Generously You Have been Given

We have been given the greatest gift in all the world in Jesus Christ.  Heaven could give no more than it gave in Jesus.  The Bible calls this "Grace."  The word for Grace in the Bible can also be translated as "gift."  God is incredibly generous as He gave His only son Jesus to people who did not deserve or earn His gift.   

Part of receiving God's generosity is learning to share God's generosity.  In other words, people who have been graced, are gracious people.  Out of the overflow of the generous Grace given to us, we then are generous and gracious.  We reflect our Lord.  Paul says it this way, "You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God (2 Corithians 9:11)."  God's generosity is never to be kept to ourselves.  It is to be used to bless the world.   

This obviously includes many dementions of our lives.  We are to be generous in our words with other people.  We listen rather than lecture.  We are to be generous with our time with people.  The Kingdom of God is often found in a face to face relationship with another person.  We are to be generous with our different talents.  Each of us has been gifted by God to bless the world.   

We are also to be generous with our finances.  This is both individually and as a corporate church body.  Over the next few weeks, you will be hearing stories about the generosity of our church.  You will hear stories about the way our church is blessing people with our words, time, talent, and yes our resources.  One of the main concerns as pastor is the question of what are you giving to when you give here.  Giving generously to God's local church is a spiritual practice.  We want to highlight some of the fruit that comes from that spiritual practice.  So you will hear stories how our church is blessing single parents, how our building is being used to bless all kinds of groups within our community, and how our people are blessing often overlooked people.   

As we are doing this, I want you to pray about the gifts you bring to the church.  It is no secret that we are struggling more than usual financially.  But stewardship is a larger issue than just finances.  Stewardship includes all of yourself.  If there is a ministry God is inviting you to be part of, go for it and follow God's prompting.  I also want you to pray about giving a little more financially if you are able to over the next few months.  We have about 100 families giving to our church this year, and if even a few of you decide to give even $100 more a month, it would go a long ways of helping us pay our expenses, but more importantly help us bless even more people with the Gospel of God's generous Grace in Jesus Christ.   

I love you.  I will miss being with you on Sunday, but Dr. Emerson will bring an incredible message on heaven.  Let's celebrate God's Grace together daily!   

Grace and Peace,

 

Bro. Ray

A Time to Weep, A Time to Act

This morning our daughter walked into our room as we were consuming coverage of the shootings last night in Dallas.  She asked the question, "Why would anyone want to shoot the police with guns?"  This violence came on the heels of the widely publicized police killings of African Americans Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  From all indications last night's violence seems to be vengeance against real and perceived police brutality.  The past 72 hours have been tough ones for our country as we once again are faced with questions of racism, violence, and vengeance.  We echo the Psalmists who write, "How long O Lord?"  We cry out for mercy and comfort.   

How do we make sense of the senseless taking of life?  When we look at the stories in the BIble and we discover that after the fall, this taking of life was not uncommon.  Cain and Tubal-Cain committed horrible acts of violence.  David, the man after God's own heart, murdered a man to cover up his own lust-filled affair.  The book of Judges ends with "everyone did as they saw fit" after it told of the awful violence that God's people had fallen into.  I'm worried that our country is headed there.  

It's time to weep.  The overwhelming majority of police officers are there to protect and serve.  They do not deserve to be targeted.  The loss of 5 police officers lives last night in Dallas is something to weep over.  At the same time, the senseless killing of young black men has to stop.  We weep for the Alton Sterlings, the Philando Castiles, and others.  Police lives matter.  Black lives matter.  Latino lives matter.  Muslim lives matter.  White lives matter.  Asian lives matter.  Women's lives matter. All of us are created in God's image and that gives every human being intrinsic value and worth.  We also have to admit that we are broken by sin.  We are fractured from God and fractured from each other.  So we weep.  We weep over the context that gives rise to violence.  We weep over our own prejudices.  We weep over the brokeness of the world, and we place our pain and the world's pain in God's merciful and righteous hands.   

It's also time to act.  I'm sure over the next few days the usual narratives will play out.  The gun control law advocates will start shouting, and the anti-gun law advocates will shout back all the louder.  Soon there will be a cacophony of voices.  While I am all for sensible gun legislation, we will not legislate violence out of people.  God gave the world a great gift in Jesus Christ.  God has acted through Jesus - His life, His teachings, His compassion, His atoning death, and His resurrection.  God has handed His church the gift of Grace.  But God expects us to not keep it for ourselves.  He expects us to share this grace with the world.  God's Grace through Jesus is what reconciles us back together.  The great promise of Revelation is that all nations, tribes, and tongues will worship God together in unity.  Only the Gospel can do this.  It's time to act church.  It's time to listen, it's time to share, and it's time walk worthy of the calling of Jesus in the world.  

Tips for Reading the Scriptures

The Bible is the story of God - who God is, what God has done, and what God will do.  It contains the deep wisdom which God wove into the fabric of creation.  The scriptures reveal the fullness of God in Christ Jesus, who lived, died, resurrected, and one day will return.  The Jewish Rabbis compared the scriptures to a fine ruby, which when you turn it into a light, it shows something beautiful at each pass.  The Bible is weighty, containing the very glory of God!     

Scripture reading has always been a priority for the life of discipleship.  How can we figure out how to be the people of God without knowing the story of God and God's people?  How do we come to understand the wisdom of God, as fully revealed through Jesus?  Reading the scriptures!   

With all that weight and wisdom, actually diving into the Bible can sometimes be an intimidating task.  So how do you best read the scriptures?  Below I've listed out a few tips to help your journey of reading the scriptures.   

1.   Pray.   The Bible becomes fully alive when the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of your heart.  Pray that God will speak to you or reveal something to you through whatever passage you are reading.

2.   Ask Questions of the Text.  Some good questions are - What does this passage say about God?  What does this passage say about me/church? Is there anything in my life that I need to change in light of this passage? 

3.   Read the passage slowly and more than once.  This is an ancient form of reading the scripture called Reading of God or Lectio Divina.  You take a passage of scripture and read it through once.  Then read it again, this time slowly and perhaps out loud.  Ask God to reveal to you a word or phrase from the scripture.  For instance, let's say you are reading Mark 6:45-52.  This is Jesus walking on the water, and the phrase that stands out to you is "Do not be afraid."  Then spend a few minutes reflecting and praying through that phrase.  Why did that stand out to you?  What is God trying to say to you through that phrase?  Are there fears in your life that you need to bring to God?

4.   Read the Bible in Community -  We need each other.  Don't try to be a Lone Ranger.  Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto!  A great way to do this is in a Sunday School Class or small group.  My class has recently read the book of James together, bringing our different insights and questions to class, and it has helped me see James in a totally different light.  

5.   Journal.  Write down any questions, insights, illuminations from God.  You would be surprised how much more those stick with you when you write them down.   

6.   Try to understand the context.  This is another way of doing Bible study, and it is actually where I start my sermon preparation.  When you understand the context it was written, the words take on more meaning.  The method is called Observation (what does the passage say), Interpretation (what did the text mean when it was written), Application (what does this scripture mean now in our world).  There are many good, readable commentaries out there to help with this.  I recommend NT Wright's New Testament for Everyone Series.    

7.    Read several translations.  Each translation catches a different nuance of the original language.  You might see something different in another translation that you did not realize in the one you normally read.  Here are my recommendations for translations - Word for word from the original text is the ESV (English Standard Version); a readable translation of the ideas is the NIV2011 (New International Version); and the most readable in modern language is Eugene Peterson's The Message  (I'm a big Eugene Peterson fan and his translation is fascinating).  

I hope this helps relieve some burden when it comes to Bible study.  You do not have to practice all these at the same time!  These are some gleanings that have helped me in my own journey of reading the scriptures.  Praying for you and love you.

Bro. Ray

 

Blessed People Bless People

Blessed people bless people.  We are an incredibly blessed church at FBC Shawnee.  We have had a long history (nearly 124 years!) of blessing people in Pottawatomie county, our state, and throughout the world.  At one time, more IMB missionaries attended school at OBU than any other school in the US.  Many of those missionaries attended church right here.  We are part of their story.  We have seen countless baptisms, people being released from addictions, and have strived to take care of the poor in our midst.  Our children's choir has introduced Jesus through song for 1000s of kids.  We are debt free, and we have money in the bank.  Our building is used constantly by our community for fundraisers, banquets, and other activities that bless our community.  We truly are a blessed church.   

In Genesis 12, God calls Abram to a special mission.  God tells Abram that through his family, God will bless all nations.  All Abram had to do was go and he would carry the blessing.  How old was Abram when God told him this?  He was 75!  How many kids had Abram had at the time?  None!  This seemed like an impossibility, but with God anything is possible.   

Abram of course did go, and he brought the blessing with him.  One of his family descendants was a man named Jesus, our Lord and Savior.  Jesus' life, teachings, death, and resurrection brings God's ultimate blessing on the world.  Before Jesus ascended back to the Father, He calls his disciples and says "Go, make disciples of all nations."  When we make disciples, we carry on the blessing that God had given Abram all that long ago.   

Our blessing comes not because of all the stuff we have done, or our wonderful history, or that we do not have debt.  Why we are blessed is because of Jesus.  Jesus blesses us with salvation, joy, and peace.  Jesus blesses us with His very own presence.  One of the names of Jesus is Immanuel, which literally means the with us God!  We are blessed because Jesus is with us everyday, and we have the opportunity to live life with Jesus everyday.   

Blessed people bless people.  Over the last few weeks, we have seen our church bless people tangibly.  Over spring break, we sent a team of 10 people to a small village in Guatemala.  They installed water filters, and talked about the living water that Jesus gives.  You can hear about their journey this Sunday night, April 10, at 6 PM in the Fellowship Hall.  Currently, our music minister Mark Burnett is in Cuba on a mission trip blessing people with music.  Your tithe money helped to pay for both of these trips.  Over the last few weeks, people have read our sign advertising Dave Ramsey, Single and Parenting, GriefShare, and Women's Bible study, and have walked from the street into our building to take part in these programs.  Blessed people bless people.  

Our church is located in a strategic place to bless people with the Gospel.  You have all kinds of opportunities to bless people this summer.  Vacation Bible School is a great opportunity to bless people.  Usually we have 60-80 kids that have no connection to our church come to our VBS.   Your presence and energy can bless these kids.  Many Shawnee schools are 100% free and reduced lunches.  Oklahoma does not do a good job of making sure these kids get fed during the summer.  Our church has partnered with Mission Shawnee this summer to help with that.  Every Tuesday morning in the summer, some people from our church are going to prepare meals for about 200 kids who would not have a meal.  Come join them if you can!  June 20-24 our church is signed up to distribute meals from 11:30-1:00.  You can bless a child by handing out a meal and telling them that Jesus loves them!  Every 8-9 weeks, Family Promise comes, and you have the opportunity to bless a homeless family.  Blessed people bless people.  

Maybe you do not have the time to bless someone through one of our ministries.  We understand.  One way you can bless someone is through being generous with your giving.  The money that you place in the offering plate or give online goes to these ministries.  When you give you are blessing other people.  We are such a blessed church.  Let's continue being a church that blesses people!

Renew the Fellowship

2016 has gotten off to a great start for FBC.  God is moving in our church.  It is exciting to see and be a part of what God is doing. 

 

As the staff and I began praying and preparing for 2016, we came up with four different goals we wanted to see our church focus on:

 

1.  Intentional Community under Christ:  We believe that small groups, be they Sunday School classes, Grief Share classes, and other small groups like choirs are incredibly important for discipleship and ministering to one another.  We hope that you find a small group to take part in this year.

2.  Meaningful worship that blesses all generations:  We want you to participate with God's people in worship.  Our goal is to first of all be a Christ-honoring, Christ-exalting service.  We seek to do this with many styles of music, of preaching, and praying.  We have no formula as each service is a blank slate.

3.  A commitment to Spiritual Formation:  We want each of you to have an interactive experience with God.  We will continue to supply discipleship books to aid you in your relationship with God.  We also have groups memorizing scripture in our church.  We have groups dedicated to prayer.  Our lent series will be all about Spiritual formation as we head to the cross.

4.  Participation in God's Mission:  God is at work in the world, and we want to join him.  We have a trip scheduled to Guatemala to finish putting in some water filters, prayer walk, and to witness to Christ's love.  We are also supporting Mark Burnett on a mission trip to Cuba, our youth choir to Atlanta, our youth group to Missions Camp in New Mexico, and a host of other opportunities for you to be involved locally through Mission Shawnee, Salvation Army, Family Promise, and other ministries.  We also hope to better empower you to share your faith.   

 

There are many opportunities for you to be involved in the life of the church both in and outside the walls of FBC.  Part of our effort in creating an Intentional Community under Christ is a campaign called Renew the Fellowship.  Every single family connected with our church will be contacted by phone over the next two weeks.  Our purpose is to simiply invite you to take part in what God is doing at FBC.  There will also be a time for your to have any comments or suggestions when you are called.  These will be kept anonymous and will be used as an evaluation to help us become a stronger church.  We love our church, and believe God has great things in store for us in 2016 and beyond.    

 

Grace and Peace to you. 

 

Bro. Ray

Vision Breakfast Recap

A little over a week ago, we gathered around pancakes, prayer, and conversing about the future of our church.  A few of you were not able to be there and so I wanted to recap what we talked about and remind the rest of us where we are heading.  

So where do we go?  There is a great Christian philosopher named Dallas Willard who wrote, "There is nothing wrong with the church that discipleship will not cure."  I agree.  The question we have going forward is are we disciples?   Are we deeply committed to Jesus?  Have we attached our very selves to the life, death, teachings, healings, and resurrection of Jesus?  Going forward, we are going to work on being a Jesus-centered church.  We will find our life, our health, our vision, our strength in the very person of Jesus Christ.  We will keep Jesus as the center of our faith and life together.     

What does this look like practically?  It looks like a life of sacrificial love together based on the love of Jesus.  Paul says it like this, "If you have any encouragement in Christ, any fellowship in the Spirit . . . do nothing out of selfish ambition of vain conceit, but in humility consider others more than yourself" (Philippians 2:1,3).  

In worship, everything we sing, pray, and teach will celebrate Jesus and the work that God has done and will continue to do in our world.  We will sing with the organ and piano.  We will have a choir.  We will also sing with guitars and maybe even drums.  We will sing old songs and new songs.  We will sing modern songs in modern ways.  We will pray.  We will continue to read from the scriptures, our source of God's revelation.  We will have soloists, duets, trios, and other groups who will bless us with their musical talent. We will seek to creatively teach and preach the word of God.  For me, this means for a while, doing sermon series.  To go along with the sermon series, we will also produce weekly guides during the week to help us interact with what we are learning together.  

Discipleship wise, we have been a bit unorganized.  We have lots of groups - Sunday School classes, small home groups, women's Bible studies, felt need groups like GriefShare.  However, we have not had much organization with them, as we have let most of the classes and studies self-govern.  That will not change.  What will, is that I will start doing a better job of encouraging, praying, and keeping up with what is going on in our small groups.  I will invest in our leaders through prayer and occasional meetings.  I am also taking over leadership for one of our young adult Sunday School classes - Repurposed - for a while.  We need each other.  We need our brother and sister in Christ to speak into our lives and help us grow into the fullness of Christ.  

We will also find ways to participate with God and His mission in the world to reconcile the world back to Himself.  We will start right here in Shawnee.  We have incredible ministry opportunities within the 10 blocks surrounding our church.  Shawnee needs the gospel.  We have trips scheduled for 2016 globally in Guatemala (hopefully) and nationally in San Francisco, CA (May 2016).  

What we need most though is prayer.  Prayer is the life-blood of the church.  It is where we fall on our knees before the Creator and Redeemer of the Lord and confess our need of Him.  It is where we find healing and deep communion with God.  We need prayer groups.  We need a group to gather before worship on Sunday morning and pray over every pew in our sanctuary.  We need a group to walk through the church during the week praying for our ministries.  We need a group prayer walking our neighborhood.  We need a group praying about our mission opportunities.  We need groups praying for healing for people in our church, and not just physical healing, but deep soul healing.   

Where are we headed?  We are a church being conformed into the image of Christ.  For that to happen we need to get out of the way, and rely upon God alone.  My prayer is that "he who began a good work in you would carry it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6).   

Love you all and see you Sunday. 

 

The Jesus of Matthew

After three and a half years, we have finally made it through the book of Matthew!  As I moved my Matthew books off my desk and onto the bookshelf in my office, I began thinking, what have we learned about Jesus through Matthew these past few years?  Here are a few observations about Jesus that I have learned: 

 1.  Jesus is the "with us God."

Matthew tells us at the beginning of the Gospel that Jesus will be called "Immanuel" which literally means "with us God."  This image of Jesus is incredibly important to Matthew.  Jesus is with us in fleeing to Egypt for His safety.  Jesus is with us through the temptations.  Jesus is with us by entering our diseases and healing them.  Jesus is with us by looking upon us with the compassion of a shepherd.  Jesus is with us when He suffers on behalf of us by taking our sin at the cross.  At the end of the Gospel Jesus says to His disciples "I am with you always."  In the original language it is literally "I with you AM."  The I AM frames with you.  Let that sink in.  The Great I AM frames your life.  Jesus cares about your pains, your joys, your sorrows, your triumphs, and the ponderings of your heart.  Jesus is with you at the office, in the hospital, at your home, at your school, and around your dinner table.  

 2.  Jesus seems more comfortable in the presence of honest sinners than self-righteous saints. 

Matthew begins his presentation of Jesus with a genealogy.  Sometimes we are tempted to skip lists of people like this.  However, Matthew uncharacteristically lists women in the genealogy of Jesus.  This was rare in the ancient world (despite women's upmost importance in all the begotting).  Not only did Matthew include women, but he included scandalous women.  There was Tamar who seduced her father-in-law Judah; there was Rahab who ran a house of ill-repute; there was Bathsheeba - David's mistress; and of course Jesus' own mother Mary, who would have born social shame for becoming pregnant out of wedlock.  Jesus hung around tax collectors and "sinners."  His choice of disciples included common fishermen, a political revolutionary, a traitor to Israel, and of course one who would betrey Him.  Jesus' harshest words were for the spiritual leaders of Israel (Matthew 23 specifically) - the Pharisees and the priests of the Temple.  The Pharisees created unecessary rules upon the TORAH or law of God, which ironically made them miss the point of the TORAH.  The priests were so blinded by their loyalty to the sacrificial system, they did anything they could to maintain power and the status quo.   

   3.  Jesus calls us to a higher obedience/righteousness. 

Jesus was the master-teacher.  He is presented as a better Moses throughout the Gospel.  His most famous teaching, like Moses', happened on a mountain.  Jesus gave us not a new law, but a law fulfilled by Jesus himself.  Jesus got back to the original intention of the TORAH, and claims boldly if you really want to follow the way of God, you follow me!  Jesus did not want just an external obedience, but an inward reality.  Jesus wants our hearts, the center place of our lives.  There Jesus combats our tendency toward anger, violence, lust, greed, and other destructive sin that reign in our soul.  Instead, Jesus replaces these tendencies with His self-sacrificial love.  

 4.  Jesus cares about the way we live our life now. 

This observation goes along with 2 and 3.  So much of Christian preaching deals with the afterlife, and rightfully so.  The hope of God renewing the world through Jesus is our Gospel.  However, Jesus makes clear that the afterlife, the Kingdom of Heaven, spurs us to live ethically and justly now.  We are training for the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus stands in the line of the prophets who call us to treat justly those in society who cannot speak for themselves.  Jesus did this constantly through His miracles - the blind receiving sight can now enter back into the life of Israel.  The lepers are cleansed and can now be touched.  The woman who dealt with bleeding issues for 12 years has her dignity restored.  Jesus taught us that all of God's ways matter, but they should lead to a life of mercy, compassion, and justice that is modeled after Jesus Himself.   

 5.  Jesus wants us to make more disciples. 

There is nothing like the Great Commission anywhere else in the scripture that points to Jesus' vision of His church.  He wants us to make more students of Jesus - learning from His life, His teachings, His compassion, His self-sacrificial love, His death, and His resurrection.  Not only learning informationally from Him, but being formed and transformed by Jesus.  He wants others to join us in this life.  Becoming and making disciples of Jesus is the great hope of this world.  Let's pray that Jesus will empower us to make more disciples as we grow deeper in our own discipleship!   

There are so many more we could make!  If something has stood out to you over the last 3 and half years through Matthew, I want to hear about it!  You can email me at raymiller30@gmail.com - we might even share some of them on the blog!  

We love you all and are looking forward to where God is leading FBC Shawnee in the near future!  

Transitions

Everyone loves change, right?  Somewhere a wise person once said, "The only thing constant in life is change!"  Transitions and changes in life can be at the same time engines for growth and major sources of stress and anxiety.  Sarah and I are walking through a time of transition and are preparing for another simultaneously.  Sarah started her new job as Executive Director of Mission Shawnee this past week.  We are also preparing to welcome our newest baby into the world at Christmastime!  

Our church is walking through some transitions as well.  Over the past few months due to graduations, people getting new jobs out of Shawnee, and a few other reasons, we have lost 25-30 people who were regular attenders, active participants, and dearly loved family members within our congregation.  Not only that, Brandon Dyer, our beloved Associate Pastor of Youth and Families, is headed on a new adventure with his role as Executive Director of Community Renewal International starting August 1st.  

It's comforting for me to know that we are not the only church to deal with transitions.  In fact, the New Testament is filled with churches in transition.  In Acts 1, Jesus ascends to the Father and tells His disciples that "You will be my witnesses when the Holy Spirit comes upon you in Jerusalem and in Judea and in Samaria and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).  That very sentence suggests a church in transition (from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth)!  How would the church handle the transition - through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes, it was completely evident of what the church should do.  For instance, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes down and indwells the believers in the upper room.  Peter preaches his famous Pentecost sermon and that day 3000 people became believers.  The church had gone from 120 to 3000 in a day!  An instant mega-church!  The believers very quickly were organized into groups that met in each others homes to pray, listen to the apostolic teaching of Jesus, and of course to eat with one another.  The way Acts describes this transition is almost seamless.     

Then the church expanded even more.  Pretty soon, Gentiles (non-Jews) were coming to faith in Jesus, and displaying the fruits of the Holy Spirit.  There was a problem, however:  Jews, even Jewish Christians, were prejudiced against Gentiles.  Gentiles were unclean and idolaters.  Many Gentiles had oppressed the Jewish believers or their ancestors.  Now these hated Gentiles are coming to faith in Jesus - how will they live?  Will they live as Jews - being circumcised if you are a male and keeping the Jewish festivals?  Or will they be able to keep their Gentile identity?  This was a huge issue in the earliest church!  Acts 15 describes a different way of dealing with this particular transition than the transition of Pentecost.  The earliest church had a committee seek the Lord about it!  When the committee drafted a letter they wrote, "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us ..." (Acts 15:28).  In other words, they submitted their own prejudices to the Holy Spirit, and let God guide them through the transition.  (Praise be to God for their willingingness to submit to the Holy Spirit because I love bacon)! 

How will we handle the transition we now face?  I was talking about this with one of our former pastors who God has blessed to be in our congregation.  He said to me, "Ray, you can look at this two ways:  1 - Oh my gosh, we have lost 25 people; how can we replace them and their tithe, volunteerism, etc?  or 2 - We've lost 25 people.  I wonder if there are 25 lost people in Shawnee who need FBC to be a witness to them."  The choice is up to us.  Will you join me in seeking to submit this transition to the Holy Spirit?   

Bro. Ray

 

Golf and the Soul

I'm a golfer.  That's what I tell myself at least.  I'm not sure if what I actually do on the golf course is considered golfing or more like hacking.  I love the game.  I love being outside.  I love the mental challenge each detail of a golf course presents.  I love the smell of cut grass and the sound of a precise putt falling into the hole.  I don't like the sand though.  Seriously, why sand?  Are we at a beach?  Dad gave me a choice when I was thirteen to either get golf clubs or a fishing boat.  That year some guy named Tiger Woods won the Masters for the first time, and I was hooked.  The next five or so years Dad and I spent many days on the course (one of the advantages of living in South East Texas is that you can play year round).  

This past Friday for the first time in a while, I got to play golf.  It was the first time in about a year that I had even picked up a club, and so I had absolutely no expectations of myself. But a funny thing happened - I played well!  Through 6 holes I was only 2 over par and could have easily been even par for the round.  That's nearly unheard of in my world.  There are some basic elements to a golf shot that I reminded myself to concentrate on.  The main one for me is to watch the spot where the ball hits the ground and try to swing the club in such as way to hit that spot.  Last Friday, I was doing that . . . through six holes.  Every ball I hit was down the middle of the fairway.  I avoided all water, and even putted well . . . through six holes.  I stayed within the limitations of my game . . . through six holes.

Then came hole seven.  Hole seven is not a particulary tough hole, though there is a pond and a tree that guard the green.  But if you stay within your game, the hole is manageable.  I however, had gotten too confident.  I began dreaming of the possibility of an incredible score that I forgot the basics which led to my good round.  The dream overtook my reality.  The tee shot went wide left, leaving me with a long shot into the green.  No problem, just take out my long iron and put it up there I thought.  Well, I forgot to watch my spot.  The ball sailed left into the tree and plunking straight into the water.  Triple bogey (that's not good if you don't know).  I neglected to stay within the limitations of my game.

As I walked to the next tee, God began to talk to me about my soul.   There are times when my soul is in rhythm with God.  God directs and empowers the center of my soul and there is a peace that passes all human understanding deep within me.  Dallas Willard points out in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, " Authentic transformation is possible if we are willing to do one thing and that is to arrange our lives around the kind of practices and life Jesus led to be constantly receiving love and power from the Father."   

Soak that statement in for a minute.  When we arrange our lives around the life of Christ there is a lifespring of love and power that flows from God.  When we stay in Christ, and rely not upon our own intellect, people skills, or experience, but rather the grace of God there is a transformation and peace that occurs within our souls.   

Often what happens in my life after I live in Christ for a while is that I'll think I've got this life thing figured out.  I'm in control.  Or I see some spiritual growth happening and I begin to dream of the kind of person God is making me to be.  Then the dream overtakes my reality.  No need to do these practices, or if I do, it's just to say that I've done them.  What usually happens when you try to take control?  Life has other plans, and all of a sudden my soul is in crisis again and I'm reminded that I need God every breath I take.   

Authentic transformation to the life God intends for you is possible - a life filled with love, joy, peace, faith, and hope.  All of it is rooted in Christ and is available for you.  What you have to do, and what I have to constantly remind myself to do, is to arrange your life around Christ.  It is ok to dream about the person you can become.  Just do not let the dream overtake your reality.  Stay in your game.  Stay in Christ.  Let Christ do the work.  

Ordinary Christians and the Kingdom of God

Where do you find the Kingdom of God?  The Kingdom of God language has recently received a revival within the American church.  Often it is interpreted as a big-picture grand ideal.  Also, mistakenly I believe, the church is often pitted against this Kingdom of God ideal.  

It is easy to read the vision Jesus gives in the Gospels and then look at the church today and say that the church does not look like the vision Jesus gives.  Unfortunately we still live in a world where sin and brokeness have a hold on us and the world around us.  Whether we look to the atrocities that ISIS is committing against Christians, our own political discourse in our country, the drug problems in our town, or the state of our soul if we are truly being honest, we can see that we do not live in a world that plays by God's rules.  

However, if you spend your time searching for the ideal vision of the Kingdom of God, you will ultimately be unsatisfied.  Jesus teaches us to pray "Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be Done on Earth as it is in Heaven."  In other words, God may your rule be right here, right now in Shawnee, OK as it is in heaven.  That's an extraordinary prayer that is prayed by ordinary people.  

So where is the Kingdom of God found?  The Kingdom of God is not an ideal to obtain, but rather a reality to live within.  The Kingdom of God then is found in a face to face relationship with somebody.  Each day we come into contact with ordinary people.  People we go to work with.  People we go to school with.  People at the grocery store and at the Salvation Army.  Even people that we go to church with.  It is there in those relationships that the Kingdom of God can be found.  

Each day you have a choice.  I can love the people I come into contact with, or I can be indifferent at best or curse at worst.  A few weeks ago we had a shooting in Shawnee.  It was a tragedy.  One of our church members knew the brother of the teenager who was shot.  She knows where they live and was talking with her small group about it.  Someone piped in maybe we should pray for the street they live on.  They took it further.  They decided to go prayer walk the street, and when they did they came into contact with a young man.  This young man had a troubled past, but heard the message about the grace of Jesus Christ.  Two weeks ago he was baptized by another local church here in town.  That's extraordinary grace!  

But it started with ordinary Christians doing an ordinary Christing practice - praying and then simply listening to God and sharing Jesus.  When ordinary Christians do ordinary Kingdom work (praying, fasting, giving generously, etc.), God can make those ordinary practices into something extraordinary.  

Church - An Alternative Community

Imagine a 10 second video changing the course of your life.  That's what has happened to expelled OU student Levi Petit.  He was caught on tape saying a shocking, disgusting, and hate-filled chant with some of his fraternity brothers.  You all know the story from here.  The fraternity was shut down and it has started a state-wide discussion on racial relations partially led by the OU football team.  People took to social media to denounce what happened and the fraternity involved with the video.  I don't know about you, but I've had discussions about this incident over coffee, around the water cooler, and at church with some of you.  

This past Wednesday, Levi Petit did something extraordinary.  He apologized.  He took ownership for what happened.  He sought out the football team and had a face-to-face meeting with them.  He sought out politicians and pastors from the African-American community in Oklahoma City.  He sought understanding.  He sought forgiveness and held out hope for reconciliation.  It took incredible courage and humility to seek out the people he hurt with his words, listen to them, and apologize.  The easiest thing for Levi to have done would have been to go away quietly.  

What has surprised me is the reaction of people towards Levi's apology on social media and in the comment section of internet news outlets.  The mostly white commenters still condemn and use hateful words towards Levi while complaining about the hateful words he used.  It reminded me also of the calling of the church to be an alternative community.  

When the rest of the world wants vengeance and blood, Christ calls us to enemy love and sacrificial living.  When the rest of the world condemns, the church through Jesus offers a community of forgiveness.  When the world wants this young man to go away and never be heard from again, the church calls us to live in the tension of our own depravity and God's Divinity because it is there that transformation can really happen.  

Church truly is an alternative community from the world.  Church calls us to live our lives in Christ, meaning that we pattern our lives in the life of Jesus.  The only way this pattern of discipleship occurs is through the Holy Spirit's work in our lives.  Sometimes this is painful and causes great anxiety.  I cannot imagine the anxiety in the small church at Colossae when Onesimus, who had run away from Philemon, came back.  Onesimus the runaway slave was now coming back to ask for forgiveness of his master Philemon.  At the same time, Paul, the greatest theologian of the church, asks Philemon out of the love of God to receive his former slave not as slave again but as a "beloved brother" (Philemon 16).  

This in no way excused the behavior of Philemon or Onesimus.  It does not gloss over the hurt.  It also does not play the game of social constructed roles of slave and master.  Rather through love those relationships are transformed into equality.  Both are sinners in need of Jesus.  Both have been forgiven by Jesus.  Both are called to be agents of reconciliation.  

I don't know the true motivations of Levi.  That's not my job to discern.  There is only One Judge.  I do know this:  Levi is a sinner for whom Christ died, as are the people who are condemning Levi, and as are the African-Americans whom Levi wounded deeply.  The calling of the church is to take all those three groups and model reconciliation and forgiveness.  We truly are an alternative community. 

Doing Justice to Justice

This past Sunday, we covered another "Woe" of Jesus.  In this "woe," he tells the Pharisees and scribes of the law that they by focusing on their precision of the law have neglected the weightier matters of the law - "justice, mercy, and faithfulness" (Matthew 23:23).  Jesus essentially summarized Micah 6:8 which says to "act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."  What does it mean then to "act justly" or to "do justice?"  

This is a word that is loaded in our culture today.  What I observe from the media is that justice almost takes on a vengeance type of idea today.  What about biblically?  What did justice look like in the Bible?  

There are actually two words in the Hebrew Bible that are translated "justice."  One is the word "mishpat."  It is used over 200 times in the Old Testament.  It's basic meaning is to treat people equally, giving them their due - whether that be punishment, protection, or care.   Over and over again this particular word is used in conjunction with four particular groups - Levites (priests who had no inheritance), foreigners living in the land, widows, and orphans.  A couple of examples -

"Do what is just and right.  Rescue from the hands of the oppressor the one who has been robbed.  Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow . . ." (Jeremiah 22:3).  

"This is what the Lord Almighty said:  'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.  Do not oppress the widow or fatherless, the foreigner or the poor."  (Zechariah 7:9-10)

"Learn to do right; seek justice!  Defend the oppressed.  Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow." (Isaiah 1:17)

Even the tithe had a justice element to it - "At the end of every 3 years bring the tithe . . . so that the Levites and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied."  (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).

In pre-modern, agrarian societies these four groups had no social power.  The mishpat of society then is evaluated, according to the scriptures, by how these groups are treated.  Jesus seems to stay in line with that definition as he continually helped these groups in his day (those possessed by demons, lepers, the woman bleeding for 12 years, the blind and lame).  

God's Himself is concerned with the most vulnerable and their justice.  In Psalm 68 God is called "a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows."  

The other word that is sometimes translated as justice, but more often as righteous is "tzadeq."  This refers to right relationships.  We are not righteous before God, but God sends Jesus that we may become the righteousness of God.  This righteousness then extends to human relationships.  This is how we treat people in day to day living.  So when we are seeking the righteousness/justice of God we are seeking to treat people in a way that is fair, generous, and reflects the character of God.  

My prayer for our church is that as we understand how God has treated us justly through Christ Jesus, we would treat the people we come in contact with, whether deemed important or unimportant by society, with the justice of God.  

I love you all and hope you had a great spring break and we will see you Sunday!

Bro. Ray

 

A Missed Lenten Luncheon

One of my favorite events that we host each year was cancelled last week - the Lenten Luncheon.  I rarely get to preach to people outside of our church, and this luncheon shows the unity of Christ's church in Shawnee.  I planned and prepared to address some observations about suffering and pain that I have glean both from the Bible and the experiences Sarah and I had in 2014.  Since I did not get to give that talk, I gave it to our Sunday night congregation, and will share a few of those observations here:

The most asked question I get is "Why is there suffering in this world?"  It comes in all different forms - why cancer, why war, why hunger, why did she break up with me, and the list goes on and on.  The easy answer (or as we used to say the "Sunday School answer") is sin.  We live in a broken world and suffering and pain are results of that broken world.  That is a true answer, but it leads to a different, deeper set of questions.  Where is God in suffering?  Did Jesus not conquer death through the resurrection?  Why does God just fix this world?  I'm sure some of you have asked those questions from time to time, and those questions are just fine to ask and wrestle with.  

Paul in an extrordinary letter to the Corinthians writes about his own struggle with pain which he dubs his "thorn in the flesh."  There has been much speculation about what this thorn actually was - it could be spiritual (guilt over persecuting the early church), emotional/relational (Paul had a knack for making lots of people angry at him), or physical (he detailed his shipwrecks, imprisonments, beatings, and other physical ailments).  Whatever it was, God did not take away his pain.  Rather Jesus replies, "My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9).  

What is amazing about the Bible is that it does not ask the same questions of suffering we do.  Suffering is a reality of life within the scriptures for many different reasons.

Sometimes suffering happens because of other people.  For instance the Psalmist writes, "People who are wicked and deceitful have opened their mouths against me; they have spoken against me with lying tongues.  With words of hatred they surround me; they attack me without cause" (Psalm 109:2-3).  Have you ever had anybody say something untrue about you that caused a damaged reputation?  

Sometimes suffering happens because of you.  Your own sin and poor choices cause your pain.  The Joseph story has always fascinated me.  At the beginning of the story when you read it carefully, the word that describes Joseph is an arrogant brat.  That arrogance in part kindled the flame that led his brothers to make a poor choice.  

Sometimes suffering happens seemingly random in the Bible.  Jesus tells a story about a man walking on the Jericho road who is robbed and beaten.  While this is a parable it must have occurred enough times for Jesus to use it as a context for His parable.  

Sometimes suffering happens because God caused it to happen in the scriptures.  We do not necessarily like this truth, but it did happen.  Sodom and Gommorah suffered because of heinous sin.  Israel suffered exile because they turned their backs on God.  Jesus ultimately suffered the cup of judgment at the cross.  

So where is God in all these senarios?  According to the Word given to Paul, God is in the "weakness."  In other words, God's power is on full display in the midst of our pain, suffering, and weakness.  God is with us in the midst of the pain.  

God actually knows pain.  When Jesus died, God grieved.  It was God's love that put Jesus on the cross, and because of God's love God suffered.  

It is God's love that ultimately redeems suffering.  Suffering can seem purposelessness and random.  Yet somehow, God has a way of weaving purpose and redemption through suffering precisely because suffering is where God's power shines the most.  If we wish to know what God looks like, we look to the cross.  It was out of that suffering, resurrection and redemption is born. 

If you are suffering today - physically, emotionally, relationally, or spiritually - you are not alone.  In fact God might be shining most brightly in your darkest of nights.  

 

   

 

A Lamp Unto My Feet

"Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path . . ." Psalm 119:105.  

Psalm 119 is one of my favorite Psalms in the Bible.  It uplifts the Bible (specifically the TORAH) in a beautiful accrostic poem.  The image in this particular verse reminds the reader that the world is dark, but God's word provides just enough light to see along the paths.  Biblical scholar Scot McKnight translates this as "Your word is a flashlight . . ."  For the person camping in a dark woods, you must keep the flashlight pointed ahead in order to see.  

A couple months back, we laid out a vision for our church at the Harvest Breakfast.  You all responded financially, with ideas, with prayers, and with a renewed sense of God's Spirit moving among our church.  Like the flashlight shining ahead on our path, we must keep the vision which is based upon God's Word to us in front of us to light our path.  

God's church is a sweet fellowship of love that is rooted in the Triune God.  We believe God is one but also Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  God exists in a "sweet fellowship of love" to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Edwards.  The church then is a participant together in that fellowship of love and a reflection on earth of that fellowship of love.  How does this play out for FBC Shawnee?

Worship - We are committed to the unity of the body of Christ and this most evidently seen in our worship.  We have 5 different generations represented in our church on any given Sunday morning in one service.  We have different races, socio-economic classes, and other lines that could divide us.  However, in Christ there is neither democrat nor repuclican, black nor white, rich nor poor but all are one.  We reflect that in worship together. 

Discipleship - Discipleship is the process by which we are formed into Christlikeness.  This is both an individual endevor and a communal process.  We need each other.  Personal devotion is extremely important.  So we learn the different practices of the Christian faith that grow us in our relationship with God (Bible study, prayer, fasting, service, etc.).  We cannot grow alone.  We need each other.  That is why we have Sunday School classes.  There we learn the Bible together.  That is also why we have small groups.  These small groups offer opportunities to live in deeper community with one another.  If you are not in Sunday school class or in a small group, I highly encourage you to find one.

Mission - God is at work in the world.  God is on mission through Jesus to reconcile the world back to Himself.  As God's people living out God's Kingdom, we participate in God's mission through evangelism, acts of service, and living morally exemplary lives that demonstrate the rule of Christ.  On April 4th (the Saturday before Easter) our church will be serving our neighborhood in a number of different ways.  This is a step towards living out the mission of God in our world.  

Keep the vision in front of you.  Be empowered by God's Spirit.  I love you and hope to worship with you Sunday.  

Bro. Ray

Jesus Defining LIfe

One of the joys of pastoring our church is the partnering in ministry that happens with our deacons.  Our deacons function well.  They deeply care about our church, seek to minister to our church, and are truly servants of FBC Shawnee.  The conversation in deacons' meeting often revolves around ministry related issues (which has not always been the case in every church I've served in).  This past week, as I gave my report, one of our deacons asked me a penetrating question.  Actually, I had asked it of you in the sermon the week before - "Is your life defined by Jesus?"  Our deacon asked me, "Ray, what does Jesus defining your life look like in your life?" 

I gave an answer, but as I thought about it more and more, I thought I would give a more articulate answer centering on FAITH, HOPE, LOVE, JOY and PEACE.  

1. Faith -  Faith is confidence grounded in reality.  The reality is Jesus.  There is a trust in who Jesus says He is, Jesus did what the scriptures reported Him to do, that Jesus was serious in His invitation to follow Him, and that Jesus is alive and coming again to renew the world.  Faith is the beginning of life with God.  

2. HOPE - Hope is the joyous anticipation of the good.  When one trusts Jesus, there is a hope that no matter happens in this world still caught in the web of sin, Jesus will prevail.   This is what Paul is getting at when he writes, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him . . ."  Romans 8:28.  

3. LOVE - Love of course is the foundation for the spiritual life in Christ.  Jesus Himself says "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life."  Loving someone means to will the good for them.  This is what Jesus did for us in giving His life on behalf of our sins. When Jesus defines my life, I am loving the Lord by walking in His truth, and loving others, no matter what they of me.  

4.  JOY - Joy is rooted in the goodness of God, and as a result is not based on circumstances.  It is not mere pleasure, but a pervasive and constant sense of well-being.  The classic example of joy is the apostle Paul.  He was ship-wrecked, gossiped about, seen as a threat to Roman peace, and jailed.  It is from a jail cell in Rome and chained to a Roman soldier that Paul writes, "Rejoice in the Lord always!  Again I will say it, Rejoice!"  Philippians 4:4.  When I abide in Christ, there is a sense of joy that happens no matter the circumstance. 

5.  PEACE - Peace is a sense of assurance about how life will turn out.  In same jail cell Paul writes "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts in Christ Jesus.  

These traits do not come automatically.  They are formed and nutured by a consistent, joyful relationship with God.  God is with us, and God is moving us towards a future in the New Heavens and New Earth.  In the mean time, we are being transformed by God.  In doing so, Jesus comes to define our lives more and more each day.