Something to Ponder

The book of Psalms tends to become a favourite for people who have faced some challenges in life. Perhaps you have experienced grief over the loss of a loved one, discouragement during a dark season of life, or any other challenges that set the Psalms into vivid colour in our hearts. Once we know of the soul food kept in that storehouse, we tend to find ourselves returning again and again.

Sometimes the Psalm writer has found words for the ache in my heart. Other times the psalmist points my heart to where it needs to be looking. The book of Psalms is a real treasure – a refreshing spring for the weary times we all have to endure.

The book of Psalms sits at the centre of our Bibles for the times we are just reading through. Maybe there is no experienced crisis that leads us to this vast collection of Hebrew poetry. Sometimes, we will find ourselves reading it simply because it comes next in our Bible reading. It can be a great experience to read it through with fresh eyes and notice the uniqueness of each Psalm and the recurring themes.

Let’s look at the first Psalm of book five – Psalm 107. This Psalm sets the tone for the section that will follow. It begins as you might expect, with a call to thank our good God for his enduring, steadfast love. This call goes out to all who have been redeemed and rescued by God (v1-3).

Then we find ourselves walking through four examples of challenging circumstances from which God rescues his people:

First, we read of the weary wilderness wanderers failing to find a place of sanctuary (v4-9). They cried to the LORD, and he delivered them. (Those words will come up again.) So, with stomachs full and souls satisfied, the psalmist encourages them to thank the LORD for his steadfast love. 

Second, we read of the helpless prisoners, tired and broken by hard labour (v10-16). They cried to the LORD, and he delivered them. With their bonds broken and bodies set free, they are called to thank the LORD for his steadfast love.

Third, we read of the afflicted starving to death, suffering for their sin and facing their demise (v17-22). They cried to the LORD, and he delivered them. With healed bodies and joyful hearts, they are invited to thank the LORD for his steadfast love.

Fourth, we read of the fear-filled seafarers, tossed to and fro by the raging seas, despairing and at their wit’s end (v23-32). This example gives more vivid detail, but again, they cried to the LORD, and he delivered them (see v 6, 13, 19 and 28). With the storm stilled and safely brought back to the fellowship of humans on shore, they are encouraged to thank the LORD for his steadfast love (see v8, 15, 21, 31)

The final section of the Psalm underlines some of the points made throughout. God is in charge. Just as he can bring about change in nature (v33-38), he can reverse his people’s fortunes (v39-42). And so, the final verse ensures we have not missed the point. If we are wise, we will ponder what this Psalm says. Indeed, if we are wise, we will ponder, contemplate, consider and meditate on the steadfast love of the LORD (v43).

The Psalm begins and ends with the spotlight on the steadfast love of God. The Psalm invites us to consider four examples of people in dire straits who called out to God and discovered why they should thank God for that steadfast love.

Perhaps Psalm 107 is the food for thought that we need. It could be that we feel like we are close to death or tossed in every direction and despairing of life itself. Or it could be that we are calmly moving through the second half of 2022, thankful for God’s blessing and a season of tranquillity and peace. Whatever may be going on around us, Psalm 107 suggests what should be happening inside us. We should be considering the steadfast love of God. Honestly, it is hard to think of a wiser thing to do.

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Growing Worship

Genesis is the book of foundations.  It lays down so many foundational truths on which the rest of the Bible can helpfully build.  For example, consider the life of Abraham.  His is the first extended biographical narrative in the Bible.  His story is about as far removed from our world as can be – geographically, culturally, religiously, technologically – and yet, it all feels so strangely relevant.  This is not surprising; God is a great communicator and knows exactly how to introduce us to the concept of living a life of faith in a God and his good-promise plan.

I recently revisited the most famous story in the epic biography of Abraham – Genesis 22.  So much had already happened in the preceding chapters.  God had called Abram to give up everything and go to an as-yet-unspecified location.  And then the rollercoaster of Abram’s growing faith takes us through some real highs and surprising lows.  There is the daring battle and rescue of Lot, his nephew, later followed by intercession as Lot’s town faced imminent judgment.  There is the powerful covenant scene in the darkness after the declaration of Abram’s belief in God’s promise.  But there is also the repeated risking of Sarah’s life with foreign kings, not to forget the turmoil created by having a child with Sarah’s maidservant.  Finally, after many years, the child of promise arrives to change the tone of the laughter in the family tent.  Abraham’s story is a rollercoaster of growing and struggling faith in a good God – and so is our story.

Coming to Mt Moriah – After all the ups and downs, we arrive at Genesis 22.  Back in chapter 12, Abraham had been called to go, to leave everything, and to journey to a yet-unspecified location.  Now in chapter 22, he is again called to go to an unknown location and to give up everything.  Before, his life included a whole host of people and the perks of life in sophisticated Ur.  Now, everything was wrapped up in the breathing body of his long-promised son. 

Abraham’s story teaches us that life is not about continual novelty.  God repeats and restates his promise, Abraham repeats the same struggles and sins, and God is repeatedly gracious.  We see God again calling Abraham to give up everything, just like He had asked at the beginning, and also not just like that – this felt much bigger. 

Your life, and mine, is not filled with brand new experiences and lessons.  How often do we despair when we slide back into the same old struggles, and yet how often do we get to marvel at God’s patient kindness in lovingly rescuing us and helping us learn the same lessons at deeper levels?  When the gospel first stirred our hearts, we were called to leave everything and follow him, so why are we surprised if years later we are again called to give up yet more in order to follow him even more closely?  As the years pass, the light of God’s goodness shines deeper into the corners of our lives.

So, the story of Genesis 22 unfolds in a masterpiece of ancient storytelling.  The writer underlines the pain of God’s call as he labours over the identification of the sacrifice in verse 2 – “it is your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love.”  The writer piles verb upon verb in verses 3-4 to give a sense of the progressing action as Abraham obeys God’s call.  The writer slows the progression of the narrative as Abraham’s hand is held high over Isaac, bound on the altar in verse 10.  It really is brilliant storytelling.  Perhaps most telling is what the storyteller omits – specifically, Abraham’s feelings.  We read of his unflinching obedience, but our hearts break as we read it.  Perhaps the writer did not mention Abraham’s feelings because no words could ever describe them adequately?  Perhaps because any empathetic reader would already know better than words could convey?

As we reflect on Genesis 22, here are three thoughts to ponder prayerfully for our journey of faith in God today:

1. Genesis 22 is about worship.

Christianity is a uniquely diverse global worship movement.  Across the globe, every week, millions of people gather to sing in worship to God.  Since singing is so central to our ongoing experience of faith, it is easy to assume that our worship consists entirely in our shared singing.  However, the Bible does not restrict the concept of worship to our shared harmonization of heartfelt truths.  The Bible speaks of worship also in terms like Romans 12:1, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice . . . this is your spiritual act of worship.”  And so perhaps there is no better passage to get us thinking straight about worship than Genesis 22.  Abraham was called not to murder his son, but to make an offering of him to God.  Abraham himself spoke of their plan to “go and worship” (v5). 

Genesis 22 is about worship.  And it makes clear that worship, our expressed response of devotion, adoration and honour to God, involves more than singing.  Abraham was called to leave everything and live for God back in chapter 12.  But now, years later, he is again called to live for God by giving everything to him.  What will it look like for you to worship God today?  Perhaps you look back on your conversion and see a greater fervour in your expression of worship.  But this story does not urge a return to our first love.  It invites us to a more costly, deeply-felt sacrificial offering of our everything to God. Worship means giving God everything.

2. Genesis 22 is about faith.

There is no doubt that this story is the high point of Abraham’s biography as the father of faith.  But what is the nature of that faith?  Notice that in verse 5 he tells his servants that he and the boy will “go worship and come again to you.”  Hebrews 11:17-19 reveals that Abraham had faith that God would raise Isaac from the dead.  After all, he had been born out of the death of Sarah’s womb, so why wouldn’t God be able to do it again?  Also notice that in verse 8 he tells Isaac that “God will provide.”  Abraham could not know exactly what would happen, but he seemed to know exactly who was in charge.  After God provided the ram, Abraham speaks again, naming the place “The LORD will provide” (v14).

The only way you and I can really worship God today, if worship means giving everything to God, is if we have faith that God himself will provide.  Can I give up this relationship that the Spirit of God is calling me to walk away from?  (That is not your marriage, but it could be an unhealthy friendship that threatens your future or present marriage!)  God will provide.  Can I give up this promotion and the security that may come with it in order to live out my spiritual values, even though I need that greater salary?  God will provide.  Can I give sacrificially when I don’t even know how expensive everything will become in the next months?  God will provide.  Worship means giving everything to God, trusting in his giving character.

3. Genesis 22 is about God.

The ultimate worship question is the Mt Moriah question.  If worship is about giving our everything to God, and if that requires faith in God’s giving, then let’s ask the Mt Moriah question.  Who gave up everything on Mt Moriah?  Abraham was willing, but was spared by a God-given sacrifice.  Years later, God himself brought his son, his only son, whom he loved, Jesus, to Mt Moriah.  God was willing, and did not spare his own son, but made him the God-given sacrifice for us.  God really did provide. 

And that brings us to the heart of worship.  It is our expressed response of devotion, adoration and honour to God.  We cannot work it up in ourselves by practice or by determination.  It is a response.  So, we must look to Mt Moriah.  We worship by giving our everything to God, because he first gave his everything for us. 

Worship is so costly.  It cost God everything.

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Is Preparation Spiritual?

I think we would do well to clarify our terminology when it comes to asking about whether something is spiritual or not. The world often sees “spiritual” as a mystical quality inherent in certain activities or persons. So the mystical neighbour with the yoga mat is considered spiritual, but the engineer on the other side who plays football and enjoys soft rock anthems is not considered spiritual.

Then there is a semi-Christian version of the word which basically uses it as a synonym for sanctified behaviour. So it is not describing a quality of spirituality being present in something, but rather it just means whether it is appropriate Christian behaviour or not. In this way of thinking it is “spiritual” to pray, but it is not “spiritual” to go and watch the football game.

So let’s consider the issue of sermon preparation. Is it spiritual? Some, with the semi-Christian understanding of the word might affirm that it is spiritual to prepare a sermon – it is appropriate Christian behaviour for a pastor. Others, with a Christianized version of the first, more mystical, concept, might argue that it is not spiritual to prepare a sermon. Better, they might say, to disengage yourself from study and just rely on inspiration in the moment.

What if we cast off confusing misappropriations of the term and think in genuinely biblical terms. What constitutes “spiritual” in the New Testament? Is it not the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit? If that is the “top and bottom” of the issue, then we would have to say that either neighbour could be spiritual, or maybe completely devoid of the Spirit. And praying or watching football could be spiritual, or could also be completely devoid of the Spirit. And we would have to say that either preparing a sermon or choosing not to prepare a sermon could be spiritual, or completely devoid of the Spirit.

I do not doubt that God, by His Spirit, may work wonderfully if I am called on to preach without a moment to prepare. However, I do wonder at the wisdom of abdicating my role as a steward of the ministry if I were to decide to preach as if it were somehow more spiritual to not prepare at all.

My vote would absolutely be on the side of preparing. Wayne McDill, in his 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching (p219), wrote, “The fact is that God has decided to use preachers.  Our laziness does not help the Holy Spirit; it hinders him.  There is nothing particularly spiritual about poor sermon preparation.”

However, preparation is not automatically spiritual, either. Is my confidence in my preparation, my homiletical skill, my gifting, my knowledge, my view of preaching, my teachers, my books? Or is my heart reliant on God, my mind humbly subject to God’s instruction, my attitude one of humility before the Word of God, etc.? My suspicion is that whether my preparation is spiritual or not will be evident in my prayer. It will be known to God and probably more obvious to my listeners than I might think (especially if I am functioning in a state of self-confidence).

If you are asked to preach, prepare. Prepare humbly. Prepare prayerfully. Prepare as if “apart from me, you can do nothing.”


Vary the Crescendo

I remember sitting high up in the Royal Albert Hall for a schools concert some years ago. Impressive venue, electric atmosphere, and stunning music. All of the music was very good, but there is something unique about the 1812 Overture once the cannons are fired up in the rafters – it was so fun to watch the children’s faces (they didn’t know it was coming!) I am no classical music fan, but that always feels like a high point in any concert.

The thing is, music can’t all be a thrilling crescendo. And the musical impact is not all achieved by crescendo. There are variations of melodic themes woven together, changes from major to minor key to influence the mood, variations in rhythmic intensity, and so much more. It would not make for great music to simply string together and elongate every possible crescendo (or add cannons to every piece)!

The same principle is true in preaching. There are various ways in which we can start to lean on a powerful crescendo too much, and thereby weaken our preaching. Here are a few examples:

Your Voice – Undoubtedly you can run into a crowded room and get everyone’s attention by screaming. That doesn’t mean you should scream your way through a sermon. Naturally, when we are excited about what we have to say, our voice will tend to climb upwards. It will go up in pitch, up in volume, and up in pace. And the ability to pause meaningfully? That will go up in smoke! As a preacher, you will do well to learn the benefit, and the skill, of going down for emphasis too. You can go down in pitch, down in volume, and down in pace – all for a non-crescendo variation on emphasis. And bring the skill of pause back down to earth too, it really can help!

Your Points – It is so easy to find a formula that works for a point in a message and then find yourself repeating that same formula for each point. Perhaps the flow moves from stating the point to explaining it textually and then applying it with an exhortational forcefulness that works well in point 1. That does not mean that point 2 must also have the same crescendo at the point of application. Be sure to look at how your points serve each other. Sometimes a point works better without forcefulness – let it fulfil its function in the message.

Your Support Material – It is always tempting to think that a certain type of “illustration” will always work well because one particular example did. Maybe your sermon seemed to soar when you recounted the moving story, shared the humourous anecdote, or let rip with the fiery rebuke (you know your tendency in terms of preferred “illustrations!”) Great. Be thankful that it worked. But don’t start to lean on that type of material to the exclusion of others. People grow tired of perfectly placed emotional stories, side-splitting humour, or repeated rebuke. The repetition will not achieve greater impact but will move listeners to start to see your preaching as manipulative, your goal as to entertain, or your pastoral concern as haranguing.

Your Series – Last Sunday I was preaching the passage after God rescued Isaac on Mount Moriah. That had been a crescendo message in an Abraham series stretching back for many weeks. People commented and appreciated and responded to the emotional impact of that sermon. So what to do the week after? It was tempting to try to continue the crescendo. Why not keep up the same emotional pitch for maximum personal impact? Instead, I chose to deliberately preach in a much more relaxed “teaching” style that allowed us to consider the new passage before us. I think it was the right choice. There was still some emotional impact, but it was not through the perpetuation of the crescendo. The message was in a different key, the music made its own impact, and it didn’t try to roll out the cannons again.

Where else can we find ourselves leaning on crescendo to the exclusion of other helpful options?

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Tweak the Terminology

Sometimes changing the label for something can make a big difference. A couple of examples before I introduce the one that I want to focus on in this post:

Example 1 – Teaching preaching over the years, I have shifted from talking about “illustrations” to explicitly describing what is needed: “explanations/proofs/applications.” Identifying what you are trying to do helps you avoid filler material that has the vibe of an illustration but doesn’t achieve anything specific. Why not call it what we want it to achieve? Even in our thinking, this can help our precision as communicators.

Example 2 – As parents, we want our children to learn to serve and contribute to the functioning of our home. It is good for the family, and it is good for them too. But the standard label used is “chores.” Oh dear. Who would want to do a chore? So, we grabbed a label we saw someone else using. “Contributions.” You have to do a chore, but you get to make a contribution. It is just a label, but it does make a difference.

Ok, so what terminology tweak am I thinking about in this post? Well, it is the strange world of Christian “disciplines.”

The language of disciplines gets used in quite different wings of the Christian church. There are the dutiful disciplines of the more intellectually shaped branches of the church. The disciplines here tend to relate to attendance, reading, learning, etc. Then there are the ascetic disciplines of the more experientially shaped branches of the church. Here you will find more focus on the disciplines that relate to self-denial, solitude, fasting, etc.

In reality, much can be said in favour of all the disciplines on both sides of the church. This is why much is said in their favour. But can we stop and question the label for a moment? “Discipline” is the language of the exercise class, the language of the academy, and the language of performance in work, sport or the arts … but is it really the language of relationship?

Discipline and Relationship

Undoubtedly, much effort is expended in a relationship, and that effort will look disciplined. If you were to spy on my marriage, you would see disciplined actions on my part. There are specific jobs in the home that I repeatedly do: locking the doors, putting out the garbage, etc. And yet, if you asked me about my practising of the marital disciplines, I would wonder what you are saying. I put the garbage out in a disciplined manner, but I don’t see it as a discipline. I spend time on dates with my wife, but I don’t see that as a chore.

Many spiritual disciplines are good things: reading the Bible, spending time with God, fasting in order to pray, getting away from the busy distractions of this world, etc. I don’t want to question these things, but I do question the label. Would you promote them as “Christian chores” in your church? (If you would, perhaps that says something about your view of the Christian life!) I would not. I prefer to remove the overtones of duty and effort from the label so that the label is free actually to describe the goal.

The Goal of Disciplines

What is the goal in performing a discipline? Relationships do require disciplined effort, but they rarely thrive under the language of discipline and effort. For instance, your spouse will not feel so warm towards you if you hand over the flowers or chocolate, while referencing your effort and discipline. “I hope you like roses. I needed to do my weekly thoughtful-gift-discipline, so I got you these.” Please don’t say that; it won’t help. And if you do say that, it will shape how you view the giving of future gifts. The goal of the “discipline” is not a have-to but a get-to. The goal is not your successful accomplishment of the “discipline” but the communication of love to your significant other. And as you lean toward this other person, you will find your heart warmed and drawn towards them.

So, what can we call the spiritual disciplines that will remove the overtones of “chore,” the focus on “self,” and the assumption that it is my performance that will lead to life change?  What can we call the spiritual disciplines if we are actually talking about growing in a relationship?

Finding An Alternative Label

It can be hard to choose an appropriate alternative label to replace a well-established one. My mind goes to several possibilities. Are we talking about spiritual reminders, encounters, re-introductions, heart-warmers, match-making, or exposures?  I am seeking a term that makes it clear that the activity is not an end in itself, but a way of inclining my heart towards Christ in such a way that my heart might respond in faith and love towards him.  I cannot control my heart’s responses, but the Bible does speak of guarding the heart from negative influences and inclining the heart towards God’s good influence.  Each term listed could have unhelpful connotations.  How about for now, until we agree on a better term, we use “spiritual heart inclination”?

I need spiritual heart inclinations in my life because when I spend time in God’s Word, worshipping, praying, or with God’s people, I am leaning into the relationship that I have with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. This “leaning in” will not be successful because I am responsible and repeat the exercise. It will be successful because my heart is warmed by the wonderful one I am exposed to in the process. 

Instead of starting my Bible reading with the thought, “I need to be responsible and get through my chapters for today,” I can start with the prayer, “I need to respond to a glimpse of your heart as I incline my heart toward you, O my God, and I so need to see you in your Son today – I want to see you, please….” The first is the self-concerned declaration of disciplined intent. The second is the inclining of the heart towards the One who can inspire that inside-out transformation I so desperately need.

It is not the discipline of reading a certain number of chapters that will change me any more than the regularity of simply visiting a restaurant that will achieve connection in my marriage. The  inclination of my heart toward Christ in his Word (or my wife in the restaurant) will allow a response to be stirred within me. 

May our lives be disciplined in our responsiveness to Christ, but may the label of discipline never again feel appropriate for our connection with Him. Spiritual heart inclinations, or a better label you suggest in the comments, that’s what we need. Because it is not about me but him. It is not about my responsible effort but my response to Him.  And spending time with the lover of our souls is no chore but a privilege.

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Walking Through the Psalms

During 2022 I have been enjoying a slow walk through the book of Psalms. I have been working through the book one Psalm at a time. I have shared the journey via YouTube and sought to convey a detail and a point of application from each Psalm to help others enjoy reading the Psalm. I will attach the playlist below this post.

As we are now at the halfway point in the year, I thought I would pull together some reflections:

  1. Slowing down and pondering a Psalm allows you to appreciate the artistic crafting contained within a Psalm. For instance, if I look at the short five verses of Psalm 70, I notice the key terms repeated in the first and last verses: haste, O God, deliver me; O LORD, help me. Actually, while I knew that Psalms can give a sense of completion by using similar terminology at the beginning and end, I have been surprised by how often that occurs. And the use of inclusio, or “bookends”, is only one of many types of artistry to be found in the Psalms.
  2. Scribbling on the text of a Psalm allows you to notice the flow of thought more easily. Again, sticking with Psalm 70 as a simple example, there are two movements within the body of the Psalm. In verses 2-3, the repetition of “Let them…” shows David’s concern regarding those opposing him. He wants God to deal with them. Then verse 4 has the repetition of “May…”, which points to the positive request and anticipation. David knows that seeking God leads to good for his people. Judgment of them; the blessing for us.
  3. Study intensity does not preclude devotional impact. I remember Gordon Fee writing about the need for exegesis and devotion. He noted that just as a church does not need an exegetically precise pastor who is lacking in devotional warmth as he studies his Bible in sermon preparation, the people in the pew should not be devotionally warm while being exegetically imprecise in their personal Bible times. Sometimes we fall into the trap of separating technical study from devotional reading. But when I scribble on a printout of a Psalm, note the structure, the parallelisms, the imagery, and even when I turn to a technical commentary to probe a specific issue, none of this precludes the devotional impact of the Psalm. The end goal should be that the Psalm speaks to my heart, affects my life, and potentially gets shared as an encouragement to someone else.
  4. Simplicity in Psalm study is sometimes where we find the treasure. Some of us set the bar very high for our Bible engagement. We think we have to plumb the depths and find high-level technical insights in every study. But in Psalm 70, the bottom line is straightforward. David starts the final verse with an extra line before returning to the terms that bring the Psalm full circle as they repeat the opening ideas from verse 1. What is the additional line? “But I am poor and needy.” The enemies of David need to be judged. God’s people have reason to rejoice in God. David is poor and needy. So, hasten, O God, deliver and help me. The bottom line that we can take away? “I need God.” It is not high-level original thought, and I will not get a PhD for noticing it, but it might be just the thought I need as I walk with God today.
  5. Short Psalms do not have to mean brief study. Psalm 70 is just five verses long. It is essentially a repetition of the final verses of Psalm 40. So, with it being brief and recently studied, does that make it a quick cursory study? It does not have to mean that at all! God’s Word can always be a fruitful chew! I understand the benefits of a quick read and simple study – we all need those too. But there is nothing to say that a brief Psalm must not linger longer than a few minutes in our minds and hearts. Meditate on God’s Word, day and night – that even sounds like a healthy Psalms idea!
  6. Some Psalms point overtly to Jesus; every Psalm points to God’s character. Some Psalms clearly point beyond themselves to the coming greater son of David. In other Psalms, the connection to the coming Messiah is less overt. But every Psalm points to God’s character, which is an excellent focus for your heart. It is never too big a step from God’s goodness, grace, mercy, and blessing to the fulfilment of God’s great plan in the coming of Jesus. You don’t have to force a detail to make the link explicit. But do make sure you are enjoying the God who is revealing himself through this beautiful book.
  7. Say what you see – the Psalms ask to be prayed or sung. As you read through Psalms, you may find a tune already in your mind. For example, Psalm 34 and Psalm 68 seem to strike up several songs because of songs sung in my church growing up or today. Other Psalms may feel very unfamiliar in their wording. Yet, often they offer the very words my heart wants to be praying to God. That feeling of profound contemporary relevance is not rare when spending time in Psalms. So let the words work in your heart and then let the words work on your lips, whether you are singing God’s praise or crying out to God in prayer.
  8. Share what you see – the Psalms are asking to be passed along. There is something incredibly transferable about the blessing of Psalms. The simplicity of application, the power of the imagery, the brevity of the written context – it all means you have something to share with others in conversation or with friends via text message. Psalms is a book that joins you in the most secret place of suffering or struggle, and yet it is a book that can spill out to others in the everyday activities of life. Share what you are blessed to see.

What do you appreciate about the book of Psalms? What have I missed?

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Running on Fumes

When a car has very little fuel in the tank, we say it is running on fumes.  It is moving forward, but warning signs indicate the vehicle is in trouble.  It won’t go very far unless something changes.  And the something is simple – it needs fuel.

The same thing happens with Christians too.  They give the impression of keeping on spiritually, engaging with the church, and so on.  But there are warning signs, and they won’t go very far unless something changes.  Again, the something that needs to change is relatively simple – they need fuel. Simply being around Christians and using Christian language is not enough. Without a vital personal relationship with Christ, they are merely running on the fumes of Christianity.

Warning Signs – In a car, you have warning lights on the dashboard to alert you to an issue before it becomes a problem.  If you proceed far enough, the engine will start to sputter and make unusual noises.  What are the warning signs when a Christian is running on the fumes of Christianity?

  1. Loss of Joy – There are many reasons for a loss of joy, so do not assume that the spiritual tank is always empty when joy fades.  However, any warning light is a reason to investigate.  Indeed, when someone’s tank lacks the fuel needed, delight in the things of God and church life will only come in fits and starts.  The classic biblical example is Martha in Luke 10:38-42 – she was doing the right thing, but the joy was gone.
  2. Alternate Fuels – Is work or a hobby suddenly becoming more significant?  Are they starting to find motivation and purpose in something other than Christ in a way that was not true earlier in their Christian journey?  Alternative fuels are attractive because someone struggling will see the alternative as more readily accessible and the goals more attainable.
  3. Blaming the Church – It is very rare to hear someone drifting from church life and being honest, “Oh, I am staying away because I am not fuelling my soul, and so I feel awkward being around other Christians right now.”  It is much easier to talk about how the church does not meet their needs, and they don’t fit, the programs are not helpful, the other people don’t like them, etc.  Not every person being critical of the church is in a bad place personally, but many are.
  4. Verbal Paper Cuts – Sometimes it is not the full force explosions that hurt, but the subtle paper cuts.  Someone in a low place spiritually will often make little paper cuts with their words.  Little bits of gossip.  Little criticisms.  Little digs.  Maybe nothing significant enough to confront or challenge, but enough to leave you feeling that sting of an open wound when they walk away.
  5. Emotional Outbursts – Sometimes, things do come out in full force explosions.  And, like a cornered animal, someone feeling spiritually empty can lash out and attack rather than admit their need and open themselves up to help from others.

Emergency Measures – What do you do when someone is running on empty and about to run out of fuel and grind to a halt? 

  1. Re-Fuel – To be blunt, they need to be in the Word of God and allow Him to minister to them.  But they may struggle to feed themselves if they have let their tank get too low.  Perhaps a friend can help them get into the Word and start back into a healthy pattern. 
  2. Recognize the Emergency – How often do we pridefully persist on our path, ignoring all the warning signs?  Many a stranded motorist thought they could go a little farther before stopping for fuel.  Part of solving the problem will be humbly admitting the problem.  As long as pride continues to stir excuses and explanations, the fuel cap remains in place.  They must humbly acknowledge how they have allowed themselves to drift, how they have arrogantly felt they did not need to be in the Word personally, or how another sin has built a blockage between them and God.  Whether that is a giant skeleton in the closet or the “respectable” sin of personal pride, confession will be like a doorway to help for the struggling believer.
  3. Reach out for Help – These are in the reverse order.  We need to be fuelled again, but often that won’t happen until the nature of the problem is recognized, and often that is hard to achieve without first calling out for help from another.  If you see the warning signs in a friend, encourage them to face the reality of their situation.  If you are desperate, you could point them to this post and ask if it resonates with them because you are concerned.  If you see warning signs in yourself, then get a friend immediately.  We tend to think that a renewed effort in my quiet times, or perhaps some alternative, will fix the issue.  A thimble of fuel won’t get you too far.  Call a friend and walk through it with someone. 

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Check out a Psalm from this week for your encouragement:

Navigating the Mess

Everything looks lovely down below when flying 10,000 meters above the earth. The land is green, the mountains look stunning, and the sea is bright blue. But real life is not lived from 10,000m up; it is lived down here in the mess of real life. We feel this messy reality, especially when it comes to relationships.

Every engaged couple looks forward to their wonderful married life to come. It is loving to help them prepare for marriage knee-deep in the mess of real-life challenges! The anticipation may be eighteen years of joy and giggles when the first baby comes along, but reality will be much more down to earth. The same is true of friendships, church fellowship, ministry teams, etc. Genuine relationships are much messier and need more guidance than a simple “love one another” or “be kind” (although these instructions are essential, of course).

If only God had given us a little note to offer some guidance in the messy confusion of real-life relationships. He did. For almost two millennia, God has placed a little personal note in his collection of inspired documents. It is a personal letter of twenty-five verses from Paul about a runaway household slave. We call the letter Philemon.

Paul’s Little Letter

Philemon was a relatively wealthy man from Colossae. We know this because his home was large enough to host a church, and he had slaves working for him. He had encountered Paul at some point in time – perhaps while visiting Ephesus. Paul had told him about the good news of Jesus, and Philemon was turned upside down on the inside. With this new fire burning within, he became a crucial person in the new church in Colossae.

At another point in time, Onesimus, a slave working in Philemon’s home, had decided to start a new and illegal life for himself. He stole whatever he could carry and travelled far away to Rome, hiding among the swirl of criminals and runaway slaves who wanted to hide their crimes there. Somehow, in God’s goodness, Onesimus was introduced to Paul. Paul had told him about the good news of Jesus, and Onesimus was turned upside down on the inside. With this new fire burning within, he became a crucial helper to Paul, living under the constraints of house arrest in Rome.

Eventually, the story came out. Onesimus had stolen and run away from Philemon, Paul’s old friend in Colossae. So, Paul urged Onesimus to return and make things right with his owner. Despite Onesimus’ fear of arrest and possible capital punishment, Paul wrote his short letter to Philemon. Onesimus would have guarded that letter closely, treasuring the truth it contained. We should do the same.

Why? For Onesimus, it made a way to do the right thing with hope. For us, the epistle to Philemon gives us hope as we try to navigate the messy realities of interpersonal relationships in the Christian community. Let’s consider briefly two critical realities and then three additional features revealed in this letter:

1. Such a great debt. Paul appealed on behalf of Onesimus, making it clear that Onesimus had become a follower of Jesus and a very useful companion to Paul (v8-11). But did Paul know about the crimes committed back in Colossae? Yes, he did. And he promised to pay that debt in full (v18-19).

When there is sin, there is always a debt. When someone hurts you, even if they did not steal something tangible, they leave behind a debt of hurt, shame, or whatever. Everything in us wants to make them pay. Everything in us wants that debt made up to us in some way. Onesimus’ debt could have cost him his life, but Paul charged it to his own account.

What Paul did for Onesimus, Jesus had done for Paul. Like every one of us, Paul had a debt with God’s eternal justice that he could never repay. But Jesus died to pay that debt in full. If Jesus has done that for us, then it makes sense that we will start to look for ways to do that for others. We can never make the atoning sacrifice Jesus made for us. Still, we can accept the cost of hurt and release others from our desires for revenge or our need for compensation. A Christian community navigates the mess of relationships with plenty of forgiveness – the acceptance of interpersonal pain costs that we no longer hold on the accounts of others.

2. Such a great welcome. Paul offered to pay the debts of Onesimus. He also urged Philemon to welcome his runaway slave as if he were his dear brother, Paul himself (v16-17). Suppose it had just been a promise of debt repayment. In that case, Onesimus could have headed back to the servants’ quarters or, in a non-slave setting, be free to walk away. But Paul asked Philemon to welcome Onesimus as if he were Paul himself. The guest room, the seat of honour at dinner, etc.

What Paul did for Onesimus, Jesus had done for Paul. Like every last one of us, Paul had no business being welcomed into God’s family and home. But Jesus makes it possible for us to be welcomed into God’s family, home, and table of feasting as if we were Jesus himself! Accepted in the beloved Son – what a privilege!

If Jesus has done that for us, then it makes sense that we will start to look for ways to do that for others. So the Christian community because a place that is uniquely welcoming in a world of simulated tolerance. Hurt and broken people can find the welcome of a true family when they meet Jesus and join a healthy local church. And it is not just at the moment of conversion, either. Continually we forgive one another, and we express genuine love and acceptance toward each other. We navigate the mess of relationships by remembering the Gospel – what has Jesus done for us? And then we look to spill that same goodness toward one another.

If Philemon only pointed us to the beautiful truths of forgiveness and acceptance, it would already be a treasure. But there are at least three more features to notice as you read it. Three more ways that the Gospel shapes us to navigate the complexity of life knee-deep in the mess of relationships:

Connected – Meeting Jesus and joining his family gives us a sense of connectedness that we could never have outside the church. The world strives to achieve self-serving networking. We are brought into the extended family of God. Look at the connections described in verses 1-2 and 23-24. And be sure to pause on the level of connection described in verse 12 – Onesimus: “my very heart.”  We can mean so much to each other because we first mean so much to God!

Refreshing – Look at how Paul thanks God for Philemon’s faith in God and love for others in verses 4-7. As we grow in our relationship with Jesus, we almost imperceptibly grow in our impact on others. In a world of people who feel like their existence makes essentially no difference to anyone, we discover that our participation in the body of Christ is a source of refreshment to others!

Giving – Paul would have benefitted from keeping Onesimus with him in Rome. After all, “Useful” (the meaning of the name) had become very useful to Paul. But healthy Christians are marked by Christlike generosity. The Gospel makes us givers, not grabbers. In a world full of grabbing and self-serving, it is beautiful to become part of a family of givers.

How can we navigate the mess of human relationships in the church? None of us lives at theoretical heights of 10,000m. If we are involved in church life and ministry, it is messy. The answer to the question is not a pragmatic suggestion or a simple how-to guide. The answer flows from the reality of who God is and what he has done for us. Let’s allow the book of Philemon to become a treasure in our lives – treasured because it reminds us that the Gospel speaks of how we can be saved and how we can navigate the messy complexity of human relationships.

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Brief videos on the Psalms . . . a great book for the mess!

Resurrection Reverberations

We have recently celebrated another Easter. Almost two thousand of them have come and gone since the first one. Yet, the ongoing impact of Jesus’ explosion of life continues to reverberate in this world of death. 

Since Jesus is still alive today and still actively bringing people to faith, let’s go back to the first Easter and see the pattern and progression of his work. John’s account is fascinating. It also gives us some incredibly intimate and personal moments of transformation and teaching as people met the risen Jesus. This same Jesus is alive today and still leads many through this same pattern and progression.

1. Hearing a report: Peter and John (John 20:1-2)

After the devastating spectacle of Jesus’ brutal death on the Roman cross, the Sunday morning began quietly. Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early. She longed to show her devotion to the one who had made such a difference in her life. But the tomb was open and empty. Not understanding the significance of this, but knowing something was not right, she ran to report the missing body. The empty tomb should still unsettle people today – in a world of death and sadness, and something does not fit.

2. Checking the empty tomb (John 20:3-10)

Peter and John ran to the tomb, to the place of death, with John out in front. The competitive lifelong friends were aware of each other as they tried to make sense of Jesus’ death. But the tomb was, indeed, empty. It did not look like a crime scene with body wrappings strewn around the floor. It felt organized, orderly, and obviously, something highly unusual had happened. John saw and believed. Throughout the gospel, this disciple had been especially close to Jesus. It was no surprise that he would respond quickly with faith. But what about others? What about nobodies, doubters, and failures? Keep reading.

3. Meeting the gracious risen Jesus: new faith and family (John 20:11-18)

Mary Magdalene was the last person you would expect to have the honour of meeting the Risen Christ first – especially in that culture. She was a woman of no significance with a cartload of baggage from life. It is beautiful to recognize that Jesus came first to a woman, and a woman with question marks all over her reputation. If we wrote the story of Jesus’ return from the dead, we might have him knocking on Pilate’s door – “Remember me?”  Or perhaps we’d have his silhouette darkening the door of a Sanhedrin council meeting – “I’m back!”  Or maybe we would be less dramatic and have him come to the key leaders of the soon-to-launch church movement. But we didn’t write the story; eyewitnesses did. And the facts were clear: Jesus chose to make this insignificant and baggage-laden woman the first eyewitness!

Please take note of what this passage tells us about Jesus. First, and of utmost importance, she looks for the body lying but instead sees Jesus standing: he is very much alive! Even if we have read this account a thousand times, let us never lose the wonder of this moment and this truth! Second, as we have already underlined, he chose to meet with Mary Magdalene. Perhaps he knew how her tender heart would be breaking at his death after all he had done for her. (Still today, Jesus loves to meet with nobodies burdened by the baggage of life and feeling desperately small in a world of death!)

Third, notice his sensitivity to her: “Why are you weeping?”  And then, fourth, observe his personal connection with her; he spoke her name. (How beautiful it is to see hurting people discover that not only is Jesus alive as a historical fact. More than that, he is sensitive and personal in his desire for connection with them – he knows my name!)  This personal connection leads us to the fifth observation, and a critical one: in v17, Jesus has created a new family and invites his followers to join. For the first time in the gospel, he calls his followers “my brothers.”  He overtly extends his special relationship to them for the first time, “my Father and your Father, my God and your God.”  And Mary is launched with the privilege of reporting this to the others. Not only had she seen him alive, but he had “said these things to her!”

4. Hearing Christ’s commission (John 20:19-23)

The scene shifts from the garden that morning to a behind-closed-doors gathering of the disciples in Jerusalem that evening. The reports were swirling in the conversations and the hearts of the disciples, but then Jesus joined them. Again, notice how his character is not seething and bent on revenge. There is a tenderness and a purposefulness about him. He speaks peace to these troubled hearts. He shows his hands and side – Jesus is far more willing to share evidence of his death and resurrection than most humans are willing to pursue it! He lays out their commission – just as His Father sent him, so now he would be sending them out to spread the news to others. And they would be empowered by the Spirit of God, with forgiveness at the heart of their activity and message.

5. Checking the living evidence: faith and worship (John 20:24-31)

The account continues in the same room, but eight days later. Now is the moment for Thomas to receive the unfortunate label that has stuck ever since. The rest had seen Jesus’ hands and side, but Thomas had declared that his belief would need the same evidence. Notice how the chapter began with disciples running to check the evidence of an empty tomb. It ends with another disciple seeking proof of the resurrection – our faith is founded on fact. 

So, Jesus joined them again, and his focus settled on Thomas. Notice that Jesus did not rebuke the doubter; instead, he offered evidence. And Thomas’ response has echoed down through the centuries, “My Lord and my God!”  (I am glad that Thomas got to speak the punchline of the whole Gospel of John!)

Jesus offered evidence to Thomas. And Jesus also gave hope to all who would not have the same direct opportunity to reach out and feel the wounds. It is possible, even blessed, to believe based on eyewitness testimony and the preponderance of historical evidence. Actually, the whole of John’s gospel was written to invite people to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and by believing, to have life!

6. Meeting the gracious risen Jesus: commission reminder – what kind of fishing? (John 21:1-14)

The final chapter of John continues the expanded presentation of the Great Commission. Already we have seen Matthew’s “All authority . . . given to me . . . Go!” (In John, that sounds like “As the Father has sent me, even so, I send you…”)  We have seen the “I am with you always . . .” (In John: “Receive the Holy Spirit…”). But what about the specifics of what disciple-making will look like – the bringing people in and then building them up element of Matthew’s Great Commission? Here comes John 21, with Jesus tenderly and graciously meeting his followers again. This time, by the Sea of Galilee.

This passage is filled with gentle reminders of their commissioning. The adrenaline of those weeks in Jerusalem had faded. Now seven disciples were out in a boat trying to catch fish again. Jesus gently reminded them of his first encounter with some of them, back at the beginning, in Luke 5. He had called them to fish, not for fish, but people.

As they came to shore, he gently reminded them of another earlier lesson. As they worked with Jesus, he could provide necessary provisions by the Sea of Galilee. He had done it before: bread and fish for thousands. Even today, we need these reminders. If we have met the Risen Christ, then there is a calling on our lives, a calling to fish for people and join Jesus in his mission to draw people to himself out of this dark world.

But there was another reminder there, too: the charcoal fire strategically placed to cook the breakfast and pull Peter’s heart back to that night in Jerusalem.

7. Commission clarification for Peter (& John): feeding family and following faithfully (John 21:15-25)

We know from the other Gospels that Peter had already met with Jesus alone on Easter Sunday. But his failure to follow Jesus during the trials may still have echoed in his hurting heart. Or perhaps the echo was in the estimation of the others. In chapter 20, we see Jesus come to the nobody and the doubter, but what about the failure? If we fail, are we finished? Another tender conversation follows, with Jesus offering three opportunities to Peter to declare his devotion and three affirmations of his commission to feed the flock. Peter had declared his loyalty even unto death, but he had not made it through the night in his own strength. But now, Jesus offered Peter the privilege for which he longed – the opportunity to live for Jesus and, eventually, to die for Jesus.

Peter and John walked along the beach and, ultimately, towards their deaths, with Peter out in front. The competitive lifelong friends were aware of each other as Peter tried to make sense of Jesus’ words about their deaths. One would face martyrdom for his master. The other would suffer the challenges of growing old and dying. We are all on one path or the other. Some of us will be killed for Jesus. Others of us will grow old and die following Jesus. Either way, the instruction Jesus gave still stands. For now, we are to fish for people and feed the flock. And how can we follow faithfully to the end? “Follow me.”  Simple. Keep your eyes on the risen Christ.

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That same pattern and progression are still at work today. In a world of death, something does not fit. As people hear about Jesus, they are invited to check the empty tomb. Hopefully, as they gather evidence, they will meet the risen Lord personally. He still loves to come to nobodies, doubters, and failures. And as we meet him, we discover life in the relational bonds of the Trinity and find the purpose for our lives in this world. We are here to fish for lost people and feed God’s people. And as we keep our eyes on the living Christ, we are empowered to live for Him and eventually die for Him – confident that death is not the end of the story!

An Incredibly Close Connection

In 1922, Howard Carter discovered and then entered the tomb of King Tutankhamun, the first tomb of a Pharaoh to be found.  It is hard to imagine the feeling of entering a tomb filled with priceless golden treasures that has been sealed for 3,300 years.  It is hard to imagine, but we have something greater.

Paul wrote to the church in Colossae, a church he had never visited, with a letter designed to point their hearts to Christ.  Whatever specific false teaching was influencing the church at Colossae, it faced the same great temptation found in every church: that is, to be busy with Christianity, but to let Christ drift from his position of preeminence.  We all face that temptation every day.  So, it is never a bad day to reread Colossians.

Christ Supreme In the first chapter, Paul offers a hymn of Christ’s supremacy that is about as high a Christology as can be found anywhere in Scripture.  Adolf Deissmann famously stated, “When I open the chapel door of the Epistle to the Colossians, it is as if Johann Sebastian himself sat at the organ.”  So, Paul celebrates the supremacy of Christ over all creation, and also over our salvation.

Servant Ministry – As he proceeds beyond the great hymn, he writes of his own ministry.  He was a servant of the gospel, that Christ might be proclaimed to every creature (v23).  And he was a servant of the church, to present all the Word of God (v25) and to present all God’s people fully mature (v28).

What was the message that Paul proclaimed to this church in ancient Turkey?  He proclaimed God’s glorious plan for them to enjoy an incredibly close connection to Christ.  Twice he writes about his own suffering in ministry, before proclaiming the wonder of the mystery.  In v24 he rejoices over his suffering as he participates in the mission of Christ (not because Christ’s suffering on the cross was insufficient; it clearly was), but because his servants get to participate in the afflictions necessary to the spreading of the gospel in this age.  In 1:28-2:1, he again returns to his ministry, this time writing about how he was strenuously contending for these believers whom he had never met.

Revealed Mystery Notice how after each of these ministry descriptions, we get a glorious glimpse into the mystery – God’s now-revealed plan.  (By the way, we tend to think of the word “mystery” like we do a murder mystery – that 50 minutes of being in the dark as to who committed the crime as we watch our favourite TV drama.  Instead, when Paul uses the word mystery in Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, etc., he is referring to something that is now revealed.  We are now living in the age of A-ha! at the end of that drama – only much better!)

Close Connection – The first part of that formerly hidden but now revealed mystery is just seven words long, but infinitely profound: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  Notice three things. 

First, God’s plan, formerly hidden but now revealed, is not just for the Christ to be a king and a deliverer leading his people from the front.  It is for Christ to dwell in his people.  That is as close a connection as it is possible to have. 

Second, God’s plan, through the indwelling Christ, is for his people to have the hope of glory.  Whatever we may be facing right now, this is not the end of the story.  And if Christ would choose to live in us now, then we can be confident that he will want us with him in the future too. 

Third, this mystery is made known among the Gentiles, it is not just for the Jews.  “Race relations” is not a 21st-century invention; God was there way before any of us!  Gentiles equally brought into the body of Christ with Jews – a formerly hidden plan now revealed through Paul in Ephesians and Colossians!

Close Connection II – The second part of that formerly hidden but now revealed mystery is just one word long, but is the most profound statement of all. Just as Paul revealed God’s plan for Christ to find a home in you, so Paul also revealed God’s plan for you to find all you need in Christ.  His objective was for all God’s people to be presented fully mature in Christ (1:28).

So, they needed to realise that the full riches of complete understanding were theirs if they would know the mystery of God.  What is this infinite treasure trove of wisdom and knowledge?  Is it a training course, a degree program, an online seminar, a special edition book?  No, everything they could ever need was theirs in knowing God’s mystery now revealed – Christ! (See 2:2-3)

Conclusion – They would be assailed by impressive alternative versions of Christianity, but they should never allow the supremacy of Christ to diminish and drift in their faith.  Later in the second chapter, Paul would remind them of the supreme victory of Christ on the cross – they should never lose sight of that.  Neither should we.  What difference would it make to our confidence if we pondered anew the wonder of Christ in me, the hope of glory?  What difference would it make to our maturity if we investigated afresh the riches of knowledge and wisdom in Christ himself? 

God’s plan was for Christ to find a home in you, and for you to find all you need in Christ.  God’s plan was for an incredibly close connection between you and Christ.  Our union with Christ really is the chief of doctrines.  As Paul went on to write, “just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith (in him) as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” (2:6-7).

What is God’s plan for each of us as we head into another new month, and another annual celebration of Easter?  It is that we would be continually more marked, shaped, stirred, and matured, as we fix the gaze of our hearts on the wonder that is Christ himself!

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Recent short video in Psalms Today series: