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Content by Kevin Alton
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  • 03/14/11--12:48: It's March Madness, Baby
  • By Kevin Alton

    Unless this is your first March to live in the United States, you’ve no doubt experienced to some degree the frenzy that surrounds this spectacle: wild predictions, arguments about those predictions, prognostication contests, cinderella stories, unbelievable upsets, and incredible last-second shots. And then there are the tears, cheers, and shirtless, paint-slathered young men coated in the colors of their school. And let’s not forget the people screaming at televisions in support of schools that they once attended—and some in support of schools that they never attended. “Madness” truly is a fitting descriptor for the passion awakened during this month. No other athletic arena boasts the sustained drama surrounding the hopes of so many teams in such a short span of time.

    Driven to Distraction

    Ultimately, the outcome of a sporting event—regardless of the passion surrounding it—truly affects few lives. Even for most players and coaches, within a few years, the real impact on their lives is mild, relegated to fond memories of days gone by. So what does it say about our culture that riots have broken out in the streets of cities across the country over the outcome of athletic competitions?

    Passion is a powerful force. It motivates us. It dictates our level of dedication to tasks and achieving goals. We are most likely to accomplish extraordinary accomplishments in areas about which we are passionate. Scientific breakthroughs, leaps in technology, and flashes of artistic brilliance all are the result of people investing their passions in a certain pursuit.

    What do our passions say about our faith? As Christians we should consider our passions and how they reflect on who we are as children of God and followers of Christ. Do our passions make use of our God-given gifts and abilities? How do we use our passions to do God’s will and advance God’s kingdom on earth? Do our passions glorify God, or are they just a means of self-fulfillment?

    Focus Pocus

    Youth are passionate about any number of things. They’re passionate about the sports they play, the bands they love, their first relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and so on. Adolescence is a time of identity formation, and many teens’ passions change frequently as they have opportunities to try new things and explore new interests.

    As young people discover and pursue their passions, they should be mindful that passion—as well as the time, energy, and resources that we invest in it—is a gift from God. Unchecked, our passions can lead us down some unfortunate paths. They can be a cause for pride, and they can disrupt our relationship with God and others. But if we can focus our passion on God and look for God in all the things that stir our passion, we will draw closer to God and God will show us how we can use our gifts to do Kingdom work in the world.

    This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here. (Photo credit: mvongrue | Flickr)


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  • 05/03/11--09:23: Oh, Mama!
  • By Kevin Alton

    This Sunday is Mothers’ Day. Particularly at church, it seems, this holiday gets carried off with a certain ceremony; people dress differently, wear roses on their lapels, create special crafts in Sunday school, and race with people from other churches to restaurants overbooked with lunch reservations. Those who are fortunate enough to enjoy adult relationships with their mothers gain an extra appreciation of the degree of care they were provided as children. Those who experienced the double blessing of a mother who lived as an example of Christian discipleship often return that blessing upon their own children and are moved to play a similar role in the lives of children who may not be as fortunate. Moms are often a gift that keeps on giving, so to speak.

    It would almost make more sense to reverse the way we celebrate Mother’s Day. Wouldn’t it be nicer to simply cut them loose for a day? Give them twenty-four straight hours to be off of the family radar? No obligations, no schedule: “Mom, just go do whatever you want.” What happens on Mother’s Day stays on Mother’s Day, to borrow a phrase. Our alternative Mother’s Day agenda falls apart on a single point: Most of the moms we celebrate actually want to be with their families on their special day.

    Poof, You’re a Mom

    Mother’s Day in the United States was created in the early twentieth century by Anna Jarvis, in memory of her mother. In 1914, by a joint resolution of both houses of Congress and a proclamation from President Woodrow Wilson, Mother’s Day became an official holiday. But annual celebrations of mothers date back to ancient times. The Romans celebrated Matronalia, a celebration of mothers (and all women). For several centuries Christians in Europe have celebrated Mothering Sunday on the fourth Sunday of Lent. But regardless of what holidays have been established, there have always been mothers who deserve to be celebrated.

    We see these great moms in the pages of Scripture. The Bible gives us story after story about moms who were worth much more than a one-day-per-year celebration. These mothers persevered through travel, famine, oppression—some even through conflict with other moms married to the same husband. Happy Mother’s Day, indeed.

    Scripture introduces us to Sarah and Elizabeth, two women who were childless and past their childbearing years. The news of their pregnancies (see Genesis 18:1-14 and Luke 1:5-24, respectively) came as a shock to their families. God scolded Sarah when she laughed in disbelief at the news. And Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah was rendered mute for nine months after he questioned the angel Gabriel’s prophecy that Elizabeth would give birth to a son. The Bible also tells us about Mary, who wasn’t yet married when she learned that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. The news of Mary’s pregnancy not only jeopardized her relationship with her future husband but also her life. According to Deuteronomy 22:13-21, she could have been stoned to death. All of these women demonstrated incredible faith throughout their pregnancies and into the lives of their children: Isaac, John the Baptist, and Jesus.

    Thanks, Mom

    We can learn to be open and faithful to God’s leading from the lives and examples of biblical mothers such as Sarah, Mary, and Elizabeth. Just think of the holes there would be in our faith story if these moms had refused to follow God’s leading. We never know what impact our spiritual obedience will have down the road; there is no lack of stories about faithful people who never saw the fruit of their actions. But we have in Scripture the model of obeying, trusting, and following God, even if we don’t know what the future will bring. Sometimes that obedience is its own reward. Thanks, Mom(s).

    This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.


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  • 06/14/11--08:27: The Big Reveal
  • By Kevin Alton

    In February, a years-old rumor came to fruition: The iPhone 4 came to Verizon Wireless. Until then the iPhone had been bound by an exclusivity contract with AT&T. Those who wanted the device but didn’t already have an AT&T mobile plan had two choices— switch to AT&T, or wait. And wait. And listen to the rumor mill, which every six months or so had indicated that another company was going to get the iPhone.

    The first real sign that change was coming (and that there was hope for non-AT&T users) came in 2010, when Verizon announced that it would be offering plans with Apple’s new iPad. The eventual release of a Verizon iPhone seemed inevitable. And a few weeks ago, it finally became a reality. The Verizon iPhone was released to the public on February 10.

    I Want to Go There

    The corporate marketing machine is really good at what it does—making us want. The Internet tech blogs have been buzzing for years about the possible release of a non-AT&T iPhone. By February, cellular customers were already clamoring for the new phone, many preparing to pay exorbitant early termination fees on their existing cell phone contracts in order to be free to move to Verizon to get the new device. “It’s going to be amazing”—or so they anticipated.

    And in truth, it is a cool phone. But it is just a phone. And there is no way to predict how this new relationship between Apple and Verizon will turn out. It may end up being a great arrangement that results in millions of happy customers. But what if, after a few months, we find that Verizon’s highly touted network can’t hold up under the strain of data demands from its new customer base?

    We like to get excited about new things and new possibilities. But often our excitement leads to inflated expectations. We want things so badly that we aren’t prepared for the possibility that our expectations might fall flat. The problem is that these expectations are all about us and our priorities: what we want, what gets us excited, what will make our lives easier. And once we’ve bought into our own expectations, we have trouble accepting anything that contradicts them.

    The Truth Will Set You Free

    The problem with following our inflated expectations is that we end up relying on a notoriously unreliable source: ourselves. Job expected that someone like himself, who had been righteous and faithful, shouldn’t have to endure so much suffering. Jonah couldn’t imagine why God would save the wicked Ninevites, even after they repented (see Jonah 4). Martha expected that Jesus would scold her sister Mary for sitting and listening to him instead of helping with housework (see Luke 10:38-42). In all of these cases, human expectations didn’t match God’s plans and priorities.

    We can all remember times when real life didn’t live up to our expectations. The shiny new gadget that we expected to solve all our problems isn’t as great as we hoped it would be; the party that we expected to be perfect didn’t go as planned; our moment in the spotlight didn’t bring the praise and adoration we anticipated. In most of these situations, our expectations were based on our wants and priorities and not on God’s will.

    As Christians we are called to live differently, to live beyond the walls of our personal desires and expectations. We must resist the temptation to let our expectations run wild and instead train ourselves to focus on what God expects. When we do this, we will be able to see how God is at work during times of both excitement and disappointment.

     

    This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here. (Photo credit: John Karakatsanis via Flickr)


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  • 07/04/11--08:24: Free to Be God's People
  • By Kevin Alton

    There’s an old joke about the Fourth of July: Do they have a fourth of July in England? Occasionally you’ll catch someone off-guard with this one, but the answer should be immediately obvious: Of course they do. They just don’t celebrate it. It’s easy to forget sometimes, but the weekend we now schedule with cookouts, fireworks, and baseball games commemorates a bloody war on our home soil, as residents of the thirteen American colonies fought for freedom from a country that sought to tax them without representation and to govern them without giving them a voice.

    The decision by our country’s founders to rebel against the Kingdom of Great Britain couldn’t have been an easy one. The colonists had left behind other homes in other lands. Many of them left behind families. To sever the relationship with Britain meant, for many colonists, forever separating themselves from the people and places of those memories, establishing the future as “here” and the past as “there.” It meant freedom, to be sure—but that freedom carried a hefty price tag.

    Set Free

    In the heart of every middle and high school student there’s a churning. Some feel it more deeply or struggle more violently with that churning than others; some may even try to resist it. But each of them is beginning to wrestle with a desire to be free. As they develop unique identities and define themselves apart from their parents, young people long to set their own rules and make their own decisions. The freedom to do what they want to do when they want to do it certainly sounds appealing but, as adults, even we know that freedom has its boundaries.

    The driver’s license has long been a symbol of teenage freedom and independence. But a driver’s license isn’t a magic ticket to go anywhere and do anything on the road. There are rules and laws to follow, gas and maintenance to pay for, and curfews to obey. The freedom that comes with driving is great, but it also comes with responsibility and requires discipline.

    Free From, Free To

    As Christians we know that, through Christ, we are free from sin and death. Like the freedom that our country’s founders sought, our freedom had a cost. Christ died on the cross, paying for our freedom. Through the price has been paid, our freedom still requires responsibility on our part. God calls us to be messengers of freedom by working to free those who are enslaved by poverty, despair, and sickness and by telling people the good news of freedom through Christ. We are freed from sin and freed to do the work of God’s kingdom.

    This weekend, as people around the United States host barbecues, attend family and church gatherings, and light up the sky with fireworks, there will be much talk of freedom. We will celebrate our country’s independence and the liberties that we have as a result. For those of us who love and follow Christ, this holiday is an opportunity to reflect on the priceless freedom that we have gained through his death and resurrection and how we can use that freedom to glorify God.

    This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.


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  • 09/02/11--11:54: Load Up!
  • By Kevin Alton

    It's Labor Day weekend! Our last hurrah before bidding adieu to summer once again. Some families take the opportunity to head out of town for a brief end-of-summer vacation. We have such a love/hate relationship with summer vacations. We don’t want to go anywhere close to home, naturally; so we have to spend at least one day driving to our destination. And while we want to leave the routine of our day-to-day lives behind, we also tend to bring an awful lot of it with us.

    The “Are we there yet?” part of vacation is something we merely tolerate. The “while we’re there” part of vacation is what brings us back year after year, giving us memories drenched in sunshine and good times that we’ll treasure for the rest of our lives. Unfortunately, a lot of the joy wears off on the way home. If it takes a day to get there, it seems to take a least a day and a half to get back.

    When we’re children, all the work that goes into getting ready for a vacation is lost on us. Parents usually have to work extra hard at their jobs before a vacation to make up for the time that will be lost while they’re gone. Grown-ups also have to make reservations, plan routes, find fun and memorable things to do, write down things to pack, check items off that list, ensure that pets and plants will be cared for, make sure that everyone has everything they need in their suitcases, and load the suitcases. Pile in, kids!

    Joining In

    As we grow older and more mature, we become more invested in family vacations. No longer are we satisfied with a “vacation.” We begin to ask, “A vacation where?” Our maturity gives us some voice (though probably not as much as we’d like) into the family’s vacation destination and plans for what to do when we’ve arrived. We know exactly what to take to keep us entertained in the car—an MP3 player, books, video games, something on which we can watch movies. We may have even packed our own suitcases.

    Maturity means preparation not only for family vacations but also in other areas of our lives. We learn to think ahead, take stock of the situation, and get ourselves ready. But there remains one area of our lives for which so many of us still neglect to prepare: our spirituality. Should we approach our walk with God and relationship with Christ with any less forethought than with which we approach a summer vacation?

    Getting Ready

    Sometimes we lose sight of our need for spiritual preparation because we fail to see the immediacy of our spiritual needs. We wrongly view spiritual things as “there when we need them” instead of as things that require our constant attention. In reality, our hearts and minds should be in a constant state of “getting ready” spiritually. Each day brings many encounters with God and many opportunities to answer God’s call.

    When these arise, we shouldn’t be content to be the kid on vacation, along for the ride. Instead we should be prepared to embrace the encounters and answer the call.

    Living intentionally has become such a popular Christian catch phrase that its meaning often gets lost. Nonetheless, it is still an important concept. As Christians, we must be intentional about our faith, staying connected with God through prayer and worship and drawing on the guidance and strength of the Holy Spirit, so that we are always prepared to answer God’s call and live according to God’s will.

     

    This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.


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  • 09/21/11--13:22: Made of Time
  • By Kevin Alton

    Sarah has a lot going on. She plays in three school sports a year, each of which involves daily practices during the season and regular workouts in the off-season. As a favor to her, the coaches in two of those sports encouraged her to participate in summer leagues to work on various skill sets that would enhance her performance when the school season came back around. Apart from sports she’s a bit of a drama buff, and her academic schedule isn’t exactly a picnic either. She’s taking multiple AP classes, hoping to test out of some college requirements. Next year she’s considering dual-enrollment at a local college. She’s learned that time is precious and doesn’t want to waste time now OR later when it comes to her college education.

    Sarah loves her family. They support her in all that she does and, until recently, spent most nights transporting her to all of her various practices and play rehearsals. Most of their “family time” is reserved for family vacations, which usually are trips to visit more family. She also has a boyfriend and tries to spend at least an evening every couple of weeks with him. Life is full, but she’s learned to handle the busyness. She just wishes she didn’t feel so distracted.

    Lost in the Shuffle

    There are days when Sarah misses the simplicity of her childhood. There are days when Sarah misses the closeness she used to feel with her family and with God. When it comes to church, hers has never been a there-every-time-thedoors- are-open family, but church used to be a bigger part of their lives. Sarah knows that it’s possible to be spiritual and connect with God outside of the actual walls of the church and that going to church every week would make her even busier. But she also knows that, as the church has become less a part of her life, it has become more difficult for her to focus on her relationship with God and God’s will for her life. Other things have become more of a priority.

    Sometimes Sarah tries to reconnect with God. She’ll do an online devotional or take a break from her homework and read a few chapters of the Bible. Every now and then, she’ll even go to a youth group meeting or Sunday school. But even though she’s friends with many of the youth at her church, she feels distant from them when it comes to “God stuff.” What happened?

    Reconnecting

    Sarah isn’t a real person, but her story is a familiar one. Like many of us Sarah never intended to be so busy nor to drift away from church. She just allowed the things in her life to pull at her until she was pulled apart. The same thing happens to many Christians. Few stand up and say, “I declare this day that sports are more important to me than my God,” or “I have decided to leave the church so I can spend more time focused on my schoolwork.” Instead things just happen. We commit to one activity after another and, before long, we’ve lost sight of what is most important.

    Many churches have services in which worshipers remember their baptisms. The purpose of these rituals is not for people to recall literally the day on which they were baptized. Instead the purpose is for people to remember that they are baptized—that they are children of God redeemed by Christ and part of Christ’s body, the church. All Christians need these moments in which we remember who we are and whose we are. When we remember who we are, we will remember to make time for God before filling our schedule with other things.


    This post is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.


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  • 11/22/11--10:47: Block Party
  • By Kevin Alton

    On September 17, 2011, the movement called “Occupy Wall Street” began in Zuccotti Park (now called Liberty Plaza), located in New York’s financial district. In the weeks since, similar demonstrations have broken out across the nation and around the globe. In the United States the protest focuses on the disparity of wealth between the country’s wealthiest 1 percent and the remaining 99 percent. According to the Occupy Wall Street Facebook page, the New York City general assembly (of Occupy) accepted a document detailing the Declaration of the Occupation of New York. That document asserts that the primary motivator behind the movement is dissatisfaction with the level of influence that corporations have over our government and, by extension, over us.

    The document closes with an encouragement to other communities and gives loose guidance for local participation: “We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power. Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.”

    What Would Jesus Occupy?

    Some Christians have embraced the “Occupy” movement; others are wary of the movement’s motives. The ability to freely disagree is a beautiful privilege that we enjoy in the United States and, if we’re honest, one that on most days we take for granted. It’s not unusual to see people with signs either in favor of or against something; by law, even things that offend the sensibilities of the majority of our citizens are permissible. Our country is a wonderful place to live. Nonviolent public demonstrations have long history both here and elsewhere in the world. Ancient Jewish people protested against Pontius Pilate when he installed idolatrous images in Jerusalem. Gandhi led the Indian people in protests against unfair British taxation.

    Nonviolent demonstrations were instrumental in the United States Civil Rights Movement. Recently the Tea Party movement (protesting government spending) and the Arab Spring movement (protesting corrupt regimes in the Arab world) have taken to the streets to draw attention to their cause.

    Most of the “occupiers” in the United States believe that something about what it means to be “America” has been compromised and needs to be fixed. And while opinions about what is going on in New York and elsewhere vary, there is something admirable about people speaking up for their convictions.

    Scripture is filled with examples of people who were called or compelled to speak out. But not all of them were willing at first. Some needed words; some needed motivation; and some needed assistance. But over and over we see people who take a stand on behalf of God.

    Our Turn

    As we minister to young people, we need to help them identify beliefs and convictions and causes that are worth their speaking out. Sometimes speaking out is easy and obvious. But other times it is challenging, uncomfortable, and even dangerous. But as Christians we must remember that we are not called to lives of comfort or safety; we are called to follow Christ.

    Youth need to know that their convictions matter. Passion is a gift, and they shouldn’t fall into the trap of believing that nobody cares what they think or that their opinion doesn’t carry any weight. Their beliefs are important, and they need to feel empowered to speak out.


    This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.


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  • 12/22/11--05:44: The Re-Gift
  • By Kevin Alton

    Merry Christmas. The gift exchange is at the heart of many of our Christmas celebrations. Among close friends we are often surprised by sentimental and carefully chosen presents. Among immediate family we often give and receive gifts that have been requested specifically; and if we happen to get clothes that don’t fit, we don’t hesitate to ask for the receipt.

    Nice for Somebody

    Gift exchanges with other groups—distant relatives and acquaintances at work, school, or church—take us into the wonderland of presents that we don’t necessarily need or want. Suppose you’re a well-documented golf enthusiast; there’s no simpler gift than a dozen balls, a gift about the size of the package you’ve just been handed by your Secret Santa. Oh goodie, it’s three miniature LED flashlights. Yes, I see how they have tripod legs. Fantastic.

    When people don’t know one another well, they aren’t likely to choose meaningful gifts. They aren’t likely to know one another’s music and reading preferences or clothing style. Enter the re-gift. Instead of forcing themselves to find a use for those LED flashlights, they take them home, rewrap them, and give them away at the next Christmas party.

    It’s the Thought That Counts

    Re-gifting makes a certain amount of sense, but it can lead to hurt feelings. Ever been at a Christmas party when a re-gift surfaces in front of the person who originally gave it? Awkward. “But I bought that for you . . .”

    Of course, none of us have to participate in gift exchanges. And if we find ourselves with a bad attitude toward swapping presents with peers, maybe we should opt out. Or, instead of passing along the gift to another acquaintance in another gift exchange, we could make an effort to find someone who would truly appreciate it and use it. Somebody surely must like scarves with plush reindeer heads on each end. Otherwise no company would make millions of them.

    Sometimes we bring our attitude toward gifts that we think missed the mark into our spiritual lives. God gave all of us talents, abilities, and resources that we can use to glorify God and serve others. But we focus so much on ourselves that we pass up opportunities to do God’s work: “Somebody will help that family in need; it doesn’t have to be me.” “I’d love to help, but I’m busy right now. There will be other times.” And so we hand off these opportunities to someone else. When we do so, are we re-gifting what God has given us?

    Give by Receiving

    If we find ourselves choosing whether to seize an opportunity God has given us or to pass it along to someone else, we’ve probably adopted some bad habits. Christian discipleship is not about picking and choosing when and where we’ll plug in to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Instead, it’s a life of gratitude in which we embrace all the gifts that God gives us and then put those gifts to use.

    Those of us who work with youth must help them identify the gifts, resources, and opportunities that God has given them. We need to affirm and support their talents, show them where God is at work in the world and ways they can become involved with that work, and teach them the importance of responding to opportunities as they arise. Re-gifting may be appropriate for that video game that you already have but that someone else would probably enjoy, but it isn’t appropriate to pass along the gifts God has given us. We are uniquely gifted by the Holy Spirit. Instead of re-gifting, we need to re-learn to receive.


    This post is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.


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  • 03/16/12--11:53: Take a Vow
  • By Kevin Alton

    The recent movie The Vow explores a situation that would be a nightmare for any married couple: Following a violent car accident, a young woman wakes in the hospital with no memory of her husband—no marriage, no dating, no falling in love. She simply has no idea who he is. In her mind she is still in college and has never met the man who claims to be her husband.

    For one couple the horror was real. The Vow is based on the true story of Kim and Krickitt Carpenter, who suffered just such an ordeal in 1993. Their journey of faith and commitment involved falling in love again through months of therapy and counseling. Krickitt had to learn to love a man she no longer knew; Kim had to learn to love the woman his wife had become. Both clung to the sincerity of the vows they had taken, wanting to do everything possible to honor the covenant they had made. Three years later they married again, not to replace the vows from the first marriage but to give back to Krickitt the memory of having made that commitment.

    It Is What It Is

    The Carpenters’ story is a powerful one, particularly in an age where the divorce rate hovers around 50 percent. Every day people take vows and make promises that they don’t really intend to keep. These promises range from clicking on user agreements without actually reading the terms and conditions to taking the vows of church membership without giving much thought to what the vows actually entail.

    Too often we aren’t willing to dig in and stick it out through hard times to honor an agreement or promise. If things don’t work out, we might say, “It is what it is,” and move on. Why is it so hard to commit when we commit?

    Manufacturers have taken note of the lifespan of our interest in commitment. Your grandparents bought a certain brand of tools or appliances because they had a lifetime replacement guarantee. Several decades ago people judged the things they purchased according to how long they would last and how easily they could be maintained. Contrast that with the disposable nature of much of what we purchase today; throwaway razors, single-use contact lenses, and disposable diapers represent the change in how we approach life. Some of that change is good; but what does it say about our concept of commitment when we willingly sign a two-year contract for a cell phone that we already know we’ll probably only want for half that long?

    All In

    We may never reverse the tide of consumer culture, but when it comes to spiritual things, we need to reengage the idea of long-term commitment. Entire congregations pledge lifetime devotion to babies at their baptisms. Are the churches as committed to the little ones they baptize as they say they are? Young people coming through confirmation make similar lifelong vows. How well do they understand the weight of those promises? Do they understand the difference between saying, “I will so order my life,” and, “You know, unless it doesn’t work out”?

    Promises were once bound in covenant form, much like the covenant expressed in the liturgy of baptism or joining a local congregation. The Bible is full of covenants between God and God’s people. Scripture shows us how God is always faithful to God’s promises and how we often fall short of being faithful to ours. God’s Word also reminds us that a covenant is a two-way commitment and that we have a responsibility to that commitment. Too often the church is reluctant to ask young people to make big commitments. So many of them are overcommitted already. But youth, like all of us, need to know that God has already made a commitment to us and that, in return, God deserves an honest response.


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  • 07/24/12--14:01: Jesus' Birthday Wish List
  • By Kevin Alton

    What do you get for somebody who has everything?

    Choosing Christmas gifts is one of the most torturous social exercises known to humankind. It’s our own fault that it has become that way; we’ve so numbed ourselves to simple gratitude that we make people jump through hoops just to give us something. What if the gift I buy is too big? What if they spend more on their gift for me than I do on my gift for them? And the granddaddy question of gift-giving: What if they don’t like it?

    Here’s the answer. It was a gift. You cross them off your list of people that you give gifts to and warn your friends about their lack of gratitude. Oh, wait, we don’t do that. We try harder the next year, probably even worrying more about it.

    There almost aren’t words for how far from the “spirit of Christmas” our gift giving and getting have brought us. For example, there wasn’t ever supposed to be a “spirit of Christmas.” It was just supposed to be the new way to live. But instead, we’ve sold ourselves a lie at Christmas. It was easy to do, too; we like the lie. It makes Christmas about us.

    To unpack the lie at Christmas, we’re forced to use our own Christmas terminology to see if we can sift some meaning out of the holiday. Which leads to an unusual question: What would Jesus want for Christmas? Not baby Jesus; this-year Jesus. It seems a shame to leave him off the gift list.

    My wife Britta and I have a delightfully imperfect history of gift giving—occasionally forgetting, sometimes overdoing, at times simply agreeing to let a holiday pass ungifted. I remember once when we were dating, I arrived to pick her up for a Valentine’s date. I was invited in; I gave her flowers and sat down. She went back to her room and produced a wrapped gift and a card for me. I opened the gift, which was a CD I already had in my collection (a detail I kept to myself). I read the card. Hugs. And then she asked: “Where is my present?” I had no present. Tears. A long discussion followed, ending with a list of holidays at which we, as a couple, should expect to give and receive a gift and a card from each other.

    In my defense, I’ll point out that it was our fifth Valentine’s Day together, and there had never been presents, nor cards. Always flowers, always a date; never cards, never presents.

    It gets better. Three months later, in May, my birthday came and went with no card or present from Britta. In fact, there was no “happy birthday” or any other acknowledgment that I had aged. I was puzzled, but I let it slide. I waited nearly two months, and finally in mid-July I asked, “Hey, umm, it’s no big deal, really, but, umm… did you forget my birthday?”

    Tears again. She hadn’t forgotten it. She wasn’t sure what to get me, and then as my birthday got closer she realized she didn’t have any money, and she was embarrassed not to have a gift after making such a big deal of things at Valentine’s Day. So she did the only sensible thing: stand very still and hope that I forgot my own birthday.

    It was never about the gifts. Britta just wanted to know that she was special to me, highlighted by a little extra care a few times a year. And I just wanted to know that she loved me. We could have made it about the gifts; we could have decided how many and what kind and how much to spend. But somewhere in there, we probably would have forgotten that love started the whole thing.

    Which is what we all do, to some degree, at Christmas. When we give Christmas gifts to people, do we intend for those gifts to show our love or Christ’s love? Sometimes we can do both, but I think when most of us give gifts, we get the majority of the credit.

    How can we give ourselves back to God at Christmas?

    Finding Jesus

    The parables of Jesus provide fascinating insights into the mind of Jesus. In them we walk through his deeper motivations in ministry, digging in to what really mattered to Jesus. In Matthew 25:31-46, a passage we looked at in the previous chapter, Jesus got to the heart of how we are to live in service to each other. In this parable, Jesus welcomed a group into his kingdom, thanking them for all the times they fed him, clothed him, cared for him when he was sick, and visited him while he was in prison. The group was grateful but confused. “When did we do those things?” they asked. Jesus pointed out that anytime they did those things for people in need, it was as though they were doing the things for him.

    Then Jesus turned and rejected another group, because they did not come to his aid to feed him, clothe him, care for him, or visit him in prison. Equally surprised, the group asked when they had ignored Jesus on each of those occasions. Jesus’ answer still cuts deeply: Anytime we do not do those things for someone in need, it is as though we have not done them for Jesus. Ouch.

    Don’t sink into a deep depression about all the times throughout the year that you’ve left Jesus hungry, without clothing, sick, or unvisited. Just look ahead to this coming Christmas. You’ll find loads of opportunities all around you. There are hungry people, people in need of shelter and clothing, people who are sick and in prison.

    Christmas, as we’ve made it, no longer carries the message of God’s love for people in need. If that’s how we as Christians intend to leave it, then it’s probably time to close up shop. It’s one thing to stop caring about “the least of these”; it’s quite another to make a mockery of the process in doing so.

    At this point, it’s probably too late to go back the way we came. Christmas no longer fits in the box we’re carrying, so maybe it’s time to find a new box.

    Our Christmas is all about us; the coming Christ child is all about everyone else. Our Christmas emphasizes a warm, familiar story; Jesus emphasizes a hard look at how we’ve been living our lives for ourselves and how we can change to be more open to others. Our Christmas says, “It just wouldn’t be Christmas without…”; while Jesus reminds us that no one should ever be without.

    We’ve got to peel back the layers we’ve added, not to get to the center but simply to get rid of the layers. We’re in a time of year when people are taking stock of things and gearing up to make New Year’s resolutions. Think about the kinds of things people usually give up or commit to: less spending, less eating, more exercise, and on and on. Does that sound anything like the existence we’re called to as disciples of Jesus—capping off a year’s worth of overeating and self-indulgence with a year-end selfishness supernova before “getting back to the basics” of not gorging ourselves to death and joining a gym in January? Well done, good and faithful servant.

    I don’t remember what year it was that my wife and I decided we weren’t going to do Santa Claus for our two boys, Grey and Penner. It seems like Grey was probably three going on four, and Penner would have been too young to care. We knew it would be an uphill battle with a lot of people, family included. In case you’re unaware of it, people get really uptight when you take away one of society’s sacred cows, especially if it’s one where for some reason we’ve decided it’s okay to lie to children. I remember my wife Britta saying at one point, “You know, I think it would be easier if we just told people we were converting to Judaism.”

    My argument for doing away with Santa was pretty simple. Setting aside all the consumer greed and corporate manipulation for a moment, I was concerned that when our boys became old enough to realize we’d made up the nice man nobody ever sees who brings them gifts at Christmas, they might also start wondering if we’d made up the God nobody ever sees who supposedly loves them. Or worse, that they’d project their ideas about Santa onto God, making God the invisible gimmie-machine.

    Britta has developed a better and less cynical approach. (It’s like a superpower she has.) She’s the children’s director at the same church where I work, and she regularly bites her tongue to keep from accidentally throwing Santa under the bus in front of our church kids. Britta had been trying to figure out how to deal with the issue of Santa Claus at church, when she heard a story that she found helpful. It seems that some parents had brought their family to America, and they were wondering if they should speak English at home and teach their native tongue to their kids as a second language. They received some great advice: At home, speak only in your native tongue, because your kids will hear English everywhere else.

    Perfect. Applied to the children at church, it means that during Christmas our leaders only talk about Jesus. The kids will get Santa everywhere else—even at home, for most of them.

    Can you imagine a Christmas that was just about Jesus? That would be a different road. A real Christmas miracle. Let’s find new ways to reach out to Jesus. It’s all he wants for Christmas.

     

    This article is excerpted from A Different Kind of Christmas: Living and Giving Like Jesus, a companion study to Christmas is Not Your Birthday, by Mike Slaughter (Abingdon, 2011).


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  • 10/12/12--07:36: The Big One
  • By Kevin Alton

    Somewhere on some sports team’s schedule at your local high school is a game that is considered “the big game.” If the team loses all the rest of its games but wins that one, so be it. Every sport at the school probably has a game like that in its season, but there’s usually one that trumps all the others and unifies the school (and maybe even the community) around this game. Because we have to beat them. People make signs, and student athletes lose sleep.

    It gets stronger and stranger as you go. Now that we’re well into the college football season, you’ve probably experienced the effects of rivalries firsthand. People attend an educational institution for four years (or less), or grow up in a household devoted to that school; swear a lifetime allegiance to the school’s teams, colors, and mascot; and develop an abiding hatred of that school’s rival.

    High school and college rivalries divide states and communities, and national television fuels classic rivalries in professional sports: Yankees vs. Red Sox; Bears vs. Packers; Lakers vs. Celtics; Cubs vs. the postseason. Millions of dollars are made as two teams battle for bragging rights, and maybe a better position in their division or conference. No diseases are cured; no lives are saved.

    A Time for War

    Rivalry isn’t limited to sports. It seems to be woven into the very fabric of our being. We continually measure up one another, quietly (or not so quietly) vying to best whomever we confront. Along the way we’ll meet someone whose skills or talents or other points of measurement do not match our own—some who exceed us and some for whom we are a reasonable match. This last group is the most exciting. They can push us to our limits, making us better, or—if we let them—crazy with competitiveness.

    Scripture is packed with stories of rivalries. From the sibling rivalries and warring nations of the Old Testament to the beautiful chaos of the early church, our Bible reveals time after time where the people of God encountered, and sometimes even created, rivalries. Some of these conflicts ended up being destructive, tearing apart families and nations. But in some cases, as a result of the experience, the people involved in these rivalries grew in faith.

    Live and Let Live

    Scripture, in addition to giving us accounts of rivalry, offers us guidance for responding to such conflicts. The Bible advises us not to provoke conflict. Of course, whether or not we get mixed up in a rivalry that turns ugly is often beyond our control. In these situations we can learn from the example of David, who became a rival to King Saul. Even though Saul had tried to kill David on multiple occasions, when David had an opportunity to kill Saul, he refused. Jesus had plenty to teach about rivalry and conflict. In addition to his well-known commandment to love our enemies (see Matthew 5:44), he taught his followers to resolve conflicts with rivals face to face (see Matthew 18:15). Paul echoed this teaching in his Letter to the Ephesians when he told early Christians not to “let the sun set” on their anger (Ephesians 4:26b). As somebody’s mom has no doubt said (more than once!), we should “be the bigger person” when it comes to rivalry and personal confrontation and competitiveness. It’s true that we can’t always avoid conflict and rivalry, but we can learn to let it shape who we are instead of letting it become who we are. When we feel ourselves being drawn into rivalry or competition, we can begin to recognize when it’s all in good fun or when someone could get hurt.


    This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.


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  • 09/05/13--08:58: Gone, Baby, Gone
  • By Kevin Alton

    Last month a post on CNN’s Belief Blog by popular Christian writer Rachel Held Evans sparked a firestorm of online response and real-world discussion about why members of the Millennial Generation—young adults with birthdates between the early 1980’s and early 2000’s—are leaving the church when they graduate high school. Reaction to her article has varied from support to strong disagreement, but the reality exists: Many Millennials disconnect from the church when they enter college, even if just for a short period of time; and members of the Millennial Generation are more likely than members of any other generation in recent history to have no church affiliation and less likely to say that religion is important in their lives.

    One of Evans’s strongest points is that this generation, even more so than the “Generation X” that preceded them, is torn between “their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.” As she has examined youth and young adults’ departure from the church, Evans has found that churches often take the wrong approach to engaging younger generations by investing in being cool, trendy, or contemporary. But, as Evans and many other commentators have argued, Millennials don’t want the show—they’re begging for some reality.

    A World of Gray

    Today’s youth and young adults aren’t looking to be entertained, and they’re not looking for easy answers. If the church only gives its youth black-and-white answers, they won’t be prepared for the very gray world they will discover as they become adults. They will be exposed to ideas and perspectives that will cause them to question everything they’ve been taught about God and what it means to be a follower of God (if they haven’t been already). They will get to know plenty of good, intelligent people who have very different worldviews (if they don’t already), prompting these reactions: “My roommate seems like a perfectly reasonable person. Couldn’t she be right, too?” “This group of friends seems willing to wrestle with some difficult issues and, at the end of the night, we all still leave as friends. Why wasn’t church like this?” Young people don’t necessarily want to leave the church. Often their faith just hasn’t grown in such a way that it can outlast the challenges that Millennials will inevitably face.

    But if it doesn’t come down just to a style of worship or a high-tech program, what can the church do to help young people build a faith that can thrive in all circumstances? The answer may be simple. Instead of supplying product—such as contemporary music or trendy social activities—maybe we should focus on helping youth establish a foundation and on providing a safe environment in which youth can build on that foundation.

    Go Your Own Way

    The Millennial Generation is calling out the church. Through their words and their actions, they’re saying that they need more than what they’ve been offered. They need the church to nurture in them a faith that can stand up to scrutiny but that also allows them room to ask questions.

    Ultimately, each individual person makes his or her own decision about faith. No parent, pastor, youth minister, or Sunday school teacher can make that decision for another person. Everyone in the church, and especially every person who works closely with youth and young adults, must take these needs seriously and consider how we can support and nurture our young people so that they are equipped to handle whatever comes their way in life.


    This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.


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  • 05/29/14--09:06: The Future Is Now
  • By Kevin Alton

    Stephen Hawking is worried about the future. When Stephen Hawking is worried about the future, we all should be worried about the future. In an online article posted May 1, the brilliant physicist urged caution and strict attention to possible future outcomes of creating artificial intelligence—technology that is capable of thinking for itself (see article).

    His concerns largely relate to whether or not artificial intelligence will still be able to be controlled by humans. If not, every science fiction movie you’ve ever seen suddenly comes into play as a potential reality. Technology capable of improving itself could quickly eclipse human ability not only to control it but also to understand it. With near consensus now on the negative impact of humanity on our environment, there’s a growing awareness that we could easily be considered by an advanced intelligence as a threat to the planet.

    The Implications

    Could creating artificial intelligence be our greatest and final achievement? The implications of that question are unsettling. All of the incredible advances in technology to date are the result of human intelligence. Is it truly possible that we could create something that can think and perform beyond the limits of the human form? Why would such a technology answer to us, a clearly inferior “life form,” riddled with greed, selfishness, and gluttony? And why on earth is it necessary to face a doomsday warning in order to address those issues as a culture? As disciples of Jesus, shouldn’t we be working tirelessly toward Christian perfection already?

    The Ripple Effect

    It’s easy to walk through life believing that our individual decisions don’t carry a lot of weight or have noticeable consequences. But increasingly we’re living in a time when the impact of an individual matters, and often matters significantly. For good or bad, our personal choices have ripple effects that we need to consider when making them.

    Question of the Day: If you could invent a smart device to make your life better, what would it be?

    Focal Scriptures: Genesis 3:1-24; Mark 10:17-31; Acts 9:1-22

    For a complete lesson on this topic visit LinC here!


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  • 06/24/14--09:11: When I was your age
  • By Kevin Alton, LinC (Living in Christ)

    For the most part, everybody always wants to be just ahead of where they are in life. Someone ahead of us in age, capability, or accomplishment catches our eye and we want to be like him or her. This isn’t always, or even usually, a jealousy thing. Very often it’s simply motivation for us. We want to be older. Better. We also want those same people to affirm our success when we get there, which presents its own set of issues.

    Moving Through Life

    The problem is that when our goal-setting hinges on the satisfaction that we think we’ll feel when we’ve achieved the high ground of those around us, we’re moving through life without a complete perspective. We don’t know the sorrows and losses of the people we’re chasing. More importantly, any part of us that needs a pat on the back when we “arrive” will quickly discover that, when we hit our goal, our targets have been moved: Those people are now older, more capable, and more accomplished. How can we ever catch up?

    It is good to set goals, but setting goals to impress others generally ends in dissatisfaction. If we can’t be satisfied by our own journey, regardless of the opinion of others, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. As Christians, if we move our goals outside of our relationship with God, we’re setting ourselves up for an unfulfilling life.

    Moving Toward God

    Culturally speaking it’s a difficult task to refocus our lives on God if our attention has wandered elsewhere. This is true at any age, but particularly as a youth when the influencing voices seem to be shouting from all corners.

    Coaches, teachers, band directors, parents, colleges, and even at times the church can seem to demand more than one person can possibly give. But if we want to find peace and true fulfillment in life, we have to begin to move ourselves in a God-focused direction.

    Question of the Day: What major achievement are you looking forward to next?

    Talk Topic Scriptures: Exodus 4:1-15; Judges 6:33-40; Matthew 19:16-22; 1 Timothy 4:12-16

    For a complete lesson on this topic visit LinC here!


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  • 07/29/14--09:15: Safe as houses
  • By Kevin Alton, LinC (Living in Christ)

    Bigger is always better, right? Not if you ask an increasing number of people gravitating toward smaller real estate. The Wiki page for the tiny house movement (also known as the small house movement) states that in the United States, as of 2007, the average new, single-family home had grown to nearly 2,500 square feet. This figure was up significantly from the 1,700 square feet average from the late 1970’s—in spite of the fact that the average family size was less in 2007 than it had been in 1978.

    Tiny houses tip the scales back in the other direction. To be considered a true “tiny house” the structure must be less than 1,000 square feet, yet rarely does a tiny home exceed 500 square feet. Tiny houses are used as permanent residences, temporary shelter, office space, or even as a mobile dwelling. The reasons for adopting the tiny house lifestyle are as varied as the people who live in them. Some are trying to save money; lesser house obviously costs less. Some are trying to overcome the cultural norm of gaining for the sake of gain and a willingness to mortgage ourselves to the hilt—people tend to buy as much house as they can afford, seldom reflecting on how much house they might actually need. And some are just having fun with design! For a long time architects and designers have collaborated (particularly in urban spaces) to see how much living space they can pack into a given small square footage.

    The total real-estate market share for tiny houses is only 1 percent; it’s a baby movement, to be sure. But the concept should be thought-provoking to us as Christians: What do our material possessions say about our faith in God? What does our standard of living say about our willingness to rely on God?

    Question of the Day: What could you keep if your house was the size of your bedroom?
    Talk Topic Scriptures: Exodus 16:2-5; 1 Kings 17:10-16; Luke 9:1-6 

    For a complete lesson on this topic visit LinC here!

    full photo attribution "Tiny house in yard, Portland" by Tammy - Weekend with Dee. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons


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  • 09/25/14--09:54: Eyewitness
  • By Kevin Alton, LinC (Living in Christ)

    On Saturday, August 9th, Michael Brown was confronted by a police officer regarding a convenience store robbery. Within minutes Michael had been shot dead by the officer. A confusing swirl of details emerged over the next few hours and days. It was determined that Michael was unarmed and that he allegedly reached for the officer’s gun. Michael was shot 6 times—4 times in the arm and twice in the head.

    The grief of a life lost was nearly obscured by the events of the following days and weeks. Dozens of people were arrested in the streets of Ferguson. The police hit the streets prepared to take on an army, drawing concern and criticism from across the country.

    Order was gradually restored, with much credit being given to the state patrol officers who walked with the protesters instead of digging in against them. Tensions remain high and, even as this article is published, all is not resolved.

    A Christian Response

    As Christians, how are we called to respond in these situations? What should our attitudes be? Should we respond at all? It’s a clichéd question at this point, but what would Jesus do in this scenario?

    It’s important that we not simply set aside the reality of someone’s death in order to analytically assess this event from a sociological standpoint. It is equally important, however, that we recognize how response—both of the citizens of Ferguson and their police—escalated things into a critically dangerous situation. We may never fully know the details of the confrontation between Michael and the officer, but it’s hard not to assume that better responses within their interaction might easily have spared a life.

    Today we’re going to spend some time probing the concept of responding well. Not taking sides, just exploring how our response to situations such as this can demonstrate our faith in Christ to the culture we’re helping to shape.

    Question of the Day: When have you been so angry you couldn't think straight?

    Focal Scriptures: Mark 11:15-18; Luke 6:27-31; John 8:3-11.

    For a complete lesson on this topic visit LinC here!


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  • 01/28/15--07:59: It's how you play the game
  • By Kevin Alton, LinC (Living in Christ)

    Sunday is the big game! Not everyone cares about “the big game,” but it’s increasingly difficult to find people who don’t have some knowledge of the Super Bowl, even if that knowledge is limited to the artist performing at halftime or how friends fared in their fantasy football leagues.

    Some players’ careers come and go without ever having played in the game’s most celebrated event. At times all the surrounding festivities seem to overshadow the game itself. Pregame activities and interviews abound; the national anthem seems to require at least one extra commercial break; halftime is extended for its entertainment value; and a postgame someone is charged with recycling tons of confetti in the losing team’s colors.

    The game matters

    Still, the game matters. And though it’s just a game, games have a way of revealing our character—often in unexpected moments. Just ask Tom Brady of recent “deflategate” fame. Also, recall Richard Sherman immediately following the Seattle Seahawks’ conference championship victory in January of 2014. He blasted the San Francisco 49ers’ receiver Michael Crabtree, shouting in a postgame interview: “I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you gonna get!” The rip was viewed by press and many fans as bad sportsmanship. Sherman later attributed the outburst to gamesmanship, saying that who he is on the field requires that kind of attitude.

    On the flip side of that coin, this season Andrew Luck, quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, has received attention for unusually good sportsmanship in the form of compliments to opponents for sacks or other hard hits on himself. Defenders report being confused and even angered by affirmation from an opponent for a great play.

    Our faith matters

    On the field called life, our spiritual lives are no game. How we live out our passion for faith is observed equally by those who believe as we do and those who may even oppose us. Our attitude as we grow in and share our faith with others definitely matters.

    Question of the day: When have you talked a bigger game than you could back up?

    Focal Scriptures: Genesis 32:24-30; Judges 7:1-21; 16:4-21


    For a complete lesson on this topic visit LinC.


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  • 02/19/15--08:32: Feasting faster
  • By Kevin Alton, LinC (Living in Christ)

    Earlier this week, many Christians celebrated the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday. One could argue that the celebration was actually the night before on Fat Tuesday. One could further argue that there’s nothing celebratory about Ash Wednesday. The point is that we commemorate the beginning of Lent, the season leading up to Easter, with a commitment to fasting or abstaining from a chosen food, practice or other observance from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday. 40 long days of not eating chocolate, drinking soda or whatever you’ve chosen this year.

    Wait a minute. 40 days? That doesn’t add up, does it? It’s 46 days from Ash Wednesday until Easter. So what’s the deal with the extra six days? It’s often overlooked in our practice of Lenten fasting, but Sundays within Lent are meant to be feast days. You can’t fast while you’re feasting! On Sunday you’re meant to re-embrace with thankfulness whatever you’re fasting from. We’re supposed to celebrate each Sunday like it’s a “little Easter.”

    The problem

    The problem for many of us is that we often choose to give up things that we need to eliminate from our lives anyway — too many sweets, soft drinks or even cigarettes are often the target of our fasting in an effort to shake a habit. The idea of the celebratory Sunday rings a little thinly when we consider giving thanks to God for our return to something that was hurting us in the first place.

    The purpose

    But we’re meant to approach Sundays during Lent with joy. We’d do well to consider fasting from items or activities that are worth celebrating upon their return. In any case, we can look to those Sundays with an attitude of hope and realization of God’s joy in our lives. If we’ve forgotten the practice, it’s not too late — we can learn to celebrate. We can find joy again.

    Question of the day: When have you been surprised by joy?
    Focal Scriptures: Luke 19:1-9; Luke 15:11-32; Philippians 4:4-13


    For a complete lesson on this topic visit LinC.