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For the past two months we’ve been walking through an experiential study of the Spiritual Disciplines as laid out in Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline. This week, we’re going through the Corporate Discipline of Confession. If you’ve missed my introductory post on this topic, I encourage you to go back and review it.

As we turn from its justification to its practice, I felt it helpful to use Foster’s “Diary of a Confession” section as a guide. During the past three days in which I’ve been silent in this space, I’ve been preparing, selecting setting up and appointment with my confessor and spending time in reflection, in the evaluation my past as I prepare to give my own confession.

The reflection consisted of dividing my life, as did Foster into three sections. In my case I chose adolescence, young adulthood, and adulthood as my sections, effectively separating my life into my post conversion experience, my time of ministerial formation, and my life as a minister. I then spent time in focused meditation over the course of three days allowing the Holy Spirit to reveal the past sins that came to the fore. My goal was not to explain or justify those memories, simply to write them down as I that which I believed necessary for me to share in the upcoming session.

Of course, the benefits that I’ve already received from this time of preparation led me to reflect on why I hadn’t taken the initiative to go through this process before or why I had never received an invitation to do so from the Christian communities of which I’d been a part. My search for reasons brought me to an article on CovenantEyes.com, the website of company that produces the accountability software that we use on our electronic devices.

In the article entitled, “Shame-Killing Churches: A Vision of Real Accountability” the author, Traylor Lovvorn, explains why so few Christian communities are able to operate at the level of the trasnformative community that it should be. He cites a Dr. David Powlison when talking about the problem of shame:

Shame [is] “a sense of failure before the eyes of someone else.” When this “someone else” is a perfect and holy Creator and our perspective is vertical in nature, this sense of failure is healthy in that it opens the door to the Gospel and allows us to see our desperate need for a Savior. But when our perspective is horizontal and we are comparing ourselves to peers and fellow believers, shame turns toxic and leads to a deep-seated unease with who we are that causes us to withdraw and hide.

Any attempts to establish community and accountability that do not account for and address this underlying issue of toxic shame only piles on a deeper sense of failure and drives men further into isolation and away from genuine community.

I invite you to read the rest of the article for his description of, what to me is, a far too common problem in our Christian community. Although his struggle was related to the sexual, I believe that his experience is a specific experience of an all too universal problem.

How do we escape this isolationism, the popular cliché that our private, hidden, relationship with Jesus is enough? I feel even more strongly now that it is by becoming vulnerable through confession. It’s by breaking down the facade that we’ve worn before others and showing them the radical nature of the redemptive work, a work that continues to the present day in every believer, and it’s by offering grace for those who are walking that same road with us.

As I write this, I’m readying for my own scheduled time of confession. To tell the truth, the preparation has already had a profound effect. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to living out the experience. After these last two posts, I hope you might be as well.

Photo credit: “Soderledskyran brick wall/a>” by Håkan Svensson utilized in accordance with a Creative Commons 3.0 license.

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In our consideration of the Spiritual Disciplines as treated in the book, Celebration of Discipline, we now turn our focus from service to the Spiritual Discipline of confession. This is also a movement, as the book suggests, from the outward Disciplines of Simplicity, Solitude, Submission, and Service, to the Corporate Disciplines, which include Worship, Guidance, and Celebration, as well as Confession.

Of course, such a categorization of confession may seem strange to some. “Isn’t the confession of our sin a private matter between ourselves and God?” we may ask. Foster affirms this but also points out that the Bible calls for us to confess our sins one to another (James 5:15). He suggests that the reason that many of us struggle with the guilt of our past sins is because we have left this corporate discipline behind as a casualty of the reformation.

As a former catholic, I lament the loss of this spiritual exercise. If there was one thing that has maintained meaning for me in my religious practice after coming to faith in Jesus Christ it is the sacrament, as it is called, of Reconciliation. I remember the catharsis that I experienced as I audibly confessed to another human being the sins that I had committed, and there was a power that I felt as I heard the words of absolution. As I left the booth or the room where I gave my confession, I remember that there would be a lightness in my step, a smile on my face, and a joy in my heart.

Now, I know that confession has been criticized for its abuse, for the idea that comes from a misunderstanding of its purpose that we might sin to our heart’s content just so long as we give confession afterwards, that in this game that we play with God, as long as we follow the rules of giving confession, that he must forgive us. This is an attitude that we must reject. Still we must ask ourselves, do we negate the benefits of modern medicine because there are those who abuse prescription drugs? Do we stop giving to charitable organizations because there are those who have embezzled funds?

Certainly, I’m not advocating a return to empty rituals, I’m inviting us to experience the grace that comes from recovering a neglected Spiritual Discipline. In the days that come, we’ll explore what Richard Foster and the Bible have to say about the Discipline of Confession and we’ll take some time to walk through its practice. I expect it to be uncomfortable, but I hope and pray that, like any exercise, it will bring us benefit from its practice.

What would you say about the Discipline of Confession as we begin? What, if any, experience do you have with its practice? Have you experienced any benefit from it? Have you witnessed its abuse? Share your thoughts with me in the comments section.

Photo credit: “Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Toulouse – chapelle des reliques – Confessionnal” by Didier Descounes utilized in accordance with a Creative Commons 4.0 license.

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As we close our time in the Sprititual Discipline of Service as considered in the book Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, I think that it’s important to relate my own experience with it during the past week. For me, as Foster suggests, my focus on service has been an exercise in the cultivation of humility.

Perhaps a bit of background might help to explain. I grew up in a household with pretty strict divisions of labor. Tasks were assigned by sex, age, and/or experience. For example, unless it had to do with the grill, my dad was strictly uninvolved with meals. In the same way, I never remember seeing my mom out in the driveway with my dad when it came time to change the oil in my car. And when it came to the menial tasks like setting the table, or doing the dishes or cleaning up after the dog, that was the domain of the children. When we would ask our dad to buy a dishwasher he would usually laugh and say, “Why do I need another dishwasher? I already have three! Of course, he was referring to us, his three sons. Needless to say, we didn’t find his joke very amusing.

I relate my childhood experience to explain its effect: all of the above created in me an expectaction of a time when I too would be above certain tasks, when I would be able to dedicate myself to the important things, the manly things, and leave the tasks that I considered beneath me to others, namely my own children!

As I have spent time in reflection on the Discipline of Service, however, I have realized how it breaks down this division of labor, how it calls us to humble ourselves and to accept the personal responsibility to fill the need that’s before us. This is not to say that before this past week that I hadn’t done the dishes, or that I’d left Kelly to slave away in the kitchen to prepare each and every meal, but I have to admit that my default attitude toward such tasks had been that they were beneath me, that they didn’t belong to me. I would routinely find myself, as did the disciples before their last dinner with Jesus, making every attempt to avoid the menial yet necessary task, even when I was staring at, or perhaps, as in their case, smelling the call to service before me.

The most interesting observation for me, however, has been the freedom that this humility has given me to engage in truly meeting the need. Now, instead of complaining about something that has been left undone, I am free to simply do it myself. Instead of arguing about whose responsibility the task might be, I am liberated to simply step in and meet the need and enjoy the benefits for having done so.

Granted, this reflection is in no way suggesting that we shouldn’t come to an agreement beforehand about certain familial responsibilities or teach our children to participate around the home so that they too cultivate an attitude of service, but it does suggest that when others let us down, we still have a choice. We can pick them up or put them down. We can encourage through serving or embarrass through shaming. As we continue to progress in this discipline my prayer is that we will increasingly choose the former and not the latter.

How ahout you? As you’ve progressed this past week in the Discipline of Service or have had other experiences with this exercise, what have you observed either within you or among those you have served? I look forward to reading about your thoughts and experiences.

Image credit,”Washing dishes with soap“ by peapodlabs, used in accordance with a Creative Commons license.

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As we return to our consideration of the Spiritual Discipline of service, considered in the book, Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster, we turn from our pretexts for not serving, about which we spoke two days ago (i.e. we don’t want to be taken advantage of or be walked up like a doormat.) to now to look at our aversion to the activity of service. This quote from Foster seems to exemplify that aversion:

“In some ways we would prefer to hear Jesus’ call to deny father and mother, houses and land for the sake of the gospel than his word to wash feet. Radical self-denial gives the feel of adventure. If we forsake all, we even have the chance of glorious martyrdom. But in service we must experience the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves. Service banishes us to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial.”

Carrying our cross, following after Jesus to the “ends of the earth.” that is the stuff of sermons, the call that fills the altars, the great work that we feel that we must do, but washing the dishes, setting up chairs, sitting and listening to that person we know will carry on about their difficulties, that is that slow death that we wish to avoid. And yet, if we are to embrace the Disciplines and their work in us , shouldn’t we seek after those deaths, knowing that it will prepare us for that great work that we feel we have been called to accomplish?

Perhaps a change in perspective is what we need. Caedmon’s Call recorded a song some time ago called “Sacred“. It’s a song of a mom asking the question “Could it be that everything is sacred?” as she serves her small children. The chorus ends, “Could it be that everything is sacred, and all this time, everything I’ve dreamed of (that calling, that great work), that has been right before my eyes?” Service, then, may not the distraction from the work that we are called to do but the way to step into it.

What are the areas that you feel have been pulling you from your “calling” today? Household chores undone, a child’s homework, a dirty diaper, a friend’s telephone call? Perhaps it’s not a distraction but an opportunity. Why not try to embrace that moment of service, understanding that if we are to be great we must first become a servant (Matt 20:25-28). If you can, share about the experience.

Image credits: Jesus washing feet statue WLC by txnetstars, used in accordance with a Creative Commons license.

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For the past few weeks I’ve been writing on Facebook about the Spiritual Disciplines, first reflecting on the book Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard, and, more recently, the book, Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. In a conversation with my brother, Mike, he suggested that perhaps Facebook wasn’t the best place to post these more “long form” reflections, that perhaps a link to my own personal site might attract the kind of conversation that Facebook has failed to generate. Well, in the spirit of experimentation, which I’ve been trying to cultivate with the Disciplines, I’ve decided to try out his advice.

If you take a look at our past treatment of the disciplines, you’ll find that we’ve left off with the discipline of service. It’s my full intention to pick back up with that conversation shortly. However, the call to service this week has kept me from writing in the more consistent manner that I’m accustomed to. Still, it has not kept me from listening to podcasts, which I enjoy immensely, whether I’m exercising solo, commuting or doing household chores.

In the course of that listening I came upon what I thought was an incredible physical analogy for the Spiritual Disciplines. I heard it in the November 8th episode of the Run to the Top Podcast with Matt Fitzgerald called, “Pushing Your Limits.” I’ve include the link here for you to go and get it on iTunes or on the Android podcast player that I use, PlayerFM:

The show itself discusses mental toughness and how physical performance is enhanced by mental preparation, but it fits very well with Dallas Willards idea of the concept of the Spiritual Disciplines as that which are activities within our power that enable us to accomplish what we cannot do by direct effort because we meet with the actions of God (grace) with us.

His explanation of “inhibitory control” or could we say “self-denial” for the sake of a greater gain, at 10:13 in the episode, is especially interesting. Also of note is the way in which this type of control can be developed through intention, and transference (doing something easier to help form the toughness for the more difficult endeavor) which sound very much like Willard’s VIM model of spiritual transformation: vision, intention, and means. You can hear this part of the conversation starting at 16:45 in the podcast.

I invite you to give a listen to the podcast with your spiritual ears on and try to hear the various connections between the physical, emotional, and spiritual training of our bodies and the benefits that the Spiritual Disciplines might provide us for seeing progress, perhaps in all of those areas.

Whatever connections you find, be sure to share them in the comments section!

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March was a hectic month to say the least; playing host to two teams and a state-side trip had me wondering if I was coming or going. Add to that a seasonal sinus infection and I was primed for a personal pity party. At the lowest point, alone, on the road, congested and unable to sleep, I’m sure the thought “What difference does all this make, anyway?” had crossed my mind if not once then several times.

That’s not to say that good wasn’t being done. A roof was raised in Kiní, giving a growing congregation a place to meet, shaded from the blazing sun and protected from the rains that are soon to come. A church building was started in Tekax, breaking ground on a vision to reach that city of over 25,000 with its 90+ surrounding communities. Youth and adults were challenged to leave their comfort zone and join in God’s mission to reach the nations. But in the same way that prophets have been known to battle with self doubt, so this missionary was feeling the psychological burden of being over-extended, though his wounds may well have been self-inflicted.

A “chance” meeting on a Wednesday afternoon, then, was just what the doctor, or the psychologist ordered. A man by the name of Luis stopped by the building site in Tekax. He had met one of the team members from the church the evening before on the square and had wanted to thank him for taking the time to talk with him. While he was chatting with the pastor and the team member, he suddenly stopped and took a hard look at me, trying to place me as I took off my sunglasses.

“Did you lead a campaign here in Tekax eight years ago?,” he asked me.

“I had,” I told him. “My evangelism students from Bethel and I held a campaign in 2009 in one of the neighborhoods on the north side of the city.”

“Thank you,” he said. “I was saved on the last night of that campaign.”

All of a sudden, the hectic schedule, the physical exhaustion, perhaps even the sinus infection were but a distant memory. What difference does it make? For Luis, eight years ago, it made all the difference in the world.

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It’s hard to believe that it has been ten years since we spent our first ‘winter’ in Mérida. Although we headed into the Christmas season without the typical blustery winds or early snows of home, we could still hear the carols and melodies both in the stores and on the streets as choruses would sing the message of Christ’s birth for all to hear. There was also the smell of pine, as families purchased live trees to decorate to transform their homes for family gatherings and Christmas celebrations.(Here’s a video clip from our own Christmas tree adventure!) We learned that piñatas were popular with both kids and adults alike during this season, not just for birthdays. Reenacting the Christmas story was also a tradition. One year, our daughter even got to perform as Mary (see picture above).
 
Our first Christmas here, we were invited to share in the festivities of our pastor’s family. There, we discovered that gift giving happens at midnight after the Christmas Eve service and a late family meal. Christmas Day, then, becomes a continuation of family time and eating those all important dinner leftovers.
 
Throughout the past 10 years, we’ve seen that, although the expression may be different, the hope and expectation of the Savior is what unites us regardless of our differences. Thank you for joining with us that we may continue to proclaim this message so that this universal Body of Christ might continue to expand. 

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As we begin the New Year, we normally do it with good intentions. We see the possibility of a fresh start and shoot for the moon when it comes to making our resolutions. Then, reality hits and we find that it takes much more than good intentions to accomplish our plans. If we’re to reach our goals in 2016, it’s going to take perseverance.

That’s exactly what I’d like to share with you today: the story of one teen’s perseverance that has enabled him to reach a milestone in his young life and be a blessing at the same time.

Meet Dominic Juarez. He emailed me in late September of 2015:

I’m a member of the Royal Rangers at BVCC in Chula Vista California. We are currently working to complete our GLOBAL MISSIONS merit. One of the merit requirements is to send a CARE PACKAGE to a foreign missionary supported by our church – Bonita Valley Community Church in Bonita California. I picked you. Therefore, I’m sending this email in the hope that there are some things from here in the United States that you would enjoy receiving (FedEx or DHL) there in Mexico?

Now, while we live in a modern city and have access to many products from the US because of free trade agreements, there are certain items that we have difficulty buying here in Mérida. And, while we could certainly live without them, it is a blessing when we have opportunity to get them. For our kids, these amount to candy corn and jelly beans, to Kelly and myself, Bengal Spice Tea by Celestial Seasonings.

These products made up the list of items that we had sent off to Dominic. Of course, understanding that shipping to Mexico is a complicated procedure, we sent him the list with the resignation that the items might, in fact, never reach us. So, it was without surprise that we received this email from him a month later:

I wanted to give you an update on the care package we promised. We have purchased the goodies, but it has been a challenge getting it out to you. We were not aware of the regulations of international shipping. Since we live near the border, we drove into Tijuana to ship from DHL there. That seemed like the easiest and least expensive route. Not quite, so we brought the goodies back to San Diego. Then we did ship from San Diego using UPS. Well they neglected to inform us of Mexico’s consumable goods restrictions. UPS emailed today that the package is being Returned to Sender. Apparently we need some kind of authorization notice from Mexican Customs to ship candy, WOW. Just to let you know that we have not given up. We’ll try again and keep you updated.

We’d appreciated his intention, but when 2015 came to a close, we had assumed that the obstacles were, in fact, too great, and that he’d had to give up on his desire to bless us, perhaps even on receiving his Global Missions Merit. Imagine our surprise then, when an unexpected delivery reached our door just yesterday. As I signed for the delivery, I asked myself, “Could it be Dominic’s package?” As Kelly, Rebekah, and I opened it and found the items that we had listed, we were sure that it was.

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We sent a thank you email right away including the photos that you’ve seen above. To that, Manny’s father wrote the following:

…thank you for being part of Dominic’s path to his Gold Medal Award with Royal Rangers.
He kept reminding me of this to keep his word to you and to the Lord. You have made a difference in this young man.

He included the following picture of Dominic receiving his Silver Medal Award, a milestone on his path toward the Gold.

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Dominic’s determination and perseverance in the face of difficulty enabled him to find solutions to the problems that arose and helped him to keep his promise, reach his goal, and be a blessing.

How are you determining to be a Dominic in 2016? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section.

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Christmas is all about Christ, isn’t it? At least that was the core of the debate over the use of “Xmas,” a popular one in my childhood. Even now, with the plurality of holidays that seem to clutter the end of the year, the thoughts of many still turn to that event that split the calendar that we still use in two–the birth of Jesus.

Still, even though so many reflect on this day when God came near, it often seems so hard to enter into the spiritual interactions that we long for. With so many relatives, friends, and even strangers gathered together, the opportunities to turn the conversation to the spirit of the season, God’s activity in the here and now, seem to abound. Nevertheless, for many of us, it can be hard to move the conversation much deeper than the amount of snow that’s fallen outside.

What’s one to do? How can we interact with one another in a way that the season or any day truly deserves? How can we invite God into our conversations this Christmas?

I believe that the Bible, specifically the book of Acts, provides a template that we can use to direct our activities throughout the holidays and beyond, and it’s my prayer that this insight from Scripture will help you and your family put Christ back into Christmas, even it if be only in your circle of influence. First let’s look to the text:

Acts 8:26-401

26 As for Philip, an angel of the Lord said to him, “Go south down the desert road that runs from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and he met the treasurer of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under the Kandake, the queen of Ethiopia. The eunuch had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and he was now returning. Seated in his carriage, he was reading aloud from the book of the prophet Isaiah.

29 The Holy Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and walk along beside the carriage.”

30 Philip ran over and heard the man reading from the prophet Isaiah. Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

31 The man replied, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” And he urged Philip to come up into the carriage and sit with him.

32 The passage of Scripture he had been reading was this:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter.
And as a lamb is silent before the shearers,
he did not open his mouth.
33 He was humiliated and received no justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or someone else?” 35 So beginning with this same Scripture, Philip told him the Good News about Jesus.

36 As they rode along, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look! There’s some water! Why can’t I be baptized?” 38 He ordered the carriage to stop, and they went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Meanwhile, Philip found himself farther north at the town of Azotus. He preached the Good News there and in every town along the way until he came to Caesarea.

Now for those of you who are headed out the door to that office party or holiday potluck and are just interested in the steps to take to facilitate spiritual interaction here they are:

1. Pray for direction. (v.26, 29)
2. Obey the direction your receive. (v.27, 30)
3. Observe; hear the person’s story. (v.30)
4. Ask about their impressions, understanding, or need. (v.30)
5. Begin with the thoughts expressed. (v.35)
6. Explain God’s place in their story. (v.35)
7. Allow for the other to respond. (v.36)

For those of you with a bit more time, I offer some explanation:

The above passage is an excerpt of the account of Philip “the evangelist,” one of the seven deacons, “men full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom,” chosen in Acts chapter 6 to assist the apostles with equal food distribution among the church’s dependent widows. Prior to this passage, we see him, having fled the persecution of the church carried out by Saul of Tarsus, preaching in Samaria and carrying out a rather successful ministry. Under his work, the residents of this community received the message of Jesus, and many believed and were baptized after seeing the miraculous signs that accompanied his ministry.

Therefore, this encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch is a bit unexpected. At the center of a successful outreach, we would expect Philip to remain in order to consolidate the work, but, apparently, God had other plans. This leads us to the first step in building bridges toward spiritual interactions:

Pray for direction: Now while it is not overtly stated how Philip received his message in verse 26 to go to the desert road, we can assume that he was at least in an attitude that facilitated spiritual direction. In my mind, that points to an active devotional life, one which enables us to hear from God and recognize his voice.

This can be a big hurdle for many of us during the holiday season. With additional tasks on our list and events to attend, it can be tempting relegate to our daily time with God to the perfunctory prayers offered up at mealtimes or perhaps during the religious events that dot our calendar, but with Philip, we see just how essential his prayer life truly was. It was the catalyst that turned his attention to an encounter that would change the life of one man and perhaps opened an entire nation to the message of the gospel.2 Our prayers, as well, may be just what we need to prepare us to cooperate with God in the life of a loved one or sensitize us to a need lying just below the surface.

But how should we pray? A retired missionary, Lloyd Marsh, offers advice on this point. During his instruction on helping others to receive the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, he would teach them to ask God, “What do you want to do?” God has a plan for the people that we meet, we should be asking Him how He would like us to cooperate with Him in fulfilling that plan.

Obey the direction you receive. Some would argue that this point is unnecessary, as one should obviously do what God tells us to do. Nevertheless, many of us could probably recall the myriad opportunities that we had allowed to slip by for fear of awkwardness or rejection. However, determining to act upon the message that we receive or the impression that we feel can help us tremendously when the event arises.

In the case of Philip, we see two occasions when he received specific direction (v.26 and v.30), and, in each case, action immediately followed. It was his obedience to the direction that he received that made the real difference in the situation.

Likewise, although we pray, unless we take action, no difference will be made. A little book, The Ten Second Rule has been helpful to both Kelly and myself as we try to overcome our natural reluctance to take the next step in obedience. The basic premise of the book revolves around this idea: “Just do the next thing you’re reasonably certain Jesus wants you to do,” and do it in ten seconds or less.

Perhaps it will be a direction to speak with that uncle you’ve always avoided or an impression to get to know that other family during the school presentation that will lead to an unexpected blessing. You never know. One thing, however, should be determined in advance: inaction isn’t an option.

Observe; hear the person’s story. This is perhaps the biggest gift that we can give this holiday season, especially when our conversations have tendency to turn into competitions instead of true giving and receiving, if this Brian Regan video is any indication. James 1:19 says it best, “Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.”

This is precisely what we see in Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian. Having obeyed the command to walk beside the carriage, he was able to hear that the eunuch was reading from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, the prophecy of the “Suffering Servant,” one that Jesus fulfilled with his crucifixion and death. This observation supplied the explanation behind his unexpected direction and provided the opportunity that he needed to be able to intervene appropriately in the life of this high-ranking official.

As we spend time with others this holiday season, it could be a look or a sigh that, when noticed, might bring about an area of need where we could minister. On the other hand, a sermon or a reading from the Bible might generate an opportunity for sharing. The difference will be made when we intentionally choose to observe and develop our desire to bless others.

Ask about their impressions, understanding, or need. Sometimes, statements are made and are allowed to fall to the ground. Philip, having heard the scripture, could have walked away, satisfied that others, too, were reading the word of God. He didn’t. He asked a simple question which served to catapult the conversation into an explanation of the gospel: “Do you understand what you are reading?” (v.30)

We too can ask simple questions that may lead to deeper conversations. Questions like, “Why did you say that?” or “How did that make you feel?” may lead those around us to open up in a way that they normally wouldn’t. This is especially effective if they see that we’ve taken a genuine interest in the conversation that we’ve begun with them.

Begin with the thoughts expressed. When the opportunity does come for us to turn things to spiritual matters, a canned sermon, or a memorized script shouldn’t be our fall back. Instead, we should use Philip as our guide. He began with that same Scripture from Isaiah 53 to explain the gospel to the Ethiopian. It effectively answered the man’s question and stimulated his faith.

An admission of anxiety might allow us to share about God’s peace. An expression of loneliness might give us the opportunity to share about God sending us Immanuel “God with us” (further emphasized by our own presence with the person to whom we are ministering.) In each situation, we validate the person by hearing and responding to their situation.

Explain God’s place in their story. With Philip, the progression was natural. A scripture lead to an explanation of the ministry of the Messiah. For us, it may take a bit more thought, but the key lies in viewing our lives not as segmented compartments but as a unified whole. Once we allow God to encompass and invade every area of our own lives, connecting the current situation expressed with the activity of God in the person’s life will come more naturally.

Allow the other person to respond. Philip, after sharing his explanation, gave room for the eunuch to express his belief. His desire to be baptized signaled his acceptance of the explanation and his willingness to be initiated as a disciple of the one in whom he believed. Allowing room for others to express their reaction to our explanations may result in a request for prayer, an invite to talk further, or even, like in the case of Philip, a chance to lead someone to the Lord. The key is to make space in the conversation and to invite their response to your explanation.

Can move past superficiality this holiday season? I believe that the answer is yes, and the template that Philip models for us in Acts 8:26-40 shows us how we can. May the Lord help us to put this knowledge into action as we gather with others this Christmas and all throughout the coming year.

1 Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
2Irenaeus states that the Ethiopian eunuch was “sent into the regions of Ethiopia, to preach what he had himself believed.” CHURCH FATHERS: Against Heresies, III.12 (St. Irenaeus). Ed. Kevin Knight. New Advent. Web. 8 Dec. 2015. https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103312.htm

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I’m sitting here writing beginning to write these thoughts on Giving Tuesday, the day that we are reminded that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Still, as I look at my inbox, I see only four messages related to Giving Tuesday, while Black Friday and Cyber Monday offers are there by the dozen, and those are the ones left over after my first attempt to clear them away.

The first question I ask is, “How did I get signed up for so much junk mail?” but then I get a bit more philosophical about the situation. What is it that these companies know about us that causes them to bombard us with dozens of ways to accumulate more? Why does Thanksgiving seem more like the perfunctory calm before the storm of capitalist activity that is Black Friday instead of a day to truly celebrate all of the blessings that money can’t buy?

In the last session of our CHE vision seminar, we uncovered a few clues. As we talked about worldview, or the grid through which all of us interpret reality, we uncovered the fact that there are lies, or false building blocks, that can weaken a community and hinder its growth.

As we talked within the group, we began to see the effects of the idea of individualism, or the celebration of individual freedom over and above the well-being of the group. As we teased out the thought that personal happiness had become for many the ultimate goal, we found it to be quite a weighty anchor that slows the progress that we try to make in any community no matter how small.

The effects of prioritizing personal happiness could be seen in all sorts of evils from petty theft to marital infidelity. Besides, what couldn’t be justified if we have convinced ourselves that we’re only taking what we deserve?

The problem is that, over time, these cracks of justification weaken the foundation of trust established in the group. These fissures, then, if left unchecked, lead to the group’s ultimate demise. The testimony to this fact can be seen in any number of broken homes, ruined churches, or fractured communities.

So why is it that we find so many offers choking our inboxes at the start of this Christmas season? Perhaps it’s because we’ve failed to recognize the fact that we’ve been building with some false building blocks in our own lives. Perhaps we’ve fallen prey to the lie that inflates the importance of our personal happiness, telling us that each purchase we make, and each desire we satisfy, will move us closer to that goal. Or perhaps, as my wife says, we’ve simply not taken the time to unsubscribe ourselves from junk email lists.

Whatever the case, during this season of giving, let’s try to set aside some of those false building blocks we’re tempted to reach for. Let’s strengthen our communities with quality materials that carry an eternal guarantee. Let’s build one another up with the faith, hope, and love that Christ embodied on this earth and offers to all who would follow Him today.

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