Choose Life!

When my friend’s dog got caught stealing chocolate cupcakes from the trash can, she knew that she was in trouble. Bailea knew that she had done something wrong, but she couldn’t have understood why my friend so upset about it. The cupcakes were in the trash; no one else was going to eat them. Why should my friend deny her something good? But Bailea didn’t realize that chocolate can be fatal to dogs. My friend wasn’t upset because Bailea had broken the rules; she was upset because Bailea could have died. We as Christians sometimes chase after things that seem appealing, even though we know that God isn’t pleased with them. We tell ourselves that the behavior is harmless and that it doesn’t impact anyone else. Although we only see the short-term appeal, God sees that it’s deadly. Never forget that “sin, when it is fully grown, leads to death” (James 1:15). We see this all throughout history: spiritual death…death of marriages, families, and friendships…death of communities, cities, and nations. God tells us “no”—not to punish us, but to bring us life (see 1 John 5:3; Deuteronomy 32:47; Leviticus 18:5). Moses challenged the Israelites this way: I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life (Deuteronomy 30:19, 20). Bailea, by the way, was fine. My friend got there in time. Still, Bailea would have been better off had she left the cupcakes alone. It’s the same with us. God can rescue us from sin’s curse of death, but we’re so much better off avoiding evil and walking in obedience from the beginning.

Otis A. Fortenberry

Faith Doesn’t Give Up!

Luke 18 is an amazing chapter. It begins with Jesus sharing a parable to teach his disciples to “pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1) and ends with a real-life story of someone doing just that.

The blind beggar whose story Luke recounts in the closing verses of the chapter called out to Jesus for mercy. The more those around him tried to quiet him, the more he persisted in pleading until, ultimately, Jesus acknowledged him and answered his prayer.

It’s a common question: Why does God, who knows what we need before we ask (Matthew 6:8), ask us to persevere in prayer? We can see part of the answer in Jesus’ response to the blind beggar: “Your faith has healed you” (Luke 18:42). What Jesus is pointing out is that the blind man, by continuing to call even after he was rebuked and told to be quiet, was demonstrating not only persistence but, more importantly, faith as well. God wants us to persist in prayer because persisting requires faith – “and without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).

Let’s be honest: Prayer is easy, but persistence is not. It’s not easy to stay faithful in prayer when we’re not seeing any progress, or when things seem only to be getting worse. At those times, everything around us seems to be shouting, as the crowd did to the blind beggar, to dissuade us from praying. If we’re trusting God for a healing, the aches and pains in our bodies scream at us to be quiet and not trouble him anymore. If we’re looking for wisdom or direction, our friends or family may rebuke us for putting our trust in an unseen God instead of listening to the experts around us. And if we need some kind of major breakthrough, it may be our own doubts and fears that try to convince us that the need is too big to pray for; something too far out of reach.

It’s striking that Jesus uses the example of an unjust judge to illustrate our need to be persistent. His point is clear: If persistence is rewarded even by an unjust judge, how much more will it rewarded by the righteous God who loves us? But Jesus’ question at the end of the parable gets to the crux of the matter: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8)

God makes us persist because, as much as he’s concerned about our earthly needs, he recognizes that our need for faith is greater. It’s not easy to hold on to God’s promises when we’re going through hard times, but the faith that we build in those times is worth it.

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (I Peter 1:6,7)

Jesus Christ will be revealed in our circumstances.  Let’s keep the faith while we wait!

Otis A. Fortenberry

Let Freedom Ring

“Let Freedom Ring”

Inscribed on the Liberty Bell is a portion of Leviticus 25:10, instructions for the Year of Jubilee, “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Indeed, freedom and liberty are central to how we define ourselves as Americans, as evidenced in the Bill of Rights, which outline the freedoms which we enjoy.

But no document, no matter how well-conceived and executed, can truly guarantee freedom. Jesus addressed true freedom in John 8, declaring in verse 36 that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

“Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” (John 8:35) Make no mistake: No matter what freedoms we enjoy, if we sin, we are living as slaves.

Real disciples, Jesus taught, hold to his teaching and know the truth, and it is this truth which sets them free (John 8:31,32). Are we real disciples?  Do we study God’s Word, holding to its truth so that we experience its freedom?

This Independence Day, let us dedicate ourselves not only to living in the truth that sets us free but also to fulfilling the call to proclaim liberty to all the inhabitants of “the land of the free.”

Your greatest calling in life, your greatest privilege, and your greatest joy is to be an ambassador for Christ. The best way to carry out this calling is in the way that you live and the truth you proclaim.

 

Otis A. Fortenberry

A Fresh Start

Have you made your new year’s resolution yet?

I’m pretty sure, based on what I’ve seen the last few years, that, when I walk past the Franklintown apartments next week on my way to work at around 4:15 in the morning, I’ll see at least one person working out in the weight room. This will last for a week or two at best; I rarely see anyone in the weight room that early for the rest of the year.

There’s something to be said for a new year. It brings new hope, as well as new resolve to accomplish our goals. Unfortunately, it’s hard to change our behavior and sustain those goals over the course of a year. Here are some tips to help increase the odds in your favor.

Start off by setting realistic goals. Yes, it’s good to challenge ourselves, but if we set the bar too high, we’re liable to get discouraged and quit when we miss the mark. If you haven’t been reading the Bible regularly, start with the goal of reading one chapter a day. You may find yourself reading more than that each day – and that’s a good thing.  You can always increase your goals later in the year. The idea is to start with a goal that’s reasonable to maintain.

Next, when you’re establishing a routine, find a time that you can stick with. In my experience, the best time for prayer is first thing in the morning, before you start your day. However, if you tend to oversleep and end up rushing in the morning, that time probably won’t work for you. Also, it’s best to set a certain time, rather than vaguely planning to pray after work or before bedtime. When you don’t set a specific time for an activity, it becomes easier to put it off, finding other ways to fill the time until it’s too late. Making an appointment will help ensure that you bring other activities to a halt when the time comes for prayer.

The final tip is not to lose focus, even if you’re not perfect at hitting your goals. I’ll never forget my father’s advice to me when I was faced with failure: Don’t be discouraged, but don’t be satisfied. The best course of action is to move on from failure and start again. If your goal is to make it to church every Sunday, but you miss a week, don’t be discouraged and give up – and don’t be satisfied, and accept a lower standard. Just reset and start your goal all over again.

In Philippians 3:13 and 14, Paul wrote, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal.” As we bid farewell to 2017, let’s leave behind our failures, successes, tears, and triumphs. No more looking back. God has an exciting future straight ahead.

Happy New Year!

Otis A. Fortenberry

Producing Fruit: Goodness

Many people aspire to greatness, but how many of us aspire to goodness? As Christians, we know that we cannot be good on our own. While it is true that all of the fruit of the Spirit is nurtured through the working of the Spirit in our lives, goodness, in particular stands out as the one attribute for which we are totally dependent on the Spirit’s work.

As David pointed out in the Psalms, we have no goodness in ourselves: “There is no one who does good, not even one (Psalm 14:3, Psalm 53:3). Jesus expressed the same truth after He was addressed as good teacher: “Why do you call me good? No one is good – except God alone” (Mark 10:17,18). All of our goodness comes from God, who clothes us in salvation and dresses us in righteousness when He saves us (Isaiah 61:10). The progression is worth noting: Our righteousness is like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6); God removes the filthy garments; God clothes us with fine garments (Zechariah 3:3,4).

But it doesn’t end with the garments. After all, no one would want a piece of fruit that’s perfect on the outside but rotten on the inside. Jesus compared hypocrites to whitewashed tombs, “beautiful on the outside but on the inside… full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27). God desires not simply to cover our unrighteousness with His holiness, but to make us righteous through and through, inside and out. As we cooperate with the Holy Spirit, He forms us into “oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor” (Isaiah 61:3).

When we’re buying a piece of fruit, we examine all of its attributes to determine whether it’s good or bad. We look it over carefully, searching for any discoloration or bruises, we squeeze it, to see whether it’s too soft or too hard, and we may even smell it for signs of rottenness. We will never find a perfect piece of fruit, but we want to make sure that we choose one that’s ripe. In the same way, people examine us closely: How much do we love? How joyful and are we? Are we at peace? In our dealings with others, are we forbearing, kind, and good? Are we faithful? Do we treat others with gentleness, and show self-control? While we cannot hope to be perfect, we should undoubtedly aspire to be mature – in every attribute of the fruit of the Spirit.

As we consider the fruit of the Spirit, let’s make it a point to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, persevering so that we may be “mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4).

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22,23, NIV2011).

Otis A. Fortenberry

Producing Fruit: Gentleness

Gentleness. It seems almost out of place in the list of attributes that make up the fruit of the Spirit. Of all the sermons I’ve heard in my lifetime, I don’t remember “gentleness” coming up, except in the middle of a list of the fruit of the Spirit.

Gentleness seems even more out of place when we consider that Paul is the one who is the author of the list. Boldness seems more Paul’s style, as we see in his rebuke to the high priest who commanded him to be smitten (Acts 23:1–5), his parting words to the unbelieving Jews in Rome (Acts 28:23–28), and his words in opposition to Peter’s hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11–14).  But Paul himself gives us a hint of the virtue of gentleness when he speaks of his reputation among the Corinthians: “I, Paul, who am ‘timid’ when face to face with you, but ‘bold’ toward you when away! I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be toward some people who think that we live by the standards of this world” (II Corinthians 10:1,2). Paul was definitely bold, when the situation demanded it, but his preferred method of approach was gentleness.

One of my favorite moments in Revelation comes after John weeps and weeps because no one is found worthy to open a scroll, and one of the elders tells him not to worry, because the triumphant Lion of the tribe of Judah is able to open the seals. It’s at that moment that Jesus appears – not as a conquering lion but as a lamb that had been sacrificed (Revelation 5:1–10). How incredibly blessed we are that our Savior comes to us first as “the Lamb who takes away the sins the world” (John 1:29) before he comes as the sovereign Lord who will judge the inhabitants of the earth (Revelation 6:10).

In the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21–35), Jesus calls us to this same gentleness, reminding us that, as we have received patient, gentle mercy, we have an obligation to show the same to those around us. Consider this carefully as you go through your day. We have many opportunities to be cruel, harsh, and judgmental (even if only in our thoughts – or our gossipy, hurtful comments to others – and not our actions), but God’s desire is for us to respond in gentleness. Paul puts it this way: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22,23, NIV2011). In this four-part series, we are taking a look at some of the less-commonly discussed attributes in this list. As we seek to move and grow in the Spirit, let us make an effort to excel in every aspect the fruit of the Spirit.

 

Otis A. Fortenberry

Producing Fruit: Faithfulness

In professional sports, there’s a saying that the most important ability is availability.  What this means is that a player who can’t suit up for a game, no matter how talented he or she is, is not as valuable on the day of a game as a player, possibly less talented, who is available.

We see this principle in the Bible as well. God doesn’t look for those who have the most resources or talent to offer, but for those who are the most faithful in applying what they’ve been given.

As an example, in the opening verses of Luke 21, Jesus singled out a widow who put two very small copper coins into the temple treasury, pointing out that she had given more than all of the others. She was faithful with everything that she had, and, although her offering doesn’t seem like much to human eyes, in God’s eyes, it was the most valuable.

My father-in-law puts it this way: Man measures how much we give, but God measures how much we hold on to. This is true not only of money, but, more important, of our talents, training, ability, and even our time.

In choosing Moses (Exodus 4:10–12), a poor public speaker, Gideon, a man from the smallest family in the smallest tribe (Judges 6:14–16), and Peter and John, ordinary, uneducated men (Acts 4:13), God taught us that he is able to do great things with the small offerings that we faithfully surrender to him. No matter how inexperienced, inept, or untrained we may see ourselves, if we are faithful in offering our gifts back to God, he can do great things with them.

Sometimes, it’s hard to be faithful when we don’t see any results from our labor. Paul reminds us not to “become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Like a farmer toiling faithfully in a field, we have to be faithful even while we’re not able to see any results, knowing that it takes time for the fruit of our labor to come to maturity. We can be faithful because we know that God, who calls us to faithfulness, is himself faithful (I Thessalonians 5:24).

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22,23, NIV2011) In this four-part series, we are taking a look at some of the less-commonly discussed attributes in this list. As we seek to move and grow in the Spirit, let us make an effort to excel in every aspect of the fruit of the Spirit.

Otis A. Fortenberry

Producing Fruit: Forbearance

I’ve learned Galatians 5:22 and 23 in three languages: Seventeenth Century English (King James Version), Late Twentieth Century English (New International Version, 1984), and Early Twenty-first Century English (New International Version, 2011). Each translation uses a different word for the fourth aspect of the fruit of the Spirit. In the KJV, it’s translated “longsuffering,” in NIV1984 “patience,” and in NIV2011 “forbearance.” I’m glad that the translators of the latest release of the New International Version updated the translation from “patience.” Actually, I think that “longsuffering”—a now-outdated term, puts it best: the ability to put up with a lot. The difference between patience and longsuffering? Patience is keeping a smile on your face when you’re stuck on the Schuylkill for four hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Longsuffering or forbearance is maintaining that smile when you’re stuck in traffic—and all the other drivers are honking their horns, shaking their fists, and shouting profanity at you. Paul summarizes this type of forbearance in 1 Corinthians 9:12, “We put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.” As is true of all of the fruit of the Spirit, this level of forbearance is possible only as the result of a work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Jesus is our example. He came not only to fulfill the ultimate mission in God’s plan, giving His life as the sacrifice that would take away the sins of the world, but also to live among us. Wherever Jesus went, He endured opposition, constant questioning of His actions and His motives, and the needy around Him who sought His help. In all of this, He endured, humbly and sinlessly. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22, 23, NIV2011). Over the next four weeks, we will take a look at some of the less commonly discussed attributes in this list. As we seek to move and grow in the Spirit, let us make an effort to excel in every aspect of the fruit of the Spirit.

Otis A. Fortenberry

True Freedom

I’m proud to be an American! And, especially this time of year, I’m proud to be a Philadelphian. It’s great to celebrate our country’s birthday in the home of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

At the same time, I must never lose sight of the fact that I have dual citizenship. My primary, eternal citizenship is in the Kingdom of Heaven, and my primary responsibility is to be an ambassador of that kingdom.

This Independence Day, as we celebrate our freedoms, let us not forget that we are surrounded by people who are in bondage: to sin, to their carnal desires, to fear and hopelessness. What makes their bondage even sadder is that most have no idea that they are bound. They choose to believe what the world tells them, but what the world calls freedom is actually a trap, designed to separate us from our loving God.

At the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he read in the Temple from Isaiah 58:

 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18,19)

As his earthly ministry drew to a close, he commissioned us to be ambassadors of this same message:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20)

Let’s celebrate true freedom by devoting ourselves to sharing God’s Good News with everyone we know!

Otis A. Fortenberry

Who Is My Neighbor?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:16)

Earlier this month, the leadership team from our two churches, along with teams from other churches in Pennsylvania and Delaware, attended a conference on church renewal. At one point, the leader shared a challenge from the book, The Art of Neighboring, encouraging us to get to know nine of our neighbors.

It struck me that, living in Philadelphia, we had an advantage over the others there, who lived in suburban and rural areas. I know, from having grown up in small towns, that the distance between two neighboring houses in those towns could easily be equal to the distance between my current house in Philadelphia and nine of my neighbors!

And yet, I had to ask myself: Do I really know my neighbors?

An expert in the Law once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”, and Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37).  I suggest that we ask ourselves that question in a different context: Who are our neighbors, really?  What are their dreams? What are their needs? How can I show the love of Christ to them?

As Christians, we acknowledge God’s purpose in every area of our lives, and we acknowledge our responsibility to be faithful to that purpose on a daily basis, in our day-to-day lives. We’re familiar with the Great Commission that Jesus gave us, to “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel” (Matthew 28:19), but let us not forget the commission that he gave to the man whom he delivered from a legion of demons, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” (Mark 5:19)

How well do you know your neighbors? How well do they know you and how much the Lord has done for you? Let us commit to making the most of every opportunity to share the love and light of Jesus with the world that’s right next door to us.