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A New Book! Expressions: Church Poems

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This year, as resolutions swirled in my head and evaluations of the previous year set me into a constant state of pensive self-examination, I wanted to challenge myself to write and complete a book of poetry and art in one week. I knew the difficulty that it would entail and I knew the joy of completing the process.

2018 seemed like a marathon through the mud. As a pastor, I trudged a great deal and OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwas often fighting my own depression and difficulties as I helped to shoulder the burdens of others. It was a good year, but it was a long and exhausting year too. We came through it tired but victorious and ready to run some more.

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As I sat, laboring to understand and process 2018, I found a need to express. I needed to express my love for the church. I needed to express the wrestling with depression in a real and spiritual manner. I needed to express the “striving together” that is the church community. I needed to lay down on paper the weight of what my community has carried together. All the imperfections and struggle to understand grace.

All the pains and joys of community and weight of self. I needed to express them all. I needed to express the song of the church. So, I set out to draw a few sketches and lay down a few verses.

“Expressions” is the result. (Credit to Logan Doak for the title.)

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Expressions: Poems of the Church is available for $7 on Amazon.com and Lulu.com

 

I hope you will enjoy this work. It is short, 48 pages, and is a square shape. It is intended to be a book of pictures and poetry that you will pick up and read once in a while. The art is simple and quick sketches that were drawn in a week (with the exception of “Halos of the Church” and “Death to Life,” which were drawn in 2018 when processing some difficulties). I have endeavored to exalt Christ in the church through this work. Please use it for the gospel ministry.

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Two quick encouragements:

Challenge yourself. Challenge yourself to do something. Something difficult. Last year I was enjoying my morning coffee while I watched the birds flit and flutter on my porch. Inspired I wrote a short poem and then started drawing some pictures. At the same time, I was working through the book of Ephesians for my second published work. I challenged myself to write a short book, complete with artwork and be ready to publish it in a 7 day period. The result was “The Bird’s Psalm.” This year I wrote a little more… next year I will challenge myself to do the same.

Use your talents for the Kingdom of God. I am not a great artist, but I have some talent. I am not a great poet, but I can write a poem or two. I am not a great writer, but I can write stuff down in an organized form. The Lord has blessed me with some ability, it is my responsibility to use that for the Kingdom. What are your talents? Are you using them for the Kingdom? I hope you see through my work that you CAN do something for the Kingdom. I hope you will be inspired to do something… something worthwhile. Something for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Philemon 17-20; Brief Thoughts

17So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it – to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.

The nature of Christianity is one of transformation. Transformation of the heart that demands the transformation of society. Each believer is freed from death and sin to life and grace. It is this transformation that inspires Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:16 and Galatians 3:28, explaining that Christians no longer separate people according to the cultural and societal distinctions of this present life. Christians identify people simply as believing or non-believing. If they are believers, then they have been taken from the kingdom of darkness and transferred into the Kingdom of Light. The exchange of kingdoms has wrought a change of citizenship. A citizenship that takes precedence over the powers of this earth. A citizenship that changes our perspective.

Society expects that everyone stays in the position in which they are assigned. Slaves are to be slaves, the poor are to remain impoverished, aristocracy is supposed to remain wealthy, and authorities are supposed to remain in power. Consider for a moment stories that inspire us – the slave who escapes slavery, the poor man who overcomes poverty, the chronicles of changing power. These stories are so inspiring because they fly in the face of expectation. The alteration of societal norms surprises us and as a result, we are in awe of defiance of societal expectations.

Christianity demands that positions are leveled and everyone is treated with equity. Those who have confessed Christ and have been transformed by the Holy Spirit are brought into a family of faith that is connected through grace. It is through grace. Grace – unmerited favor. Grace – an undeserved gift. Grace – the great equalizer. If one has received grace, then they must behave accordingly. Slaves can no longer remain slaves when they are family. The class divisions are ended and those who have need are connected to those who have means. Injustice remains in the world yet Christian community defies the world.

Paul models the truth of Christian transformation by connecting himself to a slave who is indebted to his master. He challenges Philemon to think the same way. “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge it to my account” (18). Paul takes the debt of the slave upon himself and determines to answer Philemon’s frustration by paying the debt. He does not deny that there may be some debt owed, in fact, he concedes the debt. Paul recognizes the pain that Philemon may have felt and the reparations that may be owed and becomes the slave on behalf of Onesimus. Philemon has been wronged in some manner by Onesimus. The slave has rebelled against the master. So, Paul exemplifies the gospel to Philemon by taking the punishment or debt upon himself. Just as Jesus has taken upon Himself the debt of rebellious slaves (Romans 5:8-10). Grace has leveled the class structure and Paul models that leveling. Christian, if grace has been so extended to you by the Almighty, so you must extend such grace to each other.

As a part of the family of God, Paul addresses Philemon directly, in his “own hand.” In doing so he passively reminds Philemon of the debt that Philemon owes to Paul. Indeed, Philemon was given the gospel of Jesus by Paul and no doubt owes Paul his very soul for such a gift. Whether or not Paul has any other debt that could be required of Philemon we are not told. The gift of the gospel and the salvation of the soul ought to be enough to compel Philemon to submit to Paul’s request.

Consider this carefully Christian. Those who have taught you the Word of God and have brought you to the throne of the Lord are owed a debt that you are never REQUIRED to pay. It is a debt of love and fealty that compels grace extended living. Once grace has been granted to us, we are compelled to grant grace to the brothers in faith, even to the world.

Paul is right to ask such a favor from Philemon. He has labored to teach the gospel and Philemon reaps some eternal benefit from Paul’s temporal labors! So he states plainly that he expects some reward from Philemon. Though Paul need not demand the reward and certainly would trust the Lord and eternal reward beyond any material good in this life, Philemon’s acquiescence will validate the gospel and prove grace.

The reputation of grace and transforming power of Jesus is what is at stake here. This is not merely a matter of debts and forgiveness of one slave. Philemon’s actions either prove or invalidate the gospel. So many Christians fail to realize that our social interactions are incredibly important testimonies for Christ. By our actions, we either validate the gospel, or we give reason to the skepticism of the world. To be clear: the truth of God does not depend on the actions of man. The gospel is true in spite of Christians’ willingness to live it out. However, the communication of the truth is certainly hindered through the wickedness of Christians who refuse to live grace-extended lives.

What is Required? Philemon 8-9a; Brief Thoughts

8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9yet for love’s sake…

What is required of the Christian? Freed from the law of Sin and death, Christians now live by a law of Spirit and life (Rom. 8:2). Christians are no longer required to live by a law. Rather, they have been set free from the law and given the freedom to live in grace. The grace that Christians receive from God is astounding. God, the sovereign ruler over all things, sacrifices His own son for a people who utterly reject Him as God. Indeed, He saves those who are His enemies (Romans 5:10). He extends grace to those who despise Him and kneels down to serve those who fail Him (John 13:14).[1] His grace is extended to those who hate Him.

What is required of the Christian? Nothing… and everything. God offers redemption freely and without cost to the one who will believe. Though He requires nothing, it is a gift that surely demands everything. Grace is given freely with no invoice. When someone becomes a Christian, their hearts’ affections change. Christians surrender everything they have, which amounts to nothing, in order to find life, which is everything.

What is required of the Christian? The Lord answers the same question in Micah 6:8 – “To do justice and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b). The Lord requires that you do what is just and live in humble obedience to Him. The Christian is to stand for what is just. Notice, Micah’s command is not simply to avoid injustice. He does not merely call His people to avoid what is wrong. Rather, He calls His people to do what is right! They are to actively pursue what is good and right. Justice is what is required.

Justice is required, but not as a term for admission into grace. Rather, justice and mercy are the evidence that grace has been given to the Christian. The Christian walks justly because he has been transformed by grace. Grace moves in the heart of a man to change from corrupt to clean (c.f. Col. 3:9-10, 2 Cor. 5:17, and Romans 6). God’s grace needs no demands of obedience. The magnitude of the gift of grace is enough to compel obedience to the precepts of God. The Christian stands for justice, not because he is commanded to do so, but because he, being born wicked, has been supernaturally transformed and made just by the grace of God. It is not by works or effort of their own that the believer is capable of doing what is just. It is because God is gracious to him.

It is important to note that Paul would not be out-of-line to command Philemon to set Onesimus free. He could, justly, demand that Philemon surrender his worldly rights in relation to Onesimus on the basis of his own citizenship in Heaven. But Paul acts towards Philemon with the same grace that God does towards us. He reminds Philemon that He could command what is required, but he would rather appeal to Philemon’s redeemed nature. A nature that has been granted to him by a loving and forgiving God. Philemon, once a slave to sin, must extend the same unmerited favor to those in his charge.

Paul’s appeal to Philemon is based on love. The term translated love in verse 10 is the word “agape.” Agape has a connotation of self-sacrifice and surrender. So here, when Paul states that he is appealing to Philemon for the sake of love, he is asserting a call to surrender the “rights” that Philemon considers himself to hold. Philemon was well within his rights to exact punishment from Onesimus. Onesimus had run away from the assigned position of a slave. The Bible does not tell us how Onesimus became a slave, but according to the social and political system of the first century, Philemon’s enslavement of Onesimus was seen as just. Yet, because Christians have a citizenship that transcends this world, a world in which slavery does not exist and is never acceptable, Philemon is behaving contrary to his citizenship.

Are there areas of your life where you have compromised the precepts of the gospel for the sake of social norms? Have you surrendered the rights that earthly citizenship affords for the sake of love? Remember, Christian, we are subject to a higher citizenship.

[1] Consider how Jesus engages with Judas.

Brief Thoughts: Philemon 4-5

4I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints,

Philemon was a house church leader in Colossae. His prominence among the community of faith was one that held sway and influence over a number of brothers and sisters in Christ. So Paul begins his instruction to Philemon by reminding Philemon of their mutual relationship. Though Paul is in prison and Philemon is in comfort, they share a shepherding relationship in the church. Confrontation looming, Paul seeks to remind his brother, Philemon, of that relationship.

Paul begins to approach the issues that need addressing by praising God for the good Philemon has done. Invoking the authority of God and, thereby, passively reminding Philemon of God’s position in their relationship. Paul’s reminder to Philemon in verse 4 is a not-so-subtle attempt to remind Philemon that he is being brought before God. Anytime someone says they have been thanking God for you, it ought to make you examine yourself to see if there is anything God is going to correct. This is especially true when a man such as Paul reminds you that he has labored over you in prayer. As a student wanting to please his teacher, so Philemon must have had some desire to please Paul, the great missionary founder of the churches in Asia.

The reason for gratitude over Philemon is the news of his love and faith. Philemon has made sacrifices for the community. He voluntarily gives over his home and time to the work of the Lord. This is a unique sacrifice that should not be overlooked. While Philemon may or may not be an elder (scripture does not tell us if he held the title pastor), he is the host of the church. Hosts don’t get time off. Hosts surrender their own space so that the community can meet in their home. If someone else is tired or sick, they can stay home and just skip for the week. But the host cannot. So Philemon has shown himself to be loving and faithful.

Moreover, Paul is probably referencing even further dedication to the love of the saints and the provision of their needs. It is, no doubt, with great joy that Paul prays in gratitude for Philemon. His constant care and love for the church has made its way to Paul’s ear. Paul, who founded the churches of Asia and dealt specifically with riots, rejection, and all sorts of pitfalls, must find extreme delight in those who carry on the work when he is gone.

Take note that Paul is particularly struck by his love toward “Jesus and all the saints.” Philemon is gently reminded that his love for Jesus is good and that it extends to ALL the saints. Not merely those of high social standing or those who are in particular positions of prominence. The love of Jesus must extend through the hearts of His disciples to everyone. Jesus’ own words explain this even further in Matthew 25:31-40 when He speaks about the final judgment and the day that the King will say to those who are condemned that they have failed to provide for the least and therefore have failed to provide for Him. Loving the lowest in society is loving Jesus. There is no hierarchy in the Kingdom of God. There is only one King and He made himself lowest (C.f. John 13). We are to follow His example and be as He is.

The gospel is the great equalizer. Titles of “slave” and “master” are no longer applicable in the context of the gospel. Philemon’s relationship to Onesimus has transformed from slave to brother. To what extent does the gospel change society’s structure? To what end does the gospel defy the social morae’s of the time? In every way! The gospel defies injustice and demands that believers live above the base morality of society. When a believer is confronted with injustice they make war against it. Believers do not submit to the unjust luxuries of society no matter how integrated they may be. Slavery was an integral part of society in the first century. No matter how easy it made life or how dependent on slavery the economic structure may have been, Christians are called to live the gospel! That means there can no longer be slaves. The gospel must transform all of life. We should not be surprised if the gospel requires great cost from those who believe. After all, we are all once slaves, now free.

Philemon 3; Brief Thoughts

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This simple greeting is so commonplace for Paul that our eyes sometimes fly right past it. Take a moment and look carefully. It is one of the most powerful and revealing greetings a heart can muster. Paul proclaims “grace and peace” (v.3). This opening greeting declares the intent of Gospel communication. Grace and peace. Paul has some strong words for Philemon. They are words that Philemon may be troubled by and tempted to reject. So Paul initiates his letter declaring that unmerited favor. Grace… that gift of life that cannot be measured by currency or value. That priceless free gift that costs us nothing and because of which we give everything. Paul begins by assuring the heart of Philemon: grace is found in this message.

Married to grace is peace. For indeed, peace is found chiefly in unmerited favor. Peace is something that is only available in complete surrender, in complete reliance on grace. Peace can only truly be found in the receipt of grace. Jesus Christ, the Lord of all, has taken your sins, died on the cross to pay the penalty for those sins, and has risen to overcome death. In His death, anyone who believes in Him is free from sin and, in His resurrection, all believers are given a new spiritual life that will go on for eternity! An eternity of peace with God… because of grace. We who were slaves to sin shook our fists in God face as enemies (Romans 5:10). God, “being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-6). Trust in Christ to find peace.

Grace and peace. These words so often evade our homes and our work. These character traits seem ever one step beyond our hands. Beyond our work. Beyond our ability. Yet, they are available and are at hand in one moment of dependent surrender. This is difficult for humanity – surrender. It does not come easily to our rebel souls. It is counter to our nature. It is counter to our intuition. Indeed, we all are runaway slaves who need grace and peace from our master. And yet, through surrender to Christ, comes grace and peace. Grace and peace.

The second half of the verse reasserts the magnitude of Paul’s letter. Paul speaks directly for God, delivering his invocation of grace and peace “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” His authority is not found in his experience, though vast; nor his wisdom, though great; nor his fortitude, though considerable. His authority to write these words comes from the Lord, Jesus, master of all. He uses the word “Father” so you would understand the love of God. He uses the term “Lord” so you would recognize that Jesus is your King and master! What a great and powerful Lord He is! Grace and Peace await us. Submission to a loving Father who rules over all, from whom all grace and peace come. What joy!

Paul’s beautiful invocation would certainly pierce the soul of any Christian. Slaveholding Christians must recognize the inconsistency of serving a master who voluntarily sets them free while insisting on the captivity of their own fellow man. The Lord Jesus Christ has set you free from bondage and has given you freedom. This freedom was not granted because you have been good or made the right choices. Rather, the grace and peace of Jesus Christ transcend your own rebellion to bring freedom to your soul![1]

[1] This same sentence is addressed in similar language in “Thinking through Ephesians; a short devotional journey” by J. Novis Elkins.

Thinking Through Ephesians! A free pdf sample

About 16 years ago I was asked to teach the college class at Highland Baptist Church in Waco, TX on a Sunday morning. It was a large crowd of roughly 1,000 students. My brother was the college pastor associate and had recommended me to teach. I had preached and led small group Bible studies before. I had spoken to moderately large churches, but never a crowd of such significant size and never without a strategic outline or material to follow. I called my brother and asked his advice. He said, “pick a passage of Scripture and teach what it says. No more, no less. Just study what it says and teach it.”

b7a26-bible-on-a-pulpitI taught on Ephesians 5:15-20. Teaching that passage began a mountain-top journey through Ephesians for me. It fast became my favorite book of the Bible. I began to trudge through the text verse by verse, line by line, phrase by phrase until I grasped everything I could. Sometimes I’d get stuck on one verse and write page after page. Sometimes I’d sit on the concepts of the book for a month before I penned a word. All the time, I sought to know Jesus deeply and engage His word and work in my heart and life.

 

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For roughly 14 years I would return to Ephesians every few months and write a little more. Then, a little more than two years ago I was challenged to blog more often. I decided that I would blog every day of the week save Sunday. I started to blog each day through the book of Ephesians, taking the notes I had collected and put them into bite-sized chunks for anyone interested. Somewhere within chapter two, my brother Jeff (who happens to be a great author! you can check out his stuff here: Jeff’s stuff), told me I should consider compiling them into a book.

Cover smallSo, for the last year and a half, my wife and I have edited this work for your joy. This book is the result of a 16-year devotional walk through Ephesians. It has been a delight and joy to write. I hope it is a joy to read as well.

For a free sample of a few chapters and the intro, click here.

To purchase through Amazon: https://goo.gl/fwKDxN

To purchase through Lulu.com:  https://goo.gl/yCoQJk

Thinking Through Ephesians. My New Book!

The book of Ephesians has long been my favorite book of the Bible. I can remember the night that it became my favorite book. After a particularly long day of work and classes at college, I had to deliver some bad news to a friend that I cared deeply for. I tried to honor the Lord as I told this friend that they had been rejected by an organization I was involved in. Looking back, it was not so traumatic. But in that moment of rejection, it felt as though I was delivering a proclamation of terminal cancer. After crying with and sitting beside my friend for a while, I went home. My roommates were either asleep or absent. Seeking some sort of comfort I sat down to read, pulled out a notepad and began to write out my thoughts on Ephesians. I was lost in the beauty and comfort of God’s word. My world was eclipsed by His word, and my soul was lifted.IMG_7029

Over the years I have returned to Ephesians and recorded thoughts about the text. Whenever I was depressed or dealing with stress, I opened this book and wrote. I did not set out to write a book or even to prepare to teach this text. I’ve never preached through Ephesians and I doubt that I will anytime soon. Rather, this work was a result of a deep desire to quell the depression of my own heart. The Word of God has that effect. He is faithful to work in the hearts of believers and He is faithful to pull us out of the pit and place us on the rock (Psalm 40:2).

Cover smallSometime in the fall of our first year as a church (2016), someone at SGF encouraged me to blog. I don’t remember who. It was a passing comment. So I decided to try and blog through a book six days a week. I had years of material through Ephesians, so I started there. After I finished chapter 1, six entries, my amazing author brother Jeff Elkins (links to his work here) encouraged me to consider putting these into a book. As a result, my journey with Jesus through the book of Ephesians is available for you to read.

These are simple thoughts from a simple pastor. While I have an MDiv and have some scholarly experience, this is not intended to be an academic work. This is a simple walk through a book by a normal man who struggles with normal problems but serves an extraordinary God.

You can purchase Thinking Through Ephesians for $9.99 through following links

Amazon.com: https://goo.gl/kShg9M

ebook format ($6.99): https://goo.gl/yWi5C1

Lulu.com: https://goo.gl/ig7YSC

If you want a signed copy or would like to purchase from me directly, please leave a comment or email me at novis_elkins@hotmail.com

I hope you enjoy this work as much as I enjoyed writing it.