Connect with God in Worship

A couple of weeks ago my family went on a staycation to Jester Park (northwest of Des Moines). We had a wonderful time in nature and lots of fun playing games together. It was a good time to connect as a family. It was also a good time to connect anew with God. For me, vacations aren’t so much about going somewhere. They are about pulling out of regular life and noticing how connected or disconnected I am with those who are the most important to me: my family and God. Staycations are no different.

As we took the time away, I began to think about the truths that God has revealed during those times away. It reminded me of observations I wrote down a few years ago when we went to Arkansas to visit my uncle. Let me share those with you…

During our vacation to Arkansas I experienced both Psalm 19:1 and Psalm 139:7. In the same week we were 240 feet under the earth and 1,000 feet above it. What do these verses say? They declare that God’s creation reveals to us the glory of God. They also declare that we are never too far for God to be with us.

Psalm 139:7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.

First, we went to Blanchard Springs Cavern near Mountain   View, Arkansas. The elevator ride down to the cave made me smile. We were traveling the equivalent of a 24 story building straight down. The first cavern we went into was 75 feet tall. It was amazing. There was a column in the cavern that went from the floor to the ceiling. It looked as if the column was holding up the place. All around us there was beauty to behold. It truly made us feel small as we considered how deep we were and how big the cavern (that we didn’t even know existed before that week) was. I began to think about all the nooks and crevices like Blanchard Springs Cavern that there are in the world. Many of those places are unexplored. They just sit there as a home for small insects and animals. How big and creative God must be to make things like that all over the world. It was both comforting and awe inspiring to think that God is as much in the depths of the earth as He is everywhere else.

Psalm 19:1 The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. 2 Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge.

Our second adventure was up the side of Pinnacle Mountain. Although not tall by Rocky Mountain standards, Pinnacle Mountain is a tall enough climb for me. For any who don’t know me, I am not all that good with heights. We spent an hour or so climbing up the boulder strewn trail. As we were struggling up it, folks coming down kept telling us that the view was worth it. They were right. We could see the whole valley below us. We could see a river on one side and a lake on the other. We could see houses that looked like ant houses (if ants had that kind of house). Roads were ribbons in the landscape. It felt like we were on top of the world. The God-made beauty was all around us. The heavens were certainly declaring the glory of God. I had to just stand and drink it in.

Worship comes in all shapes and sizes. Let me encourage you today, don’t miss an opportunity. Whether it is the wonder of God’s creation or spending time with God’s people on Sunday, don’t miss out! See your daily and weekly times of worship as a significant way you connect with God. Breathe deep of the love and wonder of God. He is with you on the mountain. He is with you in the valley. He is even with you under the earth. I hope that truth can hold you and cause you to marvel with me today. May it encourage you if you are in the low place. May that truth lead you to praise the God who could make such wonders and still walk by your side.

Let me leave you with these thoughts from King David from Psalm 8, “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained; What is man that You take thought of him, And the son of man that You care for him?” Don’t let God’s creation make you feel small. Let it remind you of how big our God is. Let it remind you of how big He is to you.

Something to think about,

Pastor John

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The Secret Deception of Judging Your Neighbor

Deception. When we read that word, we think of how wicked it sounds. No one wants to be deceived. It is a horrible feeling to realize that you have been deceived. Yet, there is a deception that is far to easy for us to do to ourselves. It is the deception that comes when we judge others.

Paul says in Romans,

1 Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things… 4 Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?”

(Romans 2:1, 4​)

At the beginning of Romans 2 Paul warns those who feel comfortable standing in judgment over others that there is a spiritual consequence to such comfort. He declares that when we are comfortable judging others that we are forgetting something essential to our relationship with God. We are forgetting God’s kindness.

When was the last time that we thought about how we are drawn to God? When was the last time we considered God’s wooing of us? God did not just declare our guilt.  He did not just declare the coming judgment.  God also declared and demonstrated His great and awesome love for us.  He established that we were the apple of His eye.  He communicated that He loved us so much that He would give His life for us in Jesus. Such love.  Such sacrifice. Paul declares that it is this kindness of God that has led us to seek a relationship with Him through Jesus.

What does judging our neighbor have to do with God’s gift to us?  Look again at verse 4. Have you considered what we are saying about God’s kindness to us when we are comfortable judging our neighbor? It says that somehow we deserved it.  Or, it says that His kindness wasn’t that big of a deal. The ability to comfortably judge others declares that we didn’t really need God’s kindness that much. Judging others demonstrates a diminished appreciation of God’s kindness toward us.  We are declaring our sin to be less than it is.  Judging others declares that we do not understand the enormity of our sin or of God’s kindness to us.

What should we do?  Go back to our beginning with Jesus.  Think again about why we said yes to His gift of forgiveness.  Think deeply on what His gift has meant to us.  Think upon it deeply enough that any comparisons with or judgments of others become an affront to us.  Then, do it again.

Something to think about,

Pastor John

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Contentment – It’s About What You Want Out of Life

Contentment. In our advertising saturated world, the concept of contentment is almost impossible to find. We are constantly told that what we presently have isn’t good enough, fast enough, or cool enough. When was the last time we were supposed to be satisfied with our car or our phone?! We are never supposed to be satisfied with what we have. We are never supposed to have enough. Contentment is a foreign concept. In the world, contentment is almost a bad word. It is beneath us.

Godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content.

– 1 Timothy 6:6-8

Yet, God’s Word challenges us with a counter cultural reality: the only way to really have a full life is to find the secret of contentment. Full lives are not lives that are full of money or stuff. Full lives are not found in the abundance of our possessions. What is the secret to real life and happiness?

Paul’s letter to Timothy gives a profound clue regarding how a person becomes content. Did you catch what he said? He said, “For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either.” To put it another way: the baby was alive when it did not have a stitch of clothing. You, the believer, will be wonderfully alive with God when you leave your possessions here on earth when you die. Both of these declarations are gloriously true. Possessions will not make that baby more wonderfully alive. In fact, he will not care in the least whether he has much or little. It will not make him one more iota alive if he has much or has little. Likewise, the Christian who dies with little will not be any less alive when he goes to be with Jesus than the person who had much. All who die in Christ will be equally alive with Jesus either way!

Real living has very little to do with possessions. This is the secret to contentment: when life is about living (serving Jesus, loving others, sharing the gospel), contentment follows. The goal is to live. It isn’t about having things. When life is about living, it doesn’t need things. When life is about the relationship we can have with our God and with people it is real life. It is a content life. Have you found the secret of contentment? Have you made your life about living or about having?

Something to think about,

Pastor John

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Prayer, a Response to Life

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There is nothing more natural in this world than breathing.  Most of us don’t even have to think about it.  We breathe because we live.  Right now, as you are reading this post, you are breathing. Ten minutes ago you were probably breathing without even thinking about it.  I know that I was.  I am thinking about it now because I am writing about it.  However, if I get lost in my writing then I will forget to think about breathing. Yet, I still breathe.

Is the same true for us and prayer? We are told in Colossians to “Devote ourselves to prayer.”  We are told in James that prayer is the natural response to both suffering and sickness for the Christian.  The question I must ask – is it true for us?  Is prayer natural for us now that we have been covered by the shed blood of Jesus?  Is prayer what we use when we are in trouble, when we have fears, and when we don’t know what to do?  Do we run to other things? Do we run to some crutch like food or entertainment?  Do we hang out with friends (not for prayer but for distraction)? Do we just worry? Why is that?

Whatever our reasons, God’s Word encourages us to know the power of prayer.  James tells us in James 5 that we should think of Elijah.  He says, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months.” (James 5:17) Did you hear that? Elijah was a regular person. He was just like us. Yet, God listened to Elijah. He responded to his prayers in profound ways.  Can you receive that encouragement today?  You are like Elijah.  God will listen and respond to you too.  Let prayer be a natural response for your life.  Respond that way everyday.

Something to think about,

Pastor John

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What are our thoughts about Heaven?

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.

– 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14

Heaven.  We tend to think about Heaven when we face death.  We either find comfort in it when we miss a loved one or when we are faced with our own mortality. In fact, it is the truth of the future hope of believers that Paul uses to encourage the church in Thessalonica.

However, if that is our only use of heavenward thoughts aren’t we missing something?  Shouldn’t the existence of Heaven govern our thinking and acting all the time?  Regarding our material wealth, Jesus instructed us to, “store up our treasure in Heaven.”  When speaking about our deeds of righteousness, Jesus told us to do them privately because, “your Father who sees in secret shall reward you openly.” Even our understanding of justice is supposed to be colored by a Heaven perspective.  Both Jesus and Paul remind us that we should let God punish for, “vengeance is Mine, I will repay.”

Shouldn’t the existence of Heaven govern our thinking and acting all the time?  Does it?

How many times did Jesus say, “the kingdom of Heaven is like…” and then tell a principle that was supposed to change how we lived right now?  This has got me thinking: although it is always profitable for us to consider how Heaven’s reality should change what we do today, what does what we do today say about our understanding of Heaven?

For example… When we hold on to our anger what does that say about how we view God’s justice?  When we grasp our belongings what does that say about our opinion of the treasures of Heaven?  When we worry what are we saying about God’s providence?  When we fear death what are we saying about Heaven’s beauty, wonder, or existence?

How real is Heaven to you?  Does it change your today?  When was the last time you thought about it?

Something to think about,

Pastor John

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Trapped!

They eagerly seek you, not commendably, but they wish to shut you out so that you will seek them… Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law?

Galatians 4:17, 21

Let me share a parable of Jesus… Matthew 12:43 “Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it. 44 “Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came’; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order. 45 “Then it goes and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.”

What is so striking about this parable of Jesus is the condition of the man at the end of it. No happy ending here. He finds himself in a worse place than he began. Instead of cursed by one evil spirit, he is spiritually destroyed by eight evil spirits! He is trapped.

Paul’s warning in Galatians 4 is equally passionate. He points out that those who attempt to live their lives by their own righteousness (and not the sacrifice of Christ Jesus alone) will suffer from two fatal flaws: their heart is unchanged, and they are embracing a new type of slavery. Because their heart is unchanged, they are not interested in the salvation of souls. They are actually interested in creating a group that looks just like them. They want power. Self-righteousness is seductive. We think it is an answer to our sin problem. Yet, it is a trap.

This new type of slavery is why Paul asks an important question. He asks, “Aren’t you paying attention to what the law demands?” The trap of the law is its demands. The law declares that if we seek life through the law that we must live by every jot of the law. There is no sliding scale if we live by the law. There is no grading on the curve if we choose to live by our own righteousness. Self-righteousness requires complete and total obedience to the law or we are declared guilty!

Our lives are like Jesus’ parable. If we do not intentionally embrace the cross, every type of spiritual charlatan can take up residence in our life. Those charlatans will then enslave us to their philosophies and control. Then, the guilt and hopelessness of this type of living will make our experience of Christianity worse that our experience of lostness.

Freedom is found in Jesus. It is not found in good deeds done in Jesus’ name. It is not found in following a list of guidelines that we can support from the Bible. Freedom is found in the cross of Jesus alone. His death, for me. His life in exchange for my life. God has given us freedom. So, embrace that freedom and become truly free. Either for the first time or as a renewal of God’s call on your life, receive what Jesus has done for you today. Never let it go.

Something to think about,

Pastor John

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Starting Anew with Hope

Think back for a moment to this annual event: going back to school. Every year children gear up for school in August.  Mom’s are getting their youngest ready for kindergarten. Students are planning what they and their friends are going to wear for that first day. There is a sense of excitement in the air.  Students are looking forward to seeing friends, meeting new teachers, and getting to learn new things.  The teachers are also looking forward to sharing knowledge, challenging their students, and seeing their students’ minds grow.

I know that the sense of excitement this year that family’s feel about the start of a new school year has been muted because of the pandemic, but it was still there. I think that there is something about that “starting anew” that is truly good for us. So, even when we knew it would be bumpy, families that were heading back into school this fall had a sense of anticipation for the school year. That is a good thing. Sometimes I think that we all need something like going back to school to get us excited again. Starting anew helps us notice what we are missing. It helps us think through what we want our relationship with God to be. Have we lost the sense of excitement in learning new things, in following the call of God in our lives?  Have we lost the sense of expectancy in our lives that children have every year?

I think we need that sense of the “new” in our lives.  We need to know, like the weeping prophet Jeremiah, that God’s mercies are new every morning. He said,

22 The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. 23 They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22-23

Life doesn’t have to be just the same thing every day.  God is doing something exciting in our lives.  He is working!  Yet, does our sense of excitement equal the hope that God’s work in our lives should give us? What keeps us from living in that excitement, that hope?

Perhaps we need something that starts us over with God.  What will it be for you?  I have used conferences or a special trip to start anew with God.  I have been encouraged by our local retreat center to come out for a weekend to focus on God.  It doesn’t have to be much – but it has to mean something to you.  It needs to be something that you anticipate.  Whatever it is, do you know that you need it today?

I think that we feel reticent about having times that we start over because we are no longer kids.  However, kids have this part easy.  They have to start over every year.  It’s required of them! Perhaps we are out of practice. Instead of feeling uneasy about starting over with God, we need to consider it a necessary part of growing. Farmers do this with their fields. They start fresh with new seed every year. There is new hope that this year is full of possibilities. Every new project begins this way. The craft project, sewing project, model airplane project, or wood working project all begin with a plan and a hope that something good or amazing is just about to begin. This hope is what we need in our relationship with God. It is the hope of new possibilitites.

So, start over this fall or winter with God.  Perhaps you will use Thanksgiving or Christmas as your “starting anew” point! Notice the work that He is doing in you.  Enjoy the closeness that you’ve been searching for.  Rejoice today that His mercies truly are new every morning.  He is faithful! He is working in us!

Something to think about,

Pastor John

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Until the Job is Done

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.

– Hebrews 12:1
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Imagine with me: A man is running a hard race.  He is in the lead by a hundred feet.  He is just a hundred feet from the finish line.  He has been running for miles.  He sees a friend cheering him on.  Suddenly, he stops.  He walks to the line of spectators and just sits down in front of them.  He gives no explanation except, “I’m done.”  He doesn’t finish the race that he started.  He doesn’t win.  He just quits early.

That is not what God has in mind when He says ‘run with endurance,’ is it?  He has in mind a people who finish what they start.  They have endurance to the end.  They keep fighting the everyday things that could discourage them. They keep fighting sin. What is different between our race and the hypothetical race I described above? The runner above could see the finish line. It is rare for us to see the finish line.  Isn’t that the reason that we are tempted to quit?  We don’t see the line.  We don’t have any way to tell how far we have come or how far we have to go.  So, instead of enduring to the end, we are tempted to quit when we feel like it.  We quit early.

I am deeply concerned about how often I see Christians quit early in their races.  I see it between people when forgiveness is no longer offered.  I see it in churches when a church stops reaching out to its community.  I see it in families when loving commitment doesn’t last through the present struggle.

What do we miss out on when we quit early?  We miss out on the miracle that God produces through endurance!  We miss out on seeing God’s truth bear its fruit.  We miss out on knowing that God can work even in the most difficult situation.  We never see God restore to us what the locusts have eaten. We miss out on being that witness that leads a stubborn sinner to the feet of Jesus.

Let me encourage you today.  Don’t quit early.  Reset your understanding of the length of this race. The race is not over until God calls you home. It’s not over when there are bad seasons. It’s not over when we make mistakes. It’s not over when tragedy strikes. There will be both hills and valleys in your race. Don’t give up because you are in a dark valley. Use the glorious views from the hills to spur you on. If you have a race that is mostly valleys, let the finish line of God’s glory spur you on. God has promised that we will see results if we endure to the end.  So, endure.  Don’t quit.  See God’s hand in your life!

Something to think about,
Pastor John

I don’t usually do this, but consider the following scriptures to encourage you…

James 1:2-4 2  Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces  endurance. 4 And let  endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be  perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Hebrews 12:7-11 7 It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. 11 All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

Joel 2:25-27 25 “Then I will make up to you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the creeping locust, the stripping locust and the gnawing locust, my great army which I sent among you. 26 “You will have plenty to eat and be satisfied and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you; then My people will never be put to shame. 27 “Thus you will know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God, and there is no other; a

nd My people will never be put to shame.

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Live by the Spirit

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.

– Galatians 5

This week I want us to think about how God’s transformation works in us.  I do mean transformation.  God isn’t just wanting to tweak us.  He is wanting to transform us.  Yet, how does He do it?  We know that He saves us by His grace. How does He transform us? We see the answer in Paul’s message that is captured here succinctly in Galatians 5: walk by the Spirit. We have been made alive by the Spirit of God.  Now, do we live by that Spirit in our everyday lives or do we go back to living in the flesh?  We were made alive by God’s Spirit. What kind of logic is it for Spirit born people to live in the flesh?

Paul says in Colossians, “in them you also once walked, when you were living in them…since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him.”  We, “once walked,” in the flesh.  Now?  Now, we are living (walking) in the Spirit.  We have put on the new self.  We are being renewed by the true knowledge of Christ.

What is our part in this renewal?  Our part is a choice: do we live our life day to day as people who walk in the Spirit? In other words, do we live like God’s purposes, God’s power, and God’s values are the things that matter? Or do we live as people who still do things for only natural reasons? Do we do things because of what we see, how we feel in the moment, and what we think will get us what we want?

Doing things for natural reasons is familiar, even comforting.  Yet, does living by the flesh make us better?  Does it make us more in step with Christ? Are we more connected to the things that really matter when our thoughts are just natural?  Of course, the answer to all of these questions no.  We need the Spirit so that we can be more than natural.  We need the Spirit to connect us to the things that really matter.  We need the Spirit to give us power, strength, hope, peace and life.  God asks us to choose to walk by the Spirit.  He has made us alive in Christ for eternity.  He wants to make us alive everyday. Paul challenges us to walk by the Spirit. 

How do we do it? Three things really. First, know, really know the Word of God as it relates to Christian character. Second, base your decisions for everyday living on those truths. Third, consciously pray in every emotional and moral situation that the Spirit will direct your actions for Jesus to be lifted up by what you are doing. Thus, you will be walking in the reality that Jesus truly matters.

Walking in the Spirit is really the only good choice. Living in the flesh as a Christian makes us hypocrites. We have said that in Jesus there is life. So, why would we go back to the flesh? Living in the flesh only leads to death. It is because of the flesh Jesus had to die.  So, live by the Spirit and see life come into your everyday walk.

Something to think about,

Pastor John

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The Transforming Power of Grace

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.

2 Corinthians 5:17

Today we think of the power of God’s grace. To me the power of grace is both extremely encouraging and seriously convicting.  The encouragement of grace is that God promises to transform us.  God has created us for a purpose.  Sin may mar and corrupt that purpose.  Sin may make us feel hopeless and purposeless. God’s promise is that grace will transform what sin has twisted.  Grace will take a life of no purpose and fill it with purpose.  Grace will transform what is marred and make it whole.  That is quite a promise. The most encouraging part is that Paul declares it in the present and past tense. It has already happened and is currently happening. You and I have purpose and are right now being restored!

Now for the conviction – how often do I continue to wallow in my brokenness?  How often do I stay with my destructive patterns and habits?  How often do I fight God for something I don’t really want rather than take from His grace the thing that I know I need?  How often do I stay with a comfortable counterfeit life when God offers real life?  This convicting, of course, comes to those of us who believe.  I think we cling to our old ways because we start believing that the transforming power of grace is only for the young believer.  We start believing that once you are an older Christian you kind of get set in your ways – just like the stereotype about older people.  Have you bought into that lie?

My scripture for this week’s thought is most appropriate here.  If we are in Christ, we are a new creation.  New!  Not new 20 years ago. We are new today! That newness is the secret to the transforming power of God’s grace.  We aren’t just recycled.  We aren’t just redone.  We are new!  We weren’t just new when we became a believer. We are perpetually made new in Christ. Christian, may that be more than just a convicting statement for you.  May this also encourage you.  If you have felt that your growth in Christ is somehow limited by your life history or habits, know that God has made you completely new. If you have felt set in your ways, know that this newness can be yours even now. It can now be your joy to discover what that newness will mean for you in your life.  Look for it.  Discover it.  Rejoice in it.

Something to think about,
Pastor John

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