Six Steps for Studying the Epistles

Reading the Bible through in a year as I had done before, I came once again to the epistles. Though I’d read them previously, this time it occurred to me: These are letters from an actual person to actual people. There’s more than just information here; there’s emotion.

I realize that sounds pretty obvious to some people, but now I knew that, in the future, I’d read them differently. The emotion couldn’t have been only on the writer’s part, I thought, because those receiving them must have felt excited to get them.

We’re blessed to have Bibles we can pick up daily and read affirming, convicting and truth-filled messages. The original letters to the churches were often circulated and an individual may have heard the letter only once before it was on its way to be shared with another church. How precious they were. How empowered the readers must have been on receiving those letters.

Letter writing is becoming a lost art. What a joy to savor words on paper from someone who loves us and hopes the best for us. My realizations led me to read the epistles like I’d never read before, as if they’d been sent directly to me. Identifying with the people for whom they were intended, it was exciting. I received fresh insight, higher understanding, and a new appreciation for the first century Church.

These are some practices I discovered for knowing the power of the God’s word.

  1. Pray before reading. Thank God for the person who wrote the letter and that it made it safely to you. Pray that the Spirit will provide power to guide you and encourage you.
  2. Read from a different translation than you normally use. The wording may be just different enough that you get a better understanding of the scripture.
  3. If you underline or write notes in the margins of your Bible, read from one that has no margin notes or underlining so these don’t distract you. If you have none, perhaps you can borrow for this part of your study. If you must write, take notes in a separate journal.
  4. Read slowly and deliberately. Because many of us have read the epistles several times, we can be tempted to read through them quickly. However, familiarity with the text can get in the way. If you were reading a letter received in the mail, it wouldn’t be familiar. You couldn’t anticipate the next phrase and you would have to listen with your heart and mind all the way through. Also, since these letters were originally read to groups, try reading aloud.
  5. Pay attention to the greetings at the beginnings and ends of the letters. The early believers would have been overjoyed to hear these heartfelt words. Some of those mentioned are people the writer traveled with. The inclusion of their names offers hints into co-workers in ministry. Paul quite often did this. Sometimes the writer also included blessings and prayers. These have power to bless and encourage you as they did the original readers.
  6. Pray again when you’ve finished. If God has spoken to you through the writer’s words, thank Him and ask Him to keep revealing truth to you. Confess any sin the Holy Spirit has revealed in your life as a result of reading. Claim God’s promise of abundant life in Christ and share what you’ve learned with someone else.

After reading through the epistles this way, try using some of these ideas for reading other passages of scripture.

Be a blessing to someone today.

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God Uses Ordinary People

“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled , ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” Acts 4:13

“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things o the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world…” 1 Corinthians 1:26-28

We all can be used by God if we belong to Him. Young, old, man, woman, child, educated, without education. No matter who we are (or what we have done), we’re the people who fulfill God’s purpose.

Be glad He chose you and be a blessing to someone today.

Helping Hands

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” ~ Jesus Christ

“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of another.” ~ Charles Dickens

“Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” ~ Paul, the Apostle

“You have not lived today unless you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” ~ John Bunyan

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow.” ~ King Solomon

“We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don’t know.” ~ W. H. Auden

People struggle. You do, I do. Everyone experiences hard times. People are grieving. Others are weary. People face health issues to the point of death. Some struggle with a crisis concerning their child. That child may be one with “special needs.” Adults are caregivers to an elderly parent or guardian to an individual who can’t help themselves.

Since we’ll all struggle at some time, remember how difficult it can be. Some people, for whatever reason, find it hard to ask for help. Don’t go through it alone and don’t let someone else. Pray for that person, but put feet to your prayers. Platitudes will not help. A helping hand will.

Be a blessing to someone today.

What Does the Bible Actually Say About Smoking, Drinking, and Getting Tattoos?

Today, let’s take a look at thoughts from Pastor Jeffrey Poor (“Rethink” blog) regarding questions you may have also asked on what the Bible says about tattoos, drinking and smoking if you’re a Christian. Freedom? Sin? What do you think? … Continue reading

Tactfully Speaking

tact-make-a-point

We may know in our heads that how we say something is as important as what we say. Yet we still get into situations in which it’s difficult to express our ideas and opinions so others feel engaged and appreciated. We sometimes forget that conversation is two-way.

When we speak, what specifically do we want the other person to hear and know? Are we expressing it clearly and with a sense of conviction? If we are, do we express ourselves and extend grace to the other party so they can, as best as possible in that moment,  understand us without feeling attacked?

I ask these questions of myself before I pose them to anyone else. I still get into those situations in which I have a hard time expressing myself. But what a blessing for me that people model healthy communication skills so that I can build bridges instead of bonfires.

A Three-Word Prayer for Serenity

The graphic below shows a prayer, commonly referred to as the “Serenity Prayer,”* attributed to Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr and reportedly written in 1926. Niebuhr was a Lutheran pastor and theologian.

After knowing only the first four lines of the prayer, which I learned in 1984, it wasn’t long before I became acquainted with the entire thing. Even though at the time I hadn’t made a decision to follow Christ, the words made sense. Years after that, I was reciting the whole prayer from memory at a weekly small group.

Today, I believe the three most important words of this prayer aren’t, as some people choose to see them, acceptance, courage and wisdom. They are

“God, I surrender”

For me, surrendering to God creates a serenity and peace I can’t otherwise know.

SerenityPrayer with gull

*Usually Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer is quoted using only the first four lines shown here.

Mom’s “Notes to Self”

Dad decided to have an estate sale and clean out the old house I grew up in. Mom had died several years before and he had plenty of good reasons to clear out the contents.

The house was full of antiques he and mom had collected. He also had numerous guns and clocks to sell. There were even collector cards I didn’t know he had. Those eBay freaks went wild bidding on that stuff.

Before he let everything go, however, he told us eight children we could select one thing to keep. He also picked out something for us that he wanted us to have.

What did I pick? Mom’s writing. Anything we could find that was complete. Stuff she didn’t finish. Her two-and-a-half-inch three-ring binder full of poems. A short journal she started as she made decisions regarding cancer treatment. The package even included letters exchanged between her and Dad. And an autograph book from her high school days. It wasn’t exactly “one thing,” but Dad gave a little leeway. I guess he figured no one would bid on something like that. One of us ought to have it.

nurse-mom001

Mom’s graduation pic from nursing school

Today you get to read something she wrote on a 3×5 card. She probably wrote it some time in the 70s. I keep the card at my desk and look at it every now and then for inspiration. The words she wrote remind me so much of her, I can almost hear her speaking them.

Mom was a committed Christian. What she wrote here seems to me like “notes to self.” Maybe she kept the card handy to read as a prompt. Sort of like I do.

Here’s what she wrote on one side of that little unlined card in her utterly neat penmanship.

  1. Diligence–hasten to do a job well
  2. Faith–faith without diligence is dead. I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me
  3. Virtue–honesty, courtesy
  4. Wisdom–ability to use knowledge James1:5
  5. Self-Control–discipline over all body appetites. A scheduling of mind, to control emotions, frustrations, etc.
  6. Godliness–kindness, love.

Now we are coming to the traits that show. The foundation of wisdom, virtue, and faith no one can see, but needs be in (sic) place first, then the character of godliness, love and kindness show through. Character seeks talent necessary to fulfill a task.

On the flip side of the card:

  1. If I have a friend, I will stick with and by them!
  2. I will base my decisions on right and wrong, not on how right or wrong turn out.
  3. I will not tamper with (pastor) or preaching. I will pray for (my pastor) every time I go to prayer.
  4. I will not seek riches.
  5. I will treat all people well no matter their station in life.

Thinking back on how Mom lived her life, I know the listed items on the “flip side” were evident in her daily practices. She always treated my friends well. I brought home some misfits like myself and we always had a good time with Mom. She treated them with dignity and they would comment on how she was a pretty good hostess. Even if she was trying occasionally to save their souls. Cookies usually accompanied the visits.

Years after the estate sale and now that my dad is deceased as well, I’m glad I asked for the writing. I knew about some of the stuff which was hidden away. But some of it came as a surprise.

As a writer, I know that what people put down using pen and paper reveals much about who they are. These days, it’s more often done on a computer. Staring at the blank page, we may be blogging about our lives. We might be sharing our thoughts on social media or journaling in private and storing our thoughts in a folder marked “Notes to Self.”

Someday, my kids will find out a little bit more about me when they discover my journals, the margin notes in a few of my Bibles and the stuff I keep in computer folders that have strange names.

Kids, if you’re reading this, look for “Miscellaneous Creations.”

God’s Surprise Messengers

I went in for the scheduled oil change and learned something.

I already know I should get regular oil changes and top off those fluid levels. My late father was an auto mechanic, so if there’s anything he would preach as car maintenance religion, it’s that. But on this particular day, my van also underwent a transmission fluid flush and fill.

Now that all sounds pretty normal, but what might not seem so usual is that a woman was handling all this. When the process was explained to me, she did it. When I had questions, she answered them. There were a couple of guys around, but she was right on top of things, helping me understand what they were doing and how I should follow up. (Although I have to admit when she talked about my torque converter, she lost me.)3d white people leaning back against a question mark

My point, and I do have one, is that I was shown once again that I can learn from the most unlikely sources. I’m not sexist, but this was so new to me. It never occurred to me that a woman would know about torque converters. She may not have great knowledge in other areas, but she surely knew auto maintenance.

Likewise, I should never underestimate who God chooses to use in my life to see what it is he wants me to see.

I sat in a 12-step meeting once watching a man come in, sit down, say his name and pass at his turn to speak every single week for months. I honestly wondered if he was getting it. Then one night it came his turn and after telling us his name, he told us what was on his heart. He made so much sense, I sat there stunned.

Silly me, thinking one has to have years of spiritual maturity to make sense.

If God can use a donkey to set one of his people straight (see Numbers 22), I guess he can use anyone. Where I’m slow to learn, someone else may have great wisdom for me. I hope I never underestimate the power of God’s word through the people he places in my path.

Five Ways to Gain Wisdom

wisdom road sign“For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding (Proverbs 2:6).

A former professor of mine told our class, “Sometimes common sense isn’t so common.” I don’t remember to what he was referring and I don’t know if the comment was original with him. He could have been quoting someone.

But I believe he was right.

Even more than a need to use common sense, however, is the need for what might be called uncommon sense. Wisdom.

Wisdom, by definition, is the right use of knowledge. So how do we get wisdom and what are some steps we can take to practice godly wisdom?

Know God

Scripture says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). Our ability to put wisdom into practice increases when we know God’s character. Knowing God’s character, we come to trust him more and our relationship with him deepens. We better understand his purposes and his ways so we make choices that are in alignment with his will.

Know God’s Word

In addition to knowing God through prayer and meditation, reading scripture can give us wisdom. Every story, proverb, and teaching includes principles for us to live by. The apostle Paul advised the church in Colossae, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).

God’s word dwelling in us means that it lives in us, becoming part of us. Then, our minds are constantly tuned to the things of God.

Know Well a Few Key People

Members of the body of Christ also help us in our ability to apply wisdom to the choices we make. Other Christ followers can help us by pointing out those things they’ve learned in their walk with the Lord.

“Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together”)

Know What Wisdom Looks Like

Scripture says, “The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:17, 18).

These character attributes will increasingly become evident in our decisions as we increase in wisdom. This is godly wisdom–wisdom from heaven. We can be more sure of making godly decisions if we use these criteria.

Know How to Ask

God has promised for those who ask sincerely without doubting that their prayers for wisdom will be answered (James 1:5). In fact, his word says wisdom will be given generously.

Father, I know that without your Spirit working in me, I’m a stranger to godly wisdom. Even when I pray for wisdom, it shows that you’re making me wiser. I know that putting wisdom into practice is an ongoing lesson in my journey. Please keep me on the path.