Friday, July 21, 2017

Comfort Connection

We were built for human connection - person to person and face to face. But living in a bent and twisted world, those connections don’t always work well. It is not surprising, then, that many people run from true connectedness with others, and hide, whether in isolation, or alternate realities, often provided by screen technologies.

But we were not built for screens. It is not a meeting of souls. Oh, it can tickle the fancy or distract from the pain of loneliness or the frustration of people. But screens don’t heal or foster growth.

The apostle Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth seeks to mend his connection with these people. The relationship has been bruised, and Paul is seeking to re-establish a connection that is distinctively Christian. This connection will not happen because they belong to the same political party or share the same hobbies. It will occur because they share the same view of the world that centers in One Key Person - in Jesus, God’s Son and man’s Savior.

The connection that we find in 2 Corinthians chapter 1 is a comfort connection. The word “comfort” shows up 10 times in vv. 3-7. It is a passage that admits that life is often hard, for you, and for me. And it is a word that assures that we each care for the other in the midst of life’s difficulties. Paul’s use of the word “comfort” assumes that it is something that we all need when experiencing affliction, and it further assumes that we are all better off for offering it to others. It is just a first step in engaging in face to face, “soul” encounters.

Again, many people avoid either receiving comfort and/or offering it. The reasons may be complex. But people, let’s be honest. We live in a broken world, and no one is a comfort expert, offering it perfectly. Only God has the resource to comfort from a bottomless heart and an endless love. And we only comfort well when we draw on this resource. And even then, I find that the self likes to get in the way. To coin a proverb: Don’t reject a kind word just because of bad grammar.

Comfort allows our relationships to be “buffered” rather than “brittle.” A “brittle” relationship is easily fractured. The slightest disappointment results in an unforgivable offense that ends the relationship, pushing the damaged psyche off into exile. On the other hand, a “buffered” relationship trusts in the good and godly intentions of the other person, however imperfect he/she may be, and accepts their care as a gift, knowing that the gift of comfort ministered from human hearts issues first of all from “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3).

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Algorithm

I was driving up north to Lake Ann for one of the quarterly board meetings at camp on which I’m privileged to serve. I listened to a podcast about artificial intelligence on the way up, and something he said caught my attention. The expert said that there are now boards of directors on which they are placing a robot as a voting member. One of the seats is actually filled by an algorithm. He (it) gets a vote - just one - but it is a real, participating member of the leadership.

The speaker said that certain algorithms are actually more skilled than people, especially in functions where non-emotional analysis is required. An algorithm can actually read an x-ray searching for signs of lung cancer more skillfully than a human technician. It is able to rapidly analyze each of the pixels of the photograph, looking at the picture differently than we humans tend to do.

Clearly this doesn’t apply to all roles that humans fill. Humans are better at considering situations from different points of view, and integrating ideas from a variety of disciplines. But, humans also tend to over-estimate their objectivity, and that’s where the algorithm shines. It doesn’t get bogged down in the emotions or subjectivity of a case.

A couple more things: Many such algorithms (robots) are now self-learning. That is, they analyze their own performance and the performance of others, and improve over time, rapidly, so that they write new algorithms that are better than before. They are self-improving, and don’t spend too much time denying that they have previously made a poor judgment, unlike you and me.

And then this: scientists are now designing “master algorithms” that are able to take the work and results of many algorithms with a range of responsibilities, and to unite them into a cooperative force that will address more problems. The scientists know that they will soon not be able to even understand all the conclusions that the algorithms will write. I guess we will then just have to trust them.

Other than looking around the room tomorrow wondering which one of us is really more algorithm than human - I had to wonder if God is not a little like the master algorithm - the one who is able to direct all that goes on from a superior position. But no, God is not a piece of code. For one, He is never-learning, in that He already knows all, and holds all knowledge at once. He does not figure things out, because He already knows. He holds secrets, but He also graciously reveals. And we know we can trust Him.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Fake Everything

We have heard a lot about fake news lately, and I am sure that some of it is true, on every side. Especially the weather. They seem not to have a clue. But that doesn’t stop the forecasting. But “fake” doesn’t stop at the news.

We live in a society that eats fake food. Do you disagree? Then tell me, what exactly is a gummy bear? Where does it grow? or, Where is it raised? Neither. It is manufactured. You may as well eat ball bearings. The manufacturers must say in their meetings, “Put enough sugar in it, and they’ll eat anything.” If it’s not real food, then it’s fake.

Or we try and supplement the fake food with nutritional pills - vitamin whatever. But studies show (if they are not fake) that what the supplements promise, they are not able to deliver. The nutrient might be there, but it doesn’t process properly; it doesn’t take. And so, it’s fake nutrition.

We send our kids to school to get a fake education. The ability to use and manipulate numbers and letters, let alone history, is down. The spending on sports is up. There is lots of sex education (fake-ly so-called), and seminars on bullying and self-control. But what exactly are the kids equipped to do, or more importantly, to think, by the time they graduate? They have a real diploma certifying an ephemeral education.

And then we see signs of fake faith. That is, faith espoused that is not lived; preaching that is not practiced. Religious practices that are done merely for show are evidences of a fake faith. Religious rites that are performed merely to make me feel better about myself are signs of a faith fake. Real faith believes in absolute truths, resulting in concrete behaviors that guide believers away from what God hates, and into what God loves. And God loves sacrificial service.

And fake faith is fed by fake preaching. It includes those messages that merely “tickle the ears;” that are in fashion and relevant. It is the preaching that elevates individuals rather than God, drawing a response of humility from individuals. It is the pitch that is designed to assemble the most people and collect the most dollars.

We are real people living in a real world with real souls. But with all the fakery that we produce, we find that, in the end, we have nothing that we can trust; no one upon whom we can lean. Jesus invited by saying, in contrast, “I am (that which is) true.”

Friday, June 30, 2017

A Tribute to Jason, and Jesus

Jason Nightingale visited our church about 2 1/2 years ago for one of our Thanksgiving celebrations. On that Saturday evening, he took about an hour to “tell” to us the Book of Revelation from Scripture. The next morning he “told” us more of Scripture, from 1 John, and spent some time applying it to our lives.

As a young man, Jason served in Viet Nam as a medic. He came home at the age of 24, and joined a traveling drama team called Covenant Players. He was not a believer at this point, but he started reading the Bible in order to better understand some of the plays that the troupe was performing. It was through his immersion in the Scriptures that he came to faith in Christ.

Jason believed that God was calling him to a ministry of Scripture-telling - of presenting Scripture to crowds of people in dramatic fashion, from memory. He thought it would take place on a stage, but, as it turned out, it was most often in local churches, like ours. His first project was to memorize the Book of Revelation. He completed that memory project in one month. He went on to memorize First Peter, and then sixteen other books of the Bible.

This immersion in Scripture - studying, memorizing, reviewing, and telling - produced many effects in his life. One of these was to feed a dynamic faith. One feature of this faith was that he expected results to issue forth from God and from His Word, not from the clever wielding of techniques with which the modern church seems to taken. Another feature of his faith was that the Bible was not just to be talked about, but to be obeyed. And so, later in his ministry, 27 years after first beginning Wordsower Ministries, Wordsower International came into being.

Wordsower International is a faith-based ministry seeking to help national pastors and churches minister to the overwhelming need of widows and orphans in Haiti, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kenya, and India. More recently, Wordsower has also gotten involved in Nepal, with a targeted goal to hinder the heinous practice of child-trafficking.

This winter, Jason was ordered by doctors to curtail his extensive traveling/telling ministry due to a severe heart condition. He died on April 19, at 68 years old. But he had one of the strongest hearts that I’ve seen in my Christian experience - a heart for God’s Word - a heart for Jesus - a heart for ministry - a heart of compassion. I pray that his influence will continue to be felt, and that the ministry will continue.

Friday, June 23, 2017

A Campaign of Whisperers

I do not tend to wax political in these articles, and it is not my intent here, though “a campaign of whisperers” may best be illustrated by a rather grand parade of leaks and anonymous sources which serve as the basis for so many ‘news’ stories of late. Every reporter seems to have some inside lackey in the halls of power - someone perhaps not-so-important but who can still give his/her impression of the current state of things. I wonder what their real job is. What are they paid to do? Is their reason for existence merely to give flimsy opinions to mediums of wide circulation? Is this really how government, and journalism works?

I talk too much. There are times that I have sinned by not speaking up or speaking out. But more often, I’ve blurted out something beyond what should have been said. Those are the kinds of whisperings to which I’m referring - needless words that are based more on impression than on fact - and who cares about mere opinion anyway, whether mine, or yours?

Whispering campaigns have destroyed many churches. And whispering campaigns have afflicted many Christians. People who do not know will criticize your beliefs and your motives. One Old Testament lament says, “The lips of my assailants and their whispering are against me all day long.” And as our secular society turns more and more against traditional morality, and Christianity in particular, expect that the whispering campaigns will be reinforced to accuse of narrowness and hatefulness and bigotry and racism and cruelty, etc. David said, “All who hate me whisper together against me; Against me they devise my hurt.” It doesn’t have to be true. It merely has to be whispered. Others will gladly do the transmitting.

We can do little to protect ourselves from the whisperings of others, other than to be bold ourselves, and clear about who we are, what we stand for, and why we believe. It is interesting that, while Luke 12:3 says that their secret whisperings will one day be proclaimed on the housetops, Matthew 10:27 tells us to boldly proclaim what we have come to know and love. Our boldness can forestall their whispering.

But let’s also be warned ourselves about being involved in whispering against others. That’s not why we are here. It’s not our calling, nor our mission. If we can’t say it out loud, then let us not say it at all. And if it is going to be unhelpful or untrue, then let’s close our mouths until God gives us something important to say. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Complacency of Fools

A fearful incident will focus one’s attention and prompt decisive action. It could be your child falling down the stairs; a notice of foreclosure due to unpaid bills; an unwelcome report from a doctor due to long-ignored health conditions. Those kinds of things, and many more, will get your attention. Wise and reasonable people will respond.

This, of course, rarely applies to parental instruction. We all have received warnings and directives that we have long ignored. It seems the more often we hear them, the more we tend to not even hear, like the drip from a faucet. Of course, moving up and out helps too.

Not all parental instruction is gospel truth. Nor is every word preached from the pulpit. But there, too, heedings and pleadings are too often regarded as Sunday, rhetorical flourishes. The preacher wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t say those things. Hey, we even know what he’s going to say even before he says it. And, if you don’t like hearing it week after week, you can go somewhere else, or nowhere at all. But the tough considerations needed to put things into practice and effect change are most often long lost by Monday morning.

Proverbs 1 is an introduction to the task of parents and preachers. It is also an appeal for those who would truly listen in order that they might actually heed - please, heed - the message and take appropriate measures. And it is in this Bible chapter, - wisdom calling out, finding distressingly few hearers/reponders, - that we find the phrase that heads this article: the complacency of fools. 

Urgency is stolen away by complacency. Sharp focus is dissolved by distraction. Preachers preach, but delay and comfortable patterns of life rule the day, and the next, and the next. And then, what will happen indeed happens. The consequences of foolishness, born out of the complacency of fools, will one day fasten themselves upon you, no matter how wise and reasonable you fancy yourself to be. There will be an accident, perhaps more serious than before. Debt will devour your future, and you will be left grasping for a bailout. Your health will fail you, perhaps because you failed your health. Or, ultimately, you will stand before God, with precious little to say. And you will have earned the title that the Bible gives to those who will not listen to good parents and preachers: fool. And then it will all be crystal-clear, on that day when “they are destroyed in a moment! They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors!” (Psalms 73:19)

Friday, June 09, 2017

Child of Woe

The Old Testament saint Job says, “man is born for trouble, as sparks fly upward.” And he should know. Once his life was the picture of remarkable blessedness. Then trouble hit. He became a “child of woe.” 

We, by-and-large, live lives that are extremely blessed, interrupted by trouble. There are others who live lives of endless woe, rarely interrupted by blessing. For many of us, our woes are self-inflicted. We have at least contributed to the cause of our trouble, whether in the area of finances, or health, or relationships. We spent the money we did not have. We failed to follow general rules of health. We keep damaging relationships, thinking that the other person should change, not us.

Other woes seem to come naturally. Aging, whether it happen to your body, or to the septic system, happens. Nothing in this world lasts forever. And when it wears out, we have to go through the pain and expense of fixing or replacing it, if it is fixable at all.

And then there are woes that are unpredictable. Perhaps some would call them accidental. Believers, if consistent, would call them providential. You get blind-sided by another driver - his fault, not yours. A tornado takes out the house, or cancer, like lightning,  strikes close to home. And once again you fit the description: child of woe.

This is the case for everyone: religious/non-religious. No one escapes. But some interpret it differently than others.

Those who hold to orthodox Christianity understand that God, far and away bigger and wiser than mere man, sees the big picture, and allows woes for a variety of reasons, many of which do not have to do exclusively with me or how I feel about it. We are but bit players in a larger drama, and we seldom truly know “why?”. But we also understand and experience that we as ‘bit players’ are at the same time ‘blessed players.’ We are on personal terms with the central, heroic figure in the whole drama that spans not only continents, but the far reaches of both heaven and earth, as well as eternity past and future. We know him, and trust him, even when it hurts, and even when we are scared to death.

We used to sing this old song, “Take the name of Jesus with you, child of sorrow and of woe. It will joy and comfort give you. Take it everywhere you go.” And then a line from the chorus: “Precious name, … hope of earth and joy of heaven.”

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Big Will; little will

There is a household where two members are called Big Will and little will. Big Will is the dad, and little will is his son. I suppose Will probably is short for William, but there is nothing short about Big Will.

Big Will is undoubtably the head of the house. He makes all the big decisions. What he says goes, and everybody know it. Especially little will. Most of the time.

little will gets to make lots of decisions, every single day. He makes even more decisions than he knows. We all make many decisions without even realizing it, often without even thinking about them. And that’s fine. That’s how things work, just so long as little will’s decisions do not cross Big Will’s decisions.

Now the world is not perfect, and neither is little will. There are times when he is not content to exercise his little will in the areas of freedom that are left to him; areas that do not conflict with what Big Will has communicated. Sometimes, little will wants to give himself a little more room, to make his say-so a little larger. And so, yes, he has violated the will and word of Big Will. That has not gone well.

Now just in case you don’t get it yet, this is a parable. Big Will is clearly God, about whom we sing “This Is My Father’s World.” And little will is you and me. We live in God’s world, and we are His subjects. Whether we recognize it or not, our wills must always act under the umbrella of His will, and when we choose to exercise our wills out from under that umbrella, we get wet, though sometimes God can rain down fire instead of water. When we cross God’s will, there are consequences.

The consequences are not always immediate. They can be delayed. They can be subtle. But they are certain. And if we do not experience consequences this side of death, we are told in Scripture that there is a serious sit-down with God on the other side, and it will be difficult, no, ludicrous, to try and explain a good reason why we replaced His Will with ours when we are confronted by the majesty of God in His glory.

To some, this may sound oppressive. I’m sorry if it sounds that way. Evidently you were raised in a home where you did anything you wanted, and were not taught to obey your parents, because it is that training, in part, that prepares us to respect and obey God.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Earth and Heav'n be One

Things don’t always go right. At some point, things will most assuredly go wrong. Count on it. It is in these moments that we are most likely to cry out to God. And often, it feels that He is far away.

If you are a person who prays, then you have had the experience of wondering at times if you are merely talking to yourself. The presence of God is not obvious, and you feel as though your prayers are ascending only so far as the ceiling above you. This is not unusual. It is a test of faith. In this moment of need, you question if there is really a God who hears and cares and answers prayer. And then, we affirm that yes, based on the rock-solid promises of God found in His Word, and perhaps from personal experience as well, we believe that God, wherever He is, hears our prayer. 

David’s “Deliverance Psalm” is found in 2 Samuel 22 and again in Psalm 18. I love the early, simple sections about prayer. First, in verse 4, David says, “I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies.” It’s a statement of fact; not necessarily cause and effect, but a practice (prayer) and performance (God’s deliverance, at different times and using different means). It is a statement of confidence.

But then David goes on in vv. 5,6 to describe vividly the trouble he is facing - waves and torrents; cords and snares, threatening death. He comes back to prayer in verse 7, saying, “In my distress, I called upon the Lord. To my God I called.” The last half of verse 7 is golden: “From His temple He heard my voice; my cry came to His ears.” Yes, your cry makes it all the way from the deepest, darkest corner and flies the distance through the gates of heaven into His holy temple and enters His ear. Prayer conquers the distance.

The Lord’s Prayer admits to the problem of distance: “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” In heaven, everything works. Glory, justice, joy … Not so here on earth. And yet, we want God to institute His will here on earth, so far from heaven, and we try to practice His will ourselves, often unsuccessfully.

The old hymn “This Is My Father’s World” reminds us that “though the wrong be oft so strong, God is the ruler yet,” and “Jesus who died will be satisfied, and earth and heaven be one.” One day the gulf between heaven and earth will be collapsed. One day, we will talk to Jesus face to face. Today, we pray, by faith. And we will continue to do so, though many may think we are only talking to ourselves.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Incomparable

So you buy a dog, just a mutt, but as good as any other dog. Now what to name him? How about this? “Incomparable”

That clearly does not work. Yours is a dog just like any other dog, perhaps more ordinary than most. And, we all are experts at making comparisons. You, and your dog, are comparable - easily compared, whether favorably or unfavorably, with others. Not so with God. 

God is incomparable. That is, He is in a category of his own. The Old Testament character, Job, says, “For He is not a man like me…” We cannot compare ourselves to Him, or Him to ourselves. But we often do, because that is what we do, and the result is that we begin to wrongly think of ourselves in god-terms, and we begin to think of God in man-terms. And that’s a problem. 

Imagine a God who cannot possibly be too full of Himself. He cannot be guilty of an arrogant pride - because He is in fact the fullness of glory and the sum of all perfection.

Imagine a God who has never made a mistake. He has never suffered regret or remorse. He has never second-guessed Himself.

Imagine a God who never grows wiser, since He is all-wise; who knows all contingencies, and who is never surprised.

We are not comparable to this God. We can easily trespass into wrongful pride; we make plenty of mistakes, and we desperately need more wisdom than we now have. We cannot compare ourselves to God, because He is incomparable.

This might potentially lead one to despair, for how can we relate to a God who is so different from us? But don’t forget: the Bible clearly teaches that God made us, without sin, and yet in such a way that we all are subject to weakness and to weariness. God made us this way, and He loves us this way. The Incomparable Creator loves his creatures, and fashioned them (us) in such a way that we live best when we acknowledge our weakness and need, and when we recognize our proper position of being dependent on Him. 

We acknowledge our weakness and need and dependance when  we heed His Word and receive His Son, in faith and obedience. Failing to do so, we prepare for ourselves a clash with the Creator and Redeemer who is in a class by Himself. Again, Job completes his thought, saying, “For he is not a man, as I am, that I might answer him, that we should come to trial together.” (Job 9:32 ESV)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Christ First in Love and Life

A friend of mine earned a trip through work to Monaco. On a tour, the guide told a story about a conflict between Prince Rainier of Monaco and Aristotle Onassis - the reigning political power vs. the financial titan. When asked who won, the guide said, “the king, of course.” Why? “Because when it comes to kings, there can only be one.” Jesus said as much, not concerning political vs. economic power, but regarding spiritual powers, when he said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).

“Christ First” is an exclusive claim. It’s central to God’s eternal plan. In the Bible, we read that God’s long-term plan is “to unite all things in him (Christ), things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1:10 ESV). Similarly, Paul writes “in him (Christ) all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17 ESV), and that God’s intention is “that in everything he (Christ) might be preeminent” (v.18). Only of Jesus did God say with the voice from heaven: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV). All of this to say that it is God’s plan for Christ, God’s Anointed and Appointed One, to be first. And only one can be first.

“Christ First in Love and Life” is the first of Lake Ann Camp’s core values. One could argue that all the other values proceed from this one. Get this one right, and all the others will fall into place. Get this one wrong, and there will be trouble all down the line. Isn’t that the way it works in all our lives? So many of our problems arise, not because of the problem itself, but because of something deeper. It’s not usually just a problem of thinking, or feeling, or relating, or spending. It’s a heart problem - a spiritual problem. Our hearts want what they want, as if there were a little king in there, demanding his/her due. And he/she acts as though there can only be one. And that’s true. But ultimately, that One must be Christ.

And so our phrase goes straight to the heart, right from the start: “Christ first in love.” What do our hearts regard as more important than anything else? Whom do we adore? With what are we most impressed? And we have to come back, time and again, to this one answer: Christ. So many times, speaking personally, I realize that I really want the world to revolve around me. And when I find out that it doesn’t, I’d get frustrated and angry. Our phrase also says “Christ First .. in Life.” We actually live for him, because He died for us. We live our lives as a “living sacrifice,” since Jesus already gave himself up as our dying sacrifice, having walked in our shoes and died in our place. He bore the weight of our sin so that we could experience the lightness, the weightless burden, of giving up what is “normal” so that we can serve and share, love and care for others.


We invite you to trust Christ, to let him be the center of your life, as your King. Because, after all, there can only be One.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Pure (Me)ssiah

Contrasting those called and committed to serving Christ as opposed to those serving themselves, Titus 1:15 says “To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled.” That’s pretty brutal.

Paul is here writing to young minister Titus, explaining that purity is a mindset, an outlook, a way of life. It is a training of the eyes, a restraint of the tongue, an ordering of the mind, and the character of the heart. And they all go together. You are either pure, or you’re not. It is a way to distinguish two classes of people.

Oh, it’s never quite that easy. No one is perfect, and there are gaps and faults. But for the pure, the reign of purity works persuasively to stamp out impurity. Whereas, for the impure, any quest for purity is short-armed and short-lived. Further, I am not saying that an impure person is as putrid as possible. An impure person can be satisfied with an ‘acceptable’ level of impurity. He might leer at women but leave children alone, feeling self-righteous along the way. But make no mistake. He is not pure. 

We have to admit that impurity is the norm; purity, the exception. So where does purity come from? James 3:17 says that “wisdom from above is first pure …” It comes from above; from outside of ourselves. It comes from a relationship with the only person who walked this earth in perfect purity - from Jesus, who gives a new heart to us, by faith in Him, that deeply desires to be like him.

When we live in a society made up of impure people, we must always be on guard against people who want to use us for their own purposes. It may take place ‘merely’ in their eyes or minds - and so, as they say, where’s the harm? But please, don’t believe their flatteries; and, seriously, don’t make any kind of deal with them. Their friendship is good only so long as you are easy, and so long as the sacrifices required to maintain the relationship are cheap. 

But then, imagine living in a society made up of those who walk in purity, not because they have to, but because they are pure. They are free to look at you with love, not lust; and they want what is best, for you. They are willing to share, and serve, and sacrifice, because they already have what they need - a relationship with One who Himself is pure, and they are experiencing the benefits. 

Consider switching sides today. Move to the Messiah, Jesus, the only One anointed and appointed to lead you into purity.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Just Not Feelin' It


There are many things that you know you should do. But you’re just not feelin’ it. The motivation is missing. You are firmly in the grasp of inertia. You certainly intend to get around to it, when you feel better.

This is a description of a life lived according to feelings. And if you have great feelings, then it’s like riding a bike with the wind at your back. The hills are easy and the downhills are exhilarating. But that’s not how it normally goes. Good feelings are at least matched by bad, and often the bad feelings rule. It is in those cases that we hunker down, waiting for a more opportune time to do what we should.

In Christian fellowship we talk about living, not according to feelings, but according to faith. Of course there can be a great distance between talking and acting. And that’s the point here. Faith will instruct us to act, contrary to those feelings that tell us to sit still. One or the other, faith, or feelings, must win out. The feelings are so close. They feel so natural. It is by far the easier route. But faith continues to preach to us, reminding us of heavenly wisdom and eternal truth. Our feelings will try to drown out the voice of faith. And so, as followers of Jesus, we make a conscious effort to allow faith quiet times to speak, as we listen intently. It is our hope and God’s design that these quiet times, whether with others or alone, will rule our hearts. Because feelings make a miserable master.

Quiet times themselves are an arena of battle. Feelings avoid them. Faith hungers for them. Attention to God’s Word and time spent in prayer are another contested field. Feelings would rather do screen time. Faith would bow the head and the knee. Giving and sharing characterize the life of faith; self-indulgence and spending freely and foolishly mark a life fed by feelings. Love and forgiveness are on the front lines of faith. Our feelings run in full retreat from such kinds of engagement. Love is exhausting, and forgiveness can be excruciating. We often say, “I’m not feelin’ it.” But that’s hardly the point. The question is, will you live by faith, or by feelings?

One of the common phrases of Scripture is “Be strong and of good courage.” A short form is the common “Fear not.” A little Bible study or devotional exercise that you can try from time to time is to write Scripture’s opposite. In this case, the anti-Scripture might read, “Be weak and scared.” Short form: “Run and hide.” And that is close to what happens when we live by feelings. We live a life that fulfills the expectations of anti-Scripture. But let’s not. Let’s live by faith, according to God’s Word. Let’s obey, regardless of feelings.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Church is not a Business

Jesus gave us a pretty strong clue when he cleared the Temple in Jerusalem of moneychangers during the final week of his earthly ministry. He said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.” Now we could argue about the relation of the Temple to the Church, but I conclude that the church’s function is close at this point, and that we are to be about meeting together with God, not about getting people’s money.

Jesus is not making this up on the spot. He is quoting Isaiah 56:7, which promises that the temple, once material, now spiritual, is to be ‘house’ of prayer for all peoples. The “den of robbers” statement comes from Jeremiah 7:11, and the description mirrors the offenses of Jesus’ day. It is amazing how well Jesus knows and uses the Scriptures, almost as though he had actually read them, and thought about them. Or maybe, that he had a hand in authoring them.

So when we think about the churches that we attend, can we honestly say that what is most obvious about our assemblies, as different as they may be, is the practice of prayer? I doubt it. Prayer is difficult. It does not draw crowds. It feels like a waste of time. 

When Solomon built that first temple for the Lord, he recognized that no building built by human hands can contain Him. It was merely a house in which God’s people could offer sacrifices, prayers, to God. That would be it’s highest purpose; it’s best purpose. The image from the physical temple that is so closely associated with prayer is the burning of incense. You would smell it as soon as you entered in. It would be obvious. But today, in our churches, is prayer as obvious as was that offering of incense? 

Prayer is not a marketing device. “We are the church that prays!” It’s not something to start doing so that we can feel self-righteous about ourselves: “We may be small, but at least we pray.” It’s simply that, according to the Scriptures - and it is so simple - Christians pray. It’s what they do, together, and apart. Christians pray.

You can have a church without a building. You can have a church without money. You can have a church without a pastor, and programs. A group of people can meet, sitting on the grass, and read, or, if lacking a copy of Scriptures, recall what God has said. And then, they will pray, perhaps better than most of us, since they aren’t so distracted and compelled to keep feeding the machine that we call “church.” 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Both Old and New

American culture from its beginning has tended to value what is new, and to disregard what is old. The celebration of Easter and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead challenges this prejudice, though it does not retreat to the opposite: being stubbornly attached to things old and resenting anything new. 

Jesus, according to orthodox Christianity based on the Bible’s teachings, is the eternal Son of God. That is, He is both old, and new. The incarnation, God in flesh, is (was) certainly something new - unheard of - nigh impossible to fathom or believe. New things are hard that way. But to think about a relationship between the members of the Trinity that has stretched from eternity past in perfect love and agreement also stretches the brain. He is amazingly old; and shockingly new.

Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem (celebrated last Sunday) illustrates some of this. Here is a new kind of leader, outside the circles of established power, but demonstrating amazing (S)piritual power in word and deed. He rides to town, not on a white stallion, but on the “foal of a donkey” - humbly, yet acclaimed by the shouts of people. The people are shouting not something new, but something old - a verse from Psalm 118:26: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Both old and new.

He answers the long-standing question: “How can a man be put right with God? -  in a new way. Clearing the temple, he instructs us that the temple/church is not a business; and that this relationship is not made possible by our sacrifices (and the money-changers in the temple were facilitating the purchase of lambs for sacrifice) but by His Sacrifice as our Substitute, rendering all others obsolete. Our relationship with God is no longer characterized by what we pay, but in that we pray (“my Father’s house will be a house of prayer”).

The implications for Christians and churches are huge. There really is no use in clinging to old for old’s sake. We must embrace what is new in Christ in all the new ways. “Ever reforming,” as the early reformers said. But also, it is not up to us to create (or imitate) ever-new newness. 

An old song put to new music illustrates this for me: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end” (that’s beautifully old). But regarding those mercies, the song goes on to say: “They are new every morning, new every morning” (that’s refreshingly new); “Great is your faithfulness O Lord.” Both old and new.

Christian Kindness

When we evaluate people, we often notice all the wrong things. We tend to identify them as belonging to one stereotyped group or another; or we look for signs of status; perhaps personality type, or level of confidence. But we don’t as often have an antenna to detect kindness, which may be most important. 
If you were to give advice to a young person seeking a spouse, what traits are most important? Beauty and form? Wealth? Humor? Those may not be among the traits which help you determine the person you may live with for the next 50 or 60 years. Gordon Livingston recommends “kindness, a willingness to give of oneself to another. this most desirable of virtues governs all the others, including a capacity for empathy and love (pp. 4,5).” 
He explains that character qualities tend to exist in constellations. If a person is characterized by “impulsivity, self-centeredness, quickness to anger,” – this is not a grouping that will include kindness. But that kindness is accompanied by tolerance and a capacity for commitment – ideal of marriage, and most other relationships as well. What more can most of ask for than a spouse who will put up with our faults and stick with us through the tough times, and in the mean time, be kind to us, and we to them? 
But let’s apply this not only to family relationships, but also to Christian family. After all, Jesus, demonstrating the love of God, showed kindness is so many situations. And we who are followers of Jesus and members of His Body are to express that same character, even as we pray that kindness will be duplicated in us. 
Tertullian tells us that in the days of the early church, pagans sometimes called Christians “chr─ôstiani” rather than “christiani.” The two words sound similar, of course, but there was another reason for the confusion. Christiani means “Christians,” but chr─ôstiani comes from the Greek word for “kindness.” According to Tertullian, even when believers were not known as the Christ people, they were still known as the kindness people, and this kindness pointed others to Christ.’ (Ryken, Philip Graham (2012-01-31). Loving the Way Jesus Loves (p. 44). Crossway. Kindle Edition.) 
Perhaps, in this day when curtness is more common than kindness, someone may notice yours. And even if they don’t want to marry you, perhaps they will be attracted to the One you follow, and perhaps you will have the opportunity to verbalize what they have already seen in action.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Counter-Cultural Counting

I’m starting again in a one-on-one Bible study, going through James. Evidently, once was not enough.

James suggests several things that could safely be categorized as counter-cultural. For instance, his emphasis on the blessing of poverty or humility vs. the curse of riches - that does not sit well in downtown Milford. Or how about this?: “Watch what you say!” Clearly James was not on Facebook.

But it is James’ counter-cultural counting that hits me hard. No, it is not 2 + 2 = 5. That’s not counter-cultural. Government does that all the time. James’ brand of counter-cultural counting is found early in his little letter, chapter 1, verse 2: “Count it all joy, brothers, when you fall into all kinds of trials.” Sure, that’s what you do. Right?

‘Counting’ is an accounting. It is a reckoning and placing in a proper category. So when ‘disaster’ strikes, we must account for it. Bad luck? Some would say so. It’s not fair! Many would agree. But in a world where God reigns from the uncontested throne of the universe and is actively involved in the lives and affairs of men, we cannot resort to luck or arbitrary rules of fairness. The Bible teaches that God is keenly interested in the training and education of His children. And He often uses hardships in order to teach us what we could not possibly learn otherwise.

It is not a case of God using a big stick to whack us when we are wrong, or a feather to tickle us when we are right. This is not about punishment and reward. The Gospel instructs us that every day we live and breathe as a direct result of God’s mercy, totally undeserved; and that every day we engage in and enjoy life as a blessing of God’s grace, again undeserved. No, if we think a flat tire or broken nail is a result of God getting back at us for something, we have completely missed the point, and have trivialized both our sin and God’s justice.

Hardships and trials and tests are evidences of God working in us and on us. If we desire to grow stronger and wiser, then we will welcome these experiences as divinely appointed opportunities. We will count them as such. And when we forget, we will find our frustrations and resentments returning. And then, you, like me, will need to return to James all over again, read the verse, “Count it all joy, ..” and repent of an attitude the pretends that the world is supposed to revolve around me, and then thank God for another chance to learn, and grow, and change. It’s like learning to count all over again.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

from Jason Nightengale, Wordsower Weekly Update, Mar 26-27


(I love how Jason knows Scripture so well, that it oozes out of him. In this short article he draws from Ephesians 4 and Philippians 3 with a dash of 2 Corinthians 5, and ends with a most excellent translation of Ephesians 2:10.)

God is working all things together for good, for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

His purpose is that we should be shaped into the image and likeness of His son Jesus Christ; that He might be the eldest of a large family of brothers and sisters. He has birthed us in Christ to grow to maturity measured by the full stature of Christ Himself. We are not to stay children any longer, thrown about by every wind of doctrine, dupes of crafty rogues and their deceitful schemes. In the past He overlooked such ignorance. No. Let us speak the truth in love. So shall we fully grow up into the likeness of Christ. Bearing much good fruit and so giving the Father the Glory. Jesus' purpose in dying for us, was that we, while still in life, should stop living for ourselves and start living for Him Who for our sake died and was raised to life.

Who are you living for? The question resounds in my ear... Who am I living for? For as I have often told you before, and now tell you with tears in my eyes, there are many whose way of life makes them enemies of the cross of Christ. Their appetites are their god and they glory in the things they ought to be ashamed of. Their minds are set on earthly things.

We are to live in contrast to this; living as citizens of heaven, with our eyes set on heavenly things and the immanent return of Christ. Suddenly our disputes about earthly things and distinctions will pass into insignificance. Only that which really matters will be our conversation. We can fill our time and give ourselves to building upon the one foundation, (which is Jesus Christ) with that which will stand forever even the testing by fire. We will build with the deeds of the Spirit not the deeds of the flesh. Building with gold, silver and precious stone, not wood, hay and stubble. For the flesh counts for nothing.

Do you love God? Are you called to His purpose? Who are you living for? "We were created in Christ Jesus to walk in the good deeds which He created beforehand for us to walk in" (Eph. 2:10).

Friday, March 24, 2017

It's the Fruit; not the Foliage

They have these trees in Florida - they call them oak trees. But they can’t be oak trees, because their leaves are different.

It’s kind of strange. The so-called oak leaves, little bitty things, are falling off the trees now. And it’s not even Fall. They’re all messed up here. It probably has something to do with the Central Time Zone.

So I’m not sure why they call them ‘oaks’ when they look so different. But I did notice as I was walking along that there were acorns. Acorns! So, maybe they are oaks after all, with deformed leaves.

And it struck me that Jesus did not say, by their foliage you will know and recognize those who are God’s children, but by their fruit. And it struck me again that I am better at recognizing foliage than fruit.

So what is the fruit of a follower of Jesus? We should not expect that it would be something primarily material, but rather, spiritual; not something primarily outer, but inner. The fruit of the Spirit would fit this description, which is a pretty good summary of the whole character of Christ. That’s the fruit that should be evident in the lives of believers both in the North and the South, the east and the west. 

And what might be the foliage that grabs my attention at the expense of the fruit? If it’s the leaf on a tree, well, it can’t be the hair, can it? Who would get caught up using someone’s hair as an indicator of one’s standing and walk with God? It’s not the version of the Bible, nor the lingo of the prayer language, though the Bible and prayer are pretty basic for the Christian. It’s not the latest Christian book that you read, or the preacher that you prefer. Some are better than others, but then, some people actually read and listen to people they disagree with, both to strengthen their own positions, or perhaps even to learn about other people’s points of view. I find that I really like oak leaves. You know, the real ones. Though I find now that the other, little oak leaves are no less real. They’re not necessarily deformed. Just different.

Oh, there is such a thing as bad fruit. I’ve seen it, in myself. And in a world where the religious landscape is continually changing, and when religious convictions are increasingly contested, it would be good if we would learn to look for the fruit, not the foliage. Do you love the Lord Jesus? And are you becoming more like Him? Let’s learn from each other, and learn to love each other.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Little Boys; Big Lesson

On two separate Wednesday evenings I have attempted to help two different 6 year old boys memorize and understand a verse: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” (James 2:10 ESV) For some reason the children’s book uses the UK edition of ESV, replacing the word “guilty” with “accountable.”

As you can guess, that’s a mouthful for a young kid. Rarely does he use the word “accountable,” much less read it at this age level. But hey, we are here to learn. And, the boys, amazingly, have little trouble understanding the concept.

If I tell you that I’ll pay you $10 to go out in the yard and pick up 100 sticks, would you do it? The boys say yes, and would like to go out right now and work on the project rather than sit in this room and work on this verse. And so I ask, “If you put in front of me a pile of sticks, and I count them, and there are only 99, do I owe you $10. They instantly understand that the “counting” matters (the core of the word “accountable”). I’m surprised that they have not suggested just breaking the longest stick in half and solving the problem, but that’s another article. And they get it. 100 means 100.

When mom bakes cookies and says, “Don’t eat the cookies!”, are you in trouble if you eat just one. The boys know. “Yes.” The more sophisticated among us might say that we didn’t eat cookies (pl.), just cookie (sg.), and mom should have said don’t eat any of the cookies if that’s what she meant. But the boys know that such sophistry will not fly with mom, nor with God.

The point, then, of the verse, is clear, though the memorizing and the saying of it, for 6 year olds, is quite a chore. And the point is vital. My condition before God as a sinner, which the Bible assures us is universal, is not due to the biggest, baddest sin that you or I have ever committed. And if you happen to have avoided certain big, bad sins, you are in no less peril. Since, for instance, that unnoticed offense of doing good from wrong motives or with a bad attitude can be the one failure that renders you guilty or accountable of violating the whole law. 


The point is not that I have to work harder to clean up the lesser messes, since I am clearly not even aware of all my failings as accurately measured by God’s law. No, the point is that I need a Savior who will pay my penalty and forgive all my sins. And that’s a point that 6 year old boys can grasp, and perhaps grasp better at than at 60, when we grow up into practices of parsing and sophistry.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Forty Days and Nights

The blues band Shirley Jones and the Dap-Kings used to sing the song “100 days, 100 nights To know a man’s heart. And a little more Before he knows his own.” She goes on and sings “You know a man can play the part of a saint just so long. For a day comes when his true, His true self unfolds. Yes it does.” Poor Shirley wasn’t so sure a mere “40 days and nights” were sufficient to avoid getting taken. But the Bible indicates that 40 days and nights reveal quite a bit about what one truly believes; and whom one truly worships.

We first come across God’s use of “40 days and nights” in Genesis 7, when God sends a worldwide rain to wash the earth of its wickedness. It is devastating. All the world populations perishes except for those eight from Noah’s family preserved on the ark. An implication of “40 days” is that this period is useful for cleansing, though not ultimately, since Noah and his family remained flawed.

In Exodus, Moses spends “40 days and nights” on the mountain, fasting, and receiving from God the 10 commandments. One could associate this as a suitable time period to spend seeking to study and discern God’s will. We also note that in Moses’ re-telling of the story in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses came down from the mountain only to find the people immersed in idolatrous sin, and so he broke the tablets of stone containing the Law. After dealing with the people, her returned to the mountain again and spent another 40 days fasting and meeting with God. Again, 40 days may help us in knowing God’s will, but it does not deal effectively with the sin problem.

The Bible goes on to speak of “40 days” in relation to Elijah and Ezekiel; Jonah, and then Jesus. God uses these periods of time to rest, and test; to preach, and to prepare. There is nothing magic about 40 days. But time spent with God, in the absence of a hundred other distractions, is a deep soul-need for all us who suffer from our condition of being over-marketed and under-meditated.

Our church tradition doesn’t do much with Lent, that 40 day period this year, which began March 1 through April 15 (excepting Sundays) in which many Christians seek to invest time with God in order to practice cleansing, or attentiveness, etc. Perhaps you need to take some time as well.


By the way, Shirley Jones died this past year. I hope that she was able to take 40 days, or 100, to explore the depths of her own soul, and to find the only One upon whom any of us, man or woman, can truly count.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Mean what You Say

Traveling home from Togo, I was sitting and waiting at JFK for the plane that would bring me home to Detroit. I watched a young couple speaking a language I did not understand instruct and warn a young boy, 3 or 4 years old, to behave. It seemed as though the boy did not understand the language either, because whatever they said, he paid no mind in the least.
The mother was so tender with him. She would instruct; he would ignore. A sad look would come on her face, but there would be no consequence. He kept throwing his toy to the floor, over and over, into that paths of hurrying people. No matter. Just repeated words, spoken, and ignored.
The mother was not so tender when the husband/father sought to get involved. He was going to take the toy away. The boy squealed. The mother came to his aid, and started reprimanding the father for being so demanding. Then she would again instruct the boy, and he would do what he always did, looking at the father with glee that he had the upper hand, and the father glowering with resentment, both toward the boy and the woman.
If as parents we do not mean what we say, then why speak at all? And if our children are not taught to respond properly to our words, with consequences attached and enacted when those words are ignored, do we really think they will respond to our words when they are age 8, or 18? But the point which is even more important is this: if we do not teach our children to obey our words because they know that we do not mean what we say, then we are also teaching them to ignore God’s Word, thinking that He also does not mean what He says. But, He does. And our children will not be prepared to be obedient and submissive to Him, and will suffer the consequences. And you will have contributed to the situation. Your pretended tenderness is a sham. Let’s do our job.
I realize that this applies not only to parents, but to pastors. And I have been challenged to make sure I mean what I say, and to follow through.

One more thought: To mean what you say does not mean that you have to be mean. I condemned fake tenderness above, but to cross over to that which is malicious and mean is not the better part. Rather, “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.” (Colossians 4:6 NAS95)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

To Africa (and Back)

There is some evidence that says I am not a good traveller. My wife is much better at it, and so I’m better with her. But nonetheless, I’m going with a group, to Togo, W. Africa, for the purposes of medical missions (I’m more missions than medical), and so once I get to NYC, I guess I’ll just follow the leader.

Togo won the prize a couple of years ago as the least happy nation on earth. Another group ranked poverty among African nations, and Togo also came out on top (or, bottom). I expect that one of the outcomes of this trip will be a renewed sense of gratefulness that, for some reason, with no credit to me, I happened to be born and live in the US of A. But there are a couple of caveats.

I am completely sure that we can find many people in our country more miserable than most individuals who make up the Togolese population. I expect to find a lot of joy in Africa, and a lot less worry about some of the things we worry about. Yes, the Togolese people may have very real concerns that have to do with life and death issues. But which misery is worse: that of lacking opportunities for improving one’s life? or that of having wasted many kinds of golden opportunities that have been afforded us? It’s a different kind of sadness, or frustration, or despair.

Which is why rich people, like Americans, can be most miserable. We have the best of education and health care and tons of choices, and yet many look back and find that they have only chased the wind, and are reaping the whirlwind. In no way am I trying to make light or less of poverty. To go to bed hungry, or to have no options for finding relief for your child’s disease, is fearsome. 

Do we remind ourselves often enough that those who are poorest monetarily can be among the most rich psychologically and spiritually? And likewise, are we challenging ourselves often with the thought that those who are the most well off in economic terms can be among those who are the poorest psychologically and spiritually? The pursuit of the dollar which is far from almighty guarantees neither real wealth nor happiness.


Further, if happiness and real wealth are not directly tied to the number of dollars we have, then we can be free to pursue true happiness and real wealth where they can be truly found. Here is my suggestion: Find  them in Jesus. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Sober Individual

If someone is described as “sober,” in our present parlance, he or she would be regarded as “not much fun.” That person might be regarded as being serious and cautious, not fun-loving or funny. 
Of course, talk of “sobriety” in our culture also reflects a widespread struggle with substance abuse. But if we are to understand the New Testament’s use of “be sober,” it is certainly not referring merely to a dependence on alcohol. It would also include being drunk with any number of things, alcohol included. Certainly we can find ourselves likewise “under the influence” of a mood, a passion, a desire, an agenda, etc. And when any of these things makes me forget my “first principles,” then I have lost my ‘sobriety’, and I am in danger of falling away from my calling and convictions.
So let’s back up for a moment, and get this straight. A sober person is not one who hates fun, and who cannot smile or crack a joke. He need not be a negative person who sees everything in the dimmest of lights. We should not expect him to be carrying signs that say “Woe is me” or “The End is Near.” 
Lawyers think like lawyers. Maintenance men think differently, but with a stamp on their thought processes that reflects their training and their daily concerns for the ongoing operation of systems and equipment. Mechanics may be problem solvers, and engineers, well, they have a way of thinking but I’m not sure what it is. Pastors probably have a mind-stamp as well (insert joke here). 
My point is that we are taught to think in a way that serves our calling, and we are generally pretty good at sticking to that mindset. Except when it comes to faith. In that case, we have not done so well in integrating the “first principles” of our faith into every area of our lives, so that we approach family and finances, work and play, with this amazing truth that we have been saved by grace and that our aim is but to believe and value the grace-gifts that are given. 
We easily revert to a ‘works’ or ‘points’ mindset that supposes that God will love us more on our good days than our bad; that in some way we earn God’s favor, and are thus in a position to lose it. 

But when the Gospel writers and preachers of the New Testament tell us to “be sober,” they are simply telling us to stick with a Biblical understanding of the Gospel, that we are not saved by our good deeds, but rather, by God’s good grace, which sent Jesus to be our Sacrifice and our Savior.  He, when sober, is my First Principle.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Beginning and the End

There are some unhappy parallels between the beginning of life and its ending. When we are infants, we come into this world largely dependent on others for the basic activities of life. And for many, it ends up that way as well. But there is a sad difference.

Babies are gradually introduced to new foods: first, mother’s milk, and then soft foods, and on from there. The process of feeding is a mess. All over their face, and down their front, and under their chairs at the table. Part of the mess is due to their enthusiasm to taste new foods, or to react to the ones they don’t like. At the end of life, we may also need help eating, and we may have to resort to gentler foods. But we also hear, “nothing tastes good any more.” There is a difference.

And think about communication. Every new sound from a baby, which corresponds to no recognizable word, is examined and repeated with anticipation for what comes next. And the box of words will only grow. There may come a time when we would wish for a little quiet. But then, how many conversations have you experienced with your elder friend, who stops in frustration, because he/she cannot retrieve a word that they have always known, but cannot grab hold of now. You can feel their frustration.

And we at first have little minds that are becoming ever more active and inquisitive, contrasted with older ones that are sometimes content to sit in silence. “What are you thinking about?” And the answer comes back, “Nothing.” That’s where we came from. And that’s where we are headed, should we live long enough.
But the good news is this: in Christ, our best days are always ahead of us. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, and then, there will be no pain or disability; no fear or frustration. At the resurrection, those in Christ receive new bodies that will enjoy heavenly foods to the fullest. We will get up and get down, and jump for joy without hindrance; no fear of breaking a hip. We will be whole. Forever new. Better than at birth.

We may grown at the hardships of old age. We realize that the pathway to death is often beset with pain and indignity. But, in Christ, who died and rose again, we also have a rock-solid hope that this is not all there is, and that the end is only the beginning. And thank goodness, we don’t have to go back to being babies again. It’s better than that.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Getting out of the Gloom

I guess it’s kind of gloomy around here. If you have only lived in Michigan, perhaps you don’t know. We have more gray than most any other state. During the (long) winter, we may not see the sun for days on end. We may need to get our Vitamin D in pill form from November to March. It can affect our mood. We get gloomy.

But there is hope of a sunrise. I’m not referring to a change in weather. There is something that has happened that can change the gloominess of our souls, no matter if we live in some sun-baked state, or one surrounded by water and covered with clouds. Jesus is come, and Zecharias sings out from the midst of these events and says, “the Sunrise from on high will visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.”

These words were not original to Zecharias. He was quoting (Old Testament) Scripture. “The Sunrise from on high” is taken from Malachi 4. This is the last chapter of the last book in the Old Testament. That is, this is the last thing God said through His prophets, followed by 400 silent years in which the people had not heard from God. They lived in darkness and soul-gloom, and could only hope that one day, the Sun would come up. And now, here it is! The Lord is coming! His advance herald, John the Baptist, has just been born, and Jesus, the Sun Himself, is six months from birth. The gloomy fog is about to be cleared away!

This must have an affect on followers of Jesus. We are not to be gloomy, because we do not live in darkness. Another Old Testament passage, Daniel 12, says this: “And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” It is not that we, in our brightness, become sources of light. No, we become the reflectors of the Light that has shined upon us: “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life”” (John 8:12). 

Paul teaches us in Philippians 2 to “do all things without grumbling and disputing.” Don’t be gloomy. Why? Because we live in the light. We live as children of God in a world that does not know God, “among whom you shine as lights in the world.”

Tired of the darkness? Come to the Light. Living in darkness? Get out of the shadows, and notice that Jesus has paid us a visit.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Self-Control

It is difficult to do marriage counseling. You sit with a couple and listen to their stories, and then give them some advice. Then you go home and realize that often times you don’t follow very well the advice that you give. We find it is easier to give advice than to practice it. 

It is also difficult to teach children. In children’s Sunday School, we have been studying together “The Fruit of the Spirit,” a list of nine qualities created by the Spirit within the lives of believers, features of our union and relationship with Christ. The list starts with “love,” which is expected, and not all that painful to talk about. But it ends with “self-control.” That is the quality for this coming Sunday, when I will be explaining to the children how self-control is really God-control, and when we don’t practice self- or God-control, then we have to admit that there is some other factor, some other power at work in us, perhaps called the flesh, and maybe even the devil. That sounds pretty strong, but if we admit that a spiritual force, the Holy Spirit, can influence us for good, then why should it be so difficult to admit that another spiritual force, Satan, could influence us for bad? But then, maybe we don’t even need the devil’s help to resist handing control over to God, and instead man-handling ourselves, which, oddly, does not result in self-control.

So, before my own children tell you the story, I will tell it myself, on myself. We were traveling somewhere, the four of us, and were in a motel room. This was several years ago, and the kids were younger, watching TV or something. I had to get an email sent out on my laptop, something dreadfully important, I am sure. In that era, the mystery of establishing a working internet connection in motel rooms was buggy at best. And I tried, and I tried. I was muttering away, and the kids did their best to ignore me, at least until I slammed the lid of the laptop down in disgust. That got their attention. And so they were watching closely when I opened the laptop again to find that the screen was now a ruined, fractured mess. I’m pretty sure God-control was not much involved in my actions.

So pray for me this week, as I sit with this class of children and teach them about the Spirit and the fruit He produces, especially self-control. And pray that I would learn the lesson as well, and maybe you too. And then, maybe I can come over and give you some advice about your marriage. I know it will be difficult.