We're Still Pilgrims

“With mutual embraces and many tears, they took their leaves of one another, which proved to be the last leave to many of them...but they knew they were pilgrims and looked not much on those things, but lifted their eyes to heaven, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.” William Bradford 

In 1608, a small band of discontent, reform-minded people left the British shores. They felt that old dead religion had corrupted the state church, and they wanted something more “pure” and “separate.” The congregation found religious freedom across the sea in Holland. But after ten years of living with the Dutch people, they again found themselves troubled and discontent. Their children were forgetting their English heritage and adopting instead the Dutch customs and language. By gosh, they were even wearing wooden shoes!

By 1620, fifty discontent, reform-minded English Separatists were setting out again. This time they left the shores of Amsterdam and joined up with another group—fifty merchant adventurers from England. The Separatist “saints”—as they called themselves—and the adventuring “strangers”—as they were named by the “saints”—journeyed together to the New World. It was a motley crew. One group was driven by protecting biblical doctrine and their cultural heritage. The other group was driven by the allure of wealth and discovery.

But an amazing thing happened on their journey across the Atlantic. Together, the hyper-religious “saints” and the thrill-driven “strangers” grieved over loved ones lost and left behind. Together, they fought against the sea. Along the way, they ceased being “saints” and “strangers.” They became one. Today, we rarely think about these travelers for where they came from. Instead, we use a new name—one that highlights their unity and common destination. They were sojourners to a new land, and we call them… pilgrims.

Whether or not we sail across troubled seas, Christians are all pilgrims. We are a motley crew of travelers with diverse backgrounds and temperaments. Some of us have been rebels. Some of us have been hyper-religious. We need to be reminded that we have a common destination. As you eat turkey and watch football today, don't forget that this world is not our home. We're travelers on our way. We're still pilgrims.

Happy Thanksgiving! 

Leadership Lessons from King Nebuchadnezzar

I once taught the book of Daniel in Vacation Bible School. I expected to learn a lot from Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the stories. But what surprised me, as I was preparing to teach, was just how much I learned from King Nebuchadnezzar... 

Illustration and layout by Trish Mahoney from   The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible     by Jared Kennedy, (New Growth Press, 2017)

Illustration and layout by Trish Mahoney from The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible by Jared Kennedy, (New Growth Press, 2017)

Nebuchadnezzar was a powerful man with a short fuse--far from the model of emotional health. In Daniel 2, he's ready to put every one of his advisors to death just because they can't read his mind (Daniel 2:8-9). And it seems that the only thing more powerful than Nebuchadnezzar's temper is his pride. But God didn't give up on Nebuchadnezzar. He sent faithful men into captivity in Babylon, and he humbled the king. You can see his amazing testimony unfold in three stages:

  • At first, Nebuchadnezzar is delusional (Daniel 3:4-6). In a fantastic dream, God revealed to king Nebuchadnezzar that his kingdom would not last. Another king would succeed him. Ultimately God's forever kingdom would crush Babylon and every other human dominion (Daniel 2:44-45). But somehow that powerful message was lost on Nebuchadnezzar. He completely missed the point. Instead of reacting to God's vision of the future with humility, he apparently only remembered that he was the "head of gold." So the king set up a 90 foot high image of himself and summoned all of his royal leaders as well as all nations and peoples of every language to come and bow down. He led the people in an idolatrous direction, and he led them there with threats: "Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace."

  • Nebuchadnezzar becomes aware of God's goodness and greatness (Daniel 3:29). After God delivers the three friends--Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego--from the fiery furnace, it seems that Nebuchadnezzar has his first major realization. The friends refused to bend or bow, and the king was enraged. So he heated the furnace seven times hotter and threw them in. At that moment, Nebuchadnezzar witnessed God show up. He was amazed. There was a fourth man in the fire--someone like a son of the gods (Daniel 3:25). The king inspected the men and discovered the fire hadn't touched them. They didn't even smell like smoke! So he immediately issued another decree. Once again he wrote to the people of any language or nation. Now he was leading the people toward the true God. But he was still leading with threats: Anyone who "says anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego will be cut into pieces and their houses will be turned into a pile of rubble (Yikes!), for no other god can save in this way."

  • Nebuchadnezzar becomes aware of his sin (Daniel 4:1). Daniel chapter 4 begins with another decree from the king. Once again he writes to the nations and peoples of every language who live in the earth. The opening reminds us of the king's two earlier attempts at directing the people's worship. But this time the threats are gone. As commentator Ernest C. Lucas observes, "He no longer relies on the power of physical force but the power of personal testimony." In light of what's happened before, the king's words are amazing: "It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me." Nebuchadnezzar was humbled. He'd stood on the pinnacle of power and the roof of his palace and he bragged about all he'd done for his own glory and fame (Daniel 4:30). Then he broke. God drove him from men. Nebuchadnezzar lost his mind. He lived in a field and ate grass like an ox until he acknowledged God's sovereignty and his own weakness: "I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride, he is able to humble" (Daniel 4:37).

Too often I lead like young Nebuchadnezzar. I'm short tempered and proud. I might lead in the right direction, but I don't lead in the right way. And I don't think I'm alone. Sadly, Christian leadership often looks more like the Nebuchadnezzar of Daniel 3:29 than the Nebuchadnezzar of Daniel 4:1--using what power we have in a coercive way to our own ends. May the Lord help us grow in self-awareness. May he help us see both the greatness of his salvation and the depth of our own need and sin. I thank God that he humbles the proud and gives grace to the humble.

Do you have a testimony to share about a way God has humbled you? Share it in the comments below.

The illustrations in this post are from my book, The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible. Check out the New Growth Press website to purchase a copy or learn more.

What Surprised Me About Pharaoh

Illustration and layout by Trish Mahoney from   The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible   by Jared Kennedy, (New Growth Press, 2017).

Illustration and layout by Trish Mahoney from The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible by Jared Kennedy, (New Growth Press, 2017).

Whenever I teach a Bible passage for the first time, I always learn something... even if I've heard sermons preached on the passage or heard it taught in Sunday School for years. That was my experience one weekend with a Bible story from Exodus. 

The children's ministry curriculum we used covered the first nine plagues against Egypt from Exodus 7:14-10:29. I've always imagined King Pharaoh, that evil snake, as an angry man with sharp teeth who shakes his defiant fist in God's face. He does act that way sometimes (Ex. 5:1-5). What shocked me in the story was just how religious Pharaoh sounds after he encounters God. Read that again. When Pharaoh encounters God, he becomes increasingly religious. Consider this:

  • After the second plague (frogs), Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron, and he asks them to pray: "Pray to the LORD to take the frogs away from me and my people" (Ex. 8:9).
     
  • After the third plague (dense swarms of flies), Pharaoh asks Moses and Aaron to pray for him: "I will let you go to offer sacrifices to the LORD your God in the wilderness, but you must not go very far. Now pray for me" (Ex. 8:28).
     
  •  After the seventh plague (the hailstorm), Pharaoh confesses, "This time I have sinned. The LORD is in the right, and I am my people are in the wrong" (Ex. 9:27).
     
  • After the eighth plague (the locusts), Pharaoh confessed his sin even more personally: "I have sinned against the LORD your God and against you" (Ex. 10:16-17).

Of course, after each religious movement, Pharaoh hardened his heart and changed his mind. He was unyielding. You see, Pharaoh's religion wasn't the pure and undefiled kind God demands. His words of sorrow and regret didn't come from a soft heart that sought after God. Pharaoh was negotiating. He intended to manipulate the Lord.

But, oh, how often I sound just like him! And kids are the same way. They'll negotiate and say things that sound good in order to get out of trouble. Sometimes when we look the most "Christian" on the outside, we're spiritually sick on the inside. What can deliver children (and me) from hypocrisy and hard hearts? 

Only God.

Exodus shows how:

  • First, true Israel is delivered by the Father's sovereign protection. In Egypt, God made a distinction between the Egyptians and his own people in Goshen (Ex. 8:22; 9:4). God's people, who trust him, are protected from his wrath. Even the Egyptians who by faith sheltered their livestock were protected from God's wrath in the hailstorm (Ex. 9:20-21).
     
  • Second, true Israel is delivered by the Son's bloody sacrifice. For us, it was the next week's lesson. But the first nine plagues lead directly to the tenth. Ultimately, true Israel is saved only by the blood of the lamb (Ex. 12:1-11). The firstborn son is the substitute for us all.
     
  • Third, true Israel is delivered by the Spirit's transforming grace. Wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites were as fickle as Pharaoh. They sometimes sounded repentant but they wanted to go back to Egypt again and again. So later on, through the prophet Ezekiel, God promised a deliverance by his Spirit. Our new covenant deliverance goes farther than the Exodus. God says, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" (Ezek. 36:26).

These truths reminded me that God is bigger than my expectations. He is big enough to save me both when I'm a defiant rebel and when I'm a religious manipulator. And that surprising truth about religious Pharaoh was exactly what I needed to hear.

The illustrations in post are from my book, The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible. You can purchase it or learn more at the New Growth Press website.

 

Adults and Children Together in Church Community

I learned two simple rules from a very early age: (1) "Kids are to be seen, but not heard." and (2) "What I see or hear here, stays here." The adults in my life wanted me to be quiet and not repeat anything I'd heard. Sometimes the Church has the same approach when it comes to how to handle children in community. At the very least, this is a missed opportunity.

I'm not saying kids MUST be present at all times. No time without the kids makes for both a bad marriage and bad church community. When dealing with serious sin or having conversations that young children aren't yet mature enough to handle, it's helpful to have some sort of childcare provided. But some churches use these reasons as an excuse to never have the kids around.

kids in church.jpg

Here are three reasons I believe having kids and adults together when the church community gathers is important:

  • By participating in community with adults, kids experience church life that doesn't revolve around them. To love and serve one another (particularly others who are different from us) is a learned behavior. Learning to love someone who is different is requires being with other people who are different. So, it's important to have older and younger people, singles and those who are married, rich and poor, and those who are culturally different together in community. When we exclude any group, everyone ends up weaker. Faith doesn't grow or flourish on it's own.
     
  • When kids are present, adults are reminded what childlike faith looks like. As we get older and think we're wiser, our passion for our faith seems to diminish. We lose the wonder we once had. Kids still have the sense of dependence adult faith often lacks. As Christ said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3).
     
  • As kids participate in the larger church community, we all mature. When a younger generation is around adults, the kids are reminded that their faith needs to be growing and maturing. Without older examples, their childlike faith can become childish faith. Worshiping together helps our kids develop the kind of faith that will hold up against the trials and temptations of adulthood. But kids aren't the only ones who mature when generations worship together. When adults learn how to communicate the things of faith to the children present in worship or their small group, they mature as well. This is what should drive our ministry endeavors. Our goal should be to "...present everyone mature in Christ. (Colossians 1:28).

Adults and kids need each other. We can learn from one other. As this happens, our community will be stronger.