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.

Prayer and Purity


The two, prayer and purity, seem to go together. Samuel certainly thought so.

Samuel, from the Old Testament of Scripture, was one of a long string of prophets, and the last of a shorter line of judges. He served as a bridge between the tribal setting of the early occupation of the Promised Land, and the national identity that came with the anointing of a king. He fought the idea of kingship, and yet was the instrument God used to anoint, not just the first king of Israel, but also the second.

At the end of his ministry, Samuel addresses the people of Israel, and charges them, no matter what the politics or leadership, to commit themselves to purity. One translation reads, “Don’t turn away from following the Lord with all your heart. Don’t turn away to follow worthless things that can’t profit or deliver you; they are worthless.” 

Purity for the people of God is non-negotiable. God insists on it, and He will bring it about, even though the process may be slow and difficult. Have you and I heeded Samuel’s direction? Are we pursuing purity in fervent worship of God?

Then Samuel says, “I will not sin against God by ceasing to pray for you.” His prayers and their purity must go together. So must ours. When Paul says to Timothy, “fan into flame the gift of God that is in you,” this ‘fanning’ must include both prayer and purity. Without both, the flame dies.

What do we have when a man prays, but without purity? Impurity can be a life of sensuality or immorality. But it can also include malicious thoughts. It can be the pursuit of things, of stuff. It can be the admiration of that which is worldly and against God, or even, absent of God. But the man prays, right? Isn’t that good? Probably not. His are not real prayers. They don’t make it even through the roof. He is a liar, and his prayers are lies. Prayers must be accompanied by purity.

And then, what about the man who is pure, but who does not pray? Here we have a moral man who must be so proud of the morality that he has achieved apart from God’s help. He is self-righteous and a Pharisee. Why? Because prayer is the key indicator of one’s dependence on God. The fire of God’s purity must needs be supplied with the oxygen of prayer to God. They go together.