Christianity 201

February 14, 2022

Sometimes When We Sing

If the circumstances of the worldwide pandemic have meant there’s been a drop in the frequency of your corporate singing (worship) experience at church, I know that you eagerly await a return to in-person worship. This is an article which Ruth wrote four years ago for our Sunday Worship series.

Sometimes When We Sing

by Ruth Wilkinson

One of the precious things we do when we meet together as the Church is to sing. Together.

Sometimes when we sing together, we sing to each other.
I sing you my story, you sing me yours. We remind each other of who God is.

Our posture is face to face, looking each other in the eye, like the Psalm writers who said:

Sing to Yahweh! Sing praise to Him; tell about all His wonderful works!
Remember what He’s done: His wonders, and His judgments.
-Psalm 105

I love the Lord because He’s heard my cry for mercy.
And because He’s turned His ear to me, I will call out to Him as long as I live.

-Psalm 116

Oh, happy day! Oh, happy day!
When Jesus washed, when he washed my sins away!
He taught me how to walk, fight and pray,
And live rejoicing everyday
***
Forever God is faithful,
Forever God is strong,
Forever God is with us,
Forever
***

Sometimes when we sing together, we sing to God.
We sing to say “Thank you,” to say “I’m sorry,” to say “We love you.”
Our posture is eyes raised, hands reaching high, like the Psalm writers who said:

I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You set in place and wonder –
who are we that You think of us?
What are the sons and daughters of man that You care for us?

Yahweh, our Lord,
How majestic is Your name in all the earth!

-Psalm 8

We are a moment, You are forever,
Lord of the ages, God before time
***
O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made,
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee!
***

Sometimes when we sing together we sing as one – together.
We sing our shared history, our shared experience, our shared future.
Our posture is hand in hand, arms across shoulders, elbows linked, like the Psalm writers who said:

God is our refuge and strength, a helper who is always found
– when the earth trembles and the mountains topple,
when the waters of the sea roar and foam
and shake the land.

Come on, let’s shout joyfully to the Lord,
shout triumphantly to the rock of our salvation!
For He is our God, and we are His people.

-Psalm 46, Psalm 95

In the name of the Father, in the name of the Son,
In the name of the Spirit, Lord, we come
Gathered together to lift up your name
Our God saves, Our God saves,
There is hope in your name
***
Our God is an awesome God!
***

Sometimes when we sing together, we sing as one – each alone.
Each one alone before the Father who created us,
alone beside the Son who died for us,
alone in a body that’s wrapped around the Spirit who fills us.
Our posture may be eyes closed or open, head bowed or lifted high, knees bent or standing tall – like the Psalm writers who said:

You, Lord, are a shield around me;
You’re my glory, and the One who lifts my head.
I can lie down and sleep and I can wake again because You sustain me.
-Psalm 3

Lord, my heart isn’t proud; my eyes aren’t haughty.
I don’t get involved with things that are beyond me.
Instead, I calm and quiet myself like a little child with its mother;
I am your child.
-Psalm 131

In the morning when I rise,
When I am alone,
When I come to die
Give me Jesus;
You can have all this world,
Give me Jesus
***


Bonus item: On the subject of the triune nature of God:

This is a link to a short book excerpt from Moody Press via Outreach Magazine taken from 50 Most Important Theological Terms by J. Brian Tucker and David Finkbeiner. It looks at heresies often presented as sound doctrine on the trinity.


For those of you looking for something more “seasonal” today:

Valentine’s Day Devotionals – various authors:

December 26, 2021

Ten Years of Christmas Greetings – Part Two

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2016:

Nancy Ruegg writes:

“But when the appropriate time had come,
God sent his Son.”
–Galatians 4:4, ISV

Let’s see…Jesus arrived on Planet Earth during the height of the Roman Empire, some 2000+ years ago – long before television or radio, even before the telegraph.

Why didn’t God wait, at least until the 1800s, so news of Jesus’ birth could be transmitted quickly?

Then there’s the argument from the other end of the spectrum. Why did God wait so long to send Jesus? Century upon dark and gloomy century had passed since Adam and Eve first sinned and a Savior was promised (Genesis 3).

There must have been something just right about that era when the Romans ruled the world. In fact, Bible scholars have identified a number of factors to explain the appropriateness of this time for God to send his Son.  Such information contributes proof of God’s wisdom and his ability to engineer circumstances perfectly… [continue reading here]

2017:

… I was sitting at a Christmas Eve service thinking about Jesus as the Prince of Peace, no doubt inspired by a reading of Isaiah 9:6

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

I started thinking about the chorus of the song below. The song has an entirely different purpose, I doubt William D. Cornell had Christmas in view at the time of its composition. Nonetheless, the coming of Christ ushered in the opportunity for all of us to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit who brings us the peace the songs speaks about.

Peace! peace! wonderful peace,
Coming down from the Father above;
Sweep over my spirit forever, I pray,
In fathomless billows of love.

2018:

Heb.1.2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.

Ruth Wilkinson writes:

In the nativity story we see over and over angels doing what angels do best.

They speak. They bring messages from God; particular information to particular people for a particular time.

It must be an amazing thing to receive one of these messengers. Because almost every time one shows up, the conversation begins, “Don’t be afraid!”

Don’t freak out. Don’t melt down. Don’t worship. Just listen.

So maybe it’s just as well that God has other ways that he chooses to speak to us.

Through prophecy and poetry – courageous and creative.
Through the mystery of dreams – ineffable and personal.
Through the beauty and power and transcendence of nature – silently eloquent and impossible to ignore.
Through the whispering and pricking of our consciences – the Holy Spirit and our own God-likeness.

Through His own human voice – the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature. Creator and heir of all things.

More often than not, though, he speaks to us through the written words that have been preserved in the Bible, or through other people in the power given us by the Holy Spirit.

He pours out His Spirit on all humanity – so that sons and daughters will prophesy.

He gives us psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to speak and sing to each other. The capacity for expression through singing and making music. The ability to give thanks always, for everything.

He gives us each other to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, so we can
train each other,
build each other,
speak truth to each other,
speak love to each other.

To speak tell each other, over and over – and to never let each other forget – the story the angels sang and declared.
The story of Jesus and His love.

2019:

While this is an Old Testament quotation, I believe it expresses God’s heart throughout time, Ezekiel 37:27:

I will make my home among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 

There are, I suppose many ways in which Jesus might have come among us, however he chooses to live, 100% completely, the reality of human experience beginning from birth; birth in an obscure place, at an obscure time, in less than ideal conditions (in so many ways.)

While you might not do Christmas, my prayer is that each day contains reminders of the reality of God with us.

God’s revelation to humankind in the incarnation is a cause for celebration, not on December 25th, but every day of the year.

From another post that year:

This is a true saying, and everyone should believe it: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–and I was the worst of them all. I Tim 1:15 (NLT)

…Hastily going through the files for a last minute Christmas Eve service request, we discovered that a short medley we’d done for 15 years prior. It was built around the worship chorus which perhaps was slightly more popular then than now, but still recognizable…

You came from heaven to earth to show the way
From the earth to the cross, my debt to pay
From the cross to the grave
From the grave to the sky
Lord I lift Your name on high.

The “Why” of Jesus birth is that Jesus was born to die. There is no particular cause to celebrate a Christmas unless there is an Easter.

Another song in the medley is the first verse of an old hymn,

One day when Heaven was filled with His glory
One day when sin was as dark as could be
Jesus came forth to be born of a virgin
Dwelt among men, my redeemer is He

Living He loved me
Dying He saved me
Buried He carried my sins far away
Rising He justified
Freely forever.
One day He’s coming, oh glorious day.

The medley ends with the third verse of And Can It Be…

He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace
Emptied Himself of all but love
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.

‘Tis mercy all, immense and free
For, O my God, it found out me.
Amazing love!
How can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me.

2020:

Clarke Dixon wrote:

…The sorrow in Bethlehem is a result of a very far-from-God kind of person in leadership. Herod the Great was really Herod the Horrible. He was great if you like buildings. The rebuilt temple was impressive among other building programs he was responsible for. He was horrible if you like people. He had one of his wives executed, plus several of his sons. He even arranged for many Jewish nobles to be executed when he died so that there would be weeping instead of rejoicing at his death. Thankfully, that was not carried out.

His son was not much better. In fact the Romans gave him the boot, which is why you have Herod ruling as king in Jerusalem at Christmas, but by the time of the events of Easter you have a Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, in charge instead. Indeed the ruthlessness of Herod’s son is the reason Joseph and Mary headed back to Nazareth on the return from Egypt. This was still a time of fear. People can create incredible fear and sorrow in people.

The joy of the magi was over the birth of a closer-to-God-than-the-magi-knew kind of person born to be the new leader. The magi would hardly have known the full calling of Jesus, but they had joy over the birth of a king, a king that had a right to the throne, unlike Herod. This new and true king would potentially rule, not just over the people, but for the people. The Old Testament prophecies speak to this hope.

An excerpt from Jesus: A Theography notes:

…Look again at the babe from Bethlehem and see a King who was destined to redefine power, glory, and peace. And he would do it by subverting the kingdoms of this world by a cross–an instrument made of the same material that composed the manger into which He was born: wood. Even so, God’s glory was revealed not in the manger but on the cross. And therein lay His destiny.


These are just some of the Christmas-themed devotionals which appeared between December 21-26 in the years listed.

There is so much richness, so much death to this birth story. Most of our gospels are concerned with the life and teachings of Jesus which began at age 30, but we can’t skip over the passages of his birth and the glimpses of his childhood too quickly, or we miss out on the foundation which shaped the entire narrative.

November 28, 2021

Ministry for All the Wrong Reasons

This is a part two to yesterday’s post.

We usually don’t continue a theme into a second day, but I felt there were a few more things that could be said about pursuing church growth at all costs, and doing ministry for the sake of having good optics online.

First, later in the day a verse came to me which should have been part of the discussion:

Proverbs 16:2

All a person’s ways seem pure to them,
but motives are weighed by the Lord. (NIV)

Because we just spent time in this verse two years ago in a piece titled Motivation Matters, I don’t want to spend a lot of time except to note that God is concerned with the why we do things as much as the what we do.

The apostle Paul saw this happening even back in his day. In Philippians 1 he wrote,

15 It’s true that some are preaching out of jealousy and rivalry. But others preach about Christ with pure motives. 16 They preach because they love me, for they know I have been appointed to defend the Good News. 17 Those others do not have pure motives as they preach about Christ. They preach with selfish ambition, not sincerely, intending to make my chains more painful to me. 18 But that doesn’t matter. Whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice. And I will continue to rejoice.

I think this is an important passage in our time because ministries do compete with each other, so let’s visit the same verses in The Message:

15-18 It’s true that some here preach Christ because with me out of the way, they think they’ll step right into the spotlight. But the others do it with the best heart in the world. One group is motivated by pure love, knowing that I am here defending the Message, wanting to help. The others, now that I’m out of the picture, are merely greedy, hoping to get something out of it for themselves. Their motives are bad. They see me as their competition, and so the worse it goes for me, the better—they think—for them. So how am I to respond? I’ve decided that I really don’t care about their motives, whether mixed, bad, or indifferent. Every time one of them opens his mouth, Christ is proclaimed, so I just cheer them on!

Paul was able to see the good that could come out of such proclamation, even when the motives were suspect. The grace he shows in this situation is remarkable. In I Cor. 4:4-5 he again says,

My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide.  So don’t make judgments about anyone ahead of time—before the Lord returns. For he will bring our darkest secrets to light and will reveal our private motives. Then God will give to each one whatever praise is due. (NLT)

The last two sentences suggest that are reward will be based on the motives which drove our activities. (Someone has quipped, ‘There will be a lot of surprises in heaven,’ for reasons such as this.)

Although I don’t have a copy, earlier in the year I was intrigued by this book title: Rooting for Rivals: How Collaboration and Generosity Increase the Impact of Leaders, Charities, and Churches (Bethany House, 2018).

When the church growth movement is analyzed, it’s said that much of the growth that takes place is transfer growth, in other words, people moving from one church to another. (This isn’t always true of fresh church plants however, in which genuine overall growth can be measured.) Transfer growth means that church leaders are competing for the same people, the same bodies if I can use that term.

But rivalry can also get to the point of bad-mouthing another organization without justification. The blurb for the book says,

Faith-based organizations are sometimes known for what we’re against—and all too often that includes being against each other. But amid growing distrust of religious institutions, Christ-centered nonprofits have a unique opportunity to link arms and collectively pursue a calling higher than any one organization’s agenda.

In today’s polarized world this comes as no surprise…

…Although I’ve looked at our opening verse many times, it was only today that I caught that it’s repeated at 21:2. Taking one last look, I noticed something at BibleHub.com that I’d also not seen before, the inclusion of the Brenton Septuagint Translation. Its rendering of 21:2 is:

Every man seems to himself righteous; but the Lord directs the hearts.

We can really deceive ourselves sometimes or decide that the end justifies the means. But God’s concern is always deeper.


Again, if you missed yesterday’s thoughts, click here.


Bonus article: It wasn’t the type of article we’d run here, but earlier in the week, Ruth Wilkinson’s conviction and courage converged and she ended up in a very foreign environment and made a new connection. Click here to read.

October 31, 2021

Forever Amen

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NIV.Matt.6.9 “This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one

For eight weeks, Ruth Wilkinson shared a worship teaching segment on Sunday mornings based in the Lord’s Prayer. This was week nine, and she knew for some people the series wouldn’t be complete without thinking about the phrase with which we commonly end when reciting the prayer.

In the NIV (above), it’s a footnote:

some late manuscripts: for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

The version in Luke 11 is even shorter. The phrase doesn’t occur in some earlier manuscripts, but in one of the earliest writings we have, the Didache, which we discussed here a few days ago, it does appear. The website Got Questions says the phrase “should not be discarded lightly” as there are “data points” on both sides of the discussion.

We looked at the first part, in a 2014 post entitled, For Thine is the Kingdom, and more recently in 2020, Clarke Dixon studied the phrase in a post titled, For Thine is the Kingdom, where he reminded us of this related scripture:

Yours, O LORD, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all.

1 Chronicles 29:11 NRSV (emphasis added)

Ruth shared that part with the congregation the week prior. Today she continued considering the phrase “forever and ever, Amen.”

Forever

Some of the prayer is for this lifetime. It speaks of having “daily bread” needs met, of forgiveness and forgiving, and of God’s leading in our lives.

Some of the prayer is about things beyond this life: God’s Kingdom, His holiness, His will (plans and purposes), His majesty and power, and His glory.

Having a ‘forever’ perspective reminds me that

►Faith isn’t just rose coloured glasses wear to get through the day; rather it’s more like prescription glasses help me see better.

►Faith isn’t just a template to make the complicated world seem simpler; rather it’s a perspective accept the complications and find my path through them.

►Faith isn’t a crutch help us limp through; rather, healing lets me stand firm, run toward, walk without fainting alongside those in need

Faith makes difference starting now, continuing forever.

Eternity has implications for my everyday: what I say, do, spend money and time on, how I treat people around me, how I interact with the world of which I’m a part.

Faith is therefore a response to what I see in Jesus, how I follow his example and live out his teachings.

Amen

The final word we recite is also a name give to Jesus.

NRSV.Rev.3.14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation…

The more common use of Amen occurs in our worship as affirmation of something just stated, confirming that “this is truth” or “this will be.” We say it here for the prayers about this life and the things that are prayers beyond this life.

Amen.


Here is a very short look at the prayer which Ruth shared 10 years earlier while serving at a different church. Check out, Before You Say, “Our Father.”

October 27, 2021

Looking into the Depths of God

NIV.John.3.1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again…5 Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit…   12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?16 For God so loved the world that he gave…”

Those 3-D Computer Generated Picture Things at the Mall

by Ruth Wilkinson

You know the ones? They look like an explosion at the pixel factory, unless you stand just so far away and refocus your eyes just right and for just long enough that a 3-D panorama leaps out, thrilling and amazing all.

Except me. I can’t do it. I’ve tried starting with my nose almost touching the glass and slowly backing away. I’ve tried gently relaxing the muscles in my eyes. I’ve tried defocusing, unfocusing, disfocusing — everything. My husband and kids go from one to the next, saying, “Hey, cool! This one’s a cow! This one’s a space ship! This one’s the ceiling of St. Peter’s Basilica, complete with Michelangelo, paintbrush in hand!”

I’m still standing there crossed-eyed and head-achy looking at an explosion at the pixel factory.

I think it would have been better if I didn’t know. At face value, they’re visually interesting; a collage of images and colours, almost a pattern, but not quite. I could enjoy them that way.

But I do know and I’m missing something. Something my family sees, but I don’t. They tell me it’s there and, for them, it is. But not for me. I want it to be. I’d like to get it. They patiently try to help and advise. They really want me to get it, too. So I keep looking.

Nicodemus was like that. John, who was one of Jesus’ closest friends while he was on earth, tells us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee; one of a group who were deeply passionate about their faith. They knew the good that God had for His people and how much He loved them. But they had some very real and legitimate concerns about how the Jews could be drawn away from God by philosophical and religious influences of other nations and cultures. Pharisees worked hard at guarding the hearts of God’s people. We like to dump on them for working too hard. Making too many rules, making the whole thing cumbersome. Getting uptight at little things. We call them “legalists” and thank God that we’re not like that.

But Nicodemus, and others, were not entirely stuck in the mud. They were wise enough, humble enough, to know that they didn’t have God all figured out and someday He’d have more to say than 10 commandments and a whole lot of rules, and they’d better not be asleep at the switch when it happened.

Nicodemus and friends found Jesus very interesting. There was definitely something going on there beyond cool stories and sleight of hand. He wasn’t just a nice guy who knew a lot. He was extremely 3D. N & Co. realized that and they went to work trying to refocus in order to figure out the picture. They listened and followed and asked questions.

Everything they saw fit with everything they heard. Jesus wasn’t a fake. He wasn’t loopy. But he might be dangerous.

These guys cared genuinely about keeping people in line with God and Jesus was saying things just different enough to make them nervous.

All we know about Nicodemus is that:

1. He went to the trouble of getting alone with Jesus and asking some questions.

2. He risked his reputation to give Jesus a fair hearing.

3. When it came down to it, he made the choice to step up and take ownership of his respect and love for, and relationship with Jesus. We don’t hear anything else about Nico.

Tradition says he became a Christ follower and given John 19, I think he probably did. If so, he would have sacrificed a lot: prestige, power, family maybe, reputation. Maybe, in those three turning point moments, he found himself wishing he didn’t know. Life was good before Jesus. Obeying the rules was easier. Simpler. Walking through this relationship is a whole other layer of paint.

But in exchange, he would have fulfilled his mission as a true Pharisee. To know God’s voice and obey.

To look into the depths of God and see what’s hidden there. Love. Truth. Life.

October 6, 2021

Preaching in the Forest

It’s said that missionary statesman and Canadian pastor Oswald J. Smith would go out into the woods and preach to the trees. I am sure that some will say this is no different than modern preachers doing a midweek practice run in an empty auditorium, and I am 100% confident that when Oswald preached in the woods, the response rate was extremely low. No chipmunks or squirrels were saved.

Garrison Keillor tells a story of working a year at the campus radio station at his college, only to discover at the end of the year the transmitter had been shut off. The station ran a full schedule of programs, but they were doing it entirely for themselves.

Still, there are some who would say that many bloggers and podcasters — especially Christian ones — are also preaching, metaphorically speaking, to the trees, not because absolutely nobody is listening, but rather, because so many others are writing that it’s easy to feel lost in such a sea of voices. Or to feel like a ‘voice crying in the wilderness.’

That phrase is from Isaiah 40, and while there are narratives in the life of Christ which appear in all four gospels this is a case where all four use that exact Isaiah quotation to affirm the ministry of John the Baptist.

  1. Matthew 3:3
    This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
  2. Mark 1:3
    “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
  3. Luke 3:4
    As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.
  4. John 1:23
    John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

If John was using modern media today, I’m sure his wilderness experience would translate into low stats, or in church-related terms, low attendance. As he continued, the crowds came, but we know that while he preached his message of repentance with great conviction, and his prophetic word that The Messiah, the lamb of God had come into the world; we also know that later on he himself  had doubts as to the Messiah-identification being fulfilled in Jesus.

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Matthew 11:2-3

The wilderness mentality was hard to shake.

So knowing that John spoke in faith and not certainty, and knowing that his experience was a wilderness experience, we can be sure that John had days where he felt he was preaching to the trees.

But tree preaching is not a bad thing.

The speaking out of anything is a good test of what is in the heart. This can reveal a good heart condition or a bad heart condition. One time a few years ago, I said something out loud for which I am thankful that not even trees were present. Where did that come from? It wasn’t something angry or rash or hate-filled, just something I might not have thought I was capable of thinking.

Luke 6:45 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

It’s the same with writing. You reveal yourself to yourself when you write. Sometimes you mentally picture a three-paragraph outline, but end up with eight paragraphs because there were things in your heart and mind which overflowed as you sat at the keyboard.

You ask yourself, Is anyone reading all this?

There are people I’ve never met in person but I read them online regularly. I know for a fact that some of them only get 4 or 5 visitors a day. I’m sure they feel they are preaching to the trees. But they have been a great influence in my life. Some are major Christian influencers while others are people who faithfully post online in relative obscurity.

So we’ll say things like

We are responsible for the depth of our ministry and
God is responsible for the breadth.

which is very true.

But the depth of our ministry is cultivated sometimes in the secret and almost-secret places. What I’m saying here is that you should

  • keep writing even when it seems that no one is listening
  • keep sharing with that spouse, coworker or relative even it seems that nothing is getting through
  • keep teaching that Sunday school class even when the kids are fighting, fooling around and talking
  • keep recommending those books even when nobody buys them or borrows them from the church library
  • keep serving those meals at the soup kitchen even it looks like all you’re doing is freeing up money they can spend on drugs or alcohol
  • keep supporting that missionary even when his/her prayer letters contain frustration over a lack of measurable results
  • keep sending cards and birthday gifts to that wayward person who seems to have gone so distant from you and from God

Why? Because of what is forming in you as you remain faithful, even when it seems that your efforts are met by nothing but the wind blowing through the trees.

Phil 2:13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

The Message renders this section as:

12-13 What I’m getting at, friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning. When I was living among you, you lived in responsive obedience. Now that I’m separated from you, keep it up. Better yet, redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure.

Be the voice in the wilderness, but let your voice resonate in social media posts, empty auditoriums and forest woodlands.

The trees are listening, and perhaps so are others, more than you realize at the time.


What if?

What if someone was preaching to an empty auditorium, not because they were doing a practice run, but because it was a regularly scheduled service to which no one had come, but they were determined to conduct the entire service anyway as an act of obedience, and an act of worship to God?

We happened upon this taking place when we were in Boston. Ruth Wilkinson describes it in this older C201 blog post from 2010: If a Tree Falls in the Forest.

September 8, 2021

When Scripture Texts are Misused to Prove a Point

This article was jointly published by Christianity 201 and Thinking Out Loud. The article is contextually rooted in one Canadian province, but similar discussions have happened all over North America. The particular focus here is on the use of certain scripture texts to support the main argument, and whether those are being used correctly.

by Ruth Wilkinson

Now that vaccine passports have been officially announced for the province of Ontario, coming into effect Sept. 22, the rhetoric is intensifying. We all have one more thing about which to feel strongly, and on which to fiercely hold opinions. Which is understandable, considering the human rights implications and the endemic emotional fatigue.

Aside from our own gut reactions, we are looking for leadership, information, and (hopefully) wisdom on which to base our decisions about vaccination and its documentation in our lives. Many will simply never be convinced that it’s in their best interests, and will hold the line on remaining un-shot. As I write this, 16% of eligible Ontarians are still holding out.

Based on some conversations I’ve had, it seems (anecdotally) that people who identify as Christians make up a larger portion of that percentage than other faith groups. They give a few different reasons that I won’t recount here, because this article isn’t actually about vaccination, or about passports.

In fact, it’s about those leaders and information sources who have so much influence on believers. It’s about pastors, bloggers, vloggers. Like the people who are responsible for this document that is making the rounds:

https://www.libertycoalitioncanada.com/religious-freedom-from-vaccination-coercion

It must be good, right? It’s “confessionally orthodox.” It’s got scripture verses. It’s signed by people who call themselves Reverend Doctor, and Pastor. Heck, it’s even got Joe Boot, a name that means something to many.

Problem is, however well-intentioned, this document is a really awful piece of Scriptural application. However you feel about the principles the Declaration espouses (some of which are, IMHO, sound), the way the authors have used isolated Scripture passages to try to support their arguments is, just (pauses for a minute to find a diplomatic word… can’t) inept. If I had turned in this piece to my hermeneutics professor at seminary, his head would have imploded. As I said above, I think some of the authors’ theses have merit. But their scriptural arguments have not.

I’ve chosen two of the whereases (is that a word?) as examples of how we need to do our own homework when reading something like this, and ask ourselves whether Scripture is being appropriately exegeted, or whether it’s being proof-texted in order to lend the writers authority that they haven’t earned.

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AND WHEREAS Christians are commanded to live in light of God’s moral commands, including expressing love for one’s neighbour by resisting oppression and injustice, whether it be as a result of individual conduct or the actions of any State, agency or bureaucracy – including any immoral or unethical development such as coercive vaccination programs (Isa. 1:17; Matt. 22:39; Jam. 5:14)

Must be true, look at all those verses! Well, let’s take them one at a time:

Learn to do what is good. Seek justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause. – Isaiah 1:17

In this passage God is speaking to Israel, who have been taken into exile as a consequence of their covenant breaking behaviour and hearts. Cut and pasted, as I’ve done here, it certainly says what the Declaration authors want it to. But the context of this one verse, in the middle of a longer passage, is a call for Israel to return to her place, to rediscover God’s will. To wash the blood from her hands, to stop being an adulteress. This has nothing to do with opposing government. It has nothing to do with standing up for one’s rights. It does have to do with taking personal and national responsibility for crimes and sins. If one agrees that vaccine passports are ethically wrong, this passage might be applicable to the government and administrators who made the rules. It simply doesn’t speak to you and me today.

Of course, there are passage in which Jesus models for us, and the writers of the epistles teach that we should be looking out for the vulnerable, providing for those in need. This isn’t one of them, and it’s not relevant to the topic.

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The second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. – Matthew 22:39

Here Jesus is affirming the Jewish scripture’s teaching (Leviticus 19:18) (Look, now I’m doing it :-)). But again, the original passage discussed here is in a context of personal and corporate behaviour. How am I to treat the vulnerable around me? There is nothing here to support picket lines, civil disobedience, or making the hostess at Pizza Hut cry.

In my view, the most loving thing I can do is to make myself less of a threat to others by wearing a mask. And to make myself more useful by getting vaccinated in order to stay healthy. Loving my neighbour, in the teachings of Jesus, is a direct and personal duty.

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Is anyone among you sick? He should call for the elders of the church, and they should pray over him after anointing him with olive oil in the name of the Lord. – James 5:14

What possible connection this verse has to “resisting oppression and injustice” I don’t have the foggiest idea. So I’m just going to move on.

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AND WHEREAS God created human beings and all the earth’s resources and called them to work and enjoy the fruit of their labour as a pre-political duty and right (prior to the existence of the state) and further clarifies this requirement by commanding people to work six days and rest on each sabbath in order to develop culture in obedience to God and provide for their families, thus freedom to work is an inalienable right that no person should be unjustly denied (Ex. 20:9; 1 Tim.5:8)

First of all, take a moment to look in the Bible for anything that looks like an “inalienable right.” Go ahead. I’ll wait.

It’s not there. God never grants anyone an inalienable right. God grants us covenant. Grace. Partnership. Hope. Not rights. The basic premise of this thesis is unscriptural.

But, still, let’s look at these passages and see what they have to say about creation and work.

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You are to labour six days and do all your work... – Exodus 20:9

As a click-bait reference, it accomplishes what the authors want it to.

In context, not so much. This is one phrase in one sentence taken from a paragraph:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: You are to labour six days and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. You must not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the foreigner who is within your gates. For the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy. – Exodus 20:8-11

What is this paragraph about? What is the core focus of this commandment?

Sabbath. Not work. The one day. Not the six.

If, as believers in the New Covenant, we opt to live according to some cherry-picked bits of the Old, our mandate here is to “remember the Sabbath.” Its importance to Israel is underscored in Exodus 35:1-2:

Moses assembled the entire Israelite community and said to them, “These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do: For six days work is to be done, but on the seventh day you are to have a holy day, a Sabbath of complete rest to the LORD. Anyone who does work on it must be executed…”

Nobody’s being executed for not working. Whether or not I agree with an employer’s right to demand proof of vaccination, this scripture passage doesn’t apply. There is no “right” granted here.

Neither is there in our final passage:

But if anyone does not provide for his own, that is his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. – 1 Timothy 5:8

Again, this is completely off topic if read in context. Timothy was giving leadership to a faith community who were figuring out how to support those among them who were in need, or vulnerable (ie “widows”). The passage is about how we should live in community, how anyone who can support themselves ought to, and how we are commanded to care for those in our biological and faith families.

When held in parallel with passages like 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12, it creates a framework of responsibility within which believers do what is necessary in order to live lives of accomplishment, altruism, and decency, thereby earning the respect of the broader community and avoiding bringing disrepute on the name of Christ, and on the gospel.

These passages about work are built on a foundation of covenant—we are part of the Body of Christ. As such it falls to us to do what we must in order to live up to the ethic that is presented here. If we refuse to make a personal sacrifice for the good of others, then that is “denying the faith” and “worse than an unbeliever.”

The Timothy passage has nothing to say about “inalienable rights.”

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As Christians, living out our faith in a world that is decreasingly friendly to who they think we are, blindly accepting such spurious teaching as this makes us look foolish. We must each think through our stand on these significant issues. Do our research. Use our discernment. Question our teachers.

I repeat that I think some (not all) of the points raised by this document are valid. But I was appalled by the low quality of the ‘scholarship’ used as an excuse to present it as a “Christian Declaration.” The exegesis of Scripture and its application to how we live our everyday lives is not brain surgery, but it ought to be done wisely and with skill. That is clearly not the case here.

Brothers and sisters, please take the time to understand what Christ has actually called us to before making decisions that increase our loss of credibility in the world and in our communities.

August 8, 2021

A Devotional Three-for-One Special!

For the third year in a row, we’re bringing you a trio of short-form devotionals from The Bare Soul Daily Devotional by Rick Roeber (aka The Barefoot Runner). Click on each of the headers below to bookmark or read at source.

The Valley of Decision

Joel 3:14 – “Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision.”

The day of the Lord will characterize itself in a terrifying way to most. However, the day of the Lord can also be a day of great victory. For those of us who have accepted the Lord Jesus, our day of the Lord has come and God has already entered into judgment with our sin through the Lord Jesus Christ. Only as we have accepted Him as our sacrificial Lamb, will we then have moved from judgment to mercy as our sin has been forever atoned for by Christ’s perfect life.

The tragedy is that most will be caught in the conundrum of their own indecisiveness, not accepting the Lord’s most gracious gift before their respective death or His eminent return. If only they had known how close the Lord was to them in this time of decision! He patiently waited for their response but there was none.

As the writer of Hebrews tells us, if today you hear His voice, do not harden your heart but give your life to Him for He is full of love and abounding in mercy (Hebrews 4:7).

Divine Recognition

Acts 4:13 – “Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.”

Have you ever recognized someone as having been with Jesus? They aren’t difficult to spot. As the Pharisees witnessed, the hallmark of these folks is their immovable confidence in what they believe. How does confidence of this type manifest itself? Well, it starts in secret and spills out publicly. It oozes out of believers that truly believe their Lord and desire to spend time with Him. It comes by searching out His Word, and then living it to the best of their ability. It comes by living out the Great Commission and spreading the love of Jesus Christ to their communities, counties, states, countries, and finally to the world. Godly confidence is something that cannot be self-created but is a by-product of living and breathing the Lord Jesus Christ on a daily basis.

Do you want to provoke amazement as the Pharisees experienced? They merely acknowledged the confidence of Peter and John, that they were uneducated but yet they recognized the Lord Jesus in them. Confidence in one’s standing with the Lord only comes by getting into that secret place with Him — to pour out one’s heart and to pour over His word. Then, when we come out into the public light, there will be little to mistake any of us from having been with our Risen Lord.

Love and Compassion

Matthew 20:34 – “Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes; and immediately they regained their sight and followed Him.”

Often people confuse God’s compassion with His love. The Lord certainly loves at all times, for this is His nature (Proverbs 17:17), However, His compassions are often kindled according to His great will (Hosea 11:8). These ebb and flow in perfect measure as He touches and mends lives. Jesus’ nature did not always look loving, yet He never failed in this respect, even when He was angry or openly grieved. Likewise, His compassion was always at work although it was most demonstrative when God’s heart was “kindled.”

Always know God is a loving Father, even when He does not appear that way. The sign of a mature believer is patiently discerning how the Lord chooses to reveal Himself through His compassion. When God does touch us, there is a new awareness of His love and kindness and a greater desire to follow Him no matter where He might lead.


Bonus content:

It’s been awhile since we shared anything from Ruth Wilkinson. Today we have two video teachings for you in what will eventually become a series of four or five, which are based on the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy.

Click these links for

July 10, 2021

Why Did David Run?

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:35 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

It’s been awhile since we’ve heard from Ruth Wilkinson. Armed with a Samsung phone and a strong desire to delve deeper into the Psalms, she’s been making teaching videos for a small church about an hour east of Toronto, Canada. The one we’re featuring today is part five in a series.

It’s impossible to copy and paste from a video, so I’m hoping that all of you will click through and watch this in full. It runs about 11 minutes.

Teaching notes for the video:

LORD, how my enemies increase!
There are so many who attack me.
So many who talk about me, saying, “There is no help for him in God.”
Selah

But You, LORD, are a shield around me, my glory, and the One who lifts up my head.
In full voice I cry to Yahweh, and He answers me from His holy mountain.
Selah

I can lie down and sleep; I can wake again because Yahweh sustains me.
I do not fear the arrows that fly against me on every side.

Rise up, Yahweh! Save me, my God!
Oh, that you would strike my enemies on the jaw; that you would break the teeth of the wicked.
Oh, Yahweh–Salvation!
Oh, Yahweh–on Your people, Blessing!
Selah

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Psalm 3 written about arguably the worst day of David’s life.
-running from Absalom
—asked before… David is brave. David is strong. David is a fighter.
Then why did David run?

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If I were making that movie…
**opening shots:
-messenger running up the hill, into the palace, shouting.
-out of breath, panting out his warning “Absalom is coming!”
-David, after the first shock, looking out the window of his palace, the hills beyond… Any sign yet?
-then down over the streets, the markets, the homes.
-women carrying water, the children playing and learning, the men working.
-what Absalom’s army will do to the city in order to get to David.

My movie…
-David walking fast, giving orders.
-first stunned silences, then moving on… explosion of organization…
-packing… rounding up kids… directing servants….
-what and who to leave behind.

My movie…
-overhead travelling shot…
-David at the head of the evacuation, leading his people through the city,
-still giving orders, making plans, staying at the front…
-guessing, maybe, that if Absalom might try to block the exit (David needs to be first to meet him.)
-guessing, maybe, that in the narrow streets of the city, his people are safest behind him.
-guessing, maybe, that most people didn’t know why the king is leaving, and it’s better that way.

-David leading his wives, children, servants and supporters, military forces to the gates, the way out.
-open space, wilderness, salt flats, Jordan River, a chance at survival.
-hoping Absalom doesn’t get there first.

My movie…
-David passing through the gate, looking around, walking to the last house on the edge of town and stopping. Stepping off the road.
-looking around for any sign of ambush, seeing nothing.
-gathering his courage, taking a deep breath and smiling as he waves on past–wives and children to keep on down the road.
-waving past his servants, his armed men – go – go – go –

-David waiting until the last straggler, last soldier has gone ahead, before he follows, watching over his shoulder.
-guessing, maybe, that once out of the city, Absalom is more likely to catch up from behind.
-David needs to be last in line to meet him.
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First time we meet David, he’s a shepherd. Called in by his dad from the fields with sling tucked into his belt, oil under his fingernails, dust in his hair, smelling like sheep.

Now years later, decades from those pastures,
—–King David, husband, father, soldier, killer David is still a shepherd.
Providing for his flock.

Why did David run? So that he would be followed.
Shepherd. Sheep knew his voice, and they followed.

Knew David would lead.
-Bringing up the rear when the rear is where the danger lies.
-Standing between them and the predator.
-Being the target. Being the bait.

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My movie…
-David walking, weeping, barefoot, breathing in the dust raised by those who relied on him.
-down into the Kidron Valley – down away from the holy mountain, where God’s presence.
-up the Mount of Olives where once he had worshipped YHWH God, but where he cannot stop.
-again down and down and down into the dusk and the sunset, his mind full of words.
-until finally he has to pull himself together, walk back in among his people, and be their shepherd.

____________

My movie…
-closing scene for that day….
-stars in the sky, sound of the Jordan River, the comfort of the narrow green strip between the burning hot salt flats and the cool of the water; smells of food and a fire burning, encircled by exhausted people with just enough energy to eat, and to worry.

Out of the darkness
-David would walk into the crowd, through the circle of people who were here because of him, carrying his harp. and carrying his courage.
-He would stand where everyone could see him and he would sing.
-He would sing his fear – enemies, and what if God doesn’t help?
-He would sing his faith – His shield, his hope, and the voice that echoes still from that far-away high and holy place.
-He would sing in the knowledge that Absalom and his troops were in the city, taking over everything and everyone that David’s people had had to leave behind.
-He would sing his trust into the shaken hearts of those who trusted him…

“I can lie down and sleep. I will awake again.”
“I can lie down and sleep. I will awake again.”
“I can lie down and sleep. I will awake again. Because YHWH sustains me.”

My movie…
-David the shepherd sings his exhausted flock to their rest.

May 2, 2021

Communion Perspective

Ruth shared this mediation with the online church family this morning. Your church’s expression of the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper may be different, but I hope that a holy imagination allows it to stir up similar thoughts each time you participate.

by Ruth Wilkinson

1 Cor 11:23-29 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: On the night when He was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and said, “This is My body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.”

In the same way, after supper He also took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant established by My blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy way will be guilty of sin against the body and blood of the Lord. So a man should examine himself; in this way he should eat the bread and drink from the cup. For whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.

I love communion Sundays.

The first Sundays of each month, together in our building downtown, built with stones cemented together in centuries past, lit by coloured windows created in living memory, sharing bottled grape juice, and matzoh bread.

I love it when we all sit still and straight and facing the front while the silver trays catch the light as they’re passed up and down each row of us, hand to hand, becoming lighter and emptier as they go… like the collection in reverse. Everybody taking one small clear plastic cup and holding it. And waiting. Then the bread, already broken into small pieces by reverent hands. Taking our bread, and holding it. And waiting.

The pastor reads from the scriptures (“For I received from the Lord what I pass on to you…”), and then in his own words reminds us of what we do and why. We sit in silence together, pray together to the accompaniment of traffic noises and trains and the ceiling fans. Then we drink and eat together.

I love communion Sundays.

Partly because in ritual, in the familiar pattern, I find space to think. To be humbled.

…sitting still in a quiet room, being part of this family.
…knowing that, whatever our questions, the truth we share runs deeper.
…whatever our differences, the love we share runs deeper.
…whatever our struggles, we are here for and with each other.

I love communion Sundays.

Partly because in stillness, I find time to remember. To re-centre.

…staring down into the depths of that little cup of deep purple,
…seeing the light hit the darkness and make it glow just a little.
…just like Jesus entered the darkness of broken human life and brought the life that is the light of humanity–the light that was not overcome.

I love communion Sundays.

Partly because in interaction, I find a prompting to reset. To re-focus.

…holding that piece of matzoh between my fingers,
…seeing the stripes and the little holes,
…feeling the grit of it and the sharp edges.
…Remembering Jesus.

I love communion Sundays.

I love holding in my hand his blood and body. His bleeding and brokenness. Knowing that he bled and endured for us.

I love being aware of the people in my life. Being challenged to do what we can because of what Jesus did for us.

What did he do? He showed up. Lived our life, the good and the bad.
Did what he could, taught what we could learn.
Gave us his strength and health for the times when we would have none of our own.

He was broken so that he could put everything back together.
Including me. Including you.

We can’t hold our own brokenness in our hand. We can’t look from above into the depths of our own bleeding. We can’t always see the ways in which the topography of our skin and soul is irrevocably changed by scars and loss.
We can’t always see the ways in which our brokenness can help someone else.

Only Jesus is Jesus.
Only he could come and do what he did. Only through him can we do what we can do.

I love communion Sundays,

when I hold that little cup of purple, and that little shard of white.
Thinking about how much it must have hurt. And how much it does hurt.

And how much, how very much, it’s all been worth it.

And how very very grateful I am to have been bled for, and to have the chance to bleed for and with someone else.


For further meditation: Here again is the link to our Communion Sunday music playlist, 2 hours of worship and narrative songs.

March 15, 2021

Christianity 201 Devotional #4000

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:30 pm

Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.
 – I Cor. 4:2 NIV

Then Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.”
 – I Sam. 7:12 NASB

Celebrating 4,000 consecutive days of devotional readings at Christianity 201.

A year ago at this time I was publishing a countdown to the end of publishing 7 days per week. I figured I’d settle into a routine of Sunday thru Thursday or Tuesday thru Saturday.

Then Covid-19 hit and (a) I found myself with more time on my hands, and (b) I figured people were stuck at home and more likely to be seeking more online content. (I was right, starting in March each month’s stats are higher than the previous year.)

I also found myself writing more of the pieces myself, while continuing to return to past contributors, highlight the work of newer authors for the first time here, include the occasional quotations feature, and format the submissions from regular Thursday writer Clarke Dixon, and my wife, Ruth Wilkinson.

I do this with a great sense of personal responsibility, always mindful of:

Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly.
 – James 3:1 NLT

I’ve also had to fight the severe pandemic depression that set in, particularly in the first 2-3 months. I know that I speak for many of us.

At the same time, Ruth has been working on a graduate degree in theology, which has raised the bar on mealtime discussion subjects. I recently find myself deferring to her on hermeneutical questions which arise…

…It is interesting how few pastors and Christian writers I encounter who are interested in writing devotional literature. Fortunately, this is more than made up for by the number of bloggers. If I only ran posts which began, “Today we’re featuring a new writer;” I could easily find 4-6 high quality devotions per day based on the hunting-and-gathering process I use to find the ones which do appear.

Devotions should be read — and written — out of devotion to God. Unlike writing a book, this particular genre comes with a daily deadline. In the spirit of Psalm 100, where the Psalmist says, “Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into His presence with singing!” it should be done joyfully, not out of a sense of an onerous duty or obligation. I am fortunate to be able to say that when an idea or concept presents itself, I do get lost in the pleasure of crafting 800 – 1300 words on that particular subject. The pre-pandemic feeling I had of wanting to cut back the frequency of C201 has disappeared.

This verse,

So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.
 – 1 Corinthians 15:58 NLT

was one that a ministry mentor often shared as part of the signature line on his correspondence. Another word which comes to mind is fervent which the Oxford Dictionary defines as, “having or displaying a passionate intensity.” It’s found in the KJV of a verse in Romans that this mentor used in his “tentmaking” business signature line.

Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.
 – Romans 12:11 – NIV

Obviously, God presented me with an opportunity to do something unique and I have tried, as our opening verse at the top of the page instructs, to do this faithfully.

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
 – Ecclesiastes 9:10 NIV

In that light, what do you think is the best original devotional I’ve posted here, or the best themed topical devotional I’ve assembled?

The answer is, the one I’ve posted that day. I really do try to make each one better than the last.

You could expand that principle. If I was still leading worship in a local church, and someone asked me, ‘What’s the best worship set you’ve put together?’ I would like to be able to say, ‘The worship set we did this past week.’ Each one should represent a greater striving for excellence.

So yes, I do enjoy this.

But also, I need this.

I need the discipline that the daily deadline presents or I would get lost in the many distractions that modern life has to offer. (See yesterday’s post for more on this.)

And so we celebrate 4,000 days of writing, including the times we were away in Europe for up to two weeks and devotionals had to be written ahead and schedule. Again, I just wanted to be faithful to something, and on April 1st — with much less fanfare — we’ll mark eleven years of so doing.

May the words that come out of my mouth and the musings of my heart meet with Your gracious approval, O Eternal, my Rock, O Eternal, my Redeemer.
– Psalm 19:14 (The Voice)


Welcome to the 4000th post celebration reception. Members of the contemporary worship band have chosen some songs just for today! Coffee and tea is available in the lobby.

March 1, 2021

The Test of Faith Was Both Abraham’s and Isaac’s

Could a familiar Biblical narrative had played out differently? We often consider the faith it took Abraham to be obedient to a horrid request, a demand concerning the child of promise given to him and Sarah. But Isaac was old enough that he could have rewritten the ending…

If you’re unfamiliar with Abraham’s test of faith in Genesis 22, click this link to read it in the Common English Bible (CEB).

by Ruth Wilkinson

Why did it have to be at the top of a mountain on a hot day, carrying all that wood?
His father wasn’t young anymore (had he ever been?) so Isaac took the load of wood himself.
Abraham went ahead, finding the path, carrying the fire for the altar. This was a long, long way
to come to make a sacrifice.

Isaac had seen his father make sacrifices to his god before, and it was always the same.
He’d build an altar, stone on stone ‘till it was right,
lay it with wood – first the tinder, then the kindling, then the fuel.
He’d choose the very best lamb he could find,
sometimes that took hours, talking to the shepherds, looking at hooves and skin.
If he couldn’t find the one he wanted, he’d buy one from a neighbour. That could take a day or two.

Once he’d found the one he wanted, he’d tie its legs with rope, lay it on the altar.
He’d cut the lamb’s throat quickly so it wouldn’t suffer and light the fire.
A complete waste, except it wasn’t.
It was a gift, a symbol of how nothing was more important to Abraham than his god.

But this one was different, not only the journey, but especially the fact that there was no lamb.
Abraham was always so picky about choosing just the right one, surely he didn’t expect it to
just be waiting there for him at the top.
Isaac had asked about that, but Abraham didn’t really answer,
so he dropped it.

Abraham was unusually quiet.
Anytime they’d sat or eaten or traveled together Abraham was full of stories
the time he’d tried to trick Pharaoh and his God had ratted him out,
the time he’d gone to war to rescue Uncle Lot and his God had given him victory,
the time his god had wiped a couple of entire cities off the earth,

and over and over and over again, the story of the son, the only son, the son their God had
given them, the son they loved, their miracle son.
The first star in his father’s sky of children and children’s children and
children’s children’s children.

Isaac had heard volumes about Abraham’s god. Sarah’s god.
But not today.

Today he was lugging a load of wood up a mountain, eyes on where he was putting his feet,
glancing at his father’s back.

Lots of time to think.
This god of his father’s was a strange one as gods went.
He didn’t seem to follow the same rules.
The other gods, the ones that ruled the lands around them, the ones that came into the family
compound with slaves from other places…
The other gods were tied to one particular nation or tribe or family. This one seemed to be
everywhere, involved with anybody he chose.
Isaac wasn’t sure whether he went ahead, or if he was following Abraham, but he had been
everywhere.

The other gods were distant and people did extravagant things to get their attention…
shouting, dancing, extreme sacrifices – even killing their own children to get their noticed.
His father’s god seemed to be waiting around every corner,
with something to say,
to ask,
something to offer
– kind of like Abraham was with Isaac.

But Isaac had never heard the voice his father heard.
Everything he knew, he’d learned from his parents’ lives and stories.
He’d lived his whole life from before he could remember by the words and ways
of his father’s god.

Abraham stopped walking. He looked around and said,
“We’re here.”
He told Isaac to sit down and have a drink while he built the altar.

Stone on stone ‘till it was right,

Then, he opened the bag of tinder,
untied the rope that held the bundle of wood,
arranged the altar, – tinder first, then kindling, then fuel.

He stood still, looking at it.

Isaac said, “Perfect! Now all we need is the lamb.”

There was a long silence. Abraham trembled, sat down beside his son, his only son,
the son his god had given him, the son he loved, his miracle son
the first star in his sky of children and children’s children and
children’s children’s children and told him about the lamb.
What he said cut Isaac open like no knife ever could.

Isaac was to be the lamb.

No.
That can’t be right.
All his life he’d been told how special he was.
His life was a miracle, an answered prayer, a promise kept.
He couldn’t die now!
It was too soon!
That can’t be right.
No.

His father was old, confused. Isaac was stronger, he could take him, maybe tie him up with the rope from the wood and get him home somehow. (On the donkey. That would work.)

To Sarah. Sarah would know what to do.
Isaac snatched up the rope, jumped to his feet ready for anything and in that moment,
he heard it.

He heard the voice – whispering somewhere inside him, behind him.
Whispering his name
“Isaac”

The whisper took over his heart and his mind and whispered to him in that split second every story his father had ever told him.

Every step of his father’s journey,
every promise made and kept,
every tear,
every laugh,
every surprise,
every demand,
every moment of forgiveness and starting over again and redemption.
Every star in his father’s sky.

And in that moment, Isaac knew he had a choice to make. A line to cross.

He had lived his entire life from before he could remember by the words and ways of his father’s god and
now
now
now he had to decide whether this god was his own.
Isaac had to choose.


“All the nations of the earth will be blessed because of your descendants, because you obeyed me” (God, v18)

February 28, 2021

The Name God Gives You

by Ruth Wilkinson

Jesus and his followers arrived in Jerusalem, and He went into the temple complex. He found people had set up shop there, selling oxen, sheep and doves.

He also found money changers sitting there.

So He made a whip out of cords, and began driving everyone out of the temple with their animals and birds.

He dumped the coins of the money changers and flipped their tables.

He told those who were selling doves, “Get these things out of here! Stop turning My Father’s house into a marketplace!”

Then He began to teach them: “You know that it is written, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” But you’ve turned it into a den of thieves!”

When the chief priests and religious leaders heard this, they started looking for a way to bring Him down.

They were afraid of Him, because the whole crowd was astonished by His teaching.

(adapted from Matt 21:10-17, Mark 11:11, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-22)

___________________________

There is an old Black Spiritual that goes something like this:

I told Jesus it would be alright if He changed my name
Jesus told me the world would be against me if He changed my name
But I told Jesus it would be alright if He changed my name

__________________

What surprises us the most about the event at the Temple is Jesus’ actions. His behaviour. We shake our heads and say, “He’s such a nice guy! Why would he act that way?”

What most surprised the people who where there that day was not so much what he did, as what he said. In several places, the Scripture’s writers tell us that people were “astonished” by his air of authority.

He taught with authority.

He healed with authority.

He cast out demons with authority.

He forgave with authority.

Because Jesus had–and has–authority.

He is the ref on the ice, saying yes and no.
He is the prof in the classroom, saying true and false.
He is the quarterback on the team, saying go there, don’t go there.
He is the King. He is the Creator.

Jesus is the boss of you. He is the boss of me.

The people who first sang that old Spiritual, and especially the person who wrote it, understood authority. They understood what it was to be under authority. They knew that someone else had all the power.

They were slaves, so if someone sold them and someone bought them, that someone had the authority to say, “Your name is Ruth? I don’t like that name. I like Sally better. From now on, if I say, “Sally,” that’s you.” They would have to adapt because somebody had changed their name.

But the person who wrote that song wasn’t just a slave. They were a theologian. They were a thinker. They understood that there are different kinds of names.

There are labels that we give each other. There are sounds that we make to define who we’re talking to. But in the Scriptures, some names are much more than that. Some names are identities. When Moses asked God, “What is your name?” God just said, “I am what I am. Call me that.”

The writer of the song understood that kind of name. They must have been familiar with the verse in Revelation that quotes Jesus as saying,

“Listen… To the one who is victorious… I will also give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name is inscribed that no one knows except the one who receives it.” (2:17)

That name is not a label. It’s an identity.

The songwriter, who was a slave, who didn’t even have ownership of their own name, says to Jesus, “You can change my name.” They trusted him to define their identity. They trusted him to tell them who they were. They trusted Jesus to give them a new name.

Can I trust Jesus to define my identity?
Can I trust Him to tell me who I am?
Can I trust Him to give me a new name?

Is there something about who I am that I need to surrender to him?

_____________

Jesus, change my name from “Slave” to “Son” or “Daughter” –
Make me one who has a home and an inheritance.
Gal 4:7

Jesus, change my name from “Dead” to “Alive” –
Make me one who has a future and purpose.
Eph 2:4-5

Jesus, change my name from “Dry Grass” to “Fruit Bearing Branch” –
Make me one who has something to give.
John 15:5

Jesus, change my name from “Unknown” to “Understood” –
Make me one who has a connection and a friend.
Psalm 139:1

Jesus, change my name from “Guilty” to “Not Condemned” –
Make me one who has freedom, joy, a chance to start again.
Romans 8:1

Jesus, if that’s really who you are,
it’s alright if you change my name.


by the same author:

February 16, 2021

When Forgiveness is True Forgiveness

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:31 pm
Tags: , , ,

Three times in the past week I’ve found myself closing in on our 5:30 PM EST deadline and today also turned out to be a busy day. So we’re going to do something different.

You may remember many weeks back I shared a question that a cousin of mine had asked, and then my response. That’s the format today as well, and you can decide if I answered this well.

Paul, I have a question for you.  In Matthew 6, Jesus tells us “if you forgive people for stepping out of line, your heavenly Father will forgive you too.  But if you don’t forgive other people, your Father also won’t forgive you for stepping out of line.

Is it acceptable to the Lord just to forgive, (sincerely, mind you) or are we obliged to actually inform the offending person that they are forgiven?    

What’s your take on this?

My answer:

I always appreciate your questions. They are always challenging.

You are sort of asking two questions in one here because at the end you raise the possibility that the person who has committed a transgression against you may not even be aware that they have done something. I think you would need to inform them that’s something they have done has hurt you greatly but that you are prepared to forgive. But there could be a number of factors working against that. It could be a person from your past that you currently have no way of getting in touch with. Or they could even be deceased.

Returning to the text, Jesus does appear to be saying that the forgiveness we receive in some way corresponds to the forgiveness we are prepared to offer. A few verses earlier he stated this again in his model prayer where we are to ask him to forgive us our trespasses even as we forgive those who trespass against us.

To use a phrase I like using because it makes me sound more educated than I am, the obverse also attains. It’s a fancy way of saying that the opposite seems to be true as well. If we don’t have a forgiving nature we cannot expect to receive God’s forgiveness.

Or can we? The biblical model of forgiveness is to forgive 70 times seven. So how much is God prepared to forgive us? I would say a whole lot more. And isn’t the concept of grace that it comes without any strings attached?

So then why does he appear to be saying but God won’t forgive us if we are unforgiving sort of person?

I think there are several possible reasons and below is a link to a website that offers two of them of which the second one is most interesting, especially when you consider the parable of the man who was forgiven a great debt but did not repeat that forgiveness to a person who owed him a much smaller amount. The original forgiveness he received was rescinded. [Readers: See Matthew 18:21-35] Is this a teaching moment for Jesus to cause his hearers to think about grace and forgiveness, or is it a principle of the Kingdom where all forgiveness is subject to terms and conditions?

I think there are also some things in the context we have to keep in mind and that is that a lot of The Sermon on the Mount is stated in the extreme. Jesus was quite fond of using hyperbole to wake up his audience!

Anyway, here is the link which should provide you with more of the type of answer I think you were originally looking for. If you want to find more things like this type “Matthew 6:15” commentary into a search engine.

https://www.gotquestions.org/forgive-forgiven.html

Here are three paragraphs from that website I want to highlight:

Matthew 6 does not teach that our eternal destiny is based on our forgiving other people; however, it does teach that our relationship with God will be damaged if we refuse to pardon those who have offended us. The Bible is clear that God pardons sin by His grace based on Christ’s work on the cross alone, not on man’s actions. Our right standing before Him is established on one thing only—the finished work of Christ (John 3:16; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10). The penalty for the sin that is rightly ours is paid by Christ, and we obtain it by grace through faith, not by any righteous deeds of our own (Ephesians 2:8-9). No one will be able to stand before God demanding that his sins be forgotten simply because he has forgiven others. Only when we are born again and given a new life through God’s Spirit by faith in Jesus Christ are our sins forgiven…

…To be sure, an unforgiving spirit is a serious sin and should be confessed to God. If we have unforgiveness in our hearts against someone else, then we are acting in a way that is not pleasing to God, making our prayers and a proper living relationship with Him difficult. God will not hear our prayers unless we also show ourselves ready to grant forgiveness…

…A second biblically plausible interpretation of Matthew 6:14-15 is that it is saying anyone who refuses to forgive others is demonstrating that he has not truly received Christ’s forgiveness himself. Any sin committed against us, no matter how terrible, is trivial in comparison to our sins against God. If God has forgiven us of so much, how could we refuse to forgive others of so “little”? Matthew 6:14-15, according to this view, proclaims that anyone who harbors unforgiveness against others has not truly experienced God’s forgiveness. Both interpretations strongly deny that salvation is dependent on our forgiving others…

Ruth Wilkinson, who occasionally contributes to this page, also wanted to respond to my cousin’s inquiry in light of my response. She got back to the original intention of the question when she said,

The forgiveness process isn’t complete until the person has been informed.

Readers, do you agree? I said,

I would add there may be circumstances where doing so could make matters worse, so you need to discern this for yourself.


So how do you think I fared with this?

Do you have someone you can go to for discussions or questions like this? Do you have people who use you as a sounding board?

December 20, 2020

The Scandal of Mary’s Pregnancy and its Implications 30+ Years Later

CEB.Luke.1.28 When the angel came to [Mary], he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29 She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.

Chris Tiegreen is an author who has worked on over a dozen of Tyndale Publishing’s One Year Book of… series of devotionals. He writes,

…Sometimes lost on us is the stunning way in which God clothed himself in human flesh. It’s easy to be sympathetic toward Mary and get angry at the people who would have tried to stone her if they knew she was pregnant. But have you ever considered how you’d respond to a teenage girl who became pregnant and then said God did it? Even with the biblical precedent of Jesus’ conception and the annual reminder of it at Christmas, we still wouldn’t think it’s true.

We’d be right, of course—the incarnation was a once-in-an-eternity event. But imagine being a real person in real history in the real culture of Mary and Joseph. Imagine how ludicrous it must have sounded. “I’m pregnant, but it’s okay; I’m still a virgin!” Only divine intervention would convince us that there was a remote possibility of that being true. In all honesty, we have to admit that we’d assume the worst and, in fact, judge Mary more for the lie than for the immorality.

It’s a wild story, and the only reason we believe it wasn’t a fabrication is the proof of Jesus as God’s Son years later. But the people who knew the young Mary, even her own family members, didn’t see the end of the story. They had never heard Jesus teach or seen him heal. They had no framework that would cause them to say, “Yes, God must have done this wonderful thing!” It was undoubtedly a very traumatic, very contentious, and even very demeaning episode in Mary’s life. The only thing that could have sustained her was the absolute certainty that God was the author of this plan…

continue reading here

Author and Pastor Alan Rudnick writes,

…It has been well documented that Mary’s pregnancy would be cause to shun Mary out of her community. A scandal! To be pregnant before marriage was grounds for divorce in the Old Testament. Even Joseph thought about leaving Mary, but a divine message changed that….

But then he quotes an alternative view from Lynn Cohick, associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College:

Mary was betrothed to Joseph, which was a legally binding arrangement in the Jewish culture. All that awaited the couple was the wedding. If they engaged in sexual intercourse with each other, that was not seen as a violation of any cultural norm. Later rabbinic writings allowed that a future groom who had sexual relations with his bride-to-be at her father’s house was not guilty of immoral behavior.

If pregnancy occurred before the wedding, this was not a problem because the parentage of the child was secured. What is shocking is that Mary is pregnant and Joseph knows he is not the father. The problem is not that a betrothed couple had sex, but that presumably Mary had sex with another man — she committed adultery.

…continue reading Alan’s thoughts at this link

Marg Mowczko has tirelessly devoted her entire scholarly career to tracking the place of women in the scriptures. She’s also one of only two authors ever to issue a take-down notice against Christianity 201, but I really like this insight and I’m trusting she’ll grant us two sentences:

Apart from Elizabeth’s enthusiastic response when Mary visited her (Luke 1:41-45), and apart from Joseph’s initial concern, the scriptures are silent about how people took the news of Mary’s pregnancy. Was there was no proper accommodation made available to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem because of a sense of scandal (Luke 2:6-7)?

read her full article here… (including the citation of an alternative view from Timothy Ralston, similar to what we quoted from Lynn Cohik.)

Had news already reached Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem? It’s an interesting speculation.

So why the reference to 30 years later in today’s devotional title? That’s because of something that frequent C201 contributor Ruth Wilkinson posted today:

Listening this morning to Joseph’s story, and being reminded of the reality of Mary’s situation–what legally could have happened to her–reminded me of the time a woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus for judging. The penalty would have been stoning to death. I wonder what connections triggered in Jesus’ mind in that moment…

It is interesting to re-read that text with this in mind:

NLT.John.8.3 As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”

They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.

When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. 10 Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”

11 “No, Lord,” she said.

And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”

 

 

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