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A blog by Bishop Emeritus Donald N. Bastian
Updated: 1 month 2 weeks ago

The Power of a Special “Good Word”

Mon, 05/18/2020 - 19:57

How should ordained pastors close a service of worship? Dismiss the people with a hand signal? Announce a hymn? Offer a closing prayer? Exhort them to go out and be good witnesses for the Lord?

All four means have been used, but there is one better. It is to pronounce over them a benediction. In other words, bless them in the name of the Lord, and send them away with the assurance that the Lord will go with them.

That’s what a benediction is. It is a “good word” pronounced over the Lord’s people in the Lord’s name. Numbers 6:22-27 introduces us to the great priestly benediction. God ordered Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons to use this blessing to dismiss a gathering of his people. The priest was to raise his hands and say:

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

In this Old Testament blessing there is, by the way, a preview of the mystery of the Trinity. Note the threefold reference to “the Lord.” That is, as you go out from here, the triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — will be with you.

God’s instructions to Moses for the priestly blessing make it clear that this benediction is not a collection of empty words. The Lord tells Moses that when it is pronounced, “So will I put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” It is a promise of God’s favor.

Some pastors may feel that this is all too Old Testament and priestly. It might help them to be reminded that, when rightly understood, the pastor’s ministry is both prophetic and priestly. Think of such priestly ministries as the pastoral prayer, the wedding ritual, the serving of the sacraments, or the graveside sentences. In these, pastors are carrying out the priestly aspect of their calling.

The blessing of God’s people at the close of a service of worship is one more wonderful privilege contained in a pastor’s ordination.

A benediction is important because a local congregation does not cease to exist when it disperses. A local church can be considered both a gathered and a scattered community. When together for worship, it is gathered. When its people disperse to their many locations, it is scattered. In both cases it is still a church. St. Peter, for example, wrote an epistle to the church “scattered” abroad.

How appropriate it is, then, that before believers leave their place of assembly they are sent forth to take up their varied stations with a promise that God will also be with them in their many and sometimes isolated locations.

During the week ahead of you, here’s my benediction for you, my dear reader, from Hebrews 13:20-21:

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Photo credit: Grace Lutheran Church (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Finding a Woman of Noble Character

Mon, 05/11/2020 - 11:00

As Mother’s Day passes I think of Kathleen, my wife of 72 years, my daughter Carolyn, daughters-in-law June and Jan, and the younger mothers in the family seeking to follow in their train. I pay them all tribute with these words of wisdom from the passage behind this week’s blog.

Proverbs 31:10-31: Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all (verses 28-29).

This chapter is entitled in the New International Version “The Wife of Noble Character.” It is cast in the form of Hebrew poetry and is lodged in the ancient wisdom literature of the Bible.

There is nothing in this poem about faith or salvation or the life to come. Only once “the fear of the Lord” is mentioned. There is not even a word about romance. It focuses instead on the character and traits of the many noble women who are out there to be sought out.

Proverbs 31 was written well over two thousand years ago and yet appears to extol what I taught my children to look for in their life partners, whether husband or wife — strengths of head, heart, and hand. That is, look for someone who has a thoughtful grasp on life, who at the same time has deep moral and relational principles, and who is energetic and not afraid of hard work.

And in the case of this passage, when she is found she will bring blessings on her husband and family in their work and relationships. (The same could be said for seeking out a husband of noble character.)

I have read this wisdom poem many times across a lifetime, but my most recent reading left me at first perplexed: Where is the young woman who meets all these qualifications: She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family … (15). She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard (16). She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue (26). And so on. The demands on her are overwhelming. Can such specific qualifications be met?

But looking deeper into these many fine qualities sheds more light. I look more clearly and see that the issue is not the specific actions but the traits they represent: she is to be energetic, wise, resourceful, noble, and so forth. She has much to bring to a marriage, family, the work world, and society: When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet (21).

The composer of this wisdom poem closes with a knife-sharp cautionary word plus a generous commendation.

The knife-sharp warning: Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting (30a). That is, as enticing as charm or beauty may be, don’t let them be primary goals in your search. Look rather for the deeper strengths of head, heart, and hand. She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue (26).

The poet’s commendation follows: But a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised (30b). Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate (31). And don’t overlook the central requirement that she have a heart that fears the Lord.

Photo credit: Vaughan Leiberum (via flickr.com)

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Attention! The Elderly May Be Listening

Mon, 05/04/2020 - 11:00

The following story may remind readers that the aging body can often be accompanied by a surprisingly clear mind — and human dignity as well.

In this story, an elderly man of great wealth suffered from some of the physical effects of aging, and in particular, from hearing loss.

He sat in the family room much of the time, eyes usually cast down, while his household buzzed with the comings and goings of two succeeding generations. He took little part in the conversations, largely because family members seldom made the effort to include him.

One day he learned about a hearing specialist in a nearby city who had developed a simple procedure to greatly improve the hearing of his elderly patients.

The wealthy man made an appointment and had the procedure done.

He returned to his home to resume his position in the family room — eyes still cast down and sitting in silence amidst the sea of chatter that washed back and forth constantly.

When he returned to the physician’s clinic six weeks later he was asked if his hearing had improved. He replied, “It certainly has, and I’ve changed my will three times.”

For ancient Israel, respect for the elderly was a holiness issue. It is addressed in the holiness code found in Leviticus 19 along with the sins of defrauding a neighbor and spreading slander.

Late in that chapter we learn that where the elderly are involved, the Lord is watching. Leviticus 19:32 says, “Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God; I am Jehovah.”

For Christians both young and old, this admonition doesn’t necessarily mean that we literally stand as in days of old. It does instruct us, however, to respect in appropriate ways those who are elderly and frail, because the Lord God is observing the degree of our respect.

And people around us are, too. Taking the extra effort to respect and include the elderly will bring grace to relationships and a powerful witness to society at large of God’s work in our lives.

Photo credit: Ilmicrofono Oggiono (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

How to Deal with Our Afflictions

Mon, 04/27/2020 - 11:00

Suppose a social worker interviews fifty people from a fine apartment building. He asks each person if he or she is dealing with any sort of affliction. We would expect a “yes” from most if not all of them.

The word affliction is defined broadly, for example as “a state of pain, suffering, distress or agony.”

Some might mention a physical affliction: complications of diabetes; macular degeneration; or perhaps arthritis, hearing loss, an autoimmune disorder, gluten intolerance, seizures, cancer.

Others might add a material affliction: a lost job combined with an empty emergency fund, hail damage to a car, or a flooded basement.

Yet another group might contribute examples of psychological affliction: a failed marriage; phone calls ignored by an alienated child who has in effect disappeared; the stress of an abusive or narcissistic boss.

Affliction comes to us all in one way or another over time. Nobody escapes, including those who appear to have it made.

The classic sufferer, Job of the ancient Biblical account, knew about mankind’s pervasive afflictions. Chapter 5, verse 7, asserts: Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward. And consider a New Testament sufferer, the Apostle Paul, who shared with the Corinthian church, in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29, a catalogue of his many sufferings for the gospel: shipwreck, undeserved whippings, three times beaten by robbers, in peril of being murdered, and on several occasions confinement in jail or under house arrest for months for no good reason.

What enabled Paul to successfully fend off gloom, self-pity, and despair when so many afflictions settled on him? He shares his secret in the same epistle.

Earlier, in chapter 4, verses 16 and 17, he shared the big picture about suffering. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles [afflictions] are achieving for us an eternal glory which outweighs them all.

Note three ways in which Paul reduces fear and supports the certainty of victory whether in life or in death.

First, he sets, side-by-side, two processes that Christians experience at the same time. One is that time is taking its toll on all of us and we are “wasting away.” This sobering reality is visible to each of us as birthdays mount into multiple decades. But Paul adds that, at the same time, inwardly we are being renewed day by day (16). The anniversaries that tick off our years also can deepen our character and our lives in Christ and awaken our awareness of a radiant future.

I heard a former bishop of the Free Methodist Church, Rev. William Pierce, then in his eighties, tell a large congregation at the 1947 General Conference, “Every day I live I am one day nearer to eternal youthfulness.”

In 2 Corinthians 4:18, Paul gives us a second secret to a life that can triumph in the face of mortality: So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. There is so much to be seen (and desired) in our world of material abundance. Fixing our eyes on the unseen — regularly looking “beyond” to the next world — fuels our confidence when serious adversities come calling.

Third, in verse 18 Paul introduces two words to underscore the assurance that we can triumph over our afflictions: current troubles, he says, are “light” when compared to our eternal future, and they are “momentary” by the same comparison.

The Apostle Paul faced his afflictions bravely and with strength — with a transcendent view not only of the current world but also of the world to come. His words and example encourage us to do the same — enabled by the abundant grace of God!

Photo credit: Alon (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Have You Said Amen With Fervor Recently?

Mon, 04/20/2020 - 11:00

I like the word Amen and wonder if we use it in Christian worship as often and with as much intensity as we should.

After all, it is used in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments 100 or more times.

Amen is a strong word of affirmation. It is like a verbal stamp of approval or a solemn declaration of truthfulness. It means “So be it” or “May it become true.”

In 1 Chronicles 16:7-37 we see how the term was used in worship. David is now king. He is putting the country in order. He has constructed a tent to give cover to the Ark of the Covenant. Structured worship is being revived. Offerings are restored, and musicians are on hand.

A great gathering of the nation had been called and the celebration is underway. An extended prayer in poetic form is the climax of the occasion. David assigns Asaph and his company to lead in the praise.

The specially composed psalm is filled with declarations that elevate emotions. It begins, Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done (16:8).

Such a prayer would certainly introduce a review of restored blessings. More exaltation of God follows: Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice (10). Yet again: He is the Lord our God; his judgments are in all the earth (14).

Again and again the words of the priest declaim, Our God reigns! Emotions of praise have become strong.

The congregation, not the priests, conclude the prayer. Chronicles tells us in verse 37 that all the people said Amen and Praise the Lord. I can imagine the sound of thousands of inspired voices rending the air with that response: Amen and Praise the Lord!

They had focused their praise on the Lord who ruled over all the earth. They had also affirmed the truth about the Lord and his world. And then … they said, Amen! — May it be so!

The New Testament reports no similar liturgical event to this one convened by King David. But in the New Testament there is also abundant use of the word Amen.

For example, the word is repeated in the Gospel of John twenty-five times. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus introduced his teachings with a declaration of their truthfulness: Verily. Verily I say… (In the King James Version this is the translation of Amen, Amen.) Jesus over and over again affirmed his own teachings as the truth that is eternal.

Paul also included the word in some benedictions: For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:36).

In my opinion, we need more Amens from the body of Christ’s followers during worship in this fallen world. In both Testaments it is uttered as a strong and solemn response to words of divine truth. The substitution of applause is second-best, in my view. What better way to respond to truth, than to say Amen! when it is uttered?

In heaven the word will ring out often. I imagine a throng of countless resurrected believers. They reach far beyond sight. Perhaps Moses or Isaiah or someone we worship with on Sunday will speak words of truth and the throngs in response will fill the heavens with the one word: Amen! It IS so!

Photo credit: Matt (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

On Remembering the Horrors of Holy Week

Mon, 04/13/2020 - 11:00

The celebration of Easter is over, but the events that created Holy Week never cease to confront the human conscience. “Christ died for our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous,” writes Peter (1 Peter 3:18).

The cross, some say, was a preposterous event, but Christians know it was for their redemption. It is the core of our eternal rescue. We know that “Christ died for our sins,” and that is worthy of heart-felt meditation the whole year round.

Paul writes of the gospel’s seemingly surreal claim: Christ died according to the Scripture; He was buried; He was raised again the third day according to the Scriptures; He was then seen alive by well over 500 witnesses — including Paul himself (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Our Lord’s death was real as was his resurrection.

In his book The Cross the late John R. W. Stott reviews the various Christian symbols to show which of them was most focused and compelling for the early Christians. Eventually, he notes, the cross crowded all others out to become the symbol that dominates the preaching of Christ’s sacrificial suffering across the centuries and to this day.

The cross of Christ is often named in Christian hymns, printed on church literature, worn pinned to lapels, stamped on church pews, placed above church entrances and chiseled into gravestones.

The gospels record the various events of Holy Week and in doing so hold before us two fundamental truths: First the exceeding sinfulness of sin. Our sins put Christ on that cross. Second, the immeasurable wonder of God’s love for sinners. The sinless one offered himself as a sacrifice for sin that we might be spared our penalty and set free. This we are called to believe and proclaim.

As we leave the celebration of Holy Week behind I lay out here prompts for occasional recalls in meditation. My outline scans the core of the gospel story and will help us remember what immediately preceded our Lord’s brutal trip to his cross.

Sunday: On this day Jesus entered Jerusalem cheered by crowds with the mistaken notion that he would use his great powers as a Jewish king to drive out the Roman occupation (Matthew 21:1–11; Luke 19:28-44).

Monday: Jesus cursed the fig tree. This has been called an “acted parable” of judgment against the nation that had failed its divine assignment (Matthew 21:18,19).

Tuesday: His return to Bethany and his long discourse on things to come plus the response his followers should be prepared to make (Luke 21: 5-36).

Wednesday: Likely a day of silence; but his enemies were not silent: The ruling Sanhedrin plotted to have Jesus killed by the Romans (Matthew 26:3-5; Luke 22:1-2).

Thursday: Preparations for his observance of the Passover meal and at the same time he is instituting “communion” in connection with the last supper (Matthew 26:20-35; Luke 22:14-30).

(Good) Friday. This is the day of our Lord’s crucifixion. He is betrayed and arrested; He goes before Caiaphas (John 18:19-24) and before the full Sanhedrin (Luke 22:66-71); before Pilate and Herod (Luke 23:1-25). He was on his cross from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (John 19:16-37); then hastily buried (Matthew 26:57-61).

Saturday: The Jewish Sabbath — a day of frightened silence.

Sunday: Jesus’ resurrection appearances (Matthew 28:1-20). The day of astonishment and joy and the rebirth of hope.

To keep faith focused properly on the day of Resurrection, we need to return often in our Bible reading to the special week that led to Christ’s sacrificial ordeal.

Photo credit: rabiem22 (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

How Family Values Dispelled the Shadows

Mon, 04/06/2020 - 11:00

On Tuesday, March 17, Kathleen and I got into the carefully packed Honda van of our daughter Carolyn and son-in-law Doug and headed south from our driveway in Brampton, Ontario. Daughter-in-law June followed close behind in her car carrying breakable items.

Kathleen and I were being driven to our first overnight in our new dwelling in Mississauga, Ontario — Walden Circle Retirement Centre.

This was according to a plan that had gradually formed out of many family conversations. Our children had done their research. Jan, Robert’s wife, and her siblings had recently moved their 92-year-old father into a similar community in Kingston run by the same organization; his move had proved successful.

During the prior several months, our children had discussed the possible move among themselves, and with us. They believed the time had come for us to give up the responsibilities of maintaining our home. Their recommendation was persistent but not pushy. The decision would be ours, they said, and if we chose to remain in Brampton, they would do what they could to help us keep up that living arrangement, though this did not appear to them the better option.

As we traveled southward along the busy highway — minutes behind the moving van carrying some of our furniture — we talked freely, though with periods of silence when it seemed a hundred thoughts jostled one another.

There is in all of us, to be sure, an age-related lack of appetite for major change, and especially so at age 94, the age my wife and I have reached. And there is less energy for the hundreds of decisions involved in selling a home and moving. We testify that to time-weary seniors it all seemed a daunting assignment. Why not rest in place?

But in discussions our children assured us that they would take over the whole momentous task though relying on our counsel for details. Their assurance that they would take over the sorting, dispersing to family, selling, and moving us was no empty promise. Three children and their spouses turned out to be an enterprising team. The energy they expended was amazing and tireless.

When we finally agreed to “take the plunge,” our daughter, Carolyn, became the manager of the project. She lived near us and ran countless errands. She and Doug, with initial input from Robert, helped us select and interview realtors, took us to appointments, and accommodated the questions of others who came and went. Doug was the packer and advisor to keep us intact with the world via cable and internet.

Daughter-in-law June volunteered to find the buyers for whatever furniture and furnishings were to be sold. She had skill and experience in this sort of task. As a bonus she bought and assembled by herself a simple transparent glass-like desk for me to use in our new setting.

Our son Don found professional movers, oversaw one or two electronic glitches with grandson Jonathan Gonyou, took on the task of dispersing my many books and helped get the house ready for closing. Robert and Janice had found the specific Mississauga community that would suit our needs and were invested in the details of the move by telephone.

All of this energy and consultation diminished our apprehensions a little at a time and smoothed our path. Praise God for their every contribution. Our God is the giver of every perfect gift right down to the energy to attempt hard tasks. Facing the task pushed us toward shadow land, but family values, in full display, have dispelled the shadows.

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Memories that Awaken Great Gratitude 

Mon, 03/30/2020 - 16:53

Kay and I look back on our 72-year journey together with wonder and amazement.

For five of our first eight years I was a full-time student and she, a teacher, was a staunch supporter of my ongoing education.

Both aged 21, Kathleen and I took up residence as newlyweds in a one-room apartment across the Queen Elizabeth Highway from Lorne Park College, a denominational school west of Toronto. It is no longer extant, but its mission has been redirected into the Lorne Park Foundation.

I was an LPC student, attending for two reasons: to catch up on some needed academic credits, and also to take voice lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, eleven miles into the city.

After six months as a married couple I was invited to work part-time for the college while still taking classes. The back seat of our rusted 1933 Ford easily held everything we owned to make the relocation a half mile or so along the QE going west. That introduced us to the ground-floor apartment below the boys’ dormitory.

Kay and I agreed that I would have to finish at least a bachelor’s degree after leaving Lorne Park College. This would be necessary in order to feel qualified for any kind of a ministry assignment, whether as a singer (my ambition at the time) or youth speaker.

Kay, who came from a family that valued education, shared my concern deeply, so we began looking hopefully at Free Methodist denominational colleges in the USA.

Then, something unusual happened. Early in August a former LPC classmate named Jim phoned to say he was taking his girlfriend back to Greenville College in Greenville, Illinois, and invited me to go along.

It would be a 1300-mile round trip — two days to travel and one day on campus. Kay approved the idea, and I gladly accepted the offer.

The Greenville campus was deathly quiet that August of 1951, but with gentle promptings from a professor friend, Watson Tidball, I fell in love with the place.

Before leaving to return to Ontario and with no way to run this by Kathleen, I made a snap decision that we would return to GC a few weeks later. I felt so sure of her likely response that, before leaving the GC campus to return to Canada, I rented an upstairs apartment for us.

I arrived back from the visit to announce enthusiastically to Kay that we were going to Greenville. This sounds impulsive, I’m sure, but if decisions are judged by their outcomes it was one of the best of our shared life.

At first Kay was understandably startled by the thought of such a sudden shift, but she quickly agreed to the plan and pitched in to prepare for the move.

Everything seemed to be in place for going except a financial plan. My tuition would be covered partly by a scholarship from Canada. But finances for basic living were another matter. In the late 1940s money was scarce even for the best of planners and hardest of workers.

But I thought that in the Greenville area I would be invited to sing or speak in churches or youth groups just as was happening in Ontario. I learned too late that it would take a few months to become known in a new area. We would be nearly destitute during those first few months.

Nevertheless, we sold our car and packed all our belongings in a second-hand steamer trunk, sending it on ahead by rail. We said our farewells and, with our three-year-old daughter, Carolyn, and our yet-to-be-born second child, Don, we rode a Greyhound bus the 200 miles to Detroit where we bought a used Ford and drove the additional 400 miles to Greenville in Central Illinois.

We arrived in Greenville just after the noon hour. The apartment was awaiting us — unfurnished. In top gear, by nightfall I had bought a used refrigerator, bed, dresser, and kitchen table and chairs — all second-hand.  Watson and a friend of his lugged the big items up the outside stairway into the apartment for us.

Two years later and two months before graduation another surprise burst upon us: The Dean of Free Methodist students at Asbury Seminary, Dr. Curry Mavis, was on the Greenville campus and sought me out to tell me of an available student pastorate that would make a seminary education possible, culminating in a Master of Divinity degree. He was urgent. Up to that moment, Kay and I had not thought of seminary training as in any way possible.

Carrying “our” precious bachelor’s degree and now three young children (Robert having joined us six weeks earlier), we moved to Lexington Kentucky, 300 miles to the southeast. There we managed to begin our seminary experience while living in two rooms of a grand old, until-then vacant house that was being restored into apartments (with no indoor heating except the kitchen oven as cold weather began to threaten).

Four months in that building plus two more moves into low-income housing saw our little family cared for while I shared rides for the twenty miles to the seminary three times a week for three years. Kay’s unwavering support and care for the children enabled me to complete three years of seminary work and graduate better prepared to understand the gospel in greater depth and proclaim it while caring for God’s people. My graduation was a hallelujah occasion.

At age 94, we look back with amazement across the decades, still rejoicing at the providences that opened before us, as they outweigh by far the inevitable hard times and disappointments that turned up often enough along the way. We give hearty thanks to God for his mercies and feel deep gratitude as well to family, teachers and professors, church leaders, parishioners, colleagues, and friends who have cheered us on to a fulfilling life of pastoral ministry.

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A Moving Experience

Mon, 03/23/2020 - 11:00

Son Don was kind enough to send this out to family and friends this week, and I thought I would share it with you, as Kay and I get settled in our new surroundings.

This note is to let you know about our parentsrecent move 40 minutes away from their home in Brampton, ON, to an apartment in the Walden Circle Retirement Community, Mississauga. The apartment includes a main room, a bedroom, and a den. Currently, their food is brought to them, because, courtesy of the Coronavirus scare, and the fact that they have come from outside, they are in isolation for two weeks. (I joked with them that they were under house arrest like Saint Paul in Rome, but with better room service.) 

My siblings and I are pleased that Mom and Dad are now in a safer and less isolated place. After their incarceration,” they will be able to take part in many activities and meet new friends. There is even a kitchen area where Mom can bake her wonderful bread, if she so chooses. Dad continues to work on his weekly blog, justcallmepastor.com, and both he and Mom keep in touch online and by phone with their children, seven grandchildren (plus six more by marriage), and thirteen great-grandchildren.

This move brings Mom and Dad full circle. Their first home after their wedding in 1947 was one room over a garage in nearby Port Credit, across the QEW from where they are now. Dad was attending Lorne Park College, a Free Methodist Bible school/high school. From Lorne Park they moved to Greenville, Illinois; Wilmore, Kentucky; New Westminster, BC; back to Greenville; Toronto; and then Brampton. Furthermore, the chair in Wesley Studies in their name at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto is funded by the Lorne Park Foundation, which is what the school became after closing in 1966.

Mom and Dad have had several health challenges over the past few years but did extremely well to live independently in their own home up to 94 years of age and are looking forward to getting to know their new community.

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Some Counsel Regarding Covid-19

Mon, 03/16/2020 - 11:00

Our doctor son, Robert, has written an email to us about the novel Corona virus (Covid-19). It contains some good counsel, and, with his permission, I pass it along to you. I send it with prayers for all who suffer from this crisis, whether from anxiety, actual illness, or the stress of taking care of those who are ill.

Dear Mom and Dad (and family),

First of all, please don’t think me panicked or crazy.” We are in the Lord’s hands, and the hope is that, in a few weeks, the rate of new cases will have slowed. Still, the future is unknowable, and so discretion is the better part of valor… With this in mind, permit me a comment or two encouraging a bit of wisdom and hypervigilance. After all, many of us are older,” and we have some health conditions to boot.

As you know, the first thing for a people group to try when a threatening virus is identified is containment. In other words, identify those infected and all of their contacts and quarantine them, hoping to keep the disease from becoming widespread.

Containment is no longer possible here. This is because there are so many unexplained cases without recent travel or exposure to someone who is ill that the virus must be considered to have escaped” into the general population. And there is no herd immunity” to this virus since it is new.”  

The next strategy therefore is mitigation. That is, trying to avoid a dramatic spike of cases that overwhelms the medical system, causing shortages, for example, of ventilators for the gravely ill. Mitigation not only aims to reduce the height of the spike but also to spread the cases of infection across a longer time span so that needed resources can be cycled into use across time rather than all at once.

Possibly the most powerful means of mitigation is exaggerated hand hygiene. Another is self-imposed social distancing. That means actually staying six feet or more away from others when appropriate, but also avoiding crowds. The incidence curve in a population is really flattened and broadened if the population practices these things. And it is important for young people to practice this even if they feel no personal threat because the disease is routinely so mild for them. Young people who feel fine can spread the virus to their community, parents, and grandparents.

I’m not thinking the situation is all that urgent (at least for the moment) for us who don’t live near a cluster of cases. Don’t let me make you crazy… But it is projected that the number of clusters will increase quickly in the next few weeks. Consider that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wife now has the virus. So do Tom Hanks and his wife in Australia. Apparently, there were exchange students who jumped” / disobeyed quarantine restrictions and spread the virus into the Australian population. And President Trump and Vice-President Pence had dinner a few days ago with a man who has fallen ill. He was sitting right next to President Trump. (The president did get tested, and does not have the virus.)

My point only is that the fewer people we come into contact with, the less likely we are to contract this illness. Obvious measures (which we are already taking, particularly meticulous hand-washing and avoiding touching your face) include:

  1. No handshaking. Elbow bumps at most.
  2. Stay six feet or more away from people when possible when out in public.
  3. Stay away from anyone you see blowing their nose (even though this is not a major symptom of Covid-19) or especially if they are coughing.
  4. Sanitize carts at stores (if you must go there) and be extremely aware of your hands and where they have been. Sanitize hands very frequently especially when out and about. Probably six times during/after any necessary shopping visit.
  5. Consider having on hand a week’s worth of canned or frozen food. And, yes, you can easily live on buttered pasta or oatmeal and canned peaches for a few days so no need to empty out the supermarket.
  6. Consider just staying away from any group activities. That actually includes church! And hospitals and primary care doctor’s offices. How about we ALL move to the basement!
  7. Humor has a role, even if the gallows variety.

Again, we of all people should not panic, because, to paraphrase the song slightly,We know who holds the future, and we know who holds our hand.”  

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The Power of Prayer

Sat, 03/07/2020 - 21:35
I am sorry not to have a new blog post for you this week. I have just been discharged from Brampton Civic Hospital, where I was treated for a virus and pneumonia. I am glad to be home and expect to make a full recovery. Lord willing, I will have a full post for you next week, but, in the meantime, you might want to think about these words from three great thinkers and church leaders: “God does nothing except in response to believing prayer.” — John Wesley “Pray, and let God worry.” — Martin Luther “The desire is thy prayers; and if thy desire is without ceasing, thy prayer will also be without ceasing. The continuance of your longing is the continuance of your prayer.” — Saint Augustine
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John Wesley’s Adversity Training

Mon, 03/02/2020 - 11:00

Some years ago I was thinking about how adversity can produce character, and particularly “grit.” One example, though couched in a larger passage about judgment, comes from Isaiah 30:20: Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. 

My mind jumps here to John Wesley, 1703-1791, a man of extraordinary strength and persistence I had been reading and writing about at that time.

I began to review what prepared him to lead with such perseverance and conscientiousness in the widespread ministry he was thrust into later in his life.

Consider first his education. There were the five years of excellent home schooling under the watchful eye of his mother, Susannah. Then there were six years at Charterhouse school. Finally there were about five years at Oxford University.

The grim experiences he had at Charterhouse may be one key to Wesley’s future competence and capability. Charterhouse was a well-regarded school for boys in London. One hundred years earlier a man of great wealth had established the school so that select boys could get the best possible education there in preparation for university.

There was no money in the Wesley household to pay the tuition for such instruction, but Samuel Wesley, John’s father, managed to persuade the Duke of Buckingham to nominate John. So, before he was eleven, Wesley left the well-regulated and prayerful environment of the Epworth rectory (parsonage) to enter the tumult of a public boarding school. W. H. Fitchett writes that “the Charterhouse of that day was a school with great traditions and a decent standard of scholarship.”

However, there was one feature of this institution that leaves modern students of its history perplexed: the practice of high-handed student-on-student food theft. When the rations were given out at the cook house, the older and stronger boys took the meaty portions from the smaller boys. It was a daily experience. During those years Wesley practically lived on bread.

Fitchett writes: “A boy trained in the severities of Epworth parsonage, however, could easily survive even the raided meals of the Charterhouse School.” But what were the officials of this great school thinking in not stopping the thefts? It is hinted that such treatment developed humility or self-restraint. More likely, if one responded to it nobly, and without descending into thievery oneself, it developed a toughness of character, the ability to make do with what was available and to fend for oneself without the benefit of warm and nurturing guardians.

Wesley himself mentions another potential benefit of his time at Charterhouse. When his father sent him to the school he gave him instructions to run around the school’s large playing field or garden three times each morning. In other words, to stay strong and active. Wesley obeyed and later wrote that he believed (and we might at least in part disagree) that this exercise and limited diet contributed to his sturdy constitution as an adult.

Many years later, when Wesley was deeply involved as leader of the Methodist movement, he experienced all sorts of adversity. He faced mobs, endured storms, traveled tirelessly mostly by horseback, wrote copiously in defense of the Gospel and for the instruction of new converts, and often preached as many as three times a day.

His own opinion was that the ruggedness and deprivations of his early years — including Charterhouse — had made him equal to such a demanding life.

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Re-post: An Exchange of Smiles at Walmart

Tue, 02/25/2020 - 02:09

It was mid-afternoon and I was pushing my grocery cart toward the exit of Walmart when a middle-aged woman entering the store flashed me a big smile. I suddenly realized that I had been smiling at some pleasant thought and she must have thought I was smiling at her. Or perhaps she was just saying she was happy, too.

My observation is that not much smiling goes on in grocery stores. After all, there’s a lot to think about while shopping, like comparing the costs of two brands of paper towels or two different grades of eggs, or checking the calorie count of whole-grain Cheerios. And while you are doing all this, you have to make sure your grocery cart doesn’t get in the way of other shoppers.

(Someone should do a study about smiles in a grocery store. What percentage of shoppers smile at fellow shoppers in any one afternoon? What is most likely to prompt smiles? Do people who smile spend more or less money on average? Some pollster could figure out how to frame the questions. Anyhow, news reports citing such statistics would be a welcome relief from the poll results for presidential hopefuls we are treated to daily.)

Maybe an additional reason I don’t smile enough when I work my way down a shopping list in the grocery store is that grocery shopping is a relatively new experience for me. I’m still awkward at it. I’ve taken it up only since retiring and I’m not as patient and discriminating about it as Kathleen is. I sometimes bring the wrong thing home (like apple juice instead of apple cider vinegar).

Back when I was an assigned pastor I had a self-imposed rule that I would not run errands like grocery shopping during working hours. Some of my pastor friends thought this was too rigorous but I had a reason. During working hours I was on duty. I knew that the high-school principal couldn’t take time off during the day to slip away to a grocery store for a couple of items she forgot the night before. And the vice-president of the bank couldn’t slip out for half an hour to get a dozen eggs. These people were on duty. Why shouldn’t working pastors consider themselves on duty also?

It is true that a pastor’s work sometimes beckons during hours when others are finished for the day. Even so, it may not appear professional to parishioners that their pastor is pushing a shopping cart at 10 a.m.

The context of my self-imposed regulation during pastoral days was my strong work ethic — not a slavish one, not a compulsive one, but one exercised with a robust joy in making time count and in letting my people know that I took my assignment seriously.

That same thought brings me joy in setting myself a working schedule during retirement years — though one not so rigorous — and that may well be why I was smiling as I headed out of Walmart.

Photo credit: Rupert Taylor-Price (via flickr.com)

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Re-post: Everybody Talkin’ ‘Bout Heaven Ain’t Goin’ There

Mon, 02/17/2020 - 11:00

Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch

In the flow of daily life we take seriously many behavioral restrictions: stop signs, red lights, legal notices, restricted crosswalks. It’s in our interest to do so. But do we pay attention to words of warning such as the ones Jesus spoke near the end of the Sermon on the Mount? He says:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evil-doers.’’ (Matthew 7:21-23)

Attention to that warning is more important to us than stopping at a million stop signs, for we neglect Jesus’ words to our eternal peril. When Jesus speaks of “that day” in the passage quoted above he means the day of final judgment. In the New Testament this is also called “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8; see also Philippians 1:6, 10).

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, the young prophet and proclaimer of eternal truths, tells us that at the end of history and at the time of this final judgment he will know the hearts of all men and will have power to forever banish some from the heavenly kingdom, saying to them: I never knew you. Away from me, you evil-doers (Matthew 7:23).

Jesus proclaims here that there will be some who will be rejected even though they claim to have done great, even miraculous, ministries in his name. They will say in surprise, and maybe with reproach: Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles? (7:22)

Instead of accepting all, including this group of false religious achievers, Jesus makes clear there will be only one category of believers who will be received into the kingdom of heaven. It will be those who have paused to pay careful attention to the will of my Father who is in heaven (7:21b).

Heart obedience, it seems, is the key. That is, the heart’s obedience to the Father’s will, rather than general and especially self-directed service or accomplishment. That heart obedience will be the fundamental criterion for anyone’s acceptance into heaven.

To explain why that first group with apparent claims to heaven will be rejected, Jesus makes clear that in “that day,” even dramatic religious performance like the casting out of demons in the Lord’s name will not be enough.

This issue of heart obedience is addressed repeatedly in Scripture. Isaiah said of a very religious generation: The Lord says: “These people come near me with their mouth / and honor me with their lips, / but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13a). And in the closing hours of his earthly life, Jesus said to his closest followers: Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching (John 14:23a).

One needs to stop and ponder. In both Testaments, the obedience of the heart is the big issue. Even attempting wonders in Christ’s name will not count if the heart has not been open in submission and obedience to the Father.

There’s a line in a well-known spiritual that likely was inspired by these words of Jesus about the judgment: “Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven that ain’t goin’ there — O my Lord.” This should awaken us to examine ourselves for both inward and outward obedience to the Father. Only those who do the will of my Father in Heaven, Jesus says, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

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How the Apostle John Guided the Church in Truth

Mon, 02/10/2020 - 11:00

By the time the New Testament church had grown partly from a likely influx of second-generation believers, the integrity of the gospel had begun to fade in some quarters, and heretical elements were seeping into the ranks

The early Apostles were deeply concerned. They had governing authority over the church as given by Jesus.

When the beloved Apostle John wrote his first of three letters he exercised that authority. He was keenly aware of deviations from the truth of the gospel and he adroitly addressed them and called for repentance.

His first epistle reflects these facts. He opens his letter with a beautiful tribute to the wonder of the incarnated Lord.

I regard this manner of his address as a key element in his style of governance. The first paragraph is often called a prologue but I refer to it here as an anchor point. It was a call to first look beyond the present troubling issues that clouded the church’s faith and begin with a time of reflection to worship the incarnate Lord.

Thus, John’s anchor point: The Lord is from the beginning. He is forever. He enters fully into humanity. It was a miraculous manner of entering. Though he is eternal, the Apostles actually saw him. They even touched him. Both his deity and his humanity were celebrated.

As you will see, the Apostle proclaimed the Incarnation at the outset of his address. This proclamation was for one purpose, he says: to identify the sin in their midst leading to repentance and in so doing to renew the joys that come with genuine faith — this was his first leadership step (1 John 1:1-4).

As a second aspect of his leadership John addresses his readers with warm terms of endearment: My dear children (2:1), dear friends (2:7), dear brothers (3:13), and so forth. He was not coming to them as the sheriff. He addressed them with deep affection. Fifteen times in his first letter he identifies believers affirmatively in this fashion.

One might think that such gentleness of address to a group of faltering believers would show the Apostle as soft, shallow, easy to resist.

Not so. In fact, the third aspect of his leadership was his clarity with the truth and his directness in stating issues of life and death. In fact, in this third aspect, John continues his communication with a candor that is solemn:

Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. (John 2:4-6)

He reveals his commitment to eternal truth as of issue above all else. In spite of his good will toward those who heard or read him, he was not there to bargain on truth itself.

What could he state more clearly than the following:

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth (1 John 1:5-6).

This must be called loving candor.

This gem of a letter is filled with such measured but penetrating words. But there is one more element in the Apostle’s directness that must be factored into his address in large measure. This measure was likely effective in facing the perilous disorder in the church.

The Apostle repeatedly reminds them of their status in faith: they are “born again.” That is, they are regenerated; they have received the gift of the Spirit; they have inner experience enabled by new life. All of this is implicit in the term born again. By this reality they are bound to the Lord and to one another. This puts them under obligation. Seven times he refers to their new birth (2:29; 3:10; 3:19; 4:8: 5:1; 5:14; 5:18). That emphasis cannot be without purpose.

He writes, for example: … for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith (1 John 5:4). Because of their “regeneration,” their flirting with the manners and inducements of the fallen world had to be repented of and had to cease. He identifies those inducements one after another in his letter and reminds them they are born again. 

The church in every age is tempted to drift from purity of heart and life. Heresy so readily reveals its deviant ways. This epistle is given to Christ’s church in all generations to identify and to correct its wanderings.

Photo credit: Paul VanDerWerf (via flickr.com)

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Repost: Resisting the Peril of Narcissism

Mon, 02/03/2020 - 11:00

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissus was a mythological figure known for his beauty, who, it is said, looked into a pool and fell in love with his own reflection.

Drawn from this story, narcissism is the term used to describe people who are excessively self-absorbed and preoccupied with their own imagined superiority. They may come across as strong and self-assured, but when their self-satisfaction and high self-regard are not honored as they expect, they are likely to react in a surge of punishing anger, insults, or even violence. The so-called big ego turns out to be amazingly fragile. (For those interested, there is a quieter covert, or vulnerable, form of narcissism, too.)

Narcissism has been on the rise in recent years. It often is manifested by a strong sense of entitlement. “I’m special and I deserve special treatment.” “I’ll not take just any job.”

So why is this in the news in growing measure these days?

Brad Bushman of Ohio State University and others have conducted various studies to understand the cause of narcissism. My takeaway understanding is that narcissism doesn’t come, as previously thought, from lack of parental warmth but instead can be traced to parents who “overvalue” their children during the developmental stage of their lives. Children between six and eight are especially sensitive to this kind of unwise parental influence.

If during those years children are continually told they are superior, are more special than others, do things better than others and in these ways are put on a pedestal, they may internalize an unrealistic view of themselves. Other people begin not to matter.

One might assume from the findings of such studies that the condition is planted by parents who have a need to reach some personal achievement of their own vicariously through their children. They believe their child can do no wrong; their child is unusual in every respect; their child deserves special attention from kindergarten on.

The need to foster healthy self-esteem in children is an entirely different matter. Self-esteem develops when children are helped to internalize the sense that they are valuable individuals but not that they can do no wrong. As they grow up, such children will get the appropriate amount of teaching, nurture, and encouragement but equally importantly, correction, discipline, and such otherwise character-shaping treatment as needed, all within the context of warm adult parental love. It is “overvaluing” that does the damage.

Christian parents are in danger of unwittingly fostering narcissism in their children by absorbing the culture around them. Thankfully, however, they can instead take their teaching from the Scriptures and Judeo-Christian understandings of fallen human nature.

Such parents know from Scripture that children are not a possession; they are a trust from God and must be raised with that in mind. Valuable as we are to God and one another we are all flawed and that fact should be kept in sight as we raise children.

Christian parents will not therefore be surprised when they catch a child in the first lie, or see the first tantrum. Dealing with these both with love and firmness is very important.

Christian parents will affirm their children’s achievements to a degree appropriate to their ages and commensurate with the actual achievement. When a four-year-old makes his bed or a seven-year-old sets the table he or she is thanked, but not raved over as if that was the most amazing thing anyone had ever done. And when they do wrong, the call to account should be real.

Christian parents pray daily with their children, and in this setting the Christian view of human nature may be shared at an age-appropriate level. Children can be helped to face and accept their failures as well as their successes. The early teaching of a developing child to worship God who is majestic and holy and far above them, and to say I’m sorry when appropriate, is a first line against the development of narcissism.

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