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Steven W. Smith is the author of  the book, The Lazarus Life: Spiritual Transformation for Ordinary People and companion study guide Living the Lazarus Life: A Guidebook to Spiritual Transformation.  He also is co-founder (with his wife, Gwen) of The Potter’s Inn in Colorado, which is promoted as “a Christian ministry devoted to spiritual formation and soul care.” http://www.pottersinn.com/soulcare/retreat-seven-commitments.htm

Steve also has authored several other books including Embracing Soul Care, Soul Shaping, The Transformation of a Man’s Heart and Soul Care: The Seven Commitments for a Healthy Soul.

I came across Smith on an ordinary Sunday morning in service at my former church about a year and a half ago.  Because his message was a bit jarring, I remember a few details.  He spent some time talking about a theme of his book, The Lazarus Life.  As he began to speak, I became more and more alarmed.  I have since listened to him speak, and to other pastors speak about the themes of The Lazarus Life, and there is a consistency in the general message. 

I have come across a sample copy of parts of The Lazarus Life, online which reveals the thinking and direction of the book.  The companion study notes are often found on church websites as some churches are choosing to run through the book and guide as a series.  The messages I have heard in person or through online media parallel the book and companion study. 

The copyright page alone is very revealing, acknowledging the use of several versions of the bible including The Message by Eugene Peterson.  I have found this to be the main version Steven W. Smith uses when he is speaking, and it appears frequently in the book.  The differences are striking between this version and the ESV, KJV, NIV, or NASB versions I am familiar with in church settings.  One example I recently heard while listening to a presentation by Smith, and he used one of the Beatitudes to make a point.  This is also quoted in his book.  Comparing these interpretations can give insight to how different the MSG than other versions typically used. 

Matthew 5:3:

(MSG) “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

(KJV) “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

(NIV) “Blessed are the poor in spirit,  for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

(NASB) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

(ESV) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Interesting how consistent the other versions are on this one.  The Message presents it’s own meaning of Matthew 5:3.   The Message version also takes the focus inward and on the person reading.  Note the references to “you” in the verse. 

Steven W. Smith promotes and makes his living off of the concept of Spiritual Transformation.  His message is based on the account of Lazarus rising from the dead.  Sadly, when presenting the account, Smith changes things, he makes it something it’s not at all.  The account is recorded in John Chapter 11.   

 In reading  and then commenting on the account of Lazarus, which I heard live, Steven Smith focuses on what happens both before and after the raising of Lazarus.  He speaks of the amount of time Jesus lingered and did not visit the ill Lazarus.  Much is made of how Jesus could have come earlier.  This is turned into a call to solitude and silence, we must wait on Jesus.  It’s also used to express the concept that Jesus will not always show up in our difficult times.  When we ask, “where is God,” we can note that He sometimes lingers as He did with Lazarus.  Though it is true Jesus doesn’t always stop the cancer, the job loss, the death of a loved one…it is not true that He lingers and is not with us.  However, Smith spends much time focusing on this tarrying and also on our response, which is to wait and to listen.  He parallels this with times people spent “in the wilderness.” 

In my notes on a sermon of Smith’s, this is what he says about the time in the wilderness.  Note the verses used come from The Message:  “…”when life is heavy and hard to take go off by yourself, enter the silence, bow in prayer, don’t ask questions, wait for hope to appear.  Don’t run from trouble.  Take it full face.  The worst is never the worst.  Lamentations, do you know what that word means?  Lamentations means lamenting.  Lamentations…it’s almost as if you want to grab some of those words.  When life is heavy and hard to take, enter the silence.  Paul’s right there, don’t reach for your own demand button.  Silence has a way of reducing us, we can enter the silence and say, “what are you up to God.”  When we enter the silence our prayer just becomes “God what are you up to.”  Bow in prayer, that’s right, bow.  Bow because we must.  We don’t know the future, we don’t know what’s going to happen in our economy, I dont’ know what’s going to happen to my son in Iraq.  “You are God, I am not, I release my entitlement…and this is a hard one…don’t ask questions.”  Wait for hope to appear, don’t run from the trouble.  Dont’ run from the trouble and seek out another church.  Let’s deal with something.  May we in our own grave clothes ask to be free.  Don’t run from the trouble.”

Smith takes this Lamentations chapter, and uses it to begin teaching about contemplative prayer, introducing a congregation to “the silence.”  He uses it for individual problems, which are a big deal to each of us.  His son is in Iraq, this is very difficult for him.  He suggests we use Lamentations to encourage us in these difficulties.  If we have a problem, enter the silence, bow down in prayer, wait on the Lord.  See what God is up to. 

Let’s look at the verses he quotes in Lamentations again, through context and in different versions. 

The MSG Lamentations 3:28-30

”when life is heavy and hard to take go off by yourself, enter the silence, bow in prayer, don’t ask questions, wait for hope to appear.  Don’t run from trouble.  Take it full face.  The worst is never the worst.” 

NIV

Let him sit alone in silence,
 for the LORD has laid it on him.

Let him bury his face in the dust—
 there may yet be hope.

Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him,
and let him be filled with disgrace.

ESV Lamentations 3:28-30

 Let him sit alone in silence
   when it is laid on him;

 let him put his mouth in the dust—
   there may yet be hope;
 

let him give his cheek to the one who strikes,
  and let him be filled with insults.

As you can see, the versions have differences.  The NIV and ESV are not a huge contrast, but The Message really sounds like a completely different text.  It is important to use a good translation when teaching concepts to a congregation.   What is interesting is Smith neglects to give the entire context.  What is going on in this passage that the writer is so downcast?

This book, some think is written by Jeremiah, records great suffering in Jerusalem.  The city has sinned, turned away from God.  God lets loose His wrath, and also allows the city to be taken by it’s enemies.  This is not about only one man’s problems.  It’s not about cancer, it’s not about job loss.  It’s about the deep sorrow for a people who have sinned, and now are experiencing great suffering.  The people are showing who they are in this suffering, the mothers withholding food from their children, even to the point of “boiling” their young for food.  This is like the Holocaust, there is desolation and death everywhere.  No one is there to help. 

 Now, think, if a person witnesses his people suffering and knows it is because of sin and wrath, and if he himself is part of this suffering, wouldn’t the lament begin?  Wouldn’t the tears flow?  The writer talks of his teeth grinding in the dirt, he speaks of bowing way down into the dust.  He is shamed, he is insulted, he is nothing.  It is time to be silent, time to listen to God.  It is the only hope.  Only God will give any chance of salvation.  This is not about coping with problems, it is about repentance and begging for mercy.  It is about seeking God and showing true anguish, true mourning over sins. 

It is true that God is there and we can wait on him in our troubles, but to suggest this passage  is about waiting on God in silence when we have life’s troubles whether big or small is to misuse the passage.  To use it to place people into the dessert and go off on some contemplative prayer exercise to make life better is wrong. 

Smith misuses the entire account of Lazarus to make the story about the individual.  He even has titles in his book such as “I Am Lazarus:  Finding Ourselves in the Story” and “The Voice of Love:  Hearing the Savior Call You by Name.” 

On page 71 of The Lazarus Life:  Spiritual Transformation for Ordinary People Smith writes:

“In Jesus’ words to Lazarus, we hear the same Voice of Love that we can hear for ourselves today.  We learn through Lazarus that only love transforms a person—not power, not information, not effort.  We learn through Lazarus the beauty of listening to that love.  This is one of the greatest spiritual callings of our journey.”

and further:

“Hearing Jesus speak your name is the first step in emerging from the tomb and moving toward transformation.  Jesus speaks your name—not your friend’s, not your pastor’s not your teacher’s—when he invites you to “come forth” it is a personal invitation of love.” 

On page 72 Smith goes even further, 

“The crucial step of being transformed is learning to let yourself be loved.  Skip this step and transformation will not happen. ”

This all becomes about the individual person, their self esteem, recognizing a person is worthy of God’s love.  All of this from the account of Lazarus, from looking at our circumstances and comparing them to what was happening in Lamentations.  We are to be silent so we can “hear the voice of Jesus” call us out of the tomb. 

Basically, Steven Smith is saying in order to be transformed we have to accept that God loves us.  He says it like this on page 77: 
“Until we realize that Jesus is willing and able to come to our own tombs and speak words of love, we will live a lie.  In our churches we will stand and sing of God’s love and the life that Jesus offers, but inside we will stand alone in fear that He may not call our name out as He called the name of Lazarus.  This kind of  lie robs us of the life Jesus wants for us—a life in which we enjoy the love of a God who would do anything to free us.”

On pg 80 Smith quotes Henry Nouwen:

“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection…Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence. (From Henri Nouwen’s book, Life of the Beloved)”

What is the actual point of the account of Christ raising Lazarus from the dead?  One need only look in the book of John to find why it was written. 

John 20:31 (ESV) “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

Why does Steven W. Smith believe this account was written.  In his study guidebook called Living the Lazarus Life he takes the reader through visualizations and encourages Lectio Divina and other forms of contemplative prayer. 

 

Exercise on pg 45  “Read the passage slowly and reflect on these questions.  You may find it helpful to read this passage three or four times, pausing after each reading, to listen for a different aspect or emphasis or insight.”  The quote then has a footnote referencing Lectio Divina as a sacred reading and encouraging a slower, contemplative reading of the passage.  Two books are suggested….Smith’s own Embracing Soul Care and Too Deep for Words by Thelma Hall.  Smith even suggests to use Google to find web sites on the subject of Lectio Divina.

The first question encourages the reader to “ Imagine this scene.  What do you see? Hear? Feel? Smell?  Where do you see yourself in this story? (footnote) With whom do you most identify?  What do you imagine this man might have felt after such a long time of waiting?”  In the footnote it Smith explains further: “Engaging the senses is an ancient and important way of reading the scriptures.”  He then explains that Ignatius was one who helps “believers use all of their God-given senses to understand the truth of scriptures.”

Steven W. Smith uses biblical passages to assert that spiritual transformation requires our realization that God loves us, as an individual.  We must go through a time of silence, solitude, and prayer exercises in order to understand the scriptures, to hear God speaking to us, to heal our souls.  We are to place ourselves in the biblical accounts, use our imagination to put words in Christ’s mouth, and learn to cope with life’s problems.

This approach is disturbing.  The bible is used to put forth an agenda.  All the while, the focus is off God and what He has done, off Christ and his sacrifice, off our need for salvation due to our wretched sin.  It’s about learning to cope with problems, to learn methods for feeling closer to God, for learning to feel better about ourselves and that we are loved.  Much of the gospel is twisted or missing.  Much of the Christian life becomes a self examination. 

Self examination should lead to a realization of our sin, our need to repent, and the greatness of God.  Instead, it seems to me, Smith wants us to examine ourselves to learn we are something in God’s sight.  Yes, Jesus does love us, but are we to use this knowledge of his love to focus on ourselves?  Are we to visualize Him saying He loves us?  Are we to put words in His mouth and imagine His actions toward us in a biblical account?

More quotes to ponder from Smith….The Lazarus Life:

Pg. 76 “It was not until I knew myself to be the Beloved (capitalized in the book) of God—singled out as a soul-sick man in his forties—that I began to be transformed.” and  “The seed of transformation that took root in my life was this:  I had to learn to accept being accepted.  I had to be loved.” and on page 83:  “Silence and solitude became the tools of transformation for me to hear what my soul-sick soul needed to hear:  I am loved.  I am wanted.  I am the object of Jesus’ love.” Further on page 90:  “The ancient spiritual exercises also help us learn how to enter silence and be alone with ourselves.  There our aloneness is transformed to true solitude.  We find that we are at last at home with ourselves and experience peace with God.”

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Well, not bipolar, in the psychology sense, but in the sense of what is presented up front.  Today, there was a speaker in for the vacationing pastor.  The speaker shared a sermon basically on the definition of the gospel.  I believe he was spot on with his sermon.  He used Ephesians 2:1-10.

 “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.  But 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, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is  not your own doing; it is the gift of God,  not a result of works,  so that no one may boast.  For  we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand,  that we should walk in them.”

 

He stated his desire was to clearly tell what the gospel is.  He then spoke first of our depravity, our sin before we came to salvation.  Next  spoke of the gift of salvation, and that God gives it through faith in Christ, and not at all of works.  He then explained that our service beyond this is not works for salvation, but works that are also a gift of God to us.  We are given works but we desire to do them once saved.  However, we still have our sin nature, and we still have to deal with this.  The good news, then, comes after the bad news.  The bad news is before salvation we are sinners following the course of the world, following Satan, and following after our own fleshly desires.  In contrast to our sin nature, to our selfishness, there is a “but” which shows our vast difference to God.  But God, “being rich in mercy” and because of the “great love” for us even though we were dead in our sin…made us alive in Christ.  This contrast, this salvation from our death and our depth in sin is the gospel.  We are not saved by anything we do.  He hammered this point home though he speaks softly.  It was wonderful to hear, and he commented a couple of times that even long time Christians need to be reminded of the gospel.  In fact, he reminds himself daily.  Cannot remember the verse he quoted, it was in Romans…but he says he reminds himself daily. 

This man is not a preacher, but he is a professor at a local college.  He is a serious Christian.  He left our former church for issues such as someone on the board publishing attacks on Christians who believe in the literal 7 days of creation…and because of Rob Bell influence in the youth side of church.  He fought hard for a few years, was a young elder (ironic, isn’t it).  He is a quiet, gentle man, but is also willing to take a stand.  He and his family had to leave our former church.  Since the little church plant has very few people it seems there is not always another pastor available so they asked him to speak.  He spoke well. 

The worship leader, music leader, whatever he is called, really bothered me though today.  He did the usual set of songs, some seemed right on, others I could not sing, had to evaluate them a bit more.  In the middle of the “set” he suddenly said, “let’s just have silence for a bit.”  What?  Silence.  I just whispered to my husband, “why?”  My 8 year old son nervously laughed.  I don’t get this silence for no reason garbage.  Sure, it’s not going to reach out and make me into a meditating (in the eastern way) person.  Still, I believe the introduction of silence with no explaination is inappropriate.  I have to wonder if this is conditioning for contemplative.  Actually, I don’t wonder much at all, I believe it is conditioning for that.  This has happened at this church before.  This is one of the two we are considering.  I am trusting God to show us where to go, and my husband really likes this church because of the pastor and the couple who we basically “followed” to this church. 

More questions have to be answered.

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Moving on in this electronic world is hard.  It’s hard not to listen online, hard not to see people people online either.  We have chosen to leave our former church, but so far the issue hasn’t left us.  When I was overheard, this prompted a call to the pastor and a call to us (I assume it was me as I can think of where I would have been and who I was with…when I was speaking openly in public).  His statement is that the church has denounced emergent and is not headed in an emergent direction.  He says we base our information on a few sermons by a different pastor.  He also says they let go of one youth pastor, but though “we talked about Nooma videos he showed” (which we never did talk about and we weren’t aware) he wanted us to be discreet about that and thought we discussed that discreetness…uhmmmm.  We never had that conversation and thank you for proving our point.  Noomas in the youth is another sign of clear emergent leanings.  Oh, and the pastor says they let several staff members go because of financial reasons, not for the Noomas.  So they may have confronted emergent verbally, but do they see it in their staff?  Pastor claims “emergent” is dying.  Well, the terms may have changed, but the shift of churches is not dying. 

To his credit, his sermons do use scripture very much.  I don’t think Rick Warren is the same as Doug Pagitt.  I do not think Dallas Willard is the same as McLaren.  I do believe they are on a similar path, to change church and to focus on emergent youth OR on self and disciplines from Catholic mystics.  This may not be emergent.  I see other authors label it something else, contemplative something or other…maybe it’s contemplative spiritual disciplines.  To be clear, the church we attended hasn’t come out with contemplative prayer.  It has come out with spiritual formation.  This term alone links back to monks in caves hundreds of years ago.  These monks chanted and used breathing techniques as well as repetition to “meditate.”  Requirements of silence, fasting, and the like for a supposed deeper relationship with God are part of this spiritual discipline thing, as well as spiritual formation.  If the church has a spiritual formation pastor, and plans on lectio divina (as spoken by the pastor’s own mouth) and wants to follow the plans of Dallas Willard, and impliments “moments of silence” often, calls people to fast (not wrong to fast by the way, but it’s part of a larger picture here) then they are part of a movement that is not Biblical.  Focusing on this for spiritual transformation, methods and means not practiced by the disciples themselves.  I would say choosing to be disciplined is not a bad thing.  Saying you need it for deeper relationship with Christ is not accurate.  Discipline can make our Christian lives easier, can make memorization easier, and can help us to start our day in prayer.  Altering breathing, sitting in silence with no activity, these things are strange and unbibical in the context of trying to get closer to God.  Making an effort to give a sacrifice to God in our day is not wrong, as long as we realize our sacrifices are not worthy but God is gracious and merciful and can be pleased by us if we are humble and contrite (which cannot be manufactured).  Service is also a part of the spiritual formation movement.  Service in Christian life in itself is good.  However, service as a way to “get closer to God” is not.  I believe what is wrong with spiritual formation is it’s all flipped.  Service for others flows FROM the compassion we gain in Christ.  We are first made new creatures.  We have to recognize we still have a sin nature.  At any rate, our pastors from our former church were heavy into the spiritual formation books, mostly Dallas Willard. 

The one pastor who was most obvious in his sermons doesn’t make the head pastor bat an eye.  He sees no scary connections when Frost, Miller, and others are quoted.  He doesn’t even ruffle when he’s told about the “christ conciousness” or “christ coursing through my veins” or “you are little christs.”  He even defended the “little christ” comment.  He mentioned lectio divina, he defended Dallas Willard and suggested we read his books.  He defended the teaching by Steve Smith when he visited the church…the teaching that Lazarus had grave clothes and our grave clothes are life’s trials and burdens.  This teaching was strange, and bothered me a great deal and the pastor mentioned lectio divina after these stating, “it’s been around since the reformation.”  

Another pastor we spoke to said if our former church has denounced emergent doctrine and that was our complaint, we couldn’t leave then.  Well, we may not have brought out we don’t agree with following Warren’s P.E.A.C.E. plan and we may have only mentioned Dallas Willard, but our issue is with these things too.  We also feel, and it’s hard to define exactly, but that the lead pastor is manipulative and really makes me personally nervous.  Anyone who knew we were having a meeting with the man said, “good luck.”  He is intimidating.  This alone is a red flag of warning.  In general, people give the impression they don’t really feel safe with him or may feel he’s overbearing.  Don’t know if I can pin it down.  I know I personally have been friendly to him, he’s been friendly back.  He just seems much like a man trying to proove something.  I have met men like him, if I were in single land (before marriage) I would have known two things.  This man would never choose someone like me to date, and I would never choose him.  I feel like he’d be a guy who I would fight with.  I feel like I’d be expected to act a certain way in the home.  He’s not necessarily someone who oppresses women, don’t get me wrong.  I just get that feeling when around some men, that I wouldn’t mix with him.  Usually these guys are driven and goal oriented, intelligent.  However, they seem to be demanding and perfectionistic.  It’s not authority, it’s something else.  Now this is just speculation on my part…please don’t misunderstand.  I’m not saying he’s a bad man or anything, just most people don’t say he’s sweet. 

Oh, see, I’ve titled this “moving on” and I cannot move on.  That is my problem.  I have got to find a way to get this out of me, let it go.  How do you let go when you think a church is being led in the wrong direction?

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For God alone, my soul waits in silence…

http://www.frbaptist.org/bin/view/Ptp/PtpTopic20060414133853

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Is this old news?  I have a friend who has an online journal who posts devotionals from In Touch Ministries.  I’ve been noticing references to “quiet” and other comments leading me to think it’s contemplative.  Just check out todays devotional for yourself.

http://www.intouch.org/site/c.dhKHIXPKIuE/b.2383055/k.29A5/Early_Light_Devotional__In_Touch_Ministries/apps/nl/newsletter.asp

The advice in the devotional tells it’s readers to “”quiet your spirit” and listen to God.  Where in scripture are we told to “quiet your spirit?”  What could he possibly mean by this? 


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I think people would say numbers at church are good, that this might be a fruit of labor.  Also, it might be programs, yes, our church has many programs to meet the needs.  It might also be how much outreach we do.  If we’re in India, Mexico, New Orleans, Africa, and in the other regions of our local metroplex, then we’re producing good fruit.  If we have above 80% of our people in small groups, 75% of our  children who have “made decisions for Christ” and have 100% of all members baptized, this is good fruit too, right?  If we retain 90% of our youth into college, we’ve made good fruit.  All of this is supposed to measure good fruit, prove that our purpose driven thing is good (our church doesn’t have these numbers by the way, I’m making them up).  Being missional, believing in missional, having everyone march in lock step behind the wonderful pastors who read all these wonderful books, and raising our hands when we sing, this is all good right?  If we all practice spiritual disciplines and fast for 40 days, pray in silence, and practice solitude, we’ll have the good fruit of a deeper faith, deeper experience, deeper…better, my life as a Christ follower is better than your life as a Christ follower because I have taken up this author’s beliefs or this movement’s beliefs, I’ve joined the revivial/reformation/transformation…so I’m better, right?  These fruits are what we want, right?

So how come I felt unfed?  Do I need to be a “self feeder.”  Is that what Jesus wants for His followers, to be self feeders?  Though Rich Mullins spoke with Manning and did practice silence, and very well may have begun the mystic Christianity (I’m not sure how far he went into this) I keep thinking of his line, “I know that the thirsty listen, and down to the waters come…”  I’m in my church and I’m thirsty.  I’ve confessed my faith in Christ since I was about 7 years old, I’ve matured some.  Yes, I am not where I want to be, but I am no longer a baby in Christ, I do not need the foundations to be laid again, I’m past that.  However, I do need the pastor to have the foundations under his mission, under his ministry, under his words, under his purposes for our church.  Our pastor is starting with the premise that we have to fix what is wrong with our wealthy American local church.  We haven’t been doing enough, so we need to stretch.  We need to reach out, we need to give.  He even says it’s a myth we’re going to stop feeding the mature believers.  Then how come I feel so unfed there?  How come I can read for myself and feel fed, but AT church I often am trying to figure out how what the pastor says applies? 

So, if our numbers are up, or the mission is so good, how come the church is becoming divided and the mature Christians are leaving?  Some might say it’s because they are closed minded or want their own power.  Well, from what I’ve seen, those who have left have not at all been powerful.  They’ve not been unwilling to serve, or unwilling to give.  They usually leave with a statement on their lips, “I was feeling that I needed more biblical study here…” or, “my children are coming up in the youth ministry, and I don’t like the direction they are going, the focus is less on the bible than I wanted.” 

So, this is the fruit in our church…many youth going on mission trips and having the experience of their lives, many members “connected” in a small group with studies like “Walk Across the Room” by Hybells or “Five Love Languages” or some other such counseling style book.  We’ve got a church full of leaders that can easily “facilitate” a small group and pop in a DVD driven series from any number of books.  We serve in the community in really great ways, but some of them amount to just picking up trash.  We really do have some good things though like food pantry giving, or building homes.  We’ve got partnerships with churches in other areas where we help build homes and churches in those communities, this is practical and good.  But, we have many other projects we do that don’t relate to Christianity in any way.  We bring the local community in for dinner theater and carnival type activities.  At least at the carnival, there is no mention of Christ anywhere.  It sure is entertaining though. 

Galatians 5:22-23  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,  Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.

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