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Posts from the ‘Food for Thought’ Category

Life Is Too Short – Holy Ruthlessness

Living the Christian LifeKey Bible Verse: “I must preach the Good News … in other places, too, because this is why I was sent.” Luke 4:43

Bonus Reading: Luke 4:42-44; 5:12-16

I hadn’t studied very hard my junior year at college—and had the marks to prove it! Now it was summer. My senior year would determine if I could go on to grad school and an academic career. But I’d also committed to lead my university’s Christian fellowship, gotten engaged, and was teaching the church high school Sunday school class. How to cope?

I learned of a theologian who graduated from a Canadian university while leading an InterVarsity chapter. So I wrote to him for guidance. I received a page-long reply he’d typed himself: “You should focus on that to which you believe God has called you, even though others might misunderstand, even resent, your priorities. Some might think you ruthless, but you must obey God, not other people’s agendas.”

That holy ruthlessness, I now realize, is key to the successful Christian life. Jesus modeled it. Regardless of what his disciples, family, or the crowds wanted him to do, he obeyed his Father—often in ways that astonished, even dismayed, his associates.

Taking this scholar’s advice, allowing my own agendas to be overruled, helped me through that crucial year. I’ve tried to follow it ever since.

—John Stackhouse Jr. in FaithToday

My Response: My focus is ____, and I will avoid distractions by …

Thought to Apply: Don’t take on things you don’t believe in and that you yourself are not good at. Learn to say no. —Peter Drucker (business consultant & trainer)

Adapted from FaithToday (9-10/02)

Prayer for the Week: I want to devote my life to Your purposes, Lord. Help me work that out in my responses to the situations I face every day.



Life Is Too Short – Opportunity Mindset

Living the Christian LifeKey Bible Verse: So be careful how you live, not as fools but as those who are wise. … Don’t act thoughtlessly, but try to understand what the Lord wants you to do. Ephesians 5:15, 17

Bonus Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:16-17

Are today’s Key Bible Verses about overloading your schedule with church events and obligations? … or turning normal relational moments into abnormal witnessing encounters?

No!  They’re about committing daily life to God’s purposes.  So …

  • Make the most of every area in which God has placed you. Are you single, married, retired, parent, child, friend, employer, employee, student, or grandparent? See these callings and seasons of life as opportunities to display the grace of Christ.
  • Avoid a “get through this season” mentality. We say to ourselves, If I can just get through this busy season of life, then I’ll be okay. This is an ungodly understanding of our current responsibilities and opportunities. I tend to do this with parenting: If I can just get through the diaper phase … Next it becomes: If I can just get through these early years of elementary school, then I can minister to others. But if I’m not careful, I’ll wish my life away and miss many opportunities to love and serve my children … to die to self and grow in grace. God wants us to see the daily struggles of life as critical moments of redemptive opportunity rather than hindrances.

—Tim Lane & Paul Tripp in Relationships: A Mess Worth Making

My Response: A current redemptive opportunity I need to grab hold of is …

Thought to Apply: Every day is a day of reckoning.  —John W. Gardner (educator, government & philanthropy administrator)

Adapted from Relationships: A Mess Worth Making (New Growth, 2006)

Prayer for the Week: I want to devote my life to Your purposes, Lord. Help me work that out in my responses to the situations I face every day.



Life Is Too Short – Skirmishes Decide Wars

Living the Christian LifeKey Bible Verse: “Awake, O sleeper …” Make the most of every opportunity for doing good in these evil days. Ephesians 5:14, 16

Bonus Reading: Ephesians 5:14-17

“Redeeming the time” is how today’s Key Bible Verses were traditionally translated. The Greek word for “time” used here isn’t chronos, referring to the passing of time in hours and days.

Instead, kairos is employed, which in the Bible refers to the time between Jesus’ first and second comings. An appropriate rendering would be, “As you go about your life in this in-between time, use it to its fullest to display the grace of Christ to others.”

What is Paul urging?

  • Seize the little moments of life (where 95 percent of your life is lived). Suppose a husband and wife are upset with each other. Will they turn toward each other or remain angry? This redemptive moment is huge! Imagine if this couple misses thousands of these over the course of their marriage. Where will their marriage be in 20 years?
  • See the context in which the details of life take place. Paul says, “Because the days are evil.” You live in a war zone. Every morning as you get out of bed there’s a battle raging for your soul, your life, your friendships, and your marriage. You can’t afford to waste these moments. The war is won in the little skirmishes that take place throughout your life. “Wake up!” Paul says, “you’re at war.”

—Tim Lane & Paul Tripp in Relationships: A Mess Worth Making

My Response: What “redemptive moments” have I been failing to take advantage of?

Thought to Apply: We speak of spending time; the Bible speaks of buying it.  —source unknown

Adapted from Relationships: A Mess Worth Making (New Growth, 2006)

Prayer for the Week: I want to devote my life to Your purposes, Lord. Help me work that out in my responses to the situations I face every day.



Life Is Too Short – Life at Full Throttle

Living the Christian LifeKey Bible Verse: There were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat.  – Mark 6:31

Bonus Reading: Mark 3:20-21; 6:30-32

As Robert pops out of bed and hits the floor, he knows he’ll have to run full speed just to stay up with the pace of life. Breakfast is three big swallows of orange juice and a granola bar he grabs as he rushes out the door at 7:00 A.M. …

At 7:30 P.M. Robert rolls into his driveway. He sits at the dining room table and shovels down a reheated dinner while cranking out a couple more hours of work. Finally, exhausted, Robert flops onto the couch, turns on the TV, and shifts into neutral. Eventually he drags himself to bed and tries to put his frazzled mind to rest. But in numb desperation he admits to himself that he can imagine no way out of this daily cycle.

Is Robert the protégé of some Fortune 500 company? Hardly. He’s a normal high school freshman who works hard to get good grades, plays an instrument in the school band, and excels at two sports in the school year. By the time he gets home from his soccer game after a day of school, he still has homework for three classes.

—Kevin Harney in Seismic Shifts

My Response: Our culture cheers for those with breakneck schedules. Am I ready to break ranks on this?

Adapted from Seismic Shifts (Zondervan, 2005)

Prayer for the Week: I want to devote my life to Your purposes, Lord. Help me work that out in my responses to the situations I face every day.



Life Is Too Short – You the Man! Oh Yeah?

Living the Christian LifeWho Said It … Dennis Swanberg

Dennis Swanberg travels widely from his home in Louisiana, performing stand-up comedy with a Christian message. A pastor for 21 years, Dr. Swanberg now hosts his own television show, Swan’s Place.

What started him doing impersonations? “Most moms yell at kids to go outside and play,” he chuckles. “Mine said, ‘You sit there and watch that TV. Your daddy worked hard for it!'” So the first voice he nailed was that of Don Knots as Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show.

What He Said … You the Man! Oh Yeah?

Admit it: You like being the playmaker, getting things done, the guy who comes to the rescue, fixing what’s broken. Getting things done is good, of course. But when you take on too many jobs, you simply can’t do them all well. If you become overcommitted—at home, work, church, or anywhere in between—you’ll burn out faster than a match in a wind tunnel.

You must learn to say no to things you don’t have the time or energy to do. I know what you’re thinking: Sometimes saying no can be tough. Why? Because well-meaning guys (like you) genuinely want to help other people. But if you never do, pretty soon you’ll start underserving—and disappoint just about everybody, including yourself.

Guys who overcommit and underserve lead lives filled with frequent foul-ups and endless complications. They find themselves feeling overworked and underappreciated. So simplify your life. Pledge to take on only those things you can do—and do them well.

Adapted from Man Does Not Live by Sports Alone (Howard, 2006)

Prayer for the Week: I want to devote my life to Your purposes, Lord. Help me work that out in my responses to the situations I face every day.



Be a Community Changer – Serving Our Neighbors

Serving Our NeighborsOccult practices were rampant in Ephesus, capital of the Roman province of Asia (western Turkey today).

As Paul planted a church there, God validated his message by giving him “the power to do unusual miracles.”

Itinerant exorcists attempted to mimic his Spirit-given power by adding Jesus to the deities they named in their incantations.

The stage was set for a power encounter between the power of Satan and that of God.

Interact with God’s Word:  Acts 19:8-20

  1. How does God view sorcery and all occult practices? (See Deuteronomy 18:9-14.)
  2. How do powers in the realm controlled by Satan stack up (1 John 4:4) against God’s power?
  3. What do the evil spirit’s words (v. 15) tell you about attempting to use the name of Jesus as a magic charm?
  4. What spadework had Paul done (vv. 8-10) that culminated in the events of verses 17-20?
  5. How (v. 17) did learning about the disastrous experiment by the sons of Sceva impact the populace?
  6. What were the effects (vv. 18-19) when individuals responded to the gospel?
  7. Would you say the overall effects (v. 20) were primarily individual, community-wide, or both combined?

Spend Time in Prayer:  Ask God to use you as a change agent for His kingdom in your community.

Acts 19:8-20

8 Then Paul went to the synagogue and preached boldly for the next three months, arguing persuasively about the Kingdom of God. 9 But some became stubborn, rejecting his message and publicly speaking against the Way. So Paul left the synagogue and took the believers with him. Then he held daily discussions at the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10 This went on for the next two years, so that people throughout the province of Asia—both Jews and Greeks—heard the word of the Lord.

11 God gave Paul the power to perform unusual miracles. 12 When handkerchiefs or aprons that had merely touched his skin were placed on sick people, they were healed of their diseases, and evil spirits were expelled.

13 A group of Jews was traveling from town to town casting out evil spirits. They tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus in their incantation, saying, “I command you in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, to come out!” 14 Seven sons of Sceva, a leading priest, were doing this. 15 But one time when they tried it, the evil spirit replied, “I know Jesus, and I know Paul, but who are you?” 16 Then the man with the evil spirit leaped on them, overpowered them, and attacked them with such violence that they fled from the house, naked and battered.

17 The story of what happened spread quickly all through Ephesus, to Jews and Greeks alike. A solemn fear descended on the city, and the name of the Lord Jesus was greatly honored. 18 Many who became believers confessed their sinful practices. 19 A number of them who had been practicing sorcery brought their incantation books and burned them at a public bonfire. The value of the books was several million dollars. 20 So the message about the Lord spread widely and had a powerful effect.

Prayer for the Week: Lord, help us believers serve our neighbors in ways that make them thirsty for the Gospel.



Be a Community Changer – A Neighborhood Revived

Serving Our NeighborsKey Bible Verse: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor” … to proclain that captives will be released.  – Luke 4:18

Bonus Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-12

In his book, Just Generosity, Ron Sider offers one of the best definitions of justice I know: “restoration of the things people need for dignified participation in their community.”

Mark Gornick and Alan and Susan Tibbels moved into Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester community in 1988, then perhaps the city’s most broken neighborhood. The three came armed with little more than their certainty that Jesus, who announced good news for the poor, was far more passionate about justice than they.

They began New Song Community Church. Today that congregation is nestled among the church’s other ministries: Sandtown Habitat for Humanity (which reclaims 17 houses a year), Eden Jobs (jobs and economic development), New Song Health Co-Op, Martha’s Place (transitional housing for women recovering from drug addiction), New Song Arts, and New Song Community Learning Center (a new 28,000-square foot facility that houses a preschool-through-eighth-grade school).

They never felt the burden of having to change the world, but they knew they could claim Christ’s rule over 18-plus city blocks and watch the gospel breathe life again into a neighborhood of dry bones.

—Robert Lynn in BreakPoint WorldView

My Response: How could I help promote “dignified participation” in my community?

Thought to Apply: A ghetto can be improved in one way only: out of existence. —James Baldwin (author)

Adapted from BreakPoint WorldView (9/05)

Prayer for the Week: Lord, help us believers serve our neighbors in ways that make them thirsty for the Gospel.



Be a Community Changer – Happy Urban Campers

Serving Our NeighborsKey Bible Verse: “I have been a constant example of how you can help the poor by working hard.”  – Acts 20:35

Bonus Reading: Acts 20:31-35

Larry Mendelsohn leads an oncology-hematology practice in plush West Little Rock. As Larry and his wife, Sonya, grew in faith, our church challenged them to serve the community. They settled on helping an established-but-struggling inner-city social service.

The church-sponsored group Larry and Sonya put together planned parties and retreats for the kids. Then they got the idea of sending them outside their harsh environment to a summer camp. That year they worked alongside the kids in car washes, raising enough money to send 20 young people to camp. “Gang members were saved, and lives changed,” Larry said.

The next year they conducted a five-kilometer road race to send even more kids to camp. A radio personality donated his time. Corporations gave money. A black choir sang by the river. Forty young people were sent to camp. Leftover money funded special needs and sent 12 inner-city kids to the Christian high school or college of their choice.

In 2000, the race generated more than $60,000 and made the front page of the newspaper. They sent 55 kids to camp and distributed more than $30,000 in scholarship money. And it just keeps growing.

—Robert Lewis in The Church of Irresistible Influence

My Response: What could my church do that would win community support?

Thought to Apply: The height of our love for God will never exceed the depth of our love for one another. —Patrick Morley (men’s ministry leader)

Adapted from The Church of Irresistible Influence (Zondervan, 2001)

Prayer for the Week: Lord, help us believers serve our neighbors in ways that make them thirsty for the Gospel.



Be a Community Changer – Out of Business

Serving Our NeighborsKey Bible Verse: The Pharisees … complained bitterly to Jesus’ disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with such scum?” Luke 5:30

Bonus Reading: Acts 19:13-20

Raised in the hard part of Chicago, Harvey Carey managed to graduate with honors from high school and move on to college, where he encountered Jesus.

After his conversion, God called him into pastoral ministry, so he went to seminary in Dallas. While there, the Lord gave Harvey a strong desire to start a church in Detroit. First he married a sweet girl and became a youth pastor in Chicago. Then he headed for Motor City, planting Citadel of Faith Covenant Church in Michigan’s poorest zip code.

On his arrival, Harvey learned about a crack house operating near a park where children played. He made it his personal mission to go there daily, from morning until late evening, hanging out with the drug dealers. Whenever a car pulled up to pick up drugs, he’d start witnessing to the prospective buyers before the dealer could make an offer. Unwilling to hear anything about Jesus, they’d screech away—no sale!

Then Harvey got his church involved, holding prayer meetings in front of the crack house on its busiest nights. It relocated twice. But each time the Citadel family found out and showed back up!

Now that the crack house is no longer in business, the park is safe, the neighborhood kids free of that up-close influence.

—Craig Gross in The Gutter

My Response: What community transformation would I go out on a limb to achieve?

Thought to Apply: Whatever makes a man a good Christian, also makes him a good citizen.  —Daniel Webster

Adapted from The Gutter (Relevant, 2005)

Prayer for the Week: Lord, help us believers serve our neighbors in ways that make them thirsty for the Gospel.



Be a Community Changer – The Power of Six

Serving Our NeighborsKey Bible Verse: When you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me”  –Matthew 25:45

Bonus Reading: Acts 17:1-9

Dave Kella moved to Little Rock when he was promoted to lead IBM-Arkansas. He and five other men from our church began exploring how to connect the deep needs of the inner-city poor with the metropolitan area’s enormous resources.

Touring a private Christian school in one of the worst sections, they observed how well-mannered, hungry to learn, and hopeful these often-neglected children were. As important as the funding and programs were, they concluded, the key was changing people.

These six soon became a board, unleashing their bent toward creativity, management, and networking to do the work of the kingdom. The same school—once crippled by poor infrastructure and inability to fund teachers and parent tuition discounts—is now blossoming with an enrollment of more than 1,000. The efforts of Dave and his partners, down to one-on-one mentoring of some students, lie behind the progress.

In 2000 the board—now the Christian Educational Assistance Foundation—hired a full-time director. In 2001, in tandem with a national scholarship organization, the foundation gave away more than 1,500 educational scholarships to poor children throughout Arkansas.

—Robert Lewis in The Church of Irresistible Influence

My Response: What can I learn about stimulating change from Dave’s example?

Thought to Apply: There is only one, very uncomfortable test of the extent of our love for him: How have we handled the poor?  —Michael Green (British theologian)

Adapted from The Church of Irresistible Influence (Zondervan, 2001)

Prayer for the Week: Lord, help us believers serve our neighbors in ways that make them thirsty for the Gospel.

Be a Community Changer – No Child Left Behind

Serving Our NeighborsKey Bible Verse: “The whole city is in an uproar because of these Jews!” they shouted. Acts 16:20

Bonus Reading: Acts 16:16-23

Most middle-class white people are conditioned to avoid vulnerable places. Moving toward people in need—finding ways of being available, alert, and responsive to them—is a challenge.

Randy Roth pastored an Evangelical Covenant church located in Oakland, California, that served a diverse group of people. He became increasingly aware of the needs in the Oakland schools. Among its many other crises, the school district had been in state receivership for several years. Randy came to feel God’s call to respond to the needs of all the kids falling behind in their academic lives.

In time Randy took the bold step of leaving his secure position as a pastor to launch Faith Network, a ministry that provides volunteer tutors in needy schools. What started as a small grass-roots effort has steadily grown, winning the trust and support of the large and diverse school district. Randy’s courage and faithfulness has in turn led people from our congregation and many others to find their place in making a real difference in students’ lives.

Now our church has begun to partner with Faith Network in launching the same kind of effort in Berkeley schools.

—Mark Labberton in The Dangerous Act of Worship

My Response: Have I ever made myself available to make a difference in the life of a disadvantaged person?

Adapted from The Dangerous Act of Worship (InterVarsity, 2007)

Prayer for the Week: Lord, help us believers serve our neighbors in ways that make them thirsty for the Gospel.



Be a Community Changer – Brokenness-Inspired Breakout

Serving Our NeighborsWho Said It … Steve Mayer

Steve Mayer is the pastor of Strategic Initiatives at Mars Hill Bible Church, housed in a Grandville, Michigan mall.

He leads young adults in studying how the Church can make justice a reality locally and internationally.

Mars Hill has committed to serve the homeless and underemployed in its Grand Rapids area, and to fund small business startups in Burundi.

What He Said … Brokenness-Inspired Breakout

While serving an internship at a small evangelistic church, I led a team to Alaska to share the gospel with villagers. That trip forever changed my passion for ministry. We thought we could just come in for a week and change the lives of these Native Americans with VBS and other evangelistic programs.

But as I saw the effects of alcoholism, suicide, depression, hopelessness, poverty, and broken families, I realized that the programmed evangelistic method I’d been trained to follow was selling a pre-packaged Christianity out of touch with the brokenness of these Native Americans.

I balked—and broke all the rules of the program. I stayed out very late at night talking to people on the street, often alone, often in co-ed contexts.

For help, I turned to the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. From King, I learned that Christianity could be passionate about souls and passionate about the “slums those souls reside in.” For me, caring about souls and the real-life situations in which those souls move became authentic evangelism.

Adapted from World Magazine (4/10/04)

Prayer for the Week: Lord, help us believers serve our neighbors in ways that make them thirsty for the Gospel.



Battling the Blues – Spiritual Encouragement

Spiritual EncouragementC.S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, imagines correspondence between an old devil, Screwtape, and a young demon, Wormwood, whom Screwtape is mentoring.

In one letter, Screwtape writes, “Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human … looks round upon a universe from which every trace of our Enemy seems to have vanished, asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

Interact with God’s Word:  Psalm 119:81-83

  1. The image of a shriveled-up wineskin (v. 83) is from a different era, but do you get the picture? Have you felt like this?
  2. How does the writer feel (v. 81) about the prospect of God rescuing him?
  3. How does he choose to deal with the God’s apparent absence?
  4. Does the fulfillment of God’s promises (v. 82) seem far off to you?
  5. What is the psalmist’s big question for God?
  6. How might God respond to a question like this: dramatically? In a still, small voice? Not at all?
  7. What conclusion would a person who trusts appearances draw?
  8. How is it possible to respond the way the psalmist did?

Spend Time in Prayer:  Ask God for strength to cling to His promises when you can’t feel His presence.

Psalm 119:81-83

81 I am worn out waiting for your rescue,
but I have put my hope in your word.
82 My eyes are straining to see your promises come true.
When will you comfort me?
83 I am shriveled like a wineskin in the smoke,
but I have not forgotten to obey your decrees.

Prayer for the Week: When I feel discouraged, Lord, help me make positive adjustments and pour myself into others.



Battling the Blues – Cure Cultivation

Spiritual EncouragementKey Bible Verse: You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy. Psalm 30:11

Bonus Reading: Psalm 112:1-10

Psychiatrist Milton Erickson was a guest in the Milwaukee home of a man concerned about his very old, wealthy, and depressed aunt. At this friend’s request, the doctor visited her.

The blinds were closed throughout her Victorian mansion—except for one room full of gorgeous African violets. On entering, it Dr. Erickson abruptly exclaimed, “I see what your problem is.”

“Oh?” she warily replied.

“You’re not really a very good Christian.”

“What do you mean?”

“You have this great gift for growing African violets,” the doctor explained, “yet you keep it all to yourself. If I were you, I’d get your church bulletin, and whenever someone had a birthday, death, wedding, anniversary, or whatever, I’d take them one of your plants as a gift.” He soon left and never encountered the depressed woman again.

As he told this story to a group of students, Dr. Erickson pulled out an old newspaper clipping: “African Violet Queen of Milwaukee Dies, Mourned by Thousands.” A student raised his hand. “Why did you have her give out plants instead of treating her depression?” he asked.

“It would be easier, I decided, to grow the African violet part of her life than to weed out the depression.”

—Greg Smalley in HonorBound magazine

My Response: What gift have I kept to myself that I should share with others?

Thought to Apply: I’ve learned that the best way to lift one’s self up is to help someone. —Booker T. Washington

Adapted from HonorBound magazine (4-5/02)

Prayer for the Week: When I feel discouraged, Lord, help me make positive adjustments and pour myself into others.



Battling the Blues – Swallowed Pride

Spiritual EncouragementKey Bible Verse: Is there no medicine in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why is there no healing for … my people?  – Jeremiah 8:22

Bonus Reading: Psalm 142:5-7

Lewis Smedes, a teacher of mine in seminary, was one of the best writers and preachers I’ve known. Although he was brilliant, accomplished, and devoted to God, he suffered from a sense of inadequacy that at times grew into deep depression.

God came to him through two avenues. One was a three-week experience of utter solitude, where he so vividly heard God promise to hold him that he felt lifted from a black pit straight up into joy. The other avenue he describes this way: “I have not been neurotically depressed since that day, though I must tell you that God also comes to me each morning and offers me a 20 milligram capsule of Prozac. He clears the garbage that accumulates in the canals of my brain overnight and gives me a chance to a fresh morning start. I swallow every capsule with gratitude to God.”

I used to think that taking Prozac would be a sign of weak faith in God. But what if Prozac might be his gift? What if refusing might be spurning his hand because of pride? Maybe God is present in wise doctors and medication that makes synapses and neurotransmitters work right. Maybe weakness is really refusing—out of our own blindness and stubbornness—the help that God is offering.

—John Ortberg in God Is Closer than You Think

My Response: How might I benefit from the help of a counselor?

Thought to Apply: The Christian’s chief occupational hazards are depression and discouragement. —John Stott

Adapted from God Is Closer than You Think (Zondervan, 2005)

Prayer for the Week:When I feel discouraged, Lord, help me make positive adjustments and pour myself into others.



What is Ordinary Time?

The Christian year includes two central cycles focused on major events in the life of Christ: the Christmas cycle (Advent-Christmas-Epiphany) and Easter cycle (Lent-Easter-Pentecost).

Each of these seasons begins with a time of preparation and anticipation followed by a time of celebration. Ordinary Time follows each cycle.

The word “ordinary” here does not mean “routine” or “not special.” Instead, it refers to the “ordinal numbers” (first, second, third, etc.) used to name and count the Sundays (such as the Third Sunday after Epiphany). This term comes from the Latin ordinalis, meaning “numbered” or “ordered,” and tempus ordinarium, “measured time.”

The first period of Ordinary Time, called the Season after Epiphany, begins on Epiphany Day and ends on the day before Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent). The central theme of this season is the calling of disciples and the early ministry of Jesus.

For some congregations, this will mean a focus on evangelism, as found in the Old Testament and Gospel readings for each week. For others, the focus will be preparing to help others grow in their discipleship. The Epistle reading each week emphasizes this.

The second period of Ordinary Time, the Season after Pentecost, follows the Easter cycle. It begins the day after Pentecost and continues to Advent. The purpose of this season is to support new disciples and the whole congregation in living out the gifts and callings discerned during the Easter Season and commissioned on the Day of Pentecost.

Every year, Christians experience the contrast between the central seasons of Christmas and Easter, where we see God in the events around the coming of Christ, and the in-between times, where we see, speak about and join God’s ongoing work in the world.

We thus experience two regular cycles of preparation, celebration and action in ministry each year, with the Ordinary Times as the primary periods of action.

Have questions? Ask The UMC or find a pastor near you to talk with. And check out other recent Q&As.

This content was produced by Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.




Battling the Blues – Brilliant Plan Backfires

Spiritual EncouragementKey Bible Verse: Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise … promises a reward in both this life and the next. 1 Timothy 4:8

Bonus Reading: Isaiah 40:27-31

Kenneth Cooper, M.D., famous for popularizing aerobic fitness, tells about a fellow who was depressed.

It seems this poor guy didn’t want to live anymore, but he knew that if he committed suicide, his wife and kids wouldn’t be able to collect his insurance. So he decided to “jog himself to death” so it would look as if his death was accidental.

The first evening, he put on his jogging clothes, kissed his wife and kids goodbye, and ran out the front door. But because he wasn’t in very good shape, his legs gave out before his heart did. Disappointed but not dissuaded, he limped home, showered, and went to bed.

The second evening it was the same story: his legs gave out, but his heart didn’t.

Every evening for the next month the fellow repeated his ritual of kissing his family goodbye and running out the front door. Then something began to happen that he hadn’t expected—his depression disappeared.

If you’ve been feeling a little ragged, see if you can make time before a meal to go for a brisk walk or jog. Or find some other activity you enjoy. The best thing to do when you’re feeling down in the mouth is get up on your feet.

Hope Heart Newsletter

My Response: What enjoyable activity takes your mind off your troubles?

Thought to Apply: When you’re depressed, the worst thing you can do is straighten up and hold your head high because then you’ll start to feel better.  —Charlie Brown

Adapted from Hope Heart Newsletter

Prayer for the Week: When I feel discouraged, Lord, help me make positive adjustments and pour myself into others.



Understanding the Season after Epiphany

The purpose of the Season after Epiphany is to help the whole congregation get ready to accompany candidates preparing for baptism.

The first Sunday focuses on the Baptism of Christ and the last Sunday on the Transfiguration. These “bookend Sundays” frame the whole of Jesus’ journey in ministry, taking us from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry at his baptism to a glimpse of its fulfillment in the age to come in his Transfiguration. As it frames Jesus’ journey in ministry, so it also frames the journey of his disciples, then and now.

The scripture readings in the lectionary provide two distinct pathways of focus for this season.

  • One, marked by the Old Testament and Gospel readings, follows Jesus in his earliest days with his disciples, from their calling to beginning to learn what it means live in his way. These scriptures help the local church to focus outward on inviting others to join them, or “Come and see.”  The hope is that some who respond to your congregation’s invitation may choose to “Come and stay” to prepare for baptism.
  • The other pathway, through Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth, helps focus the church inward. These readings help congregations work on internal issues in their church life so they can walk more effectively with those preparing for baptism.

By either path, the church is supported by the scriptures of this season for its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.


Battling the Blues – Un-Slump Yourself

Spiritual EncouragementKey Bible Verse: I think of the good old days … I search my soul and think about the difference now. Psalm 77:5-6

Bonus Reading: 1 Kings 10:9b-18

[continued from yesterday]  I realized that I’d grown accustomed to sleeping on my arm. My soul had gone past the tingling stage; it felt numb and listless. Dr. Blakeslee had more to say: “Bill,” he told me, “sometimes you need to let go of an impure form of security in order to grab hold of a pure form of insecurity.”

It was like suddenly solving a mind-twisting riddle. In a flash I saw his meaning. I realized that I’d held on to work and ministry for security. My stubborn unwillingness to let go of one or both had corrupted my soul. I had believed the lie that a growing ministry and financial security would lead to contentment.

I was resolved to leave the dark, lifeless world of depression, but rolling over would mean taking the risk of grabbing something less secure. Frankly, I didn’t know if I had the courage to walk away from my job. It seemed almost like bungee jumping without a harness and cord. What if God didn’t stop my fall?

Eventually I took the leap and embraced a new direction that offered no financial security and uncertain success. I quit my writing job and later resigned from the church I pastored in order to launch a national men’s ministry. I knew I had grabbed a pure form of insecurity.

—Bill Perkins in Six Rules Every Man Must Break

My Response: I need to let go of ____ and then grab hold of ____.

Thought to Apply: When you’re in a slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.  —Dr. Seuss (children’s book writer & illustrator)

Adapted from Six Rules Every Man Must Break (Tyndale, 2007)

Prayer for the Week: When I feel discouraged, Lord, help me make positive adjustments and pour myself into others.


Battling the Blues – When Life Tingles

Spiritual EncouragementKey Bible Verse: You don’t let me sleep. I am too distressed even to pray!  – Psalm 77:4

Bonus Reading: 1 Kings 19:1-9a

I am not by nature a depressed guy. But several years ago I suffered a bout of clinical depression—meaning I was depressed for more than two weeks. How did I get into such a dark place?

My therapist, Dr. David Blakeslee, helped me realize that I’d developed an unhealthy ability to persevere. That’s right, I didn’t know when to quit. Twenty years earlier I’d resolved that once I started something I’d never throw in the towel. After all, if I hung in there long enough I’d outlive most of my problems and a lot of the competition.

I was writing over 500 words a day for publication as well as preparing a sermon every week. I was also leading a church and caring for my family. These activities provided me with a growing ministry and a sense of financial security, and—oh, yes—burnout.

“Bill,” Dr. Blakeslee asked one day, “if you were sleeping on your arm and it began to tingle, what would you do?”

“I’d roll over.”

“That’s right,” he said. “Yet when you’re involved in something that’s causing you mental and emotional pain, you refuse to roll over. You believe God wants you to hang in there even when it’s destroying you.”

As he spoke I heard a mental gear fall into place, cla-clink!   [continued tomorrow]

—Bill Perkins in Six Rules Every Man Must Break

My Response: What area in my life is “tingling” right now?

Adapted from Six Rules Every Man Must Break (Tyndale, 2007)

Prayer for the Week: When I feel discouraged, Lord, help me make positive adjustments and pour myself into others.



Battling the Blues – The Road Test

Spiritual EncouragementWho Said It … Wayde Goodall

Wayde Goodall pastors a thriving Assemblies of God congregation in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In addition to theology, he has studied counseling and psychology.

Wayde and his wife Rosalyn were previously missionaries in Austria, where they founded the Vienna Christian Center, one of Europe’s largest evangelical churches.

Dr. Goodall is an author, has hosted the TCT television network, and coaches other pastors.

What He Said … The Road Test

Living in the Wake Forest-Duke-North Carolina University “triad,” I can attend many ACC basketball games. When playing at home, the rush that comes to a team from the affirming crowd is amazing. A team at the bottom of the conference has been known to take down the top-rated leader.

But to be the best, I’ve discovered, a team has to know how to win on the road. The discouraging drain that comes from an away-game crowd can take a talented team down in front of the nation. Their skill, lineup, or experience didn’t change—just how they felt. To win on the road, players must learn to ignore negative emotions.

We all have moods—it’s just a matter of degree. For any of us, the pressures of life can add up. Too much pressure in too short a time can overwhelm anyone. Most of us don’t have a psychological disorder. But thinking you aren’t susceptible is a mistake. Learn to fight through your down times while paying attention to possible burnout or depression.

Adapted from Why Great Men Fall (New Leaf, 2005)

Prayer for the Week: When I feel discouraged, Lord, help me make positive adjustments and pour myself into others.


Stick to the Fundamentals – Spiritual Growth

Spiritual GrowthPaul had never visited Colosse. Evidently the church had been founded by Epaphras and other converts from Paul’s missionary travels.

The church, however, had been infiltrated by religious relativism, with some believers attempting to combine elements of paganism and secular philosophy with Christian doctrine.

Paul warns them against shifting from faith in Christ alone to any beliefs based on self-effort.

Interact with God’s Word:  Colossians 2:5-8

  1. What (v. 5) about the believers in Colosse made Paul feel good?
  2. What concerned Paul (v. 8) about these believers?
  3. What (v. 6) was the foundational belief of the Colossian Christians?
  4. So how should this foundation lead them to live out their faith?
  5. How (v. 7) does a plant draw nourishment from the soil? How can you derive life-giving strength by sinking your “roots” into Christ?
  6. What are indicators that a person is growing in his faith?
  7. How does being thankful to Christ for your salvation protect you from being diverted to false philosophies or religion?

Spend Time in Prayer:  Ask God for a genuine gratitude for your salvation that helps you keep grounded and growing in your faith.

Colossians 2:5-8

5 For though I am far away from you, my heart is with you. And I rejoice that you are living as you should and that your faith in Christ is strong.

6 And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. 7Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness.

8 Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ.

Prayer for the Week: Keep me, Lord, from settling for a holding pattern. Help me to realize steady growth in my walk with You.


Stick to the Fundamentals – Finishers’ Formula

Spiritual GrowthKey Bible Verse: Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in faith … and overflowing with thankfulness. Colossians: 2:6-7

Bonus Reading: Col. 2:5-8

In 2005 the Chicago White Sox battled through adversity and injury, individual slumps, and losing streaks. Refusing to believe “experts” who said they didn’t have what it takes, they stuck with the fundamentals of the game—and ended up champions!

Bryan Hickerson, the White Sox’s chaplain, said he’s convinced that the greatest challenge a major league ball player faces is the mental and physical grind of a baseball season. Christians, he notes, face similar challenges spiritually.

Paul, [in today’s Key Bible Verses], spelled out what it would take for the believers in Colosse to stay on track. It would take work; it would be a process. They’d need to be …

  • Grounded (rooted). By faith, you’ve been rooted in Christ, drawing from him all you need.
  • Growing (built up). Trusting Christ placed you on a solid foundation. Now keep building on this. How? Paul urged the Colossians to do so by putting into practice what their leader, Epaphras (Col. 1:7), had taught them.
  • Grateful (overflowing with thankfulness). Paul taught that when the believer is under attack, gratitude protects him from loss of peace and joy.

—Harry Genet

My Response: How am I grounded? How am I growing? How thankful am I?

Thought to Apply: The Christian walk is much like riding a bicycle; we are either moving forward or falling off. —Robert Tuttle

Prayer for the Week: Keep me, Lord, from settling for a holding pattern. Help me to realize steady growth in my walk with You.



Pastor Wang Yi Sentenced to 9 Years in Chinese Prison

Wang Yi, a detained Christian pastor who’s been highly critical of religious persecution in China, was sentenced on Monday to nine years in prison.
In December 2018, the leader of Early Rain Covenant Church in China’s Sichuan province was arrested, along with his wife and more than 100 congregants.
A secret trial for Wang was held December 26, reportedly using false testimony extracted from church members through torture. The pastor’s relatives and supporters weren’t allowed to attend. Wang’s wife, Jiang Rong, was released in June after spending six months behind bars. And Early Rain elder Qin Derfu was recently sentenced to four years in prison.
Pastor Wang, who’s also a lawyer and prominent blogger, was convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” (for not registering his church with the government) and “illegal trade” (for printing and selling religious materials).
In addition to the nine-year sentence, his political rights are suspended for three years, his books are banned, and his personal assets were confiscated, essentially resulting in a fine of $7,200 U.S. Many Early Rain congregants remain under police surveillance, and church properties have been seized.
Since 2018, China has cracked down on so-called house churches, requiring them to become part of the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement. The country’s Communist Party also is conducting a sinicization campaign of Bible translations and using biometrics to track churchgoers.
On the latest World Watch List from Open Doors, China ranks 27th for its persecution of Christians, which has escalated under President Xi Jinping. Chinese villagers are being urged to rely on Xi rather than on Jesus.
On a Facebook page titled Pray for Early Rain Covenant Church, a post insists that Wang “did not commit any crime” but is facing “unjust persecutions.” It requests prayers for the pastor, for Early Rain leaders and members, and even for Chinese authorities. “May we be strong in his grace as we keep on fighting despite repeated setbacks,” it reads. “We do this to fulfill the Great Commission and to spread the gospel, that the glorious name of the triune God might be praised.”
Human-rights groups—both religious and secular—are speaking out against Wang’s sentence and urging U.S. officials to condemn it and take action. “This grave sentence demonstrates [Chinese President] Xi’s regime is determined to be the enemy of universal values and religious freedom,” says China Aid President Bob Fu. “We call upon the international community to stand up to the Chinese Community Party and hold this evil regime accountable.”
Amnesty International calls the sentence “appalling,” saying it “makes a mockery of China’s supposed religious freedoms.” Amnesty’s Patrick Poon adds, “The message is very clear: You will be the next Wang Yi if you don’t register and follow the Communist Party’s line on religion.”
Based on his writings, Pastor Wang intends to stand firm, saying no authorities can make him renounce his faith in Jesus. “I will resist in meekness those who resist God,” he writes, “and I will joyfully violate all laws that violate God’s laws.”

Why Do Most People Think God Should Let Them into Heaven?

As we contemplate our latest weight-loss and smoking-cessation New Year’s Resolutions (the ones that haven’t already fallen by the wayside), perhaps we should also give some time to a matter of infinite importance.

The article below, by Jessica Mouser, summarizes the very surprising answers obtained by B. Tyler Ellis to this question:

“Hypothetically, if God and Heaven are real, on what basis do you believe God will or will not accept you into Heaven?”

At this start of a new year, take a moment to read the answers that he received to that question, and think about what your answer is now – and how that answer may change after reading the article.

For those who prefer viewing a video instead of reading words on a screen, you can find Tyler describing what he discovered in this video:

“Hypothetically, if God and Heaven are real, on what basis do you believe God will or will not accept you into Heaven?” This was a question B. Tyler Ellis asked 50 people over a period of two years.

Ellis started his interview project because of his love of learning from people with different beliefs.  Those he spoke to came from different faith (or lack of faith) backgrounds.

He took each person out to coffee and asked them 20 questions, including the one about God and heaven.  The result, said Ellis in a TEDx Talk he gave at Wiley College, was that “What started as a series of curious interviews soon turned into a series of unexpected adventures and unexpected discoveries.”

  1. Tyler Ellis’s Discoveries and Opportunities

One of B. Tyler Ellis’s unexpected discoveries was how similarly people answered the question about God and heaven, despite the diversity of their beliefs.

These are some of the answers he got:

  • You have to earn God’s acceptance
  • You have to do more good deeds than bad
  • Following the 10 Commandments will help
  • Just try to be moral
  • God’s acceptance is based on our actions
  • God won’t accept me because of my bad deeds
  • I don’t know

“Despite such diversity in the people that I interviewed,” said Ellis, “I discovered an overwhelming consensus about the afterlife.” Even the atheists who answered the question (since it was hypothetical) said that God’s approval depends on our performance.

You might expect that people would be reluctant to open up about a question like that, but Ellis found the opposite to be true. He was just there to interview them, not tell them his views. He said, “Since they knew I was just asking questions and not sharing opinions, they were quick to open up. And many articulated their beliefs for the very first time.”

To his surprise, over half of the people Ellis interviewed actually wanted to meet with him again and interview him that time. When he met with people a second time, they would typically ask him two questions:

-Do you believe all paths lead to God?
-How can one person’s death enable another person’s forgiveness?

To answer these questions, Ellis explained the idea that all paths lead to God (which he called “mountain theory”) illustrates one similarity in all the major world religions. All agree that a moral life leads to peace and immorality leads to chaos. At the same time, all the religions disagree in two significant ways. One, said Ellis, is that “religions lead to different mountaintops”—that is, they all describe God differently. The other difference is that they prescribe different ways to make peace with God.

And in this second difference, Christianity stands apart from the rest. Said Ellis, “All the major world religions, with the exception of Christianity, believe that eternal peace is obtained on the basis of our merits. Christianity believes that eternal peace is obtained on the basis of Jesus’ merits.”

The essence of Ellis’s answer to the question, “How can one person’s death enable another person’s forgiveness?” had to do with the fact that the penalty of a crime increases according to the value of the one offended. Killing a cockroach does not carry any kind of penalty, but killing a person does because a person is more valuable than a cockroach. Offending an infinite God, then, comes with an infinite penalty. Being fully God and fully man, Jesus is the only one who could pay this debt for us. Said Ellis, “I didn’t expect that a couple illustrations would cause so many people to say, ‘I just understood Jesus for the first time.’”

Another troubling finding of Ellis’s experiment was that many of the people he interviewed said they were or had been Christian. How could so many people familiar with Christianity miss a truth essential to salvation?

The conclusion Ellis came to is that the church had taught people that Jesus was a good moral teacher, a role model we are supposed to imitate. That is how people can be raised in the church, know a lot of information about Christianity, and still think their good works will earn them a spot in heaven.

The truth, said Ellis, is that “Christianity claims that Jesus is not just the model, but the Messiah.” It was only through his death on the cross and subsequent resurrection that he paid the penalty for our sins that we can never pay. And only through accepting this gift and committing our lives to him can we have peace with God and go to heaven.

And there is another lesson to be learned from B. Tyler Ellis’s project. It’s easy to push our views on others when we think we’re right. But because he was willing to listen first, he got multiple, unforeseen opportunities to share his faith with people far more effectively than if he had forced it on them.


This New Year, Build Character

We make New Year’s resolutions about money, fitness, diets, and technology.

But what about personal character?  And when choosing virtues to emulate, where should we start?

The Bible, Aristotle, and Aquinas aren’t bad places to start, says Jay Wood, a philosophy professor at Wheaton College, who has frequently written about this topic.

“What Christians have said about Aristotle is that he gives us good advice for how to flourish in a common human life,” said Wood.

“Aristotle’s virtues do not, however, prepare us for the life to come.  The great Christian teachers about virtue said we need to have the gifts that the Holy Spirit confers upon us in order to achieve the virtues.”

Just for reference, here’s Galatians 5:22–23: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Against such things there is no law.”


Stick to the Fundamentals – Be in the “Now”

Spiritual GrowthKey Bible Verse: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize. Philippians 3:13-14

Bonus Reading: 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12

As a high school basketball coach, I’ve observed that after a winning streak, my players sometimes begin to believe they’re better than they actually are. Such overconfidence can lead to deflating defeats. Yet a losing streak produces a mirror-image result: the team loses confidence in their abilities.

To avoid either of these, I remind my players to focus on what lies ahead rather than on the past. After each game, I say, “The season starts tomorrow.” This helps us remember what we, as a team can become.

As Christians, we’re sometimes too hard on ourselves when we reflect on our past sins. Satan can use this to try to make us feel unworthy of God and his kingdom. The truth is that as sinners we are all unworthy. But we’re not unlovable. Salvation is never something we earn, which is why Jesus paid the ultimate price on the cross so we could be saved.

God can still do great things with us regardless of our past. He says to each of us, “Your Christian life begins today because I love you.” In return, the greatest gift we can offer others is the good news that God looks beyond our pasts to give us grace for the future—if only we’ll receive it!

—Chip Mehaffey in Heart of a Coach

My Response: How can I plan for steady growth moving forward?

Thought to Apply: Don’t let your highs be too high, or your lows too low.  —John Wooden (college basketball coach)

Adapted from Heart of a Coach (Regal, 2005)

Prayer for the Week: Keep me, Lord, from settling for a holding pattern. Help me to realize steady growth in my walk with You.



Stick to the Fundamentals – Spiritual Strength Coaching

Spiritual GrowthKey Bible Verse: Cry out for this nourishment as a baby cries for milk. 1 Peter 2:2

Bonus Reading: 2 Timothy 3:16-17

During my first playing season, Jeff Reitz, an assistant strength coach, challenged me. “You’re a good Christian kid,” he told me, “But you need to grow.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“Here’s a math problem,” Jeff said. “Every day you’re either spending time with Jesus or Satan. If you only read your Bible, pray, and worship God on Sunday, how many days a week are you with the Lord?”

“One,” I said.

“Right. And how many days are you with Satan?”

I started laughing. “Okay—I got you, Jeff. Cool.”

“You go to the FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) meetings on Wednesday nights,” he continued. “Now—how many days do you spend with the Lord?”


“How many with Satan?”


“Right. There’s no way you can go against five of something with two and still win.”

“So what do you do?” I asked.

“Every day I get up and read my Bible, Shaun,” he answered. “I encourage you to do the same. It doesn’t have to be a whole lot, just a little. And once a week I memorize a Scripture verse.” It sounded good to me. I was willing to give it a try.

—Shaun Alexander in Touchdown Alexander

My Response: How consistent is my Scripture intake? What needs to change?

Thought to Apply: Let the Bible fill the memory, rule the heart, and guide the feet. —Henrietta Mears

Adapted from Touchdown Alexander (Harvest, 2006)

Prayer for the Week: Keep me, Lord, from settling for a holding pattern. Help me to realize steady growth in my walk with You.



New Year Prayer

Stick to the Fundamentals – For Best Results

Spiritual GrowthKey Bible Verse: Spend your time and energy in training yourself for spiritual fitness. 1 Timothy 4:7

Bonus Reading: 2 Peter 1:5-8

When I began my relationship with Christ, I was “discipled” as to what I needed to do: pray, read my Bible, go to church, tithe … At the same time I was trying to stop swearing, manage my hormones, and demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit.

I was also encouraged to join a small group and expected to begin a ministry. I tried, but it was too much to begin at the same time. I failed miserably—and came perilously close to abandoning all spiritual investments.

It’s best to begin with one thing. Whether it’s to rise at 5 a.m. or have a family meal three times a week, we should drive that single stake into the ground and do all we can to establish its place in our life. Once a behavior is maintained for six weeks, we’re told, it has become a habit.

And once a habit, it no longer demands emotional, physical, and mental energy to sustain. It’s become part of who we are. Then we rise naturally at 5 a.m., or we naturally sit down together as a family to eat a meal on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.

Once a single practice reaches this point, we’re ready to add another to our life … then another.

—James Emery White in Serious Times

My Response: What one thing will I concentrate on for now?

Thought to Apply: Instantaneous leaps from conversion to consecration I fail to see in the Bible. But gradual growth in grace I see clearly taught and urged.  —Ryle (British pastor)

Adapted from Serious Times (InterVarsity, 2004)

Prayer for the Week: Keep me, Lord, from settling for a holding pattern. Help me to realize steady growth in my walk with You.



Stick to the Fundamentals – Letdown Setup

Spiritual GrowthKey Bible Verse: You couldn’t handle anything stronger. And you still aren’t ready.  – 1 Corinthians 3:2

Bonus Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-3

What if you developed a daily schedule this way? You decide: Here is what I want in my life. I want to work out at the gym, have a quiet time, eat a cooked breakfast, get to work early, come home, sit down with the family for dinner, help my children with homework, read, write a letter to a friend, catch the game on TV, and be in bed by ten.

You do the math and find it takes a 34-hour day. You do more math, a little cutting here and there, and figure you can squeeze most of it in by rising at 4 a.m. You fill in the time blocks, set the alarm and go to bed, ready for your new life to begin.

At 4:20 a.m., after you’ve hit the snooze button for the second time, you wonder what you were thinking. You skip the gym, settle for a toasted bagel, and pray in the car on the way to work. You push on through the day, but it only gets worse. You throw in the towel by noon.

It was simply too much to do at once, so you end up in defeat, going back to life as lived before.

It’s seldom wise to attempt a regimen that begins with everything you can think of doing.   [continued tomorrow]

—James Emery White in Serious Times

My Response: What can I learn from my big plans for a disciplined life, and miserable failures?

Adapted from Serious Times (InterVarsity, 2004)

Prayer for the Week: Keep me, Lord, from settling for a holding pattern. Help me to realize steady growth in my walk with You.



Stick to the Fundamentals – Inches Theory

Spiritual GrowthWho Said It … Tony Dungy

Tony Dungy led the Indianapolis Colts to Super Bowl victory on February 4, 2007, the first such win for an African American coach. He is committed to the importance of Christian parenting, strongly supporting the All Pro Dad organization.

To build his teams, he urges players to avoid concentrating on individual players, specific teams, or emotional highs and lows; instead they should focus on steadily refining the fundamentals of the game.

What He Said … Inches Theory

In the first meeting of the Colts 2004 training camp, I showed a clip from the movie, Von Ryan’s Express. In this film, a man who has fired a machine gun and thrown grenades at his pursuers—Nazis—sprints to catch up with a transport train that he and his fellow POWs have commandeered. He closes in on it, running with his hand out … and is shot and killed with his hand just inches from his fellow prisoners and only feet from the Swiss border and safety.

When the clip ended, I explained to the team the theory of death by inches. It wasn’t big things that had tripped us up in previous years but a combination of details. One detail at a time builds the whole. By focusing on these—inches— we could, rather than coming up just short, reach our Super Bowl goal.

“We’re not going to reinvent the wheel,” I told them. “We’re going to do what we do, only better. We’re going to make it by doing the little things right.”

Adapted from Quiet Strength (Tyndale, 2007)

Prayer for the Week: Keep me, Lord, from settling for a holding pattern. Help me to realize steady growth in my walk with You.


How long is the Christmas season?

Central Church’s Sanctuary Decorated for Christmas

Christmas is not just one day, but a season of twelve days from sunset Christmas Eve (Dec. 24) through Epiphany (Jan. 6).

The twelfth day of Christmas, Epiphany, an even more ancient Christian celebration than Christmas, originally focused on the nativity, God’s incarnation (God made flesh) in the birth of Jesus Christ and Christ’s baptism.

Today, it commemorates the visiting of the Christ Child by the Magi (Wise Men) with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Gift giving in some cultures extends throughout the 12 days of Christmas; elsewhere, gift giving is limited to Christmas Eve or Christmas Day or Jan. 5 or 6.

See 12 creative, simple ideas to help celebrate the season.

Have questions? Ask the UMC. And check out other recent Q&As.

25 Christmas Jokes You Can Tell Kids

Have fun using some of these jokes this Christmas season to connect with kids of all ages.

All it takes is one funny joke to bring down the wall a child may have put up.

Once that wall is down and they’ve decided to engage with you, you can share God’s Word with them heart to heart.

Start with a joke that gets kids to laugh and helps them connect with you. Which means you will have a great opportunity to share the true meaning of Christmas.




  1. What do you call a greedy elf? Elfish.
  2. Which of Santa’s reindeer has bad manners? Rude-alph!
  3. What is a skunk’s favorite Christmas song? Jingle smells!
  4. What name did Santa give his dog? Santa Paws!
  5. Where do snowmen keep money? In a snow bank.
  6. What’s the best thing to put into Christmas dinner? Your teeth!
  7. What did Adam say on the day before Christmas? It’s Christmas, Eve!
  8. How much did Santa pay for his sleigh? Nothing. It was on the house.
  9. Why is Santa so good at karate? Cause he’s got a black belt.
  10. What’s Santa’s favorite candy? Jolly ranchers.
  11. What does the gingerbread man put on his bed? Cookie sheets.
  12. What is an elf’s favorite kind of music? Wrap music!
  13. What do monkeys sing at Christmas time? Jungle bells…Jungle Bells.
  14. What do you call Frosty the Snowman in May? A puddle!
  15. Why are Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen always wet? Because they are rain deer.
  16. What did the beaver say to the Christmas Tree? Nice gnawing you!
  17. What do you get if you cross a bell with a skunk? Jingle Smells!
  18. Why did Rudolph get a bad report card? Because he went down in history.
  19. What is a Christmas tree’s favorite candy? Ornamints.
  20. What do you get when you cross a snowman and a dog? Frostbite.
  21. What do you sing at a snowman’s birthday party? Freeze a jolly good fellow!
  22. What goes “oh, oh, oh”? Santa walking backwards!
  23. Knock Knock.
    Who’s there?
    Mary who?
    Mary Christmas!
  24. What does a cat on the beach have in common with Christmas? Sandy claws!
  25. Mason says to his mother: You can delete the train set from my Christmas wish list. Mother: Why is that? Mason: Yesterday, I found one in the closet.

    Your turn. What other Christmas jokes or riddles do you use to break the ice or to connect with kids at Christmas? Share in the comment section below.


4 Reasons to Believe in the Christmas Miracle

Why the supernatural events of this season are both credible and incredible.

4 Reasons to Believe in the Christmas Miracle

“I don’t believe that.”

I’d just read my four-year-old the story of the angel Gabriel meeting with Mary. I tried not to panic.

“Well, do you believe that God made you?”

“Yes, I believe that.”

“And do you believe that Jesus died for your sins?”


“And that he rose from the dead?”


After more gentle probing, it turned out it was really just the angel that she didn’t buy. But nonetheless, my daughter isn’t alone in her natural skepticism about the supernatural. When we stop to think about it, Christmas stretches our credulity. It comes complete with an angel appearing, a virgin conceiving, a star guiding, and heavenly hosts singing. How can rational, scientifically literate, 21st-century people like us believe such things, when even a child finds them hard to take?

Here are four reasons to believe in Christmas in all its supernatural glory.

1. Miracles aren’t hard for God.

If you’re familiar with the Bible, you’re familiar with an a fortiori or “how much more” argument that draws secondary conclusions from a greater first point. For instance, Paul reassures the Christians in Rome of God’s care by saying this: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). Paul argues from the greater thing to the lesser. If God gave up Jesus for the sake of believers, surely nothing else will be too hard for him to give!

By similar argumentation, to believe in the God of the Bible who created the universe and not to believe in miracles is rather obtuse. It would be like my daughters believing their dad could make bread from scratch (which he can) but that he couldn’t toast a Pop-Tart. In fact, if you are a Christian (or a Jew or a Muslim, for that matter) you are already signed up to believe that the universe and everyone in it is God’s handiwork.

At one level, the miraculous conception of a human baby is but a drop in the ocean. What’s incredible about the Incarnation is not so much that a virgin conceived (remarkable though that might be) but that God became man. “What is truly amazing about the Christian faith,” says the physicist Jonathan Feng, “is the idea that God made the universe—from quarks to galaxies—but at the same time cared enough about us to be born as a human being, to come down, to die and be crucified in the person of Jesus, and to bring forgiveness and new life to broken people.”

2. Miracles aren’t ruled out by science.

In his excellent new book, Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles? MIT professor Ian Hutchinson observes that “We tend to view God as mostly hands-off, standing on the sidelines, letting nature look after itself, but then on rare occasions reaching in to tweak things by the odd miracle here and there.”

But this, Hutchinson points out, is not the biblical view. The Bible reveals Jesus as the Word through whom all things were made (John 1:1, 3) and by whom all things are sustained (Heb. 1:3). Rather than standing on the sidelines, therefore,

[God] continuously hold the universe in the palm of his hand…It exists because of his continuous creative power and will: If he were to stop exerting that upholding power, stop paying attention to every part of the universe, it would instantly cease to exist.

In line with Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, Hutchinson suggests we should not see miracles as God intervening in the natural order of things. The regular order of things that we explore through science is utterly dependent on his will. A miracle, therefore, is “an extraordinary act of God” by which God “upholds a part of the universe in a manner different from the normal.” Thus, the extraordinary acts of God that we celebrate at Christmas should not cause doubt for the scientifically minded. As Princeton philosopher of science Hans Halvorson points out, the modern scientific method was first developed by Christians precisely because they believed the biblical revelation of a Creator God.

3. The gospels aren’t mythologized.

It’s a common misconception that the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life were written down so long after the events they record that the figure they describe has been mythologized. The story goes like this: Jesus started as a great preacher with some groundbreaking ethical ideas, but over the years, exaggerated claims crept in. A virgin birth here, a resurrection there, and voila! the prophet of Nazareth becomes the Son of God.

But in his powerful new book, Can We Trust the Gospels? New Testament scholar Peter Williams argues that there simply wasn’t time for Jesus to be mythologized. The gospels were written when eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life were still around. They include a wealth of geographical and cultural detail about the precise area in which he lived—details that would not have been available to remote authors fabricating stories. And in the rapid spread of Christianity, the accounts of his life traveled so far and fast and with such remarkable consistency that there would have been no opportunity for later editors to add miraculous claims. Moreover, as Williams reminds us, we have more and better manuscript evidence for the life and works of Jesus than for those of Tiberius, the Roman emperor who ruled during his ministry.

In other words: We can disbelieve the claims about Christmas if we choose. But let’s not do so on the weak premise that they were made up hundreds of years after Jesus’ actual birth.

4. Forgiveness is the greater miracle.

My daughter was willing to believe that Jesus died for her sins but unwilling to believe that God could send an angel to tell Mary about the Virgin Birth. Forgivable though it is, her disbelief betrays a lack of understanding for what is truly remarkable. How often do we find ourselves making the same mistake? “Sure, Jesus can forgive my sins,” we think, “but could he really walk on water?”

When we read the gospels, however, this hierarchy of the unbelievable gets flipped on its head.

In one of my favorite gospel moments, Jesus is confronted with a paralyzed man. His friends have gone to great lengths to get him in front of the healer, and his physical need is obvious. But the first words out of Jesus’ mouth are, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). The crowd must have been confused by his response. The paralyzed man had come to Jesus for healing, not forgiveness. But Jesus saw a greater need and one that was far harder to meet. Healing this paralytic’s legs would cost Jesus a few words. Purchasing his forgiveness would cost Jesus his life.

This Christmas, when you’re tempted to wonder if the Virgin Birth and the singing angels could be historically true, remind yourself how much more incredible it is that the eternal Son of God became a baby for our sakes and that the sinless Savior suffered for our sin. That’s what’s truly unbelievable about Christmas.

– Rebecca McLaughlin holds a PhD from Cambridge University as well as a theology degree from Oak Hill Seminary. Her first book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Worldview, will be published by Crossway in 2019. Follow her on Twitter or at

Christmas: The Fairy Tale That Must Be True

Here is an important article for today and every day from Pastor Scott Sauls.  He is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and is the author of several books including his latest, Irresistible Faith.

Have you ever stopped, just for a second, and considered the far-fetched claims of Christianity at Christmas time?  During this particular holiday, Christians all over the world—millions and millions of them—pause to contemplate a first-century middle eastern infant, mothered by a teenage girl who had never been with a man, born dirt poor and from a small, obscure hick town called Nazareth.

This little boy, this underdog whose life was allegedly surrounded by miracles such as a virgin birth, unexplainable healings, and resurrection, Christians say, is the answer to all the world’s problems. The hope of the universe rests on the belief that this seemingly far-fetched fairy tale…

…is actually true.

Come on.  Really?  Yes, really.

Jesus, that little baby boy from the obscure hick town and virgin womb…he would grow up and speak these words about himself for anyone who would listen:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” he said, “no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

  • Why did Jesus claim to be the truth, versus one single truth among many other truths?

  • Why did he say that he would not share his glory with any other god or any other religious leader?

  • Why was he unwilling to accept the mere designation of Rabbi or of a good moral teacher or of an exemplary human being?

  • Furthermore, why do his followers seem stuck on the idea that Jesus, in being the truth, is the singular path to God?

CS Lewis, a secular atheist intellect turned Christian, answers this question as well as anyone in Mere Christianity:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.  That is the one thing we must not say.

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell.

You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.”

But what is it, exactly, that has made Lewis so certain that Jesus is more than a great human teacher, but is instead the Son of God, the Word who has become flesh, the Incarnate Deity?

I believe the answer to this question rests in a single word:


Jesus, who was crucified, dead, and buried, rose again bodily from the dead.

But is there evidence, any evidence whatsoever, that these claims are true?  I think so.  Do you?

The message to Saul was clear.  In standing against Christians, he was standing against Christ, the risen Messiah.  And in standing against Christ, the risen Messiah, he was standing against the truth.

In an instant, Saul, once a big shot among the Jews, became small in his own eyes.  Saul, a great teacher and leader, was at a loss for words.

Instead of striking Saul down, Jesus forgave him.

From that point forward, Saul of Tarsus was also Paul the Apostle, the inspired writer of approximately one third of the New Testament.  He later wrote these words:

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly and in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:12-16)

This is why the little boy came into the world at Christmas time.  To save sinners.  Even the foremost of them.

But how did Paul know that his words were “trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance?”

How did Paul know that his belief in Jesus was belief in the truth versus a belief in one of several legitimate, competing “truths?”

He knew his words were trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance because Christ had risen from the dead.  Because Christ had risen from the dead—a claim that cannot be made by any other religious founder or leader.

And if Christ has risen from the dead, everything else that Jesus said and did can be accepted as true.  This includes things like the virgin birth, the healings, turning water into wine, and all those other wonderful things about the fairy tale that is true.

But what if the resurrection of Jesus—and thus everything else about Jesus—is actually not true?  What if it is a myth?  What if in the end, it turns out to be a cleverly made up hoax?

If it is a hoax, Christians are the most pitiful people in the world.

Paul wrote to the Corinthian church:

“If the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most of all to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:17-20)

In fact…Christ has been raised.

How can we be so sure?

As Simon Greenleaf, distinguished professor of law at Harvard discovered, the evidence is overwhelming.  Based on the evidence alone, it takes more faith not to believe that Jesus rose from the dead than it takes faith to believe it.

As the Apostle Peter once wrote, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty (2 Peter 1:16).

Eyewitnesses.  Of his majesty.

What eyewitness evidence to Jesus’ resurrection was so convincing to the likes of Simon Greenleaf?

There are several excellent books that have been written on the subject, including Who Moved the Stone? by an English journalist attorney named Frank Morrison. Also, The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith by Lee StrobelMore Than a Carpenter and Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell, and Tim Keller’s The Reason for God are excellent, more detailed treatments of the subject.

It may be helpful to highlight a few of these so-called “evidences.”

One such evidence is the Apostle Paul’s undisputed claim that there were over five hundred, real-time eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Christ in the first century, “most of whom (were) still alive” (1 Corinthians 15:3-11).

Another evidence is the historical record of how each of the twelve disciples of Jesus died.

Judas, the one false disciple, hanged himself over guilt related to his betrayal of Jesus.

Ten of the others died as martyrs because of their unwillingness to recant their Christian faith to show ultimate allegiance to the Roman Caesar.

The disciple John, exiled to the island of Patmos for the same unwillingness to recant, died of old age as a prisoner for Jesus.

With this historic record in mind, Josh McDowell wrote the following in More Than a Carpenter:

If the Resurrection had not happened, obviously the disciples would have known it.  I can find no way that these particular men could have been deceived.  

Therefore they not only would have died for a lie—here’s the catch—they would have known it was a lie.  It would be hard to find a group of men anywhere in history who would die for a lie if they knew it was a lie.

Other evidence for Christianity includes the countless lives over the centuries that have been changed.

In a candid interview about his Christian faith, Bono issued a challenge to his skeptical interviewer with these words:

Either Christ was who He said He was the Messiah or a complete nutcase.  I mean, we’re talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson…This man was strapping himself to a bomb, and had “King of the Jews” on his head, and, as they were putting him up on the Cross, was going: OK, martyrdom, here we go.  Bring on the pain!  I can take it.  I’m not joking here.  The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me, that’s farfetched.

Bono’s point is that the best case for Christianity is the lives that have been changed by Jesus.

Liars becoming more honest, crooks returning what they have stolen, anxious and dying people finding peace, cowardly and fearful people finding courage, hurtful people asking forgiveness from those they have hurt, bodies wasting away as the souls who inhabit those bodies become more alive, business people doing the less profitable thing because it is the right thing, aimless people finding meaning in their lives, spouses staying committed to each other through the hard and dry seasons, addicts becoming sober, adulterers becoming chaste, pregnant mothers continuing their pregnancies knowing that they are carrying a child with Down Syndrome, rejected and unappreciated parents persisting in unconditional love toward their straying, entitled children.  These are only a few examples of how the Jesus Christ of Christmas and Resurrection changes people.

The same power that Christians believe spoke the galaxies into being, that parted the ocean, that caused a blind man to see, that enabled a paralytic to get up and walk, that conceived Jesus in Mary’s womb without a sperm cell, and that raised Jesus from the dead—accounts for the billions of people who, having been brought into relationship with Jesus, have become better versions of themselves.  “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Perhaps you have been turned off to Christianity because of intellectual roadblocks.  Perhaps, like Francis Schaeffer, you have been turned off by a “lack of reality” that you perceive in the lives and behavior of Christians around you.

Amid your questions, doubts, and disappointments, are there any Christians in your life who have shown you glimpses of something different, something more beautiful and lovely, even something admirable?  Have you ever seen in Christians something that gave you pause about your doubts, that led you to consider that perhaps there is something to this Jesus character?  Something like forgiveness of a hurt, compassion shown to a sufferer, generosity toward someone in need, or perseverance in a hard marriage?

If so, could this be Jesus reaching out to you, inviting you to consider, or perhaps reconsider, his claims?

If there are no such Christians in your life and if there is no such longing, would you consider, as the Harvard student Jordan Monge did, investigating “the works of the masters” such as Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Pascal, and Lewis?

Better yet, would you consider reading through each of the four “Jesus biographies” in the Bible—the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—each written from the perspective of a first-century believer whose life had been made new by the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus?

If you are not ready to open yourself to the possibility that Jesus is the truth, would you consider embarking on the journey that Simon Greenleaf once did?  Would you accept the challenge, as he did, of attempting to prove that it is false?

Perhaps in your quest to prove Christianity to be false, you might discover, as Greenleaf and Francis Schaeffer did, that there is only one reason to be a Christian: because it’s true.

Or perhaps you won’t.

Advent Devotional – Tuesday, December 25, 2019 – Look to the Star

Scripture: Isaiah 11:6

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;
    and a little child will lead them.

When I look for moral guidance, I remember that “a little child shall lead them.” So I look to a little child, not just the little child laying in a manger over 2,000 years ago, but also the little child who lives under my roof, my daughter Esther.

I look to her, and I think about what I want the world to look like for her. I think about the world God designed for us, full of love, justice, bounty, and beauty. I think about the lessons I want her to learn from my actions and inactions. I think about how we can make this broken world look a little more like the one God has planned.

“Esther” is sometimes translated to mean “star.” It’s an apt name for this one who helps me seek God’s realm, divine justice, holy beauty, and gracious love. Just like the star in the East was for the Wise Ones, my little star is a guide on the path to Christ who is the true Light.

Prayer: God of light, we look to You. Guide us in Your way, so that our communities look more and more like Your Kingdom. Amen.

  – Jeannie M. Hunter – Nashville, TN

Advent Devotional – Monday, December 24, 2019 – What Gift Can We Bring

Scripture: Matthew 2:10-11

10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Many years ago, my office overlooked a nearby bagel shop. Often, late in the day, I would observe a worker there throwing bags of bagels in the dumpster, presumably because they were past a freshness date. That picture of food being wasted remained seared in my mind.

As years passed, I began to participate in mission trips with our church youth, working for the Appalachia Service Project. It was humbling and heart-wrenching to see poverty and hunger here in our own country. Serving others was also a great blessing, and I became more resolved to put my discipleship into action. My love of writing, led to opportunities to offer devotions for the Society of St. Andrew.

Our church has a food pantry and six years ago, we hosted a potato drop, followed by another drop this past March. During planning for our most recent drop, we wondered if we would have enough volunteers or find enough funding. Yet, as the day unfolded, I will never forget the sight of circles of youth and adults, numbering over 200 and representing not only our church members but also faith communities from throughout the area. All were working together to bag potatoes for our neighboring food banks and pantries to help feed our hungry brothers and sisters.

During Advent, we often find ourselves asking, what gift can we bring to the Christ child? I believe Jesus is calling us to open our hearts and minds and find ways to serve others, to be “His hands and feet.”

Prayer: Lord, help us discern where we can bring gifts of service to those less fortunate then ourselves. Amen.

  – Bob Brooks – Fredericksburg, VA

Advent Devotional – Monday, December 23, 2019 – Unqualified Evangelists

Scripture: Luke 2:18

18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

In my 20s, I told my pastor “I’m happy to serve where needed, but don’t expect me to enroll anyone.” Unmentioned was my insecurity about asking people to share their time and talent – it felt too much like being an evangelist. I didn’t feel qualified.

For the next three decades, the Lord then placed me in positions where I had to trust the Holy Spirit for the prayerful enrollment of hundreds of people. I came to realize that folks who’d been on the fringe grew closer to Jesus as they shared their God-given gifts in service to Christ’s Church.

We need only to look within our own families and neighborhoods to recognize the spiritual hunger of people trying to numb their pain and fill their emptiness with things of this weary world. No matter our age or the choices made in the past, we all can be evangelists, pointing those who hunger and thirst to the Savior!

God chose as the first bearers of the Good News those who were among the lowliest of society, shepherds. Those shepherds remind us that one does not need a college education, or ordination as a deacon or elder, to proclaim the Gospel. Anyone who encounters God’s Son is qualified to share the hope that He offers.

Prayer: Lord, help us to be like the shepherds, telling everyone we meet of Your arrival. Help us to partner with You: comforting the brokenhearted, offering hope to those in despair. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

  – Katy Yates Brungraber – Chambersburg, PA

Advent Devotional – Sunday, December 22, 2019 – An Underappreciated Parent

Scripture: Philippians 2:3-4

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Growing up, we did not have the nicest things. I remember thinking my friends had more of this and a better that. I knew our family income was lower than average, and I felt my parents couldn’t have cared less about my wants and needs. Like the time we ate Spam® every night for dinner, for a week…

My mother dressed it differently and added sides, but there was no disguising that square meat on my plate. I assumed she cared nothing for my taste. As an adult, I know the truth of those meals: they had come from a food pantry.

Remembering that Spam®, I recognize the truth: my mother, underappreciated, set her pride aside to feed her children every day. I was so self-focused as a youth that I overlooked my blessings. I had a home, siblings, and parents who ensured that we ate a hot meal every night that week.

Now, I believe that it was written in the stars that hunger would be a cause near to my heart. I work every day to ensure other families have fresh food to eat when they are hungry. I believe there is more than enough to feed people who are in need. It requires us to put others first by giving our time, talents, and resources, but I’m dedicated because everyone deserves to eat, every day.

Prayer: Perfect Father, without recognition and appreciation, You sent Your Son to be born into this world, to lay down His life and to provide for us. Thank You. Amen.

  – Andy Lemmon – Brandon, MS

Advent Devotional – Saturday, December 21, 2019 – The Share Table

Scripture: Psalm 36:7-8

How priceless is your unfailing love, O God!
    People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house;
    you give them drink from your river of delights.

One of the distinctive things about my seminary is the “share table.” It’s a table that people put leftover food and drinks for students to take for free. When someone passes the share table, you can tell whether they are an undergraduate or a graduate student: the graduate students always stop. Not everything that’s put on the share table is good, but sometimes something’s put there that’s so delicious that people don’t just get some—they go and tell their friends.

In Psalm 36, the Psalmist writes that God’s people “feast upon the abundance” of His house and “drink from the river” of His delights. The table that God sets is always full of good things, and those good things are always for sharing. Much like the share table at my school, those who have tasted God’s good gifts can’t help but go and tell others about them.

This season, many of us will set our tables for feasts with family and friends. As we do, we’ll do well to remember all the ways God has fed us and to look forward to the opportunity to invite others to the table to share.

Prayer: God, you sent Jesus to be born in a barn and to sleep in the place where animals are fed. Make us always ready to taste your goodness and to welcome others to the banquet you have planned since before the beginning of the world. Amen.

  – Micah Dennis – Durham, NC

Advent Devotional – Friday, December 20, 2019 – Radiance and Risk

Scripture: Matthew 2:2

and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

I remember a night so quiet that I could actually hear my heartbeat. It was as if God and nature were conspiring to captivate my senses by the deprivation of a few of them. The stars were close enough to touch, or so it seemed, and I stood bathed in their brilliance and my insignificance.

I can only imagine the radiance of His star, seen by wisdom seekers on that long ago journey. Perhaps it was the shared DNA of stardust that caused them to look up in awe and absolute recognition. Intuited and driven from a knowing deep within, they stepped out into the unknown darkness guided only by faith and starlight.

Whether faith pulled or pushed me, I entered a spiritual formation program many years ago. I was seeking direction for my life, having no clear-cut idea what that would look like. Each diverse offering in that course fed me, opened every sense, most acutely my hearing. Now, listening deeply is what I do. It is a most humble blessing to accompany others on their journey as they look to follow the Starmaker.

Prayer: Infinite and loving God, open our awareness and continue to guide us by Your light. Reach into our lives, fill us with your radiance and bless the risks we take for love’s sake. Amen.

  – Nancy Severin – Fort Morgan, CO

Advent Devotional – Thursday, December 19, 2019 – Searching…

Scripture: Matthew 7:7

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? For me, searching is a valuable part of faith-building. An agnostic friend has spent many hours, often long into the night, asking me why I believe in God. Often, he exasperatedly says something like “If there was really a God, why wouldn’t He just reveal Himself? Write it up in the sky so that there wouldn’t be any question?”

My friend wants to throttle me when I say “then there would be no need for faith.” I love Gary, but he just doesn’t get it. God wants us to choose to believe. God didn’t want us to just pop out into the universe and grovel at His feet. He could have made beings like that… but then where would the joy be in that? He created all these unique and interesting beings and wants to have an individual, unique, vibrant relationship with each one, by choice.

My choice to be in relationship with God changes the way that I interact with the world because I recognize others as ALSO beloved by God. Is it always easy?  No.  Is it worth the effort?  Yes.

Prayer: Lord, give me the strength and patience to be a real representative of Your lovingkindness in a hurting world. Help me to continue my quest to grow closer to You, trusting that You are always near. Amen.

  – Chris Howell – Lynchburg, VA

Advent Devotional – Wednesday, December 18, 2019 – When Did You See Him?

Scripture: Matthew 25:42-45

42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

I remember taking my young daughters to Tijuana, Mexico for a day trip. We gave them each an amount of money that they could use to buy a souvenir of their visit. As we walked the streets of Tijuana, we saw evidence of so much hunger: hunger of the heart, hunger of the body and hunger of the soul.

My daughter, Jennifer, stopped in front of a young mother who was sitting on the ground cradling her very young baby and holding out a cup asking for help. Jennifer’s eyes filled with tears. She looked at the purse that held her money, took all of it and poured it into the woman’s cup. Jennifer “saw the light” of the truth that Jesus brought.

It is when we feed each other in heart, body or soul that we see Him; we see the light of Christ alive in our world. The Wise Men searched for the light until they found the truth. So may we.

Prayer: Lord of light and life, hear our prayers. May the dark corners of our world and our lives be transformed by Your way of loving one another as we have been loved. That is the truth that is written in the star of Your birth and shines in the hearts of those who live this truth. It is in Your Holy and brightly shining name that we pray.  Amen.

  – Diane Zehr, – Carmel, IN

Advent Devotional – Tuesday, December 17, 2019 – Man Plans, and God Laughs

Scripture: Proverbs 19:21

Many are the plans in a person’s heart,
    but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.

I’ve always loved the Yiddish expression: “Man Plans, and God Laughs.”  We are a planning people, setting goals and working to achieve them.  I wish I could go back to my 18 year old self and see where she thought I would be at this midpoint in my life.  I had a lot of plans then and felt like my life had a purpose.

But life has taken me on some twists and turns. In 1987, my husband and I moved to Charlotte, NC more than a thousand miles from home. We knew no one. He went to work each day, and I was home with my beautiful baby, but so lonely.

Flash forward: I joined a church, made friends, wrote for the local paper, and did hundreds of hours of volunteer work, from building houses to tutoring adults in English as a Second Language. After a while, I went to work full-time. I had found a purpose and a place.

Eventually, unhappy in my private-sector job, I took the plunge and came to work for Society of St. Andrew. I had grown up on a farm, organized volunteers for church and PTA, and was passionate about hunger issues. It helped me find a renewed purpose. Purpose is the path that passion finds to accomplish its goals.

Prayer: Like the Wise Men following a star, let us follow our passions to do Your will.  Amen.

  – Jean Blish Siers – Charlotte, NC

Advent Devotional – Monday, December 16, 2019 – Wonders Will Unfold

Scripture: Psalm 150:6

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord.

I’ve always loved dogs, from my childhood dog, Penny, to all the sweet puppies we’ve had over the years. The dogs that brought my purpose in life into focus, though, were a couple of littermates that “accidentally” helped us start a pet ministry in our church.

After losing our favorite dog, we were looking for a new puppy. The night before we met her, my daily devotional said “Wonders will unfold…” When we saw the litter, one was just beautiful, but, surprisingly, we were also drawn to one that looked a little different, the one that wasn’t “perfect.” When we held her, she nibbled our ear in a way that was like God whispering “Choose this one.” So, Angel came home with us too!

Later, my husband encountered a friend who said “If you want to get your dogs certified as therapy dogs, let me know.” The next week my minister offhandedly mentioned that a member suggested we get our dogs trained as therapy dogs so we could take them to nursing homes. Immediately, I said: “I can make that happen!” Over the last 12 years, through the church, we have trained many dogs to become therapy dogs.

Our therapy dogs visit the homebound and nursing homes. They greet the children at worship and console hurting people at the Advent “Blue Christmas” service. God uses our dogs to bring joy, comfort and healing. Wonders will unfold…

Prayer: Oh God, let every living thing praise Your Holy name.  Amen.

  – Gayle Fiser – Little Rock, AR

Advent Devotional – Sunday, December 15, 2019 – No Blind Faith

Scripture: Acts 17:11

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

The Magi took a “leap of faith,” okay, a ride of faith, as they set out to find the one born King of the Jews. It was not a blind leap. Working with what they knew of the God-created natural world, they were able to read the unique signs and follow a-once-in-a-lifetime event to the King of kings.

What led me to my Christian faith was that I was never expected to offer a blind faith. I grew up with an inquiring mind and a love of science; I have always asked “Why?” God, through His Word and my experience, has never been put off by those questions. Yes, there are times when God has to respond to my “Why?” with “Because My ways are not your ways,” but those times of faith come only after many times of him patiently honoring my seeking heart, often answering the same question more than once.

In leadership, I have tried to feed peoples’ hunger by encouraging them to examine what the Bible says and never be afraid to ask questions. I help them recognize that there is faith involved in following the King. God does amazing things to bring us His Good News but always with logic and purpose. We have to trust previous signs, answer and eagerly go where He leads us.

Prayer: Lord, challenge us each day to follow wherever You lead and help us remember You are always trustworthy and faithful. Amen.

  – Joe Phipps – Fairfield, IA

Advent Devotional – Saturday, December 14, 2019 – Written in the Stars

Scripture: Psalm 19:1

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

What is written in the stars? In 1949, as a junior in high school, I wrote my first research paper entitled “Cosmology.” I could find almost nothing on the subject apart from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Today, with the help of land and space-based telescopes, those same stars proclaim the all but unfathomable glory of God’s Creation. Those man-made lenses, like our own at night, bring together information from sources thousands and millions and billions of light years away; they come together in our eyes to make up the present in which we live. All that stupendous amount of data tells us there are trillions of planets “in the habitable zone”— like our earth.

But from all this astonishing and fascinating data, we glean nothing at all about how to live with others or even with ourselves. That knowledge came to us from another star, seen two thousand years ago and shining still in our hearts. By that Light, the darkness of sin and evil can be overcome: to feed the hungry, to give sight to the blind, to heal the sick and visit those imprisoned, to bring justice to those harmed by prejudice and enmity—and, most of all, to save us, by the enlightenment of Christ, from narrow minds and constricted hearts.

Prayer: Lord, take our minds and think with them, take our lips and speak through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire for love of You!  Amen.

  – Richard N. Soulen – Williamsburg, VA

Advent Devotional – Friday, December 13, 2019 – Festive Feasting

Scripture: Matthew 14:13-21

Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand

13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

I like to eat. Do you? I am not a “foodie” in any cultivated sense with an appreciation of expensive or exotic cuisine, but as my former parishioners know, I do like to eat.

Reared by my family from North Mississippi, I grew up relishing seconds and thirds of homegrown vegetables and cornbread with fried chicken on Sundays. As a boy, I enjoyed homemade biscuits freshly baked by my mom every morning. With that background it might be no surprise that I would become a United Methodist minister and that the importance of food would mark my lifelong ministry, especially through the Society of St Andrew.

Likewise, as I completed my doctorate in liturgy at the University at Notre Dame, John Wesley’s distinctive emphasis upon constant communion at the Lord’s Supper, both as a means of grace and forgiveness and as a converting ordinance, came to be the focal point of my local church ministry and teaching as an adjunct seminary professor.

Underlining the direct commands of Jesus in my Bible one day, I was astonished to realize how few and simple they were. “Do this in memory of me” in the Upper Room and “you feed them” by the lakeshore are words that we all can obey with thanksgiving as we gather at the Lord’s Table and feed the hungry.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, like the Magi, we seek to worship Jesus. Help us share His love with all who hunger in body or soul. Amen.

  – William Nash Wade – Strasburg, VA

Advent Devotional – Thursday, December 12, 2019 – From Seed to Bloom

Scripture: Proverbs 16:9 –

In their hearts humans plan their course,
    but the Lord establishes their steps.

I had great plans for myself: I was going to become a geophysical engineer and study earthquakes and volcanoes. Now, 40 years later, I reflect on my life and see where God planted the seeds for me to grow into what He intended me to be.

Growing up, I periodically drove past a tent city. During the winter, I would see the residents hovering around fires. I wanted to collect blankets and deliver them to the residents, but I had no resources to accomplish this. Several years later, I learned about Habitat for Humanity, although I was not in a position to get involved at that time.

After my first retirement, I moved to rural North Carolina and held a variety of part-time positions. These jobs allowed me to be more involved in church life and volunteering. My church partnered with other churches in town to support a feeding program, and I volunteered in that program which offered a free dinner one day a week.

When I retired for the second time, I had time to volunteer at Habitat for Humanity, and now I work part-time with them, helping applicants become homeowners. I had planned to spend my life in engineering, but the good Lord had another purpose for me, steadily guiding me to the concept of “everyone deserves a home.”

Prayer: Lord, as I look at the opportunities ahead of me, may I always pray not my will, but Thine be done. Amen.

  – Susan Keith – Rutherfordton, NC