Just Call Me Pastor

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A blog by Bishop Emeritus Donald N. Bastian
Updated: 3 weeks 2 days ago

New Blog Post Coming Soon

Mon, 10/14/2019 - 11:00

Greetings to all —

I had hoped to have a new blog post for this week but find myself tired from our trip back to Toronto. (Daughter Carolyn and her husband, Doug, graciously ferried Kathleen and me to Canada in their Honda Odyssey.) I am recovering well from the unexpected surgical procedure I received in Chicago … in fact, I’m feeling much better. That and a wonderful visit with members of my family living in the western suburbs of that city have served to buoy my spirits, and, as I hope to prove next week, my creativity.

In the meantime, here are some quotes from John Wesley that are well worth thinking about, whether you are a pastor or part of a pastoral support team:

I saw that giving even all my life to God (supposing it possible to do this and go no further) would profit me nothing unless I gave my heart, yea, all my heart, to Him.

I build on Christ, the rock of ages; on his sure mercies described in his word, and on his promises, all which I know are yea and amen.

Categories: Churchie Feeds

A Renewed Heart, Full of Thanksgiving

Mon, 10/07/2019 - 11:00

Last week I shared that I was scheduled for a high-tech, trans-arterial replacement of a critically malfunctioning heart valve. The doctors threaded a delivery catheter through my blood vessels to deploy a new valve inside the top of my heart.

Thanks be to God, that procedure went very well, last Monday morning. After two days, I was released from hospital to be with Kathleen at Robert and Janice’s home, along with daughter Carolyn and grandchildren Zachary (Lisa) and Charis (Ben).

Recovery has been rapid and I feel tremendously better than I have for a very, very long time. I feel “repaired” and renewed. Energy I had not had for a year or two is returning, and my family tell me I look better than I have in several years.

My “spiritual heart” is overflowing with thanksgiving for a return to health. Equally… I am profoundly moved by the many expressions of support and the prayers on my behalf. My extended family and many friends in Toronto, Greenville (Illinois), Florida, and in the Free Methodist Church more broadly have been extraordinarily generous to me during this time.

After routine postoperative visits this week, we are planning to return to Canada next weekend. And I plan to resume my weekly blog the week after that.

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Blog Statement: September 29, 2019

Mon, 09/30/2019 - 01:19

To the readers of my blog:

I had planned to have a new blog piece for you this week, but events have overtaken me, making that impossible, and I think a personal explanation would be ​in order instead.

During what was meant to be a short visit with son Robert’s family in Chicago (including Robert and Jan; grandchildren Zachary (Lisa) and Charis (Ben) and great-grandchildren Isabel, Nora, and Julia, I was discovered to have an urgent heart problem. My son, Robert, a laryngologist, his doctor son Zachary, an anesthesiologist, and ​above all Zachary’s wife, Lisa, a cardiology nurse practitioner, quickly got me in the hands of ​a cardiology and cardiac surgery team. ​The initial cardiologist promptly diagnosed the problem — a severe lack of flow through a heart valve — and put me on-stream to a high-tech replacement of that valve just ​10 days later — early tomorrow morning, Monday, September 30.

I am told that my recovery is likely to be rapid with an increase in energy evident shortly thereafter.

I am “heartened” by the many expressions of love and prayers I have received from my family, former colleagues, the Greenville University community, and parishioners and friends in Canada and the United States. Daughter Carolyn, who with Doug drove us to Chicago, ​has also read Kay and me numerous expressions of well-wishes and prayer from a Free Methodist Facebook page. Kay’s and my appreciation knows no bounds.

I feel that I am in the hands of very good doctors and above all, in the care of the Great Physician, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. By his grace I plan ​to resume filing regular weekly blogs soon.

Thank you for your interest in my blog. I am pleased to have this space in which to share insights with you from the ​life of a pastor. My ​dear wife ​and ministry partner Kathleen and I consider it an honor beyond our deserving and understanding to have had the opportunity to serve Our Lord in local churches and as bishop, both during our active phase and now in retirement.

In Christ,

Rev. Donald N. Bastian

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Do Christians Worship Three Gods?

Mon, 09/23/2019 - 11:00

Do Christians worship three gods? Skeptics insist they do. Religious organizations like Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses lay the same charge. The word Trinity is baffling to them.

At the same time some Christians are vague about what Trinity means because it seems mysterious. Mysterious indeed: God reveals himself first as one God, and, at the same time, as three Persons in one Godhead.

Nearly all bodies of Christendom subscribe to this doctrine of the Trinity — Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, United Methodists, Assemblies of God, and on and on. One source says 47 of 50 major denominations identified do so.

How is the claim supported in Scripture?

Moses was living in a world that reeked with many gods when God addressed him at the burning bush (Exodus 3). But Moses did not ask, “Which god of the many is this now?” From the beginning, God revealed to him that there was only one true God.

Listen to the Shema, the Jewish statement of faith found in the Old Testament that is recited at morning and evening prayer every day: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). In that ancient world, teeming with gods, the Old Testament names Jehovah as “the Sovereign LORD” (Habakkuk 3:19).

The New Testament continues the claim. During Jesus’ forty-day fast, Satan tried to entice him to bow down and worship him. Jesus’ response: “It is written, ‘Worship the LORD your God and serve him only’” (Luke 4:8). God is one.

At the same time, the Scriptures show that the One God manifests himself in three persons, and this reality is repeatedly set forth.

After the resurrection, Thomas worshiped Jesus as the risen Savior, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God.” If this exclamation had been false, but Jesus had accepted it anyway, Jesus would have committed blasphemy.

Later the Apostle John reinforces the declaration of Thomas. In the prologue to his gospel he testifies of Jesus as follows: “the Word (Jesus) was God” (John 1:1).

But what about the Holy Spirit? In the New Testament Church, when a couple named Ananias and Sapphira tried to deceive Peter over a money gift, Peter saw through their ruse. He said to Ananias, “you have lied to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 5:3). Then he added, “You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:4).

It is impossible to lie to a mere feeling or sensation. The Holy Spirit is instead a person. He is a “person” of the Godhead. He is God the Spirit. Jesus helps us understand the Holy Spirit’s purpose by calling Him the Paraclete (counselor).

At his baptism, Jesus “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove” and heard the voice of the Father saying, “This is my Son whom I love” (Matthew 3:16, 17). In that moment recorded in Scripture, we have the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit all in one revelation.

During the first four hundred years of the early church, the church fathers wrestled with these affirmations. To give them order, they formulated this profound truth about God under the title of the Trinity (tri-unity, three-in-one).

They said, God is one in “being” and, at the same time, three in “persons.” We say God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The three persons are God — coeternal, coequal and indivisible — and one in being.

We are to worship the one true God seeing at the same time both the unity of His being and His three persons. God the Father rules over all; God the Son is our incarnate Redeemer; God the Spirit is our Sanctifier. More broadly, the Holy Spirit is the executor of the Godhead in the world.

The hymn our congregation sang to conclude worship on a recent Sunday morning included the following words:

Laud and honor to the Father,
Laud and honor to the Son,
Laud and honor to the Spirit,
Ever Three and Ever One.

The historic church sings this 700-year-old hymn in praise to the one and only God who in three persons creates, redeems and sanctifies.

If this truth still mystifies, remember that it is in our worship of the God who is three-in-one that we come closest to grasping the reality of this great mystery of the Christian faith.

When we pray, “Our Father who art in Heaven” we are worshiping the one and only God. When we say of Jesus, “He is Lord and Savior,” we acknowledge the one and only God. When we entreat the Holy Spirit to empower us or intercede for us, we also appeal to the one and only God. One Godhead in three persons! Three persons in one Godhead!

All praise to the Eternal God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit!

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Checking on Our Intangibles

Mon, 09/16/2019 - 11:00

As a young pastor sixty years ago in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada, I began writing a weekly guest editorial, “Religiously Speaking,” for the local newspaper, The British Columbian.

Back then, I had to deliver my column as a paper copy. One day as I went through the newsroom a man named Bill called out to me, “Hi, Reverend –- how’s everything in the world of the intangibles?” That became his usual greeting.

Bill was a tough newsman, a recovering alcoholic, a man who knew his business. He was always friendly, not at all scornful or contemptuous. He just understood that “reverends” deal with an aspect of life that often can’t be physically touched or seen with physical eyes — the intangibles.

How right he was! This point was driven home to me by analogy one day. I started on my intangibles — which were to include time studying Scripture for my next sermon, visiting in homes or hospital, listening to people’s stories and offering prayer or counsel.

That particular morning I glanced across the street from our home and church. A wide lot had been cleared, a foundation poured, and the men were arriving to frame up the first level of a two-story apartment building.

Later that day, I pulled into our driveway from an afternoon of pastoral calling, and, after getting out of the car, looked across the street. There stood the framework for the first floor of that building. The workmen had gone home, leaving behind tangible results of their day’s work.

This sight set me back temporarily. It was such a sharp contrast to my kind of work. I found myself reflecting on some intangible work I had done that day — not only sermon preparation but also prayer with a parishioner facing surgery, a visit with a distraught wife whose husband was about to desert her and calling on a family new to the community and our church.

Within this review of my day’’s work, Bill’s question came to mind. After all, I had put in the time and had reckoned each stage carefully but had done nothing as visible as the workers across the street. The work of carpenters, electricians and dentists is in a sense concrete; a pastor’s work is much more subtle, sometimes seen in substance only after a long interval of time.

Come to think of it, so much of what all Christians are called on to do is at first spiritual, mental, intangible: Honor your father and your mother; Be merciful to those who doubt; Abstain from sinful desires; Pray for one another; Preach the gospel; Pray without ceasing.

Most of us would like vocations that produce immediate, tangible results. Who doesn’t like to see the kitchen back in perfect order after a family meal? Or the Christian education center filled with children for after-school Bible lessons?

In large part, Bill was right: for those of us called to the pastoral life, so much we are assigned to do has its roots in the intangibles. But this only means we must be aware in our vocation that our activities are real and crucial though at the same time their results cannot be immediately seen. Understanding this deepens our dependence on prayer to do our work for the Lord, and sharpens our awareness of what we attempt for Him, leaving the results to Him.

Photo credit: Concrete Forms (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

When Life’s Foundations Seem to Be Crumbling: A Meditation on Psalm 11

Mon, 09/09/2019 - 11:00

Psalm 11 is one of the many chapters of the Psalter that David, King of Israel, is believed to have written.

He was a man after God’s own heart and, in one lifetime, rose from lowly shepherd boy to king over the nation.

Samuel the prophet anointed him to replace Saul son of Kish. Saul, who as Israel’s first king preceded David, seemed unable to follow a prophet’s orders and stay within the righteous boundaries of his kingship. Because of his disobedience his reign was shorter than necessary.

David first appeared on Israel’s national scene when he delivered supplies to his brothers who were serving in Saul’s army. While there, he saw Goliath, the Philistine giant, who was terrorizing Saul’s soldiers, challenging any one of them to fight him.

No one would accept the challenge. The war was at a stalemate. So David came forward, declaring that, in the name of the LORD, he would fight Goliath. It was a strange match — a young stripling fresh from the care of a few sheep going against a seasoned warrior who at a little more than nine feet tall towered above him.

Disregarding Goliath’s taunts, David ran toward him, swung his sling above his head several times and released a stone from its pocket. The stone struck the giant in the forehead. Stunned, he collapsed on the ground. David took the giant’s sword from its scabbard and made the victory complete.

The Philistines ran away terrified, with Saul’s soldiers in pursuit. It was a great victory for Israel.

This achievement and David’s general giftedness brought him fame and later a position as the royal musician in the palace. Later still it brought him a leadership position in Saul’s army.

His popularity made King Saul jealous and afraid, filled with hatred. His moods became dark and his impulse to kill David grew out of control. Twice he flung his spear at him to pin him to the wall. David nimbly jumped aside. All this took place although David in all circumstances was faithful to Saul, and had no designs on the throne.

Finally, David’s only option was to flee the court. For about 20 years he was a hunted man. In time he gathered about him a fighting force of men who were also fugitives in the wilderness.

They slept on the open ground when necessary and sometimes in caves when available. They foraged for food. Their goal was survival, knowing the king and his soldiers were often hot on their trail.

David, was also a poet and at some stages of those twenty years he must have jotted down prayers and snatches of poetic reflection about faith in God or life’s perplexities.

It appears that some of his poetry found its way into the hymn book of the temple, and that Psalm 11 may have been one of them.

It is a poem that reflects two opposite ways of responding when facing imminent danger. David declares his own fixed resolution in its first line: In the LORD I take refuge.

But this robust faith is not shared by some of his advisers. Who can blame them for being exhausted by the constant threat of death? Still, he quotes back to them what may have been their frightened advice:

How then can you say to me: “Flee like a bird to your mountain, for look, the wicked bend their bows; they set their arrows against the strings, to shoot from the shadows against the upright in heart. When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

It appears that his advisers’ counsel is to take his cue from a little bird that, when threatened by a bird of prey, flies like an arrow across the skies to the safety of the nearby hills. They argue that the very foundations of life are crumbling and flight is their only alternative.

Then comes David’s response. In essence he says: The LORD is on his heavenly throne. For him, everything flows from that conviction. God reigns. He elaborates this certainty in several ways, but he concludes with the following assurance to the beleaguered and fearful:

For the LORD is righteous, he loves justice; the upright will see his face.

David affirms for himself and his companions that however the days seem to be going in the moment, by God’s power they will end well.

For the righteous, in testing times the foundations of life may shake but they will not crumble — and we can rest in the larger perspective that God forever rules and our future prospect is to see his face when perfect justice will prevail.

Photo credit: Jimmy Brown (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

The Importance of Christian Weddings in Secular Times

Tue, 09/03/2019 - 02:20

I recently heard a news report that, in America, fewer couples are turning to the church for their wedding services; more are planning to write their own script for the whole event; and a still-growing number are moving in together without a wedding service of any kind.

These are not surprising trends as secularism continues to oppose the Judeo-Christian mores and values that have shaped our culture. Moderns may say that no religious institution should prepare rituals for others to follow; after all, every couple will have its own ideas.

But the thought lingers that traditional marriage has had a constancy through the centuries. And that it is a venture so sweeping in its possibilities that it requires some elevated acknowledgment in the form of vows or declarations — if not holy, at least metaphysical. A wedding is one of life’s few rites of passage.

Although the percentage of weddings held in churches may decrease there will always be brides and grooms who want to be married in a Christian context.

I celebrated many weddings across a lifetime of pastoral ministry. I remember with particular warmth couples such as Ken and Judy, Larry and Cheryl, Jim and Fern, David and Faith, John and Sharon.

And I have had the blessed privilege of uniting in marriage eleven couples from my own family circle including children and grandchildren. Those moments were special for me and for them. In each case, every effort was made to reflect the Christian faith in word, symbol and song.

The Christian church broadly has always treated marriage as a rite to be celebrated, one of life’s most important events. It is an adventure in hope, intended as a once-in-a-lifetime pledging.

Across the years I have held that the core of a Christian wedding is not the attire the couple wear, the music they choose or the sanctuary’s decor. All are helpful in creating a beautiful setting and all must be chosen carefully. Nevertheless, the dominant feature of a wedding is the ritual — the words that are spoken, what they affirm and require and how they are delivered.

Thus, here are questions to ask of the words spoken: (1) Are they consistent with biblical truth about marriage? (2) Do they reflect with accuracy and beauty the commitments being made? (3) Do the words  bear the influence of established and time-tested rituals of the past? (4) Are they Christ-honoring? (5) Are they linked to the ages as marriage is?

If a congregation is to be present for the service it is good to remember that there will likely be young, in the gathering, people with eager ears; perhaps an elderly man who with his now-deceased wife repeated similar vows years earlier and now sits alone; a couple in marital conflict who may be privately discussing divorce; and a young man and woman gathering ideas for their own upcoming nuptials.

For a congregation a wedding may be both a resonating chamber for Christian truth and a microcosm of human experiences.

The key to a lovely, moving wedding service is a good rehearsal. Wedding parties for this event usually arrive with a high level of excitement. It is the pastor’s task to take charge and manage the event, making sure that every participant understands his or her part. Rehearsals can be chaotic and overly long if not properly managed.

The reason for such care at the rehearsal is that there are no do-overs for weddings. If a Saturday-night youth gathering goes poorly there will always be another Saturday night. Even if a pastor’s sermon should fail, the next Sunday is only a week away. But the wedding is a singular event with no opportunities to run it through again a day or two later.

Yet, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley (go often askew). So wrote Robert Burns, in Scottish dialect. Indeed they do. Things may happen at the best-planned weddings that excite laughter or sometimes the opposite.

On one occasion after all preparations were carefully made and the congregation was gathered I learned that the bride had forgotten her special gloves in a neighboring community and had gone after them. The congregation sweltered for an hour in a sanctuary without air conditioning. The organ played and re-played the music that had been chosen. When the bride returned the wedding proceeded. On a wedding day, guests usually take such a glitch in stride.

The hope is to plan and practice so as to keep anything from happening that distracts from the solemnity and beauty of the event. And beyond that, to provide the couple with a memory that will still be held as sacred decades later.

What serves better as a standard than the advice of the Apostle Paul who wrote, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

Photo credit: Ryan Blyth (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Why Christians Should Stand for Traditional Marriage

Mon, 08/26/2019 - 11:00

Why do conservative Christians stand firm for traditional marriage — one man and one woman for life? Is it because they fear change, or are bigots, or simply lack imagination?

Or is it that they believe the Bible is the Christian’s authority on the subject and it speaks to the question very clearly?

The book of Genesis alone reveals the mind of God on the matter of marriage. He is Creator over all and, as Creator, he declares marriage, as you will see, to be the union of one man and one woman for life.

Genesis begins with the account of creation, concluding with these words: So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27). This declaration, repeated three times, presents who may be participants in a marriage — one man and one woman.

Chapter two of Genesis then introduces us to the timeless story of Adam and Eve, teaching that God instituted marriage as a unique human union. It leaves open no other options, ending with this summary word: For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). 

In chapter 3 the picture of humanity darkens. Adam and Eve are disobedient to God and the consequences are dire. They feel estranged from their Maker and at odds with one another. Their descendants must live under the shadow of their disobedience. Marriage as God intended is scarred by sin but not dissolved.

Conditions deteriorate further in chapter 4. Lamech, the descendant of Adam and Eve, married two women. This veers from God’s revealed plan, and bigamy represents a further distortion of marriage in ancient culture.

Even Abraham, the father of the faithful, had children by two women — his wife Sarah and her servant, Hagar (Genesis 16). Abraham’s union with Hagar was arranged by Sarah, according to the cultural practices of the times. But, as we see, an arrangement such as this, so contrary to God’s declaration, created great domestic stress among Sarah, Abraham and Hagar from the very start of Hagar’s pregnancy.

And in another accommodation to the culture of the times, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, was tricked into marrying two sisters and eventually had children by them and their two maidservants (Genesis 29:31-30:23). This too was not in accordance with God’s creative declaration, and the story that follows shows the distressing consequences — family strife, jealousy and bargaining for sleeping rights.

All the while, here and there in Genesis a flag is raised in favor of “one man and one woman for life.” For example, consider Pharaoh, the pagan king of Egypt. He did not belong to the chosen people and had not been exposed to divinely revealed laws, but the account shows that he was aware how wrong it would be to invade the sanctity of Abraham’s marriage (Genesis 12:10-20).

It was so also with Abimelech, a heathen ruler in the southern regions of Philistia where Abraham and his retinue settled for a period of time (Genesis 20). Abimelech too reflects the fear of violating the union between Abraham and Sarah.

Later, in the story of Sodom, the book of Genesis speaks against homosexual practice. In Genesis 19, men in large numbers sought sexual satisfaction with men — and were violent in their pursuit. This deviation from the created order eventually brought about the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 19:1-28).

Genesis closes with the story of Joseph, a Hebrew alien in Egypt. He had no family there to support him and no faith community to guide him. His Egyptian master’s wife tried repeatedly to draw him into sexual sin. He steadfastly refused, asking his temptress, How then could I do such a thing and sin against God? (Genesis 39:6-20)

Thus, this opening book of the Bible consistently sets forth as God’s intention the vision of marital intimacy between one man and one woman. This remains clear in spite of the distorting influence of sin which brought into the general picture polygamy, adultery, incest, promiscuity and homosexuality to corrode his design.

Did the coming of Jesus many centuries later amend God’s initial design in any way? How did he speak to the issue?

We know that among the Pharisees of Jesus’ day there were two schools of thought about marriage and divorce. The liberal view said divorce was permissible for almost any cause. The other view said only adultery was grounds for divorce. These differences circulated around the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-5.

On one occasion the disputants sought to entangle Jesus in this debate. They asked him which interpretation was correct. Refusing to be trapped, he went deeper than the law of Moses, calling the disputants back to the initial teaching of the early portions of Genesis.

Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matthew 19:4-6).

The possibility and fruitfulness of a marriage between one man and one woman are gifts flowing from creation. That should settle the question. If Jesus, the most compassionate man who ever walked on earth, would not amend the law of marriage as presented in Genesis, we must not either.

Admittedly, this understanding of God’s design for marriage is received in pain by many who have experienced the marital brokenness of our times. What can the church do? It must first sound forth the message as God has given it — to the young, to any contemplating marriage, to the newly married and the traumatized or forsaken. At the same time, God gives his people resources for bringing support and healing to the wounded.

With regard to marriage and human sexuality, in taking both responsibilities seriously — to uphold the created order, and to aid the suffering and desolate — we fulfill Jesus’ declaration: You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14).

Photo credit: Nick Kenrick (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

I Believe the Resurrection!

Mon, 08/19/2019 - 11:00

Fra Angelico’s ‘Noli Me Tangere’ (c.1438–50), public domain.

To reflect on the resurrection of Jesus I like to read the account in the Gospel of John as he reports the first visits disciples made to the tomb where Jesus‘ body had been laid. This is reported in chapter 20.

First, I ponder what Mary Magdalene was doing there alone on that Sunday before sun-up in the deserted burial district outside Jerusalem. Why wasn’t she in solitude as other disciples were, almost in hiding, after the brutal death and hasty burial of the Lord?

She was probably drawn to his tomb by her great love for him, since he had given her life back to her by delivering her from demon possession. She was there seeking nearness, and to weep and grieve over her loss.

She did not expect to find the entrance to the tomb a gaping hole in the face of the rock. Its closure by the soldiers the day before should have been permanent. Historians tell us it would have taken great strength to roll back the stone in the groove at the mouth of the tomb.

A glimpse into the open tomb was all she needed in order for her to conclude that there could be only one explanation.

She ran to Peter and the other disciple (John, the one recording the account) to report. Panting from exertion, she said: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him!”

According to John, the two men ran to the site to verify her report. John outran Peter, and it is likely that Mary returned, though at a slower pace.

John arrived at the tomb first, but once there was less venturesome. Without entering he stooped down to peer into the gloomy interior. Impetuous Peter caught up to him and was the one who first entered.

There was no body. Mary’s assumption seemed correct. Unexpectedly, John saw the linen strips in which the body had been hurriedly wrapped for burial. They were lying on the stone shelf where the body had been placed in repose.

And, more remarkably, it was as though the body had sublimated out of the wraps, which collapsed in place, with the wrap from his head perfectly spaced and separated from the strips that had enclosed the body.

The writer tells us that John saw and believed. But what did he believe? Only that the body had been moved? Possibly so at first, since the Scriptures had not yet been opened to them clarifying the promise of Jesus’ resurrection. So the two men started back to their lodgings in the city.

After they had left Mary arrived back at the tomb. She stood weeping. Bending down to look inside this time, she saw two angels dressed in white sitting where Jesus had lain and they ask her why she is weeping.

Through her tears she answers that someone had robbed the tomb of the body of the Lord and she didn’t know where it had been placed. It was as though to say: I have unspent grief and am angry at such an indignity.

At that moment she turned around and saw a man standing there, but with vision blurred by her tears and grief, she does not know it is Jesus. He asks her the same question the two dressed in white had asked: Why are you weeping?

She assumes it is the gardener and, perhaps again indignantly, asks the location of Jesus’ body so she can see that it is properly cared for.

Jesus speaks her name, … Mary … In an instant she recognizes him and utters in a burst of joy: Rabboni! Teacher! She is obviously the first of his followers to witness the Lord as resurrected.

I review this particular account to refresh my faith and give life to Jesus’ promise elsewhere made: Because I live, you too shall live (John 14:19).

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Why Must Perfect Justice Wait?

Mon, 08/12/2019 - 11:00

Of Jesus’ 37 recorded parables, more than half concern issues of final judgment and life’s two alternate destinies.

Jesus’ stories are called parables because the lessons they teach arise out of some concrete part of our human experience to make a spiritual point, assuming that what is true in the physical world is also true in the spiritual world.

Here’s one of his stories, retold from Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43.

A farmer sowed wheat in his field and then he and his household went to bed. But while they slept an enemy crept into the field and over-seeded it with weeds.

The next morning, the field appeared unchanged. But weeks later, when the wheat sprouted and began forming heads, the farmer’s servants noted that weeds were threatening to crowd out the wheat.

The servants were baffled. They asked the farmer where the weeds had come from.

The farmer’s reply was that an “enemy” had done this. No more than that is said because the Jesus’ lesson is not on the origin of evil. Rather, it is about the final accounting of good and evil.

Although the two often appear to be intermixed in this world they will eventually be dealt with separately and with finality.

The farmer’s servants wanted to act immediately. They offered to go out and pull up the weeds but the farmer said no, because in doing so they would pull up the wheat also.

Let them grow together until harvest, he told them, adding, “I will then tell the harvesters to collect and tie the weeds into bundles to be burned, whereas the wheat will be gathered into my barns.” One plant would be treasured, the other destroyed.

Later, when his disciples were alone with Jesus in the house and still baffled by his story, they asked him to explain.

He broke the story down by telling them the sower was the Son of Man (Jesus); the field was the world; the good seed represented the people of his kingdom; the weeds were the people of the evil one; the enemy was the devil; the harvest was the end of the age; the harvesters were the angels.

The parable helps us understand that wherever Christ’s kingdom is sown and growing in the world, the weeds of evil will be found. This may be true in a Christian youth group, a megachurch, a Christian home, or in a country like China, where the Gospel is advancing while at the same time being mercilessly resisted and persecuted by the state.

In the eyes of the servants, an immediate clean-up appeared to be the right thing to do, but the farmer knew that the clear and complete separation of wheat from the weeds must await the day of harvest.

Similarly, where the Gospel is operating and manifest in this life, evil often appears intermixed and deeply rooted. In such cases, we are sometimes called to be patient, being assured that evil and righteousness will be thoroughly dealt with in a final judgment.

Deep reflection on this parable and the reality it explains helps us to bravely endure wrongdoing that we are powerless to resist or “root out.” We know that all things in this life will be put right when Christ reappears to judge the living and the dead.

With this story before us, how can we escape the urgency of the Apostle Paul who wrote that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Photo credit: Sleepy Claus (via flickr.com).

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Re-post: Every Life Needs a Spiritual Center

Mon, 08/05/2019 - 11:00

In ancient times, the pagan King Cyrus of Persia was moved by “the LORD, the God of heaven” to release the Jews exiled in Babylon to return to their devastated homeland in and around Jerusalem. King Cyrus’ instructions were to rebuild the temple that decades earlier had been demolished in rage by Nebuchadnezzar’s army (Ezra 1:2).

When the people of Judah arrived in their homeland, they found temple ruins in shambles, scattered and burned. Where should they begin?

Today, builders would likely erect the shell of the temple first with roof and external walls so they could go on working even in bad weather. But that’s not how the leaders of the Jews went about it.

Their first task was to relocate the place where the altar had stood, to clear it of all defilement, and to faithfully reconstruct that sacred spot where the sacrifices could again be offered. Completing the temple itself could come later.

We’re told they “began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it” (Ezra 3:2). Not walls, the court of the priests or the Holy of Holies. First to be reconstructed was the place of atonement between God and his people — the altar.

Every life can benefit by having a symbolic altar. Whenever I write about weddings or baptisms, I refer to the parties involved as meeting at the altar — even when the worship space has no such symbolic furniture.

I think of an altar as the center of worship in a Christian church, the place where worshipers meet God. It is symbolized in many churches with little more than a replica of the cross of Jesus, sometimes on the wall behind the pulpit or set in miniature on a communion table.

That spot represents the place where sinners may kneel and seek God and believers may come to meet God. At the altar, marriage vows are made, babies are dedicated to the Lord, and even caskets rest temporarily as death is acknowledged in the presence of God and believers take comfort from the Gospel even as they say a temporary farewell.

Like the ancient temple, the Christian home too should have an altar. In our house, one corner of our family room has a round table draped with blue patterned cloth that matches the valences above a wide window. On the table there is a simple lamp and two brass praying hands. They are bookends holding two Bibles, Kathleen’s and mine.

Each morning after breakfast we take the Bibles, read a chapter from them, and discuss the significance of what we’ve read. Then we pray together. This exercise with its simple setting is the center of our home — our family altar. It stood in our minds’ eyes as a symbol of the center of our lives together even when I was traveling and we were apart.

We believe that as God’s redeemed children we experience life best when focused on Him. This focus can, as in our case, be facilitated by a mental and / or tangible setting, however simple, where we pause and meet regularly with the Living God — life’s true center.

Photo credit: Richard Matthews (via flickr.com)


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Why Should We Fear God?

Mon, 07/29/2019 - 11:07

A couple of days ago I found a site on YouTube that arrested my attention. SermonIndex.net contained portions from the sermons of six preachers whose ministry together spanned more than half a century in different locations.

Whatever their geographic locations, their sermons had a common theme. With one voice, they contended that there was a lack of genuine “fear of God” among Christians in their era and they pled for repentance.

What does it mean to fear the Lord? It is an unusual and even perplexing expression. Is not our God the very essence of love? Why then not speak of loving the Lord or trusting Him? Why fear him?

The answer begins by noting that the word “fear” used in this sense does not mean to be terrified of God; it means to respect God deeply and humbly so as not to offend him. But is this definition adequate?

Let’s test its adequacy against the words of instruction spoken to Israel by Moses before the Israelites entered the Promised Land at the crossing of the Jordan:

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the LORD Your God; to walk in obedience to him; to love him; to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul; and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). 

Nothing here suggests the need to be in terror or to cower. The lead command in this exhortation — fear the Lord your God — calls for our respect, reverence, awe, love and obedience.

We might have twinges of human apprehension if introduced to a world-renowned person such as the queen of England. But the kind of fear Moses called his people to exercise was not fear toward a mere human, however elevated, but toward God who is our Creator.

This kind of fear, as you can see from Moses’ exhortation, has deeply felt love at its core but unshakeable respect, honor, and commitment to God as its sheath.

For true believers, such fear of the Lord may be tested in life’s desperate moments. For example, when the pagan king of Egypt ordered the Israelite midwives to kill male babies at birth as a form of controlling Israel’s male population the midwives refused to obey at the peril of their lives. Why did they refuse so bravely?

The account in Exodus 1:17 tells us: The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. Today there are many Christians in jail or worse in other lands for no other reason than that they fear God more than they fear the godless rulers who have put them there.

The God we are called upon to fear is more than a human potentate. He is the Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, the Creator and Sustainer of all things.

As humans, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). That is, he is the source of each moment of our mortal existence. It is with his power, majesty and holiness before us that we bow down to love and fear him with joy.

Some may respond that this is really just Old Testament talk and we need to get into the love and grace moods of the New Testament. Quite to the contrary; while being assured of God’s love and grace in the New Testament we are called several times to fear the Lord as followers of Jesus Christ.

To believers who had been ejected from their homes and scattered for their faith, St. Peter exhorted …live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear (1 Peter 1:17). The Apostle Paul called the Christians in Philippi to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).

How then can we disregard the Apostle Paul when he exhorts the Corinthians and us as follows: Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord (2 Corinthians 7:1).

Photo credit: PlusLexia.com (via flickr.com)



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Re-post: Honesty in the Pulpit

Mon, 07/22/2019 - 11:00

In a seminary preaching class several decades ago a classmate took his turn in preaching his trial sermon. It was unusually good — well-organized and meticulous in its treatment of the Greek text.

Two weeks later his former Greek professor came to campus. He preached in chapel — the same sermon, with the same refinements. This created a low buzz among his classmates. They were all inwardly disturbed by what they had witnessed.

What that seminarian did is called plagiarism. To plagiarize, according to Webster, is “to steal or purloin and pass off as one’s own” the ideas, writings, etc., of another. Preaching that involves elements of someone else’s sermon or outline is okay if sources are credited. But to present another’s work as though it were our own work has to be seen as deeply dishonest.

Not only churches take plagiarism seriously; universities do too. A doctoral student hands in a final draft of her dissertation. Her advisor discovers portions of it are copied verbatim from another source but not credited. The student may be denied the degree. Healthy institutions of higher learning care deeply about truthfulness in scholarship.

It’s not that we preachers must consider the sermons of others completely off limits. We read them, listen to them on CDs and DVDs, analyze them, discuss them, even imitate their style. We learn from one another.

But if we set forth someone else’s work as if it were our own, that puts our commitment to truthfulness under question.

Consider three other reasons why this sort of deception has no place in the pulpit.

First, leaning wholly on the work of another for sermon content dampens the prophetic spirit. A Spirit-prompted “Thus saith the Lord” should be evident in every sermon in the Protestant tradition. A real sermon is more than a lecture or an essay or even a religious talk.

As Donald G. Miller once writes, “Preaching is not a mere speech; it is an event.” It is an event in which the preacher delivers to the people a word from God received through diligent study of Scripture, and prayer.

Styles differ from preacher to preacher. One sermon may come forth like “the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” or another may be uttered with tears like the messages of the weeping prophet, Jeremiah. Then again, a sermon may be a passionately reasoned discourse such as the Apostle Paul gave in Jewish synagogues he visited.

Whatever the style, a sermon plagiarized from a book or the Internet or a CD can never be the product of an individual’s personality so as to have a prophetic ring. And in our hearts, whether preacher or parishioner, we will sense the deficit. To the discerning ear, falseness will reveal itself in the first paragraph.

Second, plagiarizing in the pulpit very quickly dampens the preacher’s passion to study and to keep a growing edge on his or her understanding of the Bible’s message. In the plagiarized sermon, someone else has already done the work and that work becomes a convenient substitute for the preacher’s personal exertion.

There’s a cost for such shortcuts. The talented artist who decides to paint by numbers will dull her creative edge and dull her keen eye for blending colors. Or the accomplished cabinet-maker who decides to make life easier by assembling do-it-yourself cabinets from Ikea will gradually blunt mastery of saw, sander and plane.

Pastors who begin to trust pre-packaged material as their source can’t help but lose the impulse to pray and study as required in getting a word from the Lord. They will quickly succumb to something equivalent to painting by numbers.

But the third reason is that some people in the congregation will detect what is going on. Like the seminary class above there may be an undercurrent buzz without any open challenge.

For example, a parishioner thought a sermon one Sunday morning did not ring true. Out of simple curiosity, upon getting home after church he googled the first few words of the sermon and up came the exact presentation he had just heard!

Worse still, there may be a conspiracy of silence between pulpit and pew, a sure sign that the influence of God’s Holy Spirit — the spirit of truth — is dampened in the life of the congregation. In either case the pastor will suffer the serious loss of the trust of the congregation.

In the free church tradition, we are not granted money from the State with which to build towering cathedrals. But in our best hours we have believed in our calling to offer our people fresh, impassioned, Bible-wrought preaching.

Is not the morally soft and continually secularizing era we are now living through an excellent time to renew the preaching commitments of Protestantism’s better days?

But to do so, both pulpit and pew must be in agreement about truthfulness and both gently but firmly intolerant of sermons and Bible teaching that are not genuine.



Categories: Churchie Feeds

The Second Coming: What Do You Expect?

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 11:00

The Last Judgment by Michelangelo (Public Domain).

The late Billy Graham made a statement long ago, the essence of which has stayed with me through the years. He said: “Every morning when I rise I say, ‘This may be the day!’”

His statement arrested attention, but is the doctrine to which he referred — the Second Coming of Christ — central to the gospel or merely a sidebar to it?

It is mentioned in the New Testament 218 times — eight times more than his first coming. Jesus referred to his own promised return twenty-one times. The letter to the Hebrews shows the importance of the Second Coming very clearly: So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (Hebrews 9:28).

Consider three effects this promise of a Second Coming should have on our lives as believers.

First, our Lord’s promised Second Coming prompts us to keep our lives morally and spiritually undefiled. The Apostle Paul wrote to Titus: For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope — the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:11-13).

In our fallen world, “ungodliness and worldly passions” make their constant appeal. They may entice through salacious magazines and books, seductive television and movies, gambling, pornography, illicit drugs, unhealthy companionships and even cheap and defiling talk.

Prompted by the hope of the Second Coming and with trust in the power of the Holy Spirit we are to purge ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit (2 Corinthians 7:1).

Second, our belief in the Second Coming prompts us to carry out our Christian assignments with diligence — always with the promise of Christ’s return. Consider a story Jesus told that reflects this point (Matthew 24:45-51). It represents a summons to faithful duty.

In a wealthy man’s estate there were many servants. The owner planned to be away for an unspecified length of time, so he assigned his most trusted servant to make sure all the workers were adequately fed and cared for during his absence.

The worker had two options: If his master returned to find him carrying out his assigned duties faithfully he would promote him, trusting him with a much larger responsibility. But if the servant should wickedly shun his duties, beating the other servants and drinking with neighborhood drunkards, the master’s return would bring severe punishment.

As it turned out, in Jesus’ story the master returned unexpectedly. The servant had failed his test. The punishment was severe. So will it be at the Second Coming of Christ: the faithful and the unfaithful will be identified and rewarded or judged.

Third, in the light of the promised Second Coming we are to live creatively as believers, making the most of the resources entrusted to us for kingdom purposes. The Parable of the Talents, in Matthew 25:14-30, represents the joy of service and the challenge of taking risks in the life of faith.

A wealthy man who had to go on a long journey did not know exactly when he would return. So he called his three servants together and distributed his wealth among them — to one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags of gold and to yet another one bag of gold. He dispersed the quantities according to each servant’s abilities.

The first two servants received the bags of gold with excitement. They immediately headed for the business district to invest their contents. They wanted to gain as much profit as possible for their master’s sake before his return. When the master returned, the five bags of gold had been increased to ten, the two had become four. To each of these servants the master said, Well done, good and faithful servant.

But the servant who received only one bag of gold had a different story. The trust the master had shown him had been a burden. He had dug a hole, buried the gold and forgotten about his assignment. When his master appeared the one-bag man returned exactly what had been entrusted to him. It had gained nothing.

He tried to blame his master for his failure. The master addressed him with two words: You wicked and lazy servant. He was thrown into outer darkness. As believers, our faith energies are to be joyfully productive.

The Scriptures’ exhortation to moral and spiritual purity plus Jesus’ two stories foreshadow a promised return of Christ. We are called to live with this awareness.

There is no scriptural suggestion here that by such means we could work our way into heaven. That is a grace issue. But there is the suggestion that whether we actually care about the things Christ cares about — that we live upright, holy lives, and live true to Kingdom purposes — will be revealed when the Second Coming breaks upon the world and leads us all towards great reward or divine judgment.

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Re-post: Something You Should Know About Jesus When He Was a Boy

Mon, 07/08/2019 - 11:00

In our culture, twelve is not a noteworthy age. Sixteen is more likely to be celebrated because at that age you can get a driver’s license. At eighteen you can join the armed forces. As well, twenty-one has long been special because it’s celebrated as the age of our maturity.

Our culture recognizes each of these ages to some degree. But age twelve is not among them.

When Jesus lived on earth, it was different. In his Gospel, Luke, the evangelist, first gives details about Jesus’ birth and infancy. Then he reports in abundant detail on the approximate three years of his public ministry which began when he was thirty. But the period between his infancy and maturity is sometimes called the silent years — except for one event when he was twelve.

St. Luke tells his readers that Jesus attended his first Passover in Jerusalem when he reached that age. Why report this event standing alone during those “silent” years?

It is because in Jesus’ times among the Jews, twelve was a very important age. At that age a Jewish boy became known as a “son of the commandment” (later called “bar mitzvah”). A boy’s primary accountability was now to God through obedience to the Torah — the Law.

Some branches of Judaism continue to celebrate the same transition to manhood today. At the event the twelve-year-old lad begins his speech saying, “Today I am a man.” He is now old enough to take part in religious services, to form binding contracts, and to testify before religious courts. Some authorities say he has even reached the minimum age to marry.

So, at twelve years of age Jesus makes the trek along with his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, covering ninety miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem. Here he sees for the first time the magnificent Herod’s temple, the throngs of pilgrims surging back and forth on its streets, the aged and bearded teachers holding forth in the temple’s courts. As we learn, his interest and involvement in the religious aspect of this great Jewish festival was keen for a lad of his age.

But the festival was over all too soon and his parents along with relatives and neighbors began walking the dusty roads back to Nazareth. At the end of the first day they searched for him among the company only to discover Jesus was not in the caravan. They were forced to turn back to the city. There they searched for three days for their son. They found him in the temple, listening to the teachers, asking and answering questions. You would think this an unlikely place and activity for a boy of his age to spend long periods of time.

When his parents found him and expressed their disappointment over the delay he had caused, he gave an unexpected reply: Why were you searching for me he asked. Did you not know I have to be in my father’s house?

There are a variety of explanations for this episode and why it stands alone to reflect his life as a twelve-year-old. For me, the most likely explanation is this: it was Jesus’ first awakening as to who his eternal Father really was. It was the beginning of his understanding of why he was in the world, and the beginning of his grasp of the meaning of his incarnation as the Son of God.

Whatever the case, it calls our attention to the spiritual development of sons and daughters today. Twelve-year-olds are more susceptible to deep truths about God than we may reckon. It’s the approximate age for their spiritual awakening.

Perhaps this insight should focus us all the more on the capacity any twelve-year-old in our circles has for religious knowledge.

Photo credit: Daniel Lawson (via flickr.com)

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Where Do Babies Come From?

Mon, 07/01/2019 - 11:00

When I was growing up back in the thirties and early forties of the last century adults did not talk to little children about where babies come from. Society was still quite Victorian.

If there had been a birth, a tiny infant would just turn up in a mother’s arms at church. Children were of course curious but were discouraged from asking questions, and simple answers were not offered.

If a child did ask where babies come from there was always the story of the stork with a baby wrapped in a diaper suspended from its beak. Storks made the deliveries. We children knew very early that it was just a made-up story.

I recall coming in from play one day when I was seven and finding my much older married sister, Ruby, sitting with my mother in our living room.

Mid-afternoon visits were not common so on the side I asked Mother why she was here. I was told her ankles were swelling and Dr. Creighton was coming to see her. That was all. Not many weeks after that I learned that she had a baby and that, at my young age, I was an uncle. It was all so mysterious.

Like any child I had a natural curiosity about such mysteries so I worked out my own theory. For one thing, I noted that it was usually the mother who carried the infant into our little church on a Sunday.

I learned also by listening guardedly to adult conversations that the baby’s existence was in some way connected to the mother’s recent visit to the little hospital on Fifth Street.

So, here was my theory: When a woman goes to the hospital for any reason, after she gets well and is about to be discharged, the hospital gives her a baby to take with her. I saw it as a going away gift that she could keep. I never went so far as to address the preceding question of where the white-clad nurses got the babies to give away in the first place.

My explanation satisfied me for a while and then it fell apart. Mae Darion was a single woman who worked for our family. At one point she was admitted to the hospital on Fifth Street for an undisclosed reason. Meanwhile, Mrs. Elliott from the west end of town was also admitted.

Both Mae Darion and Mrs. Elliott were discharged about the same time. But as I listened in on adult talk I learned that the hospital gave Mrs. Elliott two babies and Mae Darion none. I didn’t think that was a fair distribution of prizes. My theory collapsed.

I don’t think I was greatly cheated by being kept in the dark about these fundamentals of life in my earlier years. There was plenty of time in growing up to fill in the blanks and get a sensible understanding of reproductive processes.

Yet, unfortunately, children who aren’t instructed by adults near them may be driven by their curiosity to gather information from less trustworthy sources on the playground — sometimes helpful but usually crass.

This whole subject is in my thoughts these days because three days ago two of our grandchildren, Robyn and Richard, journeyed home from a Toronto hospital with a beautiful baby girl — Naomi Grace Junko Hicken. Two older brothers, Joshua (seven) and Alexander (four), had been well prepared and received Naomi joyfully even before parents and baby left the hospital.

In the weeks before Naomi’s arrival, Robyn tells me, there were plenty of questions, especially from the four-year-old. This was one of them:What was I before I was born? Was I air?” Robyn gave age-appropriate answers to this and other questions, but always made the point that all human life is from a God who loves us even before we are born and always will love us.

We have recently welcomed two more great- grandchildren, Isabel Grace Bastian and Eleanor Jane Ellis, and are already eager to welcome another at the end of the summer. In the months that follow, for Joshua, Alexander, and eventually Isabel and Eleanor, there will be many more curious questions for parents to answer.

And while we respond to the flow of down-to-earth questions little children ask about the biological origins of human life we must be sure to help them to ask and receive the fundamental God-is-our-creator answer that undergirds all others.

When the prophet, Jeremiah, announced his call to the prophetic office he began with the word as he had heard it from God: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you (Jeremiah 1:5a). What security that assurance gives to young or old who embrace it — God created us, loves us, and knows us altogether!

Photo credit: R Hicken

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