Christianity 201

September 28, 2022

The Bible: Reading it and Writing It

NIV Deut:1118 Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.

NIV.Gal.6.11 See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!

The picture above is of a scripture passage my oldest son chose to write out by hand eleven years ago and post on his bedroom wall.  It’s remarkable for two reasons, the first being that a few years before this his struggle with cursive writing would never have produced anything so legible, the second being the love that he has for the Word of God, evidenced by the time he spends in scripture each day.

Writing out Bible passages by hand has become somewhat archaic in a world of word processing.  But it’s just one of a number of subtle changes taking place in terms of our relationship with the printed word:

  • Many of us leave our Bibles at home on Sundays, finding it more convenient to use Bibles provided at weekend services
  • Many choose to use Bible apps on their smart phones instead of following from a print text
  • Many have their devotional and Bible study time driving to work using a an audio devotional downloaded, or a podcast
  • Scripture memorization has become less commonplace in our children’s and youth ministry programs
  • People like myself often ‘absorb’ scripture throughout the day through online articles and blogs but don’t directly read anything at source
  • Our worship music is ‘vertical’ which can derive from psalms and similar passages, but is therefore less reliant on the ‘Scripture in Song’ type of choruses that were based more directly on scripture
  • The giving out of tracts has died as a practice; many of these began with scripture and contained several Bible passages
  • The reading of Christian books has diminished in a screen-saturated world.
  • Scripture plaques, often seen in the living rooms and kitchens of homes have been deemed inadequate in a world of interior decorating and replaced by “inspirational” wall art with single word admonitions like “dream,” “believe,” “hope,” etc.
  • Where once people would add a scripture verse by hand to a greeting card, today — if we send cards at all — we purchase Christian cards with a verse already included

Combine all these, and the handwriting my son did might seem rather quaint. But I’ll bet that taking the time to do this means he knows this passage well.

Of course, more than writing scripture on the doorframes and gates of our houses, God desires for us to write his words on our heart. But how we do this if we don’t know the passages and precepts in the first place? God is revealed to us first and foremost in scripture; this is the primary revelation of God in our times.

So here’s the challenge.  Take a passage and write it out by hand today. Start with a short one, such as Titus 3: 3-8 or you might consider Colossians 1: 9-14 or the Galatians passage above, or a passage of your choosing.  (Those are just two of the first I did myself, so I’m not asking you to do anything I haven’t done.) Today my recommendation would include Philippians 2:5-11.

In 2019, before leaving for a one week intensive course on the book of Galatians, I copied the entire book from N.T. Wright’s Kingdom New Testament (since it was he who was teaching the course.) That took much longer than I expected. I now have a better understanding of what the scribes did. Consider doing this one of the epistles, or even hand-copying one of the gospels.

And then, having copied them on to paper, allow the words to be written on your heart.

September 13, 2022

Trumpeting vs. Illuminating

“You must understand that God has not sent his Son into the world to pass sentence upon it, but to save it—through him. Any man who believes in him is not judged at all. It is the one who will not believe who stands already condemned, because he will not believe in the character of God’s only Son. This is the judgment—that light has entered the world and men have preferred darkness to light because their deeds are evil. Anybody who does wrong hates the light and keeps away from it, for fear his deeds may be exposed. But anybody who is living by the truth will come to the light to make it plain that all he has done has been done through God.”  John 3: 17-21; J. B. Phillips translation.

The Bible makes a strong case that we’re not to “trumpet” our good works in order to get credit, or draw attention to ourselves. Nor, we are instructed, should we make a spectacle out of prayer, or giving. We are to approach God, and do acts of service with a humble spirit. We’re to take the back seat, though we might be asked to come forward.

But this passage, particularly vs. 21 “whoever lives by the truth comes into the light,” following on the heels of the popular John 3:16 text, tells us that we won’t stay hidden in the darkness such as those who do wrong (evil), but rather we will come into the light, because we are naturally drawn to be people of the light.

  • NASB: But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.
  • NCV: But those who follow the true way come to the light, and it shows that the things they do were done through God
  • The Message: But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.

One verse that comes to my mind in this context is in Acts 26 where Paul is speaking before Agrippa and Festus:

26 For the king knoweth of these things, before whom also I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner.

I deliberate chose the KJV for this one because I love the phrasing, “this thing was not done in a corner.”  But most of the translations — even the modern ones — keep this phrasing, with The Message rendering, “You must realize that this wasn’t done behind the scenes.” Just as ‘cream rises to the surface,’ so will the works of God be evident, even in an unbelieving world.

Here’s how the NLT and Amplified Bible render Matthew 5:15-16

NLT 15 No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house.

AMP 16 Let your light so shine before men that they may see your moral excellence and your praiseworthy, noble, and good deeds and recognize and honor and praise and glorify your Father Who is in heaven.

I can’t help but also think of the tension in 1 Peter 2:12 here as well. The world may on the one hand criticize and condemn us, but then on the other hand, they recognize the good that the presence of Spirit-filled Christians are doing in the world.

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (NLT)

Therefore:

  • We dwell in the light, not darkness
  • We reflect (or you could say, carry) The Light of God
  • We shine like light and are the light of the world

September 10, 2022

Faithfulness versus Religious Ritual

During the past five years, there has been a great falling away in terms of regular church attendance. We’re written on this before, but for one more time, here’s another look at the subject through a slightly different lens. It starts out with an illustration that I wrote 9 years ago. In the fictional story, the family hasn’t stopped attending church, they’ve never learned how not to attend every time the doors are open.

How would a family like that be impacted if the doors of the church were locked for weeks at a time, as happened in March, 2020?

I Cor 4:2 ESV Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.

The Henderson Family very rarely misses a church service, church meeting, or church function. They are what a previous generation called “pillars of the assembly;” people you can count on to be there and to do whatever needs doing in the church. A check of Mrs. H.’s pocket calendar shows a church event or responsibility consuming much of 17 of this month’s 31 days.

Some would say they are being faithful, while others would prefer to think they are in some kind of religious bondage. They could certainly use a copy of the book Boundaries, because saying ‘no’ isn’t in their vocabulary. How do you tell the difference between people who joyfully make the church the center of their lives, and people who serve under duress?

II Cor. 9:7a NIV Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion…

The Bible distinguishes between service and giving which are done joyfully and cheerfully versus that which is done under a sense of obligation.

I thought intensely about this once when it appeared that I would not be able to post a devotional reading. I tried to get online using a rather primitive smart-phone, but it wasn’t to be, as the limitations of the phone met the very limited internet access in the remote area where we were.

‘But I haven’t missed a day here in years,’ I thought to myself. Ah, there’s a religious spirit creeping in.

One person described this syndrome as “If I don’t, it won’t.” They meant the inner voice saying, “If I don’t ____________, then _____________ [something important] won’t happen.” It all depends on me, me, me.

Not a good place to be in. Instead of God being the center, I become the center. It also shows a misplaced appropriation of my place in the building of God’s Kingdom; a rather self-centered, egotistical sense of my own importance.

In fact, scripture describes ministry as more of a symphony concert than a solo recital:

I Cor. 3:6,7 Message Who do you think Paul is, anyway? Or Apollos, for that matter? Servants, both of us—servants who waited on you as you gradually learned to entrust your lives to our mutual Master. We each carried out our servant assignment. I planted the seed, Apollos watered the plants, but God made you grow. It’s not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow.

And then, the worst thought of all, where faulty attitude becomes outright sin. . It wasn’t so much trying to create a false impression of my faithfulness to this, as it was the feeling a curator of a set or collection must have if one of the items is missing. I must restore the museum/gallery to its pristine state. That’s pride.

Matthew 6:1 The Voice Jesus: But when you do these righteous acts, do not do them in front of spectators. Don’t do them where you can be seen, let alone lauded, by others. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Amazing how writing a daily devotional blog can cause to sin, isn’t it? So what would you tell the Henderson family? Is there a balance? What would you tell me?

September 5, 2022

The Opposite of Sola Scriptura

Today’s devotional study is going to be interesting, to say the least. Far more so now than when much of it was posted in March, 2017. And the title I gave today’s thoughts was chosen to be deliberately provocative.

So first let’s deal with that title. In offering the opposite of sola scriptura (the word of God alone) I realize that some, especially if you are from a tradition which holds high “the five solas,” are going to be thinking that anything that opposes this view is heretical.

Years ago, someone challenged me with the question, “Are there things we know about God that we don’t know from the Bible?” I thought about my university philosophy studies and how some of the characteristics of God were intuited or deduced based on other information we have about God. In other words, we could say ‘If God is all-knowing, but he’s also just, then _________.’ (I don’t have a particular answer in mind there, but I wanted you to see the form such reasoning might follow.)

If we were to ask, “Are there things we know about Jesus we don’t know from the Bible?’ then the answer is more clear. Even the most conservative Christians are content to draw from the writings of Josephus and others to get a fuller picture of Christ’s impact, and the life of the Early Church. The Bible tells us even as much itself, The disciples saw Jesus do many other miraculous signs in addition to the ones recorded in this book. John 20:30 NLT and “There are many other things that Jesus did. If every one of them were written down, I suppose the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” – John 21:25 NET

Instead, I want to propose that there is a different type of opposite to sola scriptura, one that is not to be condemned, but rather to be considered, and perhaps adopted in your own Biblical studies.

It’s usually referred to today as “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral.”

This week we visited another church, as Ruth Wilkinson (who you’ve read here regularly) was preaching. The pastor chairing the service mentioned that the week before, he had spoken about this quadrilateral, and I checked and we’d only really mentioned it here once.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. In November, 2012 it briefly was part of a devotional by we ran by Scott Lencke.

Now, while some might loathe the idea of utilizing our experience to understand Scripture, I wouldn’t say it’s completely terrible. I’m an advocate of something like the Wesleyan quadrilateral that recognizes we have more than Scripture alone in helping us understand God’s revelation. Rather this perspective takes a more holistic approach, identifying a) Scripture, b) tradition (there is such things as good tradition), c) reason (not ‘objective rationalism’) and d) experience as important in grasping the revelation of God.

So, my point is that understanding Scripture is not completely devoid of our human experience and encounter with God and his truth.

But we got ahead of ourselves. What is the quadrilateral?

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral, or Methodist Quadrilateral, is a methodology for theological reflection that is credited to John Wesley, leader of the Methodist movement in the late 18th Century. The term itself was coined by 20th century American Methodist scholar Albert C. Outler.

This method based its teaching on four sources as the basis of theological and doctrinal development. These four sources are scripture, tradition, reason, and Christian experience.

Upon examination of Wesley’s work, Outler theorized that Wesley used four different sources in coming to theological conclusions. Wesley believed, first of all, that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in “scripture” as the sole foundational source. The centrality of scripture was so important for Wesley that he called himself “a man of one book”. However, doctrine had to be in keeping with Christian orthodox “tradition.” So, tradition became in his view the second aspect of the so-called Quadrilateral. Furthermore, believing, as he did, that faith is more than merely an acknowledgment of ideas, Wesley as a practical theologian, contended that a part of the theological method would involve “experiential” faith. In other words, truth would be vivified in personal experience of Christians (overall, not individually), if it were really truth. And every doctrine must be able to be defended “rationally.” He did not divorce faith from reason. Tradition, experience, and reason, however, are subject always to scripture, which is primary.

Each of the “legs” of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral must be taken in balance, and none of the other three apart from scripture should be viewed as being of equal value or authority with scripture. None of these should be taken in isolation without the balancing effect of the others, and always Scripture should have the central place of authority.

Here are some images from various places online, where people tried to illustrate the concept graphically:

Do an image search for Wesleyan Quadrilateral and you’ll find various attempts to explain it.

I’m not sure the one on the bottom left is what Wesley had in mind. This is how stereotyping leads to divisiveness. And as I said earlier, the headline I chose would immediately cause some readers to think that the opposite to “scripture alone” would be something bad, or fringe, or not Christian at all.

Personally, I think it is another way forward. It gets us past the notion “The Bible says…” and also the resistance that we’re going to meet in the broader world when we start with “The Bible says…” The pastor we spoke with this morning mentioned that one of the people he’s read says our interactions should begin with experience.

Would that make scripture interpretation subjective? Perhaps, but the truth about God and the narratives about Jesus are subjective in the sense they are going to impact lives in a very personal, very individual sense.

Besides, as Michael Simpson informed us in the same article linked above:

This is a methodology for theological reflection that is credited to John Wesley, leader of the Methodist movement in the late 18th Century. In this method, tradition, experience, and reason are employed, while being subject always to scripture, when forming and applying our theology. Each of the “legs” of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral must be taken in balance, and none of the other three apart from scripture should be viewed as being of equal value or authority with scripture. None of these should be taken in isolation without the balancing effect of the others, and always Scripture should have the central place of authority. (italics added)

In an article posted in October, 2020, Matthew Marino reminded us that:

New folk are often struck by how much Anglicans talk about “the tradition.” People sometimes assume we mean, “That’s just how we’ve always done it.” But that is not what we are talking about at all. Refusal to change is not “the tradition,” just stasis. Jaroslav Pelikan, called that, “Traditionalism, the dead faith of the living.” The Great Tradition is the living faith of the dead. What we mean by “tradition” is robust and life-altering. The Apostle Paul commended the Corinthians because they, maintain the traditions as I delivered them to you.” (1 Cor 11:2) and, “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter (2 Thes. 2:15). So while Jesus criticized the traditions of the elders (Matt 15:3), the traditions of the Christian faith passed along both verbally and in scripture are applauded…

…Why not just go with the Bible? Because heresy after heresy and schism after schism arose in those first five centuries. The early church dealt with them and told us how to deal with them. St. Vincent of Lerins referred to the tradition as, “That which has been taught always, everywhere, and by all.” In our era many claim God giving them new revelation. Yet these “new ideas” are always remarkably similar to ideas resoundingly rejected by the Church as novelty centuries ago. “The Tradition” is Mere Christianity, the core of the faith, that which has been passed from generation to generation.

The verb form of the Greek word for tradition, “paradosis” is “handed off” or “delivered.” When Paul said in 1 Cor 11:2, “maintain the traditions as I delivered them to you.” Paul literally said, “maintain the traditions as I traditioned you.”

He used the same word when he said, For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3). Jude called it, the faith once for all delivered.The tradition” is nothing less than the core of the faith that is handed from generation to generation. It is the baton that must be passed, the irreducible minimum.

And so, tradition. We could also look in detail at the other two “legs” of the Wesleyan hermeneutical tool in a similar fashion.

Again, the way I framed this may upset the preconditioning of some readers, but I hope you’ll at least file it away and perhaps, a situation will cross your path sometime soon where this interpretive tool is useful.

 

 

 

 

August 20, 2022

Teach Me

If it is true that you look favorably on me, let me know your ways so I may understand you more fully and continue to enjoy your favor. And remember that this nation is your very own people.” – Moses in Exodus 33:13 NLT

“When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because your people have sinned against you, and when they pray toward this place and give praise to your name and turn from their sin because you have afflicted them, then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel. Teach them the right way to live, and send rain on the land you gave your people for an inheritance…”– Solomon’s Prayer in 1 Kings 8:35-36 NIV

Teach me your ways, O LORD, that I may live according to your truth! Grant me purity of heart, so that I may honor you. – A prayer of David in Psalm 86:11 NLT

Make me know Your ways, LORD; Teach me Your paths. – David in Psalm 25:4 NASB

From the website, Theology of Work:

The original Hebrew of Psalm 86:11 reads “Teach me, O Lord, your ways, that I might walk in your truth.” To walk means, in this context, to live each day. The psalmist is not asking for God to impact only his religious life. Rather, he wants to be guided each and every day by divine truth.

The second sentence of Psalm 86:11 could be translated, “Unite my heart so that I might fear your name.” It assumes that our hearts are confused and in need of unifying. Don’t you know this reality in your life? Fearing God’s name means, as the NLT suggests, honoring God. It entails living for God’s glory each and every moment.

Psalm 86:11 assumes that we need God to teach us and to bring our inner selves into wholeness. Then we will be able to live according to God’s truth each day, glorifying him in all we do.

Teach Me: A Worship Liturgy

by Ruth Wilkinson

Jesus said,
“A time is coming and is already here,
when the true worshipers will worship the Father
in spirit and in Truth.
The Father wants such worshipers.”

Paul reminded us,
“Brothers and sisters,
I urge you by the mercy of God
to present your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and pleasing to God.
This is your spiritual worship.”

Father, I want to worship you in spirit and in truth.

Teach me to live my life in acts of worship —

Teach me, like David, to sing freely, to dance without shame,
to call out boldly, “Sing to the Lord all the Earth!”

Teach me, like Solomon, to give generously out of my abundance and my security
to point people toward your Name.

Teach me, like Paul and Silas, to faithfully speak about you,
even when running away is the obvious thing to do.

Teach me, like Elijah to take a stand in the face of my enemies, calm and courageous,
saying, “Today let it be known that You are God and I am Your servant.”

Like Isaiah, teach me to lament my inadequacy, my sinfulness, my fear,
and to be ready to be forgiven.

Like our sister the prostitute, teach me to humbly pour out gratitude,
because my many sins have been forgiven and I have reason to love much.

Teach me, like Ruth, to move forward, walking away from what’s comfortable,
saying, “Wherever you go, I will go. Your God will be my God.”

Like our sister the widow, teach me to give what I can’t afford to give,
when it’s just the right thing to do.

Like Mary, teach me to obey when I don’t understand,
to trust you for the consequences, to say “May your will be done.”

Teach me, Father, to surrender my physical life as my spiritual act of worship,
holy and pleasing to You.

 

August 14, 2022

God Will Meet You Where You Are

We sometimes ask for God to ‘come’ to us, but in fact, he is already in our situation. He’s just waiting for us to acknowledge that; waiting for us to reach out.

Isaiah 30:18 —

Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the LORD is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!

So the LORD must wait for you to come to him so he can show you his love and compassion. For the LORD is a faithful God. Blessed are those who wait for his help. (NLT)

His desire is to grant us peace and rest.

Matthew 11:28 —

28-30 “Come to me, all of you who are weary and over-burdened, and I will give you rest! Put on my yoke and learn from me. For I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Phillips)

No situation escapes his vision.

Genesis 33: 13-14 —

The LORD looks down from heaven;
He sees all human beings.
From His dwelling place He gazes
on all who inhabit the earth.

This includes our times of trouble, but also the good things we are doing.

Revelation 2:19

I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.

Again, just as our salvation represents a time of turning to him, so also is our reaching out to him when we need him close.

Proverbs 18:10:

The name of the Lord is a strong tower. The righteous man runs into it and is safe.


Ruth wrote this and shared it with the congregation where she was leading ten years ago. It was shared here then, but has never been repeated until now.

Met By God

Paul was met by God in his hostility
Zaccheus was met by God in his curiosity
Adam and Eve were met by God in their failure
Joseph of Nazareth was met by God in his disappointment

Where are you?

Jacob was met by God while running from his family
John the baptist was met by God before he was born
Elijah was met by God when alone and in danger
Jonah was met by God while going in the wrong direction

Where are you?

Moses was met by God on a mountain top
Joshua was met by God while on the outside, looking in
David was met by God while everyone else ignored him
Peter was met by God while simply earning a living

Where are you?

Abraham was met by God when he was content and at home
Sarah was met by God in her laughter
Hagar was met by God when she was dying of thirst
Mary Magdalene was met by God at the grave of a friend

Where are you?

~ ©Ruth Wilkinson

June 29, 2022

Second-Half-of-the-Year’s Resolutions

June 30th marks the end of the first half of 2022. With half the year to go, what are your half-year’s resolutions? We mined the archives of Christianity 201 to locate some thoughts that might direct us in the second half.

Keeping Up the Energy

It’s a known fact that many sports team lose their momentum in the second half of the game. It’s easy to get tired, weary and discouraged. The Bible doesn’t use the term energy for this, as much as it talks about zeal. Spiritual zeal and spiritual passion simply keeps going, even in the face of challenges.

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

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…
Ecclesiastes 9:10a

In May, 2015, Michael Donohoe reminded us that the particulars of your passion — especially in areas of mission and service — might be different than that of your church friends and colleagues in ministry.

The only trouble I see with passion is that it can sometimes become an obsession with the ones involved, and they can begin to expect everyone to have the same passion they have for the same thing. This is where we have to realize that God designed each of us with different gifts, abilities and passions, and they are displayed differently in each of us.

I think each of us has a passion for what God designed us to be. We may not be as outspoken or even act the same way as others with passion, but God works through us in a way that is effective according to the personality and gifts with which he designed us. We may not even realize the passion that shows through us to others, but rest assured, God will work through us to touch others with his love.

We are all designed differently, and we all act and respond in our uniqueness. I think it wrong to think we are not useful to God because we do not act like someone else. God works in us and through us based on the way he created us, each unique temples of the Holy Spirit, each making an impact on those we have contact with, through the power and love of God within us.

In August, 2020, we continued this theme:

The writer of Ecclesiastes offers this (9:10)

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.

BibleHub.com notes that Paul echoes this,

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters – Colossians 3:23

Make Good Use of the Days You’ve Got

When I was just in my teens (or perhaps even pre-teens) I first heard the scripture verse below expressed in an original song for choir and orchestra and it stuck with me for life.

Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days.
– Eph 5:16 KJV, NLT

The words of that song began, “Redeem the time, the night is drawing fast…”  A Google Translate iteration of Ephesians 5:16 from Dios Habla Hoy, a Spanish Bible (below) could also be “this decisive moment.”

Well seize this critical moment, because the days are evil.

We looked at this verse in August, 2016 and wrote the following:

…As Christians, the stewardship of our time is important. In the old KJV rendering of Ephesians 5:16, they used the phrase, Redeeming the time…” More recent translators went with:

  • Make every minute count. (CEV, NASB, and others)
  • Make the best use of your time. (J. B. Phillips)
  • Don’t waste your time on useless work. (Eugene Peterson)
  • Make the most of every living and breathing moment. (The Voice)

Other verses come to mind, such as Psalm 90:12

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. (ESV)

Other translations render this;

  • Teach us how short our lives are so that we can become wise.  (ERV)
  • Teach us to use wisely all the time we have. (CEV)

Some verses remind us of the brevity of life, such as James 4:13-15

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (ESV; some translations use vapor instead of mist.)

and Proverbs 27:1

Do not boast about tomorrow,
    for you do not know what a day may bring.  (NIV)

Don’t Let the Past Dictate the Present

In January, 2017, Valarie Dunn reminded us of Abraham and Sarah.

I am reminded of the story of Abraham, who was told that his ninety-year-old wife Sarah would have a son.

Genesis 18:13-14 – Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” (NIV)

Indeed, nothing is too hard for the Lord. We are not too old, too young, too inadequate, if it is the Lord’s idea. The Lord knows what gifts we have to offer, and like the wise men, He will direct us to the place where we need to give them.

You’re Not On Your Own

Living our lives in partnership with the Holy Spirit means we’re not abandoned and having to operate by ourselves. Furthermore, coming up with plans isn’t a solo project either. In December, 2013, Enoch Anti from Ghana wrote:

Plans are good. Strategies are needed. Clear cut smart (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound) goals are very necessary. But human wisdom, skill and talent is not enough to live a victorious life: “…This is the word of the LORD … Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts.”  (Zechariah 4:6). On top of our plans and strategies, we also need the direction and leading of the Holy Spirit.

By Spirit-controlled living, I mean a life that is controlled by the Holy Spirit. He leads and we follow. We cannot live a Spirit-controlled life and still have control over our lives so to speak. There must be a place for the leading of the Holy Spirit of God in the life of every child of God, “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the [children] of God.“ (Romans 8:14).

In January, 2014, Clay Smith echoed this idea:

There is a different way. Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Another translation would be, “Put God in charge and follow His way of thinking, and He will take care of everything else.”


For our Canadian readers, we wish you a Happy Canada Day on Friday, and for our U.S. readers, we wish you a Happy Independence Day on Monday. We hope you found this “½-New-Year’s” devotional helpful.


Our regular Thursday columnist, Clarke Dixon is a few weeks into a 14-week sabbatical, but just days in he announced the completion of a book. You can read more about what’s inside Beautiful and Believable: The Reason for My Hope, by clicking this link.

April 26, 2022

It’s Not a Revelation of End Times, It’s a Revelation of Jesus

A decade ago, on two occasions, we featured the writing of Allan R. Bevere, and it’s always encourage to go back years later and discover the individual is still faithfully posting resources online. You’ll notice two things right away. Allan lists the scriptures from the Lectionary, and he also places the prayer at the beginning of the devotional, which can be a great way of centering our thoughts before we begin reading.

Alan is pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Ashland, Ohio. Clicking the header below will take you the text of today’s devotional at Faith Seeking Understanding.

A Vision Focused on Jesus

Scripture

Psalter: Psalm 122

Old Testament: Esther 7:1-10

Epistle: Revelation 1:9-20

___

Prayer

Mighty God, in whom we know the power of redemption, you stand among us in the shadows of our time. As we move through every sorrow and trial of this life, uphold us with knowledge of the final morning when, in the glorious presence of your risen Son, we will share in his resurrection, redeemed and restored to the fullness of life and forever freed to be your people. Amen.

___

Reflection

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades (Revelation 1:17-18).

“Revelation changes the way we see and respond to the world,” says Joel Green (Reading Scripture as Wesleyans, p. 160). He elaborates, “As much as any book of the Bible, Revelation recognizes how the glasses we wear determine what we see and understand about the world around us” (p. 161).

In Star Wars, The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon Jinn says to a young Anakin Skywalker, “Remember, Your focus determines your reality,” or as is stated in C.S. Lewis’ Magician’s Nephew, “[W]hat you see and hear depends a good deal on where you’re standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are” (Green, p. 161).

The truth of the matter is that no one comes to the world from a neutral point of view. There is no objective account of reality. I remember listening to a sermon years ago. Near the end of the message the preacher said to the congregation gathered, “Now, when you leave the church and go out into the real world…” Such a comment is a great theological misstep. It is the conviction of the Bible that the real world is not “out there.” The world “out there” is a distortion of the true reality God has in mind for his creation. It is the church that is to glimpse that real world so the world will know what God expects of it. To be sure, the church so often falls short of reflecting that divine reality, but it is charged with doing so nonetheless. As Stanley Hauerwas states,

My claim, so offensive to some, that the first task of the church is to make the world the world, not to make the world more just, is a correlative of this theological metaphysics. The world simply cannot be narrated—the world cannot have a story— unless a people exist who make the world the world. That is an eschatological claim that presupposes we know there was a beginning only because we have seen the end … [C]reation names God’s continuing action, God’s unrelenting desire for us to want to be loved by that love manifest in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (Hannah’s Child, p. 158).

Green reminds us that in his vision the author of Revelation is not located on an island in exile or in the middle of the Roman Empire, but, “[h]e stands in the heavens. He sees things from God’s perspective, so he sees things as they really are” (p. 161)

As we read through the symbolism and the imagery, we are also transported into that realm that is beyond and yet interwoven with human reality that we might see all things earthly from a heavenly “point of view.”—to see things as they really are. This is a most difficult thing, to be sure, but Revelation gives us a glimpse of the divine reality thus determining true reality because of our changed focus.

Joel concludes,

…through his [John’s] narrative, he invites us to accompany him, so that we, too, see things as they really are. To do so, though, we need not only to travel with him to the throne room of God but also to allow our patterns of thinking, feeling, and believing to be dismantled and reassembled through binding ourselves to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who is worthy to receive honor, dominion, and power by means of his humiliating death (p. 161).

It must not be forgotten that in the Book of Revelation, John is not offering us a secret road map to discerning the signs of the end time, but rather he offers his vision from the perspective of a pastor who is encouraging his hearers to change the focus of their reality as churches under the thumb of an empire that pretends to offer security and salvation in exchange for complete and total allegiance. Their response to the world should not be focused on the empire’s pretentious claims, but rather on the heavenly reality that is true on earth—Jesus is Lord.


An excellent book on the book of Revelation is Michael J. Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb Into the New Creation. It can be purchased here.

 

April 1, 2022

Christianity 201 12th Birthday | The Fruit of Wisdom

It’s Our Birthday!

I never expected when I started this that we would still be posting devotionals every afternoon at around 5:30 Eastern Time, seven days a week, 12 months of the year. Faithfulness to this and stewardship of the site has meant things like arranging for a series of things to be posted when we would be on holidays, and has meant building margin into my schedule for days when I knew that the devotional could have easily been crowded out by other activities. Some days, like yesterday, the WordPress “publish” button doesn’t get pushed until it’s already 5:30 PM.

It’s also been a matter of keeping some balance, both in the type of writers we feature (their doctrine, denomination) and the subject matters. I know for example that not everyone is married with children, but the scripture teaching on marriage and parenting can have valuable broader application for all of us. (Parenting being obvious, as God, our Father, parents us.)

Then there are the quotations. You can find collections online for hundreds of Christian authors, but I’ve been selective here in choosing a few key authors that I felt led to present, and also a certain type of quotation from each of them that befits the readership here.

I could not celebrate twelve years without thanking Clarke Dixon for his weekly contribution every Thursday which is always a perfect fit. Clarke and I got to spend an hour together yesterday for the first time in ages, and I do appreciate his friendship. I wanted to list some of the other frequently recurring writers here, but I knew that I would leave someone out. However I want to mention Kevin Rogers who has been featured here for a long time, and Stephen and Brooksyne Weber who, while I don’t get to read Daily Encouragement as often as I once did, have always been a source of inspiration and … encouragement!

After thinking about what we could present today, it occurred to me that the best thing I could do is to do what we do best, so here’s today’s devotional.

The Fruit of Wisdom

NIV.James.3.17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

The list before us is, I believe, both characteristics of wisdom itself, and of those who seek and manifest wisdom in their daily living.  The first verse appeared earlier this week on my NIV Bible App, but I decided to include verse 18 in light of what follows.

The first thing I noticed was how certain characteristics here overlap the fruit of the spirit as listed in Galatians 5:22-23. When I read “submissive” it reminded me of the overlap with the characteristics in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-10, where Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek.”  (Several translations have submissive as “open to reason.) The list may also remind you of the character traits in the “love chapter” in 1 Corinthians 13. It’s also reminiscent of the qualities Paul prays for the Colossian church to have in Colossians 1: 9-14.

But here we have not Jesus, not the Apostle Paul, but James reiterating a similar type of character checklist. (You’d almost think these personal qualities were important or something!) But James is speaking with respect to wisdom and this is an important distinction.

We often conflate wisdom with knowledge. I have to admit this is a real challenge for me personally. I gravitate to teachers whose sermons contain a lot of information. I don’t necessarily retain it all, but I’m challenged by it, especially in the context of the conclusions they reach at the end of their teaching. I love bullet points, and alliterative outlines, and infographics, and those little laminated pamphlets published by Rose Publishing which reduce major topics in Christian history and doctrine to their essential points.

Because of this, when we started Christianity 201, I tended to eschew devotionals which relied heavily on stores about a little boy and his dog, a person looking for a parking spot, a disobedient child, a rainbow appearing after a rainstorm. You get the idea. Privately, I tended to avoid sermons by preachers who feel the need to open with a personal anecdote from the previous week; I like the ones who just say, “Take your Bible and turn to the Book of  _________ …” and then start teaching.

But we don’t necessarily Jesus giving a treatise on advanced doctrinal concepts. There’s nothing close to an outline in systematic theology. Instead, we see, as Clarke reminded us yesterday, stories about a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son (or two lost sons). And the lost son story in particular is beyond human imagination in the different ways we can learn from it.

In other words, Jesus doesn’t give us summary teachings on his theological outlook, as much as he invites us to surmise his theology from the illustrations. He invites us to work it out. (Perhaps with fear and trembling?)

And so, to go back to James’ epistle, while knowledge can be amassed and stored and retrieved as needed, true wisdom is going to produce change in us. It’s going to bring about transformation. To repeat one more time, information (knowledge) is not wisdom.

When we seek spiritual wisdom, what James calls “the wisdom from above” we are asking God to shape us, form us, change us.

… For those of you who’ve been on this ride for a longer time, I hope the twelve years of Christianity 201 has blessed you, and tomorrow we’ll be back with more.

 

March 16, 2022

Living the Practical Implications of God’s Omniscience

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake
– popular Christmas song referencing Santa Claus

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable.
– Hebrews 4:13 NLT

Jim is employed by a very large company that combines manufacturing, packaging and warehousing in a facility that spreads out over thousands of square feet in three different buildings.  His job is to oversee the “shop” where three technicians deal with the maintenance of the robotic and human-operated assembly of machinery that is used in other plants to build a variety of things we use every day.

Jim’s work station is monitored by four different security cameras. There’s no escaping them; no blind spot from which the the area is not visible. Still, Jim says he often goofs off.

“I figure that with over 140 cameras, they can only follow the action on three or four of them at a time;” Jim says, adding, “Besides, I’ve walked past that section and often nobody is on duty. The images are grainy and out of focus. Furthermore, I do my best work when I’m more relaxed.I have to live as if the cameras are not there and I’m not being watched.”

What Jim is saying is that he knows there is the potential that management or security is watching, but he feels the likelihood they’re watching is rather remote…

…That’s often the way we respond to God’s omniscience. We know that he can see everything; that his cameras are in place and functional, but we must assume that he isn’t bothering to track us every minute of the day, or else we wouldn’t do (or not do) the things we sometimes do (or not do).

To say it another way, our positional view affirms an all-seeing God, but on a practical level it isn’t impacting our lives. Some believers deplore the theology in the pop song that says God is watching us “from a distance,” but then we live as if he isn’t watching us at all.

I’ve heard it said that people who have a hard time cracking an online addiction to internet pornography often find success only after coming into a greater awareness that God is with them, in the room, sitting next to them, watching their keyboard keystrokes, seeing what’s on the monitor. Their ability to break the habit increases when they imagine Him sitting next to them; perhaps even adding a second chair as a reminder.

(It is interesting that Christian counselors, in the course of providing such counsel, will say to a person, “Imagine God is sitting next to you.” Imagine! Theologically, no such imagination is necessary; his presence is a fact of life.

II Chronicles 16:9 is translated in the KJV as “The eyes of the LORD search the whole earth in order to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.” and in The Message as “God is always on the alert, constantly on the lookout for people who are totally committed to him.”

Both versions indicate that God is not looking for people who are asleep at their work station, but instead He longs for a people who whose hearts are fully committed to Him. He doesn’t want to catch you goofing off; rather, he’s hoping you’re being diligent enough to be named employee of the week. In other words, just as I Cor 13 tells us that“Love believes the best…” so also God wants to believe the best about you.

But He is omniscient, and we can’t assume that we can escape His gaze somehow. I Cor 4:4-5; the Apostle Paul states:

4 My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide. 5 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

This is an echo of Proverbs 16:2

All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight,
But the LORD weighs the motives .  NASB

It’s also the theme of Brant Hansen’s recent book, The Truth About Us (Baker Books) We think we’re good. We jump on our own publicity train believing the very best about ourselves, but as he notes, that perspective sometimes takes a lot of effort.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says (Matt. 11:28). Perhaps that rest involves being able to stop all this machinery in its tracks. By admitting how we can fool ourselves, by admitting we’re addicted to our own rightness, by rethinking how we approach life, we may just also find this oft-elusive “peace” he spoke of.

No more justifying, no more constant rationalization. This is the beauty of actually saying, “I am not a good person.” (Page 40)

Someone once said that each one of us is three people

  1. The “me” that I think I am
  2. The “me” that I appear to be to others
  3. The “me” that I truly am

I’ll end today with a confession: While I am 100% convinced of God’s omniscience, I often live like he’s tied up monitoring someone else. He is watching however, and His greatest longing is to see me productive and fully engaged at whatever work station in life I find myself that his consistent with living as a citizen of his Kingdom.

March 9, 2022

Living in the Intersection of Two Worlds

To be a Christian is to be following Christ in a world that is dominantly following other standards, other passions, other rules of engagement.  There are several different aspects to this.

The first has to do with location. Have you ever gone ‘state straddling?’ That’s where you stand with one foot in one state and one in another. There are parts of the Canada/US border (and probably more in Europe) where you can actually do ‘country straddling,’ with one foot in the USA and one in its northern neighbor (or more correctly in this case, neighbour with a ‘u.’) As believers, we straddle a fence between two realms.

The first Venn diagram I ever saw that talked about the Christian living in two worlds depicted the intersection of ‘this age’ and ‘the age to come.’ We live in that intersection, as part of earthly kingdoms, and part of a kingdom yet to be realized.

Christianity is simple enough that a child can understand the basics, in fact, we’re encouraged to come as a child.

And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:3

However, as we press in to knowing God through Jesus, we discover that while the entry point is wonderfully simplistic, moving deeper involves beautiful complexity and the ability to think in abstract terms. Currently we’re aware of a family whose faith is stuck because they want to be able to express all of doctrine in literal, black-and-white terms.

But we need to be able to dig deeper. For example, fully grasping need for abstract thinking is fundamental to understanding salvation in terms like, ‘We were saved, we are saved, we will be saved.’ Such is the complexity and fullness of all Christ accomplished at the cross.

But there is also the dynamic of distinction. In this world, we are to be called out and set apart to live in the middle of a world that follows different marching orders. There are two forces wrestling for control of each and every one of us, the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness.

Therefore, come out from among unbelievers, and separate yourselves from them, says the LORD. Don’t touch their filthy things, and I will welcome you. – 2 Cor. 6:17 NLT

We’re called to be in this situation, but not of it. We’re called to live in a world where all type of influence may come into us, but where what comes out of us is what matters. We’re called to be affected by all kinds of external stimuli, but to respond uniquely and unexpectedly as strangers and aliens by going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, giving the coat off our back, etc.

But there is a third intersection which takes place entirely within. It has nothing about it that would register externally. There is no behavioral component where person ‘X’ is seen struggling with wanting to do right but finding himself/herself doing wrong. It is completely unseen.

We were created with ego. That’s it. Pure and simple. We were created with a survivalist instinct that runs completely contrary to the idea of preferring others. In the NIV, the verse reads,

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves…  Phil 2:3

Try this sometime: Look up a dozen verses containing the word sin, and replace it with selfishness. You’ll find the verses all read somewhat normally; they make sense. And it’s the opposite of the way Kingdom-of-God people should be living.

Living to prefer others is not natural. It must be labored at, worked out with fear and trembling. But even then, it can only be fully attained if there is a model for us to follow, to imitate. If someone has gone before and shown us by example that it is possible to live in this time and this place under a law of love.

Feel free at this point to interject, ‘Oh, if only there was such a person who could show us how to live this life.’

It also has to do with keeping an internal consistency.

I know everything you have done, and you are not cold or hot. I wish you were either one or the other.  – Rev. 3:15 CEV

This third type of internal struggle is for many the most difficult at all. You may live in a mostly Christian culture — even if it’s nominal — where your Christian beliefs are widely held. You may live in a situation that is somewhat devoid of persecution compared to other parts of the world. But I guarantee you that you do not escape the conflict between your egotistical, self-focused nature and the type of others-focused servanthood that the New Testament teaches.

The greatest battlefield we face as Christ-followers is often the battlefield within.

February 17, 2022

When Everyone Is So Certain

Thinking Through Luke 6:17-26

by Clarke Dixon

Is it just me, or is everyone convinced they are right and everyone else is wrong? For uncertain times there sure is a lot of certitude. How are we supposed to be sure of anything when everyone seems so sure of everything yet can agree on nothing? Our Scripture Focus today will help us find our way.

In today’s Scripture Focus Jesus challenged two things that many people were certain about.

First, Jesus challenged people’s assumptions about about how God works.

Then looking up at His disciples, He said:
You who are poor are blessed,
because the kingdom of God is yours.
You who are now hungry are blessed,
because you will be filled.
You who now weep are blessed,
because you will laugh…

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your comfort.
Woe to you who are now full,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are now laughing,
for you will mourn and weep.

Luke 6:20,21,24,25 (HCSB)

It was well known in those days that if you obeyed God, things would go well for you and you would be blessed. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t. Therefore the assumption was that the rich, the well-fed, the happy were obviously those who were well deserving of God’s blessings. The poor, the hungry, the unhappy, were obviously those who didn’t deserve God’s blessings. Many people think this way today.

Jesus challenged all that; “Blessed are the poor.” Discerning who is blessed by God and who is not goes way beyond merely looking at who seems to be doing well in life right now. There is something much deeper going on. That is not how God works.

So how did everyone get it wrong and could they have have done better?

The prevailing understanding seems to lean heavily on the Book of Deuteronomy where we find lists of blessings and curses for God’s people. If the people as a nation obeyed God, they would be blessed, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t. When Jesus spoke about blessings and woes he was probably intending for people to make that connection with Deuteronomy. Yet what he said was very different, and challenged their assumptions.

Assumptions could have been challenged earlier if people paid more attention to other parts of the Bible, like the Book of Job. The Book of Job is a rather long drama that asks the question, why do good people suffer while bad people flourish? The Book of Job is not really about the about the answer to that question but rather the validity of that question. It challenges the notion that you can tell if a person is blessed by God by looking at whether they are winning in life or not. Look around, good people sometimes do suffer, evil people sometimes do flourish. Perhaps the conclusions people jumped to by reading Deuteronomy could have been challenged by looking wider and being challenged by Job before being challenged by Jesus.

Looking wider and becoming aware of other viewpoints is key for us today as we navigate this era of certitude.

We can dig deep on any given topic, but we also must look around. As we do so, we are not seeking more reasons to stick to our guns, but greater wisdom, insight, and understanding, allowing our assumptions to be challenged. Doing so may or may not lead us to change our minds, but either way it will allow us to better understand the minds of others.

Some people think they are digging deep, doing research on a topic, but what that looks like is reading article after article that are written from the same perspective, that start from the same assumptions, that support the same conclusions. We call this being in an echo chamber where every voice is echoing the same thing. Sometimes our choice of echo chamber is based on wanting to hear from “experts” what we would want to say if we were the experts. Sometimes digging deeper just gets you into a bigger hole that is harder to get out of. We also need to look around. Other voices are important. We need the conclusions we jump to by reading Deuteronomy to be challenged by reading Job.

Think of how much better this world would be if we all let our assumptions be challenged, if we all sought wisdom, insight, and deep understanding rather than simply seeking confirmation of what we think we know.

Jesus challenged people’s assumptions about about how God works, about how life works. As a matter of prayer we might want to pause and ask the Lord to challenge us about our assumptions and whatever false conclusions we may have arrived at, or been pushed into.

Second, Jesus challenged the assumption that he, Jesus, was not from God.

You are blessed when people hate you,
when they exclude you, insult you,
and slander your name as evil
because of the Son of Man. [i.e. Jesus]
“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy! Take note — your reward is great in heaven, for this is the way their ancestors used to treat the prophets…

Woe to you
when all people speak well of you,
for this is the way their ancestors
used to treat the false prophets.

Luke 6:22,23,26 (HCSB emphasis, clarification added)

Here Jesus pointed out how former generations had got it wrong. They often persecuted the true prophets who were from God, and rewarded the false prophets who were not.

When the religious leaders heard Jesus they were operating with a big assumption, namely, that anyone coming from God would live, teach, and act according to their understanding of the Scriptures. So, anyone healing on a Sabbath, something Jesus was prone to do, was obviously not from God. Jesus said and did many other things that got under their skin. Their attitude was: “Jesus can’t possibly be from God if he does not look, act, and think, just like we do.”

There was at least one religious leader who managed to challenge that assumption:

There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Him at night and said, “ Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher, for no one could perform these signs You do unless God were with him.”

John 3:1-2 (HCSB)

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, likely in secret because his openness to Jesus would not have gone over well with the other Pharisees. How many of us keep our thoughts secret out of fear of people jumping all over us for challenging assumptions?

Nicodemus was willing to allow his assumptions, as a Pharisee, to be challenged. And it was to Nicodemus that those most famous of words were said:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

John 3:16 (NRSV)

Some scholars see this verse, and those that follow, not as the words of Jesus, but as the writer’s comment on the important things Jesus said to Nicodemus. Nevertheless, do our assumptions keep us from hearing about God’s love for the world and for us? Assumptions like “miracles don’t happen,” “Jesus couldn’t have risen from the dead because people don’t rise from the dead,” or “The Bible is just all made up stories.”

Might assumptions keep us from learning important truths about Jesus, God, God’s grace and love, and God’s kingdom? Might assumptions keep us from learning important truths that lead us to life, to the Giver of life? Might assumptions keep those of us who follow Jesus from following more closely?

Might assumptions keep us from learning important truths about people and the way things work? It might be assumptions around mental health, race relations, viruses and vaccines. We might have assumptions about Muslims, atheists, Christians, truckers, health care workers, youth, seniors, people who are LGBTQ+, politicians, and yes, pastors. If I had a penny for every time someone has said to me “you are a pastor and you ride a motorcycle?”!

Jesus challenged people’s assumptions about their beliefs about whether or not he, Jesus, was from God. Perhaps we should pause and ask if Jesus would challenge our assumptions about who he is and he is about. While we are at it, perhaps we should challenge the assumptions we make about everyone else too. And then there are the assumptions we make about ourselves.

In Summary

In our society today there are many deeply held convictions. Deeply held convictions are no guarantee of deep insight. As we allow our assumptions to be challenged, as we listen to other voices, it will make a big difference. Let us be wise, seeking insight, knowledge, and understanding, on anything and everything, and of everyone, including ourselves. Let us especially seek insight where it matters most, about God and God’s love for us in Christ.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge —that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:17-19 (NIV)


In addition to formatting Clarke’s “Shrunk Sermon” notes for several years, for the past 24 months I’ve also been tuned into his church’s online “Worship Expression.” For the sermon portion of this week’s, on which this article was based, click this link.

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:

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.

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