Thursday, November 30, 2017


There is no LaGrave blog during Advent.  We pray that this season makes our hearts, minds, and hands receptive and responsive to the coming of Jesus, our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Resurrection of the Body

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Scripture for Sunday, November 26:  Luke 23:32-43--but if you have time, read the whole chapter.
Additional Scripture:  Philippians 1:21-23, 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 
Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 57-58

Last week in our Words on the Wall series, we heard Paul gush about the amazing realities of who we are in Christ from Ephesians 1.  Rev. Jonker reminded us that focusing on who Jesus is and what he has done for us--his church--grants us freedom to live from a place of faith, hope, and love despite the obstacles we face in being his body on earth.

This week, our Words on the Wall series comes to a close.  And it does so by addressing a question that we all face in this life:  What Happens When We Die?

With God

We celebrated Thanksgiving last weekend with my extended family.  Like others in our church, I think of the people who are missing from our table.  And I am thankful for the people who were around the table, knowing that next year isn't guaranteed. 

Our table this year included my grandma, who has been a widow for 16 years.  Grandpa died of cancer, at home, when I was in college.  On the rare occasions when I get to visit grandma on the other side of the state, I can almost picture grandpa sitting in the chair where he died in their living room.

Grandpa was an uncomplicated guy--a carpenter with minimal education whose goals in life were to love his wife and his family and his God.  But despite strong faith, dying was scary.  Lung cancer is an ugly thing.

Before he died, Grandpa had a dream that gave him great reassurance.  The way I remember hearing the story, in Grandpa's dream Jesus met him and welcomed him to a beautifully set table.

Grandpa knew Jesus.  And he knew Jesus' and Paul's expectation of conscious blessedness beyond death in the presence of Christ.  Hearing Grandpa's story of Jesus' assurance for him helps settle my own convictions about "being absent from the body" and "present with the Lord" deep into my bones. 

To be sure, death and dying are scary.  We have words to soften the reality of death--"translated," "passed away," or "fell asleep."  But encountering death with the One who has conquered it makes all the difference.  

This Sunday, Rev. Jonker will unpack each word of Jesus' response to the thief on the cross:  "Today you will be with me in paradise."  

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:  

1)  Does your family or family-in-faith have stories of assurance in the face of death that give you hope?  What are they?

2)  The Hebrew concept of life (often translated "soul") is "nephesh," which means "life" or "living thing."  This is different from our Western view of a body/soul duality.  Our "souls" and "bodies" constitute one living thing--and its life is incredibly valuable and important!  It's what allows us to glorify God in his creation, and to interact with one another and the world.  

When the psalmist asks, "do the dead praise you?" in the infamous Psalm 88, the question is rhetorical--of course the dead don't praise God!  

Yet Psalm 88 throws into sharper relief the good news of Christ's resurrection, our hope for life in him immediately after death, and the resurrection of our bodies that is to come.  Read and reflect on Psalm 88 with the good news of Christ in view.

3)  Watch this short video of NT Wright on life after death and the resurrection of all things.  Reflect or discuss what he proposes as different or the same as your own views and convictions.          

Thursday, November 16, 2017

One Holy Catholic Church

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Scripture for Sunday, November 19:  Ephesians 1:3-14

Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 54-55

Last week in our Words on the Wall series, Rev. Jonker preached from Acts 2.  We saw how the gift of the Holy Spirit floods into the lives of believers, fills us with God's grace, and prepares us to pour that grace out to those we meet.

This week, we turn our attention to the one holy universal church--a community that has been called and set apart by God to grow in grace and reflect him to the world.  Yet the church is a complicated body.  We'll look to the Apostle Paul's teaching in Ephesians as we think about motivating "church people" to live into their calling.

We're approaching our second-to-last sermon in the Words on the Wall Series, and that means weekly blogs are coming to an end (for now) too.  During Advent and Epiphany, I will not be blogging so that I can focus more attention on other areas of ministry.  I have loved the opportunity to deepen my own engagement in our series this way, and I am looking forward to blogging again in the later winter or spring.  --Rev. Manion


Ephesians 1:3-14 reads like a shaken two-liter bottle:  the overflow just keeps coming.  Paul can hardly stop writing to re-ink his pen as he tries to capture the glorious, other-worldly reality of who we are in Christ.

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ," Paul exults--and then goes on in one long sentence with phrase after phrase unpacking exactly what that means.

Foundational for Paul is that we are chosen--called into the family of God even before creation itself was a twinkle in the eye of our endlessly creative Father.

God's boundless creativity started not with light and darkness, Paul says, but with his people in mind.  People made in God's image, designed to belong to God's family, chosen even before he made a home suitable for us. 

For us, that's amazing.  It means God has invested great worth in us.  And for God, it is joyful.  Paul says it was God's "good pleasure" to adopt us (v. 5); and it was God's "good pleasure" to let us in on his plan to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ  (v. 10).

God calls us to belong to his family, and then shares the great and good plan that he will carry out at just the right time.

As our eight-year-old would say, that's epic.

Our challenge is to live with one another in our homes and churches with these realities in mind, as if these cosmic realities were all true.  Because of course, they are.

But much conspires to keep us from seeing the church this way.

In C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, Screwtape (the senior devil) writes to Wormwood (the junior devil, who is working to keep his assigned "patient" from growing in Christian faith), about aspects of church life that most effectively dampen the flame of faith:

"One of our [the demons'] great allies at present is the Church itself....  I do not mean the Church as we see her spread throughout time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners...All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate....When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided....Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous."  (Lewis, 12).

The church community chosen and called into being before the creation of the world faces any number of human flaws and obstacles.  It's telling that Screwtape's characterization of the church can ring so true for us.

But Paul's vision for what God is doing, what God will continue to do until the end, unifying things in heaven and on earth under one head--Christ--is astonishingly beautiful and deeply true.  And it's the vision we nurture as well. 

Questions for Reflection or Discussion:

1)  From the Sermon:  Do you find "bulletin board" pep talks motivational?  Or are you more motivated by positive encouragement or inspiration?  Which one is your go-to strategy when you are working with a difficult situation or person?

2)  What would you say are the greatest barriers to faith or church membership for people who do not belong to a church?  How (on a human level) can we address some of those obstacles?

3)  For personal reflection and/or conversation:  Read through Ephesians 1:3-14.  Try to identify all the gifts of our being chosen to belong to Christ and list them.  Then consider a situation or a relationship where you feel inadequate or underequipped.  Pray through this list of blessings that are yours through Jesus (holiness, adoption as valued children because it pleased God to do so, recipients of grace, people who are forgiven, etc.). 

Look for ways the Spirit presses the truths about you into the places of self-reliance or  helps you in weakness as you hear these truths about who you are.

4)  Now identify a brother or a sister in Christ who is difficult for you to get along with.  Pray through the list of blessings in Christ for them, and that you would be able to regard them through the eyes of Christ.  (This isn't a bad practice to make before family gatherings for Thanksgiving or Christmas.)  

5)  If you are open to a musical venture into the realm of Christian contemporary music, listen to the song "Flawless," by MercyMe, about who we are in Christ.  Discuss.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

God Has Poured Out His Spirit

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Scripture for Sunday, November 12, 2017:  Acts 2:29-47
Heidelberg Catechism Question & Answer 53
Additional Scripture:  Ephesians 2:4-10
John 7:38-39
Last week in our Words on the Wall series, Reverend Boven preached from Romans 6:1-11.  She addressed "imposter syndrome"--the sense of inadequacy many of us have.  And she considered how, in Christ, we all have new identities in a new world order because of His resurrection.  The deepest, most powerful truth about our identity is that we are children of God.
This week, Rev. Jonker will preach from Acts 2:29-47, considering how Christ's outpoured Spirit fills us to the brim for continued outpouring.
Counter-Cultural Giving
We enter the second chapter of Acts this week--a book filled to the brim with adventure and dramatic evidence of God's work.  The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost happens here.  Stories of persecution, martyrdom, and blinding conversion happen here.  Paul's missionary exploits are here.  It's a very exciting read, seeing just how God got this fledgling movement called the Way off the ground. 
Yet I have to confess that Acts 2:42-47 challenges my middle-class, Western way of following Jesus.  Sell my stuff to give to those who are in need?  Hold everything in common with fellow Christians?  That's quite a change to my way of life.
Let's assume I could get my mind and heart around the financial aspects of life together in the early church.  But then, could I get behind all the togetherness?   Meet together in the temple courts every day?  (What's an introvert to do?)  Break bread together with a glad and sincere heart?  (Could we make at least some of it gluten-free?)

The community described in Acts 2:42 and following is a community of counter-cultural giving, empowered by something outside itself for this kind of life.  That something is God's Spirit, as Peter says in Acts 2:32-33: 

"32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
The ascended, exalted Jesus receives the Holy Spirit from the Father and pours out the Spirit to fill up the believers.  And the Spirit pours out of his followers in radical generosity, radical fellowship, radical witness.  The community testifies to amazing evidences of God's Spirit among them and demonstrates to all the watching world that God is doing a new thing.

Many of us seek to follow Jesus in counter-cultural ways in our North American context.  We give beyond what's expected--time, talent, money.  We serve in an area of Holy-Spirited gift, experiencing both the joy and the challenge of undertaking something beyond us with God.  We take discerning relational risks, letting other people into our lives in anticipation of a community where loving and trustworthy feedback have a shaping influence on our lives--so that others may witness Christ's Spirit among us.

This kind of communal give-and-take can be scary.  It can be exhausting.  We know from personal experience, or from someone close to us, stories of trusting relationships gone awry.  We also know stories of compassion fatigue and donor burnout.  What happens if we get on the treadmill of giving and we can't get off?

Henry Nouwen writes about giving that leads to burnout rather than life.  He says this:
"When you get exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed, or run down, your body is saying that you are doing things that are none of your business.  God does not require of you what is beyond your ability, what leads you away from God, or what makes you depressed or sad.  God wants you to live for others and to live that presence well.  Doing so might include suffering, fatigue, and even moments of great physical or emotional pain, but none of this must ever pull you away from your deepest self and God"  (The Inner Voice of Love:  A Journey through Anguish to Freedom, Image Doubleday Books, 1996, 67). 

God's Spirit, outpoured on believers, invites us into lives of trust in his goodness and his power.  He invites us to prayerfully wrestle with where we are called to serve, give, and love; when and how to reallocate our energy (not an easy task!); and whether and how we are dwelling with him in the deepest parts of who we are. 

Then our lives offer transparent evidence of Christ in us, not through "the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives"  (Colossians 1:9-12, MSG).
Questions for Reflection or Discussion:
1)  From the Sermon:  Rev. Jonker describes a pattern of outpouring in Christ's life that the gift of the Spirit equips us to imitate.  Where have you seen God's Spirit deposit strength or faith in you and ask you to re-invest it in the life of someone else? 
2)  From the Sermon:  Where are you in the lifting up-filling-outpouring cycle? (Acts 2:33)  In a season of needing to be refilled?  In a season of readiness to pour out?  In what ways does God seem to fill you up to prepare you to pour out (time alone with him; time with others; time in creation; time imitating God by being creative, etc)? 
3)  From the Sermon:  How do you "keep in step with the Spirit," cultivating a life in which the deposits made into your soul by God's Spirit keep pace with the outpouring to which he calls you? 
4)  Related to Stewardship Sunday:  What recent decisions have you struggled over related to following Christ through the use of time, talents, or finances?  What did you decide, and what was the outcome of your decision?  Was coming to a decision difficult or straightforward? 
5)  If the use of wealth interests you, read David Bentley Hart's recent op-ed about Christians and shared ownership of property.  How have you understood a Christian approach to wealth?  How does Hart's article come into dialogue with your convictions?  What is good about communal ownership of property?  What is good about private ownership?   

Thursday, November 2, 2017

He Rose Again from the Dead

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Scripture for Sunday, November 5:  Romans 6:1-11
Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 45

Last week, Rev. Jonker preached about the pervasive problem of guilt in our culture.  We saw how Christ's identification with sin on our behalf removes our guilt and clothes us with Christ's righteousness.
This week, Rev. Boven will preach from Romans 6, reminding us why the words "He rose again from the dead" really are great news for us--not only in this life, but also in the life to come.
Do you not know?
As Romans 6 opens, Paul addresses people who might carry his logic of abundant grace too far. 
"Shouldn't we continue to sin," they say, "if it's an occasion to showcase God's grace?"
Paul's answer is terse:  Absolutely not.  The power of sin is dead.
"We died to sin!  How could we still live in it into the future?"
"Or didn't you know?  Everyone who was baptized into Jesus Christ was baptized into his death."

"We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life."  (Romans 6:4).

Sin in us has been pronounced dead, gone, and buried through our baptism.  Yes--we still occupy a world in which we witness and experience the ramifications and consequences of sin.  We still sin because we are sinners. 

But our identity is no longer in our sin--the very thing about us that alienates us from God.  Our identity is now in Jesus, the one who took our sin and frailty with him to the cross and died to it, once and for all.  We live in this new God-given realm and reality. 

"[I]n the invisible newness of life whereby the new [person] walks in the glory of God, sin has as little light and air and space as in the glory of God which is manifested in the raising of Jesus from the dead," Karl Barth says in his commentary on this passage. 

Sin no longer has power over us.  God has drawn us into a new country where sin no longer freely roams and thrives and exerts its will.

Yet there is an inevitable question:  If that's so, why don't we experience ourselves as more like Jesus, here and now?  If the old is dead and gone and the new has come, where is the outflow of our new identity in Christ?

We long to see ourselves making progress in sanctification.  But Barth says that this new identity is a divine reality, and that the glimpses we have of ourselves as we one day shall be is evidence itself of our being-made-new:

"Since the true conformity to Jesus is no human quality or activity [in other words, sheer gift of God], it cannot be either compared or contrasted with [our] experiences or dispositions....  That life of ours which is positively conformed to Jesus is the life which is hid with Christ in God, and which is only 'ours' here and now as the eternal future.  This, however, is sufficient for us, for the grace of God [suffices]....   Our negative, known, human existence, so little conformed to Jesus, is filled with hope by the positive and secret power of the resurrection"  (Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 196). 

It is to be taken for granted, a given, a grace, that our fallenness and frailty has already been done away with through Christ's death.  That death in the past is the guarantee of our future, entirely reasonable hope:  We really are new creatures because of Christ's death and resurrection. 

So we lean into the future with our eyes on our Lord, trusting him to make us new, bit by bit, setback by setback, day by day looking toward the One who is faithful to complete his work in us.

Questions for Reflection or Discussion:

1)  What encourages you about Christ's resurrection--here and now?  In the eternal future?

2)  Where in your life do you wish you saw more evidence of Christ living out his resurrected life through you?  Talk to him about them.

3)  When you exercise your sanctified imagination, in what ways can you imagine being totally freed from sin in the life to come?  What will that freedom mean for you?

4)  Spend time acknowledging and praising our Resurrected Lord for his once-for-all death and resurrection.   

Thursday, October 26, 2017

He Became Sin for Us

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Scripture for Sunday, October 29:  2 Corinthians 5:11-21

Last week in our Words on the Wall series, Rev. Hoogeboom preached about the scandal of the cross and the great love of our Savior. 
This week, Rev. Jonker will turn our attention to the problem of human guilt.  How does Christ's entrance into this world to "become sin for us"  allow us to become "the righteousness of God"?  (2 Cor. 5:21).
Many of us have never stood before courtrooms as defendants awaiting a jury's pronouncement. 
But we do live with the voices of judges and juries in our minds every day. 
I wish I would have spoken up when that conversation at work made me uncomfortable.
Boy, I really overreacted to my daughter's misbehavior.  I owe her an apology.
I should have spent my time more wisely today.
Amid the swirl of our thoughts, it can be difficult to discern between shame, false guilt and true guilt.
When we feel ashamed, we feel badly about who we are.  Shame makes us feel worthless, to doubt that we are intrinsically valuable image bearers of the one true God.  Shame can keep us in the shadows and away from the love of God in Christ.
False guilt comes when we feel badly because we will disappoint someone, because we are listening to our own expectations, or even because Satan's distortions of the truth are influencing us.   We find ourselves coming up short on a measuring stick that is hard to quantify.  The uncertainty and hesitation we experience can be powerful.
No one else seems to be making their children pack their own school lunches.  Maybe I'm not doing my job as a parent. 
 Did I do enough to keep Dad company in his last days?  I was there as much as I possibly could have been...but I still have this sense that I should have done more.  What if I didn't do right by my dad?

True guilt is an accomplishment for many of us--so said one of my seminary professors.  True guilt is godly sorrow.  It comes from an awareness that we have done something truly wrong, or failed to do something truly right that was within our power to do.

I lied to my teacher when she asked if I turned in that assignment she can't find.  I need to make that right.

I took credit for an idea at work that was really the effort of our whole team.  That was wrong.

When we experience true guilt, it is a motivator toward repentance and reconciliation.  True guilt can be a means by which we come to recognize our need for a Savior, admit that need, and move forward in forgiveness and hope.

In this week's passage, Paul speaks of the great hope we have, no longer relying on our own "worldly" or unredeemed perceptions of ourselves or others:

"So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view....  [I]f anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:  the old has gone, the new is here!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them....  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, that in him we might become the righteousness of God."  (2 Cor. 5:16-21)
Christ, Paul says, is working on a very big project--a project that alters not just individual human destiny (though it does that) but also the destiny of the entire created order.  In Christ, the whole creation is made new--including our perceptions of reality, including the ways that we see one another anew through the eyes of Jesus Christ, including the truth that here and now and forever after we are reconciled to God through Christ.

This is the power of the cross. 
Questions for Reflection or Discussion:
1)  From the Sermon:  Rev. Jonker describes the pervasiveness of guilt in human experience, but also the relative inability of many people to identify it as guilt.  How much does a sense of guilt affect your life?  When or if you feel guilty, what is your usual response to that feeling? 
2)  How does our awareness that Christ becomes our sin, our guilt, our shame free us to live as his people, knowing that God has received his sacrifice on our behalf? 

3)  On being Christ's ambassadors:  In our world, where is an ambassador's citizenship; and what is an ambassador's role?  How does Paul's ambassador metaphor in this passage shape your understanding of our role as Christ's people in the world?
4)  You can read and reflect on Walter Wangerin's short story "The Ragman" here.  This is a picture of substitutionary atonement--the great exchange that Christ makes on our behalf.  

Thursday, October 19, 2017

He Suffered

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Scripture for Sunday, Oct. 22:  1 Corinthians 1:17-25
Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 37:  What do you understand by the word, "suffered"?
Last Sunday, we worshiped Jesus Christ, the one mediator between God and people.  We considered how claiming Christ as the "one name under heaven  by which we must be saved" gives rise to our struggle with the scandal of particularity:  Can so many people outside the Christian faith really be eternally lost?  
We saw that a deep and honest look at different religions shows us that they are foundationally different.  They cannot all be true.  And the kinds of claims  Jesus makes about himself and that others make about him aren't relative.  The scriptural witness makes Jesus' status as the Son of God clear.  Either Jesus is God-in-the-flesh, the way to the Father, or he isn't.  He is a lunatic, a liar, or Lord. 
There is nobody like Jesus, who not only reveals God's path back home but is himself the path back home.  So we respond to the call to pray for "all people,"  praying that they may come to know this Lord whose perfect justice and perfect mercy will be shown in an ultimate way at the end of time.
This week we turn to another scandal about Jesus:  The scandal of his suffering.
The Scandal that is Hard to See
If you have been a follower of Jesus for a long time, it's hard to think about salvation as coming in any way except through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ.  That's a given, something we remember often with thankfulness but entirely without surprise.
But for the young Corinthian church, apparently even among believers  the message of a crucified Messiah was a "stumbling block."
"We preach Christ crucified," Paul says, "A stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God"  (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).
The word translated "stumbling block" is "skandalon," the root of our English word "scandal."  The Jews--Gods chosen people, who knew his works and his ways--were completely scandalized by this kind of Savior.  
Wasn't the Messiah expected to rule and reign with power, in the same mighty way that God had led his people out of Egypt?  It was unfathomable that God's Anointed could be someone whose ministry ended with an execution in the common criminal way, a way that evidenced not God's blessing but his curse (Deuteronomy 21:23).
An accursed Messiah?  Impossible.  Oxymoronic.  Preposterous.
For the Gentiles, the idea of a crucified Christ was madness.  What kind of God gets himself killed by his enemies? How foolish.
But scandalous as a Suffering Savior was, unpopular as it may have been, incomprehensible as it seemed even to those who were taking steps in Christian faith, what is Pastor Paul's approach?  Does he whip out a clever marketing strategy that will persuade the "wise" Greeks?  Does he seek to demonstrate to the Jews how the suffering of the cross was really powerful, just in an imperceptible way?
No.  Paul names the alternatives that keep the Corinthian believers looking for God in expected but erroneous places:  In miraculous signs and in arguments from human wisdom (1 Cor. 1:22). 
Such idolatries were clouding true worship of "Christ crucified"--a God who saved on his own terms; a God who did not consult humans on his plan to save the world; a God whose 'saving through suffering' not only blew away human categories but also saved our lives.
This idea of a suffering savior, a God-Man who died a nasty death at the hands of unclean people is something Paul is eager to re-assert and establish as bedrock.  It is astonishing.  And ugly.  And painful and overwhelming, when you stop to think about it. 
It is also the reason for our very great hope. 
Questions for Reflection or Discussion:
1)  From the Sermon:  Rev. Hoogeboom identifies two forms of idolatry that are temptations for the Corinthian church and for us.  What idolatrous tendency poses more danger to you?  How might the foolishness and weakness of Christ's cross respond to that temptation?
2)  On the Scandal/Surprise of the Cross:  Can you identify a time or a way in which God's way of saving caught you by surprise? 
(I think of reading a book on the Incarnation in my teenage years that suggested Jesus had acne as a teenager.  Our perfect Savior?!  Blemishes?  Impossible!) 
Reflect on your stories of surprise about God's method of saving, and how they impacted your life of faith.
3) Read 1 Corinthians 1:25.  How do you conceive of  the strength of "the weakness of God?" 
With a nod to the Jewish tradition of reciting the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), today some Christian believers will communally recite the Greatest Commandment (in which Jesus quotes the Shema and expands it--Matthew 22:37-39) with an upraised pinky finger.  The gesture reminds them that God delivered his people from Egypt with the power not of his mighty hand or his outstretched arm, but with just the power in his little pinky finger. 
Even God's pinky is strong!  And his strength is revealed in the ultimate weakness of Christ's cross. 
How does 1 Cor. 1:25 give you hope and comfort in the challenges you face?
4)  Read 1 Corinthians 1:26-31.  What circumstances were you in when God called you to belong to him?  Perhaps you have been a Christian your entire life; perhaps not.  We are all on a journey of being made new in Christ (sanctification)--and hearing others' stories of faith can encourage us along.
5)  Where have you seen God among things that are "lowly and despised" (v. 28)?  In what ways have you seen God use adversity or painful circumstances in your own life as a place where your Suffering Savior draws near?