: Lay-offs leave some wondering how to pay the bills. Sickness sends presents down the list of priorities. Divorce can darken holiday lights. Death of a loved one can steal some Christmas joy.

Christmas is a time to ponder. So this season in the midst of throwing together your preparations for a gathering or throwing together parts to be assembled, may you find some quiet moments to throw together all that is happening in your life. See the good and the difficult. The blessings and the bad. But make sure you throw in with all of that the child born in Bethlehem. Ponder your world less and ponder Christ more.

But be forewarned. This baby changes everything.

Question: What do you think God is up to in your life?

Worship When the Feelings Aren’t There

I remember walking into class that day and seeing her across the room. Something about Veronica caught my eye. Jet black hair. Big eyes. Eyes that met mine left me no way out. She knew I had glanced at her and knew I knew she knew.

It was the start of the semester and the start of something else. At break we met and talked. Talks turned into walks. Walks turned into holding hands. It wasn’t long until I took the next natural step in this progression.

I bought her a ring. I had saved up my money and painstakingly picked out a ring at the store. And then, while examining it one last time before putting it into a box to present to her, I dropped it. It fell apart. The small jewels bounced around on the floor. Settings broke in two.

At first I was near tears but then I thought, “What should I expect from a 5 and Dime store?” I gathered up the fragments, made a mixed media art piece, and gave it to her at school the next day. She was underwhelmed. And so ended my first love in second grade.

It was a great feeling while it lasted. Maybe you can remember your first love. And maybe the feeling was good enough that you wanted it again. Sometimes we can fall in love with falling in love, can’t we?

It happened in the medieval ages. Something called “courtly love” or “romantic love” developed. Here’s what happened: Married men would basically have an emotional affair with either another married woman or a single woman. This “courtly love” would not be physical. It would remain at the emotional level. The essence of courtly love was to fall in love with falling in love.

The church today might be guilty of courtly love. In writing about this phenomenon, Scot McKnight has said, “Some folks love church, and what they mean by ‘loving church’ is that they love the experience they get when they go to church.”

  • They might like the experience and feelings they get from singing songs about adoration of God or the experience of loving Jesus.
  • They might like sermons that make them feel God’s power or tell stories that entertain or insights that seem brand new.
  • If the song isn’t in the right style or the sermon is more broccoli than dessert, then we might leave rating the time spent as a disappointment. Like the segment on American Bandstand where Dick Clark would have some teenagers “Rate a Record,” we rate what we call worship on the basis of its beat and how it made us feel.

But what if the worship of the church is not supposed to be rated on the flightiness of feelings? Instead, its design might be more about building the faithfulness of fidelity to Christ? More about a mature relationship than a courtly love.

The Apostle Paul would say so. He writes: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” What happens on Sunday mornings when followers of Christ meet is worship, but it is only part of a larger framework of a life of worship.

We live a life of worship to the degree that our hearts and faces are turned toward God all the time in all of our life. The early church understood that. And so they sang. They sang when they gathered on the first day of the week but they sang at other times.

  • Paul and Silas sang in prison. Not sure what they were feeling but they worshiped.
  • Jesus and the disciples sang after the Passover meal. Jesus was on his way to the cross. I wonder what he “got” out of that time of worship?

Paul redirects our focus of worship on the idea that even the songs are to “teach and admonish.” Everything to Paul was to move our attention to Jesus. The shape of our worship is intended to shape us into the image of Christ.

When we set our eyes on Jesus we shape our lives like Jesus’.

The feelings are great when they are present. But even when they are not, keep looking at Jesus. You’ll find something better than the flightiness of courtly love.

Question: What would change about your worship experience if you “rated” it by how it taught and admonished you towards Jesus?

 

When a Thanksgiving Meal Can Be a Picture of the Church

The “All Church Fellowship” was the one announcement at church I looked forward to when I was a young single guy. The invitation typically went something like this: “Come enjoy a potluck lunch. Please bring an item to share. It will be a great time of food and fellowship. You won’t want to miss it!”

I really did not want to miss the food part. When you are lacking in culinary skills, these words are like music to your ears. You didn’t know what was going to be spread out on the buffet tables but you could imagine: A pot roast would be sitting next to some tamales. Fresh, fluffy dinner rolls would be next to a loaf of Mrs. Baird’s bread. A homemade cherry pie would be placed next to a container of store bought cookies.

Then there would always be some “manna.” That would be the dish that no one knew what it was and everyone was afraid to try because they didn’t know what it was. If they asked me I’d just say, “Must be manna.” The inquiring mind would then ask, “Why do you say this is ‘manna.’”

That’s when my Bible degree would pay off. I’d look them in the eyes and say, “Well, when the Israelites in the wilderness saw the frosted flakes on the ground for the first time they called it ‘manna.’ And ‘manna’ means “What is it?” Some older lady in the church would then go home with a smile on her face because she heard we were saying her dish was heavenly.

And then there would always be a large bag of Lay’s potato chips. They would be right in the middle of a table, as conspicuous as a man waiting for his wife in the lingerie department. Everyone would know where they came from. It would be my contribution to the “all church potluck fellowship.”

That was the great thing about the invitation. Everyone was invited. And everyone brought something to share. The scene was a modern day parable of the first Christians.

In their early meetings you might see another potluck. But this one is comprised of people. You see a slave. But he isn’t serving anyone. He’s sitting next to his Roman master. You see women and children. You notice a Jewish woman and a Greek man. There are Romans who lived the full Roman lifestyle but are now learning the ways of Jesus. There are Jews who still practice their Jewish ways but have embraced Jesus as their Messiah.

And there is a table spread with food for everyone. Before there were ever church buildings and pulpits and praise teams there were houses and kitchens and tables.

More importantly there was fellowship. The Greek word for “fellowship” is koinonia. It means literally “that which is shared in common.” What we traditionally call “fellowship” involves sharing some time together. But biblical koinonia encompasses more.

Koinonia is first a spiritual sharing. It existed from the beginning as the Father, Son and Spirit shared life together.

Then it is a social sharing. Jesus had koinonia with the Father, but he showed us that it was to be shared through invitation to others. Jesus was always at table with “sinners”: tax collectors, prostitutes, the immoral, the blind, lame, and diseased. Everyone was welcome at his table.

John put it this way: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” If you are a “whoever” you are invited.

And then koinonia is also a financial sharing. John writes that we are not walking in light if we see a brother or sister in need and close our hearts against them. True fellowship means we will use our financial blessings to help others.

You may experience some fellowship around a Thanksgiving table this week. When you do, let it be for you a picture of the church, a place where everyone is invited to the table with Jesus. And everyone has a place to belong. That’s something for which to be thankful.

Question: Who might you invite to the “table”?

 

 

Believers Belong in Church

My earliest memories of church come from my preschool days in a little church in Memphis, Texas. I remember the songs. When the Roll is Called Up Yonder was one of my favorite. The Church of Christ-ers could belt that one out with enthusiasm.

There were two things that caught my young attention in that song. First, I thought it had something to do with dinner rolls so my mouth started watering when we’d sing that one. And second, the idea of the trumpet of the Lord sounding created vivid scenes in my mind of some big angel—like Gabriel—blowing that horn real loud.

So one Sunday as I was laying down on the church pew during the sermon and dreaming about dinner rolls, I heard it. A loud sound like a trumpet. It was brash and long. I bolted straight up. I thought, “This is it! The roll is being called up yonder, and I’m going there.” I looked around and saw my Mom and Dad. I didn’t see my older brother Scott who was sometimes mean to me so it figured that he wouldn’t be there. Just when I was getting ready to find the heavenly banquet table with bottomless dinner rolls, my Mom patted me on the back, leaned over and whispered, “It’s just a train blowing its horn. Lay back down.”

I did. But those experiences gave me my first ideas about church. You have ideas about church too, don’t you? What is it that has shaped those ideas? For some, it’s childhood. For others, it’s some church you went to at Easter or Christmas Eve. For still others, it’s some new church in the neighborhood that has popped up and gives the impression they’ve figured something new out that no one else has yet discovered.

Maybe our ideas of what the church is should come from the New Testament instead of the latest blog article or the fastest growing church in whatever part of the country we live in. Maybe we should get our ideas of church from the Apostle Paul, the one who established the churches we read about in the New Testament. When we turn to Paul we get a different picture of the church.

There we find ekklesia. Ekklesia is the Greek word for church. It is a compound word meaning to be “called out” or “called together” for a special purpose. Ekklesia is a word that was common in the first century to describe any group that assembled. It was used to describe the group of free men who could vote, the popular assembly, part of the Greek system of governance, or any gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place. The word for “church,” then, is not that “churchy” to begin with.

When Paul uses the word he has in mind the Old Testament word qahal. It was used to refer to Israel who had been called out by God to serve a special purpose. Paul connects these new churches to the old Israel, God’s people who had a purpose for their existence. When we understand “church” the way Paul did, no church is a new church.

He also connects the church to Christ. The gospel—the good news of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ—was the unifying common interest that brought them together as the church. They weren’t all alike. Men, women, slaves, free, rich and poor. They were called out of their daily routines and assembled around Christ. This kind of diversity was unprecedented among ancient associations.

Because of their diversity they needed a new identity. Paul gives them one. He says they are now family. “Family” is the predominant image for the church in the New Testament and Paul’s writings.

In 1 Thessalonians—Paul’s first letter to a church he established—he says a family: has a corporate identity, is beloved by God, is to walk in a manner worthy of God, is to be holy, are children of light, and are siblings to each other. Paul knows nothing of the individual Christian because people respond to the gospel by living in community. For Paul, to be a believer is to be in the church.

The church is a family. And its messy. The first century church was too. There was never a time when the church “did it perfectly.” You’ll never find a perfect church now. Plant yourself in a church, focus on your calling in Christ, and learn to be family.

When the “roll is called up yonder” you’ll want to be there. You won’t be alone. But you may be surprised at who else is there with you.

Question: How is church like a family to you?