TAKING THE NEXT STEP

Passage to read: Exodus 3:1-12

We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10, NIV).

Most of us probably remember the story of Moses being rescued from death as an infant. He grew up in the palace of the mighty Pharaoh given all of the blessings and privileges of royalty. But all of that was taken away one day when he took the issue of justice into his own hands and killed a man. This act ultimately caused him to run for his life. By the time of our reading in Exodus listed above, he was taking care of a flock of sheep out in the middle of nowhere. But, then God gave Moses and new purpose, a “next step” if you will.

I have a feeling that many of us fear that our most important and fulfilling days are in our past. Maybe you have left a good and promising career to raise a family, or maybe as you look around your house you notice all of your kids are grown and gone and you feel lonely, you are suffering from the “empty nest” syndrome. Maybe your skills which have brought you this far in life are of no longer of value due to the ever increasing advances in technology, or perhaps retirement is just around the corner and your mind is filled with uncertainty due to the unknown elements that come with that stage of life. Maybe you have just graduated and it’s time to move on to college and you are nervous and don’t know what to expect, or you’ve just finished college and it’s time to move out into the working world and your concerned about that “next step.” Whatever your situation in life, no matter where you are, God still has important work for you to do. It could be something as simple as sending notes of encouragement to those on your churches prayer list, it could be helping visitors feel welcome on their first visit. Or, it could be something as complex as advocating for the rights of the unborn, volunteering in the cancer wing of a hospital, or being on the elder board during the transition of bringing on a new pastor for your church. Whatever it is, no matter how big or small, no matter how insignificant or overwhelming it may seem to you, it is something God wants you to do. And, as He said to Moses He says to us, “I will be with you.” So, take that “next step,” whatever it is, and take it boldly.

Suggested prayer: Dear Lord, guide us to know what our next step should be as we seek to follow your will. Help us to trust you and serve you faithfully as we take that next step. No matter how big or small it may seem to us, we trust that in you there is a purpose for it. Please be with us and direct us in every stage of our lives. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ your Son. Amen.

MAKING EXCUSES

[God] said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you; when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain” (Exodus 3:12, NRSV).

If you have the time I would highly recommend that you read the surrounding passages of our chosen verse for the day (Exodus 3:7-12). It always helps to put a verse in its context.

I don’t know about you, but I have flaws, lots of them. Far too often I discover something new that I am unable to do well. My usual response is to spend much of my free time being a bit of a couch potato. I just sit there and watch TV or read a book. It’s safe there. I can’t fail doing these things unless I drift off into slumber for a while. At times I will use my weakness in an area as an excuse not to take any action. That way it’s easier to say, “I tried; but I am unable to do that because ______________.”

When reading through the Scriptures it’s clear to see that many people back then made excuses as well; and Moses is no exception. When the Israelites were being oppressed and God wanted Moses to lead them out of Egypt, what did Moses do? He protested, he made excuses, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” The excuse Moses made seems to be a bit of an echo of the kind of excuses I make at times. “I’m suppose to do _______? I can’t do that. I have way too many flaws for that. You should ask someone else more effective.” But just as God reassured Moses, he also reassures us: “I will be with you.”

Often times we allow our minds to only focus on our flaws or shortcomings. So, we think we are not smart enough, or that we don’t have enough talent, or that our speech or communication is not dignified enough. But God doesn’t need to make us “smarter” or more “talented” or more “dignified” in speech. Instead, when He calls us to something He simply promises to be with us, to remain with us, and in actuality that is all we need.

Suggested Prayer: Dear Lord God, we pray in the name of your Son that you would continue to be with us giving us all that we need to carry out your will in the area or areas that you have called us to. Help us to remove our focus off of our flaws and onto your promises so that we can boldly and faithfully accomplish the work that you have set aside for us to carry out. Amen.

*Adapted from “Excuses, Excuses” by Robert La Forge.

“I’M PROUD OF YOU”

The other day while I was online I got a message from my older sister. The message read, “I am proud of you. I would like to take you out to dinner this week, just us.” Jokingly I responded, “Are you sure you meant to send this to me?”

After my sarcastic reply I began contemplating why I had said it in the first place. Was I really joking, or was there maybe something a bit deeper. Well, it was a bit of both. It was indeed witty, but I also realized that since I have been old enough to retain memories, only two people have said the words “I’m proud of you” to me. One is a very dear friend (and he’s said it more than once), and the other was my sister in that message.

I’m not sure why I haven’t been told that more often. I didn’t grow up feeling like my parents were not proud of me. I guess they showed it in other ways, but still, hearing (or reading) those words is a powerful thing. Especially when said by a close friend, and even moreso when said by a family member.

Has anyone ever said “I am proud of you” to you? Well, I know of Someone who is. Even if you have heard those words regularly during your life, knowing a friend or family member is proud of you pales in comparison to knowing that the One who created all things is proud of you. If you are a child of God, if God has brought you to Him through His Son, then He is proud of you and ultimately that is all that matters.

Psalm 149:4, “For the LORD takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation” (ESV).

Matthew 12:18a, “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased” (ESV).

The Lord takes “pleasure in his people.” Are you one of God’s people? If so, then be assured. Has God “chosen” you? If so, then know He is proud.

If you have put your faith in Jesus Christ, God is proud of you. We come to God by grace through faith in His Son, if that describes you then know your Heavenly Father is proud of you. And not only is He proud, He will also reward you.

Hebrews 11:6, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (ESV).

NEEDING HELP

John 5:1-9

Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool… In these [structures supporting a roof] lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.

Now that day was the Sabbath” (ESV, emphasis added).

As we see at the end of this passage, this took place on the Sabbath. Jesus and the disciples were in Jerusalem when they came across several people who had various disabilities – blind, sick, lame – and were waiting by the pool of Bethesda. These people believed that the water in this pool contained healing capabilities. As they were walking by the pool, Jesus came across a man who had been sick for a very long time; and Jesus showed mercy to this man and healed him.

This is pretty emotional if you think about it. When Jesus asked him if he wanted to be healed, the man answered, “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” As I picture this in my mind I can see the man trying to get into the waters and repeatedly missing his chance for a very long time, 38 years in fact. That is, until the day Jesus crossed paths with him and changed his life forever.

This passage, in part, serves as a reminder to us that no matter how we try in our own power, some things cannot get accomplished without the help of Jesus. Far too often we try to do things all on our own only to have someone else “step down before us” (or prevent us from finishing, get in the way, cut ahead). And eventually, Jesus has to come along and tell us to “pick up our bed” (so to speak) and trust in His way and in His power in all that we do.

Suggested Prayer: “Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for always being with us through the good times, bad times, simple times, and difficult times. We confess we cannot make it on our own. Thank you Jesus for what you have done and continue to do. Please, guide us by your Word and the Holy Spirit each and every day.”

CULTURE & MINISTRY

Introduction:

Recently I was asked to plant a Bible and Theology Institute in Tanzania, East Africa, by a former student of mine who is affiliated with a Reformed Episcopal denomination. He is there now ministering in the “trenches” to people with a great need for Christ and as he stated “an urgent need for proper biblical and theological education.”

He informed me I could create the entire curriculum and would be able to operate the institute independently from his denomination. I would still be held accountable by my affiliations: Board of Advisers for my current ministry and institute, Elders from my ministerial fellowship (NACM), and the World Reformed Fellowship (WRF) of which both I and my ministry are affiliated with. So, it was an attractive offer as I could operate the institute as I see fit, while at the same time have the accountability needed for anyone who is active in ministry.

After much prayer, thought, reflection, study of the area I would be ministering in, and prayer from my pastor and congregation, I have determined that the call to this position is not what God has in store for me. However, while studying the culture of the area and exchanging emails with the minister who invited me to this position, I encountered something I felt the need to share. It’s nothing new, but something I think we, especially in America, need to be reminded of.

Many American Christians seem to exist in a bubble, a bubble of United States culture which causes them to feel the only application of biblical truth is the one they see through their own biased lens. I want to bring attention to this not by examining US culture, but by examining the African culture, Tanzania related culture to be specific. The gist of what I want to present is usually mentally assented to, but as missionaries know all too well, rarely carried out in the actual cultural filtering of biblical truth.

Just as is true in missionary work, and clearly when interpreting Scripture, the culture and audience of the people being reached is of utmost importance in figuring out how to effectively communicate the gospel. The importance of knowing what they believe, why they believe it, how they act, the basics of their language and symbolism, etc., cannot be underestimated.

Origin & Nature of Sin:

In order to teach the proper understanding of the origin and nature of sin in my above example, one would first need to learn how Africans, in particular for this case the different tribes or clans from Tanzania, look at sin and where it originated from.

To start, in traditional African belief the term “sin” doesn’t exist. They don’t use it because it’s a theological term which is unknown to them. The term that is common to their language which most closely matches “sin” would be “evil.” So, if a missionary or preacher wants to effectively share the gospel they would need to use the word “evil” in place of “sin” or, at the very least, give a proper definition of the word “sin” which the people could understand.

Even then, this culture defines evil/sin as anything that is harmful to the community. There is no evil/sin apart from that of violating the well being of the community. So, evil/sin is not even considered unless it violates a set of standards determined by the community. To them, evil is a matter of deeds or actions only. A baby would never be considered as having a corrupt or sinful nature as he or she has yet to begin doing anything “bad,” therefore they are innocent. In fact, the Basukuma people of Tanzania regard babies as angels which in their culture means they are without evil/sin.

Sin & The Individual:

The idea of individualism is foreign to the Basukuma and in African thinking as a whole. Any life lived out apart from community is considered an abomination, witchcraft, and/or sorcery. Africans are extremely communal and living as community is a continual experience. Whatever is accepted or valued by the community is seen as good. Following are some examples to emphasize this point:

  • Polygamy in Africa: Polygamy is not only considered normal, it is encouraged as a good practice as it increases the family in a rapid fashion; because in Africa having a large family is highly respected and leads to a good reputation. This practice is restricted only to males. If a married woman is found to have had intercourse outside her marriage the woman, and the man she had sex with, would almost surely be put to death.
  • Abuse of One’s Wife/Wives: Believe it or not, beating wives is not forbidden, in fact it is not considered the least bit taboo; it is common among many African tribes. For example, in the Kuria culture (another Tanzanian culture) being beaten by one’s husband is considered an act of expressing love. If a married woman is not beaten by her husband it is seen as a sign of neglect, of not being loved.
  • Violence Between Men: In a fight, if one is beaten badly and obtains injuries, they cannot attempt to press any charges or even call the police. The one who loses and gets hurt is expected to take care of himself, heal up, and then seek out the victor and befriend him. Charges are not brought against the one who does the damage in this culture because fighting is simply a way of determining braveness in the community. If the loser does call the police or tries to press charges he is considered weak and a coward, the community insults him by calling him a women and humiliating him. And guess how they handle the one who calls the police or tries to press charges? By violence. Revenge is sought out and usually will include more than just the original victor, but other men in the community as well.
  • Theft of Cattle: Stealing among the Masai people of Tanzania is common and acceptable. Stealing cattle from another community is seen as an act of bravery. They don’t even consider it stealing, they see it as taking back what belongs to them. When a young man goes to another community and steals cattle, upon his return his community greets him enthusiastically and congratulates him for his bold and brave act. Another reason this is acceptable is if a young man wants to marry, his father cannot pay the required dowry unless he steals cattle or kills either a lion or lioness. So, theft is encouraged among the Masai and is seen as an action done for the well being of the community and it brings a reputation of bravery to the young men who steal.
  • Wife Sharing: Another practice encouraged among the Masai culture is sharing wives. When a married young man is away from his family and another man comes to his home and sees the husband is gone, he may enter the house and have sex with the wife. Before entering he is to place his spear near the door so if the husband returns he will see that someone is with his wife and will not disturb them for that day. The husband is to remain outside until daybreak, or find shelter elsewhere, while the man inside fulfills his desires. And when he returns home he cannot blame the woman or the man for any wrong doing as it is simply the way of life among this community.

    The Tutsi people of Rwanda also practice wife sharing for sex. Friends share their wives with each other as a demonstration of their friendship with each other. When a man comes to visit his friend the host lets his wife have intercourse with the guest as a sign of true love toward his friend. Also, it is considered an acceptable act of entertainment for the visiting friend.

  • Sexual Purification: Among the Luo people who live in both Kenya and Tanzania, and the Kara and Kerewe people who live in Tanzania, there is a rite that is practiced to purify widows and widowers. This rite is called “kumtakasamfiwa.” When a husband or wife dies, after the burial ceremony has been completed, the widow or widower is required by the community to go out and find another man or woman to have sex with. Whether or not the person they have sex with is married doesn’t married, the rite must take place. These tribes believe if the rite is not carried out that the widow or widower will suffer from mental insanity and can then bring in a curse to the entire clan.

All of the above listed practices are legal in those cultures and are seen as proper and beneficial to their entire communities.

One last thing of note regarding communities in Africa; the African view of community is not limited to those alive in a given community. It also includes the world of spirits. When one goes against the community it not only offends the community but it offends the community of spirits as well.

Ancestors are viewed as the living dead in the sense that they are still living, although not visible with human eyes, and deal with the affairs of the community by contacting the living and solving their daily problems or issues. They also believe these “living dead” bless the community when they are pleased and satisfied and punish the community whenever they are offended.*

What’s the Point?

The point of all this, at least my point, is that numerous Christians in our country wear blinders. We think ministry and outreach must be done our way or the highway. This is particularly evident in online venues, discussion groups, blogs, and many other forums where self proclaimed ministers, discernment ministries, apologists, and the like, sit comfortably behind their keyboards without getting actively involved in anything. They criticize the smallest of non essential issues while so many places in the world are in dire need of spiritual direction and desperately need the Word of God.

In this short paper I addressed one tiny topic of one tiny area that needs to be culturally understood in order to effectively minister to the people there. These things need to be understood, not compromised but understood, in order for these people groups to even comprehend the Truth we have to show them. If we ignore culture, if we ignore their current beliefs, if we ignore their behavior, if we ignore the differences in language and definitions and simply tell them what they should and should not do, what they should and should not believe, we will not be effective in our witness.

The same is true for us in the United States. We must understand those who actively oppose, and those who simply believe differently, than us. Learning what they believe, why they believe it, etc., goes a long way in developing effective ways to interact and witness to them.

Conclusion:

Morality is not relative, this is true. God is not silent on this issue. He has set an ultimate standard on which he will judge every culture; the Bible is of course that standard. It is the ultimate standard which will judge every culture and it has universal ethical principles to guide every person. But in the same breath, to teach that standard, to teach those principles, understanding who it is you are addressing and the cultural norms of where they reside are of vital importance in being effective in this endeavor.

*Information for this section compiled and adapted from “Imputation of Sin: Did All Mankind Fall in Adam’s First Transgression?” by Rev. Elisha Ndema (Doctoral Dissertation, pp. 9-14, May 2015).

LISTEN CAREFULLY

Mark 4:23-25, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.’ And he said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and for the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away’” (ESV, emphasis mine).

John 5:24, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (ESV, emphasis mine).

The different contexts of the above passages is not what I would like to focus on for this devotional thought. What I do want us to focus on is the emphasis Jesus puts on hearing in both cases.

You know what I find interesting? How easy it is for us to remember the lyrics of songs from all genres. Whatever type of music we listen to it seems we absorb what we hear and can often name a song or remember lyrics as soon as we hear the first few notes. The other day as I was driving down the road I was listening to one of my CD’s (I know, old school, right?). As soon as the music started I began to sing the lyrics before the artist’s voice even made an appearance in the song. When this happened Jesus’ phrase in our reading from Mark came to mind, “…anyone who as ears to hear, let him hear… Pay attention to what you hear.” The words made me stop and think for a moment: “Do I really listen to words from God as I should? Do I focus with as much intent and pay as much attention to Scripture, sermons, etc., as I do (whether consciously or subconsciously) to songs playing from my speakers? Why can I recite lyrics without a problem yet Scripture memorization seems to be such a struggle?”

My intent is not to make anyone feel guilty, it’s simply to point out the importance of hearing and listening to what God may be “saying” to us. This is vital because paying careful attention to Scripture, sermons, lessons, and the “whispers” of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds helps us immensely with growing in our faith and Christian walk. If we devote all our attention to listening carefully to God, as many of us do with music, we will grow in our understanding and insight. Not only that, we will find ourselves growing in our relationship with Him as well. However, if we don’t pay attention, we risk the chance of losing our “perception of Christ and of God’s kingdom.”* Not to mention possibly missing an area of God’s will for our lives. If we dedicate ourselves to listening to God through his Word and Spirit with focused attention and eagerness, we will deepen and strengthen our faith.

Suggested Prayer: Dear Heavenly Father, we come before you asking for your help in being focused and attentive to what you have to say to us in your Word. We ask this so we can grow in our faith and knowledge of you and to deepen our relationship and personal walk with you. Make us hungry for your Word and excited to hear what you have to say to us through it. In the name of your Son we pray, amen.

*Quoted portion from “Learning to Listen” by Eugenie Daniels.

UNCOMPROMISING CHRISTIAN VALUES

Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (NIV).

Have you ever asked someone for directions to a particular place and they respond with, “Well, it depends on where you’re coming from.” It’s funny, but it’s also true. So, to make it clearer we need to add information such as “North, South, East & West.” When these are added you have fixed and unchanging variables in the equation so that now there can be no question.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Doctrines of Grace, but I believe in them and if they could be summed up in a word it would be “Sovereignty.” God has absolute and complete sovereignty over any and every aspect of our lives. However, that does not interfere with the truth that some parts of our lives are a simple matter of choice. For instance, I don’t believe God has necessarily predestined choices such as: what one decides to prepare for dinner, what one decides to wear for the day, whether one chooses a hobby such as Martial Arts, fishing, or football, etc. But for believers, for Christians, there are some values we need to have which are not negotiable. Some of these include: honesty, integrity, empathy, compassion, and proper justice. Jesus calls us to practice compassion and honesty, he tells us to be at peace with others whenever humanly possible, he instructs us to seek righteous and pure justice, and he calls us to be faithful to God regardless of our circumstances. These aspects of Christian living aren’t merely options, they are as set and unchanging as North, South, East & West. Jesus lived by these characteristics or standards and he has called us to live by them as well.

Prayer: Dear Lord Jesus, we ask that you help us honor you and live as you taught us and showed us by your example as we seek to live out the prayer pattern which you have given to us: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and power and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Matthew 6:9-13).