Be at peace

My wife sometimes has trouble going to sleep because she’s anxious about the things that the next days and weeks will hold.  For me, it’s waking up before dawn, before my alarm goes off, gripped with fear and anxiety about how I can possibly get through my day.

Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.” Matthew 6:21

I believe there is a corollary there … If you’re unsure where your heart truly is, think about the things that wake you up in a cold sweat.  Because the things you fear are also a good indicator of where your heart is.  I’ve felt separated from God for the past few weeks … Nothing terrible has happened, I’ve just felt a distance.  I’ve been terribly distracted with a number of things in my professional and personal life, including a great deal of travel – which often means a disruption of my morning routine.

So I’ve been praying this morning for two things:
First, for God to work in my heart so that I follow Jesus with zeal.  “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. (Psalm 42:1 NIV84)”

Second, that I would be able to free myself of attachments to this human kingdom, and to be at peace knowing that my place in His kingdom is secure.  And my bible reading this morning yielded this from Hebrews – that summed it up perfectly.

If some friends went to prison, you stuck by them. If some enemies broke in and seized your goods, you let them go with a smile, knowing they couldn’t touch your real treasure. Nothing they did bothered you, nothing set you back. (Hebrews 10:34 MSG)

My prayer today, for me and for you, is that you would set your heart on God’s kingdom … not the one you see with your eyes.  That you would have peace.  And that you would go to bed and rise with an overwhelming sense of being in His hands.

Image from Sarah Suero http://sarahsuero.wordpress.com/2011/07/07/wake-up-live-big-go-now/

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Here comes the judge

Last night, I was watching a Netflix DVD (my last one before canceling the service – but that’s another story) – “Easy A.”  It was so disturbing to me that I turned it off after a half-hour (and rated PG-13!  I wouldn’t let my daughters watch it any more than I would the Texas Chainsaw Massacre!).  Consider that your “Finding Approval Movie Review of the Week” – but it’s actually not the point of this blog post.

The real point is that there was a character in the movie who was meant to represent a Christian girl at Ojai North High School – Marianne, played by Amanda Bynes.  Her character was entirely defined by hateful legalism and judgment-passing.  The one quote that I remember from her was, “Olive Prendergast is a tramp – we need to pray for her.  We also need to pray for her to GET OUT OF HERE.”

Marianne’s character was obviously created by a non-believer who has a pretty awful view of what Christians (if not Christianity itself) is all about.  But this ranty blog post isn’t for the writers, director and actors that portrayed Christians that way – it’s for us.  The people who gave them that impression in the first place.  God’s people have been sucked into that trap since the Garden of Eden.  That bothered me much more than anything that happened in the story … so I guess that I shouldn’t have been surprised that my REAP study this morning was on Matthew 23.  Jesus’ words for the Pharisees rang incredibly true.

Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’  – Matthew 23:4-7, The Message

Gregory Boyd’s “The Myth of a Christian Religion” posits that Adam and Eve’s sin in eating the forbidden fruit was so that they could be like God – and sit in judgment over his creation.  I believe that we, as Christians, do more to harm the Gospel in 21st century America by behaving in that way than we can possibly understand.  Whenever I see Christians portrayed in that way (or worse, see Christians acting in that way – or worse, see myself acting that way), I remind myself that those whom we find easy to judge … the criminals, the addicts, the prostitutes … Jesus died for each one of them because of their unsurpassing worth.  How can I do less?

[UPDATED to reflect that Marianne was not, in fact the most popular girl in school, according to my wife.  Apparently, I was too disturbed to pay that much attention to the details ;-)]

My Top 15 Elements for a Successful Bible Study

It’s taken years, but I have finally gotten into a nice rhythm in terms of studying the bible.  As we grow in our walk with Christ, knowing God’s word (and seeking it with zeal) is one of the most important things we can do.  After all, he’s revealed himself to us in two primary ways: Through his Holy Spirit, which we received as a gift when we became Christians, and in his Word.  My morning prayer almost always ends with David’s plea from Psalm 119: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”

In this series, I’ve examined my personal “Top 15″ things leading to successful bible study.  I want to be clear that this may not be your top 15.  In fact, this list might not be applicable to another person on earth.  But I’ve observed that over the last several months, all of these things play an important role in my spiritual journey.  Maybe a few of them will be valuable for you, too.  As you work through this list (and its corresponding posts), I’d love to hear from you: What have I missed?  What are the most important elements for you?  What would you like to see more of?

Source Materials: You can’t have a bible study without a bible.
1 The Message.  In my opinion, the most readable and understandable version of the Good News.

2 A study bible.  It’s incredibly helpful to have a bible that contains detailed notes and cross-references.

3 Youversion mobile bible.  For smartphone users, this free bible app with its dozens of translations is a must-have.

4 BibleGateway.com.  The very easiest way to access the bible online, including robust searching and browsing functions, as well as the ability to easily link and embed text.

Going Deeper: Tools to take your study and its application into your life.

5 Baker’s Commentary on the Bible. The ultimate resource for explaining the bible, chapter and verse.

6 Wayne Grudem’s Bible Doctrine.  Why do you believe what you believe?  And what does your church have to say about it?  It’s important for any believer to know.

7 Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy’s Across the Spectrum.  An easily readable presentation of multiple doctrinally sound interpretations of scriptural meaning.  Key for refining your own belief set – and understanding others.

8 The Blue Letter Bible.  An amazing set of online resources to dig deep into the bible, its history, its original languages, and detailed teaching and commentary.

Making it Happen: When your bible study becomes a part of your daily “lifeflow.”

9 A Study Plan: The bible makes more sense (and is easier to share) when you’re following a plan.

10 A place: Where do you do your bible study?  Do you have a place where you can easily store all of your materials?

11 A Time: Many people (myself included) need a routine.  What part of your day do you set aside for study?

Reflection: Reading the bible isn’t the same thing as studying it (though both are valuable).  What are the things you can do to reflect on your reading, and prepare to apply it to your life?

12 A journal – Where do you log your thoughts and questions?  For me, it’s right here on Finding Approval.

13 Valley of Vision.  I always close (and open) my study in prayer, and never fail to draw inspiration from this beautiful book of puritan prayers.

Sharing it: Study shouldn’t be solely an individual pursuit … the added ingredient of other people can exponentially increase the wisdom and insights you derive from your study – and who knows, you might be able to help them out as well!

14 A small study group. A small group of trusted friends can add so much to your study.

15 A Teaching Pastor.  The right pastor is going to teach you, inspire you, and challenge you.  When was the last time your pastor surprised you with a new perspective on scripture?  Made you mad?  Drove you straight to the bible to find out more?  If it isn’t happening frequently, you may not have chosen the right church.

My Top 15 Elements for Successful Bible Study – A Teaching Pastor

As we grow in our walk with Christ, knowing God’s word (and seeking it with zeal) is one of the most important things we can do.  After all, he’s revealed himself to us in two primary ways: Through his Holy Spirit, which we received as a gift when we became Christians, and in his Word.

This post is the last of 15.  In each post, I’ll be examining my personal “Top 15″ things leading to successful bible study.  This series of posts can be filed under “Sharing It.”

Click the link to view yesterday’s post on Small Groups.
Sharing It – A Teaching Pastor.

 The last element that makes my bible study particularly rich is my participation in a weekly worship service.  There are a number of reasons to worship God as a part of a church … but I am only going to focus on how it can enhance a bible study program.  We’ll save the other benefits for another series!
I have been particularly blessed over the last 10 years to be a member of churches that have unbelievable teaching pastors: Erwin Lutzer at Chicago’s Moody Church; Dave Stone and Kyle Idleman at Southeast Christian Church; and Matt Carter and Jeff Mangum at Austin Stone Community Church.  No matter how much I study on my own, it’ll be hard for me, as a lay person, to ever match up with men who have gone through years of education and training in theology – and then live it out as their careers.  Additionally, I have sought out teaching pastors who I believe will not shy away from preaching the scripture as God intended it – and not soft-shoeing (or skipping altogether) the tough parts.  There is no question that there are entire sections of scripture that I have huge problems understanding (and sometimes accepting!).  But that doesn’t mean I can just conveniently ignore the hard parts … which is what I think  a lot of churches do.  The best pastors will challenge your beliefs, present perspectives on scripture that you’ve never thought of (weekly), make you hungry to learn more, and (sometimes) make you mad.  No matter how much I study the bible, I find that there is ALWAYS another layer of depth … which is not surprising, given that it was inspired by the Creator of the universe!  Finding a church that teaches directly from scripture, regardless of “cultural acceptability” or political correctness, is critical for real growth as a Christian.

My Top 15 Elements for Successful Bible Study – A Small Study Group

As we grow in our walk with Christ, knowing God’s word (and seeking it with zeal) is one of the most important things we can do.  After all, he’s revealed himself to us in two primary ways: Through his Holy Spirit, which we received as a gift when we became Christians, and in his Word.

This post is the 14th of 15.  In each post, I’ll be examining my personal “Top 15″ things leading to successful bible study.  This series of posts can be filed under “Sharing It.”

Click the link to view my last post on Valley of Vision.
Sharing It – A Small Group.  So far, just about every aspect of this blog series has been specifically tuned to individual bible study.  There are a couple of reasons for that.  First, it’s been of primary importance in this stage of my life.  In the last year, I have a new job, new city, new church, I’ve had several new “homes.”  The only group of people I could count on being around from one week to the next was my immediate family.  Yet, as important as that individual study is (and will always be), we weren’t meant to experience God”s word exclusively in isolation from one another.  In his sermon from May 23 at the Austin Stone Community Church, Jeff Magnum preached on “Becoming Like all of Christ.”  And what he meant by that was that while Christ spent significant time in isolation, communing with His Father, most of his life was spent in the midst of community – teaching, healing, discipling and loving.  If we’re truly to live like Jesus, spending time in community is critical.
I’ve mentioned my Discipleship Curriculum course several times in this series.  That 21-month leadership program was so powerful partially because of the coursework that Eric Schansberg and Kurt Sauder developed.  But it was mostly because of the dozen men who made up my class.  We studied the same scripture, but each of us brought something different to the table based on our own experience – and on our own revelation.  It made the experience infinitely richer then it would have been had we simply studied alone.  And currently, Amy and I are a part of an amazing missional community in our neighborhood.  I’ve never met a group of people who were so committed from taking Jesus’ teaching into action in terms of serving in our community.  There’s no question in my mind that having a group of trusted friends with whom to share your studies is critical to successfully engaging with scripture. For more on the impact of small bible study groups, check out the recent series on Missional Community from the Austin Stone Community Church.

My Top 15 Elements for Successful Bible Study – Valley of Vision

As we grow in our walk with Christ, knowing God’s word (and seeking it with zeal) is one of the most important things we can do.  After all, he’s revealed himself to us in two primary ways: Through his Holy Spirit, which we received as a gift when we became Christians, and in his Word.

This post is the 13th of 15.  In each post, I’ll be examining my personal “Top 15″ things leading to successful bible study.  This series of posts can be filed under “Reflection.”

Click the link to view yesterday’s post on keeping a journal.
Reflection – Valley of Vision.   I mentioned in an earlier post (Puritan Prayer – the Valley of Vision) on the special time I carve out for my bible study that I ususally conclude with a reading from Valley of Vision … a book of Puritan Prayers that Austin Stone worship leader Aaron Ivey uses from time to time during our services.  I also wrote about it specifically here.  The reason I’ve included it again here is that I view my devotional time with valley of Vision to be an important part of my reflection time.
As simple as it sounds, learning how to pray is, I think, a lifetime goal.  Jesus was a great example of this … he would seclude himself and pray for hours on end – a habit he never forsook.  The puritan prayers in this book are prayers the way I often wish I could pray.  They’re so clear, lucid and beautiful … and are 100% grounded in scripture.  They add immeasurably to the value of my daily study.

My Top 15 Elements for Successful Bible Study – A Journal

As we grow in our walk with Christ, knowing God’s word (and seeking it with zeal) is one of the most important things we can do.  After all, he’s revealed himself to us in two primary ways: Through his Holy Spirit, which we received as a gift when we became Christians, and in his Word.

This post is the 12th of 15.  In each post, I’ll be examining my personal “Top 15″ things leading to successful bible study.  This series of posts can be filed under “Reflection.”

Click the link to view my last post on dedicating time for study.
Reflection – A Journal. One of the things I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I love inputs of all kinds.  I soak up ideas like a sponge – even if they aren’t immediately relevant to my life.  In fact, if you’ve ever used Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton’s “StrengthFinder” tool, “Input” is one of my top five traits. [In case you’re wondering, the others are Innovative, Strategic, Connected and … I can’t remember the last one.]
All the stuff that I “input” into my brain tends to rattle around up there – combining with other ideas – until a new insight emerges.  But that happens best when I have a time and a place to reflect on the things I’ve just read.  A lot of people will keep a journal of one kind or anohter to store their ideas, insights and learnings.  In fact, my old boss, Jack Lord (the founder of Humana’s Innovation Center) used to think that kind of journaling was so important that he mandated that every leader in his team write a daily update reflecting on:
  • What they’d accomplished;
  • What they’d learned; and
  • To whom they were thankful.  
I may have been the only person (other than Jack himself) who didn’t hate daily updates!  As I study the bible, I wanted to make sure that I had a place to store my reflections and ideas.  And since I’m a social media geek, and wanted to get better with WordPress anyway, I started this blog as my reflection place.  Even though this blog is only a few monhts old, I can already look back at my archives and remember what it felt like when I wrote my older posts … and it makes me really glad that I have a place to capture them all.  And if anyone else gets any value from it – so much the better!  Do you keep a journal of your bible studies?  How does it work for you?

The Kingdom of God

The kingdom of God?

You know the feeling you get when you open a box in an attic, and discover something that you once treasured?  The way that memories flood over you – remembering the time and place that this thing represents for you?  I had one of those moments today.  I was searching through Alistair Begg‘s sermons to find a resource for a friend (his Truth for Life Ministries site is indexed beautifully) when I came upon this sermon: The Kingdom of God.

You can link to The Kingdom of God here.

I heard this sermon first when I was living in Germany with my new wife (she’s an old wife now; we’ll be celebrating 15 years together next week).  We were both Christians, but we were not living Christian lives in the sense of putting God first.  I was at one of those stages of frustration with the church, and was continually confusing the church for its politics … a sore subject for me.  Anyway, this sermon by Alistair Begg was like having scales removed from my eyes in terms of what the church is really meant to be … what it should mean to us as Christians, but more importantly what it means for us as we interact with the world around us.

This sermon was originally preached in 1996, but it is just as relevant and pointed now as it was then.  It was a signal that helped to change my life then – and I can still see the changes happening today. Give it a listen!

And – at long last – My series on the Top 15 Elements of a Successful Bible Study will resume tomorrow, so stay tuned!

My Top 15 Elements for Successful Bible Study – A Time

As we grow in our walk with Christ, knowing God’s word (and seeking it with zeal) is one of the most important things we can do.  After all, he’s revealed himself to us in two primary ways: Through his Holy Spirit, which we received as a gift when we became Christians, and in his Word.

This post is the 1th of 15.  In each post, I’ll be examining my personal “Top 15″ things leading to successful bible study.  This series of posts can be filed under “Making it Happen.”

Click the link to view yesterday’s post on having a dedicated place for bible study.

Making it Happen: My time of day:  As I noted in yesterday’s post, the routine of a bible study is incredibly important.  And yesterday I only covered half of the issue: the place.  The other (and perhaps more important) piece of a successful study routine is a TIME.  In today’s world, time is the thing we’re most short of.  There are more demands on our time that we will ever be able to fulfill.
I’ve found that the only time I can really commit to anything – including bible study – is the early morning hours.  Otherwise, life just tends to get in the way, and the competing priorities can be overwhelming.  Additionally, if you really want to reflect Jesus all day, every day … it makes sense to start the day in prayer and in the study of God’s word. [Side Note: Jeff Mangum from the Austin Stone preached a wonderful message on Sunday about the importance of Christians reflecting ALL of Jesus … including his exemplary practice of secluding himself in prayer, study and contemplation.  You can find that sermon, Becoming Like All of Christ, on itTunes.]
My weekday looks like this:
5:30     Wake up (4:30 or 5:00 if there’s work to be done before 8AM)
5:32     Start Coffee and Pray – in that order 😉
5:40     Pour coffee and begin study (REAP passages from NLT and The Message; Doctrinal study of same in Baker’s Commentary and Grudem’s Bible Doctrine; Devotional from Valley of Vision*)
6:20     Conclude study; wake up wife with a cup of coffee
When I can stick to that schedule (and I usually can), there is no better way to start the day.
* Stay tuned for more on Valley of Vision – a collection of puritan prayers


My Top 15 Elements for Successful Bible Study – A Place

As we grow in our walk with Christ, knowing God’s word (and seeking it with zeal) is one of the most important things we can do.  After all, he’s revealed himself to us in two primary ways: Through his Holy Spirit, which we received as a gift when we became Christians, and in his Word.

This post is the 10th of 15.  In each post, I’ll be examining my personal “Top 15″ things leading to successful bible study.  This series of posts can be filed under “Making it Happen.”

Click the link to view yesterday’s post on having a Study Plan.

Making it Happen: My corner of the house: Like anything else in life that we do more than once, bible study is something that works best as a part of a routine.  If I had to roam around and collect all the elements for my study every day, find a comfortable place to sit and organize everything, I’d be a lot less likely to do it every day.  Luckily, my wife and I have found a spot that works for both of us to do our daily study … and to have all of the materials we need close at hand.
I’ve got all my books stacked (more or less) neatly there.  I’ve got a comfortable chair with a floor lamp behind it.  All I have to do is bring a cup of coffee and my iPhone (which, per yesterday’s post on Study Plans has my reading plan embedded in the Austin Stone iPhone app) and I am ready for a great morning of study.  If you can spare the space, I highly recommend a dedicated place for study that can double as a place to store all of your study aids.