Saturday, December 31, 2022

Who Is Your King?

 {Judges 17:6; ESV}

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. 

The book of Judges is the account of the nation of Israel between the death of Joshua and the establishment of the monarchy with Saul and David. The recurring problem this young nation dealt with was the lack of leadership. As long as God provided them with a leader: Moses, Joshua, and the various Judges the people seemed to do what was right, but once these leaders were gone the people seemed to always follow the religious practices of the kingdoms around them.

Rather than being God’s covenant people, guided by the Law, Israel desired to be another Canaanite nation, adopting the practices of their neighbors.

Israel’s unwillingness to accept God’s rule led to the invasion of foreign kings. No Israelite king ruled Israel, but there were kings who ruled Israel. These kings were cruel and their actions devastated the nation and kept the Israelites in bondage. 

Because of Israel’s choice not to accept God’s invitation to be their King, God allowed the invasions of foreign kings to occur.

The Old Testament often gives us a picture of what historically happened as a metaphor to the spiritual reality of life. Just as Israel needed to surrender to God lordship, we too need to surrender to God's rule.

We may think we don’t need a king in our lives because we have the wisdom and the freedom to do what we think is best, but the reality is that we are bound by the chains of a tyrant. Many of us are chained and enslaved. 

The habits you cannot break are not the result of your weakness, but are chains given to us by a cruel master. The lust, selfishness, and greed of your heart are the chains in which you have been bound. “I am free,” we yell as we fall back into whatever addictions we have developed to cope with life.

The reason why we self medicate with sex, alcohol, Netflix, Amazon shopping, exercise, or food is because that is how we have learned to cope with life. This self medication can easily turn into addiction and slavery.

Peter wrote:
For you know that you were redeemed from your empty way of life inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of an unblemished and spotless lamb. — 1 Peter 1:18-19 (CSB)

We inherited a way of life from the world. It is all that we know and it seems like wisdom because it is how everyone else is living, but that way of life is really oppression. We need to be rescued from it.

Jesus is the King who came to rescue us. The foundation of the Gospel is that God’s good Kingdom is being brought into the world through Jesus. This was Jesus’s summary of his message:
From then on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near.” — 
Matthew 4:17 (CSB)

To repent, in this context of Kingdom, means to change our loyalties. I like to say that to repent is to defect from the kingdom of darkness and declare our allegiance to Jesus and his Kingdom.

We have a choice to make. Who will be our King?

Will we accept Jesus’s offer to be our King by repenting and following him or will we choose to be our own king too weak to stand against the oppressing forces the world sends our way?

The Bible teaches that Jesus is offering the opportunity to accept His Kingship to all people, but there will be a day when this invitation will cease. Jesus is preparing to return and on that day no one will be able to stand against Him. Everyone will bow before him, either in absolute terror or in absolute love, and worship the King of kings. 

Today is the day for you to defect from the kingdom of this world and become part of the Kingdom of Heaven. The day is coming when there will only be one King left standing, and on that day I want to be on his side.

Friday, December 30, 2022

A New Start

Today I am 49-years-old.

This past year has been a very good year in many ways. I was able to enjoy trips with my family to Virginia and to Northern Minnesota. I went on trip to Colorado with a group of pastor friends to do hiking and we conquered Mount Elbert, the second tallest peak in the lower 48 states. I have watched Bethlehem begin to rebound from COVID as we put on some wonderful events.

With all the good that has happened I still sit here on my birthday bummed and a little freaked out.

Last Thursday I went into the Emergency Room because I had pain in my left leg that had gotten worse all week long. With my history of blood clots (2013 and 2020) I was a little concerned that I had another, even though I was on a blood thinner (Eliquis). Sure enough I had another clot. Not only one clot, but three, two in my left leg and one in my right.

Next week I have an appointment to see Vascular Medicine at the Mayo Clinic, so hopefully we can figure out how we can prevent these clots from returning. I am scared about the fact that these clots formed while  I was on a blood thinner and was consistently getting 10,000 or more each day. I would appreciate your prayers, not only for healing and the doctor's wisdom, but also my mental health as I am stressed about another clot forming or one breaking off and going to my lungs or heart.

In the midst of this I have decided that I want to get back to blogging. For many years, (2004-2013), blogging was my main creative outline. I enjoyed writing out my thoughts for other people to read. 

A lot happened that slowed down my blogging. I got married, had kids, shifted time to social media, and became pastor of Bethlehem Church. 

Now that my kids are older and I want to spend less time on Facebook and Twitter, I thought it was the perfect time to get Paul's Ponderings going again. I want to have a place to share my thoughts as I go though this blood clot journey and work on getting healthy, as well as my thoughts on spiritual formation and discipleship.

I hope that you will join me and that I can be an encouragement to you along the way.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The Discipleship Road: Providence

 I am preaching a sermon series called The Discipleship Road at Bethlehem Church. The series is loosely based on Eugene Peterson’s book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. 

The big idea I have for the series is: Discipleship takes us from the place we don’t want to be to the place God has prepared for us. 

Discipleship is like a long journey. It starts with the realization that we are in a place that we don’t want to be, or that we are not the people we want to be, and that we are committed to doing what it takes to change.

Yet, maybe the most important part of that is the understanding that we need God’s help to make this possible. A disciple of Jesus acknowledges that everything, even faith and repentance, are ultimately gifts from God.

Text: Psalm 121
Bottomline: Our Discipleship journey relies on God’s power and help.
Challenge: Daily surrender your discipleship to God.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Prayer is Essential to Change

The world that we live in is not what it should be. On a daily basis we are saddened to hear about the murders, disasters, wars, and other tragedies that dominate our headlines. 

Even though we are saddened, we know that there is little that we dan do to change the major issues that face the world. So what are we to do?

As cliché as it might sound, we who follow Jesus are called to pray. It is through prayer that we experience change.

The reality is that we have very little control over what goes on in this world, but what we do have control over is how we live. While we our actions may not result in world peace or solve world hunger or diminish crime in our communities, our choice to love, to forgive, and to serve can have a huge impact on those around us.

Here is the issue, we are not naturally loving, forgiving, or merciful. We tend to be selfish, prideful, and untrustworthy. In other words, we contribute to the problems in the world, rather than doing what we can do to relieve the issues in our part of the world.

This is why change is crucial.

If all our failed attempts to change have taught us anything, it is that we need help to change. We can’t change on our own, especially in ways that make this world a better place.

Ephesians 3:14-18 (NLT)
When I think of all this, I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is.

Paul’s prayer for the people who received his letter was that they would  receive what they needed, that they would be strengthened and experience God, and that they would have a knowledge of God’s love. This was a prayer for the Ephesians to experience transformation. A transformation that allows them to know and experience God in a new way.

This is a transformation that cannot happen apart from God working in our lives. The deep work that needs to happen in our hearts and minds can only be done through the work of the Spirit. Without prayer and surrendering our wills this transformation is not going to happen.

While it is important for us to pray for healing or friends, family, and acquaintances, it is equally important for us to pray prayers similar to Paul’s for ourselves and our church families. Without God’s work, change will not happen.

Make prayer an essential part of your spiritual formation.


Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Discipleship Road: Repentance

 At Bethlehem Church I have started a new sermon series entitled The Discipleship Road. It is loosely based off Eugene Peterson’s book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. The point of the series is to emphasize the importance of being committed to the discipleship process. Being a disciple of Jesus is a journey that is going to take the rest of our lives.

This first sermon looks at repentance. Repentance starts with the realization that we are in a place that we don’t want to be in or that we are not the person that we want to be. That is motivation that gets us started on the journey.

Text: Psalm 120 
Bottomline: Our Discipleship Journey begins with repentance. 
Challenge: Daily Confess That You are not where You want to be. Ask God to rescue you.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Living a God Honoring Life

We are created in God’s image.

The main point of that reality is that we are to be God’s representatives in the world. I like to say, “We are created to demonstrate God’s character.” 

Demonstrating God’s character means, like any good representative, that we bring honor to Him. Our lives should honor God.

This is how Jesus lived. 

On two occasions (his baptism and the transfiguration) God declared that He was pleased with Jesus (Matthew 3:17 and Matthew 17:6). Jesus lived the life that God desired him to live.

A question I need to ask myself is: Do I seek please God with my life? 

I confess the answer is scary. 

Honestly, I have a desire to honor God and to please Him with the way I live. If that wasn’t the case I wouldn’t be a pastor and I wouldn’t spend so much time thinking, writing, and talking about following Jesus.

There is no doubt that I want to live a life that honors God.

Yet, when I take an honest evaluation of my life, I get discouraged by the lack of intention that I put into actually living a life that follows Jesus and honors God.

I realize that part of this is human nature. It is hard to give up our agendas and pursue God. 

We are trained to think about what is best for ourselves and to look after number 1. Perhaps it should come to no surprise that part of what Paul prayed for the Colossians, people he had never met, was that they would live lives that honored God.

In order to honor and please God, I must have a knowledge of God’s will. 

The number one way to know God’s will is to be a student of Scripture. This includes personal reading and study to sitting under the instruction of qualified teachers. We need to be diligent and intentional in learning for God’s Word.

To honor and please God, I need to be a person of prayer. 

Paul prayed that God will fill the Colossians with a knowledge of His will and spiritual understanding. While it is essential for us to be intentional students of the Bible, the reality is that part of being a student is asking for help. Through prayer we can ask the Author for the help we need in understanding.

To honor and please God, I need to obey. 

It is one thing to know what to do, but it is another to do it. Remember, faith isn’t so much about believing the truth at it is about living the truth. By living out the truth we know we discover even more and deeper truths about God. 

Living out the truth isn’t just about living a moral life and going to church. It is also about bending our wills to the will of God. It is about doing those hard things that He asks us to do that we don’t want to do.

It isn’t easy to live a life that honors and pleases God. 

The easiest thing to do, in the short term, is to continue to live the way I want to live. That way of life requires little effort from me.

We were created to demonstrate God’s character, so for us to experience life at its fullest, we have to intentionally seek to do God’s will. In this way, we will live a life that honors God.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Bible is not an Answer Book

 I love the Bible. 

In fact, I believe that people who follow Jesus should be readers and students of the Bible. In the Bible we discover God, His character, and His will. 

Without the Bible we would not be able to follow Jesus or be the people God created us to be.

Last year I lead Bethlehem Church through The Story to give us a good overview of what the Bible is about. One of the things I constantly talked about through that series is that the Bible is gift from God. In all the 30 sermons I preached, I said, “We need to read, study, meditate on, and pray the Bible to be good stewards of the gift God has given to us.”

Even though I have a high view of Scripture, I also understand that it has limitations.

As modern readers of the Bible, we often approach it as if it has the answer to all of life’s questions. That is a primary reason why we  read and study the Bible: to have all the right answers.

Instead of viewing the Bible as an answer book, we need to see the Bible  as a tool to help create a worldview. It may not provide the answers to all the questions asked in our culture, but it does provide a framework that helps us create a Christian worldview.

I have been pondering how we use the Bible the past few days for a couple of reasons.

1. BibleProject has a podcast series that looks at ancient cosmology. One of the key points in the series is looking at how the Biblical account of creation is in dialogue and debate with the other ancient creation myths. 

Many Western Christians, for the past 120 years or so, have used the Bible to provide facts and answers about the beginning of the universe. The problem is that the Bible was not written to answer modern scientific questions. It was written to give God’s people a particular view of the world and to combat the pagan religious views of their neighbors.

Therefore, we shouldn’t expect the Bible to give us definitive answers about the how and when of creation, but we should expect it to give us an understanding about who God is and why He created the world.

2. Preston Sprinkle wrote:

If someone experiences and congruent between their biological sex and their gender, which one determines who they are—and why? What does the Bible say about this question?

That’s the problem. The Bible doesn’t directly ask and answer this question. There’s no verse in, say, Leviticus 28 that says, “If thy gender identity does not match thy biological sex, then thine body is who you really are.” Or whatever. (There is no Leviticus 28, in case you are flipping pages to check.) But the Bible does say quite a few relevant things about human nature and the importance of our biological sex which will position us to cultivate a theologically informed and biblically rooted answer to our question. (Embodied, p. 63)

After doing lots of research, Sprinkle admits that the Bible doesn’t contain the answers to the questions surrounding the transgender conversation. You can’t compile a list of verses that deal specifically with these issues. 

Not only is this true for the transgender conversation, but it is true for many of the questions we have today. Our culture is significantly different from the cultures that the Bible was originally written for. We shouldn’t expect to to have answers to our modern questions.

Since the Bible is God’s gift to His people, we can expect that it will give us a proper perspective to see the world.

It is important to make this shift away from seeing the Bible as an answer book to one that helps us create a Christian worldview.

God did not give us the Bible so we can have all the right answers. 

Rather, He gave us the Bible so we can become the right type of people. 

If we primarily use the Bible to have the right answers, to win arguments, and to point out other people’s sin then we are using the Bible wrong.

The Bible should help form us into the people God created us to be. One of the ways it does that is to create a proper perspective for us to see the world.

Let the Bible form your worldview.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The Best Motivation

 Our motivations matter.

We can do the right thing for the wrong reasons, but eventually we will be discovered to be a fake.

On the other hand, we can do things wrong and make mistakes, but if we do them for the right reasons those things become lessons that help us get better.

There are many different reasons why a person would follow Jesus. 

Fear is a big motivation. We are afraid of going to hell, so we want to follow Jesus to avoid the punishment.

Obligation is another reason. We think, “Jesus died for me, so I guess I had better go to church.” Our obedience is something that we feel like we need to do.

Expectation might be another reason. Our family and friends are Christians, so we feel like we are expected to be Christians as well.

Reward is a motivation for following Jesus. Not only do we want to escape Hell, but we want to enjoy the eternal life God has created for His people. We keep the end in mind to remind us what it is important to follow Jesus.

While all these motivations have their place, they miss the most important reason for following Jesus.

The best motivation we can have when it comes to following Jesus is love.

John wrote:

Love is the best motivation for following Jesus because it is a response to the love Jesus had for us.

It was love that motivated Jesus to show compassion and heal people. It was love that motivated Jesus to spend time with those on the margins of society. It was love that motivated Jesus to stand against the oppressive behavior of the religious leaders. It was love that motivated Jesus to leave Heaven, become a man, and die a painful death on a Roman cross.

Love is what motivated Jesus.

The proper response to love is love.

This means that the more we experience God’s love, the more our understanding of Jesus grows, and the more the Holy Spirit transforms our hearts, the stronger our love for God becomes.

Fear may have been the reason why we first decided to follow Jesus. A sense of obligation might be the reason why we first started to be committed in our weekly church attendance. The expectation of friends and family might have been the reason why we started to worship. Our starting motivation doesn’t matter, what matters is the reason why we continue to follow Jesus.

One of the ways we know we are growing in our faith is because motivation becomes more about our love for Jesus than it does anything else.

There is no formula for learning to love Jesus. It happens as we study Scripture, as we engage in the work of ministry, as we sacrifice in our giving, as we spend time in prayer, and as build friendships with other Christians. Just like other relationships, love grows stronger the more time you spend with them.

Follow Jesus because you love him.

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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Don’t Neglect to Train


Practice makes perfect.

This old saying reminds us of a basic truth: In order to do things well we need to learn how to do them.

This is a process that takes time. The repetition that happens through practice is essential for learning fundamentals and building muscle memory. Both are needed to make a new skill become like second nature in our lives.

If we are going to do something well we have practice doing it.

A musician needs to learn how to read music, to play scales, and to keep time before any actual music can even be played. Even then hours of practice are required to play a piece of music well.

A basketball player needs to learn how to dribble, pass, and shoot so he can play with other players. After that hours of practicing the game is needed before an actual game can be played so that both player and team play well.

Practice is a universal law governing how we improve a skill or a talent.

Since this is the case, why have we overlooked the importance of practice when it comes to our spiritual development?

Perhaps it is because we don’t want to be accused of doing “works” to earn our salvation.

Perhaps it is because we don’t have a coach, teacher, or mentor guiding us through what we need to do.

Whatever the reason, we have neglected the development of our spirits.

C. E. Orr in his book How to Live a Holy Life wrote:

One of the main problems for American Christians today is an understanding of spiritual formation. They have confessed their sin, repented, declared their faith in Jesus, and have been baptized, but then they have been abandoned to figure things out for themselves.

The American church lacks true discipleship.

Reflect on what the apostle Paul told Timothy:

Paul reminded Timothy not to waste his life in doing things that did not matter. Timothy could spend his life arguing against the silly myths of the day, which would take time but ultimately would be ineffective and a waste of his time.

Timothy could also devote his time to healthy living and exercise, which would benefit the body, but would have minimal impact on his spiritual formation.

Instead Paul told him to train for godliness.

How do we do that?

If we approach our spiritual formation in Jesus like we approach training and practice in other areas, like music and sports, then I think we can see two commitments we must make.

First, we need to commit to spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are activities that God’s people have historically done to mature as people of faith. In fact, many of these disciplines are things that Jesus during his time on earth. These disciplines include activities such as Bible study, prayer, fasting, giving, and worship. These things are the equivalent of learning how to play a music scale or learning how to dribble a basketball. They are want teach your mind, heart, soul, and body how to act when faced with the realities of life.

Second, we need to commit to Christian duties. Duties are those things that God expects His people to do. They include things like serving people, forgiving those people who hurt us, sacrificing time and money to help make disciples, and standing up for what is right. These are not things that we do naturally or even enjoy doing, and that is why they become duties. When we do them, because of our love for God, they teach us humility and loving neighbor as ourselves. These duties are much like practice. They are boring, just like playing the same piece of music a thousand different times or going to basketball practice day after day and compete against the same people, but they help you get ready for the concert or game. When we make the choice to do these duties we are preparing to meet the unpredictable choices that we face in life.

If we are going to be like Jesus we need to train to be like him. This training is going to take a lot of hard work on our part and a lot of grace on God’s part, but working together transformation will take place.

We can be conformed into the image of Jesus!

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Friday, September 10, 2021

Trust God to Forgive

It is never easy to admit that we have made a mistake. 

The bigger the mistake the more we want to hide it, deny it, or ignore it. 

It is no wonder that we have a hard time confessing our sin, even in our private prayers to God. The result is that we carry around a complex baggage of guilt, shame, temptation, and habitual sin. This reality makes it difficult to accept God’s promise of forgiveness.

I know that I find it hard to confess my sins to God because I am embarrassed about what my sin reveals about my weakness. 

 After all I should know better! 

 “If I truly had faith,” I reason, “this sin wouldn’t be a problem.”

As a result I keep my distance from God. I don’t want to be weak faithless fool before Him.

Perhaps you struggle with asking for forgiveness because you are afraid of God. 

There is a voice inside of your mind telling you that if you confess your sins to God then He will punish you.  

“After all,” you think,  “isn’t God going to judge lawbreakers?”

In his book Created to Be God’s Friend, Henry Blackaby wrote:

Faith is lived out through trust. 

The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Do I trust God to forgive me? 

If we don’t trust God to forgive then we won’t turn to Him and confess our sins. 

Instead we will run away and hide. We will ignore the sin that is ruining our lives. We will do every thing we can think of to avoid God.

For us to trust people we have to believe that they have our best interest at heart.

This means we need to answer this question: Is there any reason why we should trust God to forgive us?
The reason we can trust God is Jesus. 

The life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is the evidence we need to trust that God will forgive us. This is true, no matter who we are or what we have done.

The writer of the book of Hebrews gave us this gem of truth:

How do we come before the throne of God? 

First, it requires our surrender to Jesus Christ as Lord. If we are not willing to be a follower of Jesus it is impossible for us to experience God’s gift of forgiveness. Jesus is the High Priest who has prepared the way to God. There is no other way to forgiveness except through Jesus.

Second, we need to confess our sins to God through prayer. God knows our sins, and He has declared His willingness to forgive. Yet, forgiveness requires the acknowledgement that we have done something wrong. This is an act of trust, because we need to believe that God has our best interest at heart. So we confess our sin because we trust that God will forgive us.

Third, we need to worship God. From singing praise songs to serving people in need, it is important that we set our hearts towards God. Worship requires the right motivation more than it requires the right actions. We can go through the motions of worship without love and trust. Worship that is grounded in faith is the type of worship that God desires from us.

Living in these bodies of flesh in this world means that sin will be a part of our lives. 

Not only do we need constantly struggle with sin to eliminate it from our lives, we also have to trust God to forgive us when we sin. 

God is gracious and willing to forgive us, but we need to turn to Him and ask for it.

Trust God to forgive you.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Committed to the Body

Something that has been on my mind recently is our commitment to the local church.

As a pastor this is something that concerns me a great deal. The church, a local community of Jesus followers, is a gift from God. 

In the church we have people who are there to support us, encourage us, grieve with us, and help us. It is a community where we find acceptance and belonging. At its best a local church provides the environment needed for discipleship to happen.

Granted, local churches are rarely at their best. The realities of poor leadership, personal agendas, and inconsistent attendance make it difficult for the church to feel like home. 

I agree, being part of a local church can be a lot of work and it can be messy. There are many reasons that making a commitment to a local church is difficult.

This morning on Twitter I saw this:

I think many of the problems we have with the various expressions of the local church come back to consumerism. 

We have these expectations of what the church should be like and when it doesn’t live up to our expectations we are willing to leave. It doesn’t matter that we are handicapping that church as they seek to take the Gospel into the world, because our needs aren’t being met.

All our different expectations are not what makes a church a church.

The reality is that there is not much a group of believers need in order to form a church. One thing that is essential for a church to exist is commitment.

We were created to bear God’s image in this world. The full expression of that image comes when we are working together as we love one another as we serve the world. 

That is when we truly become the body of Christ.

This is why leaving a local church family handicaps them. It is like removing a hand, leg, or eye from a person. Sure, he still can function, but his ability to do work is limited.

Leaving a church may not kill the church, but you make it more difficult for them to do ministry.

I am not saying you can never leave a church.

I am saying that by making the church something you attend or a service that you receive, you make it easy to hop from church to church when your expectations are not met. 

In this way you handicap the mission of the church.

Being committed to a local church is a responsibility that we have as followers of Jesus. 

I want to encourage you to commit to a local church, even if the sermons are boring, the music off key, and the people are a mess, because you will be a blessing to them, and through them God will bless you.

The Spiritually Mature Life: Having the Fruit

On Sunday, April 7, 2024, I started a new sermon series at Bethlehem Church called A Spiritually Mature Life. This sermon series is focused ...