Before you complain that “everybody gets a trophy”, read this

“The problem with these kids today is that everybody gets a trophy!”

I’ve heard that gripe over and over again.  I heard it just last week in the locker room at the gym.  Last December, the University of Louisville Women’s Basketball coach went off on a highly publicized rant, complaining about the “everybody gets a trophy” mentality.  I hear it from people in my congregation all the time.

I confess – I’m really tired of hearing people kvetch about trophies.   The last I checked, Jesus didn’t die to  make us kvetch.  He died to make us holy.   He rose to make us free.  He rules even now that we might have abundant life.

Anyway, trophies are not the problem.   I’ve been around youth sports for a long time:  I played YMCA youth soccer and church league basketball back in the 80s.  I ran track and cross country for my high school.  I volunteered as a youth basketball coach.  Both my daughters swim competitively.  And I can tell you this:  every kid knows the difference between a souvineer memento and an award of merit.  Every kid knows that if they want the real recognition, they need to work really hard for it.  I guarantee you that every kid who plays youth sports knows that there are winners and there are losers – and that winning feels really good.

Like I said, trophies are not the problem.

The real problem is the mentality of entitlement.

This is the mentality that I deserve something more than I’ve been given.  It is the mentality that fails to recognize all the other people who have contributed to my success.  Jesus told a fascinating parable that warned his disciples against the entitlement mentality.  It’s found in Matthew’s gospel:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.  He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’  ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.  He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’  The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last. (Matthew 20:1-16)

What’s really clear in this parable?

1)  Everyone who joined Jesus’ team got a trophy (note – they did have to join the team, they did have to put in the effort, but still, everyone got a trophy)

2)  Some people felt entitled to more and complained.

3)  The response from the vineyard owner (God) is basically “I have the right to dispose of my goods as I will.”

This is the scandal of grace.  You didn’t earn anything you have.  Everything, ultimately, finds its source in God’s grace.   All your talent comes from God.  All your skill, all your drive, all your energy.  All of it.  It’s a blessing that has been given.  You’re not entitled to any of it.

That’s the scandal.  Now here’s the secret.

The joy, the abundant life, the greatest thing in the world is simply being on the team.  You’ve been chosen; you were a draft pick; you were cast in the show; you made the team.  Whatever analogy you want to make, the joy comes simply in being asked to play.   For that privilege, we are grateful.

You see, the polar opposite of the entitlement mentality is heartfelt gratitude.

Gratitude is the proper response to all that we’ve received.   Gratitude is the antidote to kvetching.  Gratitude pulls our attention away from “them” and our thoughts about what they have received and it fixes our attention on the Father of heavenly lights who sends every good and perfect gift (go look it up in James 1:17)

So, what are we to do with all this?

1) Stop kvetching!  No-one likes to hear it.  It does’t make you any more joyful or faithful or useful.  All it does is make you cranky.

2) If you’re really concerned about the attitude the rising generation, then volunteer with them.  Teach Sunday School or help with a youth event.  Pick your sport (or endeavor – if you’re artistic, volunteer with music or theater or dance).  You cannot shape youth if you don’t spend time with them.

3)  Practice being grateful every day.  It’s really simple.  Just spend time at the end of the day and reflect on things you’re grateful for.  If your mind wanders all the time, then buy a little notebook and write down a list of 3-5 things from the day for which you are grateful.  They don’t have to be big.  Thank God for a tasty meal or a funny joke or a conversation with a friend.  Trust me, this one habit will dramatically transform your days.

Excelsior!

RS

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Take the 31 Day Proverbs Challenge

Do you want to know how to handle relationships better?

How to better handle finances?

How to develop more self-control?

You need wisdom.

Note that wisdom is not the same as information.  We are awash in information.  Drowning in it.  Humanity is producing nearly  1.7 megabytes of data per person every second.  By 2020, our accumulated amount of data will be about 44 zettabytes (that would be 44 trillion gigabytes).   Every minute, up to 300 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube.   (Source: Forbes Magazine)

If you want information, you can easily find it and consume it, from the meaningful to the trivial.

What you need is wisdom.  Wisdom is the art of applying information.  Wisdom is the art of skillful living.

The Proverbs of the Bible are an ancient curriculum for growing in wisdom.  You can benefit greatly from applying yourself to the study of this ancient literature.

Here’s the challenge for you:

Take a chapter a day of Proverbs and enjoy fifteen to twenty minutes of focused, detailed study.   Thats 31 chapters for 31 days.   One month.  Fifteen to twenty minutes every day.  How hard can that be?  Surely you can do it.

It’s that simple.

Try me on this.  You’ll be amazed at the kinds of things that sink in.

A few tips to help you wildly succeed:

1) Schedule the time.  If you don’t schedule it, you won’t do it.  Many people find that the most effective way to do this is to get up 15 minutes early and tackle it first thing in the morning.  This has the added benefit of giving you something to think through throughout the day.    Another possibility is to do it on your lunch break (but you have to commit to telling your co-workers “no” when they invite you out this month).   Right before bed is another popular time.   Pick a time.  Write it on your calendar.  Make an appointment with yourself.   Its just for 31 days.

2)  Make this focused time.  Turn off the cell phone, tv, computer, radio, and any other distracting devices.  Go to a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted.  We live in an age of distraction.  Bracket yourself from distraction.  It’s only 20 minutes.  You won’t miss out on much.

3) Take notes.   Seriously.   Bring a notebook and jot down insights.   The proverbs are meant to be puzzled over and pondered.   I’ll give you some tips on pondering below.  Take notes on insights, and especially applications.  Before you finish, settle on one application that you’ll strive to act upon for the next 24 hours.

4) Pray.  The proverbs are not simply fortune cookies of good advice.  They are counsel from God.  Pray that the Holy Spirit would lead you and guide you and speak to you.  This is an opportunity to draw closer to God.

5)  Review.   At the end of the 31 days, review your notes and see how far you’ve come.  Jot down a few successes and areas of insight.  I’ll bet you’ll find the exercise so helpful, you’ll want to do it again.  Maybe make it an annual discipline, or maybe try it three months in a row.

Now, here are a few guidelines to help you as you ponder:

1) Chapters 1-9 are introduction.  They are poetic material talking about the value of wisdom.  These chapters are the 101 course in wisdom, with longer units that focus on a single theme.  They help get your mind in the right frame, so that you can tackle the rapid pace proverbs beginning in chapter 10.

2) Beginning in chapter 10, you’ll find that the easy to follow structure goes away, and you’re confronted with a rapid-fire barrage of proverbs.  At first, it feels overwhelming, but part of the fun is considering how the proverbs all relate to one another.

3) Hebrew poetry is built around line structure, rather than around rhyme or meter.  Each verse has 2 parts, and the real trick of the proverbs is in pondering all the different ways the parts relate to one another.  Does the second half build on the first?  If so, what does it add that was not said in the first half.  Does the second half contrast with the first?  If so, what is the nature of the contrast?

4) The proverbs are not in some random order.  They’re designed to provoke commentary and questions.  For instance, you may find one proverb that essentially repeats what another proverb said 10 verses earlier.  This is by design to prompt you to consider how all the proverbs in between might relate to those two bracketing proverbs.  Or you might find a block of similarly themed proverbs right in a row.  This is where the real fun of the proverbs can be found.  This is also the source of some of your greatest insights.  Push yourself to ask “how do these relate to each other” and you will be richly rewarded.

There you go.  Let me know if you take the challenge.  I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

Soli Deo Gloria

Russell

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Gentleness is NOT weakness. Here’s what it really is, and how you can grow in it.

Ours is an era marked by aggressiveness, combativeness, and crudeness.

Do you feel the pressure that comes from it?  The pressure to respond in kind.  The pressure to fight fire with fire.

Do you feel like the idea of gentleness sounds weak, timid, and powerless?

Don’t be fooled.  Gentleness is not weakness.  Gentleness is wisely controlled strength.

Aristotle hints at this, when he says that gentleness is the golden mean between anger and indifference.  “Now we praise a man who feels anger on the right grounds and against the right persons, and also in the right manner and at the right moment and for the right length of time.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Loeb Classics Edition, pg 231.  Emphasis mine)

The problem here is that Aristotle limits his discussion to anger.  Anger is only one kind of strength, and that is not even the most useful.   We can also draw strength from inner sources such as conviction, idealism, vision, excitement, passion, etc.  Even when we draw our strength from these places, we need to learn how to wisely use strength.

Cal Newport gives us a picture of what this looks like in his book Deep Work.    He tells the story of blacksmith Ric Furrer, who was featured on a Nova Documentary called “Secrets of the Viking Sword.”

Furrer starts his work with an ingot of steel roughly about the size of a really thick paperback book.  And he has to shape this into a long blade.  He heats the ingot, then hits it with a mighty blow of the hammer, turns it, and delivers another blow.  Then he returns the ingot to the flames.  This will take about 8 hours of work for him to shape it into the rough shape he needs.

“As you watch Furrer work, however, the sense of the labor shifts.  It becomes clear that he’s not drearily whacking at the metal like a miner with a pickaxe.  Every hit, though forceful, is carefully controlled.  He peers intently at the metal … turning it just so for each impact.  ‘You have to be very gentle with it or you will crack it,’ he explains.  After a few more hammer strikes, he adds:  ‘You have to nudge it; slowly it breaks down; then you start to enjoy it.’” (Cal Newport, Deep Work, pg 73)

Fix that picture in your mind.  Picture the forge doors opening out onto a Wisconsin countryside.  The heat of the forge being tempered by a spring breeze.  The smell of the fire and the sweat of the smith.  Hear the crash of the hammer on the ingot; see the sparks fly.   And then hear him say “you have to be very gentle with it…”

If you have that picture fixed in your minds, then you get the gist of gentleness.

Gentleness, contrary to popular opinion is not weakness.

Gentleness is wisely controlled strength.

Gentleness is strength trained through years of experience, controlled by an attentive mind, and guided by a vision of the result.

Gentleness is an art that produces far better results than raw aggression, pugilistic confrontation, or cutting crudeness

How do we develop gentleness?

1) Pray for it.  Gentleness is, after all, a fruit of the Spirit that Christ will grow in us

2) Spend time in reflection on your actions.  Learn from your results.  Reflect at the end of the day on two or three actions you too and how you could have been more skillful with them.

3)  Be clear about your intentions.  If you go into a situation knowing what you want to achieve, you’ll already be ahead of the curve in being skillful.

4) Begin a deep study of wisdom literature.   The Book of Proverbs is an ancient curriculum for developing wisdom.  Ecclesiastes and Job are advanced studies in wisdom properly applied.  In a future post, I’ll give some more detailed tips on how to start a study of Proverbs and mine riches of wisdom from it.

Soli Deo Gloria

Russell

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The Sermon About Immigrants I Didn’t Expect To Preach

We’ve been doing a “topic of the week” for our midweek worship service.  Topics that are in the headlines and on your minds.  The idea is to search the scriptures in a way to make us think more deeply and clearly.

So last week I picked the topic “Immigrants.”  That’s been in the news, after all.

My plan had been to take a closer look at the scriptures instructing Israel to be good to the widows, the orphans and the alien.  There are a lot of those, but Deuteronomy 10:12-22 is one of the most important (go look it up, don’t take my word for it).   The key verse is “And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (v 19).

And then Scripture took me a place I didn’t expect.

Naturally, I went back to the story of how the Israelites came to Egypt:  the story of Joseph bringing his family down to Egypt as refugees from a great famine.  Its a a ripping good tale full of betrayal, seduction, political intrigue, and an underdog’s rise to power.  Who needs Game of Thrones? (Go check it out in Genesis 37-50).

So far, so good.   Then, I got to the passage where Joseph introduced his father, Jacob, to Pharaoh:

After Jacob blessed Pharaoh, Pharaoh asked him, ‘How old are you?’

And Jacob said to Pharaoh, ‘The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty.  My years have been few and difficult, and they do not equal the pilgrimage of my fathers.’

Then Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from his presence.  (Genesis 47:8-10)

“The years of my pilgrimage….”   Those words lit my brain up.  I lingered there, pondering the image of life as pilgrimage.  I realized that my sermon had to change – my sermon was no longer about being good to immigrants.

It was about this foundational truth:

A Christian is an immigrant, a pilgrim, a stranger passing through. We may settle for a time, but our hearts are fixed on our true home.

My mind flashed to the book of Hebrews:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.  If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.  Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.  (Hebrews 11:13-16)

Dart forward to Revelation 21: the announcement of the new Jerusalem, the city prepared for God’s people.  God will transform the very cosmos.   All matter and energy will be renewed and death and weeping will be no more.  God announces that He will dwell among His people and be with them.

God with us.   That’s our home.  For the Christian, home isn’t a place; home is a Person.

Knowing Christ, we get to partly enjoy a taste of home right now, for Christ promises the Holy Spirit to dwell within each of us.  To use a clumsy analogy, you can think of the Holy Spirit as a living GPS.  While we’re on the road, the Holy Spirit reminds us of all the benefits of home and helps prepare us to be fit for home.

That doesn’t mean we enjoy and care for where we are.  A good traveller always learns to love the places he visits.  He savors the sights and the sounds and the smells.  He cherishes the people and the moments and the activities.   He takes it all in and delights in it because he knows that he’s there for only a short while.

But his heart always feels the pull of home.

So what does it mean for us to be pilgrims?

1) Let your vision of home empower you to endure present sufferings.   Be confident that something better awaits.  Don’t let the difficulties of this world consume your mind (they will if you let them – and they will rob you of joy).

2) Offer blessing to people you meet along the way.  Remember that Jacob blessed Pharaoh twice in their conversation.  Remember that Jesus calls his people to pray for others and to bless them.

3) Pause and savor the blessings that are here.  Remember that they are God’s signposts pointing you toward home.  Let the Holy Spirit be your tour guide and reveal to you the wonders found in truth, beauty, and goodness.

Happy traveling!  See you when we get home.

Russell

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A Serious Read: Blessed are the Peacemakers by S. Jonathan Bass

This week, I finished reading Blessed are the Peacemakers by S. Jonathan Bass.  blessed-are-the-peacemakers

What’s the big idea? Bass tells the story of the writing of Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  His main goal is to flesh out the lives and careers of the eight clergymen who were named as “recipients” of the letter.   Along the way, he also gives interesting insight into the history of Birmingham, the strategy of MLK, the composition process of the letter itself, and the place these things had in the larger civil rights movement.

Why this book?  It came to me highly recommended by a regular attendee at our Wednesday worship service.  While I physically can’t read every book recommended to me, I do try to pick up titles that people find moving.  It seemed timely to me, since racial issues again capture the headlines in America.

How long did it take?  I’ve been dipping into this on and off for the past month or so.  My general practice is to read several books concurrently, so this one has taken a little more time.  What’s more, it clocks in at 300+ pages of relatively small print.  This is a careful, slow piece that methodically tackles the subject well.  Do not expect a breezy read that you can tackle in one afternoon.

What are your big takeaways?

1) “Moderate” does not equal “lukewarm.”  The eight clergymen named in the letter were popularly dismissed as lukewarm moderates.  In fact many of them were activists working toward integration, though they disagreed with MLK’s confrontational tactics.  Most of them suffered threats, intimidation, and abuse at the hands of the radical segregationists.  The moderate stance is not wishy-washy, but rather concerned with stability – trying to ask the question “what will be left after all the activists move on to the next exciting project.”

2)  Criticizing the Press is nothing new.  The book depicts MLK’s masterful strategy for attracting press attention for his movement. Of course, locals in Birmingham criticized the press for what they called an unfair portrayal of the city.  Meanwhile, when the press began to show scenes of aggressive Black Power protesters, many in King’s movement began to criticize the press for always focusing on the negative.  Partisans and activists seem to think of the press as a tool in their kit – and when the press is against them, they sow doubt as to the legitimacy of the independent press.

3) History is full of really interesting nuance.  Rather than “good guys” versus “bad guys,” Bass paints a complex tapestry of personalities, agendas, social settings, and events.  I find it much easier to identify with the people of history when I see the nuance in the story.  History comes alive and becomes real.

Should I read this book?  If you like 20th century American history, are a student of the civil rights movement, or have been deeply inspired by the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, then this book will be an interesting and rewarding read.  I wouldn’t describe it as a “must-read” or a book required for cultural literacy.  Rather, it’s a good book for the serious student who wants a deeper understanding of the events that have made America who we are today.

Now, my questions back to you:

What is a “must-read” civil rights book that you would recommend?

What books help you understand 20th century American history?

Where would an appreciation of nuance help us today?

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Learning the Discipline of Loving

fruitful-disciplines-iconSo you’ve made a commitment to growing spiritually in 2017?  You want to be spiritually stronger, wiser, and more grounded?  You want 2017 to be a year of exponential growth?

That’s what this series on Fruitful Discipline is all about.  (Update on January 11, 2017: Listen to the corresponding sermon series on our Covenant-First Presbyterian YouTube Channel) Today, I’ll share with you a discipline you can practice to become more loving.   Love is the master virtue.  Colossians 3:14 says that of all the virtues, love “binds them all together in perfect unity.”  There are lots of Bible passages that deeply explore the nature of love, so we can’t give an exhaustive look in this one post.  Instead we’ll just look at I John 4:7-17 to see a few principles that will help us grow.

God defines love

When talking about love, we do face a problem: the English word “love” has become little more than a rorschach test into which we pack a range of meanings.  It can mean anything from “I would sacrifice my life for this” to “I have a mild preference for this.”   We love our sports teams, we love our spouses, we love our children, and we love ice cream.  What’s more, we’ve smashed all kinds of attraction into love.  We can be erotically attracted to someone, or we can be abstractly attracted to a principle (“I love my country”).  We can say we love the people closest to us (“I deeply love my wife”), or we can say we love someone from a distance (“I just love that comedienne – she’s so funny”).

When the word “love” can mean anything, it’s easy to confuse love with things far removed from it.  This vagueness leaves us vulnerable to manipulators and controllers and hustlers and lotharios who use the word “love” as a weapon to get what they want from their targets.  Even worse – this vagueness makes it far too easy for us to be lazy and indulge in self-justification for our worse tendencies.

This passage tells us twice that “God is love.”  God defines what it is to be loving.  Let us not make the mistake, however, of importing all our vagueness of love back into God, making God into some squishy, undefined force that permeates the universe like a spiritual plasma.  In the context, this statement cuts through vagueness and points us to clarity.  As we come to know God through scripture, we get much more clear about the nature of love and what it takes to be loving.

First and foremost, we see the three persons of the Trinity all present in this passage.  God’s nature as a Triune being demonstrates that love is experienced in relationships.  Even if God had never created, God enjoyed perfect relationships in the community of the Godhead.  I know that’s kind of mind-stretchy to think of.  It’s far weightier of a topic than I’m ready to flesh out right now, but if you have time to ponder it, it’s worth contemplating, for the more deeply we appreciate God’s nature as a Triune being, the more deeply we comprehend the true nature of love.

However, for our purposes, we are thinking about practical disciplines.  This passage tells us “This is how love is made complete among us …. In this world we are like Jesus.” (V 17)  So to learn to be loving, we look to Jesus and seek, insofar as we’re able, to be more like Him.

Love as being present

Three times, this passage says that God sent his Son into the world.   One of Jesus’ titles is Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”  Certainly, Jesus’ atoning work is important.  Naturally, Jesus’ teaching and leadership are important.  Yet we shouldn’t overlook the importance of Jesus coming simply to be with humanity.  Think about how many dinner parties and celebrations Jesus attended.  Think about all that Jesus did and experienced in the years before his public ministry.  If we are thinking in terms of pure efficiency, then that would be wasted time.  But a significant part of loving is wasting time with those whom we love – wasting time with them because there is value in being with them.

It’s worth noting that the in the stories of the pagan gods, we very rarely find any examples of them simply wanting to be with humans.  Oh there are plenty of stories of gods who come down to enjoy amorous affairs or to test people or to enlist mortals in their celestial Game of Thrones plots.  But the God of the Bible wants to be with people simply for the sake of relationship.  Jesus came to dwell among humanity, to share in life with us.  He ate, walked, told jokes, looked at the stars, breathed the fragrances, and enjoyed the sensations of being human alongside other humans.

In the same way, God sends us to be with others.  Do not underestimate the power of simply being present with someone and giving your full attention to them.  I don’t mean sharing the same air while your mind is far off on something else.  I mean bending your mind to focus on the person in front of you.  Ask yourself “How can I love this person by being more fully present with them?”

Love as service

The passage tells us that God sent Jesus “that we might live through him.” (v 9) and “as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (v 10).  Jesus was sent to meet our deep need of atonement.  This is the highest form of service.  There is no way we can imitate that work of Christ.  However, in his earthly ministry, Jesus met other needs.  He healed the sick, he encouraged the hopeless, he proclaimed good news.  Jesus loved by serving.

In the same way, we are called to serve others.  John Calvin described the Christian life as a life of self denial.  He goes on to write:  “Let this, therefore, be our rule for generosity and beneficence: We are the stewards of everything God has conferred on us by which we are able to help our neighbor, and are required to render account of our stewardship. Moreover, the only right stewardship is that which is tested by the rule of love. Thus it will come about that we shall not only join zeal for another’s benefit with care for our own advantage, but shall subordinate the latter to the former.”   Put simply, we are to consider our calling to serve others as a higher calling than enriching ourselves.

So, considering this call, we ask ourselves “what needs can I meet?”

Love as helping others flourish

“This is how we know that we live in him and he in us:  He has given us of his Spirit.”  (4:13).  Jesus gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit.  This is a gift beyond meeting needs.  The Holy Spirit empowers us with gifts and growth.  With the Holy Spirit we’re enabled to pursue God’s calling on our lives; we’re enabled to live a life of meaning and purpose.  The Holy Spirit elevates us from survival to flourishing.

Again, if we are to show Christlike love, then we are challenged to ask ourselves: “How can we help others flourish?”  How can we help them grow in their giftedness and their ability to serve and glorify God.  If we were to use business speak, we might ask “How can I add value?”

Daily Discipline – Start the morning with three questions

So how to turn this analysis into something practical?   Simple.  Are you in the habit of daily prayer?  Perhaps now is a good time to start.  Start your morning with 5-10 minutes of prayerful time with God.   And during that time, one of the things to do is to think about what you have coming up today and ask that God answer these three questions throughout the day:

How can I be fully present?

What needs can I meet today?

How can I add value today?

Go on – give it a try tomorrow morning.  See if it doesn’t transform your day.  It will likely push you in some challenging ways.  God will make you aware of providential opportunities to serve and be of value that you otherwise would have been too busy to see.  God will make you aware of someone who needs your time who otherwise you would have walked right past.

At the end of the day, reflect back over these three questions and ask yourself how you did.  You might be amazed at what God accomplished through you.

Practice that for a few weeks, and see if you don’t find yourself becoming more loving.

Soli Deo Gloria

Russell

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We’re Back! New 2017 Series on “Fruitful Disciplines”

Fruitful Disciplines - icon.jpg

Design by Chris Balz

The New Year means it’s time to return to writing the Horizons of the Possible Blog.

I’m excited about a new sermon series that I’m doing called “Fruitful Disciplines.”   It’s a 9 week exploration of the fruit of the Spirit, as described in Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”  (Update on January 11, 2017:  Listen to this series on our Covenant-First Presbyterian YouTube Channel)

As I’ve been preparing for this series, I’ve found myself challenged to new spiritual growth and a deeper relationship with Christ.  I pray that this series will be of great benefit for the people of Covenant-First Presbyterian.  However, we’re also sharing it online in various formats, praying that it would be of benefit to many others.

In addition to posting sermon audio on our YouTube channel, we’ll try to use these blog posts to go a little deeper into the topic.  There’s always material that doesn’t make it into the Sunday sermon – illustrations that get cut or scripture cross references that I forget to mention.  We’re going to use the blog to give the best nuggets from the Sunday series, as well as sharing some tidbits that wound up on the cutting room floor.   I hope you enjoy!

For this post – a quick preamble about the fruit of the Spirit in general.

One Fruit

Most commentators on Galatians 5 point out that the Greek word for fruit is singular, not plural, and this difference is significant in Greek.  In other words, we’re not talking about the “fruits” of the Spirit, as though it were some kind of picnic salad with apples, bananas, grapes, blueberries and the lot.  The singular “fruit” implies that there is a unity among the nine qualities.  They are a whole, a unit, a complete thing.  Imagine a crystal with many different sides and facets.

The nine qualities help define one another, and each informs our understanding of the others.  For instance, goodness without patience or kindness quickly devolves into a legalistic browbeating.  Self control without joy and kindness quickly degenerates into a smug self righteousness.   Gentleness without goodness or joy quickly degrades into a simpering wishy washy-ness.  And so on.  The nine form a harmonious whole, and you can spot a counterfeit quality when one of the nine is notoriously absent.

Fruit as Discipline

We talk a lot about these qualities as something the Holy Spirit grows within us.   I’m schooled in the Calvinist tradition where we emphasize that God acts first in our lives through His grace (grace being God’s favor that we didn’t earn – it’s just something God freely gives).   We are saved by God’s grace alone, and God’s grace is the vehicle through which we are shaped into the people God calls us to be.  So the fruit of the spirit is something that God graciously grows within us.

However, I think it also helpful to think of the fruit of the spirit as a set of spiritual disciplines to which we are called.

In other words, God’s grace sparks our response and fuels our actions.  Consider what Paul says in his letter to the Philippians 2:12-13

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (emphasis mine)

Paul calls his readers to act, trusting that God is working in them, enabling them to act.

Or put another way: one way grace functions is through our response to it.

Relationship: the Key to Understanding

This only makes sense if we understand faith as a relationship with a living God, rather than a transaction with abstract principles.  Consider the scriptural stories:  God spoke to Abraham, telling him to pick up his family and move to the land where God would lead him; Abraham responded and went.   God appeared to Moses as a burning bush, sending him back to Egypt with orders for Pharaoh to release the captive Israelites; Moses responded and went.   Jesus walked up face to face with Peter and told him to follow him and become a fisher of men; Peter dropped his nets and followed.  Each one of these (and so many others) were personal callings that entailed distinctive tasks.  Yet the dynamic is the same:  the living God speaks person to person with a human, calling that human to risky action with an uncertain future.  And in the process of responding, the human always finds that God’s resources were within them all along, growing them into saints.

We might say that our actions are a response to God’s work within us, even when we’re not yet aware of that inward work.

Maybe this is why Paul says that we work out our salvation “with fear and trembling;”  because the fear of the Lord entails something more than mere terror.  The fear of the Lord implies awe, reverence, respect, and wonder.  It implies amazement that the God of the universe would deign to call us his children.  Oh, there is terror for those who shake their fist at God and say “Back off – I’ll do it my own way” – the terror that comes when God says “thy will be done” and withdraws the common grace that he showers upon all creation.  But for those who love God and are called according to his purpose, the emotional feeling of the fear of the Lord is much more akin to a reverential respect and awe.

So then, we’re challenged to do something: to practice the disciplines of the fruit of the Spirit.  We’re challenged to strive, to grow, and to exhibit these qualities in our lives.  This is a challenge fitting for New Year’s resolutions – more important than losing weight and more beneficial than dieting.  This is a call to spiritual growth that will produce exponential benefit in our lives.

I hope you’ll join us over the coming weeks and incorporate these disciplines into your life in 2017.  In the next post, we’ll start right in with 3 Disciplines for Practicing Love!

Excelsior!

Russell

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