Weird: Religion Devotional (Day 1 of 5)

Austin: “Hey, what’s that you’re listening to?”

Michael: “Oh, it’s nothing really.”

Austin: “C’mon, what is it?”

Michael: “My family and I were out of town over the weekend, so I’m just listening to the weekend message from our church. It’s quite fascinating really, it’s about…”

Austin: “I don’t know why you bother with that stuff. I mean, all that stuff about God, and Jesus and…. I mean C’mon, you really believe there’s some magic man in the sky that watches over us?”

Michael: “Well, I don’t believe he’s magic. But yes, I do believe in God.”

Austin: “And what was the message about this weekend?”

Michael: “I’m only a little ways into it. But it’s about being weird.”

Austin: “Well going to church is weird.”

Michael: “Some may think so. But the pastor defined weird as being different, but different in a good way. It’s living life in a way that other people respect, and admire, and appreciate, and …”

Austin: “Well, we obviously have disagreements about some things. But I can say that I generally do respect and appreciate you as a person. But ‘Christians’ in general, they leave a pretty sour taste in my mouth. They never get along – just look at how many different denominations there are. And they bicker about things politically more than anybody else I know. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Michael: “Oh?”

Austin: “Well yeah. They’re just as judgmental as others. They’re just as temperamental as others. The divorce rate among Christians is about the same as the rest of culture. There’s not much that’s different-in-a-good-way about Christians from what I can see.”

Michael: “Fair enough. But of all the Christians you DO know, do you see much that is different about them – different in a good way?”

Austin: “Like I said, I really appreciate and respect you. How you conduct yourself here in the office is quite admirable. But when I think about most other Christians I know, I would have to say, no.”

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In Matthew 7, Jesus invites us to live in a way that would be considered ‘Weird’ by many. He says things such as, “Don’t judge others. Don’t view yourself and your actions as better than others. Always want the best for others. Do for others what you would want them to do for you. And those who follow these words are wise.”

But there’s more to it than that. Much more.

Matthew 7:13-14 (ESV) says, 13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Questions to consider:

Do you have any friends or family who have similar thoughts as Austin?

Is there anything else about God and/or Christianity they dislike that Austin didn’t mention?

Where do you think Christianity is failing the most? In other words, why do you think Christ-followers are not seen as being different in a good way?

Read Matthew 7. Are you currently experiencing a life challenge that makes it difficult for you to live differently, in a good way?

Does Jesus teach anything in Matthew 7 that describes how you can respond to this challenge in a way that leads to life, and not destruction?

Prayer:

God, as we begin this new series, I pray that You will clearly show me how I can better stand out among those I know. Provide me wisdom to stand out to my family. My friends. And all of my co-workers, classmates, or teachers. Lead and guide me to live out the principles Jesus teaches in Matthew 7. I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

preparing for easter (part 2)

Over the past 48 hours or so, there’s been a flurry of news and social media chatter about a “Religious Freedom” bill that passed in the state of Indiana. Advocates for the bill are shouting one thing, and those rallying against the bill are shouting another. There have been threats to burn down businesses, threats to ban sporting events in the state, and much more. More interestingly, the word ‘tolerance’ has been used by both those for and those against the law. Sadly, few are offering any real solutions.

Why did I bring this up? Well, it’s not to get into my personal thoughts on the law or the state of culture in the U.S. Perhaps that’ll come another time.

Instead, I share this as a simple follow-up to the post I made a few days ago. It was then that I offered a simple challenge – give up reading and/or watching the news throughout the week of Easter and instead, use that time to read through the Gospel of John. (And oh, just in case you’re wondering how I know what’s been happening in the news, it’s because I slammed through the Gospel of John rather quickly!)

It seemed like such a simple challenge, yet it impacted me a bit more than I ever would’ve anticipated.

As I finished reading through the Gospel of John, I quickly came to a couple of different conclusions as a result. One is that I apparently spend too much time reading through news articles. Articles which, as mentioned before, don’t provide a great deal of information, but are written to make the reader excited or angry about something. The ‘news’ regarding the Religious Freedom bill in Indiana as well as the comments being made about it throughout social media is proof positive!

A second conclusion is that the Gospel of John is just as fascinating to me today as it was the first time I read through it. By my count, the word ‘believe’ is used 83 times. The general sense of the term means to believe or trust that Jesus was the Messiah sent from God. In fact, John specifically says that he wrote the book so that people would believe in Jesus.

But in my reading, it was John 17 that really stood out. It’s here that Jesus Himself takes the opportunity to pray for all who do believe in Him. He prays, specifically, that they will be one just as He and the Father are one. And this is where things get interesting.

This weekend, Billions of people around the world are going to join together in worship. Think about that for just a minute. Not hundreds, or thousands. But BILLIONS of people will worship Jesus this weekend. That’s just amazing.

And Jesus’ prayer for them was that they would join together as one. Some will have grown up Methodist, and others Baptist. Some Catholic, and others Lutheran. Some may be advocates for a Religious Freedom bill, and others against. But their religious background or denomination isn’t what really matters, nor are their differing opinions in politics. What really matters is Jesus. His desire was that all who believe would come together under the banner of His name, and that they would simplify life by focusing their energies on loving God and loving others.

Maybe we as believers in Jesus can all continue to learn from His prayer. Maybe we’ll all come to realize we spend too much time reading through news. Maybe we’ll all come to see that far too often we share our opinions on things that don’t really matter. Maybe we’ll all come to see that far too often we focus more of our energies on our differences than our similarities.

And maybe this weekend, we’ll remember His prayer…and we’ll worship Him as one.

 

preparing for easter

newspaperReading the national and international news has been somewhat of a hobby of mine for a number of years. I’ve always enjoyed being ‘in the know’ with world events. But over the past few years, a pattern in the news has become readily apparent to me. That pattern is that I’m not actually reading ‘news’. Instead, I’m clicking on images with short pieces of information that are written in such a way to get me excited or angry about something. In fact, I can probably summarize the news for the next year or more in just a few sentences. Are you ready? OK, here it goes…

Politicians don’t get along. Most media outlets won’t cover real atrocities occurring internationally, because if they did, Washington politicians would have to find a way to get along and do something about it. But they don’t. And probably won’t anytime soon.

That’s it. That, right there, is a summary of what you’ll watch and read about in the news for the next year or more. It’ll continue to be called ‘news’ but there’s little actual information available. But information will be shared to get you excited or angry about something. Something that, in reality, you have little control over. Something that may have little to do with how well you’re able to grow in loving God and loving others.

Where was I going with this? Oh, right…

This week I would like to propose a news challenge for you. It’s one I really hope you take me up on.

This week, use all the time you would normally take watching or reading the news, and instead, take the opportunity to read through the Gospel of John. And don’t just read through it, but take note as to how many times the word believe (or believes, belief, etc.) are used. And yes, I’m serious. Do your best to keep track of exactly how many times it’s used.

“Why should I do that,” you ask?

Well, because the Gospel of John talks about the significance of belief more than any other book in the Scriptures. In fact, John writes about the importance of believing in God/Jesus more than the other 3 Gospels combined. Reading the Gospel of John will help you to question, and at the same time, affirm what you really believe.

IMG_0034Not only that, but this upcoming Sunday is Easter Sunday. And Easter is THE news story that never goes away. Nearly 2,000 years ago, something happened that’s still being talked about today. People have been imprisoned for sharing it. Others beaten. Some have been beheaded or even crucified upside-down for sharing this news.

It’s the Good News that Jesus came to us as God in the Flesh. He lived the life we should have lived. Died the death we should have died. Yet rose from the grave, defeating sin and death so that we can know God on a deep, personal level.

And reading through the Gospel of John is one, simple way you can prepare for Easter. You can read it so that you’re better prepared to worship Him for what He’s done. And maybe you’ll even have the opportunity to share this news with others.

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Other than reading through the Gospel of John, what’s one thing you will do this week to prepare for Easter?

the pursuit

A few months ago, I took the opportunity to begin reading through Timothy Keller’s book on the subject of prayer. It may seem strange, but as a pastor I’m sorry to say that the area of regular, consistent prayer is one of godly disciplines in which I lack.

As I began reading Keller’s book, however, I discovered that I’m not alone. He shared that even as a pastor, he struggled in this area for many years as well. And one of the things he did to begin praying more regularly was to summarize each of the Psalms (yes, all 150 of them!) into a short sentence or two. This then gave him the opportunity to go through each of his notes so that he could pray through the Psalms consistently.

I figured, why not. I’ll give that a try as well.

So every few days I’ve read a Psalm or two, summarized the principle being taught in my own words, and then written out a prayer.

Some examples so far include:

Psalm 1 – Those who delight in God’s word experience joy; those who do not experience condemnation and judgment.

Psalm 6 – No matter how hard the circumstances, we can remain confident that God hears our prayers.

Psalm 12 – The Lord’s promises are purer than pure; He protects the oppressed.

Psalm 19 – God’s wisdom is found all around us. In nature. In His word. In my life. In the lives of others.

All of these truths are great reminders.

But today I read Psalm 23. It’s perhaps one of the most well-known Psalms within our culture. It reads:

1 The LORD is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.
2 He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.
3 He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name.
4 Even when I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
protect and comfort me.
5 You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.
6 Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the LORD
forever.

Sound familiar?

As I read through it, however, one verse stuck out more than the others. It was verse 6. Take a brief opportunity to read through it again, but slowly.

“Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life.”

As I began to think through the implications of this passage, I felt compelled to do a bit more research. And it wasn’t long before I learned that the Hebrew word translated, ‘pursuit’, is only used in this context one time in the entirety of the Old Testament. In every other occurrence it’s used in the context of hostile enemies pursuing another in battle. But only here is it used with God’s goodness and faithfulness doing the pursuing.

David – despite sometimes questioning whether or not God heard his prayers, despite sometimes wondering why He couldn’t sense the presence of God in his life, despite sometimes responding to life circumstances in the worst possible way – he still somehow knew that God was pursuing him. David knew what it was like to pursue others in battle, and he knew what it was like to be pursued. And somewhere deep inside, God reminded David that He was pursuing him, relentlessly, with the most profound goodness and love.

Today, you may be wrestling through some of the same thoughts David wrestled with. You may be questioning whether God is hearing your prayers. You may be wondering why you sometimes can’t sense of the presence of God in your life. You may be responding to some of life’s circumstances in the worst possible way.

But, may you be reminded that God is pursuing you. He’s relentlessly pursuing you with His goodness and unfailing love. You may think you’re not worthy of it. (And oh, by the way, you’re not.) You may think you don’t deserve it. (And oh, by the way, you don’t.) But He’s pursuing you nevertheless.

How will you respond to His pursuit?

learning and applying the Book of James:

Two weeks ago, we at South Ridge Church began a new message series on the book of James. This weekend, I (Pastor Justin) challenged all in attendance to read through the Book of James, and to let me know something you learned from your study, and how you plan to apply it. Below are some of the responses I’ve received so far.

Feel free to contact me at justin@southridgefairmont.com to add your contribution to this post, or “reply” below. We’re really looking forward to reading about how you’re applying the Book of James in your life!

Post 1: So much to learn from this Book of the Bible!  Our faith should motivate us to serve God in mighty ways!  Our faith, accompanied by action, shows our faith is alive! I am also thankful that mercy triumphs over judgment. I pray that I can demonstrate my faith through service to others and that I can be merciful, instead of judgmental, towards others.   Mercy triumphs over judgment.  I pray that I can face trials  and persevere, knowing that the Lord is full of compassion and mercy. There are many other things addressed in this chapter that we need to make part of our daily living in this world.

Post 2: Something I learned during this series so far is to “humbly accept the word God has planted in my heart, for it has the power to save your souls”.  I am going to apply God’s word to my life.  The first will be to practice acceptance of the actions that are presented to me.

Post 3: It’s funny how it seems that the message was meant just for me, many times
I’m struggling with something or have something weighing on my heart & mind.  Then that Sundays message seems to answer or help lead me in the direction that I need. Then Sunday, again, that message was written for me. I just finished reading James, There is so much of that that I can take and apply to my life and the man I want to become!

Post 4: For me, I keep seeing the importance of our deeds that have to go along with our faith.  We need to show others around us the love of God through our actions everyday.

Post 5: Chapter 1 thought – I understand the value of temptations.  By growing stronger, I have faith to help others who struggle with the same issues.  Chapter 2 thought – Our faith must match the same as our action.  A rowboat with two oars (Faith and Works) moving to a common goal. That is my favorite illustration. Chapter 3 thought – Wisdom by practical insight is from God.  We learn to be humble.  Our spiritual growth becomes stronger in Faith. Chapters 4 & 5 – This is totally from a Dad’s perspective,  As a dad, I must let God plan my life.  Godly character can last a life time.  It is very important for our family. My performance review should be honest and sincere,  Then my children can say “My dad is a Christian”

 Post 6: Thank you for the message on Sunday.  I really like the call to action we’ve heard since starting here a month ago.  The scripture that I focused on this week was James 2:17-18: “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” Although I do things that glorify God in helping others, I’ve wanted to do more community outreach. Reading the book of James, in particular this verse, along with the outreach opportunities at South Ridge, I’ve already begun to put my faith in action.

Post 7: One would think at my age I would have understood this long, long ago and I don’t remember being this way my entire adult life, but somewhere along the way I forgot to be a good listener, especially slow to speak, as well. My plan is to apply this verse to my everyday life. – James 1:19-20

Post 8: James has always been my favorite book of the Bible.  James has the attributes that I like to look for in a friend—direct, honest, and loyal.  My application involves the following verses, 1:22  “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” and  2:14 “What good is it my brothers if someone says he has faith, but does not have works?”  I know that our salvation is not based on our works, however, the way we live our lives is our testimony for Who is Lord of our lives.

Very recently I wrote a journal entry on what attracts me to certain Christian friends—in other words, what qualities do people possess that makes me say, “Wow I just love being with that person?”  Some of the things I wrote were “seeker of the Lord always—knowing that they will give me wise counsel”, “encouraging”,  “truthful”, “not gossipy”, “positive—don’t complain alot”, “not judgmental”, “makes time for me”, and “not envious–truly wants the best for me.”  These are people who are really living with an eternal perspective—I love being around those people. They don’t have to “say” their testimonies, they live them out.  Are they 100% of these attributes all the time? No,they are human and they fail.  However, I know that Jesus is at the center of their lives.
I desire to also have a life that is a LIVING testimony—-the kind that James described.

Post 9: Thanks for the nudge to get into the WORD. James 4:8. We step toward Him…He steps toward us…

Post 10: To sum up MY reaction to the book of James:  OUCH!  I found it very convicting as I struggle and fall short in virtually every area he mentions.  What came to me, on how to apply God’s Word was: Pause and Patience. The 2-very characteristics that I struggle with the most.  I react too quickly and expect others to do the same.  I believe if I learn the skill of taking a time out and giving some thoughtful consideration to things, I may just seem some progress.  I don’t always need to respond/react, sometimes not doing anything is the best thing to do (or not do?)

Post 11: I heard this on Rick Warren’s podcast today and thought I might share it.

“Ask God a specific question. James 1:5-6 says, “If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him …. But when you ask him, be sure that you really expect him to tell you” (TLB). Those verses tell us three truths.

First, God wants you to ask him for advice. You’re not bothering him. He’s interested in every detail of your life, and he’s waiting for you to ask.

Second, the more specific you are, the better, because it builds your faith when you ask God for something specific and then he answers. Don’t be general in your prayers.

Third, God wants you to expect an answer. Don’t pray and ask God for help unless you expect that he’s going to help you.

Look into God’s Word. After you withdraw and as you’re waiting and watching for the Lord, you need to get into the Bible. I can’t tell you how many times God has taken a verse and, even after I’ve read a passage a hundred times, it suddenly pops out at me, and I see something I’ve never seen before. God uses the Bible to give answers to your specific questions.

Post 12: I am walking for water.
About a year ago this idea “popped” into my head and though I thought I would do it, I failed to follow through. Fast forward to the James series. In searching and questioning God, I felt strongly that I was to walk (as often as possible) contributing $ for each mile I walk but to carry a bucket to raise my own awareness of why I walk and possibly the awareness of our community. It is already starting. Someone who saw me asked what I was doing and when they found out they said they want to contribute. So now its out there! Here is  where i always fall short–follow through. I could not begin to tell you the number of times I have been inspired but failed to complete!  I want to be done with that!! James is helping encourage me in my “works”. Maybe I should add, “if the Lord is willing . . . ” I will do this!

I (and maybe lots of people) want to be a part of something that makes “a difference” in lives of others. Water makes a profound difference  to the woman who has to walk 4 miles (on average) daily to have water . Its really so simple!

Post 13: I have learned (unfortunately many times over and over again) that the trials I am going through are to be celebrated!  Time and time again God is faithful and I am stronger and joyful with the outcomes of these trials, but I find I lack the faith during the trial.  I need to trust.
James 1:2  Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.

real marriage ministry begins!

Here at SRC, we’ve learned a few things about couples through the years. For example…

  • 2/3 of All Couples would like a Mentor Couple to interact with, even when their relationship is going well.
  • 9/10 of All Couples would like a Mentor Couple to interact with, especially during challenging seasons in their marriage.
  • All couples learn in a variety of ways, and they all want to take steps forward in their marriage. Sometimes they’re just not sure how.

This is why we’re very excited to begin a new ministry at SRC – Real Marriage.Real Marriage Logo (final)The Real Marriage ministry is designed from the ground up, helping couples grow in their Friendship, Unity, and Intimacy. In other words, it’s holistic in nature, focusing on every aspect of the marriage relationship.

How does it work?  Good question.

We’re going to begin offering some things at SRC we’ve never offered before. For example:

  • Large Groups – South Ridge Church will begin hosting three Real Marriage Events a year. These events are typically held in January, June, and October and are specifically designed to help couples take information about marriage and turn it into intimacy and oneness in their relationship. For 2015, we’ll have a Friday evening event in June booked soon. But we already have a Weekend Event planned for October 23-24, right here at SRC!
  • Community Groups – SRC Community Groups often discuss the same topic as the Weekend Message. And because we offer at least one Marriage-themed message series a year, all groups will be encouraged to discuss the subject of marriage within their group. Additional Life Group studies specific for wives, husbands, or couples may be available throughout the year as well. The goal of each group is to help couples apply a selfless, Christ-like love within their marriage.
  • Mentoring – The heart of the Real Marriage ministry is in mentoring. Whether a couple is engaged and planning to be married in the months ahead, or they have been married for many years, mentoring is a way to help all couples focus holistically on their relationship.

Is anything happening right now?  YES!

Marriage mentoring is now available at SR!. In most cases, couples meet with a mentor couple once a week for eight weeks to discuss various aspects of their relationship. If you have any interest in receiving mentoring, you may contact the church office any time.

We also have a good girl's guideDiscussion Group for Women beginning soon. The group will be discussing a book by Sheila Gregoire, “The Good Girls Guide to Great Sex.” It’s a great opportunity for wives to discuss a Biblical view of intimacy in marriage. If you have any interest in participating, please contact the church office soon to register.

We’re excited to begin this new ministry at SRC, and we look forward to working alongside many couples in the years to come.

your life verse?

About twelve years ago I remember sitting at Chestnut Ridge Church with 15 other men, taking the opportunity to discuss some of our favorite Scripture passages. Even though it was 6am, everybody in the room had something to contribute to the conversation. When someone asked, “What’s your favorite book of the Bible,” one individual took the opportunity to shout out, “Leviticus!” Naturally, he was the only one.

At the time, my answer to that question was the book of Job. The poetry woven throughout the book, the challenging circumstances he faced, God’s revelation of His power at the end of the book…it’s always been something I’ve had a deep appreciation for.

But after we all took the opportunity to discuss our favorite book, the question turned to, “What’s your life verse?”

Admittedly, this was a more challenging question for me. I had never really had a “life verse,” one verse I would hold onto on a regular basis. For the purpose of the ongoing conversation, I recited Exodus 14:14, “The LORD will fight for you, you need only to be still.” It was a reminder to me that God is ultimately the one who fights battles, and the Old Testament shares story after story of God’s intervention to save His people.

Nine years later, many changes had occurred in my life. I was a father, and had officially been recognized as a pastor. My grandmother offered an encouraging card (as she often did), and wrote down Philippians 1:6, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.” It was a verse I had read dozens of times, but through a generous check she offered me, I had this verse lasered onto the back panel of a new ipad.

Naturally, I stored the ipad in a case for most of it’s life. But anytime I took it out to clean the screen I was reminded, “He who began a good work in you, will carry it on to completion.”

Then a couple of months ago I was enjoying some coffee over at the Joe N Throw, when I took a hard fall. The ipad I had used for years took the fall with me, and it hasn’t worked the same since. Sure it works, but it’s very slow and can barely connect to the internet. The added case often made connecting to the internet even more challenging, so I finally just removed the case altogether. Every time I’ve picked it up since then I’ve been reminded, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.”

Due to it’s age and condition, my lovely wife just offered to get me a new ipad. Sure, I could’ve gone to Best Buy, Target, or even WalMart to get one. But I wanted to keep that reminder on there, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion,” so I ordered it directly from Apple.

I share this only to say, I’m quite certain my life verse has become Philippians 1:6. There are days I may feel as if the world is winning. There are seasons I struggle with illness, or frustrations, family challenges, ministry challenges, or other abnormal life circumstances. Admittedly, there are also moments I respond poorly to the situations happening around me. Yet I’m regularly reminded…

Philippians 1-6

That’s my life verse.

And if you’re up for it, feel free to share yours.

what study bible is right for me?

Every once in a while I’ll receive a question about the various Study Bibles that are available. While some are interested in questions about different Bible Translations, others are even more interested in the study notes, maps and other features that are often included in Study Bibles.

Questions often asked include, “Which one is the ‘best’? Which one will help me to know God better? Which one is the right one for me?”

I oftentimes answer these types of questions with a simple phrase. “The ‘best’ Bible is the one you’re reading.” But people want more info. than that. They’re looking to invest some money into a Bible that they’ll likely be reading for years and years. So…which one is best for you?

Well, that’s a tough question to answer. Every Study Bible has different features, different scholars, different goals, and in the end, each one provides a different study experience for the reader. That said, I think there are three available Study Bibles today that will offer the best study experience for you. Below, is a simple breakdown of each one. Which one you choose to read and study with is up to you, but it’s my hope that this will at least provide some insights as to some fantastic resources available today.

#1: NLT Study Bible

Translation: New Living Translation (NLT)

Reading Level: 6-7th

What I Like:

1. The Translation: If I were only allowed to make one Study Bible recommendation, the NLT Study Bible would be at the top of my list. The goal of the New Living Translation was to translate the ancient Greek and Hebrew texts into English in the clearest possible manner. A number of challenging passages are easy to read, and the NLT just ‘makes sense’ to people. If you’re looking for your first Study Bible, I would highly recommend giving the NLT Study Bible a serious look.IMG_1218

2. The Footnotes: The Study Notes in any Study Bible make it or break it. When it comes to the NLT, the Study Notes make it. The footnotes will either provide additional insights into the passage being read/studied, or suggestions for how the passage can applied in real life. It’s the best of both worlds. And for the passages or topics that need even additional care or study, the NLT Study Bible has extra articles included in the text to cover those as well.

3. Greek/Hebrew Study: Throughout the text, specific words are included in the cross references that provide a Greek or Hebrew word that’s worth additional study. The reader has to turn to the back of the Bible to look up the definition of that word to see how or why it was translated as it was, but including the Greek/Hebrew word study is a nice touch and is very helpful for daily study.

4. Book Introductions: While the Book Introductions in the NLT Study Bible aren’t as detailed as some other ones out there, they still provide a good background of the book and the culture in which it was written. This is necessary when reading the Bible, because you have to understand not what the text means to you, but what it meant to the people who first read it. So a good and thorough book introduction is necessary to help, and while the NLT could provide more detail, it’s enough to communicate the main purpose of the book.

What I Don’t Like:

There’s very little I don’t like about the NLT Study Bible. Every once in a while I’ll read a passage that I don’t care for the translation when compared to others, but oftentimes it’s the opposite. Seriously, there’s just a lot to like about the NLT Study Bible, and it would be my first recommendation to most people. If you’re interested, here’s a sample that’ll give some additional insights into the NLT Study Bible.

#2: HCSB Study Bible

Translation: Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

Reading Level: 7-8th

What I Like:

The Translation: The HCSB is one of the newer translations available (honestly, some of my seminary professors have never heard of it), but continues gaining popularity due to it’s translation style and conservative nature. Some interesting aspects of the HCSB include the use of Yahweh for the name of God throughout the Old Testament, whereas many translations simply translate God’s name as LORD. The HCSB reading level is about 7-8th grade, right in line with the NIV and others as well.

The Footnotes: While not fully on par with the NLT Study Bible, the footnotes in the HCSB are quite good. Fantastic in fact. Over 15,000 notes are included. But it’s not just the footnotes that make this a great Study Bible. This particular Study Bible is FULL of color. The verse numbers and footnotes are an offset blue color, making it easier to find specific passages and footnotes and then get back right to where you left off.IMG_1219

Greek/Hebrew Study: The HCSB wins over the NLT in this one, as the Hebrew and Greek word studies are included right on the same page. You don’t have to turn to the back of the Bible to look up specific words, but can simply read the definition and significance of that word in Hebrew or Greek, and then get back into your reading. It’s a great feature, and one I wish the NLT Study Bible had used as well.

Book Introductions: Here again, we have lots of color. Each book begins on different colored paper, which makes it look nice, but it doesn’t really add any significant book introduction features to the NLT.

What I Don’t Like:

As noted above, I truly believe the best Bible is the one you’re reading, and the HCSB is a fantastic Study Bible. If I had to offer some cons, I would say that this Bible is a little heavier than the NLT Study Bible, and it offers a lesser quality (if only slightly) footnotes than the NLT. However, the translation itself has been my preferred translation for a few years now. If you’re interested, here’s a video that’ll give you some additional insights into the HCSB Study Bible.

#3 ESV Study Bible

Translation: English Standard Version (ESV)

Reading Level: 10th

What I Like:

The Translation: The ESV does a good job of providing a more direct translation of the Greek/Hebrew text than say, the NLT does. This is sometimes a very good thing, as it does provide some additional insight into the original language. However, it may have some cons as well, as it has the possibility of making it more challenging to read, forcing you to read the study notes when you may not need to if you were reading a different translation. The bottom line is that when you’re studying a text, sometimes it’s good to read it in multiple translations, but when you have just one Study Bible, you only get one choice. The ESV is a good choice. It’s not my first choice, but it’s a good choice.IMG_1220

The Footnotes: The ESV Study Bible footnotes are regarded as some of the best of the best out there. And on passages where a number of different scholarly views are held, the ESV will often list the 3-4 different views, without telling you which is the ‘right’ one. This is a great study tool, as it then gives you something to go on should you desire to give the passage even more study. While the footnotes aren’t as colorful as the HCSB, they’re more detailed, and that’s a good thing.

Greek/Hebrew Study: I don’t see any specific Greek/Hebrew word studies in the ESV Study Bible. But there are perhaps more charts/graphs here than the others, which is a great benefit to understanding the text in a more systematic way. Still, if you like diving into the original languages, you’ll miss out in the ESV Study Bible.

Book Introductions: The ESV Study Bible probably has the best book introductions of the three. They’re detailed, and provide tremendous insight into the style and structure of each book, as well as the purpose. Yes, the NLT and HCSB have good Bible introductions, but the ones here are even better.

What I Don’t Like:

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not a huge fan of the ESV. Of the three translations covered here, it’s the highest reading level. Also, the lack of original word studies is a minus. That said, the ESV is still one of the best Study Bibles out there, and the footnotes (if that’s your thing) are probably the most detailed of the three mentioned here. If you’re interested, here’s an intro to the book of Ephesians, that’ll show you the quality of notes and book introductions of the ESV Study Bible.

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I hope you find this mini-review of these Study Bibles helpful! If you would happen to have any additional questions, the pastoral staff here at SRC have each of these Bible on our bookshelves. If you’d like a little more hands-on time before deciding which one is best for you, just let us know. We’d be happy to help you out any time.

For additional insights on each Study Bible, feel free to check out the following links:

NLT Study Bible

HCSB Study Bible

ESV Study Bible

choices: part 1

Upon receiving a career opportunity they couldn’t refuse, Ron and his wife Linda moved their family half way across the country. It was going to be a fresh start for Ron, who had always struggled to climb the corporate ladder. It was also a fresh start for Linda, who had very few friends and was looking forward to beginning new friendships with other women.

After taking the first couple of weeks to settle in, Ron and Linda contacted four local churches and scheduled times to meet with each pastor. They wanted to connect with a church as soon as possible, and had some very specific questions they wanted to ask each pastor before beginning to attend on a regular basis.

Most of their questions were pretty common for the pastors they met. Questions such as, “What does your church teach about Jesus?” And, “What ministry goals do you have for our children?” But one question they asked caught some of the pastors by surprise.

“If you could get your congregation to commit to one specific thing, what would it be?”

The first pastor they met with responded by saying, “If everybody here would boldly share the gospel with everybody they knew, that’s the one thing I would want them to commit to.”

Ron and Linda really appreciated his answer, as they’d never really been challenged to ‘boldly’ share the gospel with others.

The next two pastors both had similar answers. “If we could get every person in our congregation to commit to serving in some way, it would be a true blessing to the others on staff.

But the last pastor they met, Mike, had an answer that caught them a little by surprise.

Linda asked him, “If you could get your congregation to commit to one specific thing, what would it be?”

Mike simply smiled and said, “Grow.”

“Grow,” they asked?

“Yes, grow. Some churches ask people to create relationships, or join a Bible Study, or serve, or something like that. But here, we take a more holistic approach. We want people to grow in their relationship with Jesus. That means that those who are prone to gossip will be kept accountable in how they talk about others, and those who struggle with things such as pornography will allow others to keep them accountable to how they see their relationship with their spouse.” He continued for a few more minutes, and as he spoke he talked about specific ‘sins’ many people wrestle with, and as Ron and Linda listened, they realized they struggled in some of these areas themselves. Finally, he closed by saying, “The gospel is all about repentance, and repentance means truly relying on God. Ridding yourself of self-centeredness, and ensuring Jesus truly is Lord over every aspect of your life.”

Ron and Linda thanked Mike for his time, and as they drove home they discussed the various options they had. Neither of them said it out loud, but they had no desire to attend the church in which Mike was currently a pastor. Both felt uneasy about the challenges he talked about and what a “real life relationship” with Jesus Christ looked like. In the end, they chose to attend one of the churches that was looking for people to serve. They felt that was a goal they could easily attain. Linda would be able to quickly connect with some of the other ladies, and Ron would be able to begin serving on a regular basis.

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Each of us has a lot in common with Ron and Linda. We like to be in control. We want to decide what it is we’re going to do. We want to decide how we’re going to do it. We want to decide how our time will be spent. We want to decide who we’ll spend time with. In short, we want to be God. We want to be in control of every aspect of our lives.

But there’s something else we all have in common with Ron and Linda. We all have hurts. We all have habits. We all have hang-ups of some kind. None of the other Pastors Ron and Linda met with discussed this, but Mike clearly communicated that within his congregation their was an expectation to give up control and to rid the sins that cause hurts, habits and hang-ups.

Funny thing is, this is a problem that has been ongoing since the beginning of time.

I recently began a new Bible reading plan – reading through the Bible in 40 weeks. (Really, it only takes about 15-20 minutes a day 5 days a week. It’s not nearly as hard as people think it is!) And as I was reading through Genesis I came upon one of my favorite stories in the Bible – the life of Jacob.

You see, there are four patriarchs in the book of Genesis. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. You’ve probably heard stories of Abraham and what a great guy he was – so great he was even willing to sacrifice his son. You’ve probably heard of Joseph as well. He was wrongfully imprisoned for years before becoming the 2nd greatest ruler in all of Egypt. But Jacob doesn’t get talked about much. His story isn’t as insightful.

Or is it?

Read the life story of Jacob carefully (Genesis 25:19 – Genesis 33) and you’ll see a common theme throughout his life. This theme can be summarized in just two words…

If…Then.

Jacob tried to control God and others using these two words.

If you do ______ for me, then I’ll _____ for you. Or something like that.

Control.

Manipulate.

Deceive.

That’s all he was trying to do.

It starts in Genesis 25.

29 Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field exhausted. 30 He said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, because I’m exhausted.” That is why he was also named Edom.

31 Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.” (Gen. 25:29-31)

Here, Jacob essentially says, “If you sell me your birthright, then I’ll give you some stew.”

But this is just a part of Jacob’s deceitfulness. He soon steals his father’s blessing as well, and angers his brother Esau. In fact, Esau becomes so enraged he plots to kill Jacob. So what does Jacob do? He high-tails it out of town.

Soon Jacob finds himself alone in the desert. He has no food. No water. No possessions. No family. No friends. Nothing. And God appears to Him in a dream. God promises to protect him and be with him and watch over him. How does Jacob respond? He responds like a man with a desire to be in control. The “if…then” mentality of Jacob continues.

20 Then Jacob made a vow: “If God will be with me and watch over me on this journey, if He provides me with food to eat and clothing to wear, 21 and if I return safely to my father’s house, then the Lord will be my God. (Gen 28:20-21)

Now take a minute to think: How much do you like to be in control? Are you like Ron and Linda? Are you like Jacob? Do you take opportunities to manipulate others to get your way? “If you do ______ for me, then I’ll _____ for you.”

Remember, we all do this to some degree.

But we each have an opportunity to make a choice. We can choose differently. We can choose to allow Jesus to be Lord. We can choose to actually grow, and not live our lives trying to hide our hurts. Concealing our habits. Masking our hang-ups. We can choose to give up control.

Are you willing to make that choice?

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Choosing to give up control is one step each of us can take to recover from our control problem. As you consider making this decision, consider the following questions:

  1. What people or situations do you have the power to control?
  2. What people or situations do you like to try to control?
  3. What decisions do you make on a daily basis to control your image? Others? Your problems? Your pain?
  4. How have your decisions impacted your relationships with God and others?
  5. What hurts do you have? Habits? Hang-ups?
  6. Are you willing to give up control?

my music playlist

Those of you who know me well know that I listen to a lot of music. To be honest, I don’t listen to nearly as much music as I used to. Perhaps rejoining a gym in the near-future will help that a bit. Still, I like music. A lot.

And even though I don’t listen to nearly as much music as I once did, I often get asked by somebody at South Ridge, “What are you listening to right now?” Or, “what song is this that’s playing before the service begins?”  So, I thought I’d just take a few minutes to write about some of my favorite albums currently on my playlist.

On My Playlist:

1. Jars of Clay – Inland

Jars of Clay has had a great 20 years, so when they had a campaign to record this album last year, I backed it immediately. Bottom line, I was not disappointed. In fact, Inland has probably been my most listened to album over the past 12 months.  In my opinion, it’s slightly too mainstream for the indie crowd, yet slightly too indie for the mainstream crowd. Lyrically, Inland is fantastic from start to finish. A gem of an album and one I’ll continue listening to for years to come.

2. NEEDTOBREATHE – Rivers in the Wasteland

NEEDTOBREATHE picked up where Third Day left off many years ago – having a great gritty southern rock sound. Their newest album Rivers in the Wasteland doesn’t disappoint. While a number of tracks are standouts on their newest release, “Difference Maker” would be my favorite. The entire song is about your own pride, believing that you and you alone are the greatest difference maker on earth.

3. All Sons & Daughters – Live (and their self-titled album, too)

While I’m not personally a huge K-love fan, I still listen to quite a bit of worship music. Sure, I enjoy Crowder, Matt Redman, Hillsong, etc. But All Sons & Daughters is by far my favorite worship band. Their Live album is probably the very best worship album I’ve heard in over 5 years. No, I’m not exaggerating, it’s really THAT good. Their newest studio release (self-titled) is also lyrically and musically engaging. If you are a lover of worship music but you don’t own anything by All Sons & Daughters, purchase their Live album immediately.

4. John Mark McMillan – Borderland

Never heard of John Mark McMillan? Have you heard the quite popular worship song, “How He Loves”?  Then you’ve heard of him. He wrote it.

That said, John Mark McMillan continues to have more of an indie-rock sound, and his newest album Borderland is even more unique than his former releases. But I use the term unique in a good way. You may not fall in love with Borderland on your first listen, but give it a full 3-4 listens, and you’ll soon discover it’s an album with tremendous depth and beauty. And the repeat button will keep it playing over and over and over again.

5. Sleeping At Last – Atlas (Year 1)

Sleeping At Last is most likely in my top 3 songwriters of today. In a good mood? Listen to some Sleeping At Last. Feeling low? Listen to some Sleeping At Last. Don’t feel like listening to anything? Listen to some Sleeping At Last. It’s rare than an artist can write this well consistently album after album after album. But Sleeping At Last does it. Great, great stuff.

Other mentions:

Paul Baloche – Live (worship)

Aaron Sprinkle – Water & Guns (indie pop)

Switchfoot – Fading West (rock)

The Choir – Shadow Weaver (indie rock)

Crowder – Crowder (worship)

Elevation Worship – Only King Forever (worship)

Kye Kye – Fantasize (indie synth)

The War On Drugs – Lost in the Dream (indie rock)

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What’s on your playlist? Let me know in the comments below.