Monday, November 17, 2014

Church Growth devotion - A Fearless Faith - Matthew 27:66

Matthew 27:66           So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.

            Christianity is a fearless faith. No matter what constraints are placed upon it by government regulations or social pressure, Christianity cannot be contained in a one-size fits all t-shirt. It is as multi-faceted as a diamond and as varied as the different colors of a tapestry. It refuses to conform to the world and constantly challenges humanity. It is a risky business for all who embrace Christian beliefs, because it frequently challenges the believer, as well as those outside the faith.

            When I read the Holy Week stories, I constantly see the futility of humanity trying to put an end to Jesus, as well as the attempted destruction of His message. In today’s passage (Matthew 27:57-66), for instance, the religious and military authorities try to control the situation by sealing the tomb and posting guards. They are attempting to effectively seal off the burial area to stop Christ’s followers from stealing the body, and falsely proclaiming that He rose from the dead. The authorities take every precaution to keep Jesus buried and His followers restrained. But it doesn't work – within a short time, the tomb will burst open and Christ will rise from the dead.

            That’s what Christianity does and is still meant to do. In lands throughout the world, regimes and despots constantly try to eliminate the Church and Christians. In the short term, they have some success, but in the long term, Christianity prevails. Tyrants and dictators come and go, but Christ rises up again and again and again – and will do so until the very end of Time.

            When people write off the church as being irrelevant, unnecessary, and on its deathbed, I remind myself that I've heard it all before – in the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, and the new millennium. In every case, the church has reformed, rebounded, and been restored. The naysayers and prophets of doom have come and gone, utterly forgotten, while the name of Christ continues to be lifted up, worshiped, and adored. Society may try to seal up the message and diminish Christ’s claims; governments may attempt to gag the Gospel and silence the followers of Christ, but eventually revival occurs, faith resurrects, and the Kingdom of God through Christ re-enters the mainstream even stronger than before. All it takes is time – and Time, as well as History, belong to the Eternal Christ.

            So today, if you’re feeling down about your church, denomination, or faith then know this: when it comes to Death, we’re in the Resurrection business!

Questions for personal reflection

What makes me worry about my church and faith? How can I change my worries into prayers?

Prayer:            Lord Jesus, You turned the world upside down by defeating death and establishing Your Church across the world. For centuries, different leaders and civilizations have tried to destroy Your church and diminish Your influence. They have constantly failed and Your Church is now bigger and more widespread across the Earth than it ever has been. Thank You for continuing to enrich the world with Your presence, ministry, and mission. In Your Holy Name, we cheerfully and thankfully pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you would like to ask questions or make comments about today’s message, please send him an email to

Today’s attached image is one of John’s latest winter drawings called ‘Winter Tree.’ If you would like to view a larger version, please click on the following link: Tree.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Remembrance Day Poem: The Gallant 306

An audio file of the poem can be heard here:

I make no apology for any of the words used in this poem of Remembrance.

The Gallant 306

They were just wee lads
Sacrificially sent into battle
On strange soil
For a glorious cause
And a hero’s reward.

They left their homes
Amid a celebratory blare
Of drums and trumpets.
Their dads swelled with pride
Their mothers shed tears
The politicians promised
It would be over by Christmas.
The priests prayed with the lads
Petitioning for their protection,
Assuring them of salvation,
And God’s glory
For the Great Crusade
And War to end all wars.

Months later,
Covered in mud and blood
And piss and shit,
They sought shelter
In the cadaverous canals
Which entombed
Their bodies, hearts, and souls.

As shell after shell
Screamed through the air
Destined to create
Bloody craters,
Filled with arms and legs
Heads and torsos
Of friends and foes,
The insanity of war
Blasted to pieces
Their core of humanity,
Making them cry out
“No more! No more!
No fucking more!”

They left their trenches
Amid an accusatory stare
Of officers and guards.
Their hearts broken inside
Their faces full of tears
The generals proclaimed
It would be over at dawn.

Shaking with shell shock,
Blindfolded belligerently,
And tightly tied to a post,
Piss running down their legs,
And confusion running through their minds,
The wee lads were
Officially branded
And reprimanded as cowards.

Three last words of war
Screamed through the air
Like destructive shells,
Shocking their system
For one last awful time
“Ready! Aim! Fire!”

The priests prayed over the lads
Petitioning for their souls,
Asking for salvation,
While inwardly blaspheming
The glory
Of the Great Crusade
And War to end all wars.

(c) John Stuart 2014

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Devotion about prayer: Before the Altar - 2 Kings 19:14

2 Kings 19:14             Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the LORD and spread it out before the LORD. 

            Sometimes it’s not good to be king. Take Hezekiah, for instance. A faithful and wise ruler, who sought to please God and bring peace to his people. Throughout most of his reign things were going well, and then the Assyrian army shows up and besieges the city of Jerusalem, threatening to destroy everything and everyone in it. Ouch! So much for being faithful to God.

            Hezekiah knew that the Assyrians were powerful. He understood that they could overrun Jerusalem and overwhelm the people. He was also under no delusions about his own fate when the city was defeated – the Assyrians would put him in chains and cut out his eyes, making him a laughing stock to the haughty Assyrian leaders and humiliated before his own people.  In other words, for Hezekiah, it was not good to be king.

            But the old ruler knew of a power greater than the Assyrian army; he had faith in his Almighty God. The king believed in the LORD of hosts who could destroy Judah’s enemies and deliver the people of God. So Hezekiah took the ultimatum letter he had received from the Assyrian general and placed it on the altar in the temple. He sincerely and humbly appealed to God for the deliverance of the people. He expressed to God that the Assyrians had insulted the LORD and that they deserved to be punished. He placed the letter before God to let Him see what was written. He prayed from his breaking heart and the LORD for help. As king, he could have negotiated a peace which may have allowed him to escape, but his people would have been enslaved. Instead, Hezekiah took the matter directly to God and asked Him to intervene. This wasn't a gamble; this was a real act of faith which God honored.

            We all carry burdens in our hearts and worries in our minds. Perhaps we should write down our problems, issues, and fears, and then present what we've written to God. Sometimes the writing down of what we feel clarifies the problematic situations we are experiencing. By giving them wholly over to God and seeking His help, we may begin to turn those circumstances around in positive and effective ways. As long as we are willing to pray, God is always ready to listen.

Questions for personal reflection

What is currently worrying me the most? Am I willing to completely hand over this worry in prayer, or do I keep cradling it in my heart?

Prayer:            Lord Jesus, You once taught that people should not be anxious about tomorrow because there are enough problems to deal with today. You were teaching Your followers and us that the future is in God’s hands, so we should concentrate on what is presently happening. Help us to come to You today with our worries and concerns, issues and problems. Grant us the courage to leave them in Your care. Guide us throughout today. In Your Holy Name, we pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you would like to ask questions or make comments about today’s message, please send him an email to

Today’s image is one of John’s latest snowman drawings called “Best Buddies.” If you would like to view a larger version, please click on the following link: Buddies.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Advent Resources for Church Bulletins

This year, as well as producing my annual Advent devotions e-book for Kindle readers, I've also prepared four weekly bulletin inserts with short daily devotions, prayers, and questions for reflection for the Season of Advent. The weekly inserts can be easily printed on 8.5 x 14 copy paper and produced for worshipers at church on Sunday mornings.

The devotions are based upon the Sunday lectionary and daily Bible readings from the Old Testament prophets. The series is called "The Gift of God," and the purpose of the inserts is to enable church folks to keep connected to God during a very busy season. the season begins on Sunday November 30.

The inserts can be easily emailed to churches in Word file form. All that churches would have to do would be to change the name of the church on each document and add their website address.

The cost for the Word file is only $10, which I believe is a great investment for each congregation that participates. An emailed invoice can be sent to each church for their records. payment can be made by check or Paypal.

If you are interested in receiving the Word files, send me an email to

May God bless you and your churches.

John Stuart.

Church devotion: The Talent Business - Matthew 25:14-30

Matthew 25:21        His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!”

            Churches are in the talent business. I don’t mean that we’re focused on show business or performance arts (although at Erin we do this very well through our Creative Arts ministries); I’m talking about the biblical meaning of talents, which in this parable of Christ refers to talents of gold. Jesus told this story (Matthew 25:14-30) to convey what’s expected of His followers, as well as what God expects of everyone who is given the gift of life.

            We all have talents and throughout life we are given many opportunities to use or display them. Some people are extroverts and others are introverts, but both types of people have talents that are essential to the witness of the Church in the world. Usually, the extroverts are the team leaders, teachers, and elders in a congregation and their roles are crucial to the forward development of the church. The introverts are frequently the compassionate comforters, praying people, and fellowship feeders whose roles are equally crucial in the pastoral continuity of any congregation. Both have different sets of talents, but when they are combined successfully, churches become effective vehicles of Christ’s message and God’s love.

            As you read this today, ask God to make you aware of the particular talents that He has given you, and then ask Him to give you opportunities to use those talents to help the church, as well as the community that you live in. You are a child of God’s love and grace; use this blessing to help others receive and experience it, too.

Questions for personal reflection

What am I good at? How can I use that skill to benefit others, and bless the work of God?

Prayer:           Lord Jesus, thank You for the gifts of faith, hope, and love that You give to all of Your followers. Help us to use those blessings as ways and means of helping our loved ones and other people in their times of need and support. Grant us opportunities to reach out to those who feel let down, disappointed, or forsaken. In Your Holy Name, we humbly pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you would like to ask questions or make comments about today’s message, please feel free to send him an email to

Today’s image is one of John’s latest snowman drawings. It’s called “Winter Cheer.” If you would like to view a larger version, please visit the following link: Snowman.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Church devotion: Relevant Elephant - 2 Kings 16:14

2 Kings 16:14            The bronze altar that stood before the LORD, Ahaz had brought from the front of the temple--from between the new altar and the temple of the LORD--and put it on the north side of the new altar.

            King Ahaz was a wicked ruler of ancient Judah. The Bible states that he didn't do what was right in the eyes of God. He set up pagan shrines and sacrificed his first born son into the fires of the idol Molech. He sought political help from the Assyrians instead of God, and he changed the furnishings inside Solomon’s Temple by replacing them with Assyrian d├ęcor. He was a man of his time who was greatly influenced by his peers. He didn't keep to the traditional ways and ended up becoming a vassal king in the Assyrian Empire. He changed the religious and political culture of his nation through policies of appeasement and syncretism. By the end of his reign, Judah was greatly diminished and the people of God were deeply confused, as well as divided.

            What King Ahaz thought would bring about success, power, and esteem to his sovereignty only weakened him further. He thought that he would be lauded by the powerful Assyrians for adopting their ways; instead he was reduced to being a servant of their empire and paid taxes and tribute for protection. What seemed like a good idea at the beginning of his reign ended up ruining him. By paying more attention to what the nations around him possessed, instead of focusing on the blessings God could give him, Ahaz lost everything that a king desires – pride, prestige, and power. In Biblical terms, he was a foolish ruler who gave everything away and ended up with nothing.

            I see mainstream Christianity heading down the same path. People want the Church to be more like the world and emphasize the need to be relevant religiously, culturally, and politically. Even though we have followed this cultural shift towards relevance for almost 25 years, church numbers in the Western hemisphere are declining. The elephant in the room about the church’s yearning for relevance in order to grow, instead of pursuing reverence of God, is that it gets us nowhere. The Ahaz-ism of our churches has turned out to be a detrimental road to indifference, ineffectiveness, and irrelevance. If we don’t make some sort of a U-turn in order to get back to God, then the decline will reach unfixable depths which will require an influx of a new generation of missionaries from South America, Africa, and even Asia to re-ignite the Faith in the West.

Questions for personal reflection

Why are church people less connected to God now, than they were 25-40 years ago? How can those connections be remade?

Prayer:           Lord Jesus, the simple truth is that we have wandered from the pathway that leads us to God. We've allowed ourselves to be deceived by the world and distracted by our own pursuits. Help us all to turn our lives around so that we may re-connect our spirits to You, in both a strong and devoted way. In Your Holy Name, we pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you would like to make a comment or ask questions about today’s message, please send him an email to

Today’s image is one of John’s wildlife drawings called ‘African Sunset’. If you would like to view a larger version, please click on the following link: Elephant.

Sunday Sermon: Two Commandments - Matthew 22:34-46

            For as long as I can remember, I've always loved God. I can’t say when or where this actually began, but I do know that as a young child, God was always in my heart. I guess it first started with the bedtime prayers that my parents taught me when I was very young. It grew as the years went by and was confirmed to me by great Sunday school teachers in my childhood. They exemplified a real, loving Christianity to me and, because of their witness, I still love God today. I may not be the best Christian that I could be; I may often be subject to sins like everyone else, but that love of God, which was shaped and molded in my heart as a child, is still with me today. I hope and pray that when it becomes my turn to leave the surly bonds of Earth, my love of God will sustain me during that mysterious and unknown journey that is yet to come.

            I’m not alone in this. I am certain that many of you here today have loved God since childhood and continue to do so even in the midst of trying times and serious circumstances. To me, loving God is what makes us distinct in the animal kingdom. We have a greater awareness of the universe around us; we have a better understanding of how life evolves and works; we have a greater knowledge of history and geography, astronomy, and science than any other living creatures on Earth. Ultimately, I believe that this knowledge leads us towards God and because we experience life on a greater scale than any other life form, we are drawn closer to Him, to worship Him, to revere Him, and, of course, to love Him.

            In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is challenged once again about His beliefs. This time, a religious lawyer asks Him to state what He considers to be the greatest commandment in the Jewish Scriptures. Everybody knew that there were Ten Supreme Commandments, so Jesus was being asked to pick one. As usual, He was being tested. Whichever commandment He chose, His theological opponents would choose one of the remaining nine, in order to argue with Him. It was just like being on Facebook – you know the experience. You state something on Facebook like “Chocolate mint ice cream is the best ice cream in the world” and within a short time you get people you get people stating: “Vanilla peppermint is better than that” or “You haven’t tasted Mayfield’s Neapolitan” or “Ben and Jerry’s Triple chocolate is way better” or the inevitable “You do know that ice cream isn't good for you? Too much sugar and fat. You should be eating frozen broccoli spears!”

            People never change, do they? No matter which commandment Jesus chose, the Pharisees were ready to pounce on Him and ridicule His choice. As usual, however, Jesus took the higher ground. He wasn't about to get involved with foolish and stupid arguments, because He knew that they only led to quarrels. Instead, He spoke the truth from His heart, not to silence His critics, but to enlighten them – to open up their hearts, souls, and minds to a greater understanding and a better way of following God’s commands.

            So Jesus told them, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  Jesus was actually re-framing all of the commandments in a simpler fashion. To love God with all of your heart meant to love God in the exact way that we were created. God created human beings in His likeness for this very purpose: to love Him and enjoy His creation forever. He didn't make us love Him; He didn't force us to love Him; He simply created us to love Him, freely and sincerely, of our own volition and free will. Loving God is not compulsory; it is meant to be experienced directly from the heart. Just as in the mysterious way that we love or fall in love with someone else, we are meant to love God. I think this is why we cannot say when or where we first started to love God – the love is either there or it isn't.

Jesus also stated that we are meant to love God with all our soul; this means that our spiritual nature is meant to be connected to God. Again, it’s a free-spirited connection – it either exists within us or not – and only we and God know this. However, through the work of the church, our spirits can be nurtured and nourished so that our spiritual side is drawn closer to God through the teachings of Christ. If our pulpit preachers and Sunday school teachers, our guiding elders and team leaders are doing the work of Christ sincerely, then everything we do in church has a deep spiritual connection to God.

In a world which has mistakenly broken its soul-connection to God in order to have a religious connection to its navel, the spiritual work of the Church is very important. This is why I keep trying to emphasize and reinforce in your hearts, souls, and minds that regular worship, prayer, and Bible study are immensely important in all of our lives, as well as the souls of our children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews. In my experience, there is nothing so empty as a soulless person; there is nothing so sorrowful as a spiritually stunted child.

            Jesus then emphasizes the need to love God with all of our minds. He was saying this specifically to the Pharisee lawyers because they had used their minds to focus upon the laws of God. They had memorized each and every one of them. They had even broken down the original Ten Commandments into 317 amendments, which meant that they had 317 by-laws to keep. Their minds were fully focused on not breaking any commandment or amendment. They upheld God’s Word as an everlasting Constitution which should never be re-interpreted, reformed, or revised unless it was considered to be a holy amendment.

            The trouble with these amendments was that they became idolatrous and broke their connection to God. The amendments were a means to keep God at a distance and became a wall of separation between themselves and God, as well as God’s people. In fact, the word ‘Pharisees’ means ‘The Separated Ones.’ Initially, it was meant to be a religious process where people separated themselves from the ways of the world to grow closer and become more spiritual – much like the cloistered monks and nuns in the European Middle Ages. Instead, it became a way of becoming religiously elite – separated from both God and man, in order to pursue a religious idealism which piously glorified the devoted individual Pharisee in the eyes of God and man.

            There’s a saying that we all know: a mind is a terrible thing to waste. This is exactly what Jesus was expressing to the Pharisees with His answer to their question. He was telling them that their minds were created to love God, not rules and regulations, or by-laws and precepts. Their minds were meant to contemplate the works of God, not man’s way. Their minds were supposed to meditate on God’s mercy and grace, justice and love, not sentences and phrases, interpretations and amendments. They were wasting their minds by focusing on trivial religious pursuits; they were wasting their lives on fruitless thoughts and mindless meanderings.

            So Jesus told them to love God with all of their hearts, souls, and minds, for to Him, this was the greatest commandment of all. But then, Jesus being Jesus, added something new, something unexpected, and something to challenge them. He said to them, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Now Jesus knew that the Pharisees absolutely loved themselves – most conceited people are – you only have to look at the Kardashians on television or magazines to understand that. The Pharisees had a deep pride in themselves and sought each day to add to their esteem. Remember the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican – The Pharisee tells God how good he is at keeping all of the laws and then brazenly thanks God that he is not like the publican. That’s what conceit does – it makes us love ourselves more than other people – it makes us thankful that we don’t live in a Third World country, or have grown up in a ghetto, or that we don’t have an addiction, or that we don’t watch seedy programs or read dirty books. It’s called ‘self-righteousness’ and we all suffer from it. Thank God, we’re all saying right now, that we’re not anything like those conceited Pharisees – if we had been there, we would have shown them how to follow Jesus, right?

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”       Wow. It’s a simple statement which, if fully acted upon, would end all wars, violence, poverty, and disease all over this paltry planet. If we could all love one another as neighbors in the same way that we love and take care of ourselves, we wouldn't need welfare, or Food stamps, or homeless shelters because we would all be taking care of one another.

You see Jesus was not only challenging the Pharisees, He was challenging the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel, just as He is presently challenging us today! If we, as Erin Presbyterian Church loved the community where are located in, as much as we love ourselves, we could make an immense impact on this part of Knoxville, but only if we are willing to do so. Next Sunday, we get that opportunity by donating blood to Medic before and after the church service. We get a further opportunity to join our Outreach team on Saturday 22nd November to distribute food to those in need over at the Fish Pantry on Weisgarber. If we love only ourselves, we’ll probably avoid participating; if we honestly love our neighbors, then we’ll give blood to save other lives; and we’ll give out food to feed families.

So, to sum things up, Jesus said it best:

37 Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."