A heart for the people

Next month we will resume with an article on an LCCA Called Worker. This is a special edition article.  This month’s focus:  Lawrenz Family

In your mind, picture a bovine herd grazing on an African plain: cattle or Cape Buffalo or Wildebeest – doesn’t matter which animal you imagine.  Now narrow your sights just to the calves.  The ones born around the same time of year are similar in size, roughly the same in height and weight. But do you see that one that is a bit taller, bigger and bulkier than the rest?   Notice that it is also more solid and muscular than the others.  Tough as nails. According to Ngoni culture and language, that one is called the Jere.  In every herd of animals, or even in a gathering of various species of animals, there is always one that stands out by its sheer size and bulk. That one is Jere. Now look at another crowd in Africa.

Pastor Jere and Malawian children in a fishing village

Pastor Jere and Malawian children in a fishing village

This time, not animals, but people. See the one that stands out above the rest?  The one that is a bit taller than most?  Solid and robust? That’s Jere. Some know him as Steve Lawrenz.  Many, however, in Zambia and Malawi, know him as Jere. Pastor Jere. Jere is his African name, given to him by a man from the Ngoni tribe in Zambia. The name stuck. He carries the token Ngoni name well!  A bit taller than most of the rest of us.  Tough as the calluses on the feet of Ngoni warriors.  Strong as an ox. Steve used to pick up missionary kids by the ankles and swing them around upside down.  They loved it (until they turned 18 years of age).   Some people have commented that Steve doesn’t know his own strength.  Why would he?  After all… he’s Jere. Interestingly, Jere is also the name of the Ngoni Chief of chiefs sitting on the throne in Malawi.  Jere is the surname of the royal family.  The Chief of chiefs will always be a Jere. Chief Jere stands tall, not only in his home village but in the whole country.  The name and the position is so highly honored that a late Chief Jere has been pictured on the 20 Kwacha monetary note of Malawi: Inkosi ya Makhosi M’mbelwa II Lazalo Mkhosi Jere.  (Whew!  How would you like to write that name every time you had to sign a check!?) Ironically, some have stated that Steve Lawrenz even looks like Chief Jere. But these are not the reasons why so many people know Steve Lawrenz as they do.  The Africans in Malawi and Zambia know Steve Lawrenz, not for his name nor his height but for his… heart. Like David of old, a man after God’s own heart. A heart for the people Pastor Jere and Malawian children in a fishing village But Steve will be the first to point out that it’s best to look at God’s heart and not his. After all God’s heart is filled with a love for the people that is as unfailing as it is eternal.  God’s heart beats with a passion to touch the hearts of people, filling them with forgiveness and faith and love. He who is loved much has much reason to show it. Jere does. When God called, Steve came.  He came to Africa with energy and enthusiasm and determination.

Child wearing a cross sticker

Child wearing a cross sticker

Only the Lord knows how many sermons Steve preached, babies he baptized, and people he confirmed and communed.  Over Steve’s ministry of 28 plus years in Africa, how many Gospel seeds were planted, watered and nurtured?  How many hearts were encouraged, lives changed or faith renewed? It wasn’t so much the fruit of his work that encouraged him as it was the promises of God.  The Word fed his faith and the people fueled his passion. His heart beat for the people. It was easy to tell. One can just hear it in his voice and see it on his face.  If Steve will allow me and if you’ll indulge me, may I say that I see a special verse in Scripture that has Jere written all over it: 1 Thessalonians 1:8.  It reads…”We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well because you had become so dear to us.”
If I didn’t already know Paul had written those words to the Thessalonians I would think that Steve had penned it to the Zambians and Malawians. Jere’s life and style of ministry revealed his heart for the people.  He truly shared not only the gospel but his life as well.

Steve and John

Missionary John Holtz with Steve Lawrenz

The people indeed had become dear to him.  Oh, so dear. Find Steve in Malawi and you’ll hear him with people: chatting in Chewa, rehearsing people’s names, delighting children with his much loved antics.  Jere loves to put cross stickers on the foreheads of African children and tell them about Jesus. Locate Steve and you’ll notice that he’s chumming with the national pastors, working on building relationships and looking to do the good works that the Lord has already prepared for him to do. But no more. No more?  Well, I should clarify those words a bit better: he will be doing these things in Africa no more.  America, yes.  Africa, no. Steve and his wife Lori are leaving Africa.  They are bidding farewell to the land of Malawi in which they hung their hat for the last seven years.  From their home in Blantyre, Malawi and from 10,000 feet in the air, on 2 March 2015 they will wave good bye to neighboring Zambia where they raised their three children, Scott, Diana and Adam. What’s it like to get rid of most of your things, pack the rest and move back to a place you left almost 3 decades ago? “Exciting!” Steve says with enthusiasm.  “I love adventure!  In fact, for me, going to America now is like going to a foreign country.  Yes, I grew up in the USA and served as a parish pastor for 4 years in Minnesota and 6 years in Pennsylvania.  Except for furloughs, however, I’ve been away from the USA for almost 30 years. So many things have changed.  Lori and I will need time to transition back into American culture.” Steve agrees wholeheartedly that the time is right for their move: “About my position being eliminated and I going back to the USA, I agree with it totally!  I support the idea of going back to the USA with no missionary to replace me because it is the right thing to do in the development of a mission.” Steve recalls the time when there used to be 13 missionaries in Malawi and 11 in Zambia.  At this time there are now but four mission families in Zambia and with Steve’s and Lori’s departure from Malawi there remains but four also. Dear Steve and Lori. We will miss you.  Many many Malawians and Zambians will miss you. Thank you, Steve and Lori, for sharing both the gospel and your lives with us in Africa.  You have become dear to us. You have touched the lives of countless people in these two countries and left an indelible mark upon them…God’s indelible mark!  God’s love in Jesus Christ.  Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the cross has found its mark not on foreheads but in hearts. Dear Mission Partners, if you ever see Steve in America, call him by his African name. Call him…Jere. He’ll be glad you did.  You’ll be glad you did. If he starts reaching down to pick you up by the ankles to swing you around upside down, either let him show you his strength, or you can ask him to instead share with you a story or two of his experience in Africa.  In Chichewa or English or both. You’ll be in for a real treat.  He not only has a flair for a good story, but a passion for the greatest one ever told.  The story of how God has… a heart for the people.

Missionary to Malawi, John Holtz, gives a great send off to Missionary Steven Lawrenz as his time in Africa comes to an end and he returns to the United States.

We are not afraid

We were not in class on that Friday morning. We were walking to the mortuary before the morning dew had cleared. Shocking news had punched our hearts as we woke. “Pastor Umoessien is dead.” Even those in charge said, “We don’t know what to do.” Should the seminary continue with classes and pay our respects later? No, word came that the morticians wanted to begin their work. So we cancelled class for the day. Students, Director, and WELS instructors started their sad procession together. Leaving our lane, turning left on the sand road. Our oldest student came for chapel a few minutes late. He caught up with our sad walk. “Pastor Umoessien is dead.” Student Samuel’s mouth dropped open, his lips quivered, his eyes frantically searched ours, “What?” We explained that Umoessien had been killed the previous night, January 15, 2015, in a car-motorbike collision. “No, he was just here that same morning talking to us!”

Pastor Umoessien

Pastor Umoessien

But yes, Umoessien was dead. A ‘keke’ (motorbike tricycle taxi) pulled up to park at the entrance path to the mortuary. Emem, Mrs. Umoessien, had come with one of her sons. We all crowded into the first room of the mortuary. Our friend’s body was laid out on a mat on the floor, covered in a dignified way. We lined the north wall and clogged the doorway. There was no plan for who should speak. The two WELS pastors were silent, giving way to whatever the Nigerians needed to say or do. The Director was also silent. Unbidden, student Egar offered the prayer.He praised the Lord our God and thanked him for this opportunity for us to honor a man we loved and to declare to the world that we are not afraid. We are not afraid because our God is in charge. The same one who gave us Jesus as our Savior has now taken Umoessien away. And we trust our Lord in all he decides for us.

When Egar concluded, we all said, “Amen,” including the new overnight widow of Rev. Eme George Umoessien.

In fact, Pastor Umoessien was one of five men connected with the seminary who died within the last year and a half. Evangelist Happiness Uko, Ev. Samuel Eyo, retired professor Rev. Edet Akpakpan, and Ev. Saviour Udo had all preceded Umoessien, leaving this earth for heaven. Of them, only Akpakpan had achieved old age. But many student and instructor devotions, a student sermon at the dead pastor’s congregation, and the general population of both our synods in Nigeria kept making the point, “We are not afraid.”

Pastor Umoessien

Pastor Umoessien

Why would people keep asserting our faith in such words? Because adversity and death, so easy to suffer in Nigeria, are feared. People fear death because it tempts them to believe that God is not in charge. They fear death when they revert to the old ways, fearing that someone has cursed our seminary or the living spirit of a dead person has decided to plague our seminary. In defiance of the old and default animistic views of cause and effect, our fellow Christians tell themselves and the whole world, “We are not afraid.” Nor should we fear death or any other adversity. For if God has so freely given his own Son to take away the guilt of our sins, how would he not take care of us in all the lesser issues of life – issues of both life and death (Rom.8:32)?The family of Christ the King Lutheran Seminary and both synods in Nigeria have suffered a string of deaths. But they assure you and one another, “We are not afraid. We will continue our studies. We will go into the field with the gospel of our Savior.” So take heart in your own lives! Receive whatever God sends you with both hands!

Rev. Doug Weiser, missionary to Nigeria, recounts National Pastor Umoessien’s death and how we have no need to fear death because of our faith in Jesus.

It is finished

Brooks Reames is a member of Peace Lutheran Church in Aiken, South Carolina. He writes about how he came back to Christ through Pastor Jonathan Bourman.

I am not sure how you feel when you read those words, but the first thing that comes to my mind is EXHAUSTION and a major inability to be who I desperately want to be.  We all feel the need not only to be better human beings, but also to be better Christians.  We feel this because the law of God has been written on our hearts.  As Romans says, “They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts…” This truth really began to take hold of my heart back in 2011.

Previously I had lived in Greenwood, South Carolina.  I had received a baseball scholarship to Lander University in 2008 and lived there until 2011.  Jesus radically opened my eyes while I was there.  Late at night sometimes when drugs and alcohol were present I felt the weight of the law.  I headed for church and was baptized on November 21, 2008.  During the next three years in Greenwood, God did a magnificent work in my heart.  He gave me a burning desire to know him more deeply and I wanted to love him more effectively, but I had one big problem.  My doctrine and my mindset were all messed up.  The focus of my Christian faith was all about my performance and not enough about Christ’s performance for me.  I lived a very rocky Christian life.  When I felt I was achieving obedience, I was happy.  When I thought I was failing God, I was depressed.

After living a life of trying to achieve my salvation, I hit rock bottom in my faith.  I finally came to a place where the law had completely wrecked me.  I was mad at God and turned my back to him.  I can recall one day when I told him I was done following him and cursed him out.  It seems absurd to curse at God but I can say honestly that it was a great day in my life.  I had finally given up on trying to obey the law.  I had finally come to a place where I knew I could not do it.  Little did I know that that was God’s intention for me.  God wanted me to understand my inability to obey the law.

During the next couple of years, I rebelled.  I gave up on following him.  I knew that if being a Christian was about following rules, then I couldn’t be one.  I still had a distorted view of the Christian life.  Even though I was living in this mindset, God had a beautiful plan for me.  God was leading me to the true and right doctrine.  During that time, God led me to the beautiful gospel of grace, but I struggled to find assurance in it.  I needed someone else to “get it” – to confirm me in it.  I felt as if I was the only person in Aiken that was itching and needing the pure gospel message.  I wanted and desperately needed someone to tell me the gospel was really true.

My story takes me to the end of 2013.  It was during a fitness orientation at Gold’s Gym in Aiken (where I work) that a met this tall skinny guy.  Little did I know that this fitness orientation would be one that would lead me to understand the true doctrine.  I met Jonathan Bourman, who I now consider a great friend and my pastor.  Jonathan had recently moved to Aiken to plant a church.  When I heard him tell me that I remember rolling my eyes to the back of my head and thinking, “Aiken has enough law filled churches.” But then we began to talk and he said a word that struck a cord in my heart.  He said “GOSPEL!” The joy that sprang to my heart after hearing that word was indescribable.  I later came to understand that this guy, “gets it,” and I needed to hear more from him.

After the encounter with Jonathan we began to meet on a weekly basis.  He began teaching me the Lutheran doctrine.  I was blown away with the purity of this truth.  Christianity became clearer to me. The gospel was the centerpiece in this doctrine.  I began to see the true essence of my Savior.  As time went by I gained the assurance I was looking for, not from my own feelings of salvation but from God’s Word and my baptism.  What a beautiful gift God has given me in seeing his pure doctrine. Today I proudly call myself a Confessional Lutheran and will forever live to be reminded of the gospel message and in hopes of bringing this freedom to other people.

I am truly excited for Peace Lutheran church to begin.  There are no other churches in the Aiken area that are bringing this message.  My soon-to-be wife and I are becoming members of this church and are looking forward to hearing the gospel message preached.  My prayer is that through Peace Lutheran Church many people in Aiken will come to believe and understand the true doctrine of Christianity that truly, “It is finished.”

To learn more about Peace Lutheran Church, visit www.peaceinaiken.com.

Christians Under Construction – Week 12

Christians Under Construction is a series of devotions designed for family use each week focused on Christian stewardship. It was originally developed for a congregation stewardship series and intended as a weekly resource. I thought I’d republish here for those interested in using them. Here is week twelve:

Psalm 24:1 – “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”

There was a battle of wills going on in the Gentry home. Bill Jr. and his little sister Mary were struggling over which show to watch. Bill Jr. had the TV remote control and was furiously clicking at the TV to change channels. Mary wildly jumped in front of the TV trying to block him. “Stop that!” shouted Bill. “No,” Mary yelled, “it’s my turn to pick the show! You’ve been watching for the last two hours.” Bill wouldn’t relent. “Yes, but I have the remote! Haven’t you heard? Possession is 9/10ths of the law?”

As Mary was about to pull the plug on the TV, mom walked in and settled things once and for all. “Both of you go out and play. It’s silly to argue about things like that. The television and all that we have belong to God…no matter who holds the remote control.”

Now that explanation caused both Bill and Mary to stop dead in their tracks. Bill spun around and shot back, “What does God need with a television?”

Bill asked an interesting question. Our Bible verse for today simply says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” What does the Lord need with a television, or a car, or a cell phone, or a child’s toy?

The Psalmist captured something very important to our understanding of stewardship. It isn’t that the Lord “needs” anything. Yes, he “owns” it all, but in His grace he has entrusted it to us. God has said, “Here, take care of my things and only do with them as I would.” Of course, that is easier said than done.

As Christian stewards it is our responsibility, and sometimes a difficult challenge, to figure out how God wants us to use what he has given us. Because we are still “under construction” we don’t always hear God’s directives clearly. Even when we do, we sometimes ignore them.

Stewardship is all about listening – listening to God. Listening and then asking ourselves, “What does God want me to do with this?” Listening to God can be particularly challenging when it comes to our money, or should we say God’s money? In our current sub-theme, The Builder’s Budget, we have learned that God has a budget and he asks us to fund it with the money he has entrusted to us.

What to do? What to do? How should we spend God’s money? The answer to that question only comes through listening. We must listen to God’s Word on Sunday morning in church and Bible Class. We must listen to God’s Word in our daily devotions. Throughout our lives we must listen to God’s Word for clues about how to spend His money. We can also pray about it, asking God how he would like us to use what he has given us.

Possession is not 9/10ths of the law. God owns it all. In a way that makes it easier. We have only one person to ask how to use our possessions – God. Now we simply need to listen for the answer.

Discussion Questions: Why does God give us things like televisions and cars and toys? What would life be like without any possessions? (Try to list both bad and good things about life without possessions.) Contrast God’s will for how to use our possessions with the devil’s. Think about or discuss ways in the coming week to listen more closely to God’s direction regarding your use of His money.

(Note to parents: You may want to review the facts of the story to reinforce the lesson.)

Family Reading: Psalm 24

Prayer: Heavenly Father, everything we have comes from you. Thank you! May we use our things and spend our money wisely on your behalf. Continue to be gracious toward your Christian stewards. Amen.

Christians Under Construction – Week 11

Christians Under Construction is a series of devotions designed for family use each week focused on Christian stewardship. It was originally developed for a congregation stewardship series and intended as a weekly resource. I thought I’d republish here for those interested in using them. Here is week eleven:

Hebrews 13:5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.

Bill Gentry Jr. couldn’t contain himself. With the allowance he was about to receive from his father, he had now saved enough to buy the skateboard he had had his eye on for almost 4 months. He had been exceptionally disciplined in his spending over that time period, not buying the little things that had caught his eye every now and then. In short, he had a plan, and he stuck to it!

This was very unusual for Bill, as money seemed to burn a hole in his pocket. So much so that on occasion he had little or nothing left for his Sunday School offering. He felt bad about it, but he couldn’t help himself. However, this time was a different story.

“How did you do it Bill?”, asked his little sister Mary. “You’ve never saved up for anything before, no matter how hard you tried.”

“I don’t know Mary”, Bill responded. “I guess I just wanted this more than anything else before.”

The object of our desire is all important. The same holds true in Christian stewardship. So what is our desire when it comes to money? Is it a big house, nice car, unforgettable vacations? None of those are bad things. Some of us have them. However they should not be the “object of our desire.”

Well, what about providing for our families, or saving up for our children’s education? Are those the “object of our desire?” Worthy causes, yes, but still not the object of our desire.

Our Bible verse for this week helps us understand the answer. It states both what should and shouldn’t be the object of our desire. Reread it now. The object of our desire is not money itself, or even the things it buys. Rather, the object of our desire is God himself because, as the verse says, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” We saw that promise kept in living color when Jesus was born. We saw it again when Jesus was crucified for our sins. We saw it once again when Jesus rose from the dead so that we too might rise — the object of our desire, our Savior.

Bill Jr. had a plan that he put in place because he really wanted something. His desire for it was greater than anything he had felt before. If our desire is for our Lord, then that desire should influence all that we do, including our budgeting.

Our current sub-theme for our Christians Under Construction series is, “The Builder’s Budget.” Yes, God has a budget that he has asked us to fund. How do we go about doing that? We make a plan. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up.” It’s a simple plan, but effective. And the only way any plan that we make can be successful is if the object of our desire is our Savior.

Discussion Questions: What kinds of things have you saved up to buy? Was it hard to resist spending that money on other things along the way? Why? If Jesus is the object of our desire, how should that affect our decision-making and planning? Does God ask us to neglect ourselves or our families to fund His budget? Will God provide for all of your needs? If so, what Bible verse tells us so?

(Note to parents: You may want to review the facts of the story to reinforce the lesson.)

Family Reading: Hebrews 13

Prayer: Dear Lord, you are the object of our desire. May our lives revolve around you and only you. For we know that we were the object of your desire simply by observing your life, death and resurrection. Your grace amazes us. Amen.

Christians Under Construction – Week 10

Christians Under Construction is a series of devotions designed for family use each week focused on Christian stewardship. It was originally developed for a congregation stewardship series and intended as a weekly resource. I thought I’d republish here for those interested in using them. Here is week ten:

Deuteronomy 8:17,18 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.

Marilyn Gentry and her daughter Mary were browsing through a local bookstore looking for that perfect gift for a relative. They went from section to section hoping that a particular title would jump out at them and scream “I’m the perfect gift!” They went from travel to biographies to computers and so on. Most sections were of equal size, until they came to a section called “self-help.”

“Mom,” Mary asked, “what is ’self-help’ and why are there so many books about it?” She had noticed titles like, “Be All You Can Be,” “The Perfect You,” and “I Don’t Need Nothin’ From You.” Marilyn had noticed the same thing. The only thing missing was the familiar yellow covered book titled, “Self-Help For Dummies.” But as she turned the corner, there it was!

“Mary, that’s an excellent question. I guess a lot of people want to know how to make themselves better and without anyone else’s help. Maybe they want to feel better, or be richer, or fix all their own problems.”

Mary, remembering back to her Sunday School lesson the day before, responded, “Why do you need so many books about that? The simple answer is God! When God spoke to Moses he told him to remember that no matter how strong you get or how much money you make, God gives you the ability to do those things.”

“You are absolutely right Mary. God is the answer. If you think about it, he gave us the clothes we are wearing. He gave us the car that we drive, because he gave us the ability to earn money to buy it. In fact, all the money that we have is really his.”

Mary quickly responded, “Yeah, and it’s too bad all of the people who buy these books are spending that money trying to find an answer that’s in that section over there.” She was pointing to the Bible section.

Mary was indeed right. Our ability to increase our wealth or better ourselves does not rest in selecting the right book or method or uncovering the “secret.” Our ability comes from God and is tied up in one not-so-secret secret — Jesus. Because of Jesus, God has been so generous to us. He has given us all that we need and more. He has given us the ability to work. He has given us possessions. He has given us eternal life.

So as God says in our passage, “remember.” Remember God when we work. Remember God when we decide how to spend what he has given us. Remember God when we think about what we deserve – death, and what we will get – eternal life. Wonderful things to “think” about. Wonderful things to “live” about.

Discussion Questions: List ways that you have tried to “make yourself better.” What has God given you the ability to do? Does the Bible teach that we should not “help ourselves”? If not, how does it tell us to do so? Is it wrong to work hard to earn more money? Why or why not?

(Note to parents: You may want to review the facts of the story to reinforce the lesson.)

Family Reading: Deuteronomy 8

Prayer: Dear Lord, thank you for the ability to work, to earn a living, to support ourselves. We owe it all to you. May the works of our hands always give glory to you. Amen.

 

 

Christians Under Construction – Week 9

Christians Under Construction is a series of devotions designed for family use each week focused on Christian stewardship. It was originally developed for a congregation stewardship series and intended as a weekly resource. I thought I’d republish here for those interested in using them. Here is week nine:

James 1:17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.

Bill Gentry and his son Bill Jr. were enjoying a fall afternoon together in a small fishing boat, as they liked to do on occasion. Bill was an avid fisherman and had been trying to pass on his enthusiasm for the sport to his 12 year old son. Bill Jr. had come to enjoy the activity as well, especially the “worm part.”

Their favorite spot on the pond was very close to a small waterfall that dropped about 4 feet and fed a small stream that went south for about 2 miles until it simply became nothing more than a muddy patch of ground. Bill Jr. turned to his father, just before he was about to throw his line into the water, “Dad, why does that stream eventually dry up into a mud hole?”

“Well Bill, that’s because its source, this pond we’re fishing in now, is so small. It simply doesn’t have enough water in it to support a very big stream that goes very far. Now a river like the Mississippi has any number of sources, all of which are rather large lakes. That is why it can go from the top of our country to the bottom and spill into the Gulf of Mexico.”

Bill Jr. thought for a minute and then said, “So the size and strength of the stream depends on how good the source is?”

“Exactly right Billy,” replied his father.

This week, we begin the second phase of our three part Stewardship emphasis, “Christians Under Construction,” with a new focus on “The Builder’s Budget.” In this series of devotions, we will look at the treasures God has given us to care for.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when talking about any kind of stewardship is the source of the thing we are asked to take care of. Over the past two months we looked at spiritual gifts. It is important for us to remember that those gifts were given to us by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is “the source” of those gifts. Remembering that teaches us how to treat those gifts and underlines their purpose.

Now as we focus on the treasures that we have, especially the fiscal ones, we will also want to be mindful of their source. James put it very well, “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” These gifts are from God, who has entrusted their care to us. He has given us the money we have. He has given us the ability to work for it and now wants us to be smart about its use — in other words, stewardship.

We will all be in good shape if we simply remember the source — a powerful and gracious God who has not only given us fiscal treasures, but eternal ones. He gave us His son, the source of our eternal hope, and object of our faith. Remember that the source of all the good things that we have is not ourselves, but our God. That will, in turn, help us determine how to be good stewards. As Bill Jr. said, “The size and the strength of the stream depends on how good the source is.” Our source is God, and our streams can be mighty powerful.

Discussion Questions: How powerful can large rivers be? How can they hurt or harm things? How might a lake or pond dry up? Compare that to what might happen to us if our source of blessings were to “dry up.” Respond to the statement, “Everything I have I earned with my own hard work.” Should we ever be proud of our own accomplishments? Why is the source of our strength, gifts and treasures so important to remember?

(Note to parents: You may want to review the facts of the story to reinforce the lesson.)

Family Reading: James 1

Prayer: Dear Father, you are the source of all good and perfect gifts. We praise and thank you. You have looked down on your children and blessed us so richly. Please help us to always remember that you have entrusted us with all that we have. May we be wise stewards to your glory. Amen.

 

Christians Under Construction – Week 8

Christians Under Construction is a series of devotions designed for family use each week focused on Christian stewardship. It was originally developed for a congregation stewardship series and intended as a weekly resource. I thought I’d republish here for those interested in using them. Here is week eight:

I Corinthians 12:11 All these (gifts) are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.

It was fall cleaning and everybody in the Gentry family was expected to be outside either working in the yard or cleaning up the garage. It was a family tradition. The last Saturday in October was the time to make a final attempt at getting everything ready for the winter. All the leaves needed to be raked, flower beds weeded and groomed, garage straighten and swept, snow shovels taken out of the shed and snow blower given a tune up. Nobody escaped the rather lengthy work list. Little Mary Gentry had raking responsibilities, while her older brother Bill Jr. was asked to tidy up the garage. Mom Gentry was busy grooming the flower beds, and Dad orchestrated the entire work effort. The tradition continued into the evening when they all went out for pizza and felt a sense of accomplishment over what they did together – as a family.

Over the past two months we’ve been talking about spiritual gifts in these devotions. We’ve covered many aspects of them. Where they come from. What they are. How to use and develop them. How varied they are. Today, like the Gentry family over pizza, we’d like to reflect on what we’ve done together in the past and what we can do together in the future.

The Gentry family used their skills, talents and gifts to accomplish something. Our church family does the same thing. One need look no further than our own grounds to see evidence of that. One need look no further than all the other groups that meet for Bible study, fellowship, service, church leadership, etc. to see evidence that a coordinated activity is going on.

Does our congregation president or pastors deserve all the credit for orchestrating our gift use and activities? They’d be the first to tell you, “NO.” Our Bible verse today says there is only one responsible for giving gifts and orchestrating their use. Paul said, “All these (gifts) are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.” This is one of those wonderfully comforting Scripture passages that doesn’t really sink in until you think through it a bit. The Holy Spirit is in charge of our day to day activities. Not us. Not the pastors or president, and most certainly not the devil. It’s the Holy Spirit. He gives. He determines. Wow.

He has taken a personal interest not only in our activities, but in each and every one of us. The Holy Spirit determines that spiritual work needs to take place and gives people the appropriate tools to do the work. He gives them the motivation to do the work and finally orchestrates the work. The result is a family that works hard together — a family that can then enjoy a slice of pizza together or a soup supper and praise God for the opportunity to serve Him.

It’s nice to be part of family, isn’t it? Work together, play together. For eternity!

Discussion Questions: What kinds of “work days” does your family have? Can you think of more benefits to these works days than just “getting the work done?” If so, what? What “tools” can you bring to work days?

(Note to parents: You may want to review the facts of the story to reinforce the lesson.)

Family Reading: 1 Corinthians 12

 

Prayer: Lord, you have provided us with many gifts. You have provided us with others with whom we can work. We celebrate both. But above all we rejoice over the eternal life we each have because of your Son’s death and resurrection. We work for him. Amen.

Christians Under Construction – Week 7

Christians Under Construction is a series of devotions designed for family use each week focused on Christian stewardship. It was originally developed for a congregation stewardship series and intended as a weekly resource. I thought I’d republish here for those interested in using them. Here is week seven:

Acts 9:31 Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in fear of the Lord.

Bill Jr. pounced on his mother Marilyn as she came home from shopping one Saturday morning, “Mom, mom, I grew an inch so far this year!” In the Gentry family, it was a tradition to mark all the children’s heights on the back of the laundry room door to track their growth.

“That’s great Bill, it must have been those nutritious meals I’ve been feeding you,” his mother replied. “Well I don’t know what it was but I hope I keep going!”

“Bill, there are many ways to grow. Sooner or later you will stop physically growing, and may actually shrink a bit.”

“Shrink?” Bill interrupted, “I don’t want to shrink. How come?”

Marilyn paused and said, “Life just tends to wear people down as they get older. Our bodies get tired. It is really because of sin. If we weren’t sinners our bodies would stay strong and healthy. In fact, we would never die. But because we are sinners we get weaker, until we die.”

Bill thought for a minute, and then said, “You mean like Grandma? I’ve seen some of her pictures when she was a lot younger and she looks so different now.”

“Yes, like grandma. But the good news is that even though we get weaker and weaker on the outside, we can get stronger and stronger on the inside. You could say, while our outside shrinks, our insides grow.”

Now Bill was really confused. He said, “Wouldn’t you just explode after a while?”

Bill’s mom could see the perplexed look on her son’s face. “What I’m talking about is growing spiritually. That takes place on the inside. And it does have a lot to do with what you eat. Not only do our bodies need food to grow, our faith does too.”

The light bulb finally went on in Bill’s head, “I remember. We learned about this in Sunday School. Mrs. Morse was talking about the early Christian church when we were studying Acts. She said that the Holy Spirit strengthened that church and it grew by leaps and bounds. She explained that the way the church did all that growing was by reading, studying and believing the Bible, and by sharing it with each other.”

“Yes, our church exists for the same reason,” Marilyn responded. “We hear God’s word, we study it, we share it and we all grow stronger together. Even though we all get older and our bodies get weaker, we get stronger on the inside. God does that through His Word. And when we grow in number, that is the reason. We share God’s Word. So in a way we do explode. We explode as we get filled up with God’s Word and the more it fills us up, the more we have to share it –the more people we want to share it with.”

Bill, somewhat satisfied with the conversation said, “I guess I don’t care if I stop getting taller, but I never want to stop growing on the inside. It’s a good thing there is Sunday School tomorrow. I can tell everybody I am growing this year, inside and out!”

Discussion Questions: What happens to our bodies when we eat food that is bad for us? How is sin like bad food? List ways that you can “eat spiritual food?” Is it possible to eat too much spiritual food? How does the spiritual food that we eat affect the spiritual gifts that God has given us to use? How have you helped someone else grow “on the inside?”

(Note to parents: You may want to review the facts of the story to reinforce the lesson.)

Family Reading: Acts 9

 

Prayer: Dear Father, increase our appetite for your Word. We need to eat. We need to grow. Thank you for the food and the faith. Amen.

Christians Under Construction – Week 6

Christians Under Construction is a series of devotions designed for family use each week focused on Christian stewardship. It was originally developed for a congregation stewardship series and intended as a weekly resource. I thought I’d republish here for those interested in using them. Here is week six:

Ephesians 4:15-16 “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Jesus Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

Marilyn and Mary strolled down the hall at the local mall on Saturday in search of the perfect gift for Bill. Mother and daughter loved this time together, since not only was it “just the girls,” but it was shopping!

As they left one store, Mary noticed a rather small man walking with a noticeable limp. “Mommy, that man walks funny.” Marilyn had noticed the man too. “Mary, it looks like one of his legs didn’t grow as fast as the other one. So when he walks he dips and rises depending on which foot is hitting the ground.”

Mary quickly responded, “I’m glad my legs are the same length. He must be very sad that he can’t walk like everybody else.”

“Mary, did you see his face? He didn’t look sad at all did he? In fact, he was smiling from ear to ear.”

“But mom, why would he be happy?” asked Mary. They walked behind the man for a bit, until he walked into the Robert Mitchell art gallery. “Those paintings are beautiful” both Marilyn and Mary thought to themselves. As they walked past the entrance, they heard the person at the cash register call out to the limping man, “Good morning, Mr. Mitchell.”

Mom turned to Mary and nodded, “He’s happy because he is able to use other things that God has given him.”

Mr. Mitchell, Marilyn and Mary all were quite different people. One couldn’t walk very well the others could. Some couldn’t paint very well, one of them could.

This is also the way it works among God’s children. He created us different physically and emotionally. He gave each of us talents, sometimes very unique ones. And as the Bible reading for today explains, we are all growing. In other words, we are all under construction.

We may all be very different in many regards, but we are all the same in one very important way. We are all a part of the same “body,” and the head of that body is Jesus Christ. Yes, some of us walk with limps. Some of us paint well. Whatever we do, whatever talents God has given us, we are all connected by one central nervous system — Christ. He is the head. He directs our lives. He gives us ways to “grow” our gifts. He gives us ways to use our gifts. And he provides his church with all the talent needed to function.

Paul said, “as each part does its work.” If some of us aren’t very good at preaching or teaching, others of us are. If some of us aren’t very good at encouraging each other, others of us are. Appreciate the diversity God has given you and His church. Just as your legs do something very different than your arms, so we each can provide very different services to God. The church needs legs AND arms. Both are important. YOU are important. Jesus Christ made it so by dying for you on the cross. God the Father made it so by creating you just the way you are. The Holy Spirit made it so by giving you spiritual gifts, and enabling you to use them.

Discussion Questions: Blind people typically have exceptional hearing. Why? What talent would you like to “grow?” How might you go about helping others to grow their gifts? Explain why the church needs to use the talents of ALL of its members. Does using your spiritual gifts make you smile “ear to ear?” Why or why not?

(Note to parents: You may want to review the facts of the story to reinforce the lesson.)

Family Reading: Ephesians 4

 

Prayer: Lord, you are the head of the body. Thank you for making us members of that body. You have made each of us unique and called each one of us to use our gifts. We want to answer that call. Help us to do so. Amen.

At home in Mexico

My husband Jorge is from Huamantla, a city of 50,000 at the foot of a volcano called La Malinche, where every year two dozen bulls thunder through the streets, and artisans cover six miles of local thoroughfares with elaborate carpets made of flowers and colored sawdust.

I am from pleasant small-town Wisconsin, that beautiful green country of cows and cornfields and cold winters, where bratwurst has been elevated to an art form and Friday night fish fries and the Packer games are considered sacred traditions.

The story of how we met is something only God could have arranged.

Our paths crossed for the first time in the arid industrial city of Torreón in northern Mexico. Little did we know that this was the beginning of a sojourn from urban metropolises to dusty rural roads and back again.

Jorge grew up in a Catholic family but came into contact with the Lutheran church as a teen, and eventually became a member. At the urging of his pastor, he decided to begin pastoral studies. This choice led him to Torreón, where the seminary was then located. In the meantime, I was studying to become a Spanish teacher at Martin Luther College. Word came that there was an opportunity to teach English in Mexico through WELS Kingdom Workers. Very interested to be immersed in a Latin American country and at the same time use my gifts to help the local church, I applied and shortly after, was accepted. Where in Mexico was I headed? You guessed it: Torreón.

Jorge and I were friends right off the bat. We visited all the museums and parks Torreón had to offer. He introduced me to some strange new foods. I may have asked him one too many questions about Spanish. Before a year had gone by, we were engaged. After finishing college (me) and seminary (Jorge) we got married in the beautiful colonial city of Puebla. Jorge was assigned to serve in Mahahual, a remote beach town six hours south of Cancun. It was a charming and tranquil place to live, sandwiched between the jungle and the sea. God blessed us with a little girl while we served there. Several years later, Jorge accepted a call to serve in city of León, Guanajuato, where we currently live. The changes were drastic; we traveled 1126 miles to our new home, from sea-level to nearly 6000 feet above sea-level, from a tropical to a semiarid climate, from the Caribbean coastline to the Sierra Madre mountain chain.

Folks often wonder what is like for me to live in Mexico, after having grown up elsewhere. Though perhaps cliché, life is slower here. You can spend a morning meandering through the town plaza, listening to organ grinders and feeding the pigeon flocks. At the same time, you can spend months trying to get one piece of paperwork registered by the local government.

As newlyweds, we traveled with only three suitcases and a few boxes of books to our name. Though we still live with very little by American standards, we daily witness people with much less. This is humbling; the abundance in the United States is a blessing I can no longer take for granted. To all of us, on both sides of the border, our Father sends us the manna of food, of friends and opportunities. He gives us so many gifts, Himself above all.

We live very deeply in the culture, as a typical Mexican family would. Most of my day is spent talking and working in Spanish. The experiences God has given me are beyond what my younger self could have imagined, from making chileatole (a savory corn and chili pepper soup) and tortillas with my mother-in-law, to giving birth in a rustic cabin because there were no hospitals nearby. I didn’t realize when we married the magnitude of the change I was embracing. I find the differences to be even more striking as I watch our daughter grow up. She chatters away in Spanish, eats tamales and thinks every party has a piñata. Mexico runs through her veins.

This life can, at times, be lonely. There are cultural moments in which I feel like I’m on the outside looking in. Years pass without seeing any family members face to face. I miss births and deaths, weddings and graduations, often communicating from a cramped internet café. I mourn the milestones missed, and yet this serves to remind me that I am really homesick for heaven, that far-off Country. All of these places we have lived – Torreon, Mahahual, León – these are all temporary cities as we continue our sojourn home. One day we will be together again at His feet.

As we lay down our roots here and yet keep our eyes heavenward, we have confidence that Christ will keep us. Whether He shields us from heartache or permits sorrows to enter our lives, we shall not fear, for our God is good and He is in control. I confess with the Psalmist, ¨The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.¨

Kerry Pamperin de Briones, Mexico

God bless Malawi

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?

(1 Thessalonians 3:9)

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

DestroyedMalawi-02052015-350

Greetings from Malawi in Jesus’ name! In the past few weeks, many of you have heard about the severe flooding in Malawi. Unusually heavy rains have caused extensive damage, especially in the Southern Region of Malawi. About 80% of our LCCA churches are located in this area. Thousands of our Lutheran members have been affected by these floods. Many have lost their homes. Others have lost their fields and gardens. Many have been injured, and some have even lost their lives. With one united voice we cry to our gracious God in heaven that he may have mercy on all who are suffering from this disaster.

But how can we thank God enough for you, our brothers and sisters in America! You have poured out your earnest prayers like a mighty flood before God’s throne. You do not know our names and we do not know yours, yet you have come to our assistance with your generous gifts and offerings. Even now, the affected congregations of the LCCA are receiving disaster relief from the WELS – warm blankets, plastic roofing sheets, nails, and a bucket to carry water. These gifts of love do more than warm our bodies in the cold hours of the night. They warm our hearts, for now we know that you are one with us in Christ!

malawi-02052015-350We thank the WELS Christian Aid and Relief Committee for their generous and ongoing financial contributions. We thank the Kingdom Workers for supplying manpower to assist in the distribution of relief. Most of all, we thank everyone who has offered heartfelt prayers and generous gifts to help us in our need. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?

God is always good to us, but these hardships in Malawi will continue for some time. We humbly ask that you will continue to hold us up in prayer, just as we will always pray for you. We ask that you will continue to support us with your financial contributions, just as you have been doing right up to this time. May the God who loves us and who has washed us of our sins in Jesus’ blood bless you for your kindness.

Your brother in Christ,
Rev. Riphat Matope, president, LCCA Malawi Synod

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Christians Under Construction – Week 5

Christians Under Construction is a series of devotions designed for family use each week focused on Christian stewardship. It was originally developed for a congregation stewardship series and intended as a weekly resource. I thought I’d republish here for those interested in using them. Here is week five:

2 Thessalonians 1:3 – “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing.”

Marilyn Gentry was putting her daughter Mary to bed. The evening ritual was for mom to read daughter a bedtime story after prayers and then lights out.

As Marilyn left the room and closed the door, Mary shouted “I love you.” “I love you too sweetheart,” replied Marilyn, “very much.” “How much mommy?” asked Mary. Marilyn paused, “That’s hard to say Mary, but it’s a lot. More and more each day.”

Now Mary’s curiosity was peaked. “You mean you love me more today than you did yesterday?” “I guess so,” said mom. “I don’t know why, but I just do.” “I love you more too mommy.”

Marilyn went to bed that night with a smile on her face, knowing her little girl really loved her, and she really loved her little girl. In her prayers that night, she thanked God for that love, and asked that both her love and her daughter’s love would continue to grow.

The apostle Paul expressed similar thoughts when he wrote to the Christians at Thessalonica. He wrote, “We ought always to thank God for you.” Paul saw that there was a growing love among those people, and that’s a wonderful thing to watch! He wanted to offer that prayer of thanks to God, because it was God’s doing that their love for each other was growing, just as it was God’s doing that mother and daughter loved each other so much.

The reason that the Thessalonians love for each other was growing was that their faith was growing. That was also God’s doing. He is behind our spiritual growth. He puts faith and love in our hearts. What wonderful gifts!

He does the same for us. He grows our faith and love with His word. He grows our faith and love through each other.

Discussion Questions: List things we do that make it tough for people to love us. How do we grow our faith? How do we grow the faith of others? What might cause us to love somebody “less” each day? Are those valid reasons? How does the use of our spiritual gifts increase our love or faith? Why does God love us so much?

(Note to parents: You may want to review the facts of the story to reinforce the lesson.)

Family Reading: 2 Thessalonians 1

 

Prayer: Father in heaven, thank you for those who love me and those I love. Continue to grow that love. Continue to grow my faith. I love you Lord. Thank you for loving me. Amen.

Christians Under Construction Week 4

Christians Under Construction is a series of devotions designed for family use each week focused on Christian stewardship. It was originally developed for a congregation stewardship series and intended as a weekly resource. I thought I’d republish here for those interested in using them. Here is week four:

2 Timothy 3:16- 17 All Scripture is Godbreathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Bill Jr. had finally saved up enough allowance to buy the model airplane he had his eye on for months. He had done odd jobs around the house, saved every penny of his allowance and always reminded himself how wonderful it would be to possess this new toy. On the Saturday afternoon after he had made the big purchase, his father, Bill Gentry, found his 12 year old son on the floor of his room crying.

“Bill, what’s wrong?” asked Bill Sr., bending down to lift his son’s chin. “I can’t make it work,” balled the distressed boy. “None of the pieces fit together right, and I think I broke one, and, and…” he let out another howl.

“Now, now, Bill, don’t cry. We’ll figure it out. Did it come with directions?” “I don’t know, I never thought to look. It looked so easy at first.” Bill Sr. responded half compassionately and half trying to hide his smile, “Well, don’t you think that might be a good place to start?”

He knew in the back of his mind that if his wife, Marilyn had been there, she would have fired off a comment like, “typical man!” He was thankful she was not.

So far this month we have been taking a look at how God has given each of us spiritual gifts to use in His service and the service of others. We talked a little about how special those gifts are and what some of those gifts might be. One thing needs to be made clear. Just because we may know what those gifts are, doesn’t necessarily mean we know how to use them. In other words, we need directions.

The obvious next question is, where can we find those directions? That is clarified for us in today’s Bible verse. It says that one of the reasons that God gave us the Bible is so that “the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The Bible is our instruction manual for teaching us what our gifts are and how to use them. God provides better directions than any manual we have ever read, and he teaches us in many different ways. The Bible is very straightforward and addresses real questions with real answers. Funny, it almost knows the questions we need answered before we ask them. That’s because God knows what we need to know.

The Bible also provides excellent illustrations about how to use our gifts. Think of some of the parables Jesus used. Recall stories of people like David, Abraham, Moses, and Paul who could teach us a few things about how they used their spiritual gifts. What a wonderful guide to living life! And nobody should be afraid to ask for directions –men, women or children.

On occasion you will find instruction manuals that aren’t very clear, or complete. The Bible isn’t that way. In fact, not only is the Bible clear and complete, it’s compelling. It tells us how to use our gifts, and gives us motivation to do so. It tells us of Jesus, his death, his resurrection and his love for us. After reading that Good News, we want to use what God has given us “for every good work.”

Discussion Questions: Describe a time when you read directions and were even more confused than when you started. What can happen if you don’t read directions? How can that be dangerous when learning about spiritual gifts? In the verse for the day, what part of Scripture does it say is “useful”? Put together a plan to read “all Scripture.”

(Note to parents: You may want to review the facts of the story to reinforce the lesson.)

Family Reading: 2 Timothy 3

 

Prayer: Father in heaven, thank you for the Bible. Each piece of it is so valuable in helping us learn about you, your love and our Savior. Help us to use your word as a tool to instruct us and equip us for every good work. Amen.

The tree of life: Malawi flood update

The rains were no surprise.

The floods were.

River banks can hold only so much.  Land can soak in only so much.  Sand bags can stop only so much.

Then the inevitable happens.

When floods come, fields go.  When a cyclone hits, everything is hit.  Soil erodes.   Roofs cave.  Houses collapse.  Bridges break.  Pit latrines become unusable.  Dirt roads become impassable.

In November and December Malawians were praying for rain.   Now they are praying for help.

Sabina certainly was.

One minute she was taking inventory of her fish, the next she was taking refuge in a tree.

Perched like a bird on a branch she helplessly watched anything and everything imaginable flow past in a muddy, churning torrent:  household items, livestock, clothing, baskets, garbage, crops, grass and logs.

Even bodies.  Human bodies.

Oh, she has an amazing story to tell.  And tell she did.  In a face–to-face interview with Missionary Paul Nitz of Lilongwe, Malawi, she told it. You can find her story at  WELS Missions Blog Both Sabina and Paul can tell it better than I ever could.

But one thing I can say: She survived.  Hundreds didn’t. Could she ever forget that tree?

When the elders of our Lutheran Church of Central Africa (LCCA) congregations took me on a trek through their lands in Malawi’s Central Region, to my shame, at first I didn’t see it.

What I saw was only the destruction left in the wake of the floods.

I saw collapsed houses and piles of broken bricks and useless rubble.  I saw the obliterated fields and newly cut river channels.

I saw the bent over corn stalks.  Each flattened one was like the needle of a compass, pointing out the direction that the flow of water had taken.

I saw clumps of grasses, sticks, branches and uprooted trees trapped and wrapped against clusters of banana trees.

As I saw incalculable devastation I could only imagine incredible loss.  I witnessed so much ruin that had come with so much rain.

But the elders of the congregations saw more than I did.

Even when the rains first began to fall, they knew exactly where to go.  As they helplessly watched the waters rise and the floods sweep away so much of what they had or owned, they sought refuge and safety in the one thing strong enough, the one thing big enough and the one thing close enough: the tree.

Yes, that tree.

The Cross of Christ.  And, by faith, they climbed up into it.

The Tree of Hope.

At some point along our trek through the devastated land, the conversation turned.  We stopped talking about what was lost and instead talked about what was found: Opportunities to serve!  Moments to share God’s comfort and blessings in the middle of a flood of problems.

The elders shared with me how people were coming weekly and faithfully to the church to hear the Word.  One elder informed me that he was now the elected lay preacher.  He was full of joy that he had the privilege of leading the worship and giving the sermons.

I had thought all along that what I was going to come back with was but a report and an assessment of the flood damage.  More than that, however, I came back with sharper eyes and a stronger message:

Though the destruction was great, God’s love in Christ Jesus is greater still!

Thousands of Malawians are displaced and struggling to put back together the life they once had.  Among them are many Lutheran church members.  Some are grieving the loss of family and friends or both.  Others are trying to scrape together the means to rebuild a house or prepare a meal.   Most fear the hunger that will hit even harder when there is little or nothing to harvest in a couple of months.

But they are not without hope.  In Christ, hope is as certain as it is comforting.

There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off    — Proverbs 23:18

Mpemba-Beni-02032015-350The WELS Board for World Missions (BWM) and Kingdom Workers (KW) are working hard at addressing the immediate needs of those in our Lutheran congregations who are greatly affected by the floods.  Through funds made available through Christian Aid and Relief, we are handing out much needed practical items that our LCCA members need now: buckets for clean water, blankets for warmth, plastic sheeting for temporary roofing and nails to fasten bamboo together for framing temporary shelters.

May I take this opportunity to thank you for your gospel and prayer partnership.  It’s a partnership, not only with me, but with them: our brothers and sisters in Malawi who share the same faith in our wonderful Lord Jesus.

As partners, please stay and linger with us for a while at the tree.  That tree.

The Tree of Hope.

Missionary John Holtz, Malawi

Christians Under Construction Week 3

Christians Under Construction is a series of devotions designed for family use each week focused on Christian stewardship. Here is week three:

Romans 12:6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.

Today was Mary Gentry’s birthday. She had waited 364 days in eager anticipation of turning six, as this meant it wouldn’t be long until she could be in kindergarten.

“Mom,” Mary shouted, running into her mother’s bedroom first thing in the morning, “is it really today? Has my birthday FINALLY come?” Marilyn Gentry, still trying to wake the sleep from her eyes responded, “Yes, Mary. It is today. But what time is it?”

Mary, now jumping up and down on her mother’s bed, screamed, “5 o’clock.” Mom replied, “Oh Mary, it’s Saturday. Mommy needs a bit more sleep if we are going to have that big party later this afternoon.”

Mary, totally ignoring her mother’s request, said, “Can I open some of my presents now? Can I? I can’t wait to see what I got!”

The afternoon finally arrived, and none to soon for Mary. She tore into her presents. Wrapping paper was flying everywhere. Before long she was done. She had no time for cake or conversation with the relatives who had arrived. She grabbed her gifts and was later found asleep with each one spread around her – totally exhausted from playing with her new toys.

Christians, in a way, have experienced the same excitement that Mary did on her 6th birthday. When we were born, or rather, reborn on our baptism day, we were given gifts. No, not the kind that our relatives or Godparents might give us, but gifts from God. And these gifts came in two varieties — the gift of faith and the gift of spiritual gifts. When we had that first birthday we were given the gift of faith by God. That faith, put into us by the Holy Spirit, knows Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior. He is the one who paid the price for our sins. The gift of faith is much like a birthday gift from loving parents. It is usually the best gift we receive and the most appropriate for us. Our heavenly Father knows exactly what we need, and through Jesus’ death and resurrection, he gives it to us – eternal life.

Faith in Jesus however was not the only thing we received at that first birthday of ours. God tells us that he has also given us different spiritual gifts. These gifts are only given to his children. They include things like the ability to serve, teach, encourage, contributing to the needs of others, giving, leadership, showing mercy and many others.

If we were baptized as babies, we probably didn’t know what to make of these gifts God had given us. We may not even know we have them. But two things are certain. Like Mary we should be very excited about receiving them and even more excited to use them.

Read Romans 12 again and determine for yourself what spiritual gifts you have been given. Ask others what they think your spiritual gifts may be. And then plan on using them until you lay exhausted on the floor from enjoying their use. What a blessing they are from God.

Discussion Questions: What makes your baptism so special? Can you think of ways that you can celebrate your spiritual birthday? Which spiritual gifts do you think you have? How about those around you? How are these spiritual gifts different than other gifts you receive?

(Note to parents: You may want to review the facts of the story to reinforce the lesson.)

Family Reading: Romans 12

 

Prayer: Father in heaven, you have given each of us very special and precious gifts. We thank and praise you for the best gift of all, the gift of eternal life through faith in Christ Jesus. But you didn’t stop with that gift. You kept on giving. Now help us to use the gifts you have given us. May we use them to your glory. Amen.

Christians Under Construction Week 2

Christians Under Construction is a series of devotions designed for family use each week focused on Christian stewardship. Here is week two:

(Please set aside an evening this week to use this devotion as your personal devotion or family devotion.)

Ephesians 2:10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Bill Gentry loved his job. He worked as an advertising executive in one of the city’s largest agencies. He spent his days working with companies trying to help them create advertising campaigns, commercials and billboards. Much of what he did was to observe large companies and try to learn from their approach to advertising. One of his favorite companies to watch was Nike. “What creative campaigns they come up with!” he told a number of his associates. He especially liked their “just do it” campaign. It was simple and to the point, but you remembered it and you remembered who told you to do it – Nike. It meant that with those shoes you could do it…jump high, run fast, be like Mike, whatever. Bill was so impressed by the concept that he told others to “just do it”, he told himself to “just do it.” It was motivational for him.

Then on one Sunday morning he heard his pastor say the same thing. His pastor was talking about Ephesians 2:10, and in it he described one of God’s very own creative campaigns – God’s “just do it” campaign.

He listened intently and learned that God tells each and every one of us to “just do it” too — to do good works, God wasn’t trying to sell shoes however. He didn’t make a shoe that he claimed could make us run faster or jump higher. He didn’t stamp a swoosh on anything to identify it as something cool and hope we’d buy it. What God did do was make us. He calls us his “workmanship.” And rather than stamp us with a logo, he put faith in our hearts, a faith in Jesus our Savior.

What’s even more amazing is that he didn’t roll each of us off the same assembly line. God made each one of us by hand, gave us each faith, and determined ahead of time the “features” our model had. Wow! Each of us is unique with our own feature set.

God is so much more creative than we can even imagine! It is those God-given features that identify us as God’s workmanship–that we are made by Him and for Him. And it is those features, those spiritual gifts, that determine exactly what God wants us to do.

We don’t have a swoosh. We don’t even have to wear a cross, Christ already wore one. We simply need to “do it.” That shows the world who made us and to whom we belong. It shows God that we love him and are grateful for his craftsmanship.

God too says “just do it.” “Do what I’ve enabled you specifically to do. Do those good works I’ve prepared in advance for you to do.”

Be sure to read next week’s devotion to find out some of those “features” that God has built into us. For a sneak peak, you’ll want to read the “Family Reading” verses for today.

Discussion Questions: What have you ever been compelled to “just do?” Do you have other mottos that you live by? List some of the “features” you think God has given to you. Discuss why everybody has different spiritual gifts.

(Note to parents: You may want to review the facts of the story to reinforce the lesson.)

Family Reading: Romans 12

Prayer: Father in heaven, you have made each of us with different gifts, but you crafted each one of us with love. Please help us be like Christ, who did it for us, who paid for our sins on the cross. Help us to do good works, those which you have prepared for us to do. Amen.

Christians Under Construction Week 1

A number of years back I developed a series of Stewardship devotions called Christians Under Construction that could be used in family devotional settings.  Their focus is on how we can best use our Time, Talent and Treasure resources. I plan to re-release these this fall as our children head back to school and help us all think about our service to the Lord. Here is the first one:

1 Corinthians 12:1 Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.

Bill Gentry was startled to hear screams coming from the upstairs bathroom. As he entered to see what was happening, he observed his son, Bill Jr., angrily scolding his 5 year old sister Mary. “You’ve ruined it! You’ve ruined it! What were you thinking? You’re so stupid.”

“Who’s stupid?” dad asked.

“Dad, she was using my GameBoy as a life raft for her Barbies. Now it’s ruined. She’s such a dummy!”

Bill Sr., in the most fatherly voice he could muster replied, “Now Billy, let’s just settle down for a minute. It’s clear that Mary didn’t know any better. She is only 5 years old. There are still many things she is ignorant about.”

Both Mary and Bill Jr. cocked their heads, and almost in unison sputtered, “what’s ignorant?” Billy added, “and why does that give her the right to ruin my video games?”

The family patriarch paused for a minute, sat them both down at the kitchen table and explained, “Being ignorant means not knowing those things that you haven’t learned yet. Billy, you are in 7th grade, so you haven’t learned the things that are taught in the 8th grade yet. So you are ignorant about all those things. You don’t know them. You can’t use that knowledge, because you don’t have it in your head yet. Mary doesn’t have it in her head yet that she can’t use your GameBoy as a flotation device for her Barbies, regardless of how desperate their situation might be.” Bill Sr. mustered a wry smile, just so the two of them knew he was trying to inject a bit of humor. Sometimes his kids weren’t all too sure.

He continued, “There are worse things to be ignorant about you know.” Billy responded, “like what?” “Well,” said the father, “in the Bible it says, ‘Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant’. Spiritual gifts are some of the special talents and abilities that God has given each of us to use. This Bible verse says that we should learn about those gifts so we can use them to please God.” Mary injected, “Oh I want to please God! But daddy, how do we do that?” “Good question Mary,” dad continued, “first you have to know what pleases God. The only way to learn what pleases God is to read and study the Bible. You know, like we do in our family devotions, and at church and Sunday School. There we learn about those special talents God has given us and how to use them.”

Billy’s head perked up as if he had an idea that would impress the two of them, “Dad, why don’t we use our family devotion time to talk more about those spiritual gift things the Bible mentioned? If the Bible says we should get smart about those, I think we should. I don’t want anybody calling me ignorant, especially God.”

Discussion Questions: Describe, in your own words, the word “ignorant.” Can you think of things about which you are ignorant? Why would it be bad to be ignorant about spiritual gifts? How can we become “smarter” about them? What would be the absolute worst thing to be ignorant about? Why?

(Note to parents: You may want to review the facts of the story to reinforce the lesson.)

Family Reading: 1 Corinthians 12

Prayer: Father in heaven, please help us to learn more and more about you and those wonderful gifts you give us. Teach us not to be ignorant about the lessons in your word. Especially help us never to forget what your son Jesus did for us. We thank and praise you for that gift, and the wonderful news that our sins are forgiven through faith in Him. Over the coming weeks help us to live lives of thanks by learning more about what you have given us. Amen.