"Happiness is not a goal, it's a by-product."
September. Regardless of our age or family/life circumstances, it is difficult to walk into September without some Back To School thoughts. And so here we are.
Some of us are, in fact, returning to school, either as students or teachers/staff. Others of us are sending children back to school. Some of us are relieved to have put our school years behind while others look back with longing for those good old days. Regardless of our current situation, September stands as a reminder of our continual need to grow and as an invitation to do so. This is a wonderful time to consider going back to school, so to speak, under our spiritual Schoolmaster, Jesus Christ. The Bible reminds us that a life of faith is a life of learning and growing. We are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling as the indwelling Holy Spirit does His work in sanctifying us (Philippians 2:12-13).
Our faith-work takes multiple forms, but one of the most significant and powerful elements of Christian growth remarkably echoes our school years: Bible study. Reading, studying, and meditating on this Book is our foundation for a growing life of faith. God has provided His Word for us, that we might learn who He is, who we are before Him, and what a faith relationship with Him looks like.
Bible study is more than the book learning that my Back To School analogy would suggest. The ultimate goal of Bible study is to be transformed by the renewing of our mind and to be conformed to the character of Christ and His kingdom. As we immerse ourselves in God’s Word, our minds and hearts are touched. We become better able to love as Christ loves and better able to explain Truth to others. We become informed and wise, yes, but we are changed from the inside out for all eternity. This is a far greater reward than the grades we earn/earned from our school studies. May we eagerly and gratefully return to the Lord’s schoolhouse of His Word, sit at our Teacher’s feet, diligently study His Word, and humbly submit to His work in us.
Summer continues, the pandemic is at bay, and fall is just around the corner…. Many if not most of us have become ambitious with thoughts and plans of places to go and people to see. And for believers, there is a sense of renewed opportunity for ministry and engagement with an increasingly divided, dark and unbelieving world. It can be easy to feel confused and overwhelmed. What can we as individuals and as a small church do to proclaim the kingdom?
Fortunately, redemption is the Lord’s work. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to convict unbelievers and draw them to the Father through the Son. We get to come along for the ride. Our role is simple yet confoundingly complex and challenging: we are to love, in unity. As believers love one another and worship and serve as one, we become witnesses of Love Himself and reflect the intimate unity within the Trinity.
When we embrace our role as witnesses to the ends of the earth, we become God’s hands, feet, and skin. As difficult as it may be to believe at time, our Lord delights to include us in His redemptive work. But make no mistake: even as the Lord uses us to extend His kingdom, He uses the process itself to do His redemptive work in us, both individually and corporately. Sin, selfishness, and stubbornness are exposed, and we must confront those stumbling blocks to love and unity if we genuinely want to fulfill the Lord’s purposes for us.
Scripture is extremely clear on this point. In His last words to the disciples in the upper room before His death, Jesus talks repeatedly about the love and unity among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the expansion of that love and unity to and among the disciples, that they would know the joy and peace of God and proclaim Him to the world. We, as spiritual descendants of those disciples in the upper room with Jesus, are also called to love and unity, to put our flesh into action in ways that express the love of Christ and the unity of the Godhead in the here and now.
But the church is not and has never been immune to division and a lack of love, and that is more evident now than ever before. How can we bear witness to the love and unity of our Triune God when we exhibit neither love nor unity? But does bearing witness mean that we sacrifice our convictions held in faith to an amorphous “higher good” of mushy, tolerant love? Again, I would like to consider our spiritual ancestors, the original disciples. The geopolitical environment was as hostile to Christianity then as it is now; and there was plenty of opportunity for strife in those times: we read in Scripture times of sharp discord in the early church. But early believers still managed to build the church by growing in love and unity and manifesting those distinctive characteristics to the unbelieving world; the church grew exponentially.
What might this look like for believers in local bodies? There is no prescription, no script. But I believe that there are a couple of Biblical truths that can help us to negotiate this difficult path. The first is that we are all sinners: we all fall short of the glory of God. This means that we have reason to cultivate humility in our own hearts and minds and to regard others as valuable—with valuable perceptions and convictions—even as they sin. A second truth to consider is that the human heart is deceitful, and only God knows its depths. Our motives may not be as pure as we would like to think, and we might easily misinterpret or misjudge the motives of others. We need not make it our mission to convince others that we are right. It is much wiser and more profitable to make it our mission to find commonalities in our respective positions within the context of a shared faith.
Again, I do not believe that the Lord would have us trade in our convictions for a diluted faith that is untethered from truth. But please consider that it is indeed possible to hold our convictions and to also pursue love and unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can seek to be fertile ground for the Holy Spirit to bear His fruit in us, that we would treat others with patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control even as we hold our convictions. And again, we can remember that God is God and we are not. He is the One doing the redemptive work; we get to participate, but we have not been invited to supervise or superintend. The more relevant issue here is that we may very well need to trade in our prideful desire to be right in order to build a body characterized by love and unity.
We are living in a time of unprecedented opportunity to leverage the power of love and unity in a divided and hate-filled world. May the Lord work within us so that He can work through us…!
In the spring of 1775, Paul Revere made his famous ride through portions of New England, warning the rebellious colonists that the British were coming (though he did not ride through the streets shouting the famous phrase). In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King, relief for the embattled forces for good was proclaimed by the phrase, “The eagles are coming!” And as the weather warmed up this spring, we heard the drumbeat of a different sort of announcement: “The cicadas are coming!” And while the arrival of the cicadas does not represent the threat of 18th Century British troops coming to keep colonial America in line or the help that the eagles gave to Aragorn’s forces as they were surrounded by evil orcs and goblins, it has become nonetheless a topic of conversation among us. Some are curious and interested in the unusual sight; some are annoyed by the noise; others are staying in their homes because they hate crunching on cicadas that are littered all over their walkways; and still others are totally ignoring the phenomenon.
I will not argue that cicadas are vital to our faith, but I do believe that there are facts about cicadas that can encourage it. First and foremost, cicadas reflect the hand of their Creator and ours. Please consider with me:
· Cicadas are intricately designed with bright colors and delicate body parts. They have been created with great care and flare.
· Cicadas feed off trees, taking the nutrients converted by the trees from sun and soil and making those nutrient accessible for all the organisms that eat them; and then in turn, those organisms that consume cicadas provide food for the next higher members of the food chain, and so on. The arrival of these cicadas represents a ripple effect of population growth at all levels.
· Cicadas serve to functionally prune trees: as they lay their eggs in weak and dying branches, eliminating sections of trees that would otherwise drain the tree of energy that could be better used in serving healthier and more fruitful parts of the tree.
· As cicadas die and decompose into the soil, they enrich the soil and boost the growth of trees and other plant life, again providing a broader foundation for the entire food chain.
· Humans are part of the food chain, and some cultures regard them as either a food staple or a delicacy. Cicadas have a place in history as providing food for a Native American tribe during a time of famine.
· Humans benefit indirectly from cicadas as members of the food chain. But beyond that, they remind us of time and seasons, of the rhythms of life given to us by the Lord. They can even add depth to our stories and histories as we have opportunity to remember graduations or weddings or other family events punctuated with the buzz of cicadas.
Without doubt, cicadas are a powerful reminder that there are no casual components of creation, no after thoughts. Cicadas are a glorious example of our Lord’s infinitely complex creation, with each piece unique in appearance and role as part of an amazing whole.
This is where we are invited to deepen our appreciation of our Lord and expand our faith. Cicadas are uniquely created by God to play an important role in His creation. To borrow a phrase from the Apostle Paul, how much more significant are God’s purposes for us! Each of us has been uniquely created to perform a particular, vital function within the body of Christ and as we do so, to fulfill the Lord’s eternal and glorious purposes for us.
This, then, leads me to one last purpose/use of cicadas: regardless of what we might think of them—as curiosities, as a source of wonder, or as an annoyance—they are reminders that we are an integral part of God’s amazing and glorious creation. May we continually praise Him for that.
There is good bit of talk about going back to normal as the pandemic recedes. Many, I think more wisely, refer to a new normal. I think it is easy to approach the next few months with a sense of appropriate excitement and anticipation. But I believe that it is also wise to consider what moving into a post-pandemic life means for us, as individuals, families, and as a local body of Christ.
After the stresses, pain, and grief of the pandemic, going back to normal may sound pretty good. But I have a few of observations about this. First, our pre-pandemic normal may not have been particularly healthy and constructive. While going backward may offer the security and comfort of familiarity, it offers little in the way of opportunities for growth. Second, normal encourages comparisons with others and denies that each of us is unique, wonderful, and complete in Christ. We need not concern ourselves with normal, past, present, or future. And finally, while the pandemic may have put elements of our lives in suspended animation, it most definitely did not inhibit the Lord from continuing to do His work in us. May heaven truly forbid our turning our back on what the Lord has been doing simply so that we can go back to normal.
So then, what about a new normal? Again, I would prefer to avoid the mindset of normal because the term tends to confine us and bind us to some kind of script. I think it is more helpful to look at post-pandemic life through the lens of faith. Some of us have experienced significant if not horrific losses during this past year. This is the time to grieve and to pursue recovery in the presence of our merciful Lord. Most of us would do well to take a bit of time and prayerfully identify as best we can how the Lord has worked in and through the circumstances of this past year and then consider how we might best prosper His work in us. If the pandemic has exposed areas of sin and brokenness, there is no better time than now to take time to confess and consider what repentance looks like as life begins to significantly change for us, again. If the pandemic has given us the opportunity to develop routines and patterns that allow for better self-care, empower us to love more deeply, and/or invest in the Lord’s work in new ways, now is the time to consider how to sustain such growth and incorporate it into post-pandemic life.
Normal life. New normal life. Abnormal Life. Non-Normal Life. May we pursue a life of faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, making the most of our time, because the days are evil.
Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but
as wise, making the most of your time, because the days
Three Christians walk into a Bible study…. The teacher is beginning a lesson on Galatians 5:19-24, the fruits of the flesh vs. the fruit of the Spirit.
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
The first Christian listens for a moment and says to his companions as he walks out the door: “This isn’t for me. I don’t need to change; God has already forgiven me. I am going to live by faith in His grace.”
The second Christian listens to the teacher a little longer. “I know that I need to control my temper,” he says to the friend next to him. “But that is the way my father always dealt with frustration. I am just like him.” He, too, walks out the door.
The third Christian becomes increasingly uncomfortable as he continues to listen in a corner of the room. He runs through his personal and family history in his head, a history marked by broken relationships, infidelity, addiction, and secrets. But as he turns his attention back to the teacher, he is struck by the foundation of hope in Paul’s message: Godly behavior is the manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s work within him. It is not—and cannot be—the result of independent human effort.
Christian #3 starts to listen more carefully. “It is absolutely essential to take Paul’s words seriously, to relinquish our dependence on the deeds of the flesh to feel good and to cope with a troubling and difficult world,” the teacher states. “But it is equally essential to work with the Holy Spirit as we seek to become free from family patterns and personal sin patterns and to become like Christ and manifest the fruits of a Spirit-filled and Spirit-directed life. We cannot change ourselves; when we try, we give up, or make excuses. It is only when we allow the Holy Spirit to expose our sins and hurts and allow Him to touch us and heal us can we begin to turn from the lure of fleshly desires and pursue God’s best for us.”
The third Christian stays to the end of the study and waits for a chance to talk with the teacher. They talk for a long while and agree to continue their conversation over the next several weeks. He leaves a changed man, no longer feeling destined to repeat the sins of his fathers and prepared to allow the Holy Spirit to redeem his family history as He works in the deepest parts of his heart and soul.
When we are confronted with the personal and uncomfortable truths of Scripture, we have the same choices as our three fictional Christians. We can refuse to deal with the truth and abuse the Lord’s grace. We can look at the brokenness of our past and make excuses. Or, we can look at our past and see the roots of sin that need to be pulled in order for us to become more who the Lord has created us to be, more faithful in following Him. Understanding the reasons for our sin is helpful and often necessary in the process of Christian growth. But it is crucial that we go beyond the “reason stage.” Reasons are not excuses. They are explanations that can empower genuine repentance. But as we remember the words of the Apostle Paul, we must remember to invite the indwelling Holy Spirit to help us uncover the drivers of our sin and empower us to repent. May we choose to keep company with our third Christian and his Bible study teacher.