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Reaching Out

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As I mentioned in an earlier post on Thinking Out Loud, I’ve been posting to a few online publications on Medium. Here are posts and Bible studies I’ve revised, edited, and reformatted from previous posts on Word-Strong for the publication Koinonia.

Take some time to read, think, and respond if you’d like. Thanks for reading!


How is a Spark of Faith Ignited in a Person’s Heart?

What does it take for a person to become a believer in God? Is it a certain understanding?

How is a spark of faith ignited in a person’s heart?

I don’t know of one specific answer. In fact, when you ask a hundred different people how they came to believe, you may get a hundred different answers.

If you ask a theologian, he may give you one specific answer. But if you ask several different theologians and philosophers, you’ll get a gaggle of answers. Read more…


Photo by  Jon Tyson  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The Word of God in Person

My own darkness

The opening verses of the Gospel of John are important and significant to me. Though I believed in the existence of God from my youth, I had a nebulous, vague sense of God.

Throughout my teen and college years, I wandered in the darkness of my ignorance and whatever the world around me had to offer. Read more…


Photo by  Melissa Askew  on  Unsplash

How Acceptance of God Brings Acceptance and Inclusion

When does life begin — at conception or birth?

Before 1973, the obvious answer would be at conception but the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision changed that in America. That decision may have changed people’s opinions but it didn’t change basic biology.

In Asia, age is generally determined by conception and the lunar calendar. For centuries and centuries in the rest of the world and biologically, conception is seen as the beginning of life.


Stop Trying So Hard to Be a Good Christian!

Bob Newhart has a hilarious comedy skit as a psychiatrist. His therapy is a simple, two-word solution for problems — “Stop it!” If you’ve never seen it, click on this link–Stop it! for a good laugh, but keep reading!

If only solving life’s problems were that simple—to just stop doing something. Well, in some ways it is. But many difficulties in life continue to trouble us. But why?

Why don’t we just stop doing not-such-good things in order to start doing better things? Read more…

Missing the Point

It's easy to get lost in details and not see the bigger picture or miss the main point of a story or message. It happens more often than not. How often have you done a search on the internet, or wandered around on YouTube or FaceBook and forgotten what you set out to find?

This type of thing happened a lot with Jesus and His teachings. He didn't get lost or miss the point, those who heard Him did. Even when He told parables, those simple stories, they were either misunderstood or those who should understand completely missed the point.

Ironically, in the time of Jesus, it was the educated and religious leaders who most often missed the point of Jesus' teaching and miracles. Funny thing, it's still that way more often than it should be.

Parables and the main point

The parables Jesus told in the Gospels were, for the most part, true-to-life stories intended to teach one simple truth. They're not allegories, although many people try to interpret them as such. They are figurative stories like extended metaphors.

Some are longer than others and appear allegorical, and some are quite short. All have one simple truth or main point. Most of the time this is made clear by the context of the parable—it's cultural and chronological setting.

So we need to understand the parables of Jesus from the original hearer's point of view, as well as how Jesus intended them to be understood.

5 simple keys to understanding parables

  1. Immediate Context— This includes the surrounding Scripture text where the parable is found and its setting, including the cultural and historical context. Here are 3 specific things to look for—
    1. Occasion— understanding the situation of the parable provides insight into why the parable is told.
    2. Setting– this includes the basics of who, what, where, when the parable is told and how it's expressed.
    3. Historical setting– hear the parable through the ears of those who first heard it.
  2. Interpretation— Did Jesus interpret it?
    1. If He did then this is the interpretation! You don't need to make one up or look any further for more interpretation. Look at the context before and/or after the parable text to see if it's interpreted by the Lord.
    2. If it's not interpreted, rely on the context, details in the parable, and look to see if the parable is told in another gospel.
  3. Central Point— This would be the main focus or subject of the parable.
    1. Look for a constant element within the parable. Ex– the seed in the Parable of the Sower.
    2. Seeing the Central Point is key to understanding the one simple truth of the parable.
  4. Major Details— These are the most important parts of the parable that point to the Central Point. They are more important than other minor details that help tell the story.
  5. The Simple Truth— This is the reason why the parable is told. It's the point of the story and is usually indicated by the immediate context (see below for a downloadable guide).

3 linked parables

In Luke Chapter 15, Jesus tells three related parables. Each one focuses on what is lost (the central point). The first one tells of a man who seeks and finds a lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7). The second features a woman searching for a lost a coin (Luke 15:8-10).

They are also linked by the setting of the immediate context—

By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story. (Luke 15:1-3 MSG)

All three parables have the same simple truth—rejoicing over a repentant sinner (Luke 15:7, 10, 24, 32). The implication is that there is greater rejoicing over the repentant sinner than those who seem to need no repentance (Luke 15:7) and who are not sinners.

But the third parable in the chapter has an extended story with much greater detail than the first two. The target of these parables becomes more apparent as the third story unfolds.

Parable of the lost son

The lost son is the main focus of the parable (Luke 15:11-32) but two other main characters—the father and an elder son—bring the story home, so to speak. 

There's an obvious tension between the religious leaders and many of those who followed and listened to Jesus—the sinners (Luke 15:1-2). Neither one trusted or respected the other but for very different reasons.

This reflects the current tension between what are called the churched and the unchurched and de-churched. Those of us in the church see others as outsiders needing to repent or at least get into church fellowship.

Here's how the story plays out for each of the 3 main characters in the story.

The younger son

This is the primary story (Luke 15:11-21). The younger of two sons asks for his share of the family's inheritance in advance and heads off to a country far away. He quickly wastes his father's wealth living in rebellion to how he was raised.

Things deteriorate quickly when a famine grips the land. The son finally lands a job feeding pigs (an unclean animal under Jewish law) and wishes he could eat the pig's food because he's so destitute.

Here the story turns as he realizes his pitiful situation—

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. (Luke 15:17-20a NIV)

The father

The father of these two very different sons is somewhat of an enigma. He willingly gives into the young son who makes a complete mess of his life. When this rebellious failure of a son returns home, he doesn't scold or condemn him but celebrates his return with great fanfare.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son."
But the father said to his servants, "Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." So they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20-24 NIV)

For a third time the same simple truth is stated—For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.

I love how the father lets his son confess his sin but moves right past it to a celebration! No wonder the son returned home. He knew the nature of his father. He knew how gracious he was! But the other son, well that's the other side of this story.

The elder son

The son who stayed home and worked in the father's field hears the celebration and is puzzled by it, so he calls a servant over to fill him in on what's going on. When he finds out he goes into a sulk and refuses to join the celebration (Luke 15:25-28).

Once again we see the nature of the father who goes out to his oldest son and pleads with him to join them. But this son will have none of it!

But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:29-30 NIV)

The eldest son was angry, resentful, selfish, self-righteous, stubborn, and defiant towards his gracious and patient father. Obviously, this reflects the attitude of the religious leaders who criticize Jesus for associating with all these sinners (Luke 15:2).

But wait! It sounds an awful lot like you and me.

How often I've found myself angry or resentful and complaining to God about others while God is dealing with my hardened heart. As believers, we are too often more like the elder brother than the younger, and not much like the father. We miss the point of God's gracious nature!

We all have difficulty grasping the enduring mercy and far-reaching grace of God. We like and want God's mercy and grace for ourselves but often think they should be limited when it comes to others. I addressed this somewhat in a previous post.

Personal application

Once we understand a truth we need to apply it in our own life. With parables, once we understand the parable from the point of view of the original hearers then we can look at how it can apply to our life in our present time and culture.

I can relate to the younger son, especially in my younger years. But I can also relate too well to the elder son and more often than I'd like to admit. Who I need to relate to is the father who's just like my Lord Jesus.

I don't always understand how and why God shows such mercy and grace as He does, but I'm thankful for Him doing so. His mercy and grace will always be greater than my sense of justice and righteousness (James 2:13) and I'm glad for that!

Do you have disdain and disgust for some people while denigrating others?

Then it's time to repent and ask God to soften your hardened heart!


Here's a simple guide for understanding and studying parables— Study Guide for Parables


This post is linked to a message I preached along with a couple others that will be posted in the coming weeks. You can find them at– Calvary Chapel Crossville/teachings

The Power of Mercy and Love

 

Call to Remember

kutrovski.jpg

kutrovski.jpg

Eating breakfast with my dad

Most mornings my dad would have Tasters Choice instant coffee and some type of bread or toast for breakfast. As we ate together, he would share stories from his life growing up in the Soviet Union. Most of these were about the trials and tribulations of following Jesus.

My dad witnessed and heard stories of ministers imprisoned in Siberia for their faith. When my dad was drafted into the Red Army, he suffered persecution for not bearing arms. He shared stories of allegiance to one kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven.

My father's stories and many other faith stories from my grandmother had a strong impact on me. They reminded me God is always faithful and He is always good.

These stories also remind me that my faith is not only personal but a part of God's story from generations before me and will continue generations after me.

Remember everything God has done

Moses commanded the people to remember everything God did. The repetitive theme in chapter eight is to remember the relationship between God and His people.

"Remember that for 40 years the LORD your God led you on your journey in the desert." (Deut 8:2 GW)

Moses didn't just remind the people of all the good times. The exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt wasn't all rainbows and butterflies. These people went through harsh times. Yet, in the midst of their hardship, God was never absent.

"So he made you suffer from hunger and then fed you with manna, your clothes didn’t wear out, and your feet didn’t swell these past 40 years." (Deut 8:3-4 GW)

Remembering that leads to hope in the future

Remembering what God has done throughout our lives and the generations before gives us hope and a future.

Moses reminded the people of the 40 years they wandered in the desert. Even as the Israelites went through a time of refinement God was present. 

Remembering God's goodness in the past leads us to God's goodness in the future.

After Moses reminded the Israelites of God's faithfulness, he commanded them to follow the Lord and told them of the glorious promise to come. 

"The land will have enough food for you, and you will have everything you need." (Deut 8:9 GW)

The call to remember keeps us anchored in God's plan and purpose. His story is grand and dynamic.

The bigger picture

When we look back at what God has done in our lives, and the generations before us we begin to understand that it's not "all-about-me" and the present circumstances.

There is a big picture and a dynamic purpose. It started before us and will continue after us.

My Dad's stories of his faith and God's faithfulness in his life spurred me on to seek and know God. They reminded me that God was writing my story before I was even born.

God's story, me, and you

What God started years before me, he continues to work out through me and will continue to do so many generations after me.

“You saw with your own eyes all these spectacular things that the LORD did.” (Deut 11:7 GW)

Reflect on all that God's done in your life, and receive the promise of what God will do.

This is a guest post by Sergei Kutrovski (@kutrovski)

The Power of Story

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unsplash.com_HVuMinh

Stories are powerful. They engage our imagination and emotion. Stories can transport us to faraway lands and imaginary settings, and they convey truths in subtle yet powerful ways.

But when it comes to communicating biblical truth stories may seem too simple. How ironic since most of the Bible is composed of stories!

Throughout the Bible, there's a narrative arc that conveys the message of God's redemption of the human race. Each story reveals facets of the whole redemptive narrative.

Stories are a powerful way to engage people who haven't experienced God's redemptive grace.

God's redemptive story and us

If we don't understand the depth and fullness of God's redemptive story it's hard to make sense of everyday life. Not that we'll understand every event in every day of our life, but when we understand more of God's redemptive narrative we'll begin to see how it connects with our life.

Sometimes we look too hard at all that goes on in our life and try to figure out each detail fits into God's plan. As the saying goes, we can't see the forest for the trees. All we see are trees and we forget the larger context of the forest.

A western mindset tends to over analyze every detail and misses the larger picture, while eastern thought sees the whole but may not see how each detail fits into the picture and why they do. This is an oversimplification but the point is that we need both views to see the full picture.

Looking at the whole biblical narrative and how each of the various stories fit together enables us to see the depth and fullness of God's redemptive story. As we look at our life story arc with the biblical narrative in view, we should see how much of our own story matches the stories of other people in the Bible.

We need to understand the depth and fullness of God's redemptive story to make sense of everyday life

Back to the beginning

We’ll understand the Bible's narrative when we see it from the beginning

But first things first. How can we hope to understand the Bible's narrative unless we see it from the beginning? Going back to Creation we find the all-important why of redemption—why it is necessary.

The story of humanity begins with the creation of "the heavens and the earth" and nothing—the earth was a big blob, empty and dark with God's Spirit covering over it like a mother bird protecting her nest (Gen 1:1-2).

Then God begins the creation process by proclaiming, "Let there be light." So there was light and darkness was separated from it and the first day came to be (Gen 1:3-5).

On five successive days, God brought life and light into the dark, empty orb of the earth floating in the universe (Gen 1:6-25). After each day God was satisfied and said it was good.

On the sixth and last day, God said—

“Let us make humans in our image, in our likeness. Let them rule the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the domestic animals all over the earth, and all the animals that crawl on the earth.” So God created humans in his image. In the image of God he created them. He created them male and female. (Gen 1:26-27 GW)

This is the heart of why God sent His Son Jesus as the Redeemer of the world—for all people everywhere. Because He created us in His image.

All humanity is embedded with the image of God

Looking ahead

Next post I plan to unpack the beginning story of humanity's need for redemption. If we go too quickly to the usual beginning point of the redemption story, we miss the heart of why God went to great lengths to redeem the human race.

There's more to redemption than, "Jesus died for your sins." This is a true statement, but it only tells part of the story. We need to see things from the heart of God and His intended purpose for those whom He created.

Over the next several posts (perhaps with some interruptions), I plan to look at five representative stories in the Bible.

Each story holds an important place in the story of God's redemption of humanity. Each one reflects a facet of the full picture of God's redemption. Each should help reveal the full purpose of God's redemption. Until then...

What is your own recollection of the story of Creation?

How do you understand God's redemption story?

Can you share either of these with someone else in your own words (IYOW)?

Let me know your thoughts on all this!

 

Talking Into the Air

unsplash.com_JRosewell

unsplash.com_JRosewell

Engaging someone in a conversation can be very satisfying, even when there's a difference of opinion. There's a sense of give-and-take, of listening and responding. This is true dialog.

On the other hand, you've probably experienced a more lop-sided conversation where you're doing all the listening, or perhaps you're doing all the talking. One-sided conversations aren't really conversations, they're monologs and aren't very productive.

What's even less productive than a monolog is when one person talks over another without listening. Even worse is when a person speaks in another language or uses terminology foreign to whoever is listening. This is like talking into the air.

Another language

One day while walking across a small island in the Philippines, I engaged a young man in conversation as we both carried a cooler full of drinks and food. He listened and nodded as I went on and on.

Years later, he told me how little he understood of our conversation at that time because he didn't understand much English. I spoke little of his dialect but thought he understood me. In reality, I was just talking into the air while he listened.

Since then, we've known each other for over 20 years and developed a fruitful relationship of mutual respect. I've learned to listen more and he's become more confident in communicating what's in his heart and mind. In the beginning, I was the teacher and he was my student. Now we are friends and partners in ministry.

4 Insights for more effective communication

This story illustrates and provides a few insights for me that I'll share here. These are some basic things to help make communication more effective so we're not just talking into the air.

  • @@Language and wording are important, that is how we convey what we say to someone@@
  • @@We need to know and understand our listeners to whom we're trying to communicate@@
  • @@We need to find a common point of reference or interest with whoever we speak to@@
  • @@Find the most effective means or way to express and convey what you want to say@@

As pointed out last week, effective communication needs to be a dialog, not a monolog, and listening well is essential.

Language

@@Words and phrases are like containers for our thoughts@@. Even with sign language, each gesture expresses some meaning or idea. If we want people to understand what we're saying, we need to make it easy to open these containers that convey our thoughts.

Two simple ways to make them easy to open are—use simple words and translate terms and expressions or idioms into our own words.

Working overseas with students who are non-English speakers I ask them to put answers to my questions in their own words (IYOW–in your own words). This requires them to process what they are learning so they understand it better.

Putting things in simple wording also requires us to process what we're trying to communicate, and helps us to hear things more from the point of view of those who hear us. When we bring things it a simple level, we make it easier for others to understand what we're trying to say.

Understanding

As a pastor or teacher, or with any public speaking opportunity, I observe who I'll be speaking to before I get up to speak. I consider the demographics of the audience. Who are they? Where do they live? What to they do in life?

Basically, I'm looking for the most common factor among those gathered. When working with the division of fractions in arithmetic, we look for the lowest common denominator. That's the idea I have in mind.

I look beyond the better-educated people and those who seem like they'll grasp what I say more easily. I aim for those who might have a harder time understanding what I want to say to the whole group. If it's a church, I look for the younger believers and whoever might be non-believers and aim my message at them. They're my most important listeners.

Common point

@@Part of understanding who I'm speaking to involves finding a common point of reference@@ with them as a group, or maybe a couple different points of interest. If the people are older or younger, I try to relate things so they will receive it best. I tailor illustrations, examples, and stories to fit them. I even try to use idioms and words that are most familiar to them.

Jesus is our prime example for this. It never seemed to matter who was in front of Him, He knew how to communicate so they understood Him. What Jesus said to the woman at the well (John 4:7-26), is different than how He spoke to Nicodemus (John 3:1-12), or how Jesus spoke to Zacchaeus who climbed up in a tree to see Him (Luke 19:1-10). 

I don't speak to young IT students the same away I do to farmers in the mountains of the Philippines. I need to adjust what I'm saying and how I convey it in a way that relates to them best. Believers can quote Paul who said, "I have become all things to all people" (1 Cor 9:22), but do we really do this?

Ways of communicating

All of this leads up to how we communicate to others or the way we convey what we have to say. @@Different situations or circumstances also impact how we communicate@@. I'm not going to preach a sermon to a small, informal gathering. I'd rather engage people in discussions rather than talk at them.

Some of the ways I'll speak and communicate with people is to use stories, questions, or find some way of listening and responding to them. Basically, whether preaching, teaching, or just talking with someone, I want to engage them in dialog in a way that interests them.

Jesus used questions and provocative statements many times with His disciples and even in public gatherings (Matt 16:5-12; John 7:37-39). He used stories (parables) that connected with the people who gathered to hear Him (3 parables in Luke 15). As noted above, sometimes Jesus simply engaged people in conversation.

@@I've found people much more open to hearing God's redemptive story after I engage them in genuine dialog@@ rather than to immediately launch into a presentation of the gospel. I've also used each of these ways to engage people while traveling and while teaching and training leaders.

Final thoughts

These four ways of developing effective communication are useful in whatever role you have in life or in various life situations. They work for pastors, teachers, cross-cultural missionaries, writers, supervisors or staff, coaches or teammates, leaders at any level, or those who listen.

Again, @@listening well is critical to good communication. It shows people we're interested in them@@ rather than our self or our own agenda.

Practical application

@@Discipleship is a long-term investment, not just a training course to equip believers@@. Pastoral care involves understanding, patience, listening, along with a practical application of mercy and grace.

Good teachers build a strong foundation and framework for learning before delving into a deeper understanding of the truth. Cross-cultural missionaries need to find bridges and points of connection between their culture of origin and the culture of the people they want to reach.

Effective leaders need to understand the goals, passions, and struggles of their staff or team members. People in the trenches of life and work need to understand what's expected of them.

All of these life roles and situations work better when communication is done well. Those of us in roles of leadership at any level need to model these ways of making communication more effective.

For example, as a teacher, when my students aren't understanding what I'm trying to teach them, then it's my responsibility to find a way to help them understand. I need to model for them what I want them to learn to do.

When we can connect with people in these ways, we'll communicate better and make the world better around us.

How about you? How can you put these insights into action in your life?


Resources–

  • Here's a simple Glossary for some Christianese terms from the addenda of my book
  • If you'd like to know more about developing questions for an interactive Bible study, check out the Bible studies under Inductive Bible Study on the Resources page.
  • If you'd like to know more about how to tell stories in your own words (IYOW), contact me via email through the Contact form at the bottom of the Resources page.