Faithful and Fruitful

bible with blue coffee cup

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23, NIV).

It can be difficult at times to faithfully practice the spiritual disciplines. Tasks like reading the Bible and prayer can all too easily take a back seat to the trivial pursuit of binge watching one’s favorite shows on television. At the end of the day, we can find ourselves frustrated and a bit drained spiritually. We’ve accomplished little, and our souls hurt greatly.

The Apostle Paul addresses faithfulness in his list of the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians. These fruit are the spiritual traits of the Christian believer. These spiritual fruit are woven together in a web of faith. Therefore, love leads to joy, and joy leads to greater love. Likewise, patience leads to goodness and vice-versa. While each of these fruit is a gift from God, bestowed upon us by the Spirit of God, we can cultivate the spiritual fruit in our lives, creating an increase in their volume and vitality.

As we demonstrate faithfulness in our practice of the spiritual disciplines, our fruitfulness increases. As we read and listen to God’s word, pray, and study, the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, and all the others yield a more bountiful harvest. Faithfulness leads to fruitfulness, and fruitfulness leads to faithfulness. May we ever be faithful in the disciplines of our faith!

Jonah (Part 2)

underwater

“From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God” (Jonah 2:1, NIV).

Jonah was on the run, not from some sort of enemy, but from God. He had been given a divine command to preach a message of repentance to the people of Ninevah, but instead, Jonah boarded a ship for Tarshish, about as far away from God as the sea would take him. A severe storm led Jonah’s boatmates to throw him overboard, and, if not for God’s provision of a hungry fish, Jonah would have certainly drowned. Now, Jonah would spend three days in the fish’s belly accompanied solely by his thoughts and, of course, God’s presence.

One might think that Jonah would spend his days of seclusion cursing God or, at the very least, his predicament. Jonah, however, used his divinely appointed “time out” to offer God praises. Jonah recognized his mistake in not listening to God and praised God for his rescue and provision.

If you’ve been a follower of Jesus for any amount of time, you’ve likely prayed, like Jonah, a belly of the fish prayer. These are the prayers we pray in the dark, lonely, smelly spaces in which we sometimes find ourselves. At times, the fish’s belly is a result of our own poor decisions. Other times, mere consequence lands us in this most desperate of situations.

Perhaps your cries to God have pierced through the dark nights of depression. Or maybe an addiction has placed you in dire straits. Illness, unemployment, and shattered relationships can also leave a person broken in the proverbial belly of the fish.

It’s important to remember that, in these and all situations, you are not alone. Jesus had his own belly of the fish moments. He prayed in the darkness of Gethsemane and from the cross at Calvary. Jesus has already been through, in some shape or form, what we experience in this life. Jesus even spent his own three days in the belly of a sealed tomb. Yet, he came out victorious.

Perhaps you are experiencing a belly of the fish moment right now. Know that God is with you. Call on him. He will answer. You will see the light of day again.

Power in the Cross

cross with light beams

“ For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Corinthians 1:17, NIV).

Many people view the Apostle Paul as one of the greatest preachers of all time. Certainly, Paul was instrumental in spreading the Gospel like wildfire throughout the region of Asia Minor. Paul, however, recognized that he was hardly the most eloquent of speakers, nor the wisest of men, and that the power behind his words was not in his preaching, but in the cross of Christ.

At times, we might be hesitant to share the message of God’s love in Jesus with those around us. We might feel like we don’t know enough about the Bible or that we won’t have the right words to say. Paul destroys this notion as he recognizes his own limitations in speaking about Jesus, but he does it anyway. Again, the power of God is not in the preaching, but in the cross of Jesus.

As a pastor, I sometimes have people compliment me on a particular sermon. As a Christian author, people will sometimes remark on the message of my writing. I must admit that I love the affirmation! Still, I recognize that these individuals are not ultimately responding to me, but to the good news of the Gospel. And, while you might think that that’s humility on my part, it’s actually honesty.

There is power in the cross of Jesus. The message of the crucifixion changes lives and saves souls, and we are privileged to share it. Therefore, let’s be bold in our witness and in our less-than-perfect delivery. God will use it to change the world!

Jonah (Part 1)

underwater

“Now the LORD had appointed a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17, NIV).

Many of us are familiar with the Old Testament story of Jonah. If you’re like me, you heard it as a child in Sunday School or read about it in a picture book. There’s something about a man being swallowed by a giant fish that fascinates children and adults alike.

Some people say that the story of Jonah is literal truth, that a man actually spent three days in the stomach of a fish and lived to tell about it. They reason that, with God, anything is possible, all the while taking to heart Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:40. Others believe that the story of Jonah is symbolic truth, that it didn’t really happen in the way we read it, but that it is merely symbolic of the grander story of God and man. While, personally, I tend to take more of a literal view of Scripture, I respect the opinions of other thoughtful folks. Regardless of how we might view the story of Jonah, literally or symbolically, I think we can all say that it tells great truth about the rebellion of people and God’s pursuing grace.

Let’s face it. Jonah was a rebel toward God. He was a runaway. Jonah was commanded by God to preach a message of repentance to the wicked people of Ninevah, but instead, got on a boat for Tarshish, about as far away from Ninevah and God’s Call as he could get. To make a long story short, God sent a mighty storm, and the men on the ship tossed Jonah overboard. If not for the grace of God, and the appetite of a huge, hungry fish, Jonah would have been a goner.

One of the things I learn from the story of Jonah is that God is passionate about his relationship with each of us, and that he will pursue us to the very ends of the Earth. Perhaps, God knew that the only way he could return Jonah to his good graces was to do the unthinkable act of commissioning a fish to gobble him up. While that may seem a bit extreme to some of us, I know there have been times in my life where God had to intervene in supernatural ways to restore me.

We’ll look more at the story of Jonah shortly. In the meantime, thank God for his unconditional love and his radical grace, and remember to be careful in the water!

The Scapegoat (Part 4 of 4)

goatOver the past several days, I’ve been writing about scapegoats. These are people or things that, often undeservedly, get the blame in any given situation.

In my first blog in this four-part series, I wrote about the Garden of Eden and how Adam blamed both God and Eve for his unethical appetite. Eve then pointed to the snake as the real culprit of their disobedience. Adam, Eve, and the serpent each played a part of the Fall of mankind into sin, but none of them wanted to take responsibility for their actions.

In my second blog, I discussed sports figures Bill Buckner and Steve Bartman as famous, rather infamous, examples of individuals who took the blame for losses by their respective teams. Buckner became the scapegoat for Red Sox fans when he let a ball go between his legs, while Cubs fan Bartman made a play on a ball he should never have touched.

In my most recent blog, I confessed to a thirty-five-year-old secret concerning something I did in the second grade. My brilliant plan of framing a fellow student was derailed by my friend Billy’s poor spelling and grammar. Admittedly, I was just as at-fault as Billy, but I kept quiet while he took the blame.

Today, I am attempting to wrap-up this series on scapegoats with a Gospel (“good news”) message. I’ve already shared that the scapegoat dates all the way back to the Old Testament of the Bible. The sins of the Israelites would be ceremonially placed upon this poor goat which would then wander off into the wilderness to die. With the scapegoat went the guilt and shame of the Israelites.

Here’s the issue, though. The Israelites had to do this scapegoating activity every year. A year is a pretty long time to fuss over unresolved and unforgiven sin. And while there were other sacrifices performed in addition to the scapegoat, each of them were inadequate to say the least. That is why Jesus’ sacrifice for sin was so important.

The writer of the Bible Book of Hebrews puts it this way, “… (Jesus) does not need to offer sacrifices day after day… He sacrificed for (the people’s) sins once for all when he offered himself” (Hebrews 7:27, NIV). Jesus is our ultimate scapegoat. He took our sins upon himself and carried them to the cross. Because of that, we are forgiven and free.

The Scapegoat (Part 3 of 4)

pencil, sharpener, and paperIf we’re truly honest, I bet each of us has been saved in one form or another by a scapegoat. What I mean is simply this. Each of us has benefited in some way when another person has taken the blame for something we have done. Sometimes our scapegoating comes about in unintentional ways. At other times, it is so very deliberate on our part.

Take for example an incident that happened to me (or maybe because of me) in the second grade. I have changed the names to protect the “innocent”. Johnny was a real stinker of a kid. He was obnoxious and downright mean-spirited toward me and my friends. So, one day I devised a plan to get even with Johnny. I, along with my best friend Billy, would produce an I-know-what-you-did letter “from the teacher” (really from us) that would get Johnny to confess to some “crime” he had committed. It was a brilliant plan, on my part, but poorly executed by my friend, the real author of the “teacher’s” letter. In all my planning, I had failed to take into account that my friend Billy didn’t write or spell very well. So, when Johnny got the letter from the “teacher”, he marched up to her desk and shared with her the letter she had supposedly penned.

What happened next is a bit of a blur. The entire class was given the “we-aren’t-going-to-lunch-until-the-person-who-wrote-this-letter-confesses” speech by the teacher. That is when my friend Billy became the scapegoat. I tried to rationalize my fault at the outcome of this situation. It was technically Billy who had written the letter, and it wasn’t my fault that he couldn’t spell like a teacher. Still, my heart was breaking inside for Billy as he took the tongue-lashing. I sat at my desk, pretending to read a book, fighting back tears, as poor Billy was humiliated in front of the entire class of seven and eight-year-olds. Looking back now at my actions, I realize that a stronger man would have fessed-up to the teacher, but I was not that stronger man. Besides, fake-reading while letting Billy take the fall seemed like the better alternative.

So, why do I tell you all of this? I guess it’s to show that human beings, even second-grade ones, have figured out that each of us needs a scapegoat in life. Each of us is laden with guilt and shame, and we need a “Billy” to “take one for the team” for us. I’m so grateful that I had a friend like “Billy” in my life. But I’m more thankful that I have a friend named Jesus. I’ll have some final thoughts about that tomorrow.

The Scapegoat (Part 2 of 4)

baseballIf you’re a baseball fan, you’ve likely heard the names Bill Buckner and Steve Bartman. Buckner played for the Boston Red Sox in the mid-80’s. Bartman was simply a fan attending a very important game for the Chicago Cubs. So, just what do these two people have in common? If you guessed that they are both scapegoats, you would be correct.

Despite an outstanding baseball career, Bill Buckner is perhaps best known for allowing a ground ball to go between his legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The error would cost the Red Sox the game, evening out the best-of-seven series against the New York Mets three games apiece. The Mets would go on to win the World Series that year, and many would blame Buckner for the Red Sox epic collapse. Some thirty years after the fact, Buckner’s name remains synonymous with the baseball version of the scapegoat.

In 2003, Steve Bartman became the unlikeliest of sports scapegoats. In Game 6 of the National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs and Florida Marlins, Bartman, while sitting in the stands, “interfered” with a ball popped-up down the left field line, preventing the Cubs’ Moises Alou from making the catch. The Cubs would lose the game and eventually the series. Bartman would take the blame in the eyes of thousands of Cubs fans.

Buckner and Bartman are just a couple of the countless scapegoats, not only in sports, but in life. We seem to have a fascination with laying blame on someone other than ourselves. But, did you know that the term “scapegoat” is as old as the Bible itself.

In Old Testament times. the scapegoat provided a way of forgiveness for the people of Israel. Once a year, the sins of the Israelites would be placed upon the scapegoat which would then be released into the wilderness. With the scapegoat went the sins of the Israelites. The scapegoat was just one in a series of sacrifices used to atone for sin.

Now, I’m not claiming that our sins should, or even could, be placed on Bill Buckner or Steve Bartman, although many have tried. Likewise, I’m not saying that Buckner or Bartman should wander off into the wilderness, although I did hear that, following the foul ball incident at Wrigley Field, Bartman moved away from Chicago to… Yep, you guessed it – Florida. I just know that we all need a scapegoat in our lives, someone to put our blame, our sins on. I’m getting to the Gospel, the “good news” here, but you’ll have to check back tomorrow for more of the story.