Just Call Me Pastor

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A blog by Bishop Emeritus Donald N. Bastian
Updated: 1 week 3 days ago

Re-post: Good News/Bad News: It’s No Joke

Mon, 06/03/2019 - 11:00

Good news/bad news jokes add a touch of humor to our lives. Like this one:

A pastor reports to his congregation on Sunday morning that he has both good news and bad news for them.

He tells them: “The bad news is that last night’s storm blew a hole in the roof and there is a lot of water damage in the choir room.” The people respond with a concerned murmur.

The pastor goes on: “But there’s good news. The good news is that we have all the money we need to repair the damage.” The people brighten.

“However,” the pastor adds, “the bad news is that the money is in your pockets.” Spontaneous laughter erupts but sounds a little nervous.

Stories like this may bring a chuckle, but they also reflect the way life often unfolds. Good and bad news both descend on us, sometimes too close to each other for our liking.

This thought came to me some time back when I read an interview with Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback church in California. You recall that he made news over his runaway bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life. The book had brought him fame and great wealth almost overnight. Great! Wonderful news!

But shortly thereafter he was in the news again, this time because cancer had struck in his family. After much prayer, he and his wife came to terms with what they were facing.

Shortly after receiving the news, in an interview he said, “Life is a series of problems: either you are now in one, or you’re just coming out of one, or you’re getting ready to go into another one.”

He also said, “I believe that life is kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and that at all times you have something good and something bad running in your life.”

A decade has passed, but in saying this, Pastor Warren spoke from his own poignant experience. One day had brought surprising news of great wealth to the family; the next brought the threat of great loss. So it is for all of us.

Can we draw lessons from his two-rail metaphor for how we should live? We are enabled to face both good and bad that come so startlingly close together with a measure of equanimity when we see our lives in the context of eternity.

Rick Warren pointed this out when he said, “In a nutshell, life is preparation for eternity …This [brief life] is the warm-up act — the dress rehearsal. God wants us to practice on earth what we will do forever in eternity” — which is to let nothing dim our view of him in all his glory.

This is in complete agreement with what the Apostle Peter teaches Christians who apparently had been ripped from their homes and scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1).

We are born again into a living hope, he writes (1 Peter 1:3). We have an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade — kept in heaven for you (1:4). We know that our salvation will be fully revealed in the last time (1:5). All this is a treasure trove of reassurance and will sustain us even while we may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials (1:6).

When the bad news comes, we also have God’s word through the Apostle Paul: For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 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 (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

Photo credit: Jon S (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Sex Education in Sexually Confusing Times (Part Two)

Mon, 05/27/2019 - 11:00

The Garden of Eden by Erastus Salisbury Field, circa 1860.

In the past seventy years our culture has made major social and legal shifts, purportedly to allow greater personal freedom to all. But these changes have created a quagmire that increasingly bogs society down and brings confusion to civic life.

Consider some of the shifts: traditional marriage reduced in priority, easy divorce, living together unmarried, same-sex marriage, casual sex without commitment, addiction to pornography, abortion as a “convenience,” and now transgender experimentation.

Where should Christians start in foundational teaching of our children on this subject?

For starters, we must remember that in the Christian community the Bible continues to be the primary sourcebook on what we must believe and how we must live. It is an ancient book but not scorned by wise people who find its counsel on such matters surprisingly contemporary.

The Bible does not say anything about techniques regarding sex, or the science of conception, or the practice of “safe sex” but it gives a good foundation to believers on the basics of reality and morality in this arena.

Consider how the story of creation is put forward at the threshold of the Scriptures (Genesis 1:1): “In the beginning …” There was a beginning. God was there already and he spoke. He didn’t need a box of tools because by the power of his word creation sprang forth with its unmeasured vastness and wonder. And, at the outset, it was very good.

Think of this introductory passage as a hymn to creation. Here is its climax: Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Genesis 1:26). We are created to be stewards.

It gets even better: Notice that in the verse that comes next the word “create” is used three times. Notice also that God creates two distinct genders — male and female. Neither more, nor fewer: So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God created he them, male and female he created them (1:27).

For Christians, this is where sex education begins, in the simple but profound declaration made by the God of creation. That’s why we respect our bodies and give God thanks for his provision of the fundamentals of our beings. These simple foundational points can be taught early in Sunday school, and especially in Sunday-morning services when God is worshiped in truth.

Chapter 2 of Genesis tells the creation story differently from chapter 1 but without contradiction. It begins with God’s creation of Adam and his assignment to care for the Lord’s park-like garden. Then comes a further provision: The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (2:18). This picks up on a theme in chapter 1 cited above: male and female created he them.

The Lord God then created animals and brought them to Adam to see what he would name them. But among them there was no creature suited to be the helper the Lord God had promised. There follows the story of how Adam got his wife so widely known but never boring to repeat with color. And from that ancient presentation there are profound hints about love and sexual attraction today.

This opening of the Bible does not end with a clean, idealistic account of the sanctity of marriage. It is equally candid about fallen man’s misuse and abuse of God’s holy gift. The issues of bigamy, polygamy, adultery, fornication, scandalous unfaithfulness to covenant — all these are addressed but never approved. The Bible gives us Jesus’ word that nothing in succeeding centuries erases God’s intention as addressed in the story of creation (Matthew 19:3-12).

Our Lord calls his followers to purity of heart (Matthew 5:8). The Apostle Paul exhorts believers to purity and fidelity in the strongest of words: But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people (Ephesians 5:3).

The story of creation twice told ends with these affirming words: That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife and they become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). The Bible has much more to say about our sexuality but it all begins here.

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Sex Education in Sexually Confusing Times (Part One)

Mon, 05/20/2019 - 11:00

The task of sex education is to help growing children, at the level of their understanding, to know that their sexuality undergirds and shapes their view of the world.

Their sexuality is not an aspect of being human that can be separated out and experienced independently. It is integral to the whole of their humanness.

Of course, there is a case to be made for the decisions about sex education to be the purview of the family and faith communities — and by a school only with parental consent.

But leaving that question aside to deal with the general matter of children’s education, the issue is not so much what information is taught as what assumptions and belief system underlies the information.

Society no longer universally holds to the Christian belief that human beings are far more than animals who are socially advanced and intricately developed. Biblical teaching is that all humans are unique creatures among God’s creative order bearing his image and accountable to him for their behavior.

Again in the general case, though with exceptions that prove the rule, a family of mother, father and children, provides the best environment. Wholesome sex education begins in the loving, respectful attitude of parents to one another and the children from infancy onward.

That doesn’t mean family relationships are always free from stress but that love and respect govern or “reign”. And it doesn’t mean that sex education is necessarily substandard in homes limited by the deprivation of one parent.

Christian sex education is based on the revelation that God created humankind to be male and female, each bearing fully his image (Genesis 1:26,27). From birth onward this differentiation of humans into male and female has serious implications. Sex education should help us to understand and rejoice in what God has created us to be.

Sex education can be enhanced in the home by the use of Biblically-based literature, videos and whatever other Christian resources are recommended by a denomination’s resources center. It’s best to let growing children acquaint themselves at times privately with whatever is made available to them, and as well at times in conversation with parents.

The intimate aspects of sexuality may thus be taught in a gradual way according to a growing child’s ability to understand. The Christian faith maintains that there is a mystery and metaphysical and spiritual aspect to sex and this must be respected in growing children.

Modelling is the means by which children are best helped to develop a sense of responsibility concerning their sexuality.

Because the sex act gives intense pleasure, some secular minds tend to treat it as nothing more than the satisfaction of a physical appetite. For such persons, the psychological and spiritual aspects may be ignored or devalued.

Those who promote such a view seem concerned primarily that sex be practiced safely, using the best of modern technology to avoid sexually transmitted disease or pregnancy.

Christian wisdom is contrary to such a view. The Scriptures hold that sex within marriage is honorable while sex outside of marriage is labeled adultery or fornication — each regarded as serious sins (Hebrews 13:4). The Bible speaks forthrightly against premarital or extramarital sex as follows:

But among you there must not even be a hint of sexual immorality (promiscuous behavior) or any kind of impurity (the wider range of illicit sexual conduct) or greed (insatiability) because these are improper for God’s holy people (Ephesians 5:3).

In this very personal arena of our humanness the grace of God (His undeserved generosity) must be emphasized. It is His grace that enables sexual purity. And for those who have failed or are failing, he offers the grace of  repentance and forgiveness. In Christ, wholesome attitudes toward sex can be recovered and purity restored.

Photo credit: Márcio Binow da Silva (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Re-post: Sunday School Picnic, Anyone?

Mon, 05/13/2019 - 11:00

When I was a boy, the annual Sunday School picnic was a highlight of the summer for our modest sized church in Saskatchewan. From the day its date was announced in June I lived in expectation.

I recall that one year, I prayed in my boyish way that it wouldn’t rain on that day. The day before the event seemed iffy, but it didn’t rain after all. A rained-out picnic would almost have ruined my summer, so I felt.

Sunday School picnics are probably not enthralling to today’s children like they were to me and my friends eighty years ago. Our church was small and our town’s activities were limited after school was out for the summer.

Today there is so much more to create summer excitement — swimming facilities, little league baseball, camping activities, and sports events, for example. This is to say nothing of personal diversions like television, smart phones, Netflix and other streaming services. Who needs picnics?

It’s not that the thirties of the last century were completely without excitement. Still, the Great Depression and the Dustbowl together generated the nickname of “the dirty thirties,” and our parents were in survival mode to “make ends meet.” In summer months we mostly had to generate our own entertainment.

I remember that one summer, the picnic was held at Woodlawn Park in the wide valley two miles straight south of Estevan. It had swings, and teeter-totters, and a place to swim. The Souris River formed its southern bounds.

On the bank of the river — which I remember as less than two hundred feet wide — there was a diving board and in the middle of the river there was an anchored raft, easily reached by swimmers. On a hot afternoon they splashed and bobbed like corks around this raft, and shouts of excitement filled the air.

The park was set in a large grove of trees, which was not usual for the Prairies, and they made an appealing setting for our picnic. The gathering there was like a large family. Some people who were only slightly connected to the congregation attended and increased the numbers.

There were games (like three-legged, and gunny sack races) and other contests for all ages. And there was pick-up softball for the older kids and young adults.

There were things to laugh at too — like the grunting, sweating, red-faced adult contestants who gave their all in an attempt to win the tug-of-war. Or the girls who fell in a heap while attempting to hop to the goal line with legs confined in a gunny sack. Even sedentary onlookers cheered as racers, each balancing an egg delicately on the bowl of a tablespoon, headed past them for the finish line.

The minister was always called upon to bless the food. During those hard times in the 1930s the food was simple but satisfying and special when served at picnic tables out of doors. Open air and brisk activity awakened hearty appetites.

At the end of the afternoon we had ice cream which almost by itself made the event outstanding. Ice cream back then was not an everyday treat.

It still seems to me that such a picnic can do something for a modest sized church community that more spiritual activities can’t. Bible studies, prayer meetings, and picnics each have their place.

They contribute to bonding between churchgoers. Many quiet people become involved. Children possibly benefit the most, as they make brief connections up and down the age scale, with parents, the middle-aged, and even grandparents of their chums. Everyone mingles under a Summer sky.

Maybe a picnic wouldn’t work today. But plan one like I’ve described here, and I’ll be there! Just don’t ask me at this point in my life to take part in the tug-of-war!

Photo credit: cwwycoff1 (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Do We Need the Old Testament to Practice the Christian Faith?

Mon, 05/06/2019 - 11:00

This week I heard a sermon on YouTube from one of America’s most popular megachurch pastors. He contended that today’s church needs to “unhitch” from the Old Testament and live by the simpler ways of the New Testament. The Old Testament is too old, bloody, and complex for believers, he said.

One can appreciate the passion to bring the Gospel more simply to today’s public, but is completely disconnecting the Old Testament from church life the way to achieve the goal?

The sermon claimed that New Testament writers — Peter, James, Paul and others — had themselves disconnected from the Old Testament in the early days of the Christian church. He said they too wanted to make the faith simpler for those who sought after God.

But did Jesus not say the following? Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished (Matthew 5:17,18).

Jesus came not to annul or even simplify the Old Testament but to embody its positive truths in living form. He came to save sinners, and the moral law as lodged in the Old Testament had a specific function in this saving ministry.

It was to awaken them to their sinful condition and bring them to the Savior. As Paul wrote to the Galatians: the law was like a strict guardian in charge of us until we went to the school of Christ and learned to be justified by faith in him (Galatians 3:24).

Contrary to the megachurch pastor’s sermon, New Testament writers did not  abandon Old Testament Scriptures. For example, Paul’s letter to the Romans spells out clearly the way to salvation by faith in Christ and is clear about the Old Testament’s function in that process.

He wrote: … I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law (Romans 7:7). The searchings of the law awaken us to our sin and our need for the Gospel.

It is true that the Old Testament is ancient and has content that can shock modern sensibilities. And many of its ceremonial rituals are no longer relevant. But the moral law revealed in these writings and contended for by the prophets is timeless.

Without the Old Testament what would we substitute for the hymn to creation in Genesis chapter 1? Or the story of God’s miraculous deliverance of his chosen people out of slavery in Egypt?

What would we substitute for the warnings and promises of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah? And how would we replace the treasures of the Psalms as aids to worship?

To abandon the Old Testament would also require major editing of the New Testament. Paul wrote to Timothy: All Scripture is God-breathed and is suitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16).

We dare not forget that the Old Testament was the only inspired text at hand when Paul said this. The New Testament had not yet been gathered as a sacred document. If we were we to decouple Old from New Testament, would we not be declaring that the Old Testament is no longer God-breathed?

Luke tells us that when Jesus was a 12-year-old boy, he lingered in the temple courts with the teachers of the law listening and asking questions. Onlookers were astonished at what he grasped and the questions he asked. What more powerful affirmation of that ancient text could we ask for?

With this memorable moment on record, we dare not unhitch law and prophets from their place in the whole sweep of both Testaments. God has given both to the historic church to direct us.

Image info: Travis Wise (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Re-post: Diet and Exercise for the Soul

Mon, 04/29/2019 - 11:00

Every day, it seems to me, I get messages from the media about what I must do to keep in the best of health. The advice has now been reduced to two points. I must (1) feed my body a proper diet — which means a  diverse selection of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts, along with limited sugar and other simple carbohydrates — and (2) exercise vigorously from 30 to 60 minutes each day.

Our whole culture seems to have arrived at consensus on this. The words, “diet and exercise” have become a mantra. So, at our house we have tried to take the recommendation seriously.

But what about that aspect of our beings we call the soul? Mankind is formed by our Creator from the dust of the earth, the Scriptures tell us, but so are the lions and hippos. However, for us the Scriptures add, God breathed into that physical formation the breath of life and “man became a living soul.”

Consequently, we do not accurately say: “I am a body and I have a soul,” as though the body is the more significant aspect of our beings and our soul a  sort of attachment.  Instead, it is better to say: “I am a soul, and that soul inhabits my body.”  In saying this, we acknowledge that, as precious as our bodies are to God and to us, it is our indestructible spiritual natures that deserve our more careful attention if we must make a distinction.

How, then, is that soul to be kept in health? Just as I do for my body, I must (1) nourish it and (2) exercise it daily. With regard to nourishing my soul, here are helpful words written by J. I. Packer in his book, Knowing God: “There can be no spiritual health without doctrine,” he writes. Doctrine means organized Christian teaching. So we must seek to grow continually in Christian understanding.

After speaking to the nourishment side of things, Dr. Packer calls us to the “exercise” side of care of the soul by means of meditation. “Meditation,” he writes, “is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God.”

Meditation, like gracious dining, takes time. It is often suggested that 30 minutes first thing in the morning is ideal. Just as the orchestra tunes its instruments before the concert, it is better to take time for meditation at the outset of the day, rather than after the day’s “concert”  has been played.

If we can’t make the early morning work, then we must choose another time. A college student I counseled with years ago complained that she couldn’t make the early morning hour work because she still felt too drugged from sleep. I asked her how long she took for lunches. She was a very sociable person and replied that she usually took an hour-and-a-half. I suggested she cut that time in half and slip away for a daily quiet time of Christian meditation. As the saying goes, “Where there’s a will, there are twenty ways.”

Meditation usually works best when it is a time for focusing on God, not our problems, and this can be done helpfully when we set our reflections on his attributes — that is, those characteristics or features of God’s being revealed in Scripture. We seek to see Him ever more clearly across our lifetimes.

For today, consider just one of them and take time to meditate on it. Consider the attribute, omnipresence, meaning our God is present everywhere — even where you are at this moment.

What scripture better than Psalm 139 will take us into the wonder of God’s omnipresence? Here, we learn that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is familiar with all my activities (verse 3). He knows what I am about to say before I say it (verse 4). I was not hidden from his all-seeing eye even during my pre-birth existence (Verse 15). All of this moves us to pray to be kept from any hidden wickedness, while at the same time being led in the ancient ways.

Image info: Ninac26 (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Judas Iscariot — Why Did He Fall?

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 11:00

There were many ill-advised characters in the life and ministry of Jesus — corrupt priests, pride-blinded Pharisees, scornful siblings, weak Roman officials, conscienceless soldiers.

But although one person in the passion story had every advantage by his proximity to Jesus, he proved the darkest and most sinister of them all. It was Jesus’ own disciple, Judas Iscariot.

How did Judas become one of Jesus’ apostles? Luke tells us that Jesus spent a whole night in prayer before choosing from among his many followers the twelve whom he would call Apostles (Luke 6:12-16). He then invested three years in their training, and Judas was there the entire time.

Judas had heard Jesus teach the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount. He witnessed the healings. He was present when the Master called Lazarus from the tomb. He had heard and seen it all.

Why then was his end so grim?

There are a few passages in the Gospels that shed light on the question. During a time when Jesus’ popularity with the crowds began to fade, John tells us, Jesus addressed a crowd of complainants and made a grave statement: Yet there are some of you who do not believe (John 6:64a).

John becomes even more explicit. He writes: For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him (6:64b). The whole of John’s Gospel is about believing in Jesus.

Only a short time before this crisis moment, some in the crowd had participated in the miraculous feeding of five thousand. They wanted more. They reminded Jesus of the manna in the wilderness; he countered by speaking about the bread of life.

Then he used a metaphor to declare what he meant when he called them to believe in him: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (6:53). Believing involved soul communion, identifying with Jesus in a very personal way, trusting oneself to his Messiahship and his cause.

Judas must have heard Jesus’ words. Judas still traveled with Jesus but obviously did not believe in him for who he really was.

We recall that John was writing his Gospel account many years after the events. Time on occasion sharpens perspective and deepens insight. He recalled the special dinner in Jesus’ honor and the outburst of Judas when Mary poured the expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet.

John knew what was at issue. Judas was a thief. He was the treasurer for the Apostles and he helped himself to the bag at will. His failure to believe with heart and soul had left him open to the devil’s corrupting power.

For those who hear his call there is a cost to believing in this wholehearted way, but there is a greater cost to refusing to believe.

At the end, Judas led a crowd of officials to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he identified Jesus with a traitorous kiss, and addressed him as “Rabbi” — not Master.

How unsettling to realize even today that one can know Jesus through Holy Scripture and the Holy Spirit’s ministrations and yet not fully believe. In reading about Judas, one feels the tragedy again and asks with each of the disciples: Lord, is it I?

Easter is a great season to examine the depth of our faith in our Living Lord and the degree of our commitment to his cause.

Image info: The Conscience – Judas, Nikolaj Nikolajewitsch Ge (Public Domain)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

A Dinner Party Like None Before or Since

Mon, 04/15/2019 - 11:00

Jesus and his twelve disciples were guests in the home of sisters Martha and Mary and their brother, Lazarus. Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised to life from his tomb, was at the table.

The home was in Bethany, a village on the far side of the Mount of Olives about two miles from Jerusalem. The meal was being served six days before Passover, the main Jewish observance of the year. Crowds of worshipers would flood Jerusalem, and the city was already stirring in expectation.

The posture of the guests at table would not fit our style today — they “reclined” on low-lying couches, resting on their left elbows and receiving and eating with their right hands.

Into this picture came Mary, sister to Lazarus. She carried a pint of very special ointment imported from India, and worth nearly a year’s wages. Before the guests realized what was happening, she had broken its seal and poured its contents lavishly on Jesus’ feet.

She then used her hair to wipe up the excess, unintentionally perfuming herself in the process and filling the room with a pleasing fragrance.

One person at the table erupted in indignation. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” It was Judas. On the surface this sounded like compassion, but John, the apostle who preserved the story for us, knew at the moment of his explosion what the real issue with Judas was.

Judas, one of the twelve, was a thief. He had been the treasurer for Jesus and his twelve companions and on occasion had filched money from that bag. Greed was eating into his soul.

Jesus came to Mary’s defense. “Leave her alone,” he said. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.”
What an unexpected twist!

They must all have wondered, “My burial?” After all, he was a young man, about 33, and in full health. Though he had tried to forewarn his disciples, dropping the hint more than once, none of them at table with him was thinking in terms of funerals and burials.

But that’s what makes this dinner memorable. Jesus knew what was ahead for him and although he must have entered fully into the social exchanges at the table, his mind at the same time must have been playing on what was in his immediate future.

He knew that he was marked for a cruel death, and an ordeal of unspeakable forsakenness. He knew also that this death would make him the world’s sin-bearer.

It appears that Mary’s perceptions were deeper than those of all others at the table, however vague even hers may have been. Perhaps sensing that the time for such displays of love and respect was coming to an end, her womanly intuition and her deep love for the teacher prompted her to seize the moment to pour out her devotion in this extravagant way.

Jesus halted the clamor by saying, “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” This seemed to be an acknowledgment that her insight was accurate. She had perceived correctly the trouble ahead.
When Matthew and Mark tell a similar story they add these words of Jesus: “I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

To Jesus, Mary made a gesture of extravagant devotion at a time when the world was set to reject their redeemer, and his own followers were likely to forsake him. Her devotion must have spoken light assurance to his lonely soul.

Jesus said to those at table with him, “She has done what she could.” And, “She has done a beautiful thing.” The beauty was in a follower’s devoted and open-handed love.

This account is one to treasure and ponder. It gives us occasion to measure our own love for the Lord Christ at Easter time.

(If you wish to meditate further on this story during this pre-Easter season, here are the references: John 12:1-8; Mark 14:1-9; Matthew 26:6-13.)

Image info: *Kicki* (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Belief That Will Get Us into Heaven

Mon, 04/08/2019 - 11:00

Point to a saucer of milk you have put down for your kitten and the kitten may simply play with your pointing finger. The kitty doesn’t understand your sign. But point a six-year-old child in the direction of his lost ball and he will run immediately to retrieve it. He takes the pointing finger as a sign.

That’s how John uses the word, sign, when he refers to Jesus’ miracles. They point to something beyond themselves. When, for example, Jesus feeds the 5000 men miraculously from a lad’s five barley loaves and two sardine-sized fish he is pointing to something more.

The crowd experienced the wonder of the miracle but didn’t understand what it pointed to. Their scheme in response to the free meal was to capture and make Jesus their king. They must have thought: free meals for life!

They were so serious about their scheme that his life was in danger. Jesus slipped away to a nearby mountain, and when night came he walked on water and the next morning was with the disciples in Capernaum.

When the crowds discovered that both Jesus and his disciples had disappeared from the northeastern shore of Galilee they took boats to Capernaum on the western shore. They hoped to see more miraculous deeds and perhaps experience another miracle meal.

When they found him, Jesus challenged their motives: I tell you truly, you are looking for me not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill (John 6:26). Then he led the discussion in the direction of a food that  will endure to eternal life.

When the men asked, What must we do to do the works God requires? Jesus answered, The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent (John 6:28,29). The rest of the chapter deals with the sign and the conflict his words awakened. They were in no mood to believe.

In this chapter John used the word “to believe” nine times. At the outset, Jesus said to them: The work of God is this: “to believe” in the one he has sent (John 6:29). The word, believe, used in this way was to be taken seriously.

The men suggested that Jesus repeat the miracle of manna given miraculously to their forefathers in the wilderness. Jesus’ corrected them and in doing so moved them one step closer to understanding the sign he intended the feeding of 5000 to be: For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives light to the world (John 6:33)

He was referring to himself, an immeasurably better gift than manna. Their obtuseness in the presence of our Lord was remarkable. They argued back. They asked questions filled with doubt.

He even put his finger directly on their unbelief when he said: But as I have told you, you have seen me and still do not believe (John 6:36).

The picture is enlarged. God the Father was deeply engaged in this gift of eternal life for his creatures. Jesus said: all those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away (John 6:37). But he added, For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day (John 6:40). The two promises belong together.

Jesus’ strongest and most arresting statement during this exchange was this: Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood you have no life in you, whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day (John 6:54).

This was Jesus metaphoric way of saying that believing in him involved more than a surface confession — the tipping of a hat or the signing of a pledge. He was the bread of life. Believing in Jesus involved their receiving him, the taking of him into their very beings by faith to live there.

When the gospel is simply given and a small child is asked: Would you like to invite Jesus into your heart, they usually have an instinct for answering. Believing in Jesus at any age involves bidding him to enter and live within us in the power of the Holy Spirit.

On this occasion his teaching proved to be too exacting for the timid and shrunken souls of some of them. They grumbled at his imagery. Even a goodly number of his disciples said his teaching was too hard to accept. The crowds thinned out.

Then Jesus put this question to his twelve disciples: You do not want to leave me too, do you? Peter responded: Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life (John 6:68). It was a golden moment for Peter. He momentarily understood what was behind Jesus’ miracles and words. He understood the sign — Jesus, the bread of life for time and eternity.

O for a faith that will not shrink
though pressed by many a foe,
That will not tremble on the brink
of poverty or woe.

Lord give me such a faith as this,
and then whate’er may come
I’ll taste e’en here the hallowed bliss
of an eternal home.

William Bathurst, 1831.

 

Image info: TumbleDryLow@Angela (via flickr.com)

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Re-post: God’s Super City

Mon, 04/01/2019 - 11:00

And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:2 RSV).

The city is neither modern New York nor ancient Sodom. It is neither buried beneath centuries of sand nor clouded by the haze of fossil fuel combustion.  It isn’t marked by human genius, nor is it scarred by human depravity.

Its splendor owes nothing to man; it is the city of God. Humans, wherever they have gone, have organized into communities. Their skills in social structures have come to a peak in the building of cities like Tokyo, San Francisco, Toronto, London, and Atlanta. These highly developed communities have witnessed across history to the genius of their creators. Yet cities have fallen one by one: sacked by enemies, corrupted by their inhabitants, or emptied by the vagaries of history.

The Bible has a dual attitude toward cities. Jesus loved Jerusalem and wept over it in great tenderness, then pronounced destruction upon it. It was his city, the place of the patriarchs and prophets, and it had known great moments. But it also distinguished itself for its stoning of the prophets. Then this city that God had uniquely honored had swelled with pride and rejected his Son.

The Bible begins its story of mankind in a garden and ends its story in a city, the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God (Revelation 21:2). The vision of this city, given to John on Patmos, is rapturous, and the Book of Revelation records it with splendor of expression.

This last book of the Bible speaks throughout in what some have called cartoon language. It has been pointed out that a cartoonist today wanting to show tensions between Russia and China, for example, simply pictures a bear being eyed menacingly by a red dragon. We would get the message.

The Revelation is filled with verbal pictures – four-headed beasts, angels with vials, and cities like the New Jerusalem – from all of which we are intended to get a message too.

The message is that in his time, God will provide the perfect community for those who belong to him. Paul calls it the Jerusalem which is above (Galatians 4:26), and our commonwealth . . . in heaven (Philippians 3:20 RSV). It is the city toward which Abraham was headed, the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10 NEB), the eternal dwelling place of God and His people.

Today, many of the cities of man are under a cloud, if not one heavy with a cloud of sulphur dioxide or a threatening cloud from a dirty bomb. The city is a place of physical decay and human despair to many forgotten people, to them a seeming hell without flames. Yet, their leaders keep a proud silence about God and his Kingdom, and grope only on the horizontal plane for solutions to their troubles.

Even so, Christ wept over a city ruled by such attitudes, and he healed body, mind, and spirit of people in its dirty streets. Can God’s people do less? In every sector there are needs which compassionate Christians can meet, despair they can work to relieve, boredom they can help to replace with meaning. In many decaying cities, small corps of Christians join to help relieve such problems.

But here’s the paradox. We can serve with compassion in the city of man only if we are convinced at every level of our beings that our true destination is the New Jerusalem, the eternal city of God.

Photo credit: blogmulo (via flickr.com)



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The Night Nicodemus Talked with Jesus

Mon, 03/25/2019 - 11:00

The story of Nicodemus in chapter 3 of the Gospel of John sometimes stops me in my tracks.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee, so he has high moral and religious standards. Besides, he’s a member of the ruling council in Jerusalem, a man greatly respected there. He may have approached Jesus in the nighttime because he wanted a serious, undisturbed discussion.

Like many in Israel, Nicodemus believed in God’s coming kingdom on earth. He believed all enemies would be defeated and the Messiah would rule righteously. He wanted to be welcomed when the day came.

Nicodemus begins by affirming Jesus with the words: Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him (John 3:2). Perhaps Nicodemus and his peers had shared opinions about Jesus.

Jesus engages Nicodemus in a serious discussion of eternal matters. To this specialist in religion and morality, Jesus announces: Very truly I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again (John 3:3).

Nicodemus asks Jesus quizzically: “By born again do you mean start the cycle of life all over again in my mother’s womb?” Our Lord follows with a fuller explanation.

Very truly I tell you no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5). Water is symbolic of the promised washing away of sins, effected in Jewish thought by the shedding of sacrificial blood. This washing is humankind’s universal need, for all have sinned and do fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

Jesus explains that fallen human nature can produce only fallen human nature; that is a fixed reality. But God’s Holy Spirit can and does infuse the seeker with a new quality of life. That’s why it’s called a new birth, or being born again.

The transformation is a mystery, for sure, but so is the wind we feel in our faces but don’t understand its source. Nevertheless, we accept from experience that it exists.

This transformation is often spoken of in Scripture. Ezekiel prophesied to Judah in troubled times: I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean . . . . I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you (Ezekiel 36:25, 26).

All this is of grace — God’s undeserved generosity — and it happens in response to our exercise of the faith God engenders in us as a gift.

The born-again person is not just washed clean; that by itself wouldn’t last very long. But at the same time the Spirit of God indwells him or her. Not infrequently the indwelling Spirit is evident in a believer.

A few days ago a man came to our house to change batteries in a device. He was a total stranger. I sensed somehow that he was a Christian and I asked him. He beamed as he answered that he was a born-again Christian and immediately told me where he worshipped and served.

A new birth brings about change, not all at the same time or in the same way for different people. The change is internal and yet often discernible. Attitudes change. Relationships are corrected. A love to be with God’s people develops. Bad habits are addressed and broken.

So what about Nicodemus? Isn’t he already above reproach? Trying hard? Succeeding in his attempt to “reach upward” to God? Even for Nicodemus, and for people everywhere who are striving to be “good,” the issue remains the new birth — believing in Jesus and inviting him through the indwelling Spirit to exercise lordship over their lives.

That is, the issue is still sin for the “virtuous” like Nicodemus, and spiritual renewal is necessary to gain entrance into the Kingdom now and at the end of the age.

We meet Nicodemus just once more in John’s Gospel: he is helping Joseph, a secret disciple of Jesus, in the burial of our crucified Lord’s body (John 19:38). We can infer that his encounter with Jesus “re-birthed” and changed him for the rest of his life, and for eternity.

Image info: Jesus and Nicodemus, by Crijn Hendricksz Volmarijn (1604-1645)

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A Childless Society is Not the Answer to Today’s Terrifying Fears

Mon, 03/18/2019 - 11:00

One night recently a large group of women appeared on television to pledge that they will not have children. They represented a developing movement centered in Great Britain.

I have since seen their leader back on screen twice for interviews. An interviewer wanted to know what was behind this group’s drastic intention. In essence, the leader said their resolution was nothing short of an act of despair.

Their particular concern was climate change and the obvious lack of alarm on the part of the public and politicians. In their opinion, all too soon the climate crisis will see the lights of civilization fading.

Indeed, climate change in the minds of many is a grave peril. But there are also other frightening trends in our world that threaten civilization as we know it — the pervasive breakdown of marriage and family, the alarming decline of civility in society, even the threat of massive destruction from determined enemies of Western civilization.

This week I have been comparing this dark view of the future with the bright light of hope found in the prologue to the Gospel according to John (the first eighteen verses of chapter one).

What a contrast! On the one hand a dark pessimism that Western society has no future worth contributing to; on the other, the enduring good news that a Savior has come into the world to give us hope for both this world and the next. Present perils cannot diminish this hope.

I need to summarize again the illuminating and almost transporting highlights of St. John’s prologue because they so profoundly neutralize despair.

  1. We have a Messiah — a Savior! He is the “Word” referred to in verse one. His name is Jesus, and he is coeternal with the Father. That is, whenever the universe began to be he already was. In fact, he always was and always will be.
  2. He is the agent of God’s creation. All things were made by him, declares the prologue. The Apostle Paul agrees: For in him all things were created (Colossians 1:16). But, if it is his world he will not let it be destroyed even though at times it seems ravaged by man’s evil. There is hope.
  3. Jesus our Lord is a light shining upon all mankind that cannot be extinguished. That light now shines on five continents although perceived on each to a greater or lesser degree. In some places it shines amidst persecution and even bloodshed and in many places it is suppressed by governments that threaten and persecute. Nevertheless, as shown repeatedly throughout history, the light of Jesus can be resisted but it cannot be extinguished.
  4. Sadly, the world does not always recognize Jesus for who he really is — at least at the moment of introduction. Even his own people would not, as a whole, receive him. The prologue introduces this sad information prophetically at the outset.
  5. Still, those who do hear his words and believe in him, accepting him as Creator and Lord, are given the right to become children of God! This is an event as radical as a human birth but it is a second birth, deeply spiritual in nature and initiated by God.
  6. When we know Jesus, we know firsthand what God is like. The Word (named Jesus), second person of the Trinity, forever was before time. But in time he became flesh and “pitched his tent” among us. The result? We have seen in Him, firsthand, the glory of the Father. And, like Jesus, God is full of generosity toward his creatures, a generosity that is always linked to truth.

John’s prologue closes with the marvelous statement: No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God, and is in close relationship with the Father, has made him known (John 1:18).

Does this holy Word take fear and anxiety out of modern life? Not fully, for we are human, limited, frail. But in God’s inviting love he gives grace for us to endure with joy the acute stresses unleashed by wickedness, peril, and loss; he reveals truth enough to keep us from falling on the rocks of unbelief, and he gives courage enough for us to speak hope into the darkness.

A childless world could do none of these things. It would only further impoverish humanity. But the Grace of the Savior taken as a gift from God given in hard times enriches us!

Image info: Tamaki Sono (via flickr.com)

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Preparing Our Hearts and Minds for Easter

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 11:00

Leading up to Easter, April 21, I intend to spend part of each day in the Gospel of John and I invite you to join me. Yesterday I read all but the last two chapters. Today I’ll finish my read-through and begin my reflections, one passage at a time.

Why spend time each day on this? Easter is a high point of the church year and I want to renew my faith in anticipation of that great Gospel celebration. The Apostle Paul gives me an additional reason when he says, Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17).

Sometimes, due to the “grind” of life, we continue to believe but the vitality of our faith fades. A common reason may be that we have become slack in turning regularly to the source of our faith — the Scripture, and especially the sections that recount the Gospel story.

Faith is not like a permanent substance injected into our veins. It is more a God-enabled affirmation we give regularly — daily is best — to the truth as it is in Jesus.

And, looking intentionally through the Gospel of John toward the Easter celebration of our Lord’s passion at Calvary, and his subsequent resurrection, may be an especially meaningful exercise to refresh our faith.

John’s chosen device in presenting the Gospel is a remarkable prologue, the first 18 verses of chapter 1.

A prologue is a literary device at the beginning to help the reader make sense of the main body of the text that follows. It’s been suggested that a prologue is like a short story set down to give us helpful details before the full story follows.

John’s prologue is preparatory theology, set down in simple language to be pondered. It says: In the beginning was the Word. That is, whenever the beginning of the universe came to be, the Word already was. But why does he present Jesus at first as the Word?

Tradition holds that John spent his senior years in Ephesus, a city near the Aegean Sea with a strong Greek influence. For several centuries some Greek thinkers had posited that an unseen principle or source was in being from which all that existed had come. This they often referred to as the Word.

A Jewish presence was also strong in Ephesus and thoughts about God also prominently featured the concept of Word. God created the heavens and the earth by his Word let there be (Genesis 1). And the worshipers in Israel often sang in temple worship such lines as, By the word of the Lord the heavens were made (Psalm 33:6). For them, the Word was God at work.

John appears to pull all this together and in doing so takes our understanding a giant step forward by telling his readers that the Word was not merely an influence or force, but a person he had seen, heard, even touched with his own hand (1 John 1:1).

So John begins the Gospel account with the astounding announcement that in the beginning was the Word — Jesus! That is, even before the creation of the universe, the Word — Jesus — already “was.”  Moreover, this Word was with God, and more astounding still, this Word was God.

Professor Google assures me that our universe is 13.8 billion years old. I cannot verify the number but I respect scientific efforts to make an estimate. However, I am assured from another source that whenever that massive beginning was, Christ our Lord was already there, the alpha and omega of creation.

Image info: (via flickr.com)

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A Day in the Life of Pastor John Doe

Mon, 03/04/2019 - 11:00

This is the story of a day in the life of a pastor of medium-sized but busy church. Call it a snapshot of key aspects of a pastor’s daily routines.

Meet Pastor John Doe. You may understand his title as meaning he only has something to do with the church. You may have even heard with amusement the quip that pastors have a one-hour-a-week job — the Sunday-morning hour between 11 and noon. But the following, based on my experience as a pastor, is a glimpse of the other 50 or more hours.

This story may as readily be Pastor Jane Doe’s. In increasing numbers, women are responding to the pastoral task, taking the appropriate training and experiencing the same joys and sorrows in their work as male pastors do, though perhaps in somewhat different ways. But in this case, the story is about Pastor John Doe.

Pastor Doe is settling into his study, to read, meditate, and pray, with his Bible and laptop in front of him. He is laying out pulpit plans for the following Sunday. It’s eight o’clock Tuesday morning.

At that morning service he’ll preach the last of a year-long series from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The title: “The Bedrock of Obedience” (Matthew 7:24-27). In the evening it will be a Bible study on The Christian and Gambling, based on Matthew 27:35-36.

By nine o’clock he hears his administrative assistant/Christian education director arrive in the room next door, and the phone begins to ring. Each day, the AA thoughtfully protects Pastor Doe’s study and preparation time from calls that can wait.

Also on his schedule, at 11:45 he breaks his solitude for the AA’s morning report: the conference superintendent called and wants a call back; the new Smeaton baby has arrived (a boy); and Jane Hewlett of the Mother’s Morning Out Circle phoned to ask if he would lunch with them this coming Thursday noon and bring a brief devotional.

Also, Mrs. Grundy had phoned again to complain that the sound system had not been loud enough Sunday and if this problem isn’t corrected she’ll just stay home and listen to television preachers.

At noon, he usually exercises at a health center nearby, or just takes his lunch alone. By 1:15 he’s on his way to the hospital, first to offer thanks to God with the Smeatons on the safe arrival of their son, then to visit a high-school student who had to have unexpected surgery. On the way back to the church he visits briefly with a member whose husband abruptly left her only two weeks earlier.

By 3:15 Pastor Doe is back at the church for an appointment with a troubled single mother. Behind her tears, he learns, is the fear that her 15-year-old daughter, Alene, is getting into drugs. The symptoms are ominous — secretive conduct, falling grades, money missing from a drawer, and what appear to be exaggerated mood swings.

Pastor Doe has had a good relationship with Alene so he assures her mother that he will make contact with the daughter, but he’ll also put the mother in touch with a support group. They pray together, but both know that, if her fears are true, there may be hard days ahead.

In the few spare minutes before a 4:30 appointment with a young college student, he chooses the music for next Sunday morning’s service and makes note of two bulletin announcements that he must not lose track of. And he reviews the sermon ideas he had recorded during his morning study.

The student arrives. She’s home from college for spring break. She chokes back tears as she unfolds her perplexity. She’s in love with a neat guy, she says, and they are talking marriage. But she’s troubled that sometimes in playful moments he hurts her physically. She shows Pastor Doe a bruise on her arm. After hearing her out (with some internal alarm), the pastor asks permission to double check with a counselor at a distance, one trained in such issues. He prays with her and makes a follow-up appointment.

At 5:50 Pastor Doe arrives at his home. After a pleasant meal he has time to play a computer game with his ten-year-old son, Thomas, and read a Bible story to his five-year-old daughter, Cheryl. At 7:50 he slips away to make contact with a newly formed building committee at the church.

Back to his home by nine, he and his wife sit in the quiet of the family room discussing home and family issues: a different medicine for their son’s bronchitis; their van’s unexpected need for new tires (where the best deals appear to be, and where they would find the money for them); and about conflict issues between staff members of the preschool where his wife works.

As they prepare for sleep after a taxing day, they raise their sights and give thanks for the blessings the pastoral life brings, and in the face of the stresses, to recommit to obedience to the call on their lives.

As Pastor Doe lays out his clothes for the next day his mind drifts again, as it had several times in the afternoon, to the text he will preach from. He feels a touch of eagerness to be alone with the text in his study the next morning.

Before settling to sleep, Pastor Doe recalls the words of the Apostle Paul to Pastor Timothy: Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching, and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift… (1 Timothy 4:13).

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How to Cultivate a Christian Mind III

Mon, 02/25/2019 - 11:00

If you were under house arrest in ancient Rome as the Apostle Paul was late in his life, what would you be thinking about? How to escape? How to win an earlier hearing from the Emperor? How to get on the good side of your guards?

None of these were Paul’s first concerns. Instead, from his confinement, he was thinking about a church he had planted and loved deeply at Philippi, in Macedonia, seven hundred miles away. The letter he wrote to that church became the Epistle to the Philippians in the New Testament.

Always on the alert to advance the Gospel, his final point in this letter is an exhortation to young believers to nurture their thought lives to become ever more consistent with their faith in Christ.

In Philippians 4:8 his counsel about their private thoughts is captured in six important words. Here they are:

Truth. This word fits and affirms that which corresponds to reality. Two plus two equals four. (Jesus) is the way, and the truth and the life (John 14:6).

Nobility. Let your thoughts be elevated, worthy, honest.

Right. Stand fearlessly for what you know to be right. Be righteous in all your dealings.

Pure. Avoid moral defilement. Be inwardly pure. God is present at every moment of your life; nothing is hidden from Him.

Beautiful. The reference is to winsomeness. There is no need to be unpleasant in order to model serious faith. The Christian mind, says William Barclay, is set on the lovely things like kindness, sympathy, forbearance.

Admirable. Be alert to what is fine in the world and be free to admire whatever is deserving. See the handiwork of God and admire the wonders of his world.

As I read this passage it appears to me that the Apostle doesn’t want to leave out any important words from his list so he adds — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy…. He appears to say, If there is anything I’ve forgotten, add those words also to the list for meditation and practice.

In the above list of words, the Apostle sets a foundation for morally wholesome thoughts and healthy relationships. The words seem to share a sense of firmness.

They are strong words, binding together ideas rooted deep in reality. To adopt and practice them seriously is to develop staunch character.

Paul’s teaching is apt for our age. Our culture’s saturation with relativism makes many people think truth is flexible, according to whim, and a moveable target: my truth, your truth…

Nobility of thought and behavior has fallen too often to coarseness of expression; righteousness, or right judgment and action, is now replaced with winning by the exertion of naked power; and purity and its subset chastity are too often reduced to vulgarity.

Not so for the Apostle Paul. His conviction is that moral excellence is to flow naturally from the embrace of the gospel. He dares to invite the young believers of Philippi to follow his example in whatever they have learned, received, heard or seen in him. He exhorts them to practice the above list of virtues, at the prompting of God’s Spirit assuring them that as a result the God of peace will be with them.

Paul’s urging to “think on these things” is appropriate because the human mind is like an electronic device that is always processing its environment. It continues even when its owner is not paying attention.

That is why Paul’s advice is so important. As believers, we are to monitor and assume responsibility for what our minds take in and doing so is a Christian discipline.

Christian minds need to be re-educated away from worldly values and enticements, and often some dark and hurtful thought patterns of anger, envy, resentment, greed, lust and such.

God wants us to be selective in our thought lives, searching within our day-to-day environment for thought content that is lovely and admirable.

The payoff is a buoyant and truly Christian mind as the Apostle Paul demonstrates. He was giving his counsel from confinement in Rome. He reports he was in chains. His future was uncertain. Yet the spirit of his letter is firm and upbeat. This shines throughout the whole piece and in that letter he uses the words joy and rejoicing sixteen times.

Image info: Saint Paul in Prison, Rembrandt, 1627 (Public Domain)

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How to Cultivate a Christian Mind II

Mon, 02/18/2019 - 11:00

In a loving pastoral letter to the Philippian congregation the Apostle Paul recommends eight words that describe what should be the content of a healthy Christian mind:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)

Last week, I dealt with the first three: true, noble, and right. In this blog I deal only with pure. In essence, set your mind on what is pure. 

I asked my wife what the word “pure” brought to mind. After a few moments she responded: a drink of cold water from a swiftly flowing stream high on a mountain, a newborn baby, or an object of gold purged of all foreign matter.

Not many things in our world can be called pure. Some psychiatrists tell us that pure motives are never possible, even for Christians. For example, we may contemplate doing some great kindness to someone in need but lurking in the shadows of our mind may be a twinge of pride in our intentions. The human mind is tricky.

Because we are fallen creatures and have failed many times we might be tempted to brush aside purity of motivation as a fool’s errand. Yet we have the unqualified word of our Lord, telling us a pure heart should be a goal.

He said, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matthew 5:8). And the Apostle Paul includes the call to think on whatever is pure in his bouquet of good things to ponder as quoted above.

Even in Old Testament times, when the Prophet Nathan faced King David with his sin against Bathsheba, first David prayed: Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean (Psalm 51:7a). Using the imagery of the temple, he acknowledged that sin brings defilement and must be cleansed.

He then prayed: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me (51:10). This suggests divine enablement. We exercise faith and are not left to do it on our own.

And we learn equally directly in the New Testament that inner cleansing for believers is an ongoing need. The writer of Hebrews says: Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:22).

In our profoundly defiled world our Lord wants to raise up an army of Christian men and women who take seriously the call to purity of thought and action. Here are three suggestions to help in the struggle.

First, we can recall and reaffirm daily such scriptural fragments as …not I but Christ, not I but Christ, not I but Christ… (Galatians 2:20). We can carry such fragments of truth anywhere. Another is, …except you are born of water and the Spirit… (John 3:5). In the latter case it is the Holy Spirit in us who gives us the energy to resist our world’s many impure attractions.

Second, we can conduct a thorough inventory and house cleaning of what is not pure in what we listen to and what we read. We may well be faced with wrenching decisions about friends who intentionally would take us in wrong directions.

I remember a large youth gathering where the young people were moved by the Holy Spirit to commit their lives fully to Christ. One of the results of their response to that moving of the Spirit was a massive surrender of impure objects and behaviors.

Finally, once cleansed, we can make use regularly of two instructions of the Apostle John: (1) No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him (1 John 3:6). That is, the power of habitual sin must be broken and God is able to deliver us. Also, (2) If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1:9).

Photo credit: Takahiro Kyono (via flickr.com)

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