I give God thanks for this day, this
day-after-the-day-after Thanksgiving day.
I thank God for a day in which
I can sip coffee slowly.
The sun sparkles on new snow.
The clock ticks comfortingly
at the top of the stairs.
Today I have the luxury
of puttering at my own pace.
That pace says, “Thanks.”
God’s been pretty busy around here lately. I’ve been trying to catch up, but the Holy Spirit keeps surprising me with new things. I love that about the Holy Spirit!
The homeless shelter for single mother families that we have been dreaming and praying to develop got a big shot in the arm last week. Anonymous donors stepped forward to underwrite most of the renovation costs, so construction can begin in a few weeks, and we should be able to open the shelter by April 1. I wish it were sooner, but I know God’s timing is perfect, so I will rest in that assurance as we put all the other pieces in place.
Our church council approved a significantly larger budget for the coming year, nearly doubling the amount we hope to spend on mission and ministry. Our building is ninety years old, so upkeep of the physical plant is always going to need a significant chunk of the budget, but this increase toward ministry is a huge step.
It’s especially significant because we lost 4% of our membership to death this year, and the estimates of giving for the coming year are frighteningly lower than last year. I look at this as God saying, “Remember Gideon? I wouldn’t let him fight the battle in the strength of a human army. I want to be sure the world can see that what you are doing is being done in my strength alone.” You go, God. Let’s show ’em.
How’s your Fall season shaping up? What surprises has God dumped on your head, or into your lap? Where do you see God saying, “I want to be sure the world can see that what you’re doing is by my strength alone” and how are you responding to that challenge?
October 25, 2015
My friend Joe was facing great challenges in his job. Demand had recently spiked for the product his company manufactured. At almost the same time, the supplier of a major component had problems with its manufacturing process, and stopped shipping until the problem could be corrected. The pressure was on to meet deadlines that were looming. On top of all this, Joe’s boss was difficult to work for, and several co-workers had quit or transferred to other departments, leaving Joe’s department short-handed, short-supplied, and his boss even more short-tempered than usual. Joe started having nightmares.
One night, as Joe wrestled with his dreams, his wife became alarmed. He was thrashing in the bed, and talking in his sleep. She couldn’t make out words or sentences, but she knew he was having another nightmare. She tried to wake him as gently as she could. “Joe, honey, are you okay? You’re having a bad dream.” Joe’s eyes flew open and he said, “I’m okay. Trust me.” His wife’s face must have looked like she didn’t quite believe him, so he added, “I know you can’t trust me right now, but just trust me.”
Have you ever faced an overwhelming challenge that scared the living daylights out of you? Continue reading
October 11, 2015
When our boys were little, they loved to read books. Well, they loved to have us read books to them anyway. One of our favorites was a beautifully illustrated version of “The Three Little Kittens.” One of the kittens in this story wore a green plaid coat. This was the kitten who was never happy. Arms crossed, brow furrowed, the kitten in the green plaid coat looked stubborn and rebellious. Whenever one of our boys started to pout about something, we’d tell him, “you look like the kitten in the green plaid coat” and he’d know exactly what we meant.
I think, at some point or another in our lives, each of us might be the kitten in the green plaid coat. We rebel a little bit when we don’t get what we want. We pout. We cross our arms and frown, and refuse to be happy. We resist the rules. We dislike authority. That’s why we have trouble with the Ten Commandments. We see God’s rule for life as too restrictive. But God didn’t put these words into place to keep us from being happy. God has something else in mind for each of us. God’s plan is to be with us, to live life with us.
The Big Idea of the whole Bible is God’s declaration, “I want to come down and dwell with you. I want to live among the people I created specifically for that purpose.” Even though humans messed up that plan at the very beginning, God is still working to make it happen. Continue reading
You can watch the video of this sermon here.
Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen that in the Bible there are two story lines. The upper story is God’s story where God fulfills his purpose and the lower story is the human characters’ story with all the complexities and details of life. Sometimes those details look like God is acting unfairly.
It doesn’t seem fair for God to kick Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, for example. It doesn’t seem fair for God to favor Isaac over his older half-brother Ishmael, either. But God’s purpose is only made known to us when we see things from an “upper story” perspective. God calls us to capture the upper story and its effects on our lives. The story of Joseph is a great example of how the upper and lower story lines come together in the Bible. Help me out here. Tell me when you think something that happens to Joseph is good (thumbs up), and when it’s bad (thumbs down). Then let’s see how God uses the bad to create good through Joseph.
The story starts in Genesis 37, when Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. (That’s bad) Joseph is 17 and is “the favorite” of his father Jacob (Rachel’s son). (That’s good) Joseph had dreams of his brothers and parents bowing down to him. This does not make him popular. (That’s bad) Joseph’s brothers sell Joseph to a band of Ishmaelites, and they tell Jacob that Joseph was killed by a ferocious animal. The Ishmaelites take Joseph to Egypt as a slave. (That’s bad)
Joseph is sold as a slave to an Egyptian official named Potiphar and becomes Potiphar’s right hand man. (that’s good) Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph. (that’s bad) When Joseph refuses her advances, she falsely accuses him of assaulting her, and Joseph ends up in prison. (that’s bad) While in prison Joseph gets a reputation for correctly interpreting dreams. (Baker, cupbearer) (that’s good)
Joseph never plays the victim card, but he stays connected to God.
Over and over, we read that “The LORD was with Joseph” (39:2, 23). (That’s good)
Pharaoh has troubling dreams that none of his wise men and magicians can interpret for him. (that’s bad) But remember the reputation Joseph built in prison for being a good dream interpreter? (this could be good) Joseph is called to Pharaoh and correctly interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and counsels Pharaoh to prepare for what they say about the future. (that’s good)
Dream #1- Egypt will have 7 years of bountiful harvests (that’s good)
Dream #2- Egypt will have 7 years of famine. (that’s bad)
Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of carrying out a plan to prepare for the years of famine, and this puts Joseph exactly where he needs to be in God’s upper story of redemption. Joseph is promoted to Deputy Pharaoh in Egypt at age 30 (Genesis 41). (that’s good)
The famine hits Canaan, where Jacob and his other sons still live. (that’s bad) Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to ask for food, and they do bow down to Joseph. (is this good or bad, do you think?) Joseph is now age 39. It’s been 22 years from the time of his initial dream to its fulfillment.
This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for in Joseph’s story. Continue reading
Last week we discovered that God’s vision in creation is to be with us. Adam and Eve chose a different vision. By their choice, sin and the sinful nature entered the human race. Yet, God passionately pursues us at great cost. God will do whatever it takes to get us back.
The deal with Noah hadn’t worked.
Sin was still the problem, even in the most righteous person God could find.
So instead of working with the most likely candidate for the job, God goes with the least likely possibility, an old man from Ur.
Ur was very near where Eden may have been, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Nearby, many people who all had one language had tried to build the Tower of Babel. God confounded their language and the nations scattered.
God chose to create a new nation in this area of the world.
God chose Abram and Sarai when they were very old, well past the age to have children. Their parents and grandparents had worshiped pagan gods. They were probably the least qualified people on earth to give birth to a great nation that would bless the whole world. God chose an old and unlikely couple so that all people would look to God, knowing that all that happens is God at work. God wants people to see him and understand his plan. And it’s pretty simple, really.
In Genesis 12, God lays out the deal for Abram. In this agreement, God states clearly what he expects from Abram when he says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (12:1)
Then God goes on to offer his share of the deal. He makes four promises: Continue reading
September 6, 2015
My first husband liked to scuba dive and spearfish. These are great sports if you live near the ocean. We lived in southeast Kansas. The only bodies of water available for scuba diving and spear fishing were old strip mining pits, and the only fish you could legally spearfish were carp.
Carp are bottom-feeders. They eat muck. They taste like muck. It doesn’t take much imagination to rearrange the letters in “carp” to come up with another word that fully describes their flavor. And they are full of tiny bones, so they are difficult to eat. It doesn’t really matter how you cook them, they are still going to taste like carp, and you will always have a little pile of bones on the edge of your plate when you finish the meal.
So why did we keep settling for mining pit carp, when we could have been fishing for river trout or lake bass? James asks a similar question in today’s passage: why settle for worldly wisdom, when your life can be guided by heavenly wisdom?
Sometimes, we don’t even realize we are settling for carp. We think we are eating good fish, and we can’t figure out why it tastes so bad. Think of the times in your life you have settled for less than God intended for you. Maybe you have taken the easy way out when faced with a choice, or maybe you’ve struggled to have your work recognized, and you felt hurt when your efforts to serve have gone unnoticed.
It seemed like what you were doing was good and worthwhile, but you found no satisfaction in it. Things just didn’t go the way you wanted them to go, and you couldn’t figure out why you were fighting so hard and getting so little return. You thought you were eating good fish, but you kept finding carp bones in your teeth.
You might tell yourself it really doesn’t matter much; you don’t mind the taste of carp. But when it comes to living out our lives as followers of Jesus, the wisdom we draw upon matters a great deal. Allowing worldly wisdom to seduce us away from heavenly wisdom can have dire consequences for us, and cause great spiritual harm to others who look to our example.
As servants of Christ, we need to be able to tell the difference between God’s wisdom and our own, so that we can let God’s wisdom guide our speech and actions, and so we can avoid becoming a stumbling block for others.
So, how can you tell when there’s carp on your plate? How can you know when you are being guided by heavenly wisdom instead of earthly wisdom? James identifies several characteristics that will help us recognize the difference between heavenly wisdom and worldly wisdom, and he gives some clear examples of the evidence we can look for to make sure we are depending on wisdom from God. As we begin to let heavenly wisdom guide our lives, we can stop settling for carp.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:13-18)
Teachers use ‘best practices’ to help students remember – and use – the skills and concepts needed to master a particular discipline. The best way to teach a skill is to provide careful coaching until the skill is performed correctly once, then use repetitive practice until the skill is mastered. The skill must be performed correctly at least once before any repetitions can be called “practice.” (Until then, repetitions are just “attempts”.)
But to learn a concept, or idea, we need lots of examples to identify the concept’s critical attributes, or characteristics. We need positive examples, to establish what the concept is, and we also need negative examples to learn what the concept is not.
James is a good teacher. He wants us to follow heavenly wisdom, and he gives us both positive and negative characteristics we can recognize in our own speech and conduct, so we can determine when heavenly wisdom is guiding us.
First of all, heavenly wisdom is pure, and last of all, it is sincere. These bookends of purity and sincerity frame the list of positive characteristics. Purity of heart is easy to spot. The world might call the spiritually pure naïve or gullible, and some might even try to take advantage of this. But remember that purity is a mark of wisdom. There is no guile or deceit in heavenly wisdom. It is transparent and honest.
Linguistic experts insist that the legend surrounding the origins of the word ‘sincere’ is no more than a folk tale, but that folk tale is a good one. It goes like this:
In ancient times, a potter who wanted to disguise an imperfection in a vase or vessel could fill the crack with wax, buff it smooth, and pass off a damaged piece of pottery as whole. The only way to see the crack would be to hold the vase up to the light. So potters of integrity began to advertise their wares as Sine Cera, or ‘without wax.’ To be sincere meant you weren’t hiding anything, or trying to pass off imperfection as perfect. Whether or not James knew the story about the potter, he certainly knew that heavenly wisdom would never try to disguise an imperfection. Heavenly wisdom always tells the unvarnished truth.
Sandwiched in between purity and sincerity, James lists characteristics that are very closely related: peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial… that last one must have been referring to the problem James addresses in chapter two, where the wealthy were being treated with favoritism in the early church.
Being at peace with others seems to be the primary focus of heavenly wisdom in this passage, for James restates this idea in verse 18: peacemakers who sow in peace will reap a harvest of righteousness. Righteousness here can also be translated as justice, goodness, or being made right.
What do all these characteristics of heavenly wisdom hold in common? They describe how we are to interact with others. The focus is outward, considering the other’s need with personal humility, acting and speaking in love.
To make sure we get the point, James gives us some negative examples, as he lists the characteristics of earthly wisdom: selfish ambition, bitter envy, boasting, denying the truth. Just as heavenly wisdom results in peace, James tells us that earthly wisdom results in disorder ‘and every evil practice’. Such chaos is the exact opposite of peace.
But notice what earthly wisdom’s characteristics hold in common: selfish ambition, envy, boasting, and lying are all inward-focused tendencies. Instead of being all about another’s need and well-being, earthly wisdom is all about me. My needs, my desires.
Isaiah 5:21 says, “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!” They depend on earthly wisdom. They discover they have been eating carp.
Being guided by heavenly wisdom is certainly important as we strive to live out our call as Christians, but let me remind you that our call is to some form of ministry, and ministry always means ministry to someone else. Will we benefit personally? Certainly! But our own good is not what we look for when we seek heavenly wisdom. It is the good of others that drives us.
If we take a look at this passage in the context of the entire letter from James, we see that this lesson about heavenly wisdom falls in between two lessons on taming the tongue. James is eager for our interactions with others to reflect Godly wisdom. This means governing our speech so the things we say show compassion and mercy instead of pride and envy. Psalm 141:3 says, “Set a guard over my mouth, LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.” And Jesus admonishes us to remember, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:10)
Heavenly wisdom isn’t something to acquire and keep to ourselves as some special secret knowledge. Its purpose is to help us as we speak and act, teach and encourage, ministering in Christ’s name to those he died to save. Heavenly wisdom’s greatest purpose is to show love.
So, what’s on your plate? Is it a melt-in-your-mouth, freshly caught fish fillet? Or is it mucky-tasting carp? If your speech reflects your own ambition or bitter envy, it’s time to clean the carp bones out of your teeth. If the words falling out of your mouth express sincere, compassionate, humble love, may God continue to grant you the grace to show heavenly wisdom in all you say and do.
The big question, however, is this: how do we get such heavenly wisdom? The answer is found in the pages of the Bible. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” we read in the psalms and proverbs. (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 1:7, Proverbs 9:10) We develop a healthy fear of the Lord by reading his Word.
That is why we are taking on this journey through the Bible called The Story. As we read together from the beginning to the end of God’s biblical story, we will learn how God’s great love for us has been demonstrated time and again. And we will discover how our own stories are part of God’s story.
On Wednesday night, we watched a short video made by Randy Frazee’s church, as they were beginning this same journey together. In the video, actors put on a skit about being on the game show Jeopardy. As the skit begins, there is only one category left on the Jeopardy board – The Bible. It’s pretty clear that the players know very little about the scriptures. They can’t get a single question right, even though their answers are pretty funny.
We didn’t watch the next part of Randy’s video, but I can tell you that it is based on the game show Deal or No Deal. Have you watched that before? 26 suitcases hold dollar amounts from .01 to 1,000,000, and the contestant’s job is to choose, by process of elimination, the suitcase with the highest dollar amount. As the game progresses, the banker makes a cash offer to the player. If the player accepts the deal, the game is over.
Today, I’m going to make you the same offer Randy Frazee made to his church, when The Story had just begun. In your bulletin is a commitment sheet. We’re going to go through it together. You can decide “Deal” or “No Deal” for each of the items listed on the page. When we’re finished, you will have decided how much you want to commit to this process, how much you want to invest in heavenly wisdom. …