Category: What is spiritual formation?

Where Are You Coming From, and Where Are You Going?

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There was a woman in the Bible who was asked two very important questions. First, she was asked, “Where are you coming from?” We can ask ourselves the same question. Considering your life, where are you coming from? Are there things in your lives you want to see changed? The second question she was asked was “Where are you going?” Do you know where you are heading?

Genesis 16:1-3, “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife.”

So here we see a guy named Abram and his wife Sarai. Later, God will change their names to Abraham and Sarah. God had made a promise to Abram that he would have a son. Abram and his wife were both already well past the time for childbearing, but they had no children. For a woman during that time, it was an embarrassment for her to not have children. Sarai got the bright idea to help God out. Have you ever done that? It’s like a man working on his car. He asks his young son (who has been trying to help him), “Son, have you seen my wrench?” The young son replies with shrugging shoulders, “Yes, of course Dad. It’s in the mailbox.” That’s kind of how it looks when we decide we are going to help God along.

Sarai offered to give her servant, Hagar to her husband to have a child with her. This was a common practice in that part of the world. When a slave was given in this way, when they had a child, the child would be adopted into the family as the free woman’s child. That was probably what Sarai was thinking. She would help God out. Her lack of faith led her to make this bad decision.

The Bible’s standard of marriage is one man and one woman for a lifetime. The Bible does not condone marriage between two men, or two women, or a man and multiple women, or a woman and multiple men, or any other combination. God’s clear direction was for a man and woman to come together in marriage as one flesh for a lifetime. Sarai was encouraging Abraham to marry another to have a son; something that went against God’s standard of marriage.

Abram should have said something like, “Sarai, I love you so much. But you are my wife. We are in this together, so let’s wait on God in faith” Instead, he took Sarai’s bad advice and took their household servant and slept with her. Perhaps his own lust for this young woman overrode what he knew in his heart was the right thing to do. Abram was not known for always making the best decisions. When he was in Egypt years earlier, he told his wife to say she was his sister. Sarai was very beautiful, and Abram was afraid the Egyptians would kill him to have her. Sure enough, the pharaoh saw her, and wanted her. He took her with plans to marry her. God warned pharaoh in a dream that she was already married. He went to Abram demanding answers. Abram said Sarai was a half-sister, so he wasn’t lying, he just wasn’t telling him the whole truth. Pharaoh sent him away with money, jewels, animals, and servants, of whom Hagar was one. Now Sarai was offering her servant to her husband. This is a messed-up situation. If you want to see a dysfunctional, messed-up family, all you have to do is open your Bible. There are lots of examples. Let’s read on.

V. 4-6, “And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!” But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.”

Hagar was Sarai’s personal servant. She was probably a young woman who took care of the needs of her Mistress. She literally waited on her hand and foot. In that area of the world at that time, it was considered shameful for a woman to have no children. When Hagar became pregnant, she started getting an attitude like she thought she was better than Sarai. This was a dangerous thing to do. She may have even said something about this. Whether she said it directly, or behind the back of Sarai, it got back to her. This enraged her.

The Bible says Sarai got ticked off at her husband. She was mad and blamed him for what happened with Hagar. Abram didn’t want to get in the middle of these two women. He probably realized that he had made a mistake in listening to his wife and taking Hagar. So he told Sarai to deal with it as she saw fit.

Sarai dealt harshly with Hagar. Hagar decided she had had enough, and took off. She ran away from home.

V. 7-9, “The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.”

In the Bible, when you read Angel of the Lord, this is referring to Jesus before his being born in a manger in Bethlehem. This is known as a theophany or a Christophany. Those are fancy theological terms for Jesus appearing in the Old Testament before he was incarnate as a babe in Bethlehem.

So the angel of the Lord, or Jesus, appeared to Hagar in the wilderness. He asked her two questions. The first question was “Where have you come from?” He knew where she had come from, but he wanted her to glance back and acknowledge. It can be dangerous to ask someone to look back when you want them to go forward.

The Apostle Paul addressed the danger of looking backward. He writes in Philippians 3:13-14, “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” But here, in Genesis, we see the Lord telling Hagar to look back at where she had come from. He did not want her to dwell on that, but to glance back and see where she had come from.

There is an old story about a farmer and his son. The farmer broke his leg and was laid up. It was very bad timing as they needed to get the field ready for planting, and it simply wouldn’t wait. The farmer called his son to his side. He said, “Look son, I know you have never plowed in the field, but I simply can’t do it, so you are going to have to do it. It’s not easy to make straight furrows. So here is the trick. When you are plowing, fix your eyes on something and keep looking at it as you plow.” The obedient son went out early the next morning and began plowing the field. He was out until dark. He went in to this father and proudly told him, “Well Dad, I did like you said. I started plowing and fixed my eyes on something and didn’t take my eyes off of it. It took me all day long, and it was really difficult, but I persevered, and I finally caught up with that calf.”

You can glance back at the previous year and see where you have come from. Have you made progress in your spiritual walk? Has God sustained you over the course of the year? We all have gone through difficult things in the last year, and perhaps you didn’t know if you were going to make it. Yet, here you are. It’s time for you to look forward. Don’t allow your past control your present.

There is a tree found in Mexico, in Florida, and around the Caribbean known as the Manchineel tree. The fruit from the tree is called the poison apple. One bite of the fruit from the tree can be fatal. Just touching the sap from the tree causes blistering burns. It is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most dangerous tree in the world. If you were to stand under the tree in a rainstorm, you would get excruciating pain on your skin, and blisters. Burning the wood from the tree releases toxins into the air and can cause blindness. The indigenous people living in that area used to dip their arrowheads in the sap to make poisonous arrows. They would tie an enemy to the tree to make sure they died a slow and painful death. No one wants to be anywhere near that tree. People will avoid it. Some people are like that tree. Perhaps you know someone like that. They hold grudges and will not forgive people that they think wronged them. It makes them so bitter, they are like this toxic poisonous tree. You need to forgive others, not just for their sake, but so that you don’t become toxic like this tree.

The second question the Lord asked Hagar was “Where are you going?” Hagar might have said something like “I just came from a horrible situation. I was scared and I ran away. I don’t know where I am going to, I just know I needed to get away from Sarai.

The Lord wanted Hagar to contemplate her future. If someone were to ask you, “Where are you going in the next year?” You couldn’t answer completely because you don’t know what lies ahead. You can plan, set goals, and prepare for the future, but you don’t know exactly what is going to happen.

I don’t know if the National Enquirer is still in print. This was one of those tabloid newspapers available as you were waiting in line at the grocery store. They would have sensational headlines about UFOs, and Elvis sightings. Every year, they would list all the prophecies from the so-called psychics for the coming year. Some of them would give these wild predictions. 90% of the predictions would be wrong. If they were lucky, by sheer chance they might get 10% right. The only prophecies that are completely reliable come from the Bible. They either have been or are being fulfilled without fail. The Bible says the test of a prophet to see if God is really speaking through them is if their prophecies come true. If they do, they are hearing from God, but if they don’t they are not speaking for God and should be shunned.

Looking to the future, we don’t know what tomorrow holds, but we know who holds the future. Ultimately, we know that we are on our way to Heaven. Whether Jesus returns for us in the rapture, or we die and go to him through death, we know as Christians we will someday go to Heaven to be with Jesus. We know our ultimate destination.

Let’s read on. The Angel of the Lord asked Hagar where she came from and where she was going. V. 10-12, “The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” And the angel of the LORD said to her, “Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has listened to your affliction. He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”

The name Ishmael means God hears. God heard Hagar’s cry for help. Maybe Hagar didn’t think God heard her. She thought she was just a slave girl, so she was not anyone important. She was a nobody. Even her own Master, Sarai, had abused her and called her good for nothing. But now, the Angel of the Lord has appeared to her saying her son will be named, “God hears.” What a great reminder. Every time she called his name, she would be repeating “God hears.”

Now the prophecy about Ishmael and his descendants is very accurate. He is the father of the Arabs, and they are certainly numerous. Many of them live in tents and are Bedouins to this day.

Like Hagar, you may think you are someone insignificant, and unimportant. But God is telling you today, you are important to Him. No matter what your situation, or your position in life. You may think you are unworthy of any of God’s attention, but he hears you and He cares about you.

This passage is about to get good, so let’s read on. V. 13-14, “So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.”

Beer-lahai-roi means the well of Him who lives and sees me.

Hagar is saying that she has seen the one who sees her. So not only did God see her, but he heard her. God was closer to her than she ever imagined.

Have you ever walked up in the middle of a conversation and heard something that sounded really strange? You are missing part of the conversation, so you don’t really know what’s going on. It would be easy to make a false assumption about the conversation.

They say that some 70 to 80% of communication is done through body language. If you hear a conversation but can’t see the person talking, you are only getting part of what is being said. Have you ever watched a television program where you couldn’t hear? Maybe the sound was down, or there was noise. You can see the action taking place, and see people talking, but you really can’t tell what’s going on. You are only getting part of the message.

Hagar is saying not only did God hear her, but sees her. He knows exactly what is taking place. Even though she felt insignificant and unimportant, God heard her and saw her grief and suffering. And if he knew what was happening with this little slave girl, he knows exactly what is going on with you too. Nothing is happening to you that God doesn’t see or hear. He knows what is coming.

Now that doesn’t mean you will always feel God’s presence. Imagine walking outside on a cold, wet blustery day. The clouds are dark and menacing. The ground is frozen, maybe there is even snow on the ground. Now imagine, as you’re walking outside, someone says, “I don’t think the sun is real.” What? You don’t think the sun is real because you can’t feel its heat, or see its light? It’s freezing cold, and dark because of the storm clouds. Does that mean the sun stopped existing? Of course not! Just because we can’t see it, or feel it, doesn’t mean it went away.

In the same way, we may not feel or see the hand of God in our lives. But that doesn’t mean it went away. We can expect God to be with us, and he will be honest with us. The Lord told Hagar some hard truths about her son. Ishmael would be against everybody, and everyone would be against him. He is going to be a wild, antagonistic man. That’s not what a Momma wants to hear, but God told her the truth.

When you go to a doctor, you want the doctor to tell you the truth, even if it is painful to hear. There are things in the Bible that are hard. Some things the Bible calls sin hit close to home. When we want to have compassion for people, we want to excuse their sin. But being loving involves telling the truth even when it is painful. Living in sin is not going to end well. We may not want to hurt their feelings, but like a doctor, we need to speak the truth in love.

Back in verse 9, the Lord told Hagar to return to Sarai, and he would be with her. Let’s read the last couple of verses in this chapter. V. 15-16, “And Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.” So apparently, Hagar was obedient. She returned, and Ishmael was born. Abram was already 86 years old at this point.

You can glean from this story that God will be with you, he will be honest with you, and God may expect you to do very hard things. In John 14:21 Jesus said, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”

God told Hagar to return to her very difficult situation serving Sarai. She obeyed God, and God blessed her for it. This was not something easy to do. I imagine she was scared to return. She didn’t know what kind of punishment she would receive for running away in the first place. What would happen to her? Sometimes the things God asks us to do go against what we want to do. He wants us to live a life glorifying to Him. But the world wants us to live a different kind of life, and may make it very hard on you if you don’t live the way they want you to live.

Hagar received blessings because she obeyed God. She was just a simple servant girl. But God blessed her by multiplying her offspring. She became the mother of a huge nation.

So there are four things you see in this passage that can be applied to your life. First, God will be with you: second, he will be honest with you: third, he will ask you to do difficult things, but when you are obedient, he will bless you.

Hagar was not someone with power, wealth, or influence. She was just a servant girl. But she put her trust in God, and God blessed her beyond anything she could imagine. Even if you don’t think you are important or have much influence, God can use you and bless you if you put your trust in Him.

Dancing with Jesus

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The Trinity and Spiritual Formation

My work as a hospice chaplain often leads me to be with a person in their last moments of life. There was a family I was with recently who asked me to pray for their loved one. He had become unconscious and was near death. He had told them the day before that his last wish was to have a Christian version of the last rites. It seems he had drifted from the Lord for a few years before getting sick and ending up in a skilled nursing facility. He was repentant and had prayed for forgiveness, but was not physically able to go to church. I spent a few minutes offering spiritual counsel to the family. We sang Amazing Grace at the bedside. I prayed over the gentleman, asking God to forgive any sins that he had committed (John 20:23), and asked the Lord to prepare him for Heaven anointing the gentleman with oil. Then we prayed the Lord’s prayer together. It was a simple ritual, but it brought peace to the family, and I saw a noticeable calm come over the gentleman as if a big weight had been removed from his shoulders. No sooner had I said, “Amen” at the end of the Lord’s prayer, as I watched him, than the man released his last breath and passed into eternity.

There is an old Chris Rice song called “Come to Jesus.” The first part of the song goes like this:

Weak and wounded sinner
Lost and left to die
Oh, raise your head for Love is passing by

Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus and live

This elderly man had come to Jesus to make peace with him at the very end of his life. The rest of the story was that the man and his wife, (who was present at his death), had been married for 71 years. Within days, his wife also passed from this life. They had spent nearly their whole lives together, and now they were together in death. They were both Christians and passed into Heaven.

One of the tenets of the Christian faith is the theology of the Trinity. Spiritual transformation emerges from the Trinitarian nature of the God we serve.  The Trinity teaches us how God is relational, loving, and gracious. There is unity in the will of God, as we also see they are submissive to each other. The Trinity is a difficult concept for our human finite minds to comprehend. There is only one God. At the same time, God is three divine persons existing in one infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being.

Christians have always struggled to describe the Trinity. But the very nature of the Trinity teaches us the nature of spiritual formation and the relationship of Christians with God and each other. The ancient Christian writers used the Greek word “perichoresis” to describe the relationship between the triune Godhead. This word literally can be translated “dance around.” This term paints a picture for us of how each member of the Trinity indwells each other and flows between each member.  The late Eugene Peterson, the writer of the Message version of the Bible, describes perichoresis as exchanging partners on a dance floor. There is beauty and rhythm to the dance. As the dance continues, one finds themselves dancing with the Father, then a moment later with the Son followed by the Holy Spirit, twirling and dancing around and around.

The Chris Rice song, “Come to Jesus” goes on to say the following:

Oh and when the love spills over
And music fills the night
And when you can’t contain your joy inside

Then dance for Jesus
Dance for Jesus
Dance for Jesus and live

I’m reminded of how the Bible describes a couple united in marriage. Ephesians 5:31(ESV) says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is not a perfect example since a married couple is not three, but two. The love flowing between a husband and wife; the mutual affirmation; promoting the welfare of the other and protecting each other is a great, though simple example of what happens with the Trinity. A unity candle is often lit during a wedding ceremony. In this ceremony, two candles are lit, one for the husband and one for the wife. Each takes their candle and lights a single candle symbolizing the uniting of the two flames into one. They then snuff their individual candles showing they were no longer an individual but a unified couple. So they begin a partnership, moving as one, in the dance of life.

The rhythmic, harmonious relationship, the dance of the Trinity, gives a wonderful example to us of the process of spiritual formation. Each member of the Trinity has a specific function or job. God the Father gave the plan of salvation, the Son provided the means of redemption for us. The Holy Spirit is the sanctifier that fills Christians. God is three, but the three are not divided but united. We are to follow the leading of Christ. Jesus said, in John 21:22, “Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” Jesus is our dance partner, and we are to follow his lead. Peter encourages that as well. He wrote in 1 Peter 2:21, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” Peter is saying we should imitate Christ as we follow him. When we mimic Jesus, our life will affirm, encourage, and bless others. God is a God of love, and as we follow Him we demonstrate the love of God to community. In John 13:34-35 Jesus laid out for us what this looks like. He said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this, all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The unity demonstrated in the Trinity demonstrates how we should be loving and seeking Christian fellowship and community. It shows how we should desire to be close to other believers, and be connected to them in community. At the same time, it shows how we need to be acknowledged as an individual and have our own space. If we have too much union, we lose our sense of self and we feel suffocated. If we have too much space away from others we will begin to feel lonely. We need a combination of both unity and space.

God does not only want us to have community with other believers and fellowship with Him. He is also a missional God and wants to bring others into fellowship with Him. He sends us as his representative to reach others through evangelism. In the great commission, Jesus told us to go. In Matthew 28:19-20 he said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Salvation is not just about going to Heaven when we die. There is so much more! There is a new life and a relationship now. God seeks to restore fellowship with us here and now. Having this intimate relationship with God in the present, makes our going home that much sweeter. The last part of Chris Rice’s song, “Come to Jesus” puts it this way:

With your final heartbeat
Kiss the world goodbye
Then go in peace, and laugh on Glory’s side

And fly to Jesus
Fly to Jesus
Fly to Jesus and live

So to summarize, spiritual transformation, the community of believers, and the Great Commission come together for Christians. We are to take these three actions, in emulating the Trinity. First, believers are to be united in community with other followers of Jesus Christ. Fellowship with other Christians is not optional. We are told to not forsake coming together with other Christians (Hebrews 10:25). Secondly, we are to be actively involved in leading other sinners to Jesus Christ. We introduce a new dance partner to those who are lonely, broken, and hurting, without the loving Savior. Sharing the good news of the Gospel should become a way of life for us. Finally, third, as we strive to imitate Christ, partnering with the Holy Spirit, spiritual transformation begins to take place. We are transformed day by day into the image of Christ. That should be the goal of every Christian, to become more and more like Jesus.

Is There a New Testament Tithe?

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Have you ever found a scary bug in your bedroom? The other day, there was a huge spider on my bedroom wall. This thing was the size of a silver dollar. This kind of spider is fast and can move into hiding places very quickly. They can also jump. I don’t have a spider phobia, but one this big staring at me makes me feel very uncomfortable.

Spiders are great in the garden and in the yard. They eat many harmful insects and spiders. There are several articles online about the density of spiders. Many of them are so tiny they are hard to see, and according to many of these articles, we are probably always within three feet of a spider. Spiders can be very beneficial and have a part in the ecosystem. But not in my bedroom, and especially not when I am barefoot and in my bathrobe! There are a couple of options when you come across a scary-looking spider in your home. You can try to catch a big spider like this and safely release it outside, or you can find a shoe or a rolled-up newspaper and kill it. I found a third option, I used a vacuum cleaner and sucked it up, and then put it out in the garbage (so it couldn’t make its way back out of my vacuum cleaner). It may have been a little dizzy, but otherwise, it seemed no worse for the experience.

So what does this story have to do with tithing? Well, there are many churches that dispute whether tithing is just an Old Testament command or if it is still viable in the New Testament church. It depends on whom you ask. If you are the one paying the church bills, you are more likely to sing the praises of paying tithes.

If you are a pastor you have probably preached at least 100 homilies on tithing. You probably have many examples of a person giving when they couldn’t afford it who experienced an unexpected windfall that covered all their bills. These stories are common and easy to find.

There was a Pastor from New York who spoke at a church I was part of when I was a young man. It was one of those sermonettes I will never forget. This man was a friend of our pastor, and he bragged about how he could take up the best offering he ever took. He told the congregation he was not taking up a regular offering, but rather this was a “Protection Offering.” He explained that this offering would be one that God was requiring everyone needed to participate in because it would ensure the Lord would watch over us and not remove his hand of protection. He then told the story of a family who ignored his words, did not give in the protection offering, and died the same night. The guest pastor told us if we didn’t have any money to borrow something from our neighbor to put in. That kind of charlatan money collection left a bad taste in my mouth.

This blog entry is not to determine whether it is scriptural to require a tithe in the New Testament, Church Age. Rather, it is about the spiritual discipline of giving. The Apostle Paul talked a lot about Christian discipline. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (ESV) he wrote: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” In this passage, Paul talks about how a runner must discipline himself to win the prize at the end. It’s not talking about working harder to win salvation, but rather to finish strong. Just as an athlete has to practice discipline in exercise, how they eat, and sleep so a Christian disciple needs to have spiritual disciplines.

Paul wrote to the young pastor Timothy encouraging him to practice discipline. He wrote in 1 Timothy 4:7, “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” Paul knew that if you want to develop into being more Christ-like, you must follow spiritual disciplines. There is an old saying, I’m not sure where it comes from, but it rings true. “Sow a thought, reap an act; sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” Spiritual disciplines when practiced regularly become good habits that lend themselves to spiritual formation in our lives.

There are many different spiritual disciplines. I have talked about several of these in different blogs. One that is often overlooked is the spiritual discipline of giving. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Giving, just like exercise, can be difficult at first. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes, and you will begin to look forward to it. With practice, you will become better at it, whether exercise or giving, and it will bring joy to your life.

At New Hope Church where I pastor in Redding, CA, we take up an offering every week. We believe in giving as a spiritual discipline. The Old Testament talks about giving your first fruits to God, which is described as a tithe. A tithe is literally ten percent. In other words, if you made $100, you were expected to give $10 back to the Lord. If you made $1000, you were expected to give $100 back to the Lord, and so on. We teach at New Hope to give cheerfully to the work of the Lord. We also suggest 10% as a good target. For some people this is very hard, so I encourage them to start with a set amount each month. Perhaps give 1% to start. But don’t stay there. Over time, as the Lord blesses them, they can try giving 2%, then 3%, and so on. This involves discipline, but as you give you will find yourself wanting to give more to the work of the Lord. This is part of your offering of praise to the Lord.

Just like that scary spider on the wall in my bedroom, in the right place it can do a whole lot of good. Paying a tithe should not be a matter of pride or a requirement of righteousness, but it is a spiritual discipline that can be given with cheerfulness and joy as we serve the Lord.

Book Review of “Foundational Issues in Christian Education” by Robert W. Pazmino

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This is an interesting book on Christian education.  Early in the book, the author says, “In the ultimate sense, God is the teacher in Biblical Education.  God is the author and discloser of all truth and both teachers and students alike stand under this truth” (Pg. 22. Baker Academic. 2008.).  He goes on to say, “Teachers are responsible as stewards and proclaimers of God’s truth” (Ibid).  As disciple-makers, we are in fact teachers, so it is very important for us to understand the role of God as the ultimate teacher in our discipleship plan.  Earlier in this chapter, the author writes:

“Scripture is the essential source for understanding distinctively Christian elements in education.  Therefore it is crucial that the Christian educator’s thoughts and practices be guided by God’s revealed truths as he or she seeks to be obedient to Christ in the task of education” (19).

 The author makes an interesting note about Augustine in relation to bringing hope through teaching.  He says, “In response to the lack of faithful living, the prophets in their teaching bring a message of hope, anger and courage that the great North African teacher Augustine described: ‘Hope has two lovely daughters anger and courage.  Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they need not remain as they are” (33-34) It seems teachers and disciple makers have a very important role and have a lot of influence with people.  A little later, the author says, “The purpose of making disciples is totally dependent on sharing the content of Jesus’s own teachings, those truths revealed by God with direct implications for life” (35).

One of the foundations.  Pazmino writes:

“Philosophy can be literally defined as, ‘the love of wisdom.’ Christians are reminded in scripture that it is the Lord who gives wisdom and that from his mouth come knowledge and understanding (Prov. 2:6), and that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge or wisdom (Prov. 1:7, 9:10)” (86).  

After setting up the foundation of philosophy, and how it leads to knowledge, the author talks about the importance of getting a good education.  Experience is important, but we can’t ignore a good education and simply rely on experience.  He talks about a proverb, “Experience is the best teacher but is the school of a fool.” And “Experience is a dear school but fools will learn in no other.” And finally, “Experience is not sufficient for education” (88).  I really like this.  It’s a great reminder to us that we should never try to go it alone when it comes to teaching.  A disciple maker needs the local church, and should never try to be a “lone ranger” without the backing of the local church.  We may have a lot of experience, but a solid Biblical education is so important, and if we don’t have that (or even if we do) we don’t just go it all alone.

 Another great point I really like has to do with learning from history.  I have always been interested in church history, and especially early church history.  We can learn a great deal from looking at how the early church handled discipleship.  The author wrote, “Christians can learn from the past to gain insights for current and future needs” (129).

The author has a lot to say about several other great topics when considering education and discipleship.  At one time I was the Sunday School superintendent for a large church.  Some of our teachers insisted they didn’t need to use the curriculum the church was providing, because they felt more comfortable teaching their own material, i.e. they would study and put together something for themselves each Sunday.  Unfortunately, we started getting complaints that a particular teacher was not very good.  He was a great guy, friendly, and had a heart for kids, but the kids were not getting anything out of his class.  We had a sit-down and asked him to reconsider using the curriculum.  We told him to try using the Sunday school curriculum for one quarter, and if he still thought he would rather do his own thing, we could readdress it then.  Well, this teacher went from having one of the worst reviews to one of the best. Using the material the church provided made him a better teacher. This example doesn’t mean that there are no exceptions, but generally speaking good curriculum will make all the difference.  The author writes on this subject, “Curriculum is the vehicle or the medium through which educational vision takes root” (234).

I would recommend this book to pastors, teachers, and anyone looking to be a disciple-maker.  It has a lot of good insight and food for thought.  In seeking knowledge, this is a good book to open ministry to bring an understanding of some of the principles of education. In practical terms, spiritual formation is something better taught using the wisdom and knowledge of experts in the field.

How to Become a Disciple

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Have you ever admired someone and thought someday you would be like them? Maybe it was a sports figure or a celebrity.  I’ve had a few people I looked up to over the years. These were people I considered great Christians who seemed to walk closely with the Lord.

When I was about 18, I started Bible college in Sacramento. I didn’t know how I was going to pay for anything, I didn’t know how I was going to eat or take care of myself. I just knew God was calling me to do something in ministry so I stepped out on faith that he would meet my needs.

I needed a stack of books for my classes, but I had no money and no job. I got a bill for the books and didn’t know how I was going to pay for them. The next morning, I walk into my room, and someone had left a whole stack of books, the very ones I needed, on my bed. There was a note saying God had taken care of my book bill. Someone had paid for my books and wanted to bless me.

Years later, I found out that an older student named Don La Barbara had purchased them for me.  I had really liked Don and looked up to him as a godly man. He’s a man who knows how to pray and hear from the Lord. I ended up dropping out of Bible college, that’s another story for another time, but I lost touch with Don. We reconnected 20 or so years later. He was on my board of directors for Gold Country Chaplaincy. He recently turned 86. He is a great man of God, and I still look up to him.

There are some people who pray, and God just seems to react to their prayers. It seems they have a special relationship with the Lord. I thought when I was a young Christian that someday when I became more mature and older that sin would not be such an issue for me. I would be closer to the Lord, and it would be easy to live for Christ. These things would not affect me the way they did. As a young man, I thought if I prayed more: if I memorized scripture: if I resisted sin more, then I would draw closer to God, and I would be able to just kind of coast along for the rest of my life. I thought prayer would become as natural as breathing, and the devil would realize I’m going all the way with Jesus and leave me alone.

Unfortunately, our spiritual life doesn’t work that way. My dreams of spirituality coming naturally crashed on the rocks.

What I discovered is spiritual warfare is real. Our spiritual formation is something that takes a lifetime. There are no shortcuts. It’s never easy. Those who seem “super spiritual” have gone through deep tragedy, heartache, and severe trials to get to where they are. They have gone through the fire. When we don’t use our physical muscles, they atrophy. We become weaker. I used to do a lot of weightlifting when I was young. I was very strong, and could easily lift my own weight and more. But staying strong like that required that I keep lifting weights.

The same is true spiritually. If you want to be strong, your spiritual faith muscles must be exercised.

One real problem in the church today, is we are taught we can become a Christian without ever becoming a disciple of Jesus. So many today are told to say that they believe in Christ, but you don’t have to live as if you believe. I like to call that getting your fire insurance paid up. There used to be a common bumper sticker that said, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” There is some truth to that. The problem is we have been taught to simply use that as an excuse instead of trying to do better.

Jesus never told his disciples to make converts. The fact is Jesus often talked about the difficulties of following him. From a marketing strategy, he was the opposite of a high-pressure salesperson. Here is what Jesus had to say about following him found in Luke 14:25-33, “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you,saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’

“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”

Salvation is the first step. Unfortunately, the church started preaching an easy salvation and has ignored discipleship. In other words, we would teach the ABCs of salvation. Accept Jesus Christ as your savior. Believe he died and was resurrected on the third day. Commit your life to Jesus Christ. And that’s it. When you die, you get to go to Heaven. But really, that’s just the beginning. That’s not the end of things. I can remember the church teaching me to just get someone saved – to say a sinner’s prayer, then no matter what else happens the rest of their life they are going to go to Heaven when they die. They told me there was no need to see any fruit of being a Christian in their lives, as long as they said the words.

There is a big difference between a conversion-centered Gospel and a disciple-centered Gospel. Jesus preached a disciple-centered Gospel, and that is what we preach here at New Hope.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is one of the Kingdom of God. Jesus preached that we can have a present relationship with him. When the church started preaching just conversion, their only goal was to prevent people from going to Hell or missing the rapture. The problem is, people get the attitude that they are going to Heaven, so they don’t need to do anything else. Discipleship is like a second level to them. It’s not something necessary and is reserved for super Christians and pastors. But the reality is, Jesus wants us all to be disciples, not just converts. The Bible says that the entry-level of being a Christian is being a disciple. It’s interesting to note that the title Christian is only used 4 times in the New Testament, whereas the title disciple is used at least 265 times.

The word for disciple is mathetes (Math-ay-tes) in Greek. This means student, apprentice, or learner. This was normally associated with someone who faithfully followed a teacher or a leader.

Dallas Willard once said, “The New Testament is a book about disciples, by disciples, and for disciples of Jesus Christ.

       Willard goes on to say, “The disciple of Jesus is not the deluxe or heavy-duty model of the Christian – especially padded, textured, streamlined and empowered for the fast lane on the straight and narrow way. He stands on the pages of the New Testament as the first level of basic transportation in the Kingdom of God.”

To grow in Christ, and be a disciple of Jesus, and not just a convert, we do have to put in some effort. Salvation is a free gift from God. We can’t earn it, we don’t deserve it, it is a gift of Grace from God. We owed a debt we could never repay, and Jesus paid the debt that he didn’t owe by dying on the cross for us. So salvation is not something we can earn. But our spiritual formation is something that we team up with the Holy Spirit to accomplish. Spiritual transformation is how we over time are transformed to be more and more like Jesus.

The work of transformation is God’s work, but we are not to be passive in that. Philippians 2:12-13 says, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Salvation is a work of Jesus Christ. He completely accomplished this on the cross. Being a disciple is about us and God working together.

Titus 2:11-14 says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

The same Grace that saves us becomes the grace that teaches us. It’s a lifelong process. It’s not just that we are forgiven, so someday we will get to go to Heaven and avoid Hell.

In the time of Christ, when a person wanted to learn a trade, they would become like a servant of the person who had the trade they wanted to learn. So for example, if a person wanted to be a rabbi, they would move in with the rabbi. They would do anything the rabbi needed to be done. This might be cleaning, cooking, and washing the rabbi’s feet. The servant or disciple of the rabbi would be constantly around the rabbi as they went about their work. They would observe what the rabbi did, and be taught by the rabbi. They would spend time with the rabbi, day in and day out until the disciple learned everything about the rabbi, and after several years, they would become much like the rabbi. They will have learned enough to call themselves a rabbi and be able to take a position as a rabbi with disciples of their own.

The same would be true of other trades. If you wanted to be a carpenter, or a tentmaker like Paul. You would apprentice yourself and learn to be like your teacher.

Many years later during the time of kings and knights, a person wanting to become a knight would find a knight looking for a squire. A squire would become the armor bearer for the knight. They would live with the knight and serve him. They would be responsible for caring for the armor, cleaning it, polishing it, and keeping it up. They would serve the knight and all of his wishes. Over time learning to joust, to fight, and how to be honorable. If they learned all their lessons well, and they served the knight faithfully eventually they too could become a knight.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we serve the Lord and try to do whatever he asks us to do. But we also have lessons to be learned. There are spiritual disciplines for us to practice that draw us closer to Him. There are several spiritual disciplines. Some examples would be studying the Bible, praying, attending church, and doing good works. Over a lifetime, we can become more and more like Christ.

So a disciple could be broken down in its simplest form to one who is a faithful student and a servant. We are formed through the spiritual formation to be like our teacher, Jesus. We serve him and spend time with him, and learn the lessons he wants us to learn.

Some people think the way to become more like Christ is to grit your teeth, get determined, and resist sin with all the willpower you can muster. Have you ever thought that way? If you only try hard enough you will be able to lose weight; if you only try hard enough, you will be able to get in shape; if you only try hard enough, you will be able to overcome sin and live more like Christ. With enough willpower and hard work, you can do anything you need to do.

Willpower is important. Sometimes you can accomplish a lot by just trying hard and having willpower. But we cannot become more like Jesus by just using willpower alone. If we only depend on our own strength, eventually we are going to fail. We all sin. I sin every day, not because I want to but because I have a sinful nature.

Thinking that we can do it in our own strength is a way that leads to failure, guilt, and feelings of discouragement.

John 8:31-32, “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples,and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

I was recently ministering to an 86-year-old woman. She had some questions about what it means to be a Christian. One of her concerns was a difficult passage in the Bible where Jesus said in Matthew 6:14-15, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” She said she had never been able to forgive her mother and father for how they had treated her and her brothers and sisters growing up. Her father was a womanizer, a thief, very abusive, and a pedophile, and her mother was aware of it, and seemingly supported what he was doing. They practiced seances in their home, and welcomed evil spirits in. She told me about a lot of the horrible things her parents did to her and her siblings.

I explained to her that forgiveness is a choice, not necessarily a feeling. And forgiving does not excuse what they did. Romans 12:18-19 says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” I explained how when someone does something to us like what happened to her, we may have to keep forgiving and ask God to help us forgive.

Remember the man who brought his son to Jesus for healing. He asked Jesus if he could heal his son. Jesus said all things are possible to him that believes. He told Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” Jesus healed the boy. In the same way, we may have to ask the Lord to help us forgive. We choose to forgive or to hold a grudge, but forgiveness may not be a one-time thing. We may have to forgive every day and ask God to help us forgive every day.  This woman prayed to become a Christian and asked God to help her forgive. She then asked to be baptized, so I explained baptism to her and baptized her. This question was something she had struggled with for years. At 86 years old, we have a new sister in the Lord.

It’s not all about willpower. We need the Lord’s help to overcome sin. See there are three sources of temptation that come against us. 1. Comes from our own fleshly desires. We have a sinful nature that wants to continue in sin. Our flesh is extremely selfish and wants to do what makes it feel good, no matter whom it hurts. Paul described it as a dead man attached to us. He said, “Oh, wretched man that I am, who will set me free from this body of death.” 2. Secondly, we live in a fallen world. Since the sin of Adam and Eve, the world is corrupt and seeks to have everyone act out in pride, arrogance, and have our own way as opposed to following God. Bad things happen to us not because God wants them to happen, but because we live in a fallen world. 3. Finally, the devil and his demons will try to tempt us and lead us away from the Lord. The only way we can overcome these three is with the help of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t mean that we are passive and don’t do anything, but we partner with the Holy Spirit working together to overcome sin and temptation.

This is the final point I want us to look at today.

When we look at how Jesus called the disciples, we never see him making a sales pitch. He never says, “Follow me and life will be grand.” Or “Come to me, and your life will be so much easier.”

When Jesus called Andrew and Peter he said, “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”  That sounds like Jesus is saying, “follow me and I will put you to work.”

Steven Curtis Chapman wrote a song a few years ago called “For the Sake of the Call.” I think he put the call of Jesus so eloquently. The first few stanzas go like this:

We will abandon it all for the sake of the call

No other reason at all but the sake of the call

Wholly devoted to live and to die for the sake of the call

Nobody stood and applauded them

So they knew from the start

This road would not lead to fame

All they really knew for sure

Was Jesus had called to them

He said “come follow Me” and they came

With reckless abandon, they came

Empty nets lying there at the water’s edge

Told a story that few could believe

And none could explain

How some crazy fishermen agreed to go where Jesus lead

With no thought to what they would gain

For Jesus had called them by name

And they answered…

We will abandon it all for the sake of the call

No other reason at all but the sake of the call

Wholly devoted to live and to die for the sake of the call

If you have never given your life and heart to Christ, if you have never made that decision to become a Christian, you can do that today. Jesus told us to count the cost. The 86-year-old woman I talked about looked at forgiving her father and mother. This was the biggest cost to her. She weighed it and decided it was worth the cost.

Coming to Christ is not just about avoiding Hell and going to Heaven when we die. That is very important. But this is about living your life for Christ. It’s about having a relationship with God starting right now.

Statistics show that young people come to Christ a lot easier than older people. I think that is because when they count the cost, there is a lot less to consider. But just like that 86-year-old woman last week, or the 101-year-old woman I had the privilege of seeing come to Christ a few months ago, we have to decide, is it worth it?

Jesus is calling your name today. Will you answer that call?

Jesus said in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

You may say you have not been so bad. Or maybe you think you are not a sinner at all. But have you ever told a lie? The Bible says if you have ever told a lie, you are a liar. Have you ever stolen anything? The Bible says that makes you a thief. The Bible says that every liar and every thief will have their part in the Lake of Fire along with murderers, pedophiles, prostitutes, and drunkards.  Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

There are only two kinds of people who get to avoid Hell and go to Heaven. The first is all the perfect people, who never break any of the ten commandments. The problem is, there has only ever been one person who was perfect, and that was Jesus Christ. That means he is the only one qualified to get to Heaven that way. The other people that get to go the Heaven are those who let someone else pay the cost.

Jesus was willing to go to the cross, to shed his blood for our sins, and to die in our place, without any guarantee that anyone would accept his free gift of salvation. He wants us to count the cost and determine if we will follow him, just like those crazy fishermen. Will you answer that call today?

Book Review of The Kingdom Life: A Practical Theology of Discipleship and Spiritual Formation, Edited by Alan Andrews. NavPress 2010.

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This is a wonderful, life changing book. This is not said lightly. I do a lot of reading in spiritual formation, and much of what I read is mediocre. This book is excellent, well thought out, and well edited. Each chapter comes from a leader in spiritual formation as they explore the basic elements of spiritual formation as well as the theology of spiritual formation. It starts out with a chapter by Dallas Willard, and has other authors such as Keith Meyer; Peggy Reynoso; Paula Fuller; Bruce Demarest; Richard E. Averbeck and several others.

Bill Hull talks about how, for many Christians, we have been given a false notion about our spiritual walk. He says on page 106, “A young person who also is an new Christian often has a vision of his or her religious future. But often that vision is inaccurate.” He goes on to explain how Christians often think that as they get older they will naturally draw closer to Jesus, and temptation to sin will simply go away. He later writes on the same page, “The inexperienced follower of Jesus knows that his or her spiritual formation is a lifelong experience. Life continues to surprise those who live it.”

This book gives a great breakdown of the theology behind spiritual formation. It doesn’t just make you “feel good” about spiritual formation, but demonstrates from scripture the practical aspects. It acts as a guide through the scriptures looking at various aspects of spiritual formation and the spiritual disciplines.

My recommendation is you pick up a copy of this book if you are serious about understanding spiritual formation and getting a solid foundation for why you believe what you believe about being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

What is the Secret to Real Joy?

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My heart felt like it would explode with joy this past weekend. First, I got to hold my new granddaughter born just a week ago. Second I graduated with my Doctor of Ministry in spiritual formation and leadership from Epic Bible College and Graduate School. This was the fulfillment of a dream I have had most of my life. The third was a real surprise. This is me and my friend David at my graduation. We have not seen each other in about 42 years. It was 45 years ago that David led me to Jesus Christ, and I became a Christian. This completely changed my life. I would not be the person I am today if not for that moment 45 years ago.

My family growing up was not Christian. I was rough and tumble and loved to fight. I drank a lot of alcohol as a teenager and was headed down a very dark path. My family moved from Oregon to California when I was a young teen, and because of my size and height, I quickly became a bully. I was rebelling hard. We lived a couple of miles from my school, and I had to walk to school every day. A new family moved into my neighborhood, and that is when I met David. Being a bully, I can remember punching him in the gut when he annoyed me. But over time, we started walking to school together and became friends.

David began inviting me to church and his youth group. The last thing I wanted to do was to go to church, and I did my best to corrupt David. Every time he would invite me to church, I would make up an excuse why I couldn’t go, and then start cursing and talking about how immorality was such fun. A turning point came one day when I got into a fight and blacked out. I was so furious; I didn’t know what I was doing. A school bell rang snapping me out of my blind rage, and I found myself on top of my rival with intentions to do him bodily harm. This really scared me. I had never lost control in a fight like that before. My Dad had talked about having rage moments, where he would be so angry he would black out with rage, but this was the first time I had ever experienced it.

Shortly after I lost control in a schoolyard brawl, I started thinking about telling David yes the next time he asked me to go to church. I had run out of excuses for not going to church with him. Sometime later he asked me to go again, and I found myself visiting his church. It was OK. There were some other teens from my school, which surprised me. And the youth group was kind of fun. Something began to stir down in my heart and spirit.

When we went to church, we sat in the back pew. They sang old hymns and then the pastor got up to speak. The pastor actually held my attention at least partially. Towards the end, he began talking about what it means to be a Christian. He told us we were all sinners and deserved to go to Hell. He didn’t have to tell me I was a sinner. I was rotten to the core, and I knew it. He then started talking about the love of God, and how Jesus Christ loved me so much he was willing to go to the cross to die in my place. This struck me hard. He recited John 3:16 which says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish but have everlasting life.” I don’t know if I had ever heard that before, but hearing it this time moved me. I knew I wanted the forgiveness of God. I knew I wanted a relationship with Jesus Christ.

The next thing that happened was the pastor asked anyone who wanted to become a Christian to get out of their pew and make their way down to the front. There was absolutely no way I was going to do that. I was “white knuckling” the pew I was sitting in. But the next thing I knew, I was standing up and walking up to meet the pastor. The Holy Spirit was moving so strongly on me, I knew it was time to stop fighting and come to Christ.

The pastor asked me to go to a back room with the youth pastor Jess, and he explained in more detail about what it meant to become a Christian and start a relationship with Jesus Christ. I knew I wanted this, and he had me say a prayer, confessing my sin, acknowledging the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and asking him to save me.  I knew something happened. An immediate change began in me. Not everything went at once, but over time a lot of stuff started falling off. I got rid of my pornography collection and stopped drinking alcohol. My choice of language started changing, and I began to give up the filthy jokes I used to tell. It took time, but God began changing my heart. 

Spiritual transformation began all those years ago with a decision to accept the offer of Christ of salvation and a relationship. That decision has influenced every decision I have made since then. (My newest grandbaby is one result) God began to change me. Romans 12:1-2 (MSG) tells us, “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”

The spiritual formation of the heart begins to take place as we make being a disciple of Jesus Christ a priority. God used my friend David to introduce me to Jesus Christ, but I had to decide whether I would serve God or serve myself. God’s grace, his unearned, and unmerited favor saved me. He immediately began a work in me. C.S. Lewis talked about how Christians like to play it safe with God. He challenges us to take the risk and serve the Lord unconditionally and give Him our all. He said, in The Weight of Glory:

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

I challenge you to take a risk with God. Give yourself fully to him. Don’t hold anything back. Commit to serving him with all of your heart, learn more about spiritual formation, and see how God changes you and gives you joy like you have never experienced before.

The Journey of Spiritual Formation: Seeking the Kingdom of God

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We all yearn for a sense of purpose and belonging as Christians. This innate desire has led many on a journey. This journey has been described as spiritual formation, seeking a deeper connection and relationship with Jesus, and the Kingdom of God.

Spiritual formation is a process of intentionally growing in relationship with God through various spiritual practices such as prayer, silence, meditation, Bible study, worship, and service. It is a transformational journey that draws us closer to God and helps us understand our identity and purpose in Christ.

God invites us to participate in His divine plan of bringing wholeness and healing to the world. We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, to seek peace and pursue justice, and to be agents of hope and reconciliation.

This journey is not always easy. We may face moments of doubt, fear, or uncertainty. Sometimes we will have setbacks. But we can take comfort in knowing that God is with us every step of the way, guiding us through the ups and downs of life.

I want to invite you to embark on this journey of spiritual formation with humility, grace, and a hunger for more of God. May we be transformed into the likeness of Christ and become agents of change in the world.

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” – Matthew 6:33

Paul talked about not laying again the foundations of repentance and faith in Hebrews 6. Salvation is the foundation. But what comes next? How does spiritual formation fit into the Kingdom of God? Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God and invited us to become part of it. Mark 1:14-15 (ESV) says, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

The Kingdom of God could be defined as the realm of God’s activity, the reality of the resurrection of Christ, and God’s mission for the world. We are invited to become disciples, and followers of Jesus, and to live continuously, right now, in the Kingdom of God. As we follow Jesus, and conform our lives to his, we are spiritually formed into his image. We become more and more like Jesus.

Dallas Willard wrote about the Kingdom of God in his book called, “The Spirit of the Disciplines.” Great book by the way. Anyway, He wrote, “There is a deep longing among Christians and non-Christians alike for the personal purity and power to live as our hearts tell us we should. What we need is a deeper insight into our practical relationship with God in redemption. We need an understanding that can guide us into constant interaction with the Kingdom of God as a real part of our daily lives.”

When we become Christians, we are brought in to the Kingdom of God. Paul describes it in Colossians 1:13 “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.”

When we enter the Kingdom of God, we are like babes in Christ and have yet to grow and be spiritually transformed. In John chapter 3, a story is told of a man who came to Jesus at night asking how to be saved. Jesus told the Pharisee Nicodemus he had to be born again. He had to become a brand-new life. This interaction is found in John 3:3-8, “Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born againhe cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

We are born of water at our physical birth. When a pregnant woman’s water breaks, we know that a newborn baby is coming.

Let’s read on. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

So what happens to a newborn baby? My wife and I were recently blessed with a new grandbaby. She is spending a couple of weeks with my daughter and son-in-law as they adjust to having a new baby in the home. Babies must eat, drink, and be taken care of. They begin to grow and learn. They don’t just stay babies. As they grow, they begin to push themselves to crawl, walk, and run. They are active!

We are called to spiritual growth. Growth is healthy. When something stops growing, it begins to die. It’s the same in the Kingdom of God. We should never stop growing in Christ as long as we live. Spiritual formation is not something that happens instantly but rather is something that occurs over the lifetime of the believer.

When we see Jesus in the Gospels, he is taking the Kingdom of God to the regular people. We constantly see him ministering not to the Scribes and Pharisees, not to the religious leaders, but rather to those whom the religious leaders considered unfit for the Kingdom of God. He went especially to those who were thought hopeless. Jesus often ate with publicans and sinners. The doors of the Kingdom of Heaven were swung open wide to them.

Jesus gave a beautiful description of the Kingdom of God in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, 6, 7.  It is a Gospel presentation combined with the blessings of the Kingdom of God.

Remember, Jesus, is talking to the common people. He was not talking to the religious elite. Matthew 5:3-12 says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus wasn’t saying you must become poor to be blessed. He was speaking to those who were already poor. He was telling them, you are blessed!

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Jesus wasn’t saying you have to mourn to be blessed. He was talking to people who were already mourning. He was telling them they were blessed.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Jesus was telling these people, the meek and gentle of the world, you are blessed! You are hearing the Gospel! You are being visited by your Messiah!

 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”Jesus made it clear that we are to seek to serve the Lord. We don’t just get Saved, and then sit back on our hands and do nothing. Again, Matthew 6:33 tells us to Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you. We are to seek and continue seeking the Lord.

 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Jesus talks about how blessed the poor in spirit are, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, and so on. He was not talking to the Pharisees or the religious leaders of his time. His audience was basically rejected by the religious leaders and were not people they would have considered blessed. They were frowned upon. Jesus was telling them they were blessed because he was opening the door of the Kingdom of God to all of them. He was telling them they can be blessed by becoming part of the Kingdom of God. Jesus irritated the religious elite of his time who thought those in this state were under the curse of God.

Jesus gave the good news to the poor in spirit for a change. Rather than telling them they were under God’s curse, Jesus tells them they are blessed. It really hit the Jews hard in their theology. This is not what they thought.

Matthew 11:12 is an interesting passage. It says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.“ At first glance, some people even today think this means Christians stealing the wealth of non-Christians. There is an old saying, “Name it and claim it in Jesus’ name.” It’s the idea from the Prosperity Gospel that God is going to take away the wealth of non-Christians and give it to Christians who have enough faith. This is not at all what this passage is talking about.

Many years ago I heard the story about a man who went to one of “those” kinds of churches. One day he went to a car lot in Sacramento. The owner of this car lot was a very well-known celebrity in the area at that time. He owned car lots in Sacramento and several nearby cities, and was on television all the time with his commercials. This man walked onto this car lot, walked all around it and when he was asked what he was doing, he said he was claiming the car lot in Jesus name. He said the owner was a sinner, and that God was going to take it away from the owner and give it to him.  This got back to the owner of the car lot. He was disgusted. He talked about this publicly and said he had been considering the claims of Christ, and was near to becoming a Christian prior to this event. He was so disgusted by what this man did, that he said if this is what Christianity is about, he wants nothing to do with it.

This passage is not talking about being an obnoxious or arrogant Christian. It is talking about something that is repeated over and over in the Gospels. It is talking about access to the Kingdom of God for individuals who would not be the first ones chosen in a school yard pick. These are people who the religious leaders of the day would say are disqualified. They don’t do the right things all the time.

This passage is talking about a leper who came to Jesus for healing. Lepers had a horrible disease that would cause rot in their flesh. It was worse than Covid. They were considered very contagious and not supposed to come anywhere near other people. As a matter of fact they were supposed to yell, “Unclean” anytime they saw someone approaching them. This little leper had probably heard Jesus speak, and had at least heard of the miracles that followed him. He got his nerve up and asked Jesus to heal him. He said “Lord if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus said, “I am willing.”  Jesus not only spoke to this man, he reached out and touched him, which was absolutely forbidden by the ruling religious leaders. The Kingdom of God became very real to this man in that moment. The people who witnessed this would have a good idea of what was meant by violence.

This passage means not just standing on the religious norms of who should be in, and who should be out. You don’t have to try to clean yourself up you just come to Jesus. Jesus brings the Kingdom of God to bear on you whether you are an unclean leper, or an unclean Gentile. Whether you are a tax collector, a prostitute, a Roman Centurion, it didn’t matter to Jesus. These are the people of violence described in this passage. They didn’t take the “proper” path to a relationship with God. They were not raised in a religious home, sent to the right schools, and faithful to attend worship every time the doors were opened. They came to Jesus just as they were.  This is how we need to come to Jesus. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 4:20 “The Kingdom of God does not consist in mere words, but in power.” The Jewish leaders of the time of Jesus didn’t see the mission of God, they were only out for themselves. Jesus was trying to reach the entire world with the Gospel, not just those who were already religious.

The Apostle Paul was able to reveal more about the Kingdom of God. He says something interesting In Colossians 1:13-14, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Paul is talking about people being transferred from one kingdom into another. When we become Christians, we are taken from a kingdom of darkness and despair to a kingdom of light, hope, and joy.

There are three basic things you can do that will help you grow. First, get ahold of a Bible and start reading it. This Bible is not just one book, but actually 66 books all in one volume. Start reading the Gospel of John first. The book of John is specifically written to Christians. It will help you understand your role in the Kingdom of God. Second, spend time in prayer. If you have a best friend, you want to talk to them. You want to spend time with them. If you never talk, your friendship will become stale. Make sure you are talking to the Lord. You don’t have to use fancy language to do this. Just talk to Him like you are talking to a best friend. The third thing is to get involved in a good church that teaches the Bible. When you take a hot coal out of a fire and set it by itself, you will notice that coal will go from glowing red, to not glowing at all, and even turning gray. If you put that coal back in the fire it will start glowing again. It’s the same with us. Christians need fellowship with other Christians. Fellowship means having something in common. If you are a Christian, you have Jesus and you have Him in common with other Christians.

So those basic three things will help you grow in the Lord. Let me add one other thing to those three things. Tell others about Jesus and what he has done for you. Jesus was trying to reach the whole world with the Gospel. He wants to use you to help him do that. So there you have the three basic things to grow in Christ + 1.

Salvation from God’s point of view is new life. It’s being born again. We are regenerated. We have a new resurrection life, and God is an active God, and he expects us to be active as well.

1 John 3:2-3, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” This theme of becoming like Christ is what God expects from us. John is saying that in this life we become more and more like Jesus Christ. When we become Christians, God takes us as we are, but he doesn’t leave us there.

Paul taught us not to relay the foundation of salvation. That foundation is vital, but once that foundation is put down, we need to start building. God is an active in his Kingdom, and as members of that Kingdom he expects us to be active in spiritual formation as well.

New Testament Sabbath: Not Meant to be Kept Legalistically

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            Have you ever encountered a Christian who thought they had some special insight on scriptures? Perhaps they believed their church was the only one with this unique knowledge. Or maybe they thought they were smarter than other pastors, and they found some new truth everyone else was missing. I once had a Christian tell me they were “more saved” because they kept the Mosaic Law. To be fair, I think they realized what they said after they spoke the words, but their attitude didn’t change.

Remember, Paul talked about legalistic Christians saying they were the weaker Christians. Those who are legalistic often think they are the strong ones and have a special insight and better understanding than anyone else. But the reality is just the opposite. The Church is under Grace, not the legalism of the Mosaic Law. All believers have freedom in Christ.

            The Apostle Paul spent a lot of time talking about the dangers of casuistry. In Romans 14:1-4 Paul wrote first regarding food sacrificed to idols:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

            Paul is referring to the fact that idols are nothing, so if an animal is sacrificed to an idol it does not contaminate the meat. Meat that had been sacrificed to idols was generally much cheaper than meat that had not been first offered in sacrifice. Paul is saying since idols are nothing, why not get cheaper meat? However, we are not to judge or “despise” the person who does not do the same things we do. John R. W. Stott wrote The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World.. He talks about this argument Paul is discussing in Romans. He writes, “It is inappropriate to reject somebody whom God has welcomed, it is at least as inappropriate to interfere in the relationship between a master and his oiketes, his household slave. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? (4a). In ordinary life such behavior would be regarded as outrageous and would be deeply resented” (94. 361).

In Romans 14:5-9, Paul goes on to specifically talk about holy days. He writes:

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

            John Stott explains the meaning of Paul’s words regarding holy days and refers to those who are weak and those who are strong saying, “He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord (6a). He does it, that is, ‘in honor of the Lord’ (RSV, JB), with the intention of pleasing and honoring him. And the same is true of the one who regards every day alike” (362). Finally, Stott says, because he is our Lord, we must live for him. Because He is also the Lord of our fellow Christians, we must respect their relationship to him and mind our own business. For he died and rose to be Lord” (362).

            The Apostle Paul again addresses legalism in the book of 1 Corinthians. He once more talks about food saying in 1 Corinthians 8:1-3, “Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” This passage by Paul points out how knowledge can make us puffed up, or proud. On the other hand, Paul tells us that love brings edification. He is not saying that knowledge in itself is bad, but knowledge alone is not enough.  Paul is saying in all such matters, whether it be eating, drinking, or keeping or not keeping a specific holy day, we must have love to be an adjunct to our knowledge. We must contemplate not only what is allowed in our freedom as Christians, but also what would be paramount for other believers.  

            Gordon D. Fee wrote a commentary called The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Fee inscribed Paul’s intentions when he wrote 1 Corinthians 8.  He penned:

Once one’s theology is properly in hand, it is especially tempting to use it as a club on others. And in this case, it happens from the theological right as well as from the left. This does not mean that knowledge is either irrelevant or unimportant, but it does mean that it cannot serve as the primary basis of Christian behavior. In Christian ethics ‘knowledge’ must always lead to love. One should always beware of those teachers or systems that entice one by special ‘revelation’ or ‘deeper insights.’ Such appeals are invariably to one’s pride, not to one’s becoming a more truly loving Christian. While it is true that ‘insight’ often leads to ‘freedom,’ it is also true that it often results finally in the demand for ‘freedom’ in the form of ‘rights.’ This is what happened at Corinth. In the Christian faith ‘knowledge’ or ‘insight’ is never an end in itself; it is only a means to a greater end, the building up of others. (1987, 369)

            Contrary to what some who are legalistic might think, Paul says the one with freedom is stronger than the one who is legalistic. A person who is legalistic often thinks they are more knowledgeable and thus are stronger, but Paul clearly says the legalistic Christian is the “weaker brother.” Paul calls out the fallacy of their philosophy.  Vigilance must be taken that one does not take the New Testament sabbath and make it into something it was never meant to be – a legalistic tool to club our Christian brothers and sisters with. God meant it as a gift, not a burden. Keeping a regular Sabbath was never meant to be something for Christians to brag about.

Danger of Arrogance in the Pulpit

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Pastors are extremely busy. There is a constant demand for their time and resources. Unfortunately, the first thing to go is often taking a sabbath day off. There is so much to do, and all of it seems good and worthwhile. After all the Bible tells us to give our all for ministry, “Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:16 KJV) It can be very tempting to think “God cannot do this work without me.” The truth Is God is wiser than all the pastors in the world combined. When a pastor takes a regular day for the sabbath they step out on faith that God will continue working even when they are not. This is what it looks like to acknowledge that God is in control.

A pastor or Christian leader begins telling God that they are wiser than He is when they get into a mindset that they are indispensable. They start to think no one else can fill in for them. Isaiah 5:21 gives the reminder, “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!”
Pride was the sin that caused Satan to think he could put his throne above God’s, which got him thrown out of Heaven. He appealed to the pride of Adam and Eve tempting them in the Garden of Eden. He conveyed the impression that they could become “like God” by simply eating the fruit God had forbidden them to eat.
Pride and arrogance may seem harmless, but can be devastating to a minister. Jesus tells a parable in Luke 18:9-14:
“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

One may think this parable is just for those legalistic pastors who think they are wiser than anyone else and it does not apply to them. But it becomes apparent reading the gospels, that even the disciples had issues with pride and arrogance. They were caught having an argument over who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus told the disciples the one who is humble as a little child is the greatest. If even the Apostles had to wrestle with pride and arrogance, no one should be tempted to think they are exempt.
There is another Old Testament example of the consequences of relying on one’s own ability instead of on God. King David was a mighty warrior and was blessed by the Lord. He had a loyal army that could fight. However, King David decided to number his people to determine how much power he actually had. This displeased the Lord. 1 Chronicles 21:1 records this saying, “Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.” David may have been considering a military draft and wanted to know how many people he could conscribe into military service. The point is, David had no reason to know these numbers if he fully trusted the Lord. God assured King David He would fight for Israel. By numbering the people, David was showing his own doubt and distrust of the Lord. He was taking pride in and trusting in his own abilities.
Pride can be summarized as an arrogant attitude of self-sufficiency. This definition of pride can be demonstrated in habitually omitting a sabbath. By skipping out on taking a Sabbath we are promoting our own self-importance. Following a regular rhythm of observing a sabbath puts trust back on God and that He will help accomplish what needs to be done in six days instead of seven. Sabbath keeping takes away self-exaltation and the philosophy that God needs a particular individual to accomplish his purposes and cannot use anyone else.
The challenge for you is to step out on faith that God will cause things to come together in six days, and take the seventh as a day of rest, worship, and recreation. Realize that God doesn’t need us to accomplish His will. He chooses to use us, but He wants to have fellowship with us. He has a rest available for us, and we can spend time in spiritual formation. As a pastor or Christian leader, there are those who look up to you, and will want to do what you do. If you never take a break, they will not either. If they see you take a day off once a week, for rest, worship, and recreation, they will follow in your example.