1 Timothy 4:6-16 – Build Your Faith Muscle

If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.

Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.

Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (New International Version)

There are several metaphors throughout the New Testament illustrating the nature of the Christian life and Christian community.

God’s people are the temple of the Holy Spirit, the house where the Lord dwells; the Body of Christ, a group working together and strengthening one another in faith; the army of the Lord, advancing with the shared purpose of proclaiming good news and extending God’s benevolent rule – just to name a few.

All the metaphors are embedded with the need for training, for spiritual disciplines and practices which strengthen faith and promote spiritual health.

Just as an army of recruits needs intense basic training and ongoing discipline; and just as the body needs hourly movement and daily exercise of its muscles; so, Christian communities require spiritual development with a variety of forms and functions to elicit and establish a solid godly life.

The curriculum in the school of faith, the liturgy within the spiritual temple, the boot camp for the Lord’s soldier, and the sets and repetitions for Christ’s Body are reading and listening to Scripture with a life rhythm of personal and corporate integrity, confident faith, steadfast love, encouraging words, and virtuous behavior.

If we dedicate ourselves to these things, there will be no room for entertaining wacky stories which have no basis in truth. Instead, there will be lush spiritual growth, teachable spirits, humble service, supportive beliefs, compassionate ministry, and open fellowship.

The high values of our faith need to be both used and guarded. Our treasured possessions, whatever they may be, are handled appropriately and carefully – being kept in a secure place when not used – and being used with care when out.

Our faith, our life and doctrine, is both a precious possession, as well as a necessary muscle to do the will of God. Like our own physical muscles, faith needs to be stretched, exercised, rested, and supplied with plenty of protein and necessary nutrients. Overtaxed muscles will fatigue and can be damaged through too much exertion. And underused muscles will wither and atrophy, unable to handle even the smallest of strain when we need them.

So, it is best to have proper spiritual hygiene and exercise through a regimen of tried and true practices designed to improve and maintain healthy faith. If you want to build your faith, consider the following 10 ways:

  1. Increase your amount of reading. There is no substitute for daily repetitions of reading the Bible. Supporting a growing faith will require more voluminous reading.
  2. Focus on listening to the biblical text. Reading is only as good as our listening skills. For the Christian, paying attention to the Holy Spirit’s gentle whispers is a must.
  3. Decrease your media time. For all the good stuff out there, a lot of media information is based in myth, half-truths, and opinions masked as facts – not to mention all the hack and huckster preachers.
  4. Pray more. In fact, pray continually.
  5. Practice gratitude – not complaining. Need I say more?
  6. Snack on good spiritual reading. Consuming a good book before bed keeps the faith muscle fed longer.
  7. Rest! When God created and instituted seven days, the first day was a day of rest; the workdays came after. Don’t flip-flop the divine order.
  8. Supplement with good spiritual conversation. Half-baked theological ideas come from remaining in one’s own cave-like head. Consultation, collaboration, and fellowship help create a rich and full faith.
  9. Don’t overtrain. Good idea: Read the Bible in a year. Bad idea: Read the Bible in a month. Good idea: Digest the contents of ecumenical Creeds and church Confessions. Bad idea: Stuff a bunch of knowledge down your gullet without any love to wash it down. Savor the meal. Don’t be a pig.
  10. Don’t lift too heavy for your faith muscle. The ancient desert fathers spent years developing their faith and could do incredible feats of spiritual strength. Christianity isn’t a competition of keeping up with the Francis of Assisi’s and Martin Luther’s of history. Use the measure of faith given to you and focus on those small daily decisions of trust.

Christianity is a marathon, not a 100-meter sprint. We persevere to the end, not flame out after taxing ourselves with expectations and responsibilities God never gave us.

Be safe. Be strong. Be smart. Be spiritual. We are all in this together.

Gracious God, fill your Church with truth, the truth with peace, and the peace with love. Where our faith is weak, make it strong; where it is misguided and in error, correct and direct it; where it is amiss, reform it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it, for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son our Savior. Amen.

James 1:1-8 – How to Face Painful Trials

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:

Greetings.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. (New International Version)

Where do you turn when unwanted circumstances leave you wondering how to cope?

The Apostle James, no stranger to adversity and stressful situations, likened our position in hard situations as faith being on the witness stand, put to the test. Faith is being examined and cross-examined. And it must stand the test. 

Our attitude toward such trials, in all their varied forms, determines whether we will become upset, hard-hearted, and calloused, or, come through having our faith confirmed with newfound peace and joy.

James wrote to Jewish Christians who felt like fish out of water. They were part of the dispersion of believers from Jerusalem in the persecution against Stephen and the church (Acts 7). The dispersed believers were refugees – poor, in a foreign country, just trying to carve out an existence and live for Jesus the best they could under a lot of adversity. 

James exhorted the Christians to view their situation as an opportunity for their faith in Christ to develop and grow.

Rejoice in the midst of trials.

“Consider the adverse circumstances as joy? Are you smoking something?” we might wonder. Telling someone to consider their tough situation as pure joy is a really hard pill to swallow. 

I’m not sure what the believers were thinking when they first heard this from James, but they might have thought the guy was crazy. These were people experiencing a lot of hard things. To tell hungry families with scant resources, wondering where their next meal is coming from, that they ought to consider their situation as pure joy may seem strange, even downright calloused. 

James, however, was looking to fortify the believers’ faith. Whenever we get a cut or a laceration, the first thing needed is to apply peroxide to the wound so there will be no infection from the injury. It might seem insensitive because peroxide applied to an open wound, frankly, hurts like hell. Yet it must happen. It’s a necessary part of healing. 

The Apostle cared enough about the people to tell them what they needed to hear, up front. Without a positive, godly, and wise perspective on their difficult situation, they would not make it. Infection would set in and destroy the fledgling church.

Suffering, in the form of spiritual peroxide, is necessary. To merely say what itching ears want to hear helps no one. Suffering is a significant part of the Christian life. God never promised that life would be or should be all cupcakes and unicorns. 

In fact, Christ promised just the opposite – that everyone who wants to live for Jesus in this present broken world will have a hard time of it. It’s not a matter if you will face the testing of your faith, but of whenever you face trials.

The good news is that adversity can become our teacher. We can learn patient endurance, which is necessary to the development of our faith. Spiritual growth only matures through the testing of faith through adversity.

Faith is not a neutral or static thing. Faith is active and dynamic. It’s always either developing or degenerating.  Without spiritual peroxide, faith degenerates and becomes rancid. Eventually, gangrene sets in, and an amputation will happen. To avoid this, we need to learn how to experience joy in the middle of hard things.

It seems to me a great tragedy, for many Christians and faith communities, is that we can live a trivial, blasé, and superficial existence as believers in Jesus, and get away with it. Because we have the ability to be independent, self-sufficient, and hold our own, we don’t really need anybody, including God. We say we need God, then turn around and live our lives as if no divine being existed, at all. 

Too many folks are doing everything but exercising spiritual disciplines that would put them in touch with Jesus. To try and keep from getting hurt, church becomes optional; reading and reflecting on Scripture becomes our daily crumb instead of our daily bread; prayer becomes a hail Mary, only for times of desperation, and not as a means of connecting with Jesus; giving and serving becomes ancillary, done only if there is any discretionary time and money left over. 

The Christian life was not meant to be easy! It requires blood, sweat, and tears. Faith is challenging, and often hard. Yet, even within the pain, faith is incredibly invigorating and joyful.

Do not avoid trials.

We need perseverance. If we always bail out when things get hard, we will be immature. Only through endurance does the maturation process occur. Let your hard situation do its necessary work. Immature people avoid hard things and instead put their energy into keeping up appearances.

Conversely, the mature person spends energy standing the test and trial of faith. They understand that there must be pressure for spiritual maturity to occur.

Oyster pearls are valuable and expensive. They result from years of irritation. Natural pearls form when an irritant – usually a parasite – works its way into an oyster. As a defense mechanism, a fluid is used to coat the irritant. Layer upon layer of this coating is deposited until a beautiful pearl is formed.

God is looking to do something beautiful in our lives. So, if we constantly run away and do not deal with our hard situations, there will never be a pearl. It takes about ten years for a pearl to form in an oyster in the ocean.  Observing an oyster every day, you never notice any movement is happening. You only see the irritation.

In the Christian life, the consistent daily choices over a long period of time (perseverance) form the eventual beauty.

No one needs to go looking for trials. And, I might add, you don’t need to take upon yourself being someone else’s trial. There’s no such thing in the New Testament of anyone having the spiritual gift of irritation. The trials come from God, not people. Therefore, we are to let our faith develop and grow through the testing.

Yet, what if I am in the middle of something so hard that I just cannot see God’s perspective on it? What if there is seemingly nothing redemptive from this adversity?

Pray for wisdom in the trials.

Ask God for wisdom to see the situation from a different angle – of its positive good, and for what God is accomplishing in and through it. The truth is, God is developing within people a strong vibrant faith, if we allow it.

Growing up on the farm, we had apple trees on the property. My Dad had a shop in the garage with a big vice on the workbench. Vices and little boys were made for each other. My brother and I used to find all kinds of things to put in that vice and squeeze them until they broke, split, or exploded. 

Putting fresh apples in the vice was one of our favorites. The best were the strong juicy ones because we could get them to splatter everywhere. We hated the wormy apples. They were rotten inside and collapsed with only a little pressure.

God will, at times, put us in the divine vice – not because the Lord is mean or delights in our pain. God places us in situations of extreme pressure for fresh prayers to explode out of us to heaven.

If we are walking with God, we will be strong and juicy. However, if we have neglected God, then just a smidge of pressure will create a collapsing wormy mess. With no meaningful prayers, there is no meaningful wisdom for our circumstances.

Believe God is good no matter the trial.

God is not mean, but generous. The Lord gives with no questions asked, and without giving us a hard time about our situation. Yet, there is a condition….

We must believe – that God is good, answers prayer, and gives wisdom. Doubting God’s generosity and benevolence is a demonstration of a weak wormy faith. We may doubt a lot of things. Yet we are always to be secure in the knowledge that God has our best interests at heart. This is why there can be joy and perseverance, even when everything around us is going to hell.

Grant, O God, that we may never lose our way through stubborn self-will, and never abandon the struggle but endure to the end. Help us never to choose the cheap way of avoiding or circumventing our trials but embrace the Via Dolorosa. May we never forget that sweat is the price of all things, and that without the cross, there cannot be the crown. Amen.

Luke 15:1-7 – Lost and Found

Tax collectors and sinners were all crowding around to listen to Jesus. So, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law of Moses started grumbling, “This man is friendly with sinners. He even eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this story:

If any of you has a hundred sheep, and one of them gets lost, what will you do? Won’t you leave the ninety-nine in the field and go look for the lost sheep until you find it? And when you find it, you will be so glad that you will put it on your shoulder and carry it home. Then you will call in your friends and neighbors and say, “Let’s celebrate! I’ve found my lost sheep.”

Jesus said, “In the same way there is more happiness in heaven because of one sinner who turns to God than over ninety-nine good people who don’t need to.” (Contemporary English Version)

Lost people matter to God… a lot!

From God’s perspective, it really doesn’t matter why a sheep has strayed from the flock. That stuff only matters to us. It seems many folks only believe a person is worth going out and looking for after we have properly deemed them worthy of pursuing.

“They made their bed; now they need to sleep in it,” “You reap what you sow,” and “They don’t want to be found,” are all human contrived justifications for letting a strayed sheep remain in the wilderness, vulnerable to the wolves.

The mercy of God makes no distinctions between a person who purposely leaves and squanders their resources, and one who accidentally wanders off because of hardship which wasn’t their fault. Lost is lost. Mercy is mercy, period.

Lost people matter so much to God that one lost soul is worth sending out the hounds of heaven to find them. And, once found, becomes the ground for a big celestial party! 

Please note this simple observation of today’s Gospel reading: If there is rejoicing in the presence of angels in heaven over one sinner who repents, then who is doing the rejoicing?  God!  God is crazy giddy with joy over one lost person being found. 

Celebration is a spiritual discipline.

Yes, indeed, it is. Celebration is an important activity for the Church and for believers everywhere. Just as pursuing lost people is a spiritual practice and a skill to be developed, so celebration is a spiritual discipline which needs time, attention, and resources.

But the religious insider might doth protest, why care about this, especially the celebration? Aren’t we being faithful already, and properly focusing on Scripture, sacrament, worship, and prayer? Isn’t this just all a waste of our limited time, energy, and assets?

Short answer: We celebrate because God celebrates.

God throws the best parties, filled with plenty of joy and recognition of persons restored to fellowship.

As people created in the image and likeness of God, we are hardwired for celebration. If God can go uncorked with joy and celebration, I’m going to say with confidence that open unabashed blowouts rejoicing over people’s transformation and new life is welcome and expected.

Folks baptized in pickle juice can join the grumbling of all the high mucky-muck dudes who smugly look down on the marginal persons among us. Hopefully, the party-poopers won’t be heard because of all the noise at God’s party.

This parable of Jesus is meant to give us a glimpse of God’s own heart. 

God would do anything to find a lost person, to restore and reconcile a person to relational connection. God would go dumpster diving and wade through the stinky nasty garbage to find that one lost valuable person.

Why should reaching out to marginal people with the grace and love of Jesus Christ be a high priority? 

Because restoring lost people is a high priority for God. 

God has placed the highest of priorities on recovering those who are spiritually lost and wandering around life without a purpose or a place to call home. Such people matter so much that God sent the Son, Jesus, to this earth. 

Christ went to the greatest lengths possible through enduring a cruel death on a cross in order to reconcile a broken lost relationship between people and God.

I still remember what it felt like to be separated from God and estranged from the church – it was lonely and sad, like being in a deep black hole with no way of getting out and no one around to help. 

But God, with immense mercy, sent spiritual commandos to extract me from my captivity of the soul. So, my greatest desire is to live my life basking in the grace shown to me, grateful for new mercies which come every day, and giving that same grace to others – especially those considered as the lost, the least, and the lonely in society.

In leaving the ninety-nine and going after the one sheep, God gave preferential attention to the lost. So, because of this, I ask a sincere and probing question which I believe needs to be asked: Can you live with that? 

My own answer is: “I sure can, because I was once that lone lost sheep!”

Jesus, you are the Good Shepherd. Thank you for going after me when I was lost. Help me remember that you will often leave my pasture to go after others. I’ll be willing and happy to go with you when you do. Let’s also take the Spirit with us.  Amen.

1 Samuel 16:1-13 – Solitude of the Heart

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”

But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”

The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”

Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” So, he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”

Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

So, he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

So, Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah. (New International Version)

Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self. - May Sarton

Appearances can be deceiving.

One of the best ways to see beyond mere physical sight is to engage in the spiritual practice of solitude. Solitude is not loneliness but a deliberate retreat from normal routines to be alone with the Lord.

The faith of both Samuel and David were strengthened through solitude. It prepared them for public service and made them godly. Because they had established patterns of being alone with God, they had an inward solitude even when in a crowd. That is why Samuel could have an interaction with the Lord, even when among lots of people.

Solitude is important because it is the true path to listening well.  A person whose faith has been shaped through solitude has an ability to carry on a dialogue with God while, at the same time, having a conversation with others.

Christ’s relationship with the Father was formed through solitude. Jesus was able to have simultaneous conversations with God and people since he practiced solitude on a regular basis. Jesus began his ministry with solitude (Matthew 4:1-11); made major decisions through solitude (Luke 6:12); and taught his disciples to practice solitude (Matthew 17:1-9; 26:36-46).

Solitude is necessary because engaging the world is important. Effective interaction with others requires times of retreat for solitude with God. Solitude as a spiritual discipline:

  • Gives us freedom from the need for constant noise and activity.
  • Allows God to shape our faith rather than conform to the world.
  • Liberates us from other people’s expectations for us.
  • Helps quiet internal noise and racing thoughts so we can better listen to God.
  • Provides the opportunity for reflection upon and preparation for future events.
  • Creates encouraging speech for the benefit of others.
  • Fuels a desire to keep practicing solitude because of its benefit.

Solitude taught Samuel obedience.

Samuel learned obedience through years of solitude with old Eli the priest. “Speak Lord, for I am listening” became a way of life for Samuel, as he was trained in how to listen well. 

Samuel’s greatness as the Judge of Israel did not lie in his original ideas or the initiatives he took, but in simple obedience to the commands of God. Years of obscurity and solitude as a child created the ability to hear and carry-out what the Lord told him to do.

Even Samuel, as godly as he was, could not rely on personal observations about choosing the next king of Israel. Because he had long years of practicing solitude with the Lord, Samuel was able to clearly hear divine speech and anointed the right person as king. Samuel did not trust his own judgment but relied on God’s direction.

Solitude characterizes God.

Christians serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit. God has complete and perfect solitude along with focused engagement with humanity. Through spending time with God, people can simultaneously interact with divinity and humanity.

It is a bit like my wife who began her broadcasting career in radio by simulcasting the AM station in one ear of her headphones, and the FM station in the other ear. She could que a record for the FM station while, at the same time, forecasting the weather for the AM station. Her ability was born of practice and commitment to her craft.  In the same way, we have been given a vocation to engage the church and world, and the ability to have a solitude of heart while interacting with others.

God, unlike us, sees us completely, inside-and-out – which is why we are dependent upon solitude of heart so that we can make proper judgments. God urged Samuel to not look at the outward appearance because this is how wrong judgments happen.

Solitude formed David into a king.

David was on nobody’s short list to become king. He was so far out there as a candidate for the position that his own family did not even think it necessary to have him present for the sacrificial feast. It is just like God to have a way of choosing the people we think would be the least likely to do anything.

Being in the pasture day after day and night after night by himself was just the right curriculum that trained the next king. Shepherding was not a lonely affair for David. It was a rich experience of solitude which developed a solid relationship with God. Out in the field, away from all the wrong judgments of the world, David learned to discern God’s voice – a skill he carried with him the rest of his life.

Solitude is our path to spiritual maturity.

Solitude might seem unrealistic for extroverts, and only something for introverts. Yet, solitude is essential to creating a robust faith in God. The following are some steps toward the practice of solitude and allowing it to bring you into a closer walk with the Lord.

  1. Practice “little solitudes” in the day. The early morning cup of coffee or shower, the drive-time to work, the lunch break, the quiet at night when all is dark and everyone in bed are opportunities for solitude with God to reorient and redirect our lives.
  2. Find or create a quiet place designed specifically for solitude. It might be a room, a closet, or a chair. It might be outdoors. It can be anywhere that helps you be free from distraction and invites you to connect deeply with Jesus.
  3. Begin the day by spending at least 10 minutes alone with God in silence. Over time, work your way to even more minutes, even hours. I am a believer in an hour a day keeping the devil away. Eventually, take an entire day away, every few months. Consider taking a weekend or even a week away once a year.
  4. Read Holy Scripture slowly and meditatively. Listen to what the Spirit may be saying in your reading.  Keep a journal handy and write down your observations. Allow prayers to arise from what you hear from the Lord.

This might seem optional only for those with discretionary time – but it is no more optional than planting in the Spring to get a harvest in the Fall. Such fruit results in the slaying of giants….

**Above photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com