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We have much for which to be thankful

I will continually sing hymns of thanksgiving” (Sirach 51.11)

This year, 2020, has been a long, challenging year, for a great many people. Not only disciples of Jesus but those who are not. Not only for those in the United States but those in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and literally around the globe. It is not the first pandemic that has ravaged humanity in history but COVID-19 is certainly the biggest in my lifetime. This has been a year where many of us have learned a great deal about ourselves and what we are willing to endure for the sake of loving the neighbors around us.

But even with the challenge of this year, as we enter into November, we have so much to be thankful, indeed grateful, for. 

May I recommend a short reading to you. I want to urge you to read Psalm 103 and Psalm 111 tonight and even tomorrow. Read them out loud. Let the Spiritual words of the Psalm flow through your lips.

Thanksgiving bubbles to the surface of anyone who is genuinely grateful for what has been received. I hold it as a spiritual truth that the depth of Israel’s thanksgiving is living testimony to the profound depth of their experience of grace in the Hebrew Bible. The extent of our own thanksgiving likewise reveals the depth of our knowledge of grace. Thanksgiving is directly proportional to our knowledge of being graced.

Sometimes, we resist public (and even private) thanksgiving because it “demands” an “embarrassing awareness” that we are on the receiving end of gifts that are essential to life. These gifts we neither merit nor come close to earning. This is why the line between “thanksgiving” and “praise” is so often extremely fine. The more we know we exist by the grace of God, every second of the day, the more pervasive thanksgiving dominates our lives.

Psalm 103 (and 111) is pure thanksgiving to Yahweh, the God of Israel. The Psalm opens and closes with the imperative

Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.” (103.1)

Praise the LORD!
I will give thanks to the LORD
with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright,
in the congregation
” (111.1)

Then Psalm 103 proceeds to present a series of “benefits” that deserve our thanksgiving. For our purposes I suggest there are four as we follow the length of the Psalm.

Thankful for … “Forgiveness” (v.3f)

Ours is a world of ungrace. Besides being a world of full of COVID, the year 2020 has reminded the entire world how ungracious humanity can be. Democrats and Republicans attack each other as if possessed by rabies. Spouses hold grudges near their heart for decades. Our world is withering away in a slow agonizing death of ungrace.

We, all of us, crave to be forgiven. Yet we, all of us, have an extremely hard time forgiving. The Psalm tells us that Yahweh forgives. Forgiveness is not merely letting us off the hook. Rather forgiveness takes our broken lives and heals them from top to bottom. Grace makes us whole. We are set free by forgiveness and empowered to be a forgiver. So, we praise Yahweh,

who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases …”

Wow!

Thankful for … Renewal of Life (vv. 4-5)

An ungrateful life is hard. It sucks “life” right out of our heart. The world, and often the church, does everything it can to reduce us to mere existence rather than thriving. We become lifeless, almost like sectarian zombies. But God did not create us to merely exist but to have life to the full, as Jesus said (and Qoheleth shouts “Amen!”).

who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with HESED [steadfast love, NRSV]
and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long
as you live
so that your youth is renewed like
the eagle’s

With Yahweh we receive renewal of life. We were in the “Pit,” living a death like existence. But we are “redeemed” out of that Pit and “renewed” like the wings of an eagle. Love and compassion are gifts of God that course through our veins making us feel new life. What a gift to be thankful for. Our lives are renewed. They are crowned with God’s HESED.

Thankful for … Love that is Gracious (v.8)

Israel is brought face to face with the “God Creed” in v.8 which came from Yahweh’s own voice in Ex 34.6.

The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger
abounding in HESED
[steadfast love, NRSV]”

When God “revealed his ways” to Moses (v.7), he revealed the depth of his HESED (i.e. steadfast love). God’s ways are Hesed ways! Hesed ways are compassion, grace, slow to anger and extremely rich in love. Hesed ways are not dolling our punishment on the basis of what we deserve but on the basis of HESED. “He does not repay us according to our iniquities.” What if this was the basis of how human beings treated one another or Christians (at the very least) treated one another.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, for his infinite HESED.

Thankful for … Covenant (v. 18)

I am so thankful that I learned what a “covenant” actually is. For years, growing up, I imagined (because I was taught) that God’s covenant was a contract. My fingers almost get leprous even writing the word “contract” next to “covenant.”

Psalm 103 knows nothing of a contract but everything about a covenant. Covenant is relationship. A relationship between a husband and wife; a relationship between parents and children. I pity the wife (or husband) or the daughter (or son) who has a spouse or parent who views him or her in the framework of a contract.

As a father has compassion for his children,
so Yahweh has compassion for those who fear him.”

The HESED of Yahweh is
from everlasting to everlasting

for those who are true to his covenant of love. Why is it that God does not give us up? It is not because we earn it, deserve it, have precision obedience. God keeps us for the same reason a Parent never gives up on a daughter/son, because of his covenant of love (cf. Deuteronomy 7.7-9)! Because he is our Father.

I am so thankful for the Covenant of Love.

That is why We Thank Him (vv. 19-22).

Forgiveness. Renewal of Life. Gracious Love. The unbreakable covenant of love. These are Yahweh’s “benefits!

So, the Psalm declares that is why we “bless” the Lord. That is why we lift our hands in praise. That is why we raise the cup of thanksgiving (116.13). This is why we gather with other people and feast at his table. This is why we “give thanks to Yahweh with our whole heart, in the company of the upright” (111.1)

Thank you, God our Father.
Thank you, Christ the Son.
Thank you, Spirit of Life.

Are you looking for a way to serve others? Without leaving your home? I just found out that Let’s Start Talking has 50 people on a waitlist to learn English through reading the gospels.

I told them I would get the word out so I am putting this in front of you to ask if you would pray and ask God if this is something you should do. If you feel called to this you can find out more at this link to sign up as a Worker – https://lst.org/lst-program/virtual/

I love and appreciate each one of you. We do a lot of talking here. Let’s move to action!

In January of 2014, I traveled to Barrow, Alaska [1] . It’s the northernmost point of Alaska, which means the United States cannot go any further than the place where I stood. My travel was far from a vacation. I prefer warm beaches, large urban areas, historical sites, arenas, ballparks, and places with a plethora of restaurants. Barrow is a town of a few thousand people with a few local places to eat, a community center, an indoor hockey rink, a hospital, a school, and a grocery store. Weather in the winter time can reach -60 wind chill, and you can find snow and ice on the ground every month of the year.

I traveled to Barrow both for a sermon series I was preparing to preach and a book I was eager to write. My curiosity got the best of me when I discovered that towns above the Arctic Circle experience 65-75 days every winter without seeing the sun. More interestingly, research shows that there is often a peak season for depression and suicide attempts, and surprisingly, it is not in the period of darkness. It is when the sun comes back. The phrase that launched this entire journey to Barrow to write a book and to preach a series began with this, “The problem is reentry.”[2] One person said this, “You don’t have enough energy to make a plan before then. It’s too much trouble. Once the light starts coming back, there’s more energy, but reasoning is off.”[3]

Now, let me be clear, I found the citizens of Barrow to be extremely hospitable, gracious, welcoming, and kind. I did not find them to be overly depressed, paranoid, or anxious. On the other hand, for over a week, they became teachers, instructors, and story-tellers who reframed for me what it means to navigate seasons of uncertainty and darkness.

This is a game-changer for us as we attempt to navigate the current crisis we are in. Covid-19 has completely knocked us out of rhythm. Every business, organization, and church has had to pivot as we adapt to walk this road. How we reengage and reenter into the fabric of life is going to take focus, care, thoughtfulness, and intentionality.

When we find ourselves traveling paths in which a cloud of uncertainty hovers, we begin to reach for reentry. Everything in us wants to reenter and reengage. We want normality and familiarity. We want what we have lost. We want something new that reflects something of old. One way to put it; we want our lives back.

I’m a seven on the enneagram. Maybe you haven’t been indoctrinated into the world of the enneagram, so I’ll break it down like this. Sevens are adventurous, enthusiastic, and we’re often dreamers. Typically, we are glass half-full people. We avoid pain at all costs. We have the gift of reframing. Here’s what this means in our current crisis, I want to run to reentry. Right now, I want to reimagine what reentry and reengagement will look like, and I want to rally to it. I don’t want to stay in this darkness. I want something fresh.

As a healthy seven, I’m reminded that it’s ok to peak into the future, but I need to live in the now. I know it’s ok to make plans for the future, but I need to seek first what God is up to today. I also need to embrace the reality that how we live into the future isn’t going to be like how life has been in the past. Covid-19 has changed the world. Life moving forward isn’t going to be like it was in the past. Sure, maybe we’ll return to forms of normality in the future, but it’s going to be a while. We can wait to see if familiarity returns, or we can adapt to what it means to remain connected to God and to others. We’ve been dealt a hand that we never asked for, but these are the cards we have to play, so what are we going to do with it?

When executive orders are lifted, and when groups of 10 and more can begin to meet again, I anticipate that reentry is going to be harder than some people think. Especially for churches, we need to prepare for this. I don’t envision there being a Friday when orders are lifted, and on Sunday the church gathers in full force to sing Living Hope and It is Well. Reentry is going to be gradual, in phases, and slow. For some, they will be eager to return to life, and for others they will be extremely cautious.

I’m concerned about a few things as we walk this journey. 

I’m concerned about health and safety. This is why I try to model in my life what the experts have encouraged us to practice: social distancing, safe at home, wash hands, etc.

With that said, I’m just as concerned about a couple of other important things.

I’m concerned that it has taken time for us to live into social distancing and staying away from others. The other day, Kayci and I were outside talking to a few friends from 15 feet away. Our mail carrier walked down the sidewalk, and we all immediately scrambled to give each other space. Social distancing is a muscle we’ve had to learn to exercise. Unfortunately, it’s not a switch that we can turn off and on. When the time is right, we’re going to have to unlearn specific practices in order to properly reengage neighbors and friends.

I’m concerned that fear, unhealthy forms of anxiety, and paranoia have taken hold of hearts and that they are slowly rotting the souls of people. I think everyone needs to read 1-3 articles every day or two to remain informed about what we are facing. Yet, every article and news source scanned after that doesn’t add to knowledge; instead, it slowly robs us of hope, joy, and peace.

Back to my time in Barrow. The healthiest people I encountered while there had these three things in common:

1.     Roots. They had roots that had been firmly established. I’m referring to convictions, a foundation, principles they intentionally chose to build their life on. Multiple times I’ve taught that if you wait until the storm hits to attempt to establish roots, it may be too late. Some people have found that to be true over the past few weeks. Yet, at the same time, we serve a God who can anchor us even while in the storm. Roots need to be remembered, nurtured, and recited.

2.     Rhythm. In the winter time, rhythm is what kept people engaged in relationships and community. You can’t sit on the porch and sip on tea. It’s too cold. You can’t go on walks. Frost bite will set in after 10 minutes. Yet, people with a healthy understanding of rhythm get creative with how they keep themselves connected to the fabric of society.

3.     Don’t go into survival mode. In Barrow, those who went into survival mode in the winter time were the most prone to depression and paranoia. Those who chose to live each day with a purpose claimed to be able to live from a healthy place. In Covid-19, the first couple of weeks, many of us went into survival mode. Yet, the more we have lived through this, the more we see that there are some aspects of life that will take time to be restored. There has been a lot of loss. Loss of life, loss of jobs, loss of security, loss of income, loss of health, loss of relational connection, loss of freedoms. I’ve encouraged our leaders at Sycamore View multiple times to not go into survival mode. This isn’t a race to see how long we can tread water. Instead, let’s embrace each week as an opportunity to dream with God and to engage in mission.

As much as we have had to adapt and make changes, there are a few important truths we can bank on: God’s heart is still beating, the mission of God keeps going, the gospel of Jesus doesn’t need to be rewritten, God is on the move, and the church (God’s people) are invited to be a part of it.

If we care about what kind of people we’re going to be on the other side of this, we must care deeply about what kind of people we are becoming each day we travel through this. We aren’t going to be peaceful, courageous, and healthy on the other side of Covid-19 if we aren’t daily choosing to press into God in ways each day that keep us rooted in peace, courage, and hope.

We can do this.

We can navigate this journey with God.

God is committed to navigating this journey with us.

Let’s move at God’s pace.

Keep in step with the Spirit.

The mission of God goes on, and we have a role to play.

Reentry matters. Even if it is months down the road, let’s begin preparing for reengagement now.


[1] Barrow changed names since Josh’s visit. It is now called Utqiagvik

[2] Associated Press, “In Alaska, Darkness and Depression Descend,” New York Times, December 18, 2005.

[3] Ibid.

Church renewal is always Christian renewal.

            That should be rather obvious but I’m not sure if it is. Having served in ministry as a pastor for the last fifteen years, I’ve heard and engaged in many conversations about church renewal. Numerous books, articles, blogs and podcasts have been published, with many of them addressing the issue of church renewal as it relates to the challenges of leadership and conflict, spiritual formation and the mission of God, as well as even evangelism and reaching the next generation. Such conversations are necessary and generally helpful. If our local churches are to experience any sort of renewal, however, it will happen because the individuals of the church are experiencing renewal.

            This is why it’s so important to remember that church renewal is Christian renewal. Our local churches are us. We are the church. Yes, we organize ourselves in a manner so that we may function as a church community. And yes, sometimes the way we organize becomes a hindrance to our participation in the mission of God. However, before we can tackle the organizational  and theological challenges present in church renewal, we have to ask if we are being renewed by the Spirit in our faith as followers of Jesus.

            Several years ago I went through a series of seminars with Mission Alive, which equips people for planting new churches and leading renewal among existing churches. The seminars I attended focused on the latter and appropriately, the first seminar dealt with our own personal faith. That’s because, as Mission Alive states on their website, “The first ministry of any spiritual leader is to his or her own soul. Your leadership board, group, team or committee cannot lead others into a deeper, more vibrant relationship with God if they are running on empty.”[1]

            To speak of church renewal as Christian renewal, we must talk about the practices or disciplines that open us to the Spirit’s work of cultivating an ever deepening faith among us. Just as the proper disciplines of diet and exercise correlate to good physical health, so does proper discipline correlate to a fit faith as followers of Jesus. We are not talking about earning our salvation in any sense. We are simply talking about participating in the activities that will allow us to live as healthy followers of Jesus, exhibiting a courageous and convicting faith that is fueled by the Spirit of God at work in and among us. There are plenty of books written on  spiritual disciplines such as reading and meditating on scripture, prayer and fasting, solitude and self-examination, etc.[2]

            I’ll confess that I am neither naturally inclined to physical fitness nor to faith fitness. I’m always a few pounds overweight and I’m still struggling to live as a faithful follower of Jesus. The habits of my youth, which were unconcerned with physical fitness, much less faith fitness, are deeply ingrained within me. So I have to become intentional about watching my diet and getting exercise, which typically involves walking (and having a Saint Bernard dog helps). Walking also opens space for me to reflect, become aware of both the ways I see God working and the ways I am struggling in my faith. That open space is where I become intentional about praying, which is a struggle. I also have downloaded on my iPhone several apps for reading the Bible as a discipline, not for sermon and Bible class preparation but simply so that I might hear God speak through his word in anticipation of seeing as God sees and joining in his work as a follower of Jesus.

            I’m neither an expert on physical health nor an expert on church renewal and maintaining a fit faith. Still I am trying to live as a follower of Jesus and I happen to serve as a pastor among a church that has been experiencing renewal. Both are evidence of God’s work and nothing else. But both following Jesus and renewal suffer if I’m not intentional in engaging the exercises maintaining a fit faith.

            One key reason church renewal doesn’t come without Christian renewal is we now live in a time where churches are increasingly made up of Christian consumers. The consumer interest in participating in a local church depends on whether that church provides desired goods. The consumer mindset is not one of how can a Christian serve with their church to participate in the mission of God but instead seeks to be served by the church. Such consumerism, which is antithetical to following Jesus and a hinderance to church renewal, seems especially prevalent among younger adults and students.[3]

            Consumerism is encouraged by our culture, but it is also learned from inauthentic Christianity encountered in church. We must resist the consumer impulses ourselves by attending to our own faith, engaging in the exercises that allow us to maintain a fit faith — a faith that follows Jesus rather than consuming religious goods. Ultimately, the goal of church renewal is participation in the mission of God but that goal begins by attending to our own faith as people committed to following Jesus. Such faith is the authentic Christianity that breaks through consumerism, embodying the gospel and igniting church renewal.


            [1] See http://missionalive.org/renew/.

            [2] For example, there is the now classic book by Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 25th Anniversary Ed., New York: HarperCollins, 1978, 1988, 1998; also recommended is Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

            [3] David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock, Faith For Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019, 27-28.

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.

Now and Then

Two thousand years of Christian history separates today’s disciples from those we read of in the Acts of the Apostles. That distance has created some major conceptual changes that sometimes make it harder to hear the writings of the apostles.

For today’s Christians our first thought of Scripture will be Matthew, Luke, Acts, perhaps Romans and Ephesians. In fact it is not uncommon to find believers who carry only a New Testament. Many will think of a list of 66 books.

This, however, is significantly different than disciples in Jerusalem, Antioch, Damascus, or Rome in AD 45 thought and experienced. When Jesus debates Scripture, when Peter teaches Scripture or Paul mentions Scripture … it is Genesis through Malachi. When Paul says “all scripture is inspired,” or tells Timothy to “devote yourself to the public reading of scripture,” he means not Matthew to Revelation but Genesis to Malachi. The “New Testament” was not the Bible of the “New Testament” church. The biblical context of the NT writers is what is called the “Old Testament” today.

It is interesting that the New Testament never designates itself as the “New Testament.” The New Testament never designates the faith described therein as “Christianity.” And the New Testament is fully aware that there is already a “Bible” and defers to its authority.

Actually in the first century, and fourteen more after, no individual owned a “Bible.” What Mary, Jesus, Junia, Peter, Paul, Pricilla had was a story engrained in their heart. The story was inculcated through the calendar and its worship festivals and scripture was shared in the context of those festivals. This calendar and its festivals told the story of the Exodus. It is out of that biblical story that the New Testament writers talk about Jesus, talk about resurrection, talk about redemption and salvation, talk about the people of God. This is the biblical context of the New Testament itself and we often miss significant emphases because we fail to hear and see how the already existing Bible of Israel shapes the warp and hoof of the NT.

Christopher J. H. Wright, a respected biblical scholar, once noted that “the New Testament is the world’s first Old Testament theology.” That is worth ruminating upon.

The Exodus Motif in the Hebrew Bible and Calendar

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Exodus story in Israel’s life and faith. We could say that the Exodus is the foundation of the Bible itself. The Exodus was the amazing act of Yahweh the Savior who delivers, redeems and saves a group of powerless, and despised, nobodies. The Exodus is the paradigm of what salvation by grace really looks like.

God’s paradigmatic moment is celebrated by Moses and Miriam (as an ancient Ike & Tina) in Exodus 15:

I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously …
The LORD is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him …
The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea …
You blew with your ruah and the sea covered them …
Who is like you, O LORD …
In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed
(Exodus 15.1-13, NRSV).

Several themes emerge from Moses’ and Miriam’s song. First it is emphatic that Yahweh alone did the work, salvation belongs to him and it was not because Israel deserved it. Second it is interesting how the Exodus story uses terms borrowed from the creation story itself: divine action and spreading the waters with the activity of God’s Spirit (ruah), etc. Salvation is like a new creation.

* Yahweh brings out
* Yahweh delivers
* Yahweh redeems
* Yahweh brings up

My father was wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our Fathers … So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O LORD have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26.5b-10)

The story, pattern, of this Exodus is deeply ingrained in the Bible. Israel “rehearsed” this drama each year through worship. And no Israelite believed the Exodus was simply what happened back then to “them” rather they placed themselves within the Story and believed it happened to “us.” This confession of the Exodus patterned life is seen as Israel celebrated their “thanksgiving(s)” … The festivals of Israel are not legalism but dynamic proclaimers of God’s steadfast love and grace. There were four primary festivals, one weekly and three pilgrim.

Sabbath – Celebrates creation and redemption from Egypt

Passover – Celebrates God’s defeat of the cosmic powers to redeem Israel

Weeks/Pentecost – Celebrates that God took Israel from the water to the mountain as well as giving the harvest

Tabernacles – Celebrates the loving care of Yahweh for the people in the wilderness where Israel learns they survive not on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Jesus, like all pious Jews, was deeply immersed into this worship rhythm of life (cf. John 2.13, 23; 5.1f; 7-8; 11.55f).

The Exodus “motif” as narrated in the Hebrew Bible has basic markers that shape the texture of the New Testament. These include

* The cosmic battle
* The crossing of the water
* The wilderness
* The coming to the mountain
* The dwelling Presence of God
* The coming to the promised land/new creation

Exodus patterned Israel’s life (or was supposed to) and is fused into “the rest of the Story” by the biblical authors. Here are just a few examples:

* Entrance into the Promised Land is cast with Exodus imagery. Joshua 3-4 reverberates with the drama of the Red Sea
* Building the temple is dated from the Exodus (1 Kgs 6.1)
* Moral crises following Solomon’s tyranny is patterned after the sojourn in and following Egypt (1 Kgs 11-12)
* Psalms of praise celebrate the Exodus (i.e. Pss 66, 68, 105)
* Psalms of lament appeal to the Exodus for fresh deliverance (i.e. Pss 74, 77, 80)
* In Hosea, Amos & Micah (to name only three) paint Israel’s adultery with images taken from Egypt or from the wanderings in Sinai while casting Yahweh as the faithful liberating lover who would redeem Israel.
* Isaiah 40-66 takes the pattern of Exodus as the source for new hope for Israel.

The Exodus Pattern is burned deep within the Bible. Our quick “survey” helps us to see that the Exodus is more than a mere literary motif but that it was the paradigm Israel used to understand her past, her present, and her future.

The New Testament

The writers of the New Testament documents drank in this rhythm from the day they were born. The NT also has deeply ingrained within it this Exodus motif.

The Gospel of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament, tells the story of the Messiah as if the Exodus was the template for Jesus’s life. The beginning of Jesus’ Story has fingerprints of the Exodus narrative all over it. In both there is an evil ruler. In both the children suffer. In both there is a “flight.” In both there is an “exodus” for “out of Egypt I have called my son” (Mt 2.15). In both there is a passage through water. In both there is a wandering in the wilderness for a time of testing. In both there is a journey to a mountain and the glory of God revealed. In both, at the moment of deliverance a meal is celebrated. Even the healing ministry of Jesus is related to his role as Isaiah’s servant in concert with the new Exodus (Mt 8.17; 11.5; 12.18; Isa 35.5-6; 53.4; 61.1-2). The work of God in Jesus upon the cross is cast in new Exodus like language. The Exodus Pattern is deeply ingrained in Matthew but he is not alone.

The apostle Paul places the church of God at Corinth squarely in the Exodus story. First Corinthians 10 continues Paul’s argument about meat from chapter 8. Paul suggests in chapter 8 that Corinthians need to be sensitive to one another regarding meat sacrificed to an idol. If one buys meat in the market, eat it. But in chapter ten, Paul is very much a Pharisee expressing concern where such meat is eaten. He explicitly plants the Corinthians in the Wilderness with Israel. “Our forefathers” drank the same “Spiritual” food and drink but they dared to test the Lord by eating at the table of an idol. Paul quotes Exodus 32.6 where “our ancestors” sat down before the Golden Calf. Just as Israel had gone through the Exodus, went into the wilderness and ate with God; so Paul brings the Corinthians through the Exodus, into the wilderness and to the table of God (1 Cor 10.1-17). If we eat with God then we cannot sit at a table with an idol.

Conclusion

This article could easily become a book. Indeed, there are whole books on the exodus structure of the New Testament. But our aim has been to introduce the motif and call attention to how early disciples would hear the New Testament writing out of a preexisting biblical context, namely the Exodus story. Hardly a page of the New Testament passes without the shadow of the “Bible” and its grand story falling upon it. What we have done with Matthew and First Corinthians can be done with John, Luke-Acts, Romans, Galatians, First Peter, even Revelation. If we familiarize ourselves with what the first century believers already knew and brought with them when they heard Mary, Anna, Paul, Peter, or Phoebe we will take one more step to coming within understanding distance of the Scriptures we all love and cherish as the word of God.

The biblical context of the early Way and the writers of the New Testament shapes the meaning of the faith they had and the documents they wrote. We would do well to learn the contours of that biblical story to better understand what we say we believe.

The Exodus is the Jewish story that unites the whole Bible into a unified whole. It is the story of love and grace and divine Presence. We celebrate it at the Table with Jesus.

The hitching of the story of the Exodus with the New Testament raises a familiar Stone-Campbell question rephrased,

Does the New Testament operate separate and apart from the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible?

Further Reading

Bryan D. Estelle, Echoes of Exodus: Tracing a Biblical Motif (IVP, 2018).



Please don’t confuse Jesus with our celebrities. 

Please don’t confuse Jesus with our politicians.

Please don’t confuse Jesus with our news organizations.

Please don’t confuse Jesus with our religious teachers, preachers, worship ministers, and pastors.

Jesus is the one who calls us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisioned regardless of their status or documentation. He’s the one who expects us to forgive our enemies, lay down our plans for others, and go the extra mile. He calls us to love others as he loves us. He builds bridges not walls. He gives justice to the oppressed and makes a way for the unheard. He seeks out those who others hate and grants them victory. He comforts all those who mourn. He delights in the children and severely rebukes those who mistreat them. He crosses party lines and overturns policies. He cares for all people regardless of where or how they live. He is not king of our politics, our congregation, or our country. He is King overall.

Make no mistake, if Jesus were starting his ministry in America right now he would not be popular with the celebrities, politicians, news outlets, or many of our churches. They would look for ways to silence him. They would try to trick him. They would hurl insults at him. They would build his cross. They would crucify him. 

Don’t confuse the Christ with the culture.

Thanks for joining me for part 4 of a 6-part series I have titled, “Leadership-Lessons from Blockbuster! If you are just now joining me for this conversation, it might be helpful to go back and read parts 1-3 to catch up to speed. If you have been staying with me, here is a quick re-cap:

  • The Churches of Christ are on a decline in the United States.
  • We, as a church, can become indifferent to the world around us. As a result, the world can become indifferent to us.
  • Society is changing rapidly and, while we need to remain faithful to our mission of going and making disciples, how we accomplish that mission (our methods) much change to best reach our society.
  • Currently in our churches we see two distinct philosophies: The Craftsman Philosophy and the Apple Philosophy.  Both are trying to jockey for “who gets to decide what happens at this church.” We work best when we work together.
  • In Jesus’ ministry, he modeled for us the method of putting the attention on the lost rather than the found – which is striking different than what most churches practice.  We are typically set up to make church people happy and can forget to place our attention, focus, and decision making based on how to best seek and find the lost.

There you have it, the last 3 articles in a nutshell. 

We started this series examining the rise and fall of the one-time movie rental giant, Blockbuster. In 1985 Blockbuster began providing their customers with a chance to rent VHS movies for a low price and in the convenience of their own home. By 2010, however, Blockbuster was bankrupt and, as of today, only one Blockbuster store remains active. The leadership-lesson that we will look at in this article examines the critical stumbling block that caused many of Blockbusters patrons to look for their movie rental experience elsewhere. What was the stumbling block?  Late-fees.

Late-fees made for more than triple the amount of regular movie sales for Blockbuster, pushing the income of late-fees to over 800 million in their heyday.  While this was great profit for Blockbuster, it was not great for those who would often shell-out more in late-fees than it would have cost them to actually purchase the movie. And, without paying the late-fees, a patron would be unable to rent any more movies.  The convenience of watching a movie at home quickly faded as the price of late-fees escalated.  

Enter Netflix.  When Netflix first launched, you could order movies shipped to your home for one flat-fee per month and no late-fees.  

Keep in mind that Netflix and Blockbuster shared the same mission: Making money via renting movies to customers by the most convenient means. What Netflix discovered was that by eliminating stumbling blocks for people to rent movies, those people would eventually become customers. What Blockbuster discovered is that if you remain unaware of the stumbling blocks you put in-front of people, they will eventually go where there are less stumbling blocks. 

Enter our “Leadership-Lesson, Pt. 4.” As we look at the future of the Churches of Christ: What stumbling blocks have we placed in the way of people trying to find Christ? 

Before we get to some practical applications, let’s look at the way the early church wrestled with the dilemma of how to identify stumbling blocks for those coming to Christ. 

To set the stage, we must understand the relationship between God and the nation of Israel.  In Genesis 12 we read that God chose Abraham to build a relationship that would identify His chosen people and eventually bless all nations.  The Old Testament provides the narrative of God building the relationship with Israel, giving them laws to live by, re-telling how they neglected God’s laws, suffering the consequences of their rebellion and being restored in relationship with God.  One thing that Israel learned, albeit very slowly, was that when they broke the commands of God it was never a good outcome for them. Enter our dilemma in Acts 15.  As Paul and Barnabas were traveling and making disciples they encountered a group of people who were doing the same thing, but with one exception: You must obey the laws that we have been obeying since Moses – including circumcision – or you are not one of us. The nation of Israel had accrued some 613 laws, some serving to defining the covenant and some serving to protect the covenant, since God established the relationship with Abraham. These laws were valuable for not only keeping peace and order, but following God faithfully.  It was their tradition, their history, their identity… and to a certain group mentioned Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas were jeopardizing it.

There was such a heated dispute about whether Gentiles could become Christ-followers without adhering to the law that they had, possibly, the very first “Special Church Meeting.”  You know it’s bad when you need a special church meeting to settle a fight! The arguments went like this:

A group of God-fearing Jews argued that their tradition had always been to follow the law. It shouldn’t be compromised.  If new people were going to come on-board, then they needed to accept that was just the way it was going to be. Take it or leave it.

Paul and Barnabas argued that it was grace through Jesus, not the law, that was saving people and that they shouldn’t be tying-down the Gentile converts to the Jewish way of life. 

After a heated debate, James (the brother of Jesus), spoke up and concluded:  “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.”  

Let’s read that again:  “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” 

This would become a startling, and yet vitally important, conclusion for the early church leaders.  In fact, without this conclusion it is very likely that you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation.  Thats how big and important this decision would be. Their willingness to see how their traditions, practices, methods and approaches might be a stumbling block for others to come to Christ was huge.  Even bigger than that was their ability to put those thoughts into a tangible practice. 

With prayer, discernment and a short letter to aid Paul and Barnabas in their efforts of helping share the gospel with more people, the early church leaders removed the obstacles for the Gentiles down to just four. These four laws would prove to be the least obtrusive for Gentiles to follow and basically eliminated the “identity” portion of the covenant between Abraham and God. You and I can gloss this over, assuming it must have gone smoothly or people didn’t have any kick-back over the decision.  We would be wrong.  Very wrong. I am sure this more than ruffled a lot of feathers, but the church leaders were committed to the mission Jesus had given them “go and make disciples.” And, it was this mission that allowed them to see that they had placed stumbling blocks in the way of some people coming to know Christ.

Want a little hard truth?  Your church has stumbling blocks too.  It is likely that, like the early church, some of your greatest stumbling blocks might be very well wrapped up in your identity. This leaves us with two questions to ask: Can you identify your church’s stumbling blocks, and, are you willing to remove them? 

Let’s be honest, conforming to the life of a Christ-follower is difficult! I mean, how easy is it to forgive when someone has hurt you?  What about loving your enemy and praying for those who persecute you? Serving others, offering yourself as a daily sacrifice to God, keeping yourself pure and keeping a tight reign on your tongue – all of these things can be difficult even to those of us who have been Christians for a long time. Why, then, should we make it even more difficult for people who are turning to Christ to conform to Gods standards AND ours? 

In-light of the decline of the Churches of Christ, we need to critically examine our stumbling blocks that serve as barriers for those who might turn to God.  Are there obstacles we have in place that prevent them from building a relationship with Jesus before it really ever begins?  

In 19 years of ministry, I have observed that we tend build our own version of the 613 laws that we expect everyone to follow. These 613 laws might sound like, “This is the way we do things here.” or “This is the way we have always done things.”  The 613 laws can include things as small as “Don’t change our church bulletin. I like it the way that it is.” to larger things like “I cannot imagine having church without our building!!” or “If we do it that way, I will leave and I wont be the only one!”

Your stumbling blocks to those who are turning to Christ might include:

  • Preaching/teaching that is irrelevant to their life. (It is not good enough just to preach the truth, I think most preachers/ pastors aim for this goal.  We must aim for truth that people can understand how to apply. Most folks understand their life situations.  Most people understand the bible. However, most people don’t understand how the bible intersects with their life situations. This is where preaching and teaching should aim.
  • A lack of authentic fellowship. (Yes, you have programs and bible studies, but do you invest in each other personally? And, is there space for new people to do that with you? How easy would it be for a visitor to find authentic community in your church? How easily can they navigate how to get plugged in to real, meaningful relationships that will help them grow?)
  • Irrelevant music. (I get it, our tribe has a heritage in a cappella singing.  And, while I understand how meaningful that tradition means to those who have grown up in the Churches of Christ, it certainly can be a stumbling block to those who might be turning to Christ. Don’t believe me? Did you know that the average 18-24 year old listens to 8 hours of music every day? Music is a BIG deal today.  I am not necessarily suggesting you get a band by next Sunday – but I am asking you to think about how outsiders view your music. If you don’t know, ask them.) 
  • An ‘us’ vs ‘them’ attitude. (Most churches have some kind of slogan that involves the words “Welcome to our church” or “We welcome you to attend.” The question is not if your church ‘welcomes’ outsiders. The question is do you really want them? What if you felt incomplete as a church without outsiders joining/ serving/ learning with you? What if it bothered you that you didn’t have them there, hearing their thoughts, sharing their perspective, and listening to their stories while you both grew in Christ. Most churches would welcome outsiders if they showed up but if they are honest they feel content without the outsiders being present. This develops an ‘us’ verses ‘them’ attitude which can be a stumbling block.
  • The lack of intentionality in thinking about outsiders as you plan your worship service and events. (How do you plan for guests to be at your service every week?  It should be your plan that visitors come, so are you prepared? It is likely that you have “insider language” that you do not even notice.  But outsiders do! Do you say things like “Everyone knows about ______.” That may not be true of your guests.  Simple things like introducing yourself before you speak, explaining what is happening and why, etc. helps outsiders feel like they are insiders)
  • The way your church spends money. (Where and how you spend the money at your church tells outsiders what you value most. Does most of your money go to a building, programs, or to effectively discipling others? Are you willing to yearly evaluate, without defensiveness, if what you are spending money on actually accomplishes the mission that Jesus gave the church? )
  • A lack of diversity in leadership and decision making. (Can I take a wild guess? I bet your leadership is largely reflective of the demographics of your church.  Am I right?  Do you want to become more diverse? Then allow those who are diverse [in age, gender, and ethnicity] to have serious input in making decisions. They will see things from another angle, a different perspective, and help you think about how outsiders who look like them will interpret things.)
  • The way you take care of (or don’t take care of) your church’s building. (Have you ever walked in a business and thought, “Wow, this place is out of date!” As shallow as it might sound, there may be people who look at your church’s building and think the same thing. Even worse, they may believe that our out-of-date facility is reflective of your out-of-date methods. Maybe you just have messes, boxes, and junk that have piled up that you no longer see but are very visible to a first time guest.)
  • No opportunities for children, teens and adults to learn the basics and ask questions and not feel dumb for doing so. (Not everyone thinks and believes the same way you do.  In fact, most outsiders don’t! Giving opportunity for them to be ‘questioners’ of faith without feeling dumb or judged is a must. If you give outsiders permission to question things you will build a bridge of trust. If you take the “My-way-or-the-highway” approach you will likely provide yet another stumbling block.)
  • A lack of keeping up with the mobile world (The world is moving at a rapid pace, and social media is a part of that.  Recent reports have indicated that most teenagers and adults spend 3-4 hours a day, every day, on their phone.  If you are not utilizing technology to reach out, teach, keep connected, and plug-in with outsiders you will likely find that you have placed yet another stumbling block in someones way.)

This leadership-lesson leads us to look at the obstacles we place in the way of those who might be turning to Christ.  The question is, are you ready to address and remove those obstacles? 

I am going to leave you with a practical application.  Would you be willing to pay $200 to see what obstacles you might have?  Choose, at random, several homes that are close to your church’s building and ask the family living in those homes to visit and assess your church for one Sunday. Tell them that for their honest feedback and time you will pay them $25.00.  Then, after their visit, sit down and ask them how your church does on the 10 bullet-points above. 

Ask questions like – 1) Was the preaching/ teaching relevant? Did you get anything out of it? 2) Did you feel like you could make meaningful friendships at our church? 3) What did you think about our music? Did it lift you up? Did you connect to it? 4) Did you feel valuable and desired at our church? 5) Were there parts of our service that didn’t make sense to you or parts that we didn’t explain very well? 6) Could you tell, based on your visit, what we value most with our finances? 7) Was it clear that our leadership and church values diversity? 8) How did you feel when you walked in our building? Was it acceptable? Was there anything distracting? 9) Did you have any questions about our service? Would you have felt ‘at home’ and valued enough to ask those questions to someone? 10) Have you searched for our church online? Does it give you adequate information about what happens at our church, what to expect, and opportunities to engage with us during the week?

By the end of your time with these families you will have valuable insight into some obstacles that your church has put in place that are stumbling blocks for outsiders who might want to turn to Christ.

Then you have a decision, just like the early church leaders had 2,000 years ago.  We know how they handled the decision. How will you?


Chances are, your minster won’t tell you what I’m about to.  In no particular order, eventually, I want to share some insights with you into the inner world of being in ministry.  

Before I get started, let me say, I’ve been preaching for over 25 years and I love the church and I enjoy the role I have in ministering.  I can’t think of anything more rewarding than ministry. The road I’m on has been bumpy at times, smooth and extremely blessed at other times.  I have no axe to grind here, but I do want raise your awareness on some areas we usually remain silent on.

Why do I want to articulate this?  Congregations all across the nation are faltering, but one key component to a healthy church is stable leadership.  The longer most preachers remain in a congregation, the greater their influence in the community can be. I simply want to help out here, and help you know what goes on in the mind of the minister so that maybe you can understand us a little better, and maybe something good can come from these points.  

This is not a rant, I’m not angry, and I do not think negatively of the church. I simply hope to help you minister to your minster more effectively than perhaps you have in the past.

“But, aren’t we all ministers, aren’t we a priesthood of believers?”  If this is really your first question, I hope you’ll keep reading. When I write “minister” I’m referring to someone who has dedicated their time and energy to full-time church work and occupationally they earn their bread from ministering in a local congregation.

Here are some insights into the mind of the minister for your consideration:

We are more introverted than you assume.  It’s hard to imagine how a life of study and hours of reading wouldn’t attract introverted individuals.  Yet, many members are surprised when we confess our introverted leanings — but since there’s a stigma attached to being introverted, we mainly keep quiet about it.  We aren’t shy. It’s not that we don’t love people, and we aren’t hermits, it’s just that an overexposure to people leaves us sapped and drains our emotions and our ability to be creative.  We are recharged and energized when experience the blessings of solitude. We relish the time we have to study quietly. I wish I could’ve been like Marvin Phillips, but that’s not how I’m built and more than likely, neither is your minister.  

Often, we feel alienated and misunderstood.  When we went to Bible college and Seminary, we were surrounded with “like minded” people who deeply shared our passion and our goals.  Serving in a congregation, we are surrounded by people who have full time obligations like raising kids, working jobs, and commitments that stretch beyond the church.  We don’t always make the transition into the local church without carrying this tension of being between two worlds as well as we should, and sometimes this keeps us from forming deeper personal relationships with you.  

We frequently worry about how ministry impacts our family.  There’s a memorable song from another generation that goes something like, “The only one who could ever reach me, was the son of a preacher man…” Worry about the stresses and strains of vocational ministry and its impact on your home go far beyond being concerned “will our children rebel?”  The “fish bowl” analogy is real but it pales to the notion that the church expects far more from the minister’s family than it does most of the rest of her families. What we’d like to say is, “You ‘hired’ me, not my family,” but we don’t want to rock the boat too much. We need help guarding our family at home more than we let on.  

We aren’t experts, but we have special skills you should utilize.  It can be awkward having a room full of volunteers deciding your next pay raise, but it’s extremely frustrating when your ideas are neglected on a whim because someone doesn’t like to change.  Forget that you’ve had a few courses on the subject and the time to study it out, and the good fortune to meet with other church leaders who’ve implemented the idea. Hear us out, we only want what’s best for the Kingdom.

We have real financial needs.  Sadly, the average preacher spends more time in school than in the pulpit.  The last statistic I read concerning this said preachers quit ministry before their fourth year.  Yet, many of us rack up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt to get the training we need to serve.  It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the saying, “We keep’m poor to keep’m humble,” but still many ministers languish with lower than usual salaries.  Ministers would like to be ample providers for their families too. No, we don’t go into ministry to get rich, but we don’t pursue the ministry to struggle either.

We are workaholics.  Unfortunately, we suffer from burnout long before anyone notices.  We need, not want, but need sabbaticals. When the average person goes home from work, they leave their responsibilities at the office.  Not us. We are on call 24/7, we “work” most holidays, and even when we are not in person-present serving, our minds never shut down. Every four or five years, beyond our vacation time, bless us with a month or two off to recuperate, the dividends that would pay are immeasurable.  

There’s probably more I could add, but please think on this: Your minister needs to be ministered as much as anyone else in the congregation.  We are constantly trying to feed the flock, and sometimes we end up malnutritioned ourselves. No one wins when that happens. For the sake of the Kingdom, if you haven’t already I hope you’ll consider meeting the needs of those who minister to you and mutually blessing each other.  

My relationship with God has changed over the years. At first, he was someone I could only worship on Sundays and Wednesdays at a designated time and place. He always seemed just out of reach and unapproachable, unless I had the right words and I didn’t. He was inconsistent and appeared angry. I would guard my prayers, so afraid I would mess them up or accidentally say the wrong thing. Scripture was read through the lens of fear knowing I couldn’t understand it but too afraid to ask many questions. I learned early on that a “good, Christian girl” doesn’t ask many questions anyway. As I spent more time with him and his people, that view, thankfully, begin to change.  

Several years ago, I taught a class of preteen girls. We talked about Father God and what our relationship with him should look like. We spent several class times talking about what a father was, how he should love his wife, children, neighbor, and enemy, and how he should influence his children to love others, as well.

Everyone in class had a dad story. Some had good fathers. Some didn’t. I told them about my dad and how he was a young preacher from Benton, Arkansas and barely out of Croley’s Ridge College when I was born. We talked about how my small family traveled around for a few years before settling in Western Kentucky. I told them how I couldn’t remember much about him.

I have a hard time with memories. Some seem made up; others too blurry to recall details. Trauma has a way of keeping our past just out of our reach. When I think of my dad, I think of that small church building in Heath, KY. I usually don’t think of the preacher’s home where we lived for a few years or the nursing home where he spent the remainder of his young life.

Dad died when he was thirty of ALS. Mom struggled with mental illness and addictions for years until her death a decade later. My brother and I became orphans while we were teenagers. Parentless, or so we thought, before God made it abundantly clear that he had been and always will be our Father.    

I know my dad wasn’t perfect but it’s easy to hold him to that standard especially since we only had a few years together and three of those were watching him struggle with a terminal illness. When I think of the short time I had with my parents, two stories come to mind first. My parents loved other people and weren’t afraid to meet them where they were. When a lonely hiker was found dead thousands of miles from Kentucky, all the authorities had to identify him with was my father’s church business card. The man had passed through our area a few days earlier and Dad had been able to connect with him while he was here.

When my twenty-something, single mother had barely any money to her name, she took out her last twenty dollar bill and gave it to another struggling preacher’s wife. My parents loved people, not perfectly since none of us can, but persistently despite their pain.

The rhythm of this world is one of drama, chaos, and brokenness. Many dance to the brutal and painful tune well. It is all too familiar for some. It was and always has been a part of my life. The spiritual rhythms of God, however, have always been around, too and have constantly moved me closer to God and his people.

God is always willing and available to lift us out of the darkness and offer a stable hand. He is a constant reminder that life isn’t about our own glory. It’s about his. He allows us to see him in the lives of the poor, the grieving, the humble, those who desire justice, those who are merciful, those whose hearts are inclined to good, the peacemakers, those persecuted for doing what’s right, and those who are mistreated. He beckons us to love him by loving and serving them.

I was able to see this holy rhythm in the lives of my parents.  I encourage you this week to see it in those around you. Resist the urge of the world to flee from what God is doing in your life. Give in to his grace, his mercy, and the relationship he is calling you to, not only with him but with his people. Give in to the rhythm of God.

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