28 Jul

You Made the Right Choice

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According to Eugene Peterson, “Christian reading is participatory reading, receiving the words in such a way that they become interior to our lives.”

Wonderful sentiment but how do we involve ourselves in Scripture? Are there any good methods?

Years ago I took a class in seminary called “Inductive Bible Study.” Our professor would assign us a chapter in the Bible to read but we weren’t allowed to read it once. We had to scan and pour over the text repeatedly. While doing so, we also jotted down our observations so we could share them in class.

I’d assumed that since we were all reading the same passage, our insights would match. But they didn’t. You’d be amazed at the various and creative perspectives people have toward Scripture!

In the method we were practicing, we would float various questions. Who are the main characters in this account? Is anyone missing? What words does the writer repeat? What’s the point of the passage? What’s happening? When did these events take place? How would I behave were I in the story? Do any twists or turns catch me off-guard?

Our professor didn’t want us to jump around from passage to passage in the Bible; she restricted us to our designated selections. In this way, she forced us to concentrate on what was right before us.

As a result of that class, I’ve learned to respect God’s Word by paying attention to what it says. I don’t have to manipulate the Bible to fit my preconceived notions; instead, I take it at face value and let it speak to me.

But sometimes it’s not so easy.

For our family devotions a few weeks ago, we were working our way through 1 and 2 Thessalonians. It was my turn to read, and as I listened to myself vocalizing the words of 1 Thessalonians 2, I found myself quibbling with the chapter.

First, I noticed that Paul mentions God a lot! 14 times in 20 verses, in fact!

  • Verse 2 – “boldness in our God”
  • Verse 2 – “the gospel of God”
  • Verse 4 – “approved by God”
  • Verse 4 – “please God”
  • Verse 5 – “God is witness”
  • Verse 8 – “the gospel of God”
  • Verse 9 – “the gospel of God”
  • Verse 10 – “You are witnesses, and God also”
  • Verse 12 – “a manner worthy of God”
  • Verse 13 – “we also thank God constantly”
  • Verse 13 – “the word of God”
  • Verse 13 – “the word of God”
  • Verse 14 – “the churches of God”
  • Verse 15 – “displease God”

Second, my inner editor wanted to vary the vocabulary. Repeating words gets dull, so let’s introduce other terms for God, like Lord, Father, Most High, etc. And what about the Holy Spirit? He should get mentioned, too!

Third, I worried that Paul neglected Jesus, particularly in those verses that discussed the gospel.

After all, isn’t the gospel the good news of Jesus Christ? He’s the heart of the message. So why did Paul write “gospel of God” in verses 2, 8, and 9 rather than “gospel of Jesus Christ?”

I don’t believe he made a mistake. By mentioning God over and over, the apostle sought to reassure his readers and us of a crucial fact.

The gospel is God’s idea.

Consider the context. In delivering the message of Christ to Thessalonica, Paul had suffered rejection and persecution. Things got so bad that the church sent him out of the city for his safety. You can read about the situation in Acts 17:1-10.

But recall that inductive Bible study principle of confining yourself to a specific book or passage. You don’t need to consult Acts 17; just review verses 2 and 14-18 of chapter 2. Paul suffered, his companions suffered, and the Thessalonian Christians suffered.

Paul describes the Jews as those who opposed the gospel and persecuted its adherents. What motivated them?

They believed that the gospel contradicted what God had given Israel. The Jewish people identified themselves as the children of Abraham, God’s people delivered by Moses from Egyptian slavery, and servants of the Lord through His prescribed laws and sacrifices. From their perspective, the gospel of Jesus devalued Israel and repudiated God’s will for His people.

So although Jesus may have been a decent teacher, He wasn’t the Messiah. The Jews concluded that the gospel was wrong, it wasn’t good news, and it wasn’t God’s message.

Paul keeps referring to God to reassure the Thessalonians that they made the right decision. The gospel is God’s idea. He foretold it in the Old Testament, fulfilled it in His Son, and calls now for believers to spread this word all over the world.

Paul encourages the beleaguered churches but not with apologetics or arguments. They need the reminder that God is with them and that the gospel is His idea.

What struggles do you face in your journey with Jesus? How does the world’s understanding of God clash with the work of the gospel in your life? Are doubts corroding the confidence you have in the message of Christ?

Whatever you’re wrestling with, take heart that the gospel is God’s idea. It’s His plan, His story, and His adventure for you. Don’t let criticism or affliction undermine your commitment to the Savior.

You made the right choice.

 

09 Jun

Pivot

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Back when I worked as an assistant in the singles ministry at The Church on the Way in California, we hosted a retreat at Arrowhead Springs. A combination of rustic and luxurious, the conference center was a beautiful setting for what promised to be a pleasant weekend.

One of my duties was to serve as MC for the service before lunch. Our main speaker began with an uplifting message but got bogged down in a discourse on persecution and suffering. I’m sure he meant well, but you could tell that his words didn’t jibe with the expectations of the audience.

When the preacher concluded, he turned the mic over to me so I could make some announcements. Right after a message about suffering, I had to stand there and tell people that following lunch, we’d host a square dance!

Suffering and square dancing, what a combination!

What do you say in a tough spot like that? If I canceled the event, I’d get in trouble with the ministry leadership. If I corrected the speaker, I’d embarrass him. A no win situation!

So I did the only thing I could do. Pausing to gather my thoughts and stabilize my spirit, I pivoted.

The word “pivot” doesn’t occur much in the Bible. In fact, I can find only six references in four verses.

“And two doors of cypress wood; the two leaves of the one door turned on pivots, and the two leaves of the other door turned on pivots.” – 1 Kings 6:34 (NASB)

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.” – Isaiah 6:4 (NRSV)

“When they moved, they went in any of the four directions, without pivoting as they moved.” – Ezekiel 1:17 (HCSB)

“When they moved, they would go in any of the four directions, without pivoting as they moved. But wherever the head faced, they would go in that direction, without pivoting as they went.” – Ezekiel 10:11 (HCSB)

The first two verses refer to door hinges in the temple; the second two describe the movement of angelic beings observed by the prophet Ezekiel.

Both meanings deal with changing direction.

I began by reinforcing what our speaker had said about suffering. It was an inescapable dimension of discipleship. But I added that the God who calls us to follow Jesus in spite of rejection and pain also provides blessings for our enjoyment. I explained that we’d scheduled a square dance that afternoon, and invited anyone who was interested to join us.

To grasp this principle of pivoting, take sports as an example.

If you watch the NBA, you’ll see basketball players pivot. I used to love seeing Hakeem Olajuwon, the former center of the Houston Rockets, play because his footwork was magical. He could fake people almost out of their shoes!

According to Larry Alton, “a pivot is nothing more than keeping one foot in contact with the ground and using your other foot to move around in order to find a new angle or gain an advantage over your defender.”

You’re stuck, but you have enough freedom to maneuver yourself to shoot or pass the ball.

Alton adds that “in a pivot, you aren’t totally abandoning your current situation. Instead, you’re looking for new options that may arise out of your current state.”

That’s what I attempted at the retreat. Rather than fight the situation, I accepted it but I looked for a way to move in a new direction. By the grace of God, I was ready for two reasons.

Preparation

Basketball players practice. They shoot free throws, rehearse set plays, and plan how they’re going to handle various situations. They isolate aspects of a typical game and run through them in advance so they don’t lose their heads in actual competition.

As a follower of Christ, you’re aware of the many of the joys and trials that await you. Through disciplines such as prayer and Bible reading, you prepare your soul to handle whatever life may bring you.

But you can prepare indirectly, too. Olajuwon grew up in Nigeria playing soccer. He wasn’t thinking about basketball as a child, but soccer trained his footwork which served him well when he switched sports. (It’s helped out other NBA players, as this article points out.)

God uses your experiences to form your character for His purposes. You may not know what you’re going to encounter in the days ahead, but you don’t have to worry about it. The best way to prepare for tomorrow is to walk with Jesus today.

Years before my retreat experience, I’d researched material on the persecuted church. I’d read Tortured for Christ, the autobiography of Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor who was persecuted by the Nazis and the Communists for 14 years. (You can get a free copy of the book here.) I’d also worked through Tortured for the Faith by Bulgarian pastor Haralan Popov. He endured Communist oppression for 13 years. (The Kindle version of his book is only 99¢.)

So when I took the mic, I’d already accumulated years of reflection on the subject of suffering. As a result, I had something to fall back on. I pivoted by acknowledging the seriousness of the topic without descending into sullenness. People could count the cost and also enjoy the day.

How do you prepare for surprises? You can anticipate the future, but you can also savor where you’re at with the Lord right now. Playing soccer today might help you win at basketball tomorrow!

Empathy

The other factor was that I put myself in the position of the audience. That wasn’t too hard; they were single adult Christians and so was I!

What were the guests seeking, imagining, and hoping for? Why did they sign up for the retreat and what did they want to get out of it? What did God want for them and how could I express that?

I didn’t have to ponder these questions as I stood on the stage. Since I identified with the singles, I knew where they were coming from. Compassion creates communication.

Do you care about people? Can you put yourself in their shoes? Loving others like Jesus loved you enables you to serve them like Christ served you.

Empathize with others.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” – Romans 12:15 (NASB).

When you pivot, you recognize the limitations of your position, but you don’t stop there. With your eyes open and your body in motion, you scout out new avenues and undetected resources. And with the Lord’s help, you advance toward victory.

Pivot.

It works in basketball and it works in the spiritual life.