How to Observe Lent

People always wonder, “What should I do to observe Lent?”  Here are three excellent suggestions I have printed in my bulletin for Ash Wednesday for the last two years.  They are strongly inspired by the 2015 Lenten Letter of Methodist Bishop Jane Allen Middleton to whom I give credit for these ideas. 

Give Up”  — Sacrifice of some kind is an honored Lenten tradition. The sacrifice of Jesus for us inspires us to discipline ourselves by meaningful sacrifice.   

Take Up”  — Jesus encouraged us to take up our cross and follow Him. Often this means tackling some project or ministry on His behalf. We are His hands and feet of love and caring. We are His influence working for justice and healing. So during Lent is an ideal time to take up a special ministry for Jesus. 

Look Up and Open Up to “Receive from Jesus.”  —  We live in the age of the Holy Spirit, and God does not expect us to live the Christian life in our own strength. So during Lent is an ideal time to draw on God’s strength. Another great way to observe Lent is to choose an additional way to draw close to God and allow His Spirit to fill you.   

Praying Deeply

Lady at prayer
Praying with our whole lives

 

A Devotional Challenge

This year I’ve been reading from one of my favorite devotional books, A Guide To Prayer For Ministers And Other Servants. Each week, there are some readings to prod one’s thinking. Today the readings were about prayer that goes so much deeper than words. In our troubled world today, we must learn again that our religious life cannot be separate from our daily actions if we expect society to change for the better. I was meditating on the following quotes.

“Love to pray. Feel often during the day the need for prayer, and take trouble to pray. Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of himself” (from A Gift for God by Mother Teresa).

Today we feel so inadequate to the task of changing our world. Yet it is through prayer that God enlarges our capacity and magnifies our spiritual strength so that we are able to do the good works that he has planned for us. Through prayer the “immeasurably more” of God works through us (Eph. 3:20).

Prayer at Work Everyday

“If when we plunge our hand into a bowl of water, or stir up the fire with the bellows or tabulate interminable columns of figures on our bookkeeping table, or, burned by the sun, we are plunged in the mud of the rice field, or standing by the smelter’s furnace, we do not fulfill the same religious life as if in prayer in a monastery, the world will never be saved” (quoted from Gandhi by Carlo Carretto in Letters From The Desert).

How can we save our nation from violence? It will only happen as the hearts of people are filled with nonviolence. Through prayer God changes our hearts. Continuing in prayer makes us uncomfortable with any hypocrisy that remains in our attitudes and actions because ultimately they hinder our prayers.

“[Jesus] lived his message before he spoke it. He preached it by his life before explaining it in words. This was Jesus’ method and we too easily forget it. In many cases catechesis is reduced to words rather than to ‘life,’ to discussions rather than to the pursuit of Christian living. And here, perhaps, is the reason for the poor results” (Carlo Carretto in Letters From The Desert).

Jesus admonished us that those who are wise would not only hear his words but put them into practice. In so doing, they would build a strong and durable foundation for their lives.

“Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” –Jesus  (Matthew 7:24).

A prayer for today

Oh Lord of life, teach me to pray deeply–with my everyday life, with my whole heart and also with my words of devotion.

Following Jesus requires life-long learning

A devotional excerpt from today’s message

The evangelical and revivalist traditions of the American Protestant churches over the last hundred years have strongly emphasized making a decision to follow Christ.  That is a good thing because until we make a decision, most of us drift in indecision and ultimately drift away.  Better to decisively answer the call of Jesus.

But there has been one downside to this emphasis.  Some have emphasized the decision to the detriment of the walk with Jesus.    Like a hypothetical person who buys a car and then inexplicably keeps walking, riding the bus, or hiring a taxi everywhere they go,  some so-called Christians think that having a “decision” in their records is all that is needed.  More liturgical types might substitute becoming a member or being baptized as their moment of decision.  But anytime our Christianity is only a decision of the past and not a present pursuit, there is a big misunderstanding.

Jesus calls us to continuing discipleship

However, if we remember that Jesus calls us using the word “follow” we will easily avoid this error.   Following is by nature a continuing activity.  It’s something you do every day.  The word “follow” reflects the true nature of our relationship to Jesus.   We are continually modeling after him.  We are continually listening for his voice.   We are continually understanding and appropriating more of his instructions.   We are continually seeking to walk in his footsteps.   Another way to say this is that Jesus doesn’t just call us to a one-time decision, he calls us to a day by day, week by week, year after year discipleship.  Think about it this way, nearly all professions I know of require continuing education for continued competence.  Anyone who is successful in their field is already doing continuing education whether or not it is required.

Your future is built on the improvements you are making today.

This is true of your Christian walk.  This is true of your marriage.  This is true of your relationship to your children.  This is true in your professional life.  This is true in your hobby.  Continued learning is part of our basic commitment to Jesus.   As Peter put it.

“Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 3:18 NIV 2011

So the corollary is that following Jesus is a life-long learning process.  And there is a wonderful promise that goes with this.

“He who pursues righteousness and love finds life prosperity and honor.” Prov. 21:21

Give Thanks to God

Praising God for his blessings.
Praising God for his blessings.

Praise the Lord, O my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits
Psalm 103:1-2 NIV84

Today my daughter and her husband and our two grandchildren visited us.  What a joy to hug them all.  Even though we see them regularly, it is still a special gift to treasure their company.

This week I will be preaching on why Communion is called a means of grace among Methodists.  One cannot reflect upon this topic without becoming profoundly grateful for all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ.   The seemingly simple gift of this sacrament has become for us a magnificent mystery full of both theological and existential richness.    Every time we partake it not only reminds us of the facts of Jesus’ act of initiation of the sacrament, but it becomes for us an acted symbol of our own participation in the greater realities which it represents.  We are prompted toward ongoing repentance and faith.  It is no wonder that in many Christian traditions, this sacrament is called “The Eucharist.”  The word “Eucharist”  comes from the Greek meaning gratitude or thanksgiving.  How appropriate.

As I was studying for this sermon I noticed an excellent paragraph of encouragement to praise from Spurgeon in one of the devotionals in my Bible program. 

The Lord always deserves to be praised for what He is in Himself, for His works of creation and providence, for His goodness towards His creatures, and especially for the transcendent act of redemption, and all the marvelous blessing flowing therefrom. It is always beneficial to praise the Lord; it cheers the day and brightens the night; it lightens toil and softens sorrow; and over earthly gladness it sheds a sanctifying radiance which makes it less liable to blind us with its glare. Have we not something to sing about at this moment? Can we not weave a song out of our present joys, or our past deliverances, or our future hopes? Earth yields her summer fruits: the hay is housed, the golden grain invites the sickle, and the sun tarrying long to shine upon a fruitful earth, shortens the interval of shade that we may lengthen the hours of devout worship. By the love of Jesus, let us be stirred up to close the day with a psalm of sanctified gladness. (Charles Spurgeon – Evening Devotion for July 31)

A Plan for Quiet Times Alone with God in the New Year

 

A time to read the Bible and pray
A time to read the Bible and pray

“When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Mt 6:6 NIV).

“The first thing the Lord teaches his disciples is that they must have a secret place for prayer; every one must have a solitary spot where he can be alone with his God.  Every teacher must have a schoolroom.”   [Andrew Murray, With Christ is the School of Prayer p. 23]

Make plans now to refresh your quiet time

One of the first planning tasks of the New Year for me is to plan what I will do during my devotional times each day.  I find that if one always does the same things, then quiet time gets boring and fails to inspire as it should.   If time alone with God is to be fresh and renewing, then I need to renew the plan that I use at least every year.   Most of us think about starting things in the New Year, and most devotional books begin in January, so January is usually a good time for starting a new devotional plan. 

Quiet time basics

There are several related basic considerations.  How much time am I able to spend?  What will my Bible reading plan be?  What enhancements will help me at this time?   If I am planning a more ambitious reading program like reading the Bible through in one year, I may chose a devotional guide such as Your Daily Walk from Walk Through the Bible Ministries.  It is designed to encourage and assist in just such a plan.   Or perhaps I want to coordinate my readings with a devotional book I am using.  One of the best of this type for a longer devotional time that I have used is A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants by Upper Room.   Another great plan that works for shorter time frames is to find a devotional book by a classic author that you enjoy.  I have greatly profited from more than one devotional by E. Stanley Jones (no relation), the most recent being 365 Days with E. Stanley Jones, Mary Ruth Howes, editor.  You can also use a short booklet such as “Daily Bread” or “The Upper Room.”   If I have a Bible reading plan that is not related to a devotional, I might not use a dated devotional book but instead read a chapter from an inspirational book, either classic or contemporary.   Three contemporary ones I highly recommend are Secrets of the Vine by Bruce Wilkinson, Fresh Faith by Jim Cymbala and Listening for God by Marilyn Hontz.  This coming year I will be continuing my repeated reading of the Psalms and then moving to the NT, followed by starting again in the OT.   For my extra reading I have chosen a book called Rooted in Faith, Meditations from the Reformers, Compiled and edited by Bernard Bangley.

Setting is important

Another important matter is the setting Continue reading “A Plan for Quiet Times Alone with God in the New Year”

A devotional for Christmases that are not the same as those in the past

Here is a very thoughtful and personally touching devotion for everyone facing Christmas in different or difficult circumstances this year.  It comes from the insightful mind of Shirley Mullen, President of Houghton College.  I think you’ll be blessed as you read it.

http://www.houghton.edu/president/

Big Bible Bonanza increases Bible reading

 

Daily Bible reading is a basic discipline of disciples

 

Blue Angels vs. Goldfish

Everyone a winner – that was our goal at the beginning of the Bible reading emphasis.  More specifically, the goal was to increase the number of people reading their Bible every day.  Well, what has happened?  How are we doing?   Our organizers divided the congregation into two alphabetical teams as evenly as they could, based upon the list of those that attend.   Team names chosen were the Blue Angels for the first half of the alphabet and the Goldfish (think of the ancient Christian symbol) for the second half.   The goal was not how much you read, but to read at least 5 verses every day.  People, including children reported their reading through their classes and small groups.  Adults could read to younger children.  (Those who were not attending a small group could report directly to the organizers.)  

Discipline is not easy but accountability helps

Surprisingly, there was a little mumbling among even some seasoned Christians at being asked to participate in something that required one to be accountable for the discipline of Scripture reading. But, as the contest progressed, conviction and the encouragement of friends prevailed.   This illustrated that though we sometimes resist being accountable to one another, it is almost always beneficial to us in the long run.   Discipline is not easy.  I have to confess that during the five weeks, I missed one day myself while traveling.  But I was glad for the added accountability provided by the contest.

Classes and groups influential

The idea of reporting to small groups turned out to be very influential, especially among the adults.  Participation in several adult classes grew as the contest continued.   Last week three adult classes, those led by Larry Nemitz, George Raterman and Claude Walrath, all reported 100% of their members reading every day.   Congratulations to these teachers and their classes.

Families blessed

Hearing of increases in Bible reading across the board is a great win for everyone.   Contest records show that 31 people never missed a day in the first four weeks. (Those who have a perfect record for all five weeks will be recognized at the dinner.)   They set the pace for all of us.  Another inspiration is learning of personal stories like that of a family of four, who read every day from the sermon coordinated suggestions—the father read to his family.   When the father had to spend a few days in the hospital, his young son volunteered to take his place.  (At their suggestion, I’ll be making a list of coordinated reading for the next three weeks too, even though the contest will be ended.)  Another family called in their points while traveling.  (Families were allowed to call in points one Sunday out of the five.)   I’d love to hear more stories of how you have been blessed by the Bible reading contest.

A great example of encouraging one another

The first two weeks of the contest, only one team, the Blue Angels, received the bonus for having more that 60% of those participating reading every day.  The second week, neither team received it.   But by the fourth week, both teams exceeded 70% of readers reading every day.   The highest percentage so far was 76% reading daily achieved by the Goldfish on week three.  At this writing, the Goldfish are looking strong.   Of the people on their team, on the average, they had a larger number who read their Bibles and reported than the Blue Angels did, which added up.   But certainly we all win by confirming the habit of Bible reading.  So we will all celebrate with a dinner on Nov. 10.   A big thank you to key contest organizer JoAnne Jones, John Risley—who helped with stats— team captains Mark Boswell and Rhett Laforte, and Sunday School teachers and group leaders who helped encourage their class.   This was a great example of putting into practice Hebrews 10:23-25.   “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.  And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (NIV 1984).

In the Word in a New Year

God's Word is our Source book

As a new year begins, I always take time to deliberately pray about and plan for my personal devotional life in the coming year.   I use the New Year as a time for revamping it so that personal time alone with God does not get stale.   Intentional change keeps it fresh and meaningful.  Sometimes gifts that I receive are helpful hints.   This year I received a book of weekly devotionals called Living by Faith written by a friend from college, David Venable.   David was principal of a large Christian school in the Philippines for many years.   We have kept in touch through Christmas letters.  I plan to read it as part of my devotions this year.  I’m looking forward to it. 

This year I also believe it is time for me to return to sequential Bible reading—that is reading straight through books or sections of Scripture. I think everyone should do this some years.   If you can average 3-4 chapters per day you can read the Bible through in one year. Those not familiar with the timeline of the Bible either need a Bible handbook to help them place the books in history or they might try reading a chronological Bible—a Bible with the texts arranged in historical order.   This past year I read Scriptures associated with the devotional book I was using.  They were chosen topically.  But the key thing is to have a plan for being in Scripture each day.   The Holy Spirit works through Scripture to shape our Christian lives. 

I find it meaningful to mark in my Bible too.   I use children’s color pencils for highlighting and I use pens to make notes as well. I love Bibles with wide margins so I have a place to write.   I have noted dates I have prayed through a Scripture for a family member; Scriptures I received as promises on particular occasions; outlines from Bible studies or from sermons I heard; and scribbled notes on a Greek word I looked up, to name a few kinds of notations.   It adds immeasurably to my future studies of those same passages. 

As I look into 2012 devotions, I think I also need to do more with planning my prayer time.  Continue reading “In the Word in a New Year”

Help in seeking God – a testimony

Seeking God is rewarded

Ever since we have set our hearts on seeking God together, it seems that I have been supernaturally aided in my searching.  

1.      God has helped me to have the heart to seek Him.  I am learning that as we respond to God’s invitation, the Holy Spirit gives us greater thirst.   Yesterday, for example, I had plenty to do.   But I felt so hungry spiritually that I was almost compelled to spend more than double my normal devotional time in seeking God.   I praised God, then prayed for things I thought of.   When I was finished, God laid more things on my heart for intercession.   I was experiencing the levels of prayer I had just read about in David Yonggi Cho’s book. 

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.  Jn 6:44 NIV

2.      I keep running into more resources to encourage my search and help me to encourage others. Now, if I am thinking about something and run onto an article now and then, I can easily credit it to coincidence or just mental pre-occupation.   But I have worked on sermons for many years and know about how often one normally runs into things that are relevant without doing specific research.   In the last three weeks, such a high percentage of articles, devotionals, books I’m reading, DVD’s and music I’ve played have been directly helpful that it has amazed me.  To give one example–last night, I picked up a worship video that has been on my desk for months.   I thought it might be relevant to the sermon.   I discovered quickly that it was more relevant to last week’s sermon so I could have stopped watching and saved time.  But I kept watching for the personal inspiration just when I needed it.  It was awesome–a true worship generator.  I don’t think it added material for the message this week, but it sure helped fill the preacher’s heart. 

 And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever. 1 Ch 28:9 NIV

 Stay tuned, I have a feeling this adventure is only begun!

 

 

 

The simplest and most compelling reason for seeking God

Here are two sections by E. Stanley Jones from a daily devotional book I highly recommend.  I have followed them with my own conclusion.

Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior (Isaiah 45:15 NRSV).

Here is the hidden God, like the hidden thought…we cannot know what he is like unless he communicates himself through a word.
If you say, “I can know God in my heart intuitively and immediately, without the mediation of a word,”  then the answer is: “But your ‘heart’ then becomes the medium of communication and knowing the heart as you do with its sin and crosscurrents and cross-conceptions you know it is a very unsafe medium for the revelation of God.”
God must reveal himself.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God (John 1:1).

Here is the hidden God and he expresses himself through the Word…
Jesus is called the Word because the word is the expression of the hidden thought.  Unless I put my thought into words you cannot understand it.  Here is God; we sense his presence, but he is Spirit, hence hidden.  We want to know what he is like—not in omnipotence, nor in omniscience, nor in omnipresence; a revelation of these would do little or no good, but we would know his character, for what he is like in character, we, his children, must be.   So the Hidden Thought—God—becomes the Revealed Word—Christ.   (365 Days with E. Stanley Jones, Mary Ruth Howes, editor, Dimensions for Living Nashville, 2000, pp. 74,75)

No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known (John 1:18 NIV).

I was impressed as I read these that spending time in God’s Word, accompanied by a prayer that the Holy Spirit would teach us, is an essential part of seeking God.   Christians do not meditate with empty minds, but with thoughts shaped by God’s Word.   The still-small inner voice of the Holy Spirit most often uses the written revelation, the record of Jesus’ words and presence, to guide us and speak to us.    

What an incentive to our discipline to seek God.  The situation turns out to be so simple—too simple.  Unless we spend time with God in God’s Word and in prayer, we will never really know God.   We would prefer a fast-food shortcut, a spoon-fed alternative, an easier way but there are none. But the truly good news is that God desires that we discover him!  And he has provided a means for us to begin. 

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near (Isa 55:6 NIV).