Opening Our Eyes

“Rescue those who are unjustly sentenced to die; save them as they stagger to their death. Don’t excuse yourself by saying, “Look, we didn’t know.” For God understands all hearts, and he sees you. He who guards your soul knows you knew. He will repay all people as their actions deserve.”  – Proverbs 24:11-12.

It is easier to close your eyes. Homeless and poor people go unseen everyday, as those more fortunate walk by, ignoring their existence on sidewalks, in parks, in subway stations. But perhaps the time we most close our eyes is when the poor ask for help. Requests like “Spare change?” “Got a dollar? and “Please help” overwhelmingly fall on deaf ears and diverted eyes.

When we look with open eyes, the world can appear an unfair and compassionless place. It is a large issue. It is difficult to get our arms and minds around this issue. What can we do in the face of so large a problem? It is easier to shut our eyes. The poor are real, but maybe they will seem a little less real if we can divorce ourselves somehow from their plight and go on with our life. But even if we close our eyes they are still there.

God does not want us to close our eyes. Throughout the Bible, it is made clear that the poor and the oppressed have a special place in the heart of God. God could have manifested himself as the supreme ruler of the world, but instead was born in a manger, lived as a humble carpenter, and acted as a servant to all He encountered. Paul reminds us of that in 2 Corinthians 8:9: “You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich.” When Jesus announced his ministry, he read from Isaiah (61:1-2) that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” (Luke 4:18-19).  Jesus also actively calls us to prioritize the poor as He did. He says, “When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,” he said, “don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.” (Luke 14:12-14).

God cares whether we open or close our eyes. A preferential option for the poor is not optional. So how can we open our eyes to the poor all around us?

Note: Wednesday’s Devotional is on what we can do as individuals and as a church to help the poor in our area.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What was your big take away from this week’s message?
  2. Mayor Bob Free said, “The majority of the issues that our community is facing would be eliminated or drastically reduced if we could just figure out a way to become a community of great neighbors.” Agree or disagree? Do you think this applies to the poor?
  3. What would happen if everyone made it a point to open their eyes to what is happening in our area? 

Poverty Unplugged

“Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. By doing this they will be storing up their treasure as a good foundation for the future so that they may experience true life.”  1 Timothy 6:17-19.   

Poverty and the poor. When you hear those words, a predictable series of images probably flicker through your mind: A homeless man living under an overpass in a major city. A shoeless child on the streets of Haiti. A jobless widow in Kenya. But there are people in need closer to home than we may think. When we think of these people, we rightly want to help. But how? Good intentions are not enough. We tend to think of poverty as a lack of material things like money, food, or housing. So our first instinct is to give those things to people who are poor. While that may work in the short term, we have other avenues as a church and as individuals to help the poor in the world and in our backyards. 

Here are some things to consider as you think about how we as a church and as individuals can help the poor in our area. First, remember that we are all poor in some way. I’m poor too. I’m in need too. I’m broken too. The world divides people into “those who need help” and “those who offer help.” The truth is we are both. We are all “poor” in that we experience less than the fullness that God intended for us. For those people who are wealthy, poverty takes the form of materialism, workaholic tendencies, arrogance or superiority that looks down on the less fortunate’s love for them.

We need to understand that people who are physically poor are not necessarily also poor in spirit. Don’t pity poor people; view them as equals who simply have less material goods than you do. Let the poor know that not only has God not forgotten them, but Jesus Himself identifies with them. When we approach the poor with an attitude of superiority or when we treat them like projects to be fixed, we forget our own dependence on Christ’s grace. 

Both the “helpers” and the “helped” are loved by God, they have dignity as people made in the image of God. They are designed for community with one another. Always respect the dignity of every person because they are extremely important and valuable to God.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Read Zechariah 7:9-10: The Bible talks a great deal about the the poor, widow, foreigner and orphan. In what specific ways are each of these four groups at a disadvantage in society?
  2. What dangers do the poor, widow and orphans face if there is no one to intervene on their behalf?
  3. Thinking of each of these three categories of people, what are practical ways an individual or the church could possibly get involved?
  4. How do we respect the dignity of each of these groups? What rewards do you think you would experience from helping these people?

Like A Good Neighbor

“A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”- Matthew 22:39-40.

If you heard just the first part of the commercial that says, “And like a good neighbor,” most people would say or sing “State Farm is there.” State Farm’s advertising campaign has centered on State Farm customers who, in moments of crisis, are able to summon their agents out of thin air by singing the famous jingle: “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” The advertising is intended to reinforce the idea that State Farm agents, like a good neighbor, are there, whenever and wherever you need them. It makes me ask whether we as believers are also there for people when they are in a crisis, or when they are lonely.

Yes, we should have empathy for other people, but if we want to be a good neighbor, it requires action. Remember the story of the good Samaritan. We rarely consider the Priest and the Levite in this story. They are irrelevant because they made a decision to be uninvolved. Their legacy remains that they were too busy to help. The result is that we don’t waste our time on studying them and learn how to do “nothing.” Instead, we concentrate on the Samaritan because he embodies what it means to be a good neighbor. 

To be a good neighbor, we need to open our eyes and see people. Before the Samaritan could help the man in the ditch he had to see him. When Jesus said, “open your eyes and look at the fields” He was talking about people, all kinds of people; neighbors, friends, relatives to name a few. How long has it been since we looked and saw the opportunity to minister to someone in need, to be a good neighbor?

To be a good neighbor means we reach out to those who may be strangers at this time. It also means we may need to repair past relationships. Consider the “one anothers” of Scripture and you will come to the obvious conclusion that God wants us to be all about one another, even if we have “gotten crossways.” The way to do that is to love people. The Samaritan obviously saw the man lying in the ditch and needing help. We may not deal with people who have been robbed, beaten, and left for dead. However, speaking a kind word or taking an interest will help someone who feels robbed by life, beaten up by his circumstances, and lonely. 

I pray that this series we are motivated to get involved and serve people. The Samaritan opened his eyes, his heart, and his hands. Like the Samaritan, I hope we take a personal interest in those around us. I also hope that we make an investment in others. The greatest possession you can invest today is in yourself and your time?   That is what good neighbors do. 

Discussion Questions

  1. Loving our neighbors is an extension of our love for God and our love for ourselves.  Agree or disagree and why? How easy is it to love your neighbor as yourself?
  2. What part of the Good Samaritan parable had the biggest impact on you? Why?
  3. Did God give you an opportunity to love your neighbor this week? If so, what happened? What did you learn from the experience?
  4. What’s one change you can make in your life to put more love into action?

A Mad Rush

“…through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” – Romans 12:2.

Loneliness affects a huge number of people in a variety of ways resulting in a host of emotions, frustrations and circumstances. The person living next door to us may be in an extended season of deep loneliness. The immediate reaction is, well, it’s because they have no friends. Maybe they have few friends because they are awkward in social gatherings. There can be a rush to judgment.  Sometimes I pretend I don’t have time. All the tasks on my to-do list are incredibly important. I’m too busy to pay attention to their loneliness, answer that email. Too busy to help my neighbor. I’ve got a meeting. I’ve got to get that deal done.  Let’s face it, my life is pretty hectic.

Then there’s Jesus. When you study the life of Jesus, you never see Him rushing. He was busy, really busy, but He didn’t rush. Even when the end of his life drew closer, Jesus had time for other people’s problems. An example is found in Matthew 20.

Jesus was a man on a mission. He was going to save the world and had little time left. But even as He begins His final week of His life on earth, He does not rush. In fact, He stops to help two beggars. As Jesus and the disciples left the town of Jericho, a large crowd followed behind. Two blind men were sitting beside the road. When they heard that Jesus was coming that way, they began shouting, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” “Be quiet!” the crowd yelled at them. But they only shouted louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” When Jesus heard them, he stopped and called, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Lord,” they said, “we want to see!” Jesus felt sorry for them and touched their eyes. Instantly they could see! Then they followed him.” (Matthew 20:29-34)

There are numerous other examples of taking time for people. Jesus was and is never too busy for the broken, too hurried for the harried, or too occupied to extend His hand to help others. Nothing prevents him from loving us. If Jesus never rushed, then why should we? He lives in me and is working through me and surely He doesn’t need my rushing to accomplish His eternal purpose.

The psalmist too reminds us: “Be still, and know that I am God…!”(Psalm 46:10). We need to do just that. We need to slow down, to take notice and to respond to the people God places in our lives. 

Discussion Questions

  1. If you could summarize the meaning of rushing into one sentence, what would it be?
  2. How do we develop the ability to slow down? How do we develop the ability to see beyond ourselves?
  3. Can you think of examples from the scripture of how Jesus prioritized his life around the mission field? Time, conversations, leadership, friendships, etc.
  4. What can we do this week to be a better neighbor?

I’m All Ears

“In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.“ –  Psalms 5:3.

I often quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in this devotional. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and an anti-Nazi dissident. His writings on Christianity’s role in the secular world have become widely influential, and his book The Cost of Discipleship is a classic. Apart from his theological writings, Bonhoeffer was known for his staunch resistance to the Nazi dictatorship. That resistance led to two years of imprisonment, and finally death by hanging on April 9, 1945 as the Nazi regime was collapsing.

Eberhard Bethge, a student and friend of Bonhoeffer’s, writes of a man who saw the execution: “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a book on Christian community entitled Life Together. The following is a passage from that book on listening.   

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to Him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking when they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”

As I said on Sunday, most people don’t listen with intent to understand. Rather they listen with intent to reply. Our goal is not preparing a clever retort while the other person is talking. Our goal is to listen to others as God has listened to us. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. In your opinion, what are the main characteristics of a good listener? What characteristics or habits would disqualify someone from being a good listener?
  2. When it comes to listening well, what do you find most difficult? Why?
  3. What are some good listening skills we can develop in our relationship with the Lord? With other people?
  4. What can we do this week to listen to the lonely people around us?

The Untouchables

“When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” – Matthew 8:1-4

You are a man in your mid-20s. You have a wonderful wife and two children. You have a good job and a promising future. You have land and livestock. Then one day a sore appears on your leg. It’s not real painful so you are not worried. But the sore gets bigger and other sores appear on your arms and hands. The sores get bigger and bigger, until it almost covers much of your extremities. You go see a physician who tells you, “I am sorry to inform you that you have…leprosy. You are going to have to leave your wife and children, your land, your home, your job, and go off to live with the other lepers outside the town.”

You are stunned and terrified. You have just been given a death sentence. The process of dying by leprosy is worse than dying itself. Your body will slowly rot to pieces while you continue to live. What makes it even worse is the complete separation and isolation that is about to begin. The mental and emotional damage of leprosy is almost as bad the physical. You are required to stay away from people. Whenever somebody unknowingly comes near, you are required to shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” You cannot ever go home. You can never hold your wife, or play with your kids. If you see them, and touch them, they may get leprosy themselves. So you go off alone to rot and die. You wish you would die. Then one day, something happened that this man and his family would never forget.

You kneel before Jesus and say, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.” (Matthew 8:1-3) This man’s story is probably very similar to the one I  just told you. His situation is probably very similar as well. Jesus and others are getting closer, so he probably starts shouting, “Unclean! Unclean! And just as likely the people following Jesus stop in their tracks.  He doesn’t fault them for it. He understands. He would feel the same way if the roles were reversed.

But something strange happens. Jesus keeps coming closer. He doesn’t see or sense revulsion. He sees concern. He doesn’t see fear. He sees love. So he kneels and says, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.”  Jesus touched him and  said, “I am willing,…Be clean!”

Jesus could have healed the man without touching him. He can heal with just a word or from a safe distance. The touch said, “I am here with you. I sympathize with you when no one else does. I understand. I love you.”

If only we could reach out and touch the untouchable. Reach out and love the lonely.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What was your impression of leprosy before reading this devotional? How has that impression changed after reading this devotional?
  2. Why do you think Jesus touched the leper?
  3. Are there social outcasts in your neighborhood? 
  4. What can we do this week to reach out and touch, or help someone who is lonely this week?

Only The Lonely

Only The Lonely

Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.” – Psalm 25:16

Loneliness is one of life’s most miserable experiences. Everyone feels lonely at times, but is there a message for us in loneliness? Is there a way we can turn the tables and stop being lonely? Sometimes loneliness is a temporary condition that lasts a couple days. But when it lasts into months and years, then it is trying to tell us something. It could be an indication that there is a problem, and if not dealt with will only get worse, regardless of all the home remedies we try to make it go away.

Loneliness is God’s way of telling us that we have a relationship problem. While that may seem blatantly obvious, there’s more to it than just surrounding yourself with more people. Doing that is very similar to trying to stay busy, but using crowds instead of activities. God’s answer to loneliness is not the quantity of your relationships, but the quality.

The saying goes that it takes a village to raise a child. We are all part of a village in some way or another. And in every village you find people who are lonely. But what happens if a neighbor or friend in your village is lonely. They need the village to be more of a community because they need community just as much as the rest of us. They need friends who will walk through the challenges of life with them and see them through to the other side. They need people who will listen and act in love when needed. They need a village that is made up of a few believers who will go out and be God’s love in action.

What if we came together as believers and helped lift some of the burden off our neighbors and friends weary shoulders and love them through the good times and the bad?

No, we can’t do it all. We can’t help every lonely person. But, lets be intentional about working to include those who are lonely, no matter where we live, no matter how often we move, no matter how we feel. Let’s stretch out our hands and put in the work to help those suffering from loneliness. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is loneliness? What are some typical factors that contribute to loneliness? 
  2. What are some reasons we have a hard time acknowledging our loneliness to ourselves and others?
  3. How can we make a significant impact in the life of a neighbor who is experiencing loneliness?
  4. What are some practical ways you can you act like Jesus and love the lonely? What might be a practical way to connect with someone who is in your blind spot that is struggling with loneliness?

What Did I Get Myself Into?

“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” – I Samuel 12:14.

On one occasion, Thomas Beecher substituted for his famous brother Henry Ward Beecher at a church service. Many curiosity seekers had come to hear the renowned Henry Beecher speak. Therefore, when Thomas appeared in the pulpit instead, some of the people got up and started for the doors. Sensing that they were disappointed because he was substituting for his brother, Thomas Beecher raised his hand for silence and announced, “All those who came here this morning to worship Henry Ward Beecher may withdraw from the church; all who came to worship God may remain.”

How often do we jump to the wrong conclusion when meeting someone for the first time? How often have we come away with a bad first impression or when appearances are not what we were expecting? It happens in life and it certainly can happen in small groups as well. But appearances and first impressions are not always accurate and can lead to bad conclusions. And what’s more we may miss out on something that God has planned for us. Maybe God had something special to say through the words of the less famous brother Thomas Beecher.

Maybe your first impression, or even your general impression of small groups is not positive. Maybe you had a bad experience. Or maybe the group you tried did not fulfill your expectations. Maybe, with all good intentions, church leadership has over promised the benefits of being in a small group. Maybe we have over sold small groups by selling people on the idea that they will make life-long friends, that every meeting will leave you feeling happy about life, and that small groups are the cure-all for all that ails you. I believe small groups can be life changing and help you grow spiritually. But that takes time and trust. It will not happen overnight. 

In small groups, you will find other people who are also new to the small-group experience. When you try something new, you’re worried about what to expect: the depth of study, the group dynamics. People who have been part of groups for a while forget how nerve-racking it can be. But remember that you’re not the only person who’s new to small groups. So give it time. Remember that meeting for only a few weeks doesn’t usually translate into a life-long friendship simply because you’ve met. Trust will deepen over time. As your trust deepens, your discussions can go deeper as well. Don’t expect to jump into the deep end at the first meeting. It’s simply a natural part of forming relationships. 

And finally, like in any relationship. you will get back what you put into your group.  If you stick to it, deeper trust and relationships will develop. Scripture talks about getting back what you put in when it says, “What a person plants, he will harvest. The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others—ignoring God!—harvests a crop of weeds. All he’ll have to show for his life is weeds! But the one who plants in response to God, letting God’s Spirit do the growth work in him, harvest a crop of real life, eternal life” (Galatians 6:7-8, MSG).

Discussion Questions

  1. Have you attended a group and come away with a bad first impression? Do you think that impression would have changed over time?
  2. How do we get past the first impressions?
  3. Join a small group and stay the course to see what happens.

What Small Groups Can Do For Me

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. – Romans 12:1-2.

The consumer mentality that is so prevalent in society today has influenced or even changed our view of community. We can easily focus on what we are going to get out of going to church or participating in a small group rather than what God is going to do in us and through us because of our involvement in community. We need each other to help us know the truth about who we are, who God is, and how we can live a home run life. “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend,” reminds us that the relationships we form within our small groups can become a tool for God to use in our character transformation. (Proverbs 27:17)

It is in small groups that people get to know each other and then to care and share, to challenge and support, to confide and confess, to forgive and be forgiven, to laugh and weep together. It is in small groups that individuals can grow together with others. Personal growth does not happen automatically or in isolation. It is the result of interactive relationships. Small groups are one of the ways God uses to generate spiritual growth.

We are so used to technology that we believe we are better connected than ever before. But even though social media and other technology have made our world appear more connected, people have far more virtual or digital friends than genuine friends. It is far easier to stay on the surface and interact on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn than to invest in knowing other people at a deep level. Yet when we take the risk of being authentic with a small group of people, we can experience God’s grace and love coming through others in a way social media or technology will never match.

The goal of small groups is to create environments where Spirit-driven, life changing experiences can happen. While the type of group or study is important, the real benefits of a small group are found in simply doing life together. The objective of a small group is to help people engage in relationships that help them become more like Christ, by building relationships with other believers.   

Discussion Questions

  1. When you think of small groups what is the first thing that comes to mind?  Has your impression or view of small groups changed over time? If so, how?
  2. Do you feel as connected as you need to be with other believers? If not, why not?
  3. What do you see as your responsibility to other believer’s growth?

The True Meaning of Community

“Finally, all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters.Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude.“ –  1 Peter 3:8.

In what the news called “The Miracle at Quecreek,” nine miners in 2003 were trapped for three days 240 feet underground in a water-filled mine shaft. They decided early on that they were going to live or die as a group. The 55 degree water threatened to kill them slowly by hypothermia, so when one person would get cold, the other eight would huddle around the person and warm that person, and when another person got cold, the favor was returned. The miners said that when one person would get down, the rest pulled together and picked up that person. It was a team effort and according to the miners, the only way it could have been. 

Those miners faced incredibly hostile conditions together—and they all came out alive together. What a picture of the body of Christ and what a picture of small groups.

When we look at the early church we get a picture of small communities of people who followed Jesus together. The Book of Acts, especially Acts 2:42-47, gives us a snapshot of the early church and community through meeting in homes. These early church believers did life together through teaching, fellowship, communion, prayer, miracles, and radical generosity. They spent time together eating, learning, celebrating, and supporting each other. Throughout the Bible, community is described as a place where people loved, forgave, served, bore burdens, encouraged, exhorted, and prayed. There are approximately 59 one another verses in the Bible.

God never intended for us to live the Christian life alone. How can we apply these “one another” references unless we are in intentional, close relationships with each other? God calls us to love, not in an abstract or superficial way, but in a deep, face to face, life-on-life, transformative way. And the best place to do that is in a small group.

Let me leave you with this thought. It is easy sometimes to look at small groups merely as a program.  But it is so much more than that. It is a way of doing life with others. It is nearly impossible to experience biblical community apart from spiritually significant, intentional relationships with other believers.

“And as ridiculous as it may sound, sometimes all any of us needs in life is for someone to hold our hand and walk next to us.” –  James Frey

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you view small groups as a luxury or a necessity? Why?
  2. What do you see as the most significant value of small groups?
  3. How much margin do you have in your life for this kind of shared life? What needs to go so you can create more margin?
  4. Consider joining a small group if you are not already participating in one.