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First Sunday of Advent

Join us on a journey of Advent. Each Sunday, we will have a reading posted, along with what candle we are lighting in our churches or homes today. Today is the candle of Hope. We hope for the future king. What will he be like? Will we see it in our lifetime? Hope.

Speaker 1: Lighting a candle in the darkness helps us find our way. In the darkness, we lose direction. We cannot see where we have been or where we are going. A single candle, flickering brightly, helps us find our way again.

Speaker 2: “Stir up your might, and come to save us. Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80:2b-3).

The first candle is lit.

Speaker 3: Light one candle; see it glow
Brightly, so that all may know
How one candle shows the way
Making our darkness bright as God’s day.

Speaker 4: Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. All pray: Dear God, on this first Sunday in Advent, let this light shine brightly as the days grow shorter so that we will be ready for your face to shine upon us at Christmas. In the Savior’s name, we pray. Amen.

Bible Study Ideas

BIBLE VERSE OF THE DAY: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.”  – Romans 15:4

3 Fresh Ways to Study Your Bible
by Amy Green

Whenever the Bible talks about spending time with God through reading the Word, it’s never in the context of a burden. I don’t know about you, but I could use more hope in my life. Here are three fresh ways to study your Bible:

1. Praying the Bible
This method is just what it sounds like: Take a passage of Scripture and read it, line by line, pausing in between to pray its truth for specific people and situations in your life. The psalms are great for this, since they’re written as prayers. (Even the ones where David wishes death to his enemies can be turned into prayers about the destruction of sin in your own heart or evil in the world like terrorism, human trafficking, or poverty.)

This method is less about interpreting the passage and more about using its words to bring requests before God and to praise him for who He is. Try pausing between each verse and lifting up specific people and situations that relate to the words there. If you find it hard to focus in your time praying, this might be helpful for you.
Need a place to start? Try praying through Isaiah 35Psalm 27, or Philippians 2.

2. Walk with Jesus through the Gospels
My friend once gave me this advice: If you’re going through a spiritually dry time, read through the Gospels and write down what you learn about Jesus. That’s it. Nothing fancy. It seems so simple that it can hardly be called a “method,” but at the same time… how often do we page right by the familiar stories of miracles and parables?

How long has it been since we let Jesus surprise us? When we ask what it means to follow Jesus today, do we have a clear picture of what that looks like?

All of that and more can be found when taking this exercise through each of the four Gospels. As Christians, we’re called to be disciples and imitators of Jesus. The best way to know what your faith should look like is to get to know him better.

3. Coordinate with Your Sermon Series
Take a sermon series that your church is starting and dive deeply into a parallel study. If it’s exegetical (preaching straight through a book or part of a book), read the passage before the sermon on Sunday. If it’s topical and you don’t know for sure which passages you’ll be going to, pick a portion of the Bible that has a lot to say about that topic and read through it a little at a time.

This is a great weekend devotional practice to get into, and unlike some of the other methods, it is usually pretty short, since pastors don’t often tackle massive chunks of Scripture at one time. There won’t be any “spoilers” for the sermon, but it’s amazing how much easier it is to engage in church when you’ve spent time focusing your heart on the subject ahead of time.

Editor’s Note: Portions taken from the article, “10 Fresh Ways to Study Your Bible,” written by Amy Green. You can read that piece in full here. All rights reserved.

Pray without ceasing?

By Emily Rose Massey

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, ESV).

With the invention of smartphones and these (often anti) social media apps, we can now be distracted and ignore the reality in front of our faces at any given moment of every single day. Many have lost the art of communication because there really is no need to actually talk (aloud) to people anymore. It’s all about these black letters on white background. We text instead of call. We use emojis instead of an emotional face-to-face conversation. We post “insta” updates like engagements or the birth of a new baby instead of waiting to share that news in person, especially to close friends and family members. I strongly dislike finding out important things through Facebook first, don’t you?

We can’t even sit in a twenty-minute car ride without grabbing for that block of distraction. My husband knows how guilty I am of this one! And recently, I discovered that existing behind my phone’s keyboard hadn’t just affected my relationships with other people but with God. Are we so connected to our devices that we are neglecting to connect with the Lord? How much time am I spending on my phone? I must wonder if living a communicative existence of only black letters on a white background is a huge reason my prayer life seems like it is on life support sometimes. You can’t text God. He wants to hear from His children. 

Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, He tore the veil that separated sinful man from the Holy and Righteous One; Jesus made a way for me to approach God as my Father. What a beautifully life-changing truth! When the disciples asked Christ to teach them how to pray in Matthew 6, He told them to begin with “Our Father.” Prayer is personal because the Father longs to have a personal relationship with His children. He wants us to come to Him constantly with our concerns, burdens, joys, and requests. 

Prayer is personal because the Father longs to have a personal relationship with His children.

At the end of his first letter to the church at Thessalonica, the Apostle Paul gives a simple reminder to the Thessalonians (and us) to anchor themselves in joy and thankfulness and never stop praying:

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, ESV).

Just like all our relationships in life are affected by verbal communication, we are forming our relationship with the Lord with every conversation we have with Him, and we should constantly be lifting our gaze and voices to Him. This means that as we go about our day, we should remember to stay connected to the Vine (John 15), abiding in Him, knowing that we must remain dependent upon Him for all things, and to be thankful and content for His new mercies that are available to us every single day. The distractions are endless throughout the day, and it’s so easy for our eyes and minds to become focused on lesser, temporal things. This isn’t to say that we ignore all of our daily earthly responsibilities to sit in our “prayer closet,” but we seek God in the midst of responsibilities, remembering He is the One who gives us the grace to accomplish the tasks before us. 

His sovereign hand is always guiding us as His beautiful providence unfolds in our life, and we should be careful not to get caught up in our own plans and goals that we neglect coming to Him first. Constant communication with the Lord will build and strengthen our confidence and trust in the Lord as we learn to lean upon Him in all things. Rejoicing always and remaining thankful for another day to get a chance to get to know Him through His Word and glorify His name in all that we say and do. Let us ask the Lord to help us throw off the distractions that would keep us from that glorious partnership with Him.

1 Thess 5:16, inspirational image

Let’s pray:

Father God,
There can be such a blessing that comes from technology and being able to connect with other people all over the world in a moment. But this blessing can also become a major distraction from something so much better, staying connected to You. Lord, I repent for neglecting to keep our communication a top priority and allowing an electronic device to become a hindrance to the spiritual discipline of prayer. You call us to never cease from praying, meaning that we should be continually looking to You every moment of the day. I lift my gaze to You, knowing that is where my help comes from. I lift up my voice to You, knowing that You incline Your ear to me as Your child. Thank You, Jesus, for making a way for me to have a relationship with my Heavenly Father. May I never take that relationship for granted? Help me by Your grace and the power of the Spirit to remember to keep prayer a daily, moment-by-moment lifeline to my Heavenly Father.
In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Musings from Pastor Earl J.

“While it is important to start right,
the real test of your character and Christian life
is how you finish. A faithful life means
keeping your eyes on the goal.”
Tim LaHaye

I spend a lot of time nowadays thinking about what it means to finish well. I know how I started. It was shaky to say the least. If my whole life was going to be like this, then I might as well try to start again. I searched every book I could get my hands on, attended numerous seminars, and sought to pick people’s brains on their perspective of life.

 I spent my early adulthood trying to start over whenever I could. I could find no fulfillment wherever I looked for it. My journey would take me to Chicago, Wichita, the Dallas – Fort Worth metroplex, and back to “home” again. It would take me from a general laborer in a Hardware store, to a student of a new technology (computer science), to a novice chef in a white jacket and funky hat, to a custodian in an elementary school, followed by a period of time acquiring the skills of staying alive on the streets and thoroughfares of a major metroplex to realize until I surrendered to the call of God upon my life no number of re-starts would bring me satisfaction.

So, it was now that I came to realize it isn’t just the start that matters but it is also how you finish. Generally, a lot of time transpires between the start and the finish. But as a follower of Jesus, we are taught to live our lives so that no matter when the finish comes, we have been a faithful disciple of His. To focus on the right things and becoming more consistent  we will travel the final part of our journey in style.

No matter your age the question is, “are your eyes on the prize”. What is your goal in life? Is it financial wellbeing, social status, climbing the corporate ladder, getting married and having a family, or attaining that elusive PhD? My response is, “are your eyes on the prize?” As a Christian we need to visualize the finish line.

Sisters, and brothers consider your finish line.  Regardless of how you have played the “front”, you can play well on the back. Pray for sound strategy that will help you “finish the course.” You can finish strong. In the memorable words of Wally Armstrong, III (born June 19, 1945) an American professional golfer who played on the PGA Tour during the 1970’s and 1980’s — My purpose in life is to know God and to pursue Him at any cost.

AMEN!                                                                                                                                          

Shalom!

A fellow traveler,

Pastor Earl J.

What Does It Mean to be Living Stones?By Rachael Adams

Today’s Bible Verse: “As you come to Him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to Him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in Him will never be put to shame.” 1 Peter 2:4-8

Recently, my family and I spent a day at the lake. We pulled our boat up to the shore for our kids to explore, and before long, they started skipping rocks. As I watched them having fun and enjoying nature, my eyes started to wander the shoreline. I was drawn to the beauty and variety of rocks, layered and weathered over time. If only those rocks could talk, oh the stories they could tell.

Later, I decided to learn what the Bible says about stones and found that the Bible refers to them quite often. The majority of the mentions pertain to altars built for the Lord. An altar is a memorial built to symbolize a place where God met a person or a place to offer a sacrifice. As I studied this topic, I discovered three main kinds: an altar of sacrifice, an altar of remembrance, and an altar of faith.

An Altar of Sacrifice

In my opinion, the most notable example of an altar of sacrifice was when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his long-awaited son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19). Abraham obeyed by making the journey, arranging the wood, and laying his bound son on top. However, at the last second God stopped Abraham and provided a ram in Isaac’s place.

This unfathomable act foreshadows God sacrificing His one and only son Jesus, the lamb of God. In the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus offered Himself on an altar in the shape of a cross. Because of His sacrifice, we no longer have to offer sacrifices as they did in the Old Testament. However, we can offer ourselves to the Lord as living sacrifices and offer the altar of our hearts. In our lives this looks like daily laying aside our own desires to follow Him, putting all our energy and resources at His disposal, and trusting Him to guide us.

1 Peter 2:4-5, inspirational image

An Altar of Remembrance

One of my favorite examples of an altar of remembrance is from Joshua. If you’ll recall his story, he was leading the Israelites into the Promised Land and they needed to cross the Jordan River. But they needed a miracle from the Lord to do it—the river was at flood stage, making the waters turbulent and impossible to navigate. The Lord showed up and helped them cross safely.

But before they crossed all the way over into the Promised Land, God wanted them to go back into the Jordan and gather 12 stones to represent the 12 tribes of Israel. He directed them to build a memorial to commemorate the miracle. The altar was to serve as a reminder for future generations to learn what God had done for them (Joshua 4).

Reading Joshua’s story convicts me when I think about how many times I have prayed for something and God has shown up and answered my prayer and I just moved on to the next prayer. I want to remember, but how often I forget how He has shown up and provided for me.

This prompts me to consider building metaphorical memorials in our hearts to thank Him for being present and answering our pleas. What would it look like to symbolically lay down a memorial for Him to remember His faithfulness? Could we build a figurative altar of remembrance to tell our children and our children’s children what He has done in our lives?

An Altar of Faith

I only found one altar of faith in my research and it was built by King David. Israel was experiencing a plague, so David built an altar to the Lord and prayed on behalf of the land. God answered his plea and the plague stopped (2 Samuel 24). What faith he had to build the altar first in expectation that God would meet their need. As a result of his active belief, God showed up and performed the miracle.

I’m inspired by this kind of faith. There are many areas in my life I need God to show up and act on my behalf. I’m guessing the same is true for you. Could God be asking us to lay down stones in active faith first, as David did, so He will act on our behalf?

Our Altars

Like those rocks along the shoreline of the lake, we are living stones—unique and weathered. Our stories of sacrifice, remembrance, and faith layer generation upon generation showcasing God’s presence and displaying the evidence of His work in our lives.

Peter writes, “As you come to Him, the living Stone, you are like living stones being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5).

With Christ as our Cornerstone, I pray our collective stones tell a beautiful story for His glory along the shorelines of this world. Together the altars we build to Him are also building a holy priesthood for Him, so more stones can be added to the beauty of the shoreline. If only those rocks could talk, oh the stories they could tell—God’s great story that we have the privilege to play a part. What a glorious sight to behold.


Rachael Adams is a writer, speaker, podcaster, and founder of The Love Offering. Her heart’s desire is to encourage women to realize their God-given purpose to live out our faith together by loving God, loving others, and learning to love ourselves. Rachael and her husband live in Kentucky with their two children. Connect with her online at rachaelkadams.com or @rachaeladamsauthor on social media.

Multiplying Disciples

As followers of Jesus, we are all called to fulfill the Great Commission. With that in mind, leading people to Christ and making disciples is the goal that has been set before us. We see throughout the New Testament the pattern and practices of Jesus that call us to be fishers of men and lead a life worthy of the gospel.

The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

In his sermon, “Disciples Multiply,” Bob Ingle speaks on the topic of discipleship. He says,

“Our mission as a church must be clear if it’s going to be accomplished. We are a Gospel-Centered church making disciples of Jesus Christ. That’s who we are and that’s what we do. Our aim is not to get people to make a decision for Christ but to become a disciple of Christ. Many think Christianity is simply saying to God, ”You can have me after I die.” Not true. Being a follower of Jesus means saying, ‘I don’t want my life or my way. You can have all of me right now and forevermore.’ Being a true disciple requires me to abandon ownership and surrender control of my own life and completely give it to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”

What are you doing to help further the kingdom for the transformation of the world?

What is the Gospel?

The Gospel Defined

“And they were preaching the gospel there” (Acts 14:7 NKJV).

What is the gospel? We know we should preach the gospel and live by the gospel, but do we know what the gospel is?

A literal translation of the word “gospel” is good news. Now, sometimes before we can appreciate the Good News, we first have to know the bad news.

Here’s the bad news: We’re all sinners. The Bible says, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23 NLT). And 1 John 1:8 tells us, “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth” (NLT).

If you’re sharing your faith with someone, don’t assume they’ll necessarily know what sin is. In the Bible, we can translate the word “sin” in different ways. We can translate it as “trespass,” which means to cross the line. Another translation comes from the Greek word hamartia, which means “to miss the mark.”

“hamartia” To miss the mark.

Greek

When the Bible says that we’ve sinned or missed the mark, it means that we’ve fallen short of God’s standard for humanity. And what is that standard? It’s perfection.

Are we perfect? No, we aren’t.

That is where Jesus comes in. Because God knew we could not hit this mark, because God knew we could not be perfect people, Jesus died on the cross for our sin. That’s the good news. Romans 5:6 says, “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners” (NLT).

Here’s the first verse every Christian should memorize: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16 NKJV).

That is the gospel in a nutshell. Share it with someone. Let’s not turn the Good News into bad news by the way we deliver it, distort it, or leave out parts of it. Let’s deliver the explosive, dynamic, gospel.

A Prayer to Feel God’s Nearness

By Tiffany Curtis

“The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them. The LORD watches over all who love him” – Psalms 145:18-20

Like many people out there, I live far away from my hometown and blood relatives. I grew up in northeast Ohio and now live in central Virginia, making the distance between myself and my parents, grandparents, cousins, friends, etc. about an 8-hour drive. I have one sibling who also resides in Virginia, but we live just over two hours apart. The distance between us all makes intentional communication extremely important. If we don’t make an effort to reach out to each other, we could potentially go days, weeks, even months without ever speaking to each other.

Thankfully, the technology we have today makes it easy to stay in touch with people, no matter how close or far they are. If I want to talk to my parents, I can easily call or FaceTime them. If I want to check in on a friend, I just send them a text. 

The issue then lies in the moments where I don’t just want to call or text loved ones, but to be in their presence. To have that quality time and comforting feeling that we only get when we are physically in the same place. How great would it be if our technology went one step further, and we could not only call our loved ones, but transport them into our home, car, or coffee shop whenever we needed them. 

Though we may never have the ability to do this with our friends and family here on earth, we do have a Father who is able to meet us anywhere, anytime. All we have to do is call on Him, and He hears us and is present with us. Even when it doesn’t feel like He is near, He is always watching over us, ready to be right at our side when we call on Him. 

Psalm 145:18, inspirational image

But just because He is always near, doesn’t mean we should apathetically sit and wait for Him to show up. Every relationship needs communication in order to thrive, including our relationship with God. Just like with our loved ones, we must put forth the effort to intentionally communicate with the Father. If we stay in constant communication with our friends and family, shouldn’t it be an even bigger priority for us to have this same communication with our Savior? 

Make an intentional effort to speak to the Father today and every day. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate, well-thought-out message; talk to Him about your day, your struggles, your triumphs. God desires to draw near to us just as much as we desire to feel the comfort of His presence.

As Psalms 145:18 says, “The Lord is near to all who call on him.” This is His promise to us – that when we call on Him, He is near. No 8-hour drive, no connecting flights, and not just through a cell phone screen. He is right here, right now. 

Call on Him today – He is already so much nearer than you think!

Let’s Pray:

Lord Jesus,
Thank you for hearing us when we call on your name! How reassuring it is to know that we serve a God who is all-powerful, yet still hears our faintest cries. Thank you that, even when we don’t realize it, you are near to those who love you. You want a relationship with us, which is an amazing thing!

Help us to be intentional when it comes to communicating with you. It is so easy to become apathetic or negligent with our prayer lives, but prayer is our lifeline to your presence! Let us fully realize the importance of regularly talking with you. You are our greatest source of comfort and strength.

Lord, help us to feel your nearness today. No matter where we are or what we’re doing, you have given us the ability to call on you and to feel your presence. Thank you for not being a distant God, but one who desires for us to draw closer and closer as you pursue our hearts.

In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Photo credit: ©SalemDesign/BethanyPyle

Tiffany Curtis is the Faith Editor of Crosswalk.com. She has a B.A. in English with a minor in Business from Liberty University. Her goal is to share Christ’s love and help others grow in their faith through her work as a writer and editor.

Forgiveness.

“Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.”   1 John 3:18 NLT

Thoughts for Today
 Has someone you cared about mistreated you? Hurt you deeply? Even though years may have passed, you might still harbor resentment and anger. And that unforgiveness is most likely affecting other relationships—maybe even your whole outlook on life. Try as you might to forget the offense, you find yourself rewinding and reviewing again and again.

You will never be able to overcome the hurt of the past and move on freely with your life until you forgive the offender.

Consider this …
Determine to be active in your pursuit to forgive. Begin to change your thought pattern about the person. Ask God to help you see this individual with eyes of love, looking beyond fault and seeing need. When you speak about the person, speak of needs and strengths—not offenses and weaknesses. Pray for this person and, if possible, take action to do something nice for him or her.

Forgiveness is not easy, especially when the hurt is deep. It helps to remember what Jesus did for us. Even though we certainly didn’t deserve forgiveness, he died on the cross to pay the price for our sin. He offers us forgiveness as a gift. Let us be willing to offer others the gift of our forgiveness.

Prayer
Father, help me to be active in my pursuit to forgive. Help me to see this person through your eyes. Help me to speak and think good and not bad about him. Help me to offer the gift of my forgiveness. In Jesus’ name …

These thoughts were drawn from … Free to Grow: Overcoming Setbacks and Disappointments by Jimmy Ray Lee, D.Min. The purpose of this group study is to help people overcome disappointments and setbacks that have arrested or are presently hindering their emotional and spiritual development. The group study will help participants understand how to be set free so that they can grow and become all that God has designed them to be. Note: This curriculum was written especially for small groups and we encourage people to use it that way. However, it can also be used effectively as a personal study for individuals or couples.