Read Through the Bible – Week 18

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Summer is a wonderful time to shift gears and to set-aside time for something new!

Many people have never read through the entire Bible. Some people don’t know where to begin, and other people begin in the first chapter of Genesis – but get bogged-down when they reach Leviticus. We all like to know that we’re doing things with other people. That’s what the ExploraStory Cafe is all about! It’s about reading God’s Word with other people. It’s about exploring foundations of our faith by listening, together, to recorded messages. It’s about spending quiet-time at the end of the day – reviewing the events of the past day and even asking ourselves, “What will I need from God – as I face the joys and challenges of tomorrow?”

This week, we’re going to ride a roller coaster during our journey through the Bible!

We’re going to read the 10 Commandments on Monday, and we’re going to read David’s psalm of confession (which was written after his disastrous affair with Bathsheba and after his role in causing the death of her husband, Uriah, became public) on Wednesday. We are going to encounter a threat that God uttered against a false-prophet, Hananiah, (“I am going to remove you from the face of the earth!” ~ Jeremiah 28:16) on Friday; and, on Saturday, we’re going to see Mark’s Gospel abruptly end as the three women who went to Jesus’ empty tomb flee in astonishment and say nothing to anyone. And, as we’re reading through these parts of the Bible together, we’re going to be challenged to think.

Which of the 10 Commandments am I breaking – right now – at this point in my life?

Do I regularly think about the things that I’m doing and ask God to forgive my sins, or do I wait until my sins are lifted before my eyes by another person?

How are my thoughts and actions being shaped by God’s Word, and how do my thoughts and actions bear testimony to what God’s doing in my life and in the world?

How do I respond to my encounters with the Risen Christ? Am I telling others about what Christ is doing in my life? Am I trying my best to figure-out what it means? Am I afraid to speak about the things that God’s doing? How could I be a more effective witness to God’s work in my life and in the world?

Here are next week’s readings:

Sunday: 2 Corinthians 4-5 – Monday: Exodus 17-20 – Tuesday: 2 Samuel 5-9 – Wednesday: Psalms 51-53 – Thursday: Job 35-36 – Friday: Jeremiah 27-31 – Saturday: Mark 15-16

Blessings!

Read Through the Bible – Week 17

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I hope that you’ve been blessed as you’ve been reading through the Bible with us! Please know that many other people are sharing your journey through the pages of God’s Word. If you’ve just discovered this site, welcome! The ExploraStory Cafe has been created to be a place where we read and reflect upon God’s Word, where we learn more about God’s plans for our lives, and where we are equipped and empowered for ministry.

This week, I was struck by the words: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and it is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

We’ve had a lot of rain in the last few weeks.

The herbs and flowers that my wife planted just a few weeks ago are growing like crazy. The trees are lush and green. The grass on my lawn is growing so quickly that I need to catch the clippings in a bag every time I mow it. And, of course, the weeds are growing just as quickly – sometimes, too quickly.

We all have times of abundant growth in our spiritual lives.

We have times when we drink deeply from the well of God’s love. We have times in our lives when we feel abundantly blessed – and almost like we’re planted beside a stream. Madame Guyon, a 17th-Century French mystic, once wrote in her short book entitled, Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ: “Rest quietly before the Lord. Let this simple, quiet rest in Him always be your preparation for everything. You must  keep this in mind: Your only purpose is to be filled to overflowing with the divine presence of Jesus Christ and, deep within you, to be prepared to receive from Him what He chooses to bestow upon you.

But Madame Guyon also writes: “The fact that you will have spiritual dry spells is not the issue. The important question is: What will you do in a time of spiritual dryness?

Perhaps, you have days when it’s hard to spend time reading the Bible and praying. I was reminded in last week’s reading from Jeremiah that there will surely be times of drought and times “when the heat comes” in every Christian life. But I was also reminded that, in those times, I can draw upon moments when I’ve felt God’s presence. I can be sustained by the waters that have moistened my roots in times of abundance. Madame Guyon tells us: “Wait upon the Lord in a spirit of humility [in periods of dryness]. Come before God quietly and peacefully, recalling your mind to His presence even though His presence may evade you.

Here are next week’s readings:

Sunday: 2 Corinthians 1-3 – Monday: Exodus 13-16 – Tuesday: 2 Samuel 1-4 – Wednesday: Psalms 48-50 – Thursday: Job 33-34 – Friday: Jeremiah 22-26 – Saturday: Mark 13-14

Blessings!

God’s Whispering in Your Ear!

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Many Christians (and churches) are struggling these days.

Christ calls us into ministry in the waters of Holy Baptism and sends us into the world as His representatives. The Bible plainly tells us that the Holy Spirit blesses us with spiritual gifts that we need – and assures us that, when we’re engaged in ministry, Christ journeys with us and opens doors.

But translating Christ’s “call to action” into concrete ministries isn’t always easy, is it?

It’s easy to talk about Christians being called onto the “front lines” of the battle. It’s easy to say that Christians need to get outside of their buildings and more deeply engage with people in their community. Many churches are trying to create long-term strategies for doing ministry in a world where it’s not always easy to know what the future will bring. And that’s what this week’s message,  “God’s Whispering in Your Ear!”, is all about.

Jesus says, “What I tell you in the dark, say in the light. What you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim from the housetops!” (Matthew 10:27)

Ministry begins when God’s people pray, and when God’s people listen and talk with each other about what God’s been whispering into their ears. What does God whisper in your ears when you pray about people in your community who are struggling with illnesses and loneliness? What does God whisper into your ears when you pray about people in your community whose lives are being destroyed by opioid addictions? What does God whisper into your ears when you pray about little children in your community who were being offered a free breakfast when they arrived at school, but who have lost that daily meal during the summer? What does God whisper into your ears when you pray about young people who are being bullied, about children who need Sunday School teachers, about men and women who are being abused in their own homes, and about people in your own community who don’t have enough money to purchase medicines that they need in order to remain healthy?

God’s still using folks who are prayerfully listening to people in their community, and who are seeking God’s guidance and direction. Ministry begins when the people of God talk with people in their community, fall to their knees in prayer, and open their ears to hear what God has to say.

We live in a time when opportunities for doing ministry are immense! And, as we look for a path forward in ministry, we must continue to be people who are engaged in prayer and the daily reading of Holy Scripture. We cannot speak about what we have not heard! We cannot proclaim from the housetops what we’ve not heard whispered into our ears by the Living God!

And so, if you’re looking for a path forward in ministry – as either an individual or as a church – stop for a moment and pray. We are not called to build ministries and churches around our own agendas and good ideas. We are called, instead, to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd who has promised to journey with us (and to open doors before us) as we seek to fulfill His plan for our lives and for our ministries in practical ways.

Blessings!

Vacation Bible School

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Once upon a time, there was a little boy who was looking for something to do during the steaming hot days of July. He’d been out of school for more than a month. He’d already worn ruts in the grass – while riding his bicycle around in the yard. He’d spent hours in the woods digging in the dirt, and had been shooting at chipmunks with a bow and arrow made of sticks and a rubber band for weeks. Time passed slowly. And the beginning of school was more than a month away.

And then, one morning, the little boy’s mother got him out of bed and took him to the church. The church was decorated with long, colorful streamers that moved every time the electric fans swished past them; and there were rocks made of brown, crumbled paper on the floor. Little kids were running everywhere, and the energy was incredible! Grown-ups tried their hardest to split the kids by age groups and they pinned a colorful name tag to each child’s chest. And then, the singing began. Some lessons were taught. The floors of the church were littered with little pieces of paper as children went to work with scissors and glue. And, of course, there was a snack. Cookies. Cookies with bright red Kool Aid! Everybody knows that energized kids who are bouncing off the walls need more sugar. Right?

And at the end of the week, every child who had come to the church every day got a copy of the Good News Bible. And the little boy was so excited! He took his Bible home and put it on the table beside his bed. And he read stories from the Bible every day. The edges of the pages became dirty as time passed and the binding on the Bible became loose. But the little boy kept reading from the Bible every day. And as he grew into a teenager, he kept that Bible close at hand. And in the already-worn pages of the Bible, he came to know a man named Jesus who lived and died and rose again. And some of it made sense, and some of it didn’t. But that was OK.

Many people don’t realize how important a week of Vacation Bible School can be in the life of a child. It’s not easy for parents to pack-up their kids in the middle of the summer and drag them to the church. It’s not easy for a too-small army of volunteers to keep an eye on the children – while singing songs – and teaching lessons – and playing games – and washing hands – and completing a craft – and serving a snack in the basement of a church on hot summer days. It takes time to hang those long, colorful streamers and to make those paper rocks. It takes time to make the name-tags, and to register all the kids, and to keep the kids safe. Someone always cuts their finger and needs a band-aid to make things better. Someone won’t like the snack. Someone won’t sit down during the lesson, and a parent or two may need to be called because someone gets homesick. That’s Vacation Bible School in a nutshell, isn’t it?

Back to the little boy….

Placing a Bible in the hands of little boy can do great things! A little boy can learn about the God who loves him when he reads what the Bible says. He wonders about things that some kids never think about. He asks questions. And, as the years continue to pass, seeds that were planted begin to grow. And little boys grow into men. And sometimes, those men grow into pastors who devote their lives to teaching others about the God that they’ve come to know and love. Some of those men – like me – grow into men who want people to know about Jesus, too. And the story of God’s love and embrace gets passed to another generation!

And sometimes it begins with a week of Vacation Bible School. Sometimes, it begins when a small army of volunteers make long and colorful streamers that sway when an electric fan blows past them; make rocks from crumbled paper bags, put a band-aids on fingers; and place Good News Bibles in the hands of little children. Sometimes, it all begins when a small army of God’s people commit themselves to opening their hearts and to opening the doors of their building, so that little kids can hear the story of God’s love.

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” ~ Matthew 28:19-20  

Harvesting Abundance

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Have you noticed that everything in the Church is “green” these days?

Green is the color of growth and vitality. Many plants signal the arrival of warmer weather in the Spring by displaying new green leaves. The green leaves on plants absorb the summer sunlight, and transform it into much-needed energy through the miracle of photosynthesis. I’ve noticed that we are in the “Season of Growth” because I need to mow the grass every week and stay ahead of the weeds. Green is the color of growth and vitality – and that’s why many Christians use green coverings on the altar and why many pastors wear green stoles around their necks during the season of Pentecost.

Most churches are craving new growth and vitality these days. People in the Church can’t help but notice that worship attendance has been falling and that financial resources are tight. Many churches are aging as young people drift away – sometimes because they’ve decided to move to new and exciting places, and sometimes because they simply can’t “connect” with what the Church is doing. It’s hard to find volunteers. It’s hard to find the energy that’s needed to remain on the front lines of ministry. And this growing reality in the Church can create a mentality of scarcity. We focus more upon what we don’t have than upon what we do have. We spend our time thinking about things we’re not doing instead of reflecting upon the ways that God is using us to accomplish His purposes. A mentality of scarcity always tells us we don’t have enough. And, when we get overcome by that type of thinking, we get discouraged and do even less.

But one of the great promises of Holy Scripture is one that tells us that “the harvest is plentiful.” (Matthew 9:37) People may not be attending worship services as often as they did in the past, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t thinking about their relationship with God. We may need to learn how to tell the story of our ministry in new and creative ways, so that people can see that our ministry is vital and important. People who are not affiliated with our congregations aren’t likely to simply walk through the unlocked doors of our churches on Sunday mornings to see what’s happening, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not visiting our church websites during the week. Thoughts of scarcity cause us to withdraw into a death-creating and congregation-killing discouragement, but thoughts of abundance can create excitement and new growth in our churches.

So, how does vibrant and life-giving ministry unfold in this green Season of growth and abundance? It begins when people see the difference between what they see and what they believe God wants. Do you think that our God doesn’t care when a third of the little children in a community go to school without breakfast and when their school-provided breakfast disappears during the summer? Do you think that God doesn’t care about the ninety-one people who die from opioid overdoses in our country every day – some in our own church communities? Does God not care about the 22 veterans who commit suicide each day in America? Has God abandoned children who are being bullied? Has our God walked away from older people in our communities who are lonely because they’re not able to leave their homes? Does God abandon people in the midst of their grief? Does God turn away from people who experience abuse in their home, who are recovering from addictions, who are facing a life-altering illness or disease, who are struggling with a mental illness, or who have lost their job? I don’t think so….

In this “green” season of the Church year, we’re asked to reflect upon what excites us and upon what creates passion in our lives. God made us to be people who change the world! God made us and draws us together in the communities that we call “churches,” so that we can work together; draw on the excitement and energy other people; and go into the world, filled to the brim with the Holy Spirit, to bring the Reign of God into our struggling world. That’s what ministry is. That’s what creates new growth and vitality.

And so, during this “green” season of the Church year, I want to challenge you to dream the dreams that God has for the Church of Jesus Christ in the 21st Century. The harvest is plentiful. God has told us that He’ll lead and guide us as we pray and worship. The Holy Spirit will direct our work and open doors that need to be opened. And all we need to do is “ask the Lord of the harvest to send-out laborers” (Matthew 9:38) who are passionate about spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ in a struggling world where many people are crippled by the types of “scarcity mentality” that steal energy, vitality, and a life-filled future from the hands of God’s people.

Blessings!

 

 

Are You an Apostle?

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How would you describe your relationship with Jesus?

My relationship with Jesus began when I was baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. I have been a student and a church organist. I have been a counselor at a Christian camp and I’ve served as a pastor for 29 years. My relationship with Christ has changed as I’ve moved through life, and I’m excited about where God is going to take me in the coming years.

How would you describe your relationship with Jesus?

In this week’s message, “The Apostolic Imperative”, we see that the writer of Matthew’s Gospel referred to people who surrounded Jesus in two different ways. In Matthew 10:1, we see that the people who surrounded Jesus were called “μαθητης” – a Greek word that occurs 74 times in Matthew’s Gospel and that describes the people who surrounded Jesus as “disciples” – followers – “followers who adhere to the teachings of a particular teacher.” But, in Matthew 10:2, the writer of the Gospel shifts gears and uses the word “αποστολος” to describe those who surrounded Christ – a Greek word that is only used one time in the Gospel. “Αποστολος” describes those who surround Jesus as apostles and “commissioned representatives” of One who sends them. When you think about “αποστολος,” I want you to think about Moses – a man who was called to serve as a commissioned representative of God and who was sent to the Pharaoh of Egypt with a clear message from God.

I suspect that most of us picture ourselves as “followers” of Jesus Christ. We believe that Jesus is walking with us and we want to believe that we’re doing things that Jesus wants us to do. But, what if we began to understand that we’re, also, called to be commissioned representatives of the Reign of God? Imagine the power that kind of a distinction could bring to our ministry in the Church of Jesus Christ!

Christ’s “Commissioned Representatives” feed the hungry, and announce the coming of the Reign of God in the very same way that Jesus did. “Commissioned Representatives” of the Reign of God confront the powers of evil that oppress the poor and that continue to separate people by looking at the color of their skin. “Commissioned Representatives” of Jesus Christ proclaim God’s forgiveness and embrace, and they speak a word of hope to young people who are being bullied in schools. “Commissioned Representatives” of Jesus Christ fight against domestic violence, substance abuse, homelessness, and hunger in the lives of children who are living in the communities that surround our churches. And why? Simply because that’s what “αποστολος” do!

I believe that the modern-day Church has become insecure, and I believe that the role of the Church in America (and in other places around the world) has been clearly dislodged because the Church is experiencing an “identity crisis.” We must recapture the important distinction between being “μαθητης” (followers of Jesus) and “αποστολος” (commissioned representatives of the Reign of God) in the world today. And that’s what I lift before you in this week’s message, “The Apostolic Imperative”

Blessings!

The Great Commission

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Christ calls the Church into vital, expansive and life-giving ministry!

I’m sure that the disciples were a bit shaken when Jesus told them that it was, now, their job to spread the Gospel throughout the world.  I suspect that it has never been easy for Christians to stand toe-to-toe with people who are in positions of power and proclaim the Reign of a Living God who calls us to extend compassion to the poor, to lift-up those who are being crushed by injustice, to walk with people who mourn, and to create a society where even the lowly have a voice. And yet, even today, Christians are commissioned by the Risen Christ to announce the imminent coming of the Reign of God.

I don’t always feel prepared to do that – even as a pastor. I don’t always feel prepared to speak about God’s plan for our lives from the pulpit, to counsel couples whose marriages are crumbling, to comfort people who have just lost a child, or to speak a word of hope beside the empty grave of someone that I’ve loved. Maybe you don’t really feel qualified to teach a Sunday School class, to lead a Bible Study, to say a prayer in front of other people, or to assume responsibility for a ministry at your church. And yet, in this week’s message, “The Great Commission”, God calls us into action.

Ministry is never easy; and yet, “The Great Commission” is accompanied by a great and wonderful promise! As we join hands in ministry, Christ promises to walk by our sides. As we join hands in ministry, Christ promises to send the Holy Spirit to equip us and give us gifts from above. Jesus promises us, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” and those are words that can encourage us as we work together to bring the Reign of God into the world today.

Blessings!

Take a stand against abuse!

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Genesis 2:18

Most people believe that God created the world to be a place that was entirely good, and that everything fell apart when Adam and Eve went astray. God pauses at the end of each day of creation in the first chapter of Genesis and says, “Wow! That’s good!” The same thing happens each day – culminating in God’s recognition of the fact that everything is “very good” on the sixth day. And then, many of us have been taught, everything fell apart when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.

However, we find another truth buried in the second chapter of Genesis where God says: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” “It is not good” for us to live in isolation. We are most complete when we are in fellowship with others. Isolation stands at the heart of what God identified as being “not good” in the story of creation.

Domestic and sexual abuse isolate. People who are being abused often withdraw from significant relationships. Women and men who are sexually assaulted often withdraw into deep, isolating silence. Domestic and sexual abuse create what God has clearly said is “not good” in the lives of His people. And, in that breaking of human community, abusers create something very different than what God plans for our lives.

We commit ourselves to helping our world to grow toward what God first intended when we promise to stand against domestic and sexual abuse; and we participate in God’s redemption of Creation when we commit ourselves to standing against behaviors that strip dignity from the lives of God’s people and drive them into isolation that “is not good” in God’s eyes.

Something New!

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I’ve decided to try something new at the ExploraStory Cafe!

I’m always looking for quality resources that support my journey of faith, and I’m always looking for ways to encourage people to explore new ideas. I believe that God has blessed me with the gift of teaching, and I’d like to share that gift with all of you through this new and exciting expansion!

This afternoon, I added a Menu Bar option that offers “Study Resources” for your use. I’m hoping to add materials that I have created as a part of my ongoing ministry of teaching; and am trusting that people, like you, will take advantage of this new part of the ongoing outreach and faith-building ministry of the ExploraStory Cafe.

This month’s addition is a study guide for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together” – a great and valuable resource for discussing what it means to live in Christian community. This seven-session study can be used for personal reflection, or it can be used as a study guide for a gathering in your home or in your church. I am sure that you’ll be both challenged and enriched as you learn about: Christian community; routines that support Christian growth; the importance of hymns, prayers and fellowship in the Church; worship; and the basic building-blocks of Holy Communion, Confession and Forgiveness.

I hope that you’ll enjoy this new addition to the ExploraStory Cafe, and hope that you’ll find the resources that I’ve created both helpful and life-giving in your journey of faith.

Blessings!

 

Read Through the Bible – Weeks 15/16

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Welcome back to “Read Through the Bible”

But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the ways I command you, that it may be well with you.’ But they did not obey or incline their ears, but they walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward.” ~ Jeremiah 7:23-24

I suspect that we’ve all had times when we’ve lived in the way that God commanded us to live, and I suspect that we’ve all had times when we drifted off course. We read and digest God’s Word, and we pray for God’s guidance and direction. We have times when we drift away from God because we don’t listen, because we walk in our counsels, and because we can even be drawn off course by our own stubbornness and rebellion. But how do we get back on course and find “peace with God” after we’ve gone astray?

Many people believe that “peace with God” is achieved by returning to obedience. We’ve been told that we’re supposed to confess our sins, repent and change course. Even God’s Word tells us: when we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins. (1 John 1:9) But if we seek “peace with God” by trying to live in the right way, how can we know when we’ve done enough? If “Judgment Day” is a day when we’re going to stand in front of a great, big scale in the sky with all of our “good deeds” placed on one side of the scale and all of our “bad deeds” placed on the other of the scale, how can we know – with 100% certainty – that the scale’s going to tip in the right direction?

St. Paul struggled with that idea as he was making sense of what it means to be baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  St. Paul made some big mistakes along the way, and he was present at the stoning of Steven. (Acts 7:54-60)  Paul was severely and continuously criticized throughout his ministry because he persecuted the early Church. (Galatians 1:13) Centuries later, the German reformer, Martin Luther, struggled with the same issue – “How can I ever be ‘good’ enough to find peace with God?” And that question is what, ultimately, led Luther to post his 95 Theses on the doors of the Castle Church.

When we’re not perfect and when we make mistakes (even when we’re trying our best to do differently), how do we find “peace with God”?

St. Paul’s answer is simple: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are made right by God’s grace as a gift through redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23)

“Peace with God” comes through a relationship with Jesus Christ. “Peace with God” isn’t found by somehow returning to obedience and by find a way to “get it right” this time. We find “peace with God” when we discover that we’re the recipients of a gift from the hands of God that comes to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ!

And now, here are your readings for the next two weeks:

Week 15

Sunday: 1 Corinthians 13-14 – Monday: Exodus 5-8 – Tuesday: 1 Samuel 21-25 – Wednesday: Psalms 42-44 – Thursday: Job 29-30 – Friday: Jeremiah: 12-16 – Saturday: Mark 9-10

Week 16

Sunday: 1 Corinthians 15-16 – Monday: Exodus 9-12 – Tuesday: 1 Samuel 26-31 – Wednesday: Psalms 45-47 – Thursday: Job 31-32 – Friday: Jeremiah 17-21 – Saturday: Mark 11-12

Blessings!