Getting back to basics

By Joe LaGuardia

It is important for Christians — clergy included — to get back to basics sometimes.  You go through the journey of faith, learn new things, meet new people, take on new ministries and adventures.  Life happens, and it seems that life happens too quickly.  You have to slow down.  You may need a season to get back to basics.

This happens to me about once a year.  I read books, write sermons, have conversations, go on retreats, pray and do Bible studies–personally and in groups–but then I hit a personal spiritual wall, and I long for simpler times.  I usually devote a few months to read something that is basic, a beginners-type of book.  Sometimes it is on the Bible, other times it is on spiritual formation–usually something tied to fields related to my doctoral work.

A couple years ago, I read Spiritual Theology by Diogenes Allen.  I picked it up from a Catholic bookstore in Georgia, and regretted that I did not know the book existed before then.  It would have been mighty useful for my dissertation (on spiritual formation and caregivers) back in 2008-2009.  It was a great, basic book on spirituality.  It brought be back to the basics, a good refresher in more familiar waters.

This past season I’ve been reading An Introduction to the Old Testament by James King West.  Published in 1980, some of the scholarship is dated and it is from an ecumenical school of thought, but the writing is good and I am enjoying West’s archeological and anthropological insights.

I am editing and publishing a book of essays on the Old Testament, so I am also reading the introduction to make sure I have all of my facts straight.  Thanks to this basic book, which I picked up at my local used-book store for a dollar, I already found one error in my own book– it was Amnon, not Absalom, who raped Tamar.  If I remember correctly, I think Absalom might have killed Amnon for it.

Getting back to basics helps us remember information that can get lost in translation over time.  It can also correct falsehoods that entangle us or befuddle us–not because we intend to believe things that are false, but because when we juggle too much information, it tends to meld together.  It helps us re-align our priorities and put first-things first.  For a preacher who has a head full of stuff, I find that getting back to basics helps me de-clutter in my brain.

This is not just for preachers.  A seasons-cleaning can help us in our relationship with Jesus too.  Sometimes we study about Jesus so much, we forget to spend time with Jesus in a personal way.  We talk about God or study God’s Word often, but forget to make time for God in prayer and worship.  Getting back to the basics strips us of all the chaff that clogs our spiritual arteries in this information, hyper-technological age.

What do you need to do to get back to basics?  What does Jesus want you to jettison in your knowledge about him because it gets in the way of getting closer to him?

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An Independence Day Prayer

By Matt Sapp

As we pause to celebrate our country this week, I am grateful for the unique promise of liberty granted to Americans and for those who have dedicated their lives to upholding it over the centuries.

But I’m also struck this year by the work required of each generation to nurture and protect the Christian values and common bonds that give meaning to our freedom. One of the ways we do that is through the language that we use.

The way we talk about and to one another can either strengthen our common bonds or fray them, and I’m worried that the tenor of our national discourse is too often doing the latter right now as political differences and partisanship bury the fruits of the spirit under a mountain of divisive rhetoric.

So I want to suggest a prayer that asks Christians to lead the way in bringing Christian values—things like love, gentleness and self-control—back into our public discourse as we celebrate 242 years of liberty.

I hope you’ll join me in this prayer:

AS A CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

God of our common faith and ruler of the nations,

As we pause for the Fourth of July, we are grateful for our country, for the place you’ve given us in it, and for your presence among us. We pray that you would guide us as Christians to seek the best interests of our nation with the benefit of your blessing—and to engage our work as citizens in a way that acknowledges that you are God and Father of us all.

As Christians in America, we pray hopefully for a future of peace and shared prosperity consistent with the dawning reality of your kingdom here on earth.

As Christians in America, we pray collectively that we would use our words in ways that promote your values, and we repent of the words that we have used in error.

As Christians in America, we pray that you will guide us to act collectively in ways that inspire unity as we make intentional efforts to heal the divisions among us.

As Christians in America, we pray that you will use us to take the lead in building good will and common purpose among Americans of all political stripes; among rich and poor, male and female, young and old, rural and urban, immigrants and native-born; and among people of every race and from every nation.

All of this can be summed up very simply: God, Bless America, and use the shared efforts of Christians to do it.

AS INDIVIDUAL FOLLOWERS OF CHRIST

God who reigns in me,

As a dutiful citizen of my country and a faithful disciple in your kingdom, I pray that you will lead me to be generous and forgiving as you are generous and forgiving—especially toward those with whom I disagree.

As a dutiful citizen and faithful disciple, I pray each day that my words and actions will serve to calm rather than inflame the fears of those around me.

As a dutiful citizen and faithful disciple, I pray that you will help me to be the kind of person who inspires the best in others rather than someone who seeks to exploit the worst in them.

As a dutiful citizen and faithful disciple, I pray that you will bless me with the wisdom to know what is right and the courage to do it; with the humility to admit wrongs and the dignity to seek forgiveness; and with compassion for those who struggle and a genuine concern for the least among us.

All of this can be summed up very simply: God, Bless America, and use me as your instrument to do it,

AMEN.

As we pause to honor our country next week, I’m praying that God’s love would be reflected in the way that Christians engage their work as citizens—and that Christians would take the lead in welcoming charity back into our common discourse.

God is alive and present in our world and in our nation, and we have the privilege of nurturing and protecting the values that God has entrusted to our care for this generation.

With humble gratitude for the blessings of liberty and the means through which to preserve it, we remember that the future ultimately isn’t ours to fight over. The future, like the present, belongs to God. And it’s already been decided.

Happy Fourth of July.

5 Lessons from the Sermon on the Mount

By Matt Sapp

We’re working through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) together at Central Baptist Church, Newnan, Georgia, this summer.  Jesus’ sermon is the most important body of ethical teaching in the history of the world. It redefines how we relate to one another and clarifies how we relate to God. As we grapple with what scripture means in our world today, there’s no better place to start.

Here are five things the Sermon on the Mount encourages us to “BE” this summer.

Be Blessed
Jesus defines what it means to be blessed. God’s blessings aren’t always conferred on those we might expect—or in ways we might expect them to be.

Money, power, and status are nowhere to be found when Jesus talks about blessings. Instead, Jesus teaches that there is blessing in mercy and in mourning, in peacemaking and in poverty, in seeking righteousness and in the pure in heart.

Be blessed this summer by finding ways to align yourself with the things and people God blesses.

Be Interesting
Don’t be boring this summer! God calls us to live vibrant, engaging, interesting lives. You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Act like it.

Your life is meant to be full of flavor and warmth, light and love.

Salt enhances and preserves everything it touches. You should seek to do the same. Light is the source of life and the instigator of activity. Jesus says you are, too.

Be Holy
We often think of holiness as a path toward self-improvement, but improving our individual behavior is only a small part of holiness. Jesus teaches that holiness is really about how our conduct impacts our neighbors.

When talking about holiness, Jesus shifts the emphasis from personal righteousness (the righteousness of the Pharisees) to that which is characterized by the protection of one’s fellow man.

For many of us, a new understanding of holiness requires a significant shift in thinking. Maybe this summer is a time to “be holy” by starting to make the mental transition away from a holiness defined only by personal righteousness toward a holiness that demonstrates concern for those around us.

Be Generous
This summer, stop asking, “What’s fair?”, and start asking, “What’s the most generous thing I could responsibly do in this situation?”  Fairness is about keeping score. Generosity lets you tear up the scorecard.

When fairness ceases to be your standard, you’ll never have to feel the urge to “get even” again. You just get the blessing of being generous to those around you. So go the extra mile. Turn the other cheek. Give more than what is asked of you.

If you could just do one thing this summer, this is the one I would suggest. Jesus thinks it’s pretty important. Try it and see what happens.

Be Humble
Prayer forms us into humble people. When Jesus teaches us how to pray, he’s teaching us to be God-directed rather than self-directed. Even the posture of prayer—head bowed, eyes closed, hands folded—is an act of humility.

In prayer we learn to rely on God’s providence, we come to accept and extend forgiveness, and we recognize that we cannot overcome our temptations alone.

So pray this summer. And pray as Jesus teaches. It will help you be humble.

These are our first five lessons from the Sermon on the Mount: Be Blessed. Be Interesting. Be Holy. Be Generous. Be Humble.  Take a look at all five. Find one that’s a strength of yours and celebrate it, and then choose one that you can work on.  It’ll make for a great summer.