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Archives for 171 – You Belong

In Luke 14 we find Jesus at the home of a prominent Pharisee. It was the Sabbath and one of the people in the house had an illness. Jesus healed the man in front of them all.

After that Jesus taught on not taking the seat of honor because someone greater may come in and you will have to give up your seat, bringing shame on yourself in their day and time.

Then Jesus gave instruction on who to invite to your house for dinner – not those who can repay you but those who cannot: ”
the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.”

Last, Jesus gave a teaching about a man who had a great banquet prepared but none of his initial guests could make it. They all had excuses. So instead he decided to have his servants go out and find people with these instructions,

“Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.” (Lk 14:23).

All of this from a man who was born into the world as a king but only had shepherds show up for his birth.

When you think of shepherds, don’t think of Willow Tree figurines. Think of outcasts. Think of the unclean. The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 25b) put shepherds on the naughty list.

Jesus was accustomed to inviting the right people and his right people won’t always be our right people but we need to work harder and harder to align our list with his.

God wants everyone at his table. God wants everyone in his kingdom (2 Peter 3:9). People have all kinds of conceptions of God – many of an unloving God who allows so much evil and hurt in the world. Or a God who is so holy that there is no possible way they can belong with Him. The truth of the matter is this – God wants you. You have a place where, no matter what you have done, God still wants you…God still loves you. You belong.

God doesn’t allow us to do whatever we want. There are house rules. But God wants all of his kids to come home regardless of what they have done and God is willing to sort through some messy stuff to make this happen. Think *Jesus on the cross* kind of messy.

We can picture God as a king high up on his throne. That is valid. We can also think of God as the loving father waiting to see his son walk back home. The problem is that we, like that son in Luke, aren’t really sure God will have us back but I can assure you that no matter what you have done – you still belong with your Abba!

If you still belong with your Abba, it means you also still belong in church. We churchy people have a hard time with that. We don’t like being uncomfortable on Sunday. Maybe if we got more uncomfortable the other days of the week by engaging with those we have the hardest time accepting, we might find it easier to do on Sunday.

We can’t both say God loves all and wants all to be with him but we don’t want the same thing in the church. We have to conform to Him and that means our guest list will be far more inclusive than we could have imagined.

He sent a baby.
Didn’t see that coming.
Oh, we knew He would send something, or someone.
And it was going to be awesome…
And terrible.
Truth be told, we deserved “terrible” more than “awesome.”
For thousands of years we gave lip service And not much else.
We worshiped ourselves, did our own thing.
We hoped for a king who would destroy our enemies
While overlooking the fact that our sins were just like theirs.
But sending a baby?
What was He thinking?
We wanted a sword swinging
Curse flinging
Doom bringing
King on a big horse.
We got a baby
Born to a not quite married girl
In a nowhere town
In a shabby room.
Maybe we weren’t the only ones who didn’t see that coming.
The devil didn’t seem ready for it either.
I mean, none of it really makes sense.
Baby, nowhere’s-ville, father goes absent
Twelve unemployed guys as his posse
Religious people opposing him
Nailed to a tree, naked, humiliated
Right in front of his mother
AWOL from the tomb a few days later.
He came as a baby.
One of us.
Walked with us.
Ate with us.
Loved us.
Told us to do what he did.
And then he told us we’re good.
He can boogie now.
And so he did.
Straight up.
What a story.
Not what we were expecting.
But exactly what we needed.
That baby was God and King and Savior.
Who knew?
Not me.
Didn’t see it coming.
Thought He come with fire and all cheesed off.
We deserved no less than hell.
He gave us heaven.
That baby. Wow.
He was more than a baby.
Glory to God in the highest.
Peace on earth.

What’s your favorite worship song? Lately, mine has been ‘Jesus Loves Me’. I sing it on Sundays and Wednesdays with kids who know it well and during the week with kids who are learning the words. Anna Bartlett Warner wrote the poem that was put to music sometime around 1862 and it quickly became a church phenomenon.

Recently, a friend sent me the video of her barely three year old happily belting out the song unaware of the power it holds and it was adorable. I watched a couple times wishing adults could sing it with the same enthusiasm.

We all know it but what would happen if we really got the words? Would we treat that annoying person at work better? Would we let the car cut in front of us during rush hour traffic? Would we welcome the outcast, the immigrant, and the marginalized? Would we go out of our way to connect with them in ways that would bring God glory? Would we shut down gossip with prayer? Would our churches be filled, not with people punching an archaic time clock but with those excited to be with others who believe in the hope that the love of Jesus brings? Would our marriages be rejuvenated? Would our children grow up in homes that continually tell them who they are in Christ? Would we quit relying on politics and start recognizing King Jesus? Would we forgive our enemies? Would our curbs be filled with men and women on fire to proclaim the love of Christ? Would justice be a priority? Would our racism and bigotry be put to death?

What if we made it a habit of singing how Jesus loves us, not only to our three year olds but to our thirty-three years olds? It might just change the world and remind us that we will only find our peace, hope, and belonging in his love.

Accepting the truth of God’s love won’t take away the pain and depression this world doles out, but it will equip us for the battles. It will remind us who we are in a world that tells us otherwise. We need that. Church, you need to believe how loved you are so you can tell others.

Have you been broken and used? Jesus loves you.

Are you questioning your worth? Jesus loves you.

Are you in the throes of grief? Jesus loves you.

Have you been hurt by those who should have been trustworthy? Jesus loves you.

Have you lost your faith? Jesus loves you.

Are you an outsider that feels like you’ll never belong? Jesus loves you.

Are you grieving your childhood? Jesus loves you.

Are you overwhelmed with life and it’s endless stream of intrusions? Jesus loves you.

Are you angry at God? Jesus loves you.

Do you feel like no one truly cares? Jesus loves you.

Are you a misfit? Jesus loves you.

Have you been hurt by the church? Jesus loves you.

I invite you to listen to the words of this song. Sing them along with your Lord until you start to believe them. He’s singing over you.

There is nothing more true than the fact that you are loved. You belong. You matter. Ask God to help you believe it.

Jesus loves me this I know
For the Bible tells me so
Little ones to Him belong
They are weak but He is strong.

Yes Jesus loves me
Yes Jesus loves me
Yes Jesus loves me
The Bible tells me so.

Sometimes we just need a reminder of how much we are loved.

As a kid, Christmas was one of the most encouraging times of the year. I knew my family loved me. I knew God loved me. Presents didn’t hurt either.

As I have grown older Christmas is still very special to me but things have changed. The desire for the presents has diminished. And a new visitor has arrived. One I had never seen around the table for Christmas dinner before.

Grief.

Many of us wrestle with grief at this time of year. Maybe you are like me and lost dear loved ones at Christmas time, years past. Or maybe there are other things you have lost or never had to begin with that Christmas shines a great big spotlight on, reminding you year after year of what you never had or what you had and lost.

There are a lot of reminders of loss this time of year. We shouldn’t ignore them but they aren’t the WHOLE story either. We need to pay attention to our blessings, while also paying special mind to the feelings of loss, grief, etc.

Christmas isn’t either a happy holiday or a sad one. It can be both at the same time. Much like the lament psalms, what begins on a note of despair can end on a note of joy.

If you are feeling down this Christmas, I encourage you to talk with someone about that. Email me if you like. I also encourage you to look more and more for the good because it is all around too.

We will never get back many of the people, things and ideas we have lost over the years but we can embrace new blessings, new opportunities and fresh starts.

I wish you God’s richest blessings this Christmas even if they come through periodic tears.

As a theological librarian I get to work with the best resources from the leading publishers. Theological libraries are great, but most preachers don’t live near one. I’m also a preacher, so I’m always on the hunt for illustrations and fresh ideas. Sure, there are new books published every day. But since your compensation package doesn’t have an unlimited book budget, you’re probably looking for cheap ways to get the best resources. I’ve got a few ideas.

Academic Journal Databases A few years ago Dave Bland and I surveyed over 500 Church of Christ ministers to learn more about how they did their sermon preparation.[1] Over 50% of the ones who used journal articles in their prep accessed these articles through a seminary-sponsored platform, such as Atlas. This means articles in full-text, anytime, on any device, anywhere with Wi-Fi. If you aren’t a graduate of a school that offers this service, there might still be hope. The Society of Biblical Literature now offers access to JSTOR to members. Get a public membership for less than $100 and get JSTOR for the year. That’s a pretty good deal.

Social Sciences Research Network. You know some of those crazy studies Malcolm Gladwell uses to make his points, like how Canadian hockey players are more likely to have January-February birthdays or how rap and hip hop are the genres with the least number of repeated words? Where does he find that stuff? Much of it comes from the ssrn.com. Join for free and browse the highest-rated articles in their database. My favorite for preaching? Check out Francis-Tan and Mialon’s “A Diamond is Forever’ and Other Fairy Tales: The Relationship between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration.” You’re loaded for your next talk on marriage, relationships, and values. Give it a shot.

Archive.org/Wayback Machine/TV News Archive

Since the earliest days of the internet (remember those AOL discs in the mail?) the Wayback Machine has been capturing images of websites on a daily basis. Their goal has been to create an archive of the internet. Think of it as the Library of Congress for dot coms. There is an incredible research value to being able to look at old versions of relevant websites. The Wayback Machine captures images of sites, but it doesn’t always get all of the content. You’ll have better luck on the front page of a site than on deeper levels. You aren’t going to have any luck with password protected sites, such as Facebook. As you’ll see, only the sites with the heaviest traffic (CNN, ESPN) get captured every day. The number of captures is driven by the traffic of that site: more traffic=more captures. My favorite aspect of Wayback is not necessarily its websites but instead sister site TV News Archive. Type any keyword into the search box and you can find places where that word has been used in a news broadcast from around the world.

Public Libraries. Most major city libraries have really strong collections of journal databases. This is one area where electronic has passed print. For instance, in 1990 it was unlikely that a public library system in Phoenix or Charlotte would have a deep collection of the journals relevant to sermon preparation. They didn’t buy them, bind them, or shelve them. But in 2019, they probably have access to a major database like JSTOR, Gale, AAtlas, and others that have really deep collections of full-text articles, often in theology and religion. Not a member? You still might be able to walk in and use a public access computer to get into these databases. Wait, why aren’t you a member of your local library?


[1] “Luke, Luther, LOGOS, and Libraries,” in Summary of Proceedings, Seventieth Annual Conference of the American Theological Library Association, ed. Tawny Burgess (2016).

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Bob Turner is librarian at Harding School of Theology. HST is one of our sponsors this month. They provide many quality resources that we want our readers to be aware of. Check out their website.

If you want more resources from Bob, please join his email list for regular updates and thoughts. He does a great job on this! You can get back issues of his email list here, in case you want to see a sample of what you are signing up for! Great stuff.

You can learn a lot about Jesus based on the accusations people made against him.

They accused him of being in league wit the devil for casting out a demon on the Sabbath and forgiving a man his sins (Mark 2).

They accused him of being a sinner for hanging around tax collectors and sinners (Matt 9:11 & Luke 5:30).

He was accused of eating and drinking too much (Matt 11:19).

He was accused of welcoming the wrong kind of people (Luke 15:1-2).

They grumbled against Jesus that he invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house (Luke 19:7).

They accused him of blasphemy…of being the prince of demons…of threatening the temple…of being a king like Caesar…receiving anointing at the hands of a “sinful woman” and I am sure we don’t know the half of it.

You can learn a lot about Jesus based on the accusations made against him. A lot of the accusations had to do with belonging and acceptance.

Jesus loved people who some didn’t believe deserved to be loved. Jesus’ compassion moved him to heal people in spite of the fact that some believed it was the wrong day to heal on. Jesus’ desire to be around the unloved moved him to table fellowship with the outcasts and the unclean.

Jesus was inclusive in an exclusive world. We can learn a lot from Jesus on this. Jesus helps us understand where the lines are and where they are not. He helps us understand that people are to be loved and encouraged and that is done best through care and concern rather than through condemnation and criticism.

What is the world accusing you of? Is it because you are doing anything similar to Jesus?

When does the world look at you suspiciously? Is it because you are acting in ways people aren’t used to seeing? Or are we looking with suspicion on those Jesus would be welcoming?

We have a lot to learn from watching and imitating Jesus.

What would Sunday morning look like if we lived like Jesus? Who would be there who is not there? Why would they come then when they won’t come now?

I am humbled by watching how Jesus dealt with people…how he viewed them…how he loved them. Jesus challenges my suspicion. He challenges my selfishness. He challenges my comfort zones. If I had been alive when Jesus was on the earth would I have accepted his actions or would I have been among the accusers? I am afraid I may have been in the second group. Heaven help me!

How about you?

It is a mistake to compare ourselves to others. Yet we still do it, even in our walk with Jesus.

Of course, there are people with exceptional gifts, or highly visible roles, or a clear calling for a specific ministry. It is easy to be envious—and even fool ourselves into thinking that it’s a holy envy—when God appears to be working so clearly in the lives of others, but not so clearly in our own lives. 

Maybe we are enduring a season of suffering, or long-term suffering, that others don’t have to face. We ask, “Why me, God?”

Or maybe there is someone who has made a big spiritual impact on us, and we want to be like them and bless others in similar ways. The only problem is, we are not our spiritual heroes and that is okay. God may be calling us to something else.

There are many ways we compare ourselves to others. The comparison game, though, keeps us from seeing who we are and how Jesus is calling us to follow him.

The Gospel of John ends, not with the Great Commission or a resurrection account, but with a personal call to discipleship (John 21:15-22).

First, there is a powerful exchange between the risen Jesus and Peter. Earlier Peter denied Jesus three times, but now Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?” three times. Three times Peter confesses his love for Jesus, and three times Jesus commissions Peter to “feed my sheep.” Further, Jesus predicts that, one day, Peter will not deny Jesus as he did before but will follow all the way to death. Certainly Jesus’s words of forgiveness, commissioning, and assurance were a blessing to Peter.

Peter, though, points to another disciple and asks, “What about him?” This other disciple is “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” traditionally identified as John. Everything we read about, and from, Peter and John suggests that they are quite different people. Jesus responds, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me” (John 21:22, NIV). You follow me: the you here is emphatic.

Essentially Jesus says, “Peter, let me worry about John. I want you, with all of your failures, with all of your gifts, with all of your limitations, with your station in life, and with all of your suffering—I want you to follow me.” These are Jesus’s last words in the Gospel of John.

There is another interesting, though admittedly speculative, point at the end of John’s gospel. The word martyr comes from a Greek root that means witness or one who testifies. Peter was a martyr in that, ultimately, he died for the faith. John was also a martyr since he was the one “who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true” (21:24, NIV). In their own unique ways, both Peter and John were martyrs, or ones who testify, to the gospel of Jesus.

In Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Ruth Haley Barton observes, “The soul of leadership begins with who we are—really. Not who we think we are, not who we would like to be, not who others believe us to be” (76). What is true of leadership is true of discipleship in general.

Jesus says to each one of us, “You follow me. Yes, you, with all of your failures, with all of your gifts, with all of your limitations, with your station in life, with your suffering. Don’t worry about others. You follow me.” If we follow, we can know that God will use us, just as God used Peter and John, to testify to the gospel of Jesus.

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Mark Powell is professor of theology at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tennessee. His latest book is Discipleship in Community: A Theological Vision for the Future, co-authored with John Mark Hicks and Greg McKinzie, forthcoming in Spring 2020.

If you would like to connect with Harding School of Theology to learn about their graduate degree programs you can click the image below.

There are moments in your life that change everything. One of those moments came for our family during a trip to Kenya.

In February 2016, Sydney and I began a friendship with a couple named Muriithi and Carol Wanjau and their three amazing children. I could fill an entire book with stories about this incredible family, but for the sake of time and space, I’ll share just one. The Wanjaus have been positioned by God in Nairobi, Kenya, and they lead one of the most amazing networks of churches we have ever seen. Our friendship with this family began that year when we spent several weeks with them and many of their global leaders who had gathered in Nairobi for a time of training and fellowship.

Sydney and I were blown away by what we saw during our time there with our Kenyan brothers and sisters. Their love for God, their passion for reaching the lost, and their commitment to living holy, counter-cultural lives were just a few of the things that blessed our hearts and challenged our thinking in ways we never expected. To top it off, the prayer life of our Kenyan brothers and sisters impacted me in a profound way.

One day, as Sydney and I were riding to the store with Carol, we were picking her brain about the spiritual vibrancy of their church network. We wanted to know why the Christians in their circle seemed to be so alive for Jesus. She was quick to remind us that there are no “silver bullets” when it comes to spiritual development, but she went on to share an important spiritual rhythm that has transformed their churches and community for the better. I will never forget what she said:

“Dave and Sydney, much of what you see here is the simple result of prayer and fasting. We consistently practice the communal act of self-denial [fasting] so we will have the strength and clarity that is needed to live faithfully for Jesus in a culture that is obsessed with self-gratification.”

That moment in the car with Carol is when many of the puzzle pieces began to click in our hearts. Little did we know that our family had arrived in Kenya on the last day of a month-long fast that the Wanjaus and their churches lean into every January. In fact, they spend nearly three months out of every year devoted to the Lord in prayer and fasting. Young and old, male and female, rich and poor, children and adults—all who are willing and able—commit themselves to a full-throttled pursuit of God above everything else through prayer and fasting.

The result of that devotion is inspiring to say the least.

I remember leaving Kenya thinking to myself, If that is the kind of faith that prayer and fasting can help produce, then why have I given such little attention to this particular dimension of life with God?

I’m convinced there are times when God will use someone else’s life to ignite something wonderful and new inside us. Like a match in the hand of God, their life becomes the spark for igniting a new season of wonder and growth deep within us. I often thank God for our friends in Kenya and the way he used them to ignite a hunger for prayer and fasting in our family and church.

As I look back over the scope of Christian history, I realize that what we saw in Kenya was not an exception to the rule.

In fact, more often than not, it is the rule.

You would be hard-pressed to find any significant movement of God across human history that was not first preceded by a group of faithful men and women committed to the Lord in prayer and fasting.

I’m convinced that the future revival for which we were created is something we cannot acquire through strategic planning, relevant programs, or clever preaching alone. No, the revival we long for can only be acquired through sacrificial praying.

And not just the casual, half-hearted “pray when it’s convenient” praying to which so many of us have grown accustomed.

This kind of future is only realized when the people of God become so collectively homesick for the kingdom of Heaven that we exchange our time, our comforts, our lives, and even our eating habits for more time in the presence of God.

That is why fasting is so important.

Our family came back from our time in Kenya with a deep longing to see our church become a church committed to Jesus through prayer and fasting. In our zeal, we made lots of mistakes as we sought to help our church family connect with God this way. But God is gracious, and what once felt like an impossible longing is slowly but surely becoming our present reality.

Currently, our church family tithes our year in prayer and fasting. In other words, we give at least ten percent of each year to a communal pursuit of God through prayer and fasting. As we mentioned earlier, this is by no means a “spiritual silver bullet,” but we have seen God do more in the last few years than we could have ever asked or imagined. And not just in our church, but in churches all across the city and far beyond.

Earlier this year, more than 400 churches across our city joined with us for 30 days of prayer and fasting, as together we prayed for every person in our city by name. It was truly remarkable, and we are convinced that God is just getting started!

We are convinced that nothing will stir up a deeper hunger for God quite like an extended season of prayer and fasting. You don’t have to travel to Kenya or even Nashville to get a glimpse of this life changing reality. Simply fix your eyes on Jesus, and the incredible witness of Christian history, and then take your next step. Start small and stick with it. We are convinced you will be blown away by all that God will do in you and through you for his glory, your joy, and the good of those around you!

To learn more about our story, and to discover practical ways you can help your church create a culture of prayer and fasting, check out our book Revival Starts Here.

This world can be a messed up place. There is plenty of hurt to go around. I cannot begin to tell you how many times there have been people I knew well who were hurting in some deep and troubling ways that took years to be aware of or even begin to understand.

Sometimes the church itself is the cause of some of the hurt. There is so much good Christianity and churches do that gets overshadowed by the tough spots, we shouldn’t overlook the good…but we should also understand how we contribute to the problem and the solution.

There are few things harder than living life of abandonment and feeling utterly alone. It is good to know that God made us to belong to Him.

Human beings will never perfectly embrace us. We will struggle with division until the day Jesus comes back. In Christ we don’t have to be in that position. We have a family even when our bio-family leaves us. We have brothers and sisters…fathers and mothers…even when those we grew up with left us over various issues or departed in death.

You belong with God and that means you belong in God’s family, the church. It takes great care to navigate how to help people belong in the midst of situations and struggles that can so easily exclude people. This takes prayer. This takes patience. This takes a long hard look at our own struggles to see just how many things God overlooked to accept each and every one of us.

Last, we Christians are not universalists, so how do we jive God’s overarching desire for our belonging with his instructions in scripture that seem to exclude? We will examine this and and a host of other issues in our December issue of Wineskins!

Thanks for reading!