Studying Paul’s Letters with the Mind and Heart

The title says it all. . . .

Studying Paul's Letters with the Mind and HeartGregory S. MaGee. Studying Paul’s Letters with the Mind and Heart. 216p., $23.99, Kregel Academic.

This informative survey of Paul’s epistles is conversant with the latest scholarship but written in an engaging style that emphasizes practical application. In each chapter, Gregory MaGee asks and answers a vital question for understanding Paul’s letters while prompting the reader to consider the discussion’s personal implications. These questions get at the heart of understanding, interpreting, and living out the Pauline letters:

  • Why listen to Paul?
  • Were all thirteen letters really written by Paul?
  • How does Paul interact with the Old Testament?
  • What are some specific interpretive challenges in Paul’s letters?
  • How can I wisely apply Paul’s teachings?
  • What are the experts saying about Paul these days?
  • What ideas were especially important to Paul?

Students and other thoughtful Christians wishing to dig deeper into Paul’s letters will benefit from this contemporary overview, and will be challenged to grow spiritually and apply Paul’s teachings and example.

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Lay Down Your Ambition     

We’ve already explored how we build ourselves up through our “doing.” This week is more about the “triggers” that lure us into that kind of thinking. Our circumstances are one such set of triggers. Our own passions, and personal ambitions, are another.

First, let’s make one thing clear: God has given us hopes and dreams and ambitions to pursue. Not all of the “good things” we do are bad. Not by a long shot. The struggle is in who gets the credit, and in who’s really being served by what we do.

Again, and for probably not the last time: Laying it down is about taking our selves out of the equation and focusing on what God wants, rather than how we benefit from what we do. What we get out of it is the blessing, not the goal.

More often than not, we make even good things about our work and our accomplishments, as if we’re somehow made superior by them because we’ve accomplished them. We may give God lip service, and maybe even some sincere acknowledgement, but we know who really stepped up to the plate and got it done.

In The Spiritual Man, Watchman Nee points out, “The enemy well knows how we need our mind to attend the spirit so that we may walk by the spirit. Thus he frequently induces us to overuse it that it may be rendered unfit to function normally and hence be powerless to reinforce the spirit in time of weakness.” A more modern way of putting that is, “If Satan can’t make you bad, he’ll make you busy.” But Nee hints at an even more significant truth: Satan is more than willing to use our busyness and our ambition to, slowly but steadily, make us bad. As we drift from the leading of the Spirit, we leave ourselves increasingly open to things that aren’t of God.

We’ve seen this far too many times in recent church history, but it’s far from a new problem. People often start off sincerely at first and experience success, but soon it become more and more about the success and less and less about serving God. Eventually success becomes “the spirit” of the thing, rather than being something that’s measured by our obedience to the Spirit. “Spiritual leadership” that isn’t leading others closer to Jesus isn’t spiritual leadership at all.

Jesus calls us to a different work: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). It is a challenge so difficult that only one man has ever done it entirely successfully—the One who’s calling us to it right now. And he is the one who will make true success happen, in his way and in his time. So lay down your ambition, and begin following Jesus into something far bigger than yourself.

Lay It Down Today

What gets you excited, and makes you want to get up in the morning—or at least has you looking forward to getting back home? Let’s keep relationships off the table, as we’ve already touched on those. For now, think of something that isn’t necessarily life-giving in itself but is life-giving to you—a hobby or activity, or something that benefits others. It might even be your work. Got that in your mind? Good.

Now: How can you invite Jesus (or invite him further) into that activity? It might be as simple as adding prayer throughout your activity (and notice I said “throughout,” not just before or after). Maybe it’s tweaking that activity so your actions are more directly giving God glory rather than just about you “taking a break.” Whatever you come up with, begin making it a regular part of that activity—then see how God begins changing things up as you do.

Also—and here’s the deeper part—consider how this attitude can be brought into the more “serious” parts of your life. Where are you striving to accomplish something, and how much of that is you? How can you begin taking your hands off and letting Jesus guide those things—and when success comes, give him the glory instead of taking the credit? This will obviously take longer to develop, but start working on it today.

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When Words Fail: Practical Ministry to People with Dementia and Their Caregivers

Dementia and its symptoms are tough on everyone involved—the persons involved and arguably even more so, their caregivers. This book will give you the wisdom and info you need to cope—as well as to minister. . . .

When Words FailKathy Fogg Berry. When Words Fail: Practical Ministry to People with Dementia and Their Caregivers. 160p., $16.99, Kregel Ministry.

Millions of Christians suffer from dementia diseases such as Alzheimer’s, making ministry to them difficult as they lose memories and the ability to communicate. Drawing on her years of experience as a long-term care chaplain, Kathy Berry provides practical information and tools to equip ministers and lay leaders to meet the spiritual and pastoral needs of those living with dementia.

Chapters cover vital topics, including these:

  • Identifying those who may be showing signs of dementia and learning how to support them as they seek a diagnosis
  • Communicating with dementia patients as their language skills decline
  • Meeting the emotional, spiritual, and physical needs of people with dementia–and the needs of their caregivers

An invaluable resource to meet a growing need for congregations around the country, When Words Fail equips readers to answer Christ’s call to minister to “the least of these.”

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Lay Down Your Circumstances

I have to admit, I’ve always been perplexed by people who talk about the “comfort” of the Christian life, especially in terms of it being the primary reason for believing in Christ. To be sure, there’s “comfort and joy” to be had in knowing Christ, and “a peace that passes all understanding.” But humanly speaking, there’s still life to be lived. And life can be painful—so much so that it cuts through the veneer of all that joy and peace that people both inside and outside of Christianity think we’re supposed to be exuding 24/7.

The good news is: God’s OK with that. In fact, he’s the one who’s allowed those circumstances to happen. And a big reason he allows them is this: Our circumstances reveal who we are and what we really trust. The situations we face each day—especially the bad ones—tend to bring out what we’re made of, whether we want them to or not. We may be shocked by what our circumstances reveal about us, but God isn’t—and he wants us to stop being shocked as well, so that we trust him rather than ourselves to get through those circumstances.

However, we often don’t approach it that way. We think that if God cared about us, he’d change our situation. In fact, that was pretty much the serpent’s argument in the garden, and it worked. Even paradise wasn’t good enough for us.

On the other hand, when we lay our circumstances before God, he provides a way through them, even when we think things might be impossible—or probably closer to our real issue: even when we have no control over our circumstances. I already have the control, God reminds us; are you going let me do what I need to do, or are you going to continue to fight me?

The Exodus account is a great example of laying down our circumstances. After the second plague out of ten (frogs, by the way), Pharaoh asks Moses to remove this lousy set of circumstances. Moses’ response in Exodus 8:9 is worth noting: He actually gives Pharaoh, the enslaver and persecutor of his people, permission to set the dates for this plague to be removed. Yet by doing this, he’s acknowledging that no matter what Pharaoh decides, God is still in control and ultimately will deliver Israel.

In contrast to this attitude is the well-known (and overargued) hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 8:14, etc.). The best definition I’ve seen of this “hardening” is “the continuation of a prior condition.” Put another way: God was pressing Pharaoh’s buttons and revealing his heart, already knowing how he would respond to his circumstances:

For by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go (Exodus 9:15–17).

Sometimes, parting the Red Sea is easier than opening up a human heart.

And that brings us back to . . . us. We want to change our outer circumstances; God is more concerned with changing our inner circumstances—the very ones we seemingly should have more control over but don’t. (Read Romans 7 if you don’t believe me, or even if you do.) When that happens, our outer circumstances begin to change as well. So give it all to God, and let him accomplish his will through your circumstances.

Lay It Down Today

Let’s spend some more time with a question you hopefully began addressing in last week’s small-group session: What circumstances are you facing right now that seem impossible to you—and maybe, therefore, also seem impossible for God?

Ask God to open the way for you to walk through your circumstances—not asking for a solution (though he may well provide one), but to see clearly how to follow him through whatever it is you’re facing right now. Resolve to wait for God’s answer, and ask him for the strength to wait. Start that waiting right now. Don’t just throw up a prayer and stop reading, but spend time waiting. Give God the chance to speak—and give yourself the chance to hear.

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Invitation to Educational Ministry

Everything you want to know about educational ministry—no matter what size your venue—but was afraid to ask. . . .

Invitation to Educational MinistryGeorge M. Hillman, Jr. & Sue Edwards. Invitation to Educational Ministry: Foundations of Transformational Christian Education. 512p., $42.99, Kregel Academic.

Because teaching is at the heart of Christian ministry, the editors of Invitation to Educational Ministry have assembled a team of seasoned experts to present a comprehensive plan of Christian education. This volume will help church staff, parachurch leaders, and small-group teachers become more effective, influential, and creative.

After laying a biblical and practical foundation for Christian education, the contributors provide specific guidance on teaching a variety of individuals and groups, including children, adults, singles, seniors, and non-Christians.

The final section shares valuable insights on leading small groups, teaching innovatively, and overseeing a healthy educational ministry, among other topics. Each chapter is designed to equip educators with the most relevant information, and includes many useful features:

  • Real-life case studies
  • Scriptural support
  • Explanations of key terms and concepts
  • Practical suggestions
  • Resources for additional study
  • Sidebars illustrating best principles and practices
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Lay Down Your Kingdom: a small-group session

For this session, you’ll need….

  • enough name tags for everyone
  • pens/markers for writing

Laying Down Your Day (15 minutes)

Make sure everyone has a name tag and something to write with. Then say something like: Think of something you’re especially proud of—for example, an accomplishment, an award you won, a title or position at work that you earned, or that major purchase you could finally make. Write it down on your name tag, but don’t show anyone else yet.

Give everyone up to a minute to write, and then say something like: Now, very quickly, slap your name tags over your hearts where everyone can see them. Then, let’s talk.

1. Why did you choose that particular thing? Why are you so proud of it?

2. Looking back now, where was (or wasn’t) God as you worked toward obtaining or achieving that thing?

God has given us great gifts throughout our lives. But we need to remember that that’s what they are—gifts. Even our greatest accomplishments are the result of how God has gifted us, and how faithful we’ve been to that gifting. That’s why this week has been all about laying down our kingdoms—which, after all, are only the kingdoms God’s let us have. As we lay down our kingdoms, we open ourselves further to God’s kingdom work in our lives. Let’s dig more into that right now.

Laying Down the Word (25 minutes)

Read the following passage from Day 3, and then discuss the questions afterward.

“[O]ne of the biggest reasons that God calls us to lay down our reputations… is [that it’s] a way of securing and encasing ourselves in a human love that, even when genuine, is less than God’s love for us. Thomas Merton, in New Seeds of Contemplation, described this as “winding experiences around myself . . . like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.”

3. When have you seen a person or group get too wrapped in his/her/their reputation? (No bashing permitted; just explain the situation, from your perspective.)

4. When have you been guilty of getting wrapped up in how others see you—or on the other hand, felt like “an invisible body”? How did (or does) focusing on that separate you from God and how he sees you?

In “Lay Down Your Strength,” we examined the example of Abraham. We observed how God had to deal with Abraham’s natural strength—and the image he tried to maintain—before Abraham could receive the even greater gifts God wanted to give him. We’re not going to re-read Abraham’s story today, but let’s reflect on it as we discuss these questions:

5. Why do we rely on our own strength instead of God’s, when it comes to the challenges we face? Put another way: Why do we so often go the “Ishmael route” rather than the “Isaac route”?

6. Share a recent example that illustrates the above question. How have you responded so far to that situation, both positively and negatively? What still needs to be laid down before God in that situation?

Read Matthew 19:25–30, and then discuss:

7. Think again about the situation(s) you’re facing right now. What seems impossible to you right now—and maybe, therefore, seems like it must be also impossible to God?

8. How do Jesus’ promises assure you otherwise? How can you live in those promises, rather than in what you believe?

Laying Down Your Life (20 minutes)

Have group members get into subgroups of three or four.

Have someone read the quote from “Lay Down Your Possessions” below, then talk about your “Lay It Down Today” assignments from this past week. Which assignments did you best connect with? Which ones, not so much? In each case, why? Afterward, discuss the questions below. Take fifteen minutes to talk together in your subgroups, and then take a few more minutes to pray together about what you’ve shared. Once you’re done, remain quiet until everyone else is finished. May God bless you as you submit your lives even further to Jesus, and discover his love and freedom as you do.

“We do not serve a God of either/or, but a God of both/and—if we’re willing to surrender all of our tiny little kingdoms and properties and belongings to Him. God must rule over the things He’s given us, and be the one who determines how they’re used.”

9. Which part of your kingdom—your independence, strength, reputation, possessions, relationships—is hardest for you to lay down before Jesus? Why?

10. What would laying it down look like, in your case? What could Jesus do with that? What are you afraid he might (or might not) do if you took that step of faith?


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The Great Escape

Need a study on healing and deliverance—especially for someone who’s literally imprisoned? Look no further. . . .

Kathleen Ann Marchant. The Great Escape: Redeemed for Life. 336p., $14.99, Deep River Books.

In this thoughtful Bible study guide, find ways you can experience healing and be released from the shackles of sin, addiction, abuse, and life circumstances. . . . This 8-week Bible study follows a faith progression, starting with an introduction of the Trinity. Readers travel gently through the basics of Christianity, going a little deeper each week. Each lesson starts with a prayer and offers challenges to aid the reader in repair of brokenness, idleness, and destructive behaviors.

The Great Escape: Redeemed for Life Bible study guide provides encouraging inspiration and insight into what life can be like after the release of chains. In a society riddled with distractions—sin, abuse, addictions, being prisoners in our circumstances and even our own minds—this study offers the reader freedom. Readers will learn of the hope available by truly surrendering their hearts to Jesus. Over the course of the study, the reader progresses to a place of not only survival, but purpose and joy. The study wraps up with an entire week devoted to support for life after the study, providing the reader with tools to incorporate what they have learned into everyday life.  Experiencing freedom to inquire, to change, to surrender, to forgive, and to move on to live a life that is Christ-centered will leave them truly redeemed for life.

Each week contains five lesson plans. Every lesson plan starts with a welcome and prayer. The body of the lesson is filled with Scripture and encouragement. At the end of each lesson plan is a Reader Challenge to apply the day’s lesson to their circumstances, followed by an Incarcerated Challenge written specifically for a reader that is incarcerated.


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