Giving as God Gives

Posted 10/28/2018

Scriptures: Luke 12:13-21; Ephesians 4:25-5:1

Every year, once I know what to expect my income for the year will be, I sit down and once again make a decision about how much I will give to the church. For me, that normally means planning to give at least a tithe. But I also have a confession to make. There have been lots of times when I have given a tithe not so much because I WANTED to do so, but because I felt I really SHOULD do so.

I share this information about my own giving patterns because I think it points to two important dynamics when it comes to good Christian stewardship. Just thinking about the HOW and the WHY we make our stewardship decisions provides us with important insights into our own stewardship patterns and habits.

The first thing I’d like us to think about is the simple fact of regularly reconsidering how much we give. This morning’s gospel lesson included the story of a farmer. In Jesus’s day, and in the earlier days of our nation, many people were farmers. They were folk who received the bulk of their income at one, or maybe two, points in the year. Like the farmer in Jesus’ story, they would automatically be faced with the decision about how they would manage the year’s income when the crops came in. And, in some of the rural congregations I’ve served that pattern still held true to the extent that the church knew the bulk of its income would come during October and November, after the fall harvest was in.

But the fact is, few of us live a lifestyle where the bulk of our income comes in at one or two points in the year. Whether employed or retired, most of us receive our income on a regular schedule. Furthermore, most of us know how much we will be getting each “pay period.” Our income isn’t something that fluctuates wildly based on the vagaries of this year’s weather and crop growth. Most of us have a real degree of stability and predictability in our annual income.

But that stability and predictability in income also means we find it much easier to let the stewardship decisions of yesterday ride along unchanged — and not even reconsidered — year after year. As a result, what was once a generous gift can, over time, become something that is much less generous just because we never thought again about how much we will give, much less thought about growing our stewardship. Just as the farmer in today’s lesson needed to come up with a plan to manage his bumper crop, we need to reconsider at least every year how we will manage the wealth God has given to us — including how much we will give in our church stewardship.

A second aspect of stewardship, one that is reflected in my confession, is the importance of our attitude in giving. Scripture talks about God loving our giving when we give cheerfully. Now don’t get me wrong. God wants us to give, and being humans who respond to expectations in predictable ways, there truly is a degree of “should” that will probably always be a part of being a good steward. But when the “should” overrides the joy of giving, then there is a problem with our stewardship. 

And I think that problem is seen in both Jesus’ parable and in one little line out of Paul’s admonitions in Ephesians. That problem is a belief we have that tends to make giving into a “should” with very little joy about it. The problem is we see making ourselves economically secure as not only our main responsibility in our financial life, but also the end of our responsibilities when it comes to our finances. 

Notice that the farmer in Jesus’ parable is called a “fool.” But why is he called a fool? We are told it is because he has gathered great riches on earth, but hasn’t gathered riches before God. In Jewish tradition — in the mind of Jesus and those who were listening to him — gathering riches before God was primarily about one’s almsgiving and providing for those who were in need. We see this stress on providing for those who are in need continued in the life of the early church. Thus, when we read about the life of the early church as described in Acts we are told that the Christians shared what they had and so no one among them was found to be in need.

In Scripture, wealth — and especially great wealth — isn’t given to us to simply make our own economic life more and more secure. It is given to us to enable us to develop active compassion. It is given to us to allow us to help those in need.

And that’s why I say there is one little line in our Ephesians reading that helps us with this. Notice how instruction is given that thieves are to give up stealing and do honest work. Unfortunately, I’m afraid many of us stop reading the passage at this point. But we need to notice why thieves are urged to work — not so they can care for themselves, but “so as to have something to share with the needy.” Yes, just as elsewhere in Scripture, here we find the instruction that we are to engage in honest work —that we are to earn a living. But the point of our earning this living is clearly spelled out. It isn’t to simply accumulate more and more for ourselves. It isn’t to simply become more and more financially secure. It is to be able to provide more and more help to others who are in need.

And that’s where the foolishness of our farmer in Jesus’ parable comes to the fore. Here was a man with enough; he wasn’t in great need before this bumper harvest came in. He had barns. (Remember, Jesus said barns, not a barn!) To all appearances, he had been regularly filling them with grain. He was already financially secure. He wasn’t living hand to mouth, much less living on the street. Yet when he has a bumper year, does he even consider using this sudden increase in wealth to help his neighbors who might not be as financially secure? Does he consider helping the widow or the orphan who have little or no income? No, he plans only for his own future and his own enjoyment. He hoards it all for himself. He builds more barns to store all the bounty he has received. He starts making plans about all the ways he will sit back and enjoy himself for the rest of his life. 

And there is where it comes in — the hard word of Scripture. Our desire to have more and more — our tightly holding on to every little bit we get to make ourselves ever more financially secure — all that is, according to what Jesus says, simply greed. Jesus tells his parable as a warning against greed. Jesus tells this parable to remind us God gives to us, not so we can become more and more sure of our own financial future; but so we can become like God — generous, giving people who share with those in need. In this story Jesus reminds us that what we are given, we are given so that we might share, sharing even with those who “don’t deserve it.” (Remember Jesus elsewhere saying God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust?) 

Our working and earning shouldn’t be simply about ourselves. It should be about discovering the joy of generosity, a generosity like God’s generosity. We are invited to share in the joy that truly is like God’s joy as we share what we have with others who are in need.

Considering how we give and why we give can tell us a lot about our stewardship. 

Do we give with thoughtful planning? Do we consider our giving pattern with regularity? Or do we simply continue to give what we have given last year, the year before and who knows for how many years? 

Do we give with the joy of sharing? Are we like the farmer in Jesus’ parable, who thinks only about his own economic future? Or are we like God, who generously shares with all who are in need?

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We Give What You Gave

Posted 10/21/2018

Scriptures: 1 Chronicles 29:10-15, Mk 8:34-9:1

The little girl’s Mom gave her $10 earlier that day and now she was in the store with her Aunt shopping for the perfect Christmas gift for Dad. She was so excited she could hardly contain herself as she ran through the store looking for the perfect gift. 

What should she get Dad? Ideas ran through her head — along with the suggestions given by her Mom and her Aunt. What should she get? A tool? A shirt or a tie? What should it be? Maybe a toy? It had to be just right — after all, this was the first time Mom had let her go shopping for her own present for Dad. What should she get? 

I think we can all identify with the excitement that a young child feels the first time they get to pick out their own present for Dad or Mom. I find myself wondering, however, if we ever feel that kind of excitement about giving a “present” to our heavenly Father….

For most of us thoughts of stewardship evoke a kind of resistance. We dislike talking about stewardship. Perhaps we even become more unwilling to give when we hear talk of being good stewards.

Yet the fact is, Jesus talks a lot about money and possessions. He speaks about it more than he does any other topic. And if we take seriously the scriptural affirmation that ALL we have and ALL we are comes from God, we really can’t avoid thinking and talking about stewardship. After all, it all comes to us as a gift.

And there is where the first rub comes in when we begin to think and talk about stewardship. That little girl may call the $10 she got from her Mom to go shopping for a gift for Dad “hers;” but the truth is the $10 came from her parents. It isn’t something she “earned.” It was first of all, a gift Mom gave her. It is a gift given in order that she might herself give a gift.

And that is an image of what God does for us. God gives us life and health and the wealth we have — everything we have and are. And God gives them to us with the intention that we will spend at least some of that on gifts for others — gifts for God and gifts for other humans who are in need. 

It’s easy to imagine that little girl being entranced by the toys in the store. It’s easy to envision her wanting to buy Dad a gift that really is more a gift for herself than one for Dad. That’s what little children do. They can’t imagine anyone really being interested in the things adults want or need. After all, they are all (or almost all) so boring and uninteresting to little boys and girls. They are certainly not things they would like to get! 

It’s also not hard to imagine that little girl wanting to spend part of that $10 on something she really wants and using only what is left over to purchase a gift for Dad. After all, how often do little children get to spend money on what they have picked out?

Those are some of the reasons a adult usually accompanies and helps a child buy gifts for Mom and Dad, Grandpa and Grandma. Children need some guidance in giving the right kind of gift. They also often need guidance in using the money they have been given to actually purchase a gift instead of spending it all on what they want. 

That is one of the reasons Scripture talks so much about both how much we should give and to whom we should give. The truth is, we are all too much like little children. We get excited about having our own — our own money, our own “toys,” our own enjoyments. We have trouble remembering that God has given so much to us so that we can give to others. We have trouble remembering God wants us to give out of what God has given to us. 

As I said, our tendency to want to call God’s gifts our own is the first rub that often comes in when we begin to talk about stewardship. Another rub that comes in is, because we feel like it is all ours, we feel like we are “losing” when we give. We only notice that things we can’t do or have because we are giving some of “our” money away. We feel like our giving makes our life less — less full, less fun, less enjoyable — not more. 

But Jesus reminds us that things — possessions and wealth — really aren’t the most important part of life. He reminds us that when we spend all our time trying to “save our life” — trying to make ourselves secure and happy — we actually wind up losing our lives. Jesus doesn’t go along with the popular saying that the one with the most toys wins. Instead Jesus says the one who is most willing to share — to give up their possessions for the sake of Jesus himself and to help others in need — is the one who “wins.” 

Sure, giving can mean we have less to use for our own enjoyment. But is it only our enjoyment in this world that counts? The Westminster Shorter Catechism reminds us that there are more important things than things when it says, “The chief end [or purpose] of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” We were made not to find our fulfillment in enjoying things, but in enjoying God!

And part of enjoying God is to live in communion with God by being the kind of people God has called us to be — kind, generous people. People who share and care.

The truth is, God has given us everything we have and made us who we are. None of it is really ours — it has all come to us as gift. The question is, what are we going to do with the gift we have received? Are we going to spend it all on our own enjoyment, or are we going to buy gifts for others — sharing our blessings with those who need to receive a blessing? 

You’ve received the gift. God has given to each of us with generosity. Now the question is, what are you going to do with the gift you’ve received?

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Who Can Be Saved?

Posted 10/14/2018

Scripture: Mark 10:17-31

Each year as New Year’s approaches we take stock of our lives and make resolutions for the new year. A poll indicated that in 2018 the most popular resolution wasn’t the expected something like to exercise more but “being a better person.” (Which did come in at a tie with the ever popular “losing weight.) It seems we are thinking more about how what we do matters in the wider world these days. 

However, what does it mean to actually be “good?” The evidence says we seem to see eye to eye on the big stuff. We believe it is good to be kind, fair and just; it is bad to cheat, murder and steal. Yet when it comes to the details — when it comes to the particulars of exactly what good people do in a given situation — we often disagree.

Clearly, the man who ran up to Jesus in our Gospel lesson felt he was a good person. He had faithfully kept the Law from his youth. He hadn’t cheated, he hadn’t committed murder, he hadn’t stolen. He was someone everyone would call morally upright. He was a good citizen and a faithfully religious person. He was the kind who showed up for all the community benefits and was at church every Sunday morning. He was a person one could call “all around good.”

And, he was sure all this counted for something. Who knows, his moral uprightness and general “goodness” might even be THE definition of one who was saved. However, he wasn’t positive if his outstanding moral record was enough. Was he missing something? Was being moral and being “good” all it took? 

He was certain he was both moral and a “good person”; but when it came to the details of exactly what was required for salvation, well, there he wasn’t so certain. Perhaps his uncertainly even came in part from disagreements among the people of his day about what it meant to be “good.” Was simply being a good citizen enough? Did it also require one to be religious? How about outstanding morality? Just how much, and what all, was involved in being a “good” person?

As we consider this man, maybe he wasn’t all that different than those of us who are sure we are a “good person.” We too tend to think that being good certainly has to count for something when it comes to salvation. But we may also have a little nagging doubt about whether, good as we may be, we’ve done enough. Just how much of what kind of goodness is enough?

Whatever this man’s doubts about the adequacy of his “goodness,” here was his golden opportunity to ask if he was truly “on the right track.” This was his chance to settle the question about his goodness and his salvation once and for all. Here was his prospect of not only settling the questions, but perhaps even of shining in the eyes of others given his ever so unimpeachable morality. Yes, now was the moment to get all his questions answered. Now he had the possibility of finding out what really are the indications that one truly is a saint. At the very least, he could find which one of the various definitions of “goodness” that the people of his day may have given was THE definition of being a saint.

The fact is, there are a variety of definitions from which we too choose when it comes to deciding who is a “good person.” We, in our day, have our own ideas of what is necessary — or at least indications — of being saved; and those definitions don’t all agree. Some of us think those who are “good citizens” are the “good people” who have achieved salvation. Some, like this man seems to have thought, feel that those who live a life that is morally beyond reproach are the ones who are “in.” Others make their judgment based on who is “blessed,” which usually means by the wealth they have amassed. (After all, isn’t that wealth a sign of God’s blessing?) While still others, like the disciples apparently believed, say it is the one who has left everything behind — the one who is uninterested in gaining wealth, power or position in this world — who is the true saint. 

The fact is, our definitions of who is “in” when it comes to salvation differ, and so we often come to radically different evaluations of people. Like the disciples in our Scripture lesson, we may find ourselves wondering just what it takes to be saved.

And, throughout the years preachers have taken this passage and used it to define exactly what one must do for salvation. However, like other efforts at defining who is saved, they haven’t all agreed. 

And there is one portion of Jesus answer to the man that has been interpreted in very different — even contradictory — ways. That is Jesus’ instructions to the man to give all he possess away in various ways. Some have said this is a demand is to be understood literally; thus, for instance, Christians have taken vows of poverty. Others have insisted this command is to be understood as our removing from our lives anything that keeps us from following Jesus. 

What is less often stressed, however, is that simple statement of Jesus that the man is to “come and follow me.” It seems to me that this is the core Jesus’ response, not some statement about the money. Yes, money and possessions aren’t unimportant in this passage, but it seems to me that “follow me” is what this entire passage is about.

Salvation is about following Jesus. Now I know that we have just about as much disagreement over what it means to follow Jesus as we do over what it means in particular to be “good.” Yet, I can’t help be believe it is following Jesus that matters most.

And I think that what it means to follow Jesus isn’t the same for everyone. One of the emphases of the Reformation was that people followed Jesus in their lives when they followed Jesus in the life they were currently living. One didn’t have to become a “religious” (monk, nun or priest) to really follow Jesus. One could follow Jesus just as much as a farmer as one could as a priest. Or as a father as one could as a monk. Or as a baker as one could as a nun. And I think the Reformation insight that following Jesus doesn’t mean — or have to mean — the same thing to everyone still holds true today.

In other words, for some of us, our calling is to be a teacher — and following Jesus means things like being a teacher who cares about all our students and practices fairness in the classroom. Some of us are called to follow Jesus as farmers — and following Jesus means things like caring for the land and livestock God has entrusted into our stewardship. Some of us have been called to be a trucker — and following Jesus means things like driving as safely as we can. And many of us have been called to follow Jesus as a parent and/or grandparent — and following Jesus means helping the next generation to know God’s love and grace. 

Sure there are some common things we all are called to do in following Jesus — things like putting loyalty to Jesus before any other loyalty, showing love and compassion toward others, and caring for those in need. Yet following Jesus doesn’t have to mean the exact same thing to everyone. And in fact, the differences in our lives is one source of the differences we have about the particulars of following Jesus. We are each called to follow Jesus in specific ways that are a reflection of the specific life we are called to live as parents, teachers, farmers, truckers, nurses or any one of the great number of roles we may have in our own particular life. And in fact, our various roles may actually overlap in any number of ways, making the specifics of our following Jesus even more varied.

The man who approached Jesus that day had an important question: “What must I do to be saved?” It is one we too may ask. Jesus had an answer for the man that is the answer for all of us — follow me. It is in following Jesus that we discover our salvation. It is in following Jesus that we discover what it means to be a Christian in our daily lives. And because each one of our lives is unique, different from the lives of others, following Jesus doesn’t mean the exact same thing for each of us. We aren’t all called to be and do the exact same thing. There is only one thing Jesus calls each and every one of us to do in our lives; and that is to follow him in whatever ways are appropriate to our own particular life roles and responsibilities.

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The Mystery of Suffering

Posted 10/7/2018

Scriptures: Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12

Children killed in a school shooting. Shoppers in the market killed by a terrorist attack. Women, children and the elderly killed by the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets. These are just a few examples of events that can leave us wondering “Where is God? How can God allow the innocent (or at least relatively innocent) suffer so?” 

Yet it is not simply these news headline events that leave us wondering. There are also the events of our own lives that leave us wondering. We might have say or may say to ourselves, “I have been a good and reliable employee. How could God allow me to be fired?” or “I have been a good spouse and parent. How could God allow my spouse to file for divorce after all these years?” or “I have been a faithful church member, how could God allow me to have a terminal illness?”

How could God allow it? Where is the justice in the suffering of innocents? Even more to the point, where is God?! 

There is perhaps no other book of the Bible that can stir up the puzzlement that Job does. As we read the story of Job, we are almost inevitably led to wonder why in the world righteous Job must suffer so. When even God calls Job righteous, why doesn’t God deliver him? What in the world is going on in this frankly rather troubling story?

And, in fact, if we read through the entirety of Job, we will find little solace, and no answer, to these kind of questions about Job’s suffering. No explanation — or at least no explanation that is satisfactory from Job’s perspective — is given to Job for his suffering. There are long speeches — speeches that form the bulk of the book — that assert God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Yet if this is true, why is the righteous Job suffering so? Why does God remain silent? The book of Job never answers those questions. 

In fact, it is only toward the end of Job that God speaks. And then God’s words are far from a satisfactory answer to our questions about the innocent suffering.  In essence, God seems to put Job on the spot, asking why Job would even dare to question God. God points out that his knowledge and power are beyond Job’s — so far beyond that Job can’t even begin to grasp them. God basically says to Job, “Just who do you think you are?” Not exactly the kind of answer we are hoping to hear.

Yet if Job is troubling when we read it this way, there is one thing that is clear. Job tells us the answer to suffering isn’t an easy one. We can’t simply equate suffering with wickedness and prosperity with righteousness. The world simply doesn’t work that way. Suffering remains a mystery — beyond our ability to explain in a satisfactory way.

Yet, that doesn’t mean we are without hope in our suffering. The conversations between the satan and God in the beginning of Job may seem strange to us, yet there is at least one thing to be noticed about them. God places limits on the suffering Job experiences. Even when we can’t understand why we suffer, we can trust that God remains God. It is God who establishes the limits of what we are to suffer.

However, even this is meager comfort in the midst of intense, unmerited suffering such as that which Job experienced. This is why what the author to the Hebrews says is so important as we think about the mystery of suffering.

In Hebrews we are confronted with the suffering of Jesus. Jesus, the one who is truly innocent, suffers death on the cross. Jesus becomes, as the author says elsewhere, like us in everything but sin. That is, if anyone is truly suffering innocently, it is Jesus. Yet he suffers. He knows personally, intimately what it means to suffer — to suffer profoundly. He knows what it means to suffer to the depths of his soul, having even sweat blood as he prayed in Gethsemane. He knows what if means to suffer betrayal, having been betrayed by Judas. He knows what it means to suffer rejection, having been rejected by the leaders of his own people. He knows what it means to suffer excruciating physical pain, having died on a cross.

We may not have an answer to the why of the mystery of suffering. But we do have an answer. We have the answer that Jesus gives. We have the answer that we are not alone in our suffering. We have the answer that Jesus himself suffered — for us. We have the answer that in Jesus, God become man, God himself takes on our suffering and in his mysterious way redeems even our suffering in His love. 

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Experiencing Grace

Posted 9/30/2018

Scriptures: Psalm 124; Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22

Sometimes things look pretty bleak. Like the Psalmist, we feel like we are drowning in a flood of troubles. We feel trapped, like a bird in a snare. We feel there is no future, there is hope.

In our Old Testament story for today, things looked bleak for Esther and her people, the Jews. Our passages come from the middle and near the end of the story. To understand their significance, we need to know the beginning of the story.

The story begins with Esther becoming Queen because the current Queen, Vashti, had displeased the king by not obeying him. Esther was an orphan, and her cousin, Mordecai, has raised her. Even after Esther was made Queen, Mordecai continued to be in contact with Esther. 

As the story develops, Mordecai refuses to show Haman, a court official, the honor Haman feels is his due. Haman decides to seek revenge — and what a revenge he decides to take! He knows Mordecai is a Jew. He determines to take revenge not only on Mordecai, but on all the Jews.  So he maneuvers the king into signing a decree that ordered the destruction — the slaughter — of all Jews. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the king, Esther, his Queen, is a Jew. 

It couldn’t get much worse. Esther and the Jews were truly “caught in a snare.” The floodwaters were about to sweep over them. Hope seemed far away. There seemed to be no future. Their destruction seemed certain. 

Yet the Psalmist knows that it is in this kind of situation that God is our help. When all other help is useless, the Psalmist declares, we can turn to God for help. When the waters rise over our heads, when we seem to be caught in a trap, God is the one — the only one — to whom we can turn for help. 

And that is exactly what Mordecai and Esther did. Mordecai got word to Esther of the decree. He urges Esther to act. Perhaps, he say, this is the very reason she has become Queen — to save the Jewish people from this evil plot. 

But there is a problem. The King hasn’t invited Esther to join him at all for a whole month. Esther determines she will take her life into her hands (literally) and go to the King. She knows that under the law for her to appear before the King without his invitation means her death — unless the King chooses to extend her mercy. 

As Esther plans to go to the King and appeal to him on behalf of her people, she asks Mordecai — and through Mordecai the Jews of the city — to pray for her. She knows that in this desperate situation it is only the mercy God which can assure her of receiving mercy from the King. 

Thus, in the midst of an impending total disaster, Esther and her people do the one thing that seems utterly useless — they turn to God in prayer. How in the world could prayer change their reality? Of what use is prayer in the face of a certain death edict? Of all the things they could do, prayer seems the most useless.

And yet the story witnesses that prayer does change reality. God, although not named in the book of Esther, acts to deliver. God grants Esther favor in the sight of the King when she approaches him. Esther invites the King and Mordecai to banquets she prepares on successive nights. She tells the King what has happened. And while the King can’t revoke his previous decree; he issues another one. This one allows the Jews to defend themselves. Thus on the day that was to be the day of their destruction, the Jews gathered together to defend themselves. As a result, they win a great victory over their enemies. The day that had been meant to be the day of their destruction becomes the day of their delivery and victory.

The story of Esther is an inspiring one, telling as it does of God’s deliverance from certain death. Yet it isn’t just in this situation that God’s people had experienced God’s deliverance from trying — even desperate — times. 

When they were oppressed slaves in Egypt, God had acted to free them. God sent Moses to lead them out of their slavery and to the Promised Land. 

When they were exiled captives in Babylon, God had raised up the Persian King, Darius, who granted the Jews permission to return to their homeland. God sent them Nehemiah and Ezra to lead them in the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

When they were opposed by the neighboring peoples when they sought to re-build Jerusalem, God gave them favor in the eyes of the Persian rulers. He opened the door for them not only to be protected from harassment by the neighboring peoples but also enabled them to receive government money to assist in their re-building projects. 

And it is not just in the Bible that we see God’s deliverance. We can see it in our lives as well. Pressed to the limit, we turn to God; and God delivers us. Sometimes, like the examples I’ve cited, the deliverance is wonderful, complete, beyond all we could ever have hoped for. Sometimes, however, it is a mere “escaping from the snare.” It is more like a simple continuing to survive than a miraculous turning of a day of destruction into a day of victory. But either way, in that deliverance we experience the wonder of God’s grace.

And that truly is what God’s grace is. It is the reality of God not only with us but also for us. The reality of God who not only became flesh in Jesus and lived with and among us; but also the reality of Jesus who died on the cross for us. It is the reality of Jesus, who reigns in heaven for us. It is the reality of Jesus who even now prays for us. And this is the good news of the gospel.

For you see, the gospel isn’t simply about our being delivered from sin — it is also about our deliverance from death. A deliverance from death into eternal life — here and now and at the time of our physical death. It is the opening up of the gates of heaven — the opening up of the possibility of true, abundant life in the here and now as well as in the future. For when we have experienced the grace of God — when we have experienced God’s deliverance — we can do nothing less than join the Psalmist in singing the praises of the one who is our help. We can do nothing else than praise the Lord who is the creator of heaven and earth. We can do nothing else than witness to the Lord who comes among us, dies for us, is raised from the dead and reigns for us. 

The fact is, each of us has experienced, or undoubtably will experience, at least one time in our life when things are desperate. When the future looks bleak. When all we can see ahead of us is a dead end. Yet the witness of Scripture, the witness of our Christian lives, is that in such moments we can turn to God for deliverance. And the good news of the gospel is that God does deliver! The wonder of God’s grace is that God is both with us and for us. That God doesn’t leave us alone to face the rising waters. That God frees us from the snare. 

That good news of God’s deliverance is why the  Psalmist sings. It is why he reminds us when we are at the end of our rope, it is God, and God alone, who is our help. 

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Life Together

Posted 9/9/2018

Scripture: James 2:1-17

I’ve never met a church that didn’t say it was friendly. Yet when you look more closely there are many churches where their life just may not bear that out. For example, more than once I’ve done a little experiment with church members. I ask them to begin talking with one another like they might do after (or before) worship. They immediately gather in small groups, cheerfully chatting away. I then approach each group, each of which is gathered in a rough circle. Most often not a single one of the groups opens up their circle to include me. I then ask them to think about this question: If they won’t move to include me, their pastor, how likely is it that they will move to include a visitor who is a stranger?

Today’s lesson from James challenges us to think about how we include or exclude people in our church gatherings. In James’ day and among his church community the biggest problem was how the church responded differently to those who were wealthy and those who were poor. Much like the society around them, they were likely to show great respect, and give great honor, to those who were of higher status in the surrounding society. We may find this to be true in our churches, but just as often our divisions are based more on who does how much for the church and our own personal friendships. 

Now I’m not saying personal friendships are wrong. What I am saying is in the church we need to make a real, conscious effort to be sure to include everyone. And without a doubt, the respect a member of the church receives shouldn’t be based on either their standing in the community or how much they do for the church.

The story is told of a congregation that was eagerly awaiting the arrival of their new pastor. On that Sunday morning a shabbily dressed, somewhat dirty and smelly man showed up before the service began. The ushers were embarrassed by the presence of this man who was clearly a bum. Why did he have to come on the day they were to celebrate the arrival of their new pastor? They suggested the man might be more comfortable going to the Rescue Mission service, but he insisted on worshiping with them. So, they seated him in the very back, in a dark corner where they hoped no one, and especially not their new pastor, would notice him. 

The service began, with great fanfare. Everyone was awaiting the arrival of their new pastor. At the appointed hour, the worship leader began the service, even though the pastor hadn’t been spotted yet. As they came to the point in the service where the new pastor would preach for the first time, the worship leader hopefully called out the pastor’s name. The congregation was alive with excitement and began clapping.

At that moment, the bum got up from his seat in the corner, moved to the center aisle and walked up to the pulpit. Every eye in the sanctuary was on him. Many heads were shaking and everyone in the congregation was clearly embarrassed at this man’s behavior. 

When the bum arrived at the pulpit, he simply recited Jesus parable:

 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

'The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

He then told them all what he had experienced that morning. Many in the congregation suddenly felt ashamed. 

While this is a story, not a true account, it vividly points out how we in the church today often treat others. If they don’t look like they “fit” in our congregation, we are inclined to ignore them, exclude them or even potentially suggest somewhere else they might go where they would be more “comfortable.” 

Yet it isn’t just those who are markedly different from us who may find it hard to enter our fellowships. Having served mostly small churches, I am well aware we tend to think of ourselves as families. In some ways that is both a Biblical image of the church and a very good description of the congregation. There is one problem, however, with our thinking of ourselves as a family: there are only 2 ways to enter a family — be adopted into it or marry into it.

So how do we, as small churches which are really like families, go about including others? How do we begin to break down the barriers — often barriers we aren’t really conscious of even being there — that can exclude others?

The first and main thing we must do is make an effort to include others. In this day of bullying and school shootings it is not uncommon to hear advice given to children that they say “Hi” to the kid that doesn’t seem to fit in or go sit with the child who is sitting all alone at lunch. But do we adults take our own advice? How often do we approach someone who isn’t part of “our circle” to have a real conversation with them? How often do we say more than a brief “hello” to people who might come into our congregation? How often do we go sit with the person who is sitting all alone in the pews or at fellowship time? Do we make a real effort to include those who may seem to be excluded by the group? The first thing we must do is to begin to make an effort as individuals to include others, especially watching for those who may be “excluded.”

The second thing is to begin as a congregation to “adopt” others into our groups. In one of my congregations, a session member was a township road commissioner. That meant he often was aware of people who moved into the community within a week or two of their arrival. He’d stop to visit any newcomers, introducing himself, telling them he was their road commissioner, and inviting them to let him know of any road issues they might notice. He also, before the conversation was over, would invite them to his small, very much family-like church. In fact, he would stress that they were a family — but at the same time assure the newcomers that they would become a member of the family on the first day they attended. 

And the fact was, that was exactly what that congregation, as a congregation, did. When a young family with children showed up, several older members would immediately begin to adopt them as their own grandchildren. They would begin to bring a piece of candy that the children would get after worship if they had been “good.” When the family had a number of children, one or two of the younger couples would offer to have one of the children sit with them during worship so Mom and Dad didn’t have as many kids to try to handle. 

It is easy for us to become comfortable in our own social circles here at church. But James reminds us that we need to stretch ourselves out to include those who are not a part of our circle. We need to be aware, so that no one is excluded. We need to not simply say we welcome everyone; we need to be a community that truly does welcome everyone.

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True Religion

Posted 9/2/2018

Scripture: James 1:17-27

We live in a world that is far different than the one most of us knew as children or young adults. Growing up, most of us understood religion to be a matter of going to church, believing a certain set of beliefs and being a generally a “good” person. Beyond that, believing certain things (that is, accepting certain “dogmas”) was often a very important part of being a member of a church. Faith was often defined as accepting certain ideas about God, Jesus and the Christian life. And the fact was in those days, most people went to church and at least publicly followed this understanding of what religion is.

However, today’s young people are increasingly dis-affiliating from churches — as church membership and attendance records readily show. The fasting growing segment of the religious landscape today is those who are called the “nones” — that is, those who do not hold any affiliation with any organized religious group. 

It is worth noting these “nones,” while uninterested in joining a church or any other organized religious group, often define themselves as being very “spiritual.” In other words, it is not that they have no interest in spiritual things; it is that they have turned their backs on what they call “religion.” For this group of people “religion” means any organized form of religious community, including their organized system of beliefs (dogmas), and they have no desire to be “religious.” 

This group, and many of our younger generations generally share several other characteristics that impact how they view and relate to churches and what has been traditionally thought of as religion. In contrast to what they see are religion, they see spirituality as being much more about what you do than what you believe. Furthermore, they don’t find their spirituality in any single Christian tradition — or even any single religion’s beliefs. They readily take beliefs from many religious traditions and combine them in ways that make sense to them. For these generations a “personal” spirituality is literally one that they have personally constructed — and it most likely isn’t, and certainly need not be, like anyone else’s.

So, in a world where there seems to be this stand-off between churches and older religious traditions and those who are interested only in what they call spirituality, what are we to make of the notion of religion/spirituality? Is adhering to a given tradition right? Are the new, primarily younger adherents of a “spirituality” that is all about what you do not what you believe right? Do we need to follow a set of doctrines or should we pick and choose what makes sense to us? Just what does make for religion/spirituality? Or to put it more pointedly in what seem to be today’s options, which really defines us as Christians — our adherence to a tradition (that is, what you believe) or what we do?

As we wrestle with this question, and with the current trends concerning religion and spirituality, it may be that James can help us. In our passage for today, James talks about what people who are truly religious/spiritual look like. And in certain ways, that is the focus of the entire book of James (and frankly, most of the content of all the letters in the New Testament).  

As we consider what James has to say, it may be helpful to take a moment and look at the history of the use of James in the life of the church. Among the early Christians (those Christians before there was a more or less established listing of books of the New Testament in the 400’s), James was one of the books that was frequently “questioned,” probably at least partly because of the authority the letter had in heretical circles. And, at the time of the Reformation, Luther also questioned the inclusion of James in the New Testament, calling it a “straw gospel” because of it’s emphasis upon works. However, despite his apparent disapproval of James, Luther didn’t “remove” it for the Bible. Clearly, James has been in some ways controversial within at least early Christian circles and is in some key ways “different” that the other New Testament letters. Yet equally clearly, James was accepted as an authoritative part of the Scriptures.

Having said that, as we see in today’s lesson, James does pointedly do one important thing. He reminds us that truly being religious/spiritual is about what we do — and in James’ case, particularly about how we treat others, especially those within the Christian community.

But ultimately James says there really isn’t a choice between religion being about what you believe or what you do. We are to be “hearers” and “doers.” In other words, the Christian community was formed by their common faith in Christ — what they believed about Jesus. Yet what they believed was also to result in a radical reshaping of what they did. True or pure religion involved “car[ing] for the orphans and widows in their distress, and … keep[ing] oneself unstained by the world. That is, it was to result in relationships of caring and concern AND in what we today might call morality or moral purity.

As I’ve walked through the years as a Christian, I’ve come to agree with James’ approach to “religion.” What we believe matters greatly. Being a Christian means putting your trust in Jesus alone. And it means trusting Jesus as your Savior, not just following him as a good example or great teacher. There is a certain element of what can only be called “tradition” — a core of what we are to believe — that is essential to the life of a Christian. 

Yet, the fact is we believe in and follow a person — not a set of statements about God and Jesus. That means that there really is a crucial element of the Christian life that is defined by how we live. Christian faith is not simply believing in Jesus it is also our doing what Jesus would have us do. Christianity is also about, as Scripture puts is, having our life transformed until our life has about it the qualities and characteristics that defined Jesus’ life.

And, one key place this transformation happens most deeply and most intimately is in our relationships with one another. For Jesus and James, the community of those who followed Jesus related to one another in particular ways; ways that were different than the ways of the world about them.

In Jesus’ and James’ day, one’s life was defined by the social status one held. And, just as is true today, social status was a combination of things like wealth, political influence and educational level. It was pretty much beyond the possible to seriously improve one’s social status — although it was very easy to lose one’s status. Thus, one might move up a bit in social status, with the most influential changing where they stood in the pecking order. But it was rare, if not impossible, for the average person, much less a low status person, to ascend to the ranks of the influential. Furthermore, the relationships between those of differing social statuses was clearly defined and unequal.

This inequality was emphasized by the Roman system of relationships based on patronage. To put it simply, patronage means if you were wealthy or had political influence, you were able to do things to help others. And having helped them, they owed you. Most of the time, the decision to help someone else was based on their ability to help you at some point in the future. People with no influence and no possessions had little hope of finding a patron to help them with the difficulties they faced in life. People with at least some influence (or potential to become influential) and a degree of wealth had a chance of someone with greater status taking them on as a patron. And if you were of high status, with lots of influence and possessions, you would have little trouble finding someone to be your patron. 

To be a patron was to increase one’s status; and the higher the status of those to whom one was patron, the higher your status became. 

In contrast to this system of status and patronage, James insists on the equality of Christians (something we’ll look at more next week). Rather than becoming their patron, James insists on simple care for the poor and socially disadvantaged. In other words, James says our following Jesus radically changes how we relate to one another. 

Thus, James insists true religion, or the Christian faith, is about BOTH what we believe and what we do. True Christian faith doesn’t exist without both. In a world that seems increasingly to separate a core of Christian beliefs and a way of living the Christian life from one another and to loudly proclaim only one of them as true religion/spirituality, the Bible clearly tells us we need both.

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Evangelism: Invitation

Posted 8/26/2018

Scripture: Acts 2:37-42

As we come to the end of our series on evangelism we come to what for many of us is the hardest, and perhaps what feels like it easily could be the most offensive, part of evangelism. That is inviting someone to put their faith in Christ. As we saw in the first sermon on evangelism, one a large part of our reaction to this notion is probably based on our own experiences of how others have gone about this. Often what we have experienced sounds more like a demand than an invitation that we place our faith in Christ. In addition to it feeling like it is a demand, there has also usually been a spoken or unspoken kind of “threat” about what will happen to us if we don’t. Such an approach can leave us rightfully reluctant to engage in thinking about our inviting anyone to put their faith in Christ.

Yet the whole point of our witnessing to Jesus is to give others the opportunity to experience what we have experienced. That means we will inevitably need to include explaining how we began our relationship with Jesus and inviting our conversation partner to begin their own relationship with Jesus. 

Once again, one of the things that helps change the way an invitation to enter into a relationship with Christ so that is differs from what we’ve often experienced is simply to do this in the context of an ongoing relationship. It is much easier to speak of entering into a relationship with Christ in a gentle way when the invitation is issued as part of ongoing conversations in an ongoing relationship, rather than more like a “drive by commit-your-life-to-Christ hit.”

But I think there are some other things that are important in how we might do an invitation to begin a relationship with Christ. I think there are other ways our witness might also differ from what has most likely been our experiences of evangelism. As we think about this, our Scripture lesson from Acts may be able to give us some guidance.

First of all, this passage reminds us that we do need to talk about “what we should do.” It isn’t enough for us to simply share our own experiences of Jesus, we also need to share how the other person can come to have their own relationship with Jesus. While this is not something we will do at the very beginning of a relationship, it is also something we should not avoid doing. We will need to share how our conversational partner can come to have their own relationship with Jesus. 

Yet we need to notice that this sharing happens in the context of a conversation. Peter didn’t just stand up and tell the crowd they need to “get right with Jesus.” He doesn’t just walk up to strangers and start off a conversation with, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus.” He first tells them about Jesus (and what we have in Acts is probably just a very short summary of all he said about Jesus). Then when they ask what they should do, he responds by telling them how to enter into this new relationship with Jesus. 

This reminds us that our invitation — our encouragement that another place their trust in Jesus and begin their own relationship with Jesus — comes in the context of an ongoing conversation. Our sharing this invitation grows, like the rest of our witness, naturally out of our conversation. It isn’t something we push the conversation toward or something we just randomly lob into a conversation. Our invitation needs to grow out of the conversation in a natural way.

The fact is, as we share about Jesus, part of what we will find ourselves sharing is how we came to know Jesus. As we share our life — and about our life — we will find ourselves talking about how we began our own relationship with Jesus. This in itself is a form of invitation, for it opens up the idea for our conversational partner that they too can start a relationship with Jesus. It can even give them some ideas about how to do this.

Yet we may discover that we need to go further than simply sharing our own story in a general way. Often people don’t really know how to enter into a relationship with Jesus. Here is where we can begin to speak about prayer. Not that we have some set “sinner’s prayer” that we urge another to say, but simply that we help others understand prayer as a way of entering into conversation — and thus relationship — with Jesus. Many people feel uncomfortable with prayer because they feel they don’t know how to pray. We can reassure them that there isn’t some set formula they need to follow. They don’t have to be eloquent in what they say. They can simply talk to Jesus.

A second thing we may need to do at this point is to not simply talk about our reading the Bible and how that is a part of our Christian life, but to help the other person actually begin to read the Bible. Here I mean doing very simple, practical things. Let’s be honest, for someone who doesn’t know about Jesus begin reading the Bible as if it were any other book — starting with Genesis 1:1 and reading through until they get to Revelation 22:21 — is probably not a good way for them to begin. While the entire Bible is important, starting out by reading the laws in the Old Testament and some of the stories the Old Testament contains is not the way to help someone who doesn’t really know Jesus begin to know him. 

Instead of leaving them with no idea where and how to start reading the Bible profitably, we can guide them toward reading the gospels first; perhaps suggesting they start with Mark since it is the shortest and so most easily read gospel. We can also share how reading the Bible has helped us develop a closer relationship with Jesus. We can share how the Bible has given us guidance and been important in our growing closer to Jesus. We can even guide them to a Bible Study we know about!

Finally, we can share how being a part of a Christian community — how coming to church — has helped us as a Christian. We can talk about how we receive encouragement and support in our faith by gathering with other Christians. We can tell how gathering together in worship adds something to our relationship with Jesus that simply following Jesus all on our own doesn’t provide. In other words, we can invite them to church not because we need more bodies or more money, but because being a part of church — coming to worship and other activities at the church — feeds us spiritually and enables us to grow. 

Finally, we shouldn’t be discouraged if our friend doesn’t respond to our first invitation. Studies show it takes something like 5-7 invitations for a person to decide to come to church. I’m sure in a similar way it often takes more than one invitation for a person to consider starting their own relationship with Jesus before them to actually do so. So, while we don’t want to be pushy, we also don’t want to stop talking about Jesus just because our friend doesn’t respond to our first invitation. There really is a difference between being pushy and continuing to share about our life and faith!

Inviting someone to put their trust in Christ can feel risky. But it doesn’t have to be something that is done in an aggressive or offensive way. It can be done in the context of our continued sharing in an ongoing relationship. When we do that, especially when we are also engaged in prayer about our witness, we might be surprised at the results!


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Evangelism: Sharing about Jesus

Posted 8/19/2018

Scripture: 1 Peter 3:13-22

So far this month in our look at evangelism we’ve considered some of the reasons we don’t do evangelism and some of the reasons to do evangelism. We’ve looked at some guidelines that can help us in doing evangelism. Today we’re going to take some time to consider just how we go about actually sharing about Jesus.

One of the first things to consider when we think about how we share the good news about Jesus is what 1 Peter says. Our passage from 1 Peter provides us some guidance in our sharing, saying we are to “always be ready to make [our] defense to anyone who demands from [us] an accounting for the hope that is in [us]; yet [we are to] do it with gentleness and reverence.” 

Note how Peter first of all says we are responding to what others say to us. As we’ve been hearing throughout this sermon series, in our witness we need to share in a way that fits naturally into the conversation we are having. Witnessing to Jesus isn’t a matter of forcing a conversation to the topic of our faith. It is sharing about our faith when there is a natural opening to do so. 

The second thing to note is the attitude we are to have in our witness. We are to be “gentle” and “reverent.” An attitude of reverence means that we show respect for the other person. This kind of attitude would once again indicate we don’t force the conversation to the topic of our faith. It also implies whenever the topic of faith or Jesus does come up we are to take seriously the other person’s doubts and their questions. 

Furthermore as we do this our sharing should be “gentle;” that is at the very least, a witness that doesn’t include a demand that they must agree with us. Rather, our “gentle sharing” should be a simple talking about our experience with Jesus.

That leads us to the last thing to notice about what Peter says. It is that we are sharing why we have hope. We share about the way in which Jesus has impacted our lives for the good. We tell about how we have encountered Jesus and experienced his help. In witnessing to Jesus we are telling our story of our own hopeful, joyful encounters with Jesus. 

So exactly how do we go about sharing? Scripture indicates we are to share through both our words and our deeds. We share both by what we say about Jesus and how Jesus has impacted our lives and by showing that impact in our way of living. The quality of our lives — and of our life together as a congregation — is one important part of our witness. 

I suspect most of us are much more comfortable with the thought that we share about Jesus through our deeds. We feel at ease helping out with the needs at the local food pantry or assisting a family that has had a crisis. We generally find it rather easy to share the good news of the gospel in doing things that show our love for our neighbor. 

And that is one important aspect of bearing witness. If our lives are no different than the lives of those who don’t believe in Jesus, there really isn’t any reason for others to consider the Christian faith. If our faith in Jesus doesn’t change us in any way, why bother with it? And, as Christians, we know that Jesus said the 2nd commandment is to “love [our] neighbor as [ourselves].” Thus this kind of showing Jesus’ love to those about us in practical deeds is important — even vital to our witnessing to Jesus.

Yet if we stop with only deeds of love, we haven’t really born a full witness to Jesus. Remember Peter says we are to “give an accounting.” We are to tell others WHY we do what we do. We are to not simply live as Christians, but to tell others why we live that way — to speak about the impact Jesus has had on our lives. 

Let’s be honest. If we don’t speak about Jesus as well as show the love of Jesus, how are others to know about Jesus? We may help a neighbor after a fire; but doesn’t the Red Cross do the same? We may help provide food through a food pantry to those in our community who can’t afford enough to eat. But how is that different from government food stamps? There truly are many, many organizations and programs that provide help to those in need in our communities. So if we don’t speak the name of Jesus — if we don’t in some way share WHY we do what we do — how are those who receive our help to know we are doing it because of our love of Jesus and our Christian love for them?

This leads us back to the importance of developing relationships — real relationships of friendship — with those to whom we witness. In other words, our call to witness invites us to not simply provide money to help the family that lost their house in a fire, but to also enter into a relationship with them. We may enter into a relationship with them through phone calls to see how they are doing and what other needs they may have during the time they are recovering from their loss. Over time such calls may lead us into even more ways to connect with that family. As the friendship develops we may discover we are sharing more and more of our life with them, including potentially sharing our faith. To put it bluntly, witnessing encourages us to not just give something (money, food or something else) to people who are in need, but to actually enter into conversations with those we are helping. Conversations about their lives. Conversations that allow us to get to know them as individuals. 

When we do that, when we enter into real relationships, then there is the real chance that the other person will see and wonder about “the hope that is in us.” There is a real possibility that we will be asked about our faith. And there are also real possibilities that we can respond to their concerns not simply with material help but with a sharing of the way in which Jesus has helped us deal with the common difficulties of life they are facing. 

Let’s go back to our hypothetical family that lost their home in a fire. Perhaps as we enter into a friendship with this family we discover that the parents are now having to work a second job to afford to replace what was lost. As we listen to their concerns about the effects of this upon their children, is there any way we can begin to share our experience of Jesus? Have we ever gone through a time when we were concerned about our children? Did we find prayer helped? If so, we can say that. Not that we say prayer will make all the concerns just “go away.” Rather we can talk about how we have experienced the way in which prayer helped us to be less worried, and maybe even enabled us to discover new answers to our concerns.

It is in relationships — in friendships — that we will discover the openings that permit us to speak of our faith. Yet, doing this requires that we do the work of establishing and nuturing friendships, that we be willing to speak of our faith and that we know how to speak of our faith.

This latter aspect — knowing how to speak of our faith — is an area where our Christian fellowship can help us immensely. As we learn to share what God has done in our lives with our Christian friends, as we learn to tell the story of our journey with Jesus in the church, we also are learning how to tell it to others who are not in the church. Sure, there will be differences in what we say. After all, we probably use some “church-y language” here at church that we will want to not use when sharing with others outside the church. But it is here, among our Christian friends, that we practice noticing and talking about where we see God at work and how we experience Jesus in our lives. This is one of the core functions of Christian fellowship — building one another up by helping one another notice where Jesus is at work in our life and our world. 

When we have learned to speak about our experience of Jesus, when we are deeply in love with Jesus, when our lives reflect our relationship with Jesus, we will find ways in which we can share the good news about that relationship with others naturally, respectfully and gently. We will come to know that we really can share about Jesus not only with those who already know him but also with those who don’t. We will become witnesses to the good news of Jesus, the one who has changed our lives in ways that go beyond anything we could possibly have imagined. In other words, we will do evangelism.

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Evangelism: Laying the Groundwork

Posted 8/12/2018

Scripture: John 1:35-45

Last week we looked at what evangelism is — the sharing the good news of Jesus with others — and why we evangelize — because we have experienced something wonderful that we want to share with others. Today we begin to look at some of the “hows” of evangelism.” If we don’t want to use the approaches we have experienced — approaches that may seem “canned,” aggressive or offensive — how do we go about sharing the good news in another way? What are some ideas and practices that can guide us in our evangelism efforts?

One of the first things to realize is that evangelism isn’t a “one and done” kind of thing. It isn’t about “hitting someone up” with a “sales pitch.” It is first and foremost about developing relationships. It is about developing our relationship with God and our relationships with others.

Thus, when we decide to begin thinking about sharing the good news the best place to start is with prayer. Ask God to guide you in your relationships — to perhaps even guide you into a new relationship. Ask for openings when you can naturally share your excitement about who Jesus is and what Jesus has done in your life. Ask God to “fire up” your own spiritual life so you have something new and fresh as well as things from your lifelong walk with Jesus.

Then, after turning your attention to your relationship with God, it is time to turn your attention to your relationships with others. In saying this, I am not saying we suddenly start spending all our time trying to figure out how we can turn a conversation with a friend into talking about Jesus. Rather I am saying we turn our attention to developing real relationships — ones in which sharing about our lives and supporting one another comes naturally. “Converting someone” — or getting someone to attend our church — shouldn’t be our primary goal. Our primary goal is to develop real, deep friendships.

The reality is we too often don’t develop such relationships, even with our neighbors. We nod hello, but we seldom know the cares and concerns our neighbors bear. We’re more than willing to keep those about us at a distance, to remain relatively uninvolved in their lives. That means it is vitally important to recognize the first step in sharing the good news of Jesus is simply the process of becoming friends — real friends — with those about us. 

The truth is too many of us “church folk” limit our friendships to other “church folk.” We don’t spend time really getting to know and become friends with the folk who don’t go to church. We need to be willing to move our friendship circle outside of our comfort zone — beyond those who are already Christians.

As we develop these friendships, we shouldn’t simply assume that others have no interest in hearing about Jesus. While it is inappropriate to forcibly turn a conversation to God and Jesus, it is equally inappropriate for us to forever avoid talking about Jesus altogether. When we have developed a true, deep friendship there will be natural openings in which we can speak of Jesus. 

For example, it may be that your friend begins to talk about their struggles in their marriage. This is a time when you can share how Jesus has helped you in your marriage. This can be something as simple as you have found prayer has enabled you to become more patient and understanding. The fact is true friends share their struggles — and at such times you can share how your faith has helped you in the midst of the struggles we humans all share.

When we begin to speak of our faith, however, we need to do it in an honest way. We need to be ready to acknowledge any objections our friend may have. We need to be ready to take these objections seriously. This means there is a degree to which we need to study our faith if we are to be truly prepared to share it. We need to know what we believe and the kinds of objections that those about us often have to the faith, for example that “old chestnut” that the church is filled with hypocrites. We need to be ready to acknowledge the truth that may lie in their objections as well as have ways in which we can help them move beyond those objections to a new openness to considering faith.

Being prepared to acknowledge another person’s objections to faith also means being prepared to ask questions. Asking questions is a natural part of a friendship — it reflects our desire to really understand our friend. Thus, when someone objects that “I can know God without going to church” one might ask questions such as: In what ways have you come to know God? What have you learned of God from those experiences? Or when someone says, “I don’t believe in God!” you might ask them to tell you about the God they don’t believe in. In asking questions we just might discover that our friend really doesn’t know much about the gospel. They simply have picked up some vague, general things about Jesus — sometimes some very mistaken things. These questions become another opportunity for us to share what we know of Jesus and how we have come to know this.

Finally, it helps if we are able to acknowledge our own fears and doubts. I suspect many of us have at least at once in our lives wondered if the gospel is true. Or we have had a time when we were afraid that we didn’t have enough faith. Or we doubted that God really loves us. It is pretty much impossible to go through life without having fears and doubts, including ones about our faith. There is nothing wrong with sharing those with others; they are most likely fears and doubts they too have or have had. Sharing our fears and doubts is a normal and natural part of friendship — and of our ultimately being able to share the good news. We have come to believe not because we have never had any fears or doubts but because we have found an answer to those fears and doubts in our experience of Jesus.

Developing real relationships — a deep relationship with God and deep friendships where we share our lives. Praying for God’s guidance and then being willing to reach out to become friends with others beyond our Christian circle. Being willing to acknowledge our friend’s objections, and to acknowledge the ways in which those objections may be true. Not assuming others don’t have an interest in spiritual things and so are unwilling to talk about God and Jesus. Being willing to honestly share from our own life — the things that have helped us and the doubts and fears we have or have had. All of these are things that can help us to develop our own “style” of evangelism — one that is true to who we are and what we believe. One that lets us authentically share the good news of Jesus Christ. 

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