Ninety-one years is a long time to be a regular church attender.
When I was only two weeks old, my parents carried me into church in a wicker bassinet. It was the start of a long history. Growing up, I was expected to attend church faithfully so long as I lived in my parents’ home. It was the same when I spent three winter seasons of my teen years in a residential Bible School where regular chapels were just that — regular.
Later, as an ordained minister, evenings or weekends often found me ministering to a gathered congregation. And later, as a church overseer, special needs could draw me toward a congregation of believers during the week.
It all represents a great amount of church exposure.
I’ll admit, however, that across a long life of intensive church involvement there have been times when weariness whispered in my ear to take a pass. And there have also been church events that were without spiritual energy, thus refreshing to neither mind or spirit.
I tell you all this for a reason: I am just home from a Good Friday service at Wesley Chapel Free Methodist Church across Toronto 30 miles to the east of where I live. At least once a year, Wesley Chapel Free Methodist Church joins with the congregation of Briarwood Presbyterian church nearby for a Good Friday service. They alternate locations and participants.
I listened as the two congregations worshiped together, and in every part of the service I heard the gospel ring out afresh. It fed my faith and reminded me why all the evil of that dark and despairing first Friday turned out to be in a special sense Good Friday.
Near the beginning of the service this morning, a woman from Bridlewood read slowly and thoughtfully from Isaiah 53: 1-12. She used the New Living Translation. I recalled that verses 4 and 5 were part of a prophecy about Jesus written nearly 800 years before his birth. Here are those verses:
Yet it was our weaknesses he carried, our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God for his own sins! But he was wounded and crushed for our sins. He was beaten that we might have peace. He was whipped and we were healed.
All week long I had been pondering the doctrine of substitution described here — the idea that Jesus took the punishment for our sins to relieve us of that burden and set us free.
I heard the same assurance when the congregation stood to sing one of my wife Kathleen’s favorite hymns: Hallelujah, What a Savior. Again, the lines filled the sanctuary, igniting faith and warming the soul:
Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned he stood;
Sealed my pardon with his blood.
Hallelujah, what a Savior!
In my place! In my place! I heard that resonant note in the Gospel so clearly today, and rejoiced.
The pastor of the Bridlewood church, Reverend Joseph Choi, preached from John 18. He explained Pilate’s political maneuvering to escape condemning a man he knew to be innocent, but despite his innocence, eventually had Jesus flogged to placate the crowds.
In this flogging, Jesus took my place, which he did again when he dragged his own cross toward Calvary, and when he suffered the harrowing treatment on Calvary’s cross. He was an innocent man and at the same time Creator God of the universe, dying for others.
When he bore the wrath of God for the sins of humanity he suffered so that I — and all other confessed sinners — would not need to suffer endless torment for our sin.
So, with Good Friday fading I face Easter Sunday with a renewed conviction that he who died to bear the burden of my sins lives to assure me of eternal life, bought for Christ-believers and followers at so great a price. This Good News, reiterated this morning, washes over me and I ponder it still.
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[The following piece was first posted March 5, 2012]
On Sunday, April 8 of this year, millions of Christians on all five continents will gather, not only in magnificent cathedrals and traditional churches, but also in worship centers, store front chapels, and even thatched huts.
Some will risk their lives to attend. They will be there to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as they listen with intensity to resurrection Scriptures and sing with joy resurrection hymns.
But individual persons in these throngs will differ from one another in their grasp of resurrection truth and also in the intensity of their faith in Christ. What will make that difference? One possibility will be how well they have prepared heart and mind during the weeks prior to Easter Sunday.
The importance of preparation for Resurrection Sunday has been formalized in church practices since as far back as the fourth century A.D. when the forty days prior to Easter Sunday were set apart for that very purpose. During these forty days of Lent, special observances are encouraged – such as fasting, acts of self-denial, increase in the giving of alms, etc.
My idea is to live devotionally during those days with the Gospel accounts of the last days of our Lord’s life up to his crucifixion. To do this, my heart is drawn to the Gospel according to John. His account has 21 chapters; yet, as early as chapter 12, he introduces his readers to the events of one week — the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. So, chapters 12 to 19 – eight of its 21 chapters — are devoted to the events of that one single week. If a third of John’s gospel covers only one week of Jesus’ 33-year lifespan, that tells us they are very important.
Please note how Chapter 12 begins: Martha serves a dinner in Jesus’ honor. Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, is at table. In an act of extravagant devotion, Mary breaks open a jar of the expensive perfume, nard, and pours the whole content on Jesus’ feet. The fragrance fills the house.
Judas is openly offended and complains that this ointment could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. But John, writing much later, tells the truth about Judas: he “… was a thief; as keeper of the money bag he used to help himself to what was put into it” (John 12:6).
What a wide range of concerns in that room! Just so in this Easter season: some will love the Lord with the warmth and sincerity of Mary; others may be present but kept from worship by blockages of greed, pride or sensuality. How appropriate to test our love by a verse of an old hymn:
More love to thee, O Christ, more love to thee;
Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee.
This is my earnest plea, more love, O Christ, to Thee
More love to Thee; more love to Thee.
Photo credit: Robin (via flickr.com)
At a youth camp I fell into conversation with the man hired to set up and manage the public address system. During our chat he suddenly announced: “I’m a born again Christian, but I haven’t been inside a church in years.” There are many thousands in this country, he went on, who would say the same thing.
His statement was assertive but not hostile. It needs to be examined.
In the Bible, expressions like “being born again” or “born from above” stand for an inner transformation God brings about that is indeed radical. It’s the giving of new life by his Spirit. A love for Jesus, the Savior, is born. New habits, new associates, new religious practices begin to form.
Jesus described what new birth involves when he said to Nicodemus, a devout Jew: “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:5)
To be “born of water” stands for our being cleansed from the moral and spiritual defilement of the old life. John the Baptist called sinners to take their sins seriously when he uttered the command: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (John 3:2) Jesus also began his ministry with the same call. (Matthew 4:17)
But, to Nicodemus Jesus adds, to be born again also implies to be born of the Spirit. This stands for the energy of the new life, the indwelling power of the Spirit of God, enabling the believer to live out the new life in Christ.
With new birth comes an instinct for fellowship with the people of God. Imagine a new convert in China walking to a house where several Christians are meeting secretly for worship. She takes a risk but is inwardly compelled to do so. The same is so for young people in Cuba who meet furtively for prayers.
The church has always been both a gathered and a scattered community. It gathers for worship and scatters to serve. The commonest word for church in the Scriptures means “the called out” or “assembly.” The Apostle Paul presented the church as “the body of Christ” — a living organism of which Christ is the head and director.
In the light of all this it is hard to imagine how the Spirit of God indwelling us would allow us to live in isolation from a company of God’s people. We are called to loyalty to other fellow believers by such words of example as these: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up (as a sacrifice) for her” (Ephesians 5:25b). He calls every believer to be there, sign in, take part, love what Christ loves and imitate him in service to his people.
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During Winter in the 1930’s the tap water in the Saskatchewan town where I grew up was occasionally undrinkable because it gave off an unpleasant odor. Mother had a solution and she made me a part of it.
In the center of a vacant lot two blocks from our house was a hand-operated pump that sank its pipes into a deep well. During those days of special need my mother would hand me a pail into which she had poured about a quart of hot water. I was to go to the well.
She knew that when I got there, the pump’s handle would likely be limp. It couldn’t create suction to raise water from below because when the pump was not in use a leather gasket that surrounded the piston would have dried out quickly and thus be unable to create a seal.
I would pour hot water into the top of the pump; the water would trickle down and moisten the gasket and cause it gradually to swell.
After I had poured and pumped a few times, up from the depths came a teasing spurt or two, then a slight trickle and finally with every strong thrust on the pump handle a continuous rush of cool pure water would pour forth.
The water was always available but drawing it up and into my pail took time and effort.
I consider that boyhood experience as a metaphor for the way we must sometimes prime the pump to bring forth praises to the Lord when faith seems dry and without lifting power.
All believers have such listless times. Circumstances can beat us down — unresolved family conflict, insufficient sleep, regrets over a missed opportunity, even the pain of an unpleasant relationship. Such reverses pile up, blocking the flow of praises to our Heavenly Father.
If this fits your case here are a couple of ways to prime the pump of praises.
First, concentrate your faith, however feeble, on a selected verse of Scripture. Here’s one of hundreds you could choose: But from everlasting to everlasting, the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children (Psalm 103:17).
Let your faith take hold of this passage with resolve. Repeat it again and again until it becomes centered in your consciousness. Ponder it. Turn it into a prayer. Say it when retiring at night and rising in the morning. It could make praises automatic.
Here’s a second strategy: Look carefully and you may see that what praises you offer are often offered to the Father in large pre-packaged lumps. You’re thankful for your family and your job and your friends and that’s about it. Instead, try breaking up your prayers into small units and fill them out in detail. Let your faith visit special ministries where your prayers are needed.
It may not be just your family you’re grateful for, it may be your sister and two brothers and a whole raft of cousins. Name them. Name the ministries too. Take time to give thanks. Use your God-given imagination. In all likelihood the praises you raise will prompt other praises. It’s like priming the pump.
You may be surprised at how such initially “mechanical” priming of praises can prompt the further flow of gratitude to the Lord. Outdoor pumps can flow steadily even on cold days after they’re primed, and so, too, can our God-given praise pumps.
Photo credit: Julia Maudlin (via flickr.com)
It’s been estimated that one out of every 28 verses in the New Testament has to do with the Second Coming of Christ.
I have three favorite verses that keep that hope vibrant and uncluttered in my heart. I call them my anchor verses on the subject.
First, there are the words Jesus spoke to his eleven disciples during their time in the upper room only hours before his crucifixion. He said, “I am going to (my Father’s house) to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-4).
Can such a lavish promise be trusted? In his teachings Jesus constantly pressed the issue of truth. He often introduced his message with the words, “Truly, truly I say to you.” Or, “I tell you the truth.” He even testified, “I am the truth!” Is it not reasonable then to take him seriously when he says, “I will come back.” so that, “you also may be where I am”?
If he made good on the first half of his promise to ascend to the Father to prepare a place for us, then we can count on him to make good on his promise to return for his followers.
Second, two angels spoke to the disciples on the Mount of Olives at the time when Jesus was taken up into heaven. To the astonishment of the “eleven” these heavenly messengers said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
“This same Jesus.” Our Lord was fully human when he ascended. Why should it be hard to believe the promise of angel messengers that he will return “bodily.”
It was apparent that the brutal, disfiguring death Jesus had suffered had not in any sense diminished him. His identity was fully preserved, even though his distraught followers had to clear their vision to see it. In fact, by his resurrection they saw he had obviously been endowed with new qualities of life (Luke 24:30,31,36; 1 Cor. 15:44-49).
The Apostle Paul, taking his cue from these facts, later referred to a resurrected body as a spiritual body with new properties and capabilities. And — good news for us — Christ himself said to his followers, “Because I live, you too will live” (John 14:19).
The third scriptural portion I hold dear on the Second Coming of Christ was written years later by the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth. He compared living in this mortal body to living in a tent (2 Cor. 5:1). Tents can provide shelter but they are fragile. A sudden wind storm can blow them away. Then what?
By contrast, the Apostle visualized our state of living in heaven as living in “an eternal house, not built by human hands” (1 Cor. 5:1). The difference between living in a tent and living in a house built by God — a resurrection body — is infinitely great.
But what about the interim between “tent” and “house?” My third verse fits here. We are left to wonder about the intricacies of what some call the “intermediate state” — the time between the believer’s death and resurrection when Christ appears in his glory. The Apostle covers the interim adequately with the words, “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:8).
For the true believer that assurance is enough. We may not be told when or where or how, but we have the assurance that during the waiting time, for those who have died in Christ, the situation will be, “absent from the body, (but) present with the Lord.”
Some say it’s all a myth. A fairy tale. A cover for the fear of death.
In response: I believe in the resurrection of the body because our Lord promised it, the apostles proclaimed it, the early martyrs died believing in it, and through the ages the church on earth has born witness to it as an ongoing anchor point for faith.
Photo credit: Mike Vondran (via flickr.com)
[The following was first posted March 28, 2011]
We’re about half way through Lent. This year, Lent is March 8 to April 23. It ends Saturday after Good Friday. It’s an ancient religious practice followed mainly by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
Those who observe Lent include the 40 days before Easter Sunday. During that time, Sundays are not counted because they are intended to be days of celebration year-around – Christ is risen!
For the masses, Lenten practices are not usually severe. Observers deprive themselves of something important – meat, fish, television, sweets, coffee, movies, etc.
These self-deprivations are supposed to call believers to additional prayer, meditation, contrition, repentance, financial giving, or service to prepare themselves for the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection on Easter.
The observance of Lent has never in any large way made a place for itself among Protestants. I believe it was Billy Graham speaking on discipleship who once noted that Christ did not say we were to deny ourselves of “something;” he said we were to deny “ourselves.” The denial of self is more than saying no to the Internet or coffee, meat or movies, and so forth, except perhaps in a symbolic way; it is saying no to “self” – the self that keeps wanting to rear its ugly head and resist our full surrender to the life Christ calls us to – a life that bows fully to his Lordship and the joyful service of others.
But Lent has an element that should be of interest, even appealing, to all serious Christians. The self-deprivations, little or great, are supposed to be attended by special times of prayer and meditation, by repentance and self examination. Meditation is biblical. Consider what God’s word says (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2).
There will be an upsurge of attendance at Protestant services on Easter Sunday. It is sort of traditional. Women especially used to appear in new Easter outfits, a custom tracing back to the celebration of new life in Christ. That practice from my observation no longer seems to be the big thing it once was.
But think of the spiritual impact there would be if hordes of Protestant worshipers were to prepare themselves for the day by several weeks of daily meditation. Will you take the challenge?
Meditation for Christians is not humming a sound or turning the mind loose. It is “focused thinking” and it takes serious effort. Whether practiced by sitting quietly in a chair, kneeling by a bed, sitting on a porch, or walking back and forth in seclusion, Christian meditation can be set in four stages: (1) the deliberate reading of a Scripture verse or passage; (2) the pondering of its content; (3) conversation with God asking for understanding; and (4) a resting in His presence.
The three special times of the day marked especially for meditation are (1) with the last thoughts before falling asleep; (2) the first thoughts upon waking; and (3) a special time of the day set aside for quietness with the Scriptures and prayer.
This sort of disciplined pondering can be a time for taking stock on the state of the soul, repenting as necessary, reflecting on the condition of one’s relationships, asking for a renewal in love for Christ and others, and generally resetting the inner dial to tune in on those things that matter most.
If these thoughts prompt you to increase your times of meditation and devotion leading up to Easter, I suggest you choose the Gospel accounts of the closing days of our Lord’s life (Matthew 26-28; Mark 14-16; Luke 22-24; John 17-21).
Take one verse at a time. Set your mind on it. If thoughts wander draw them back. If light breaks forth and you want to carry the verse through the day, write it on piece of paper and keep it near. Meditation is indeed a discipline but when it engages our souls it is even better than nourishment to our bodies.
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Have you noticed that Christians regularly close their prayers with such expressions as, “we ask these mercies in Jesus’ name?”
You’ll hear it in church services when pastors offer the pastoral prayer, or in an informal prayer group during the midweek.
It is commonly heard during Christian telecasts. It seems to be a universal feature of Christian prayer.
To understand why, remember first that in John’s Gospel Jesus says of himself: “I am the way, the truth and the life; no man comes to the Father but through me.” (John 14:6.)
Thus, we already see why Christians might approach the Father “in Jesus’ name.” We come to God through Christ.
An even more direct explanation comes to us from the account of Jesus’ meeting with his disciples on the night of his betrayal by Judas, just before our Lord’s crucifixion.
How they are to pray is a big part of his instruction that night. He emphasizes that they are to pray: in my name.
In fact, when we read John 14-16 slowly and carefully we hear the throb of that phrase — in my name, in my name, in my name … Six times!
Here’s an example: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.” (John 14:13.)
Here’s another: “Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” (John 15:16b.) There are other examples in John 15:7; John 16:23b; John 16:24; and John 16:26.
Obviously, Jesus makes clear to them that prayer is accessible to the Father only when offered in Jesus’ name. He is the Mediator.
That truth has lodged itself deeply in the Christian consciousness through the ages. All of this is why we regularly hear prayers that close like this:
These mercies we ask in Jesus’ name.
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Last week I wrote about marital love that lasts a lifetime. This begins, I hinted, with the exercise of good judgment in choosing. That, coupled with genuine romance, increases the likelihood that a happy, durable marriage will be launched.
I believe in romance. I know what it is to fall in love. But, this week I share with you what I mean by good judgment, an easily overlooked element, in searching for a life’s mate.
When I was 20, I traveled with a youth evangelist five years older than I named Doug Russell. He preached and I sang. In our spare moments we had serious conversations about “finding the right one.” We were both single.
Back then he had worked up a list of qualities he was looking for in a life’s mate. I recall that list from 65 years ago, and it ran as follows:
A genuine Christian faith.
Good family background.
A pleasant disposition.
Talents and resources (He was committed to ministry).
Today’s seekers may not be inclined to form such a list. In our overstimulated age, we may expect romance alone to determine outcomes. Lists may seem unimaginative, even stifling.
Back then, good character was regarded as a value to be noted. So we might have asked: is this a person of good character? It was this more settled view of personality that gave Doug ground for the following list.
A genuine faith in Christ. As a committed Christian, he thought he should marry someone who would share that faith fully. In his life, Christ was foremost. How could matrimony thrive if two were not together on this central commitment of life?
Good family background. He seemed to understand that, in a sense, when you marry you not only marry a person, you marry that person’s family. This idea may seem a bit fussy, even judgmental. But isn’t it true that even if, for example, one were choosing, a business partner one would reflect on that partner’s closest connections?
Business partners go home at night. Marriage partners do not. Marriage is not part-time. In seeking a mate, it seemed to Doug wise to consider family connections as important.
Solid character. The word character stands for fixed traits – like honesty, dependability, compassion, empathy, etc. My friend Doug said he wanted to see signs of these qualities before he would give his heart permission to advance.
Disposition. He hoped to find someone who was generally cheerful, forgiving, resilient, steady under pressure, not easily angered, etc. It is easier to paddle the romance canoe through both smooth and troubled waters of life with someone who tends to be pleasant in disposition.
Talents. Because he was looking toward ministry as a life calling he was searching for a mate who would bring gifts of head, heart, and hand to the relationship. But anyone, not only ministers, in seeking a life’s partner should consider what life resources the prospective mate would likely bring to a marriage.
For example, when a man and woman marry, at least one should have good homemaker impulses. A home, however humble, is the operational base for all of life’s activities. A strong work ethic is also a good resource to bring to a marriage. Skilled money management is a gift that will enhance a relationship for a whole lifetime.
At the same time as I point out these idealistic qualities, I offer three cautions.
First, as the saying goes, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” Persons drawing up lists must first measure themselves against their list. The list must be a mirror before it can be a window.
Second, Nobody is perfect. There is no perfect mate of either sex. Therefore no prospect will get an A at every point. This, however, does not excuse the seeker from knowing what issues the list brings to the fore. The purpose is to keep the seeker’s mind engaged even while the heart is aflutter, and thus to increase the likelihood that a wise choice will be made.
Third, such a list should be kept in the background. No gallant suitor or hopeful lady would go to a date, for example, checklist in hand. Dating is for fun, for getting acquainted. The list should function more as a mindset, the warp-and-woof of one’s life-values. Call it the exercise of wisdom.
Sixty-four years ago I fell in love with Kathleen. Our love is still fresh, life-enhancing, and durable, having carried us through more than six decades. In my search, Doug’s list helped me. You, your children, or even grandchildren, may find value in his idea too.
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If I were in a mall examining men’s suits when suddenly there was an ear-splitting explosion and the air became heavy with smoke, my instant question, verbalized or not, would be, “What must I do to be saved?” Everyone else within earshot of the blast would be asking the same question.
It’s life’s ultimate question and it has both a temporal and an eternal application. The impulse to survive is ingrained deeply in all of us. The temporal aspect of the question has to do with our instinctual efforts to avoid physical death.
The spiritual aspect has to do with our need to escape from what the Scriptures call the “second death” — the death that separates from God forever those who refuse his mercy offered in Jesus Christ.
Take what happened to Paul and Silas when they were unjustly flogged and thrown into jail in Philippi. During that night a powerful earthquake shook the jail. The prisoners’ cells were wrenched open and their chains shaken loose. The jailor, arriving from his warm bed, leaped tremblingly into the situation with the question to Paul and Silas: “What must I do to be saved?”
The jailer was a Roman officer assigned to Philippi, and a trusted jail keeper. By us, he would generally be regarded as middle class. That is, he had adequate lodgings, a sufficient living and a secure family, and as well he had standing in the community. Life was good.
But suddenly the earthquake made all the assumed security quiver like a dead leaf dangling in the wind. The ultimate question surfaced and it was about salvation. Unhinged by fear, he asked the Apostle in terror, What must I do to be saved?
We can assume it was the ultimate spiritual question that he posed for the following reasons: the earthquake had passed, the prisoners were safe, his position was not jeopardized.
Besides, he knew these two prisoners were religious men of a very high order since despite being flogged earlier in the day, they had been praying and singing praises to God while the other prisoners listened in. They obviously had something the jailer needed.
So, to the jailer’s ultimate question the Apostle Paul gave the ultimate answer. “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved – you and your household.” It is brief and simple but every word is freighted with truth.
Who is this Jesus the jailer is called to put his faith in? He is the CHRIST: God’s Anointed One, the Messiah.
At the same time he is JESUS, the Christ — the God/Man who had walked this earth as fully human and laid down his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, only to be raised from death after three days. All this verified his identity as the only one who could deliver from spiritual death.
He is also LORD, the one before whom both heaven and earth must eventually bow. When we believe and bow down, we declare his lordship over us before that day.
Did the jailer’s “believing” actually achieve anything? It was in fact transforming to the jailer and his family. Something changed radically.
For example, this formerly hardened Roman jailer who, only hours before, hadn’t flinched at the thought of having these men flogged is now washing their wounds (Acts 16:33a). The jailer took the two prisoners into his home where, as the night wore on, Paul apparently gave the whole family an extended class in Basic Christianity (Acts 16:32).
After the teaching session the jailer and his family were baptized – apparently in the middle of the night (Acts 16: 33b). Then the jailer set a meal before them (Acts 16:34a).
And best of all this hardened military man “was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God – he and his whole family.” (Acts 16:34b).
It is good for both believers and unbelievers to review this story. We may not fear the terror of a bomb blast in a mall. But the Lord of mercy will not let us forget his priceless sacrifice for us and the importance of our cry, “What must I do to be saved?”
Nor will he let us forget the gracious offer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”
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A lot of material that comes at me from the Internet gets a glance and then I press the delete button, but one recent item caught and held my attention.
It offered five ways to improve one’s happiness. These were not merely some psychologist’s suggestions, or points from some pastor’s “how to” sermon. They were strategies brought to light by recent research. That is, each point was backed up by information gained from studies involving large groupings of people.
Upon reading these five points, I saw immediately how fundamental they are to one’s being a happy Christian. Here they are, with my comments.
1. Be Grateful.
If one person in a wheel chair with crippling arthritis can be grateful for his blessings while another with a million dollars in the bank and a boat at the marina can find things to be grumpy about, that can only mean that gratefulness is a matter of “selective perception.” It has to do with what we choose to highlight in our living.
In one of his moments of worshipful exuberance King David exhorted himself to “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” As an antidote to forgetting, he then listed several — forgiveness, health, rescue from disaster, God’s love and compassion, even the satisfaction of one’s holy desires and the renewal of one’s youth. Lest we forget, we all should make our lists from time to time.
2. Be Optimistic.
Perhaps our genes regulate in some measure how inclined we are to be either optimistic or pessimistic. And for this reason, some may never reach the levels of Browning’s maiden who sang, “God’s in his heavens, all’s right with the world.” Christians with biblical understandings are realists, so we know that all is not right with a fallen world. But faith in God’s sovereignty helps us face every day, saying “God’s in his heavens.” This is the basis for our unforced optimism.
3. Count Your Blessings.
When I was 13 year of age, on Sunday afternoons I sometimes attended a Salvation Army Sunday School a block from our home. The Salvationists sang exuberantly to the accompaniment of horns and tambourines, and sometimes they revised their choruses imaginatively. For example, the chorus, “Count your blessings, name them one by one” became, “Count your blessings, name them ton by ton.” Whether we measure our blessings by the tons or not, it’s good to take time daily to identify blessings that permeate our lives. They are beyond numbering, and reviewing them expands our happiness.
4. Use Your Strengths.
We all have both strengths and weaknesses. It is a simple principle of Christian effectiveness to build on our strengths while at the same time monitoring our weaknesses. I recall Alma, a Sunday School teacher assigned to teach a high school class. Her effort was a disaster. While she attempted to teach, the boys climbed in and out of a first floor classroom window and otherwise disrupted the class.
The wise Sunday School superintendent reassigned her to a small class of nine-year-old girls. It was an immediate fit. The class flourished and grew and Alma was happy with her assignment. She had a strength that matched the needs of those nine-year-olds. We do ourselves no favor if we fail to find and build upon our strengths.
5. Commit Acts of Kindness.
Paul’s advice to the Galatian church during a time of severe conflict can be a tip to us all. He wrote, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10). Upon retiring from school teaching, Lila asked me for a list of shut-ins to whom she could take Sunday School papers each Monday. She developed a weekly ministry, even in some cases taking elderly folks to the store to do their grocery shopping. Happiness and service are close cousins.
We Christians know that happiness is not life’s primary goal. But we also know that when our spirits are joyful and our countenances bright our faith tends to be more contagious. So we’ll take all the help we can get to tone up our happiness.
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When we were little children in Sunday School seventy years or so ago we used to sing a chorus that went like this:
He sees all you do, He hears all you say,
Our God is writing all the time, time, time.
Sometimes, in that simple little one room church in a prairie town in Western Canada, the superintendent would add a few words of earnest counsel. He wanted to be sure we understood. We would gaze up at him wide-eyed. God knows everything. It was a heavy message for little impressionable minds.
Choruses like these formed an early chapter in our moral training. The bottom line issue was that God knows us altogether and we can’t hide anything from him so we should keep this in mind when we go about our daily activities. I thought of those early lessons this morning as I read about the outrageously wicked King Herod the Great, and the innocent little Baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
They called him Herod “the Great” for good reasons. He built the seaport at Caesarea and wisely named it after the emperor. He built a theater in Jerusalem and an amphitheater outside the city. He set in motion the rebuilding of the temple which became a magnificent structure for the Jewish people. Herod was an exceptionally skilful administrator and diplomat.
But power was his issue, and he used it ruthlessly. His police were everywhere. Purges were frequent. His own wife, Mariamne, was marched off to execution because he suspected her of plotting against him. Her three sons also, and five others of his children from various unions met the same end. He even had all but two members of the ruling council of Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, murdered. Herod’s viciousness was about on a par with the viciousness of a Saddam Hussein.
So, when some mysterious figures called Magi arrived in Jerusalem coming from a land as far away as Persia, the word spread through the city fast. The place must have buzzed. And when Herod learned these Magi claimed to have been divinely guided by a heavenly light to come to the birthplace of a baby born to be King of the Jews, his paranoid tendencies flared.
No matter that the child the Magi sought was a miracle baby sent by God to be the redeemer of the world. How could such an infant be safeguarded against the murderous jealousy of a powerful sovereign who would stop at nothing to keep his shaky throne secure?
Here’s how: God in Heaven knew what was in Herod’s mind. God knows everything. He sent a warning to the baby’s human father, Joseph. He sent it by means of a dream in the night: Get up right away and get out of town; head for Egypt; the murderous Herod intends to find and kill the child. Joseph obeyed and the child’s life was spared.
Today we have a more sophisticated word for the belief that God knows everything. We say he is omniscient. But he can’t be omniscient unless he knows the end from the beginning, and the whole sweep of history down to its minutest detail. The psalmist, David, wrote, “Before a word is on my tongue/ you know it completely, O Lord.” (Ps. 139:4) Jesus said his Father sees the insignificant sparrow fall. He also said that his Father alone knows the future date for the end of human history.
The little choruses sung in Sunday Schools 70 years ago may not fit our present cultural moods. Times have changed. But the truth has not changed. It is still a cornerstone conviction of orthodox Christians that God knows everything. And when we operate on that conviction we handle the crises of life better and our daily walk is more stable.
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I’ve been reading again about John Wesley – 5 feet 3 inches tall, 126 pounds, Oxford University Greek instructor, failed missionary to the New World, and father of Methodism. I’ve decided he deserves more attention than his spiritual children sometimes give him.
From his early 20s onward he was a man of what appeared to be great piety. This stood out in contrast to the widespread godlessness of his generation. He organized his days around times of prayer; along with companions he served the sick and the poor; he attempted to manage his time as a spiritual trust; and he even made the perilous journey to America, as he reports in his journal, to work out his own salvation. However, on the latter point, even the piety did not conceal his lack of evangelical faith.
His passage from England to Georgia aboard the Simmonds revealed inner uncertainties about his salvation. Even though he and three traveling companions carried out with great diligence religious duties daily aboard ship — conducting worship, teaching the children, giving Christian counsel — his journal shows that several times during a series of bad storms he felt afraid to die.
He became aware of this by the example of 26 Moravians also on board. These were devout Christians from a community called Hernhuth in Germany. On one occasion they had just begun a service of worship aboard ship when a storm broke over the vessel. The 26 German Moravians continued singing while many of the 80 or so English passengers screamed in terror.
This fortitude in the presence of mortal danger did not escape John Wesley’s attention and he inquired of their leader: Were his people not afraid to die? He was assured they were not. Were the women and children not afraid, he asked further? Again, he was told they were not.
When the ship arrived at Savannah, Georgia, Wesley approached the Moravian pastor, a Mr. Spangenberg, and engaged him in conversation. He asked him if he would tell him what he found wrong in him — like an accountability partner. Here was a further hint not so much of deep humility as of self-preoccupation.
The pastor responded, “I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit, that you are a child of God?
Spangenberg noticed that Wesley, this Oxford-trained clergyman, seemed perplexed. So he asked further, “Do you know Jesus Christ?”
Wesley paused and then answered, “I know he is the Saviour of the world.” To which Spangenberg replied, “True. But do you know he has saved you?” Wesley responded, “I hope he has died to save me.” Moments later Wesley tried to make his answer more convincing but of that effort he writes in his journal, “I fear they were vain words.”
In spite of his great learning, his apparent piety, and his willingness to go abroad on Christian mission, something was missing. He lacked that assurance of salvation which the Moravians had and which Spangenberg knew was a key witness to a genuine faith.
Assurance was something Wesley could not talk himself into. Nor could his closest associates have convinced him. This inner assurance could not be reasoned or argued into existence. It was a certainty to be given by the Spirit of God to his own inner being – his own spirit — in response to sincere repentance plus the full trust of himself to the saving mercies of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:14).
That conversation with Pastor Spangenberg took place on February 7, 1736. Not until May 24, 1738 did John Wesley fully understand and completely surrender to the truth that salvation is by faith alone – the renunciation of one’s sins and the full transfer of one’s trust from oneself to Jesus Christ. And when he exercised that faith the Spirit gave him the inner witness of his salvation and his ministry took on a new spiritual quality, sanctioned by God’s power in unusual ways.
Image info: Stormy Sea at Night, 1849, Ivan Aivazovsky
When Kathleen taught preschool she started each new group of children with a little exercise. Addressing one of them, she would say, “Betty, please pick up this piece of paper.” When Betty complied, Kathleen would lead the children in a round of applause saying in a musical voice, “Oh, Betty obeyed me!”
Soon afterwards she might say, “George, would you mind closing the door?” George would respond and the class would be led in another round of applause. This is how she taught the meaning of the word obedience.
One day she said with mild excitement, “Okay, everybody please stand up.” Four-year-old Buckie refused. She asked him three times to be sure he understood his own response. Each time, his response was, “No, I won’t.”
Recognizing this as a challenge, Kathleen picked him and his chair up together and moved them gently to the nearby wall. She explained, “Everyone in my class must obey me. If you can’t obey me then you can’t share in what the rest of the class is doing.”
Buckie’s face clouded. Even for a four-year-old isolation from the group can be unpleasant.
Needless to say Buckie soon relented and joined the class. He never balked at Kathleen’s instructions after that day. Children are pliable and learn quickly what does and doesn’t work.
Resistance to authority is an inborn trait and must be addressed, brought to consciousness, and appropriately restrained in the early years of life. Teaching a child to obey is actually the child’s first step toward freedom.
A significant number today might see Buckie’s treatment as controversial. “A little child should be allowed to assert himself,” some may say. Or “leave him alone and he will figure it out for himself.” Or even, “Humor him a bit.”
Christian parents, however, should see their children with Christian realism. Early in life every human being is prone to resist authority and we all must learn, as Buckie was learning, to obey the requests of parents and teachers and eventually managers, bosses and civic officers.
We take our tips on these things from the Scriptures. Paul writes, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1). Parents are to be the teachers, insisting on obedience.
Recall that, to raise the child, Jesus, God chose devout parents, who as pious Jews followed the requirements of the law toward him (Luke 2:39). “And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40). From such parenting, we are told that, “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52).
A recent rash of teenagers physical attacks on teachers in the classroom and vulgar hate songs against law officers in the streets should alert us that children left to grow up however they please makes for incivility and even violence as a way of life.
Picking a child up, chair and all, and isolating him for a brief moment is not a bad way to tell him in the earliest years that legitimate authority must be obeyed. The four-year-old learns early what is true throughout life: that we all face boundaries and comply with rules and we must be taught the art early.
Photo credit: Mith Huang (via flickr.com)
During my childhood in Saskatchewan — 80 years ago — the severe winter nights made bedtime a challenge. You may find it hard to believe what I’m going to tell you but here’s my story.
Our house had no central heat and its walls were not insulated. Storm windows installed each Fall weren’t much help. As Winter progressed, my bedroom window upstairs gradually frosted over completely, and nature decorated it as a winterscape. For three months the frosted panes looked as if the images of snow drifts or ocean waves were etched into them by human hands.
Here’s how you went to bed at night: First, you got into your nightclothes in a small pocket of warmth behind the coal stove in the living room. Then you flew up the stairs as fast as you could in the unheated hall to limit contact with the cold steps.
On the kitchen stove, a caring mother had earlier heated one of the old clothes irons. It was wrapped without its detachable handle in layers of newspaper and slid under the covers down to the foot of the bed. What a welcome partial reprieve from the cold flannel sheet and two or three quilts to touch this warmed area with your feet! When you wakened in the morning, the water vapor in your breath had frozen so the sheet covering your chin was covered with frost. You also learned to move as little as possible because your body had warmed everything near it and everything outside this zone was shockingly cold.
Yet, in a way appreciated in comparison with sleeping outside, you felt snug and protected: The house gave shelter from the wind, and there was slight heat from the stovepipe that ran up through the bedroom.
The final challenge of a long winter night came in the morning when you threw back the hump of quilts resolutely and made a dash for the front room downstairs to dress for the day behind the coal stove. Top speed was essential in descending the stairs in order to limit the contact of your feet with the steps just as you had done coming up them the night before.
By the time you were back into your long one-piece underwear, corduroy pants, flannel shirt, and wool socks you had pretty well forgotten the experiences of the night and were ready for the fresh, brisk day.
I think of those bitterly cold winter nights from a lovely place we stay for some months each Winter in Florida. And I marvel at the difference in our evening routine when we turn on the electric mattress warmer recently given to us by our three children to warm their nonoginarian parents. What luxury!
But, who can forget the rigor of those cold nights? Who can forget the valor of parents who defended their young against the severity of the elements to the best of their ability and resources? I celebrate with thanksgiving the rigors of my childhood and the care of my parents but at the same time both Kay and I feel only deeper thanksgiving for a warm bed now!
Photo credit: Derek Gavey (via flickr.com)
Mikey would turn four by Christmas so he was old enough to attend the pre-school I, Kathleen, directed in the Free Methodist Church in Greenville, Illinois. It was 1971 and I held the school three mornings a week.
Mikey, the fourth son of a local doctor, had looked forward eagerly to the experience for most of a year because his next older brother, Matthew, had attended the previous year and Mikey had gone with his mother regularly to escort him to the church. He had seen what fun the children had in pre-school and also how much his brother enjoyed it.
Now, in September, at three-and-a-half, the big day came. He was standing in line with his mother to register. Several mothers and their children were ahead of them. The room was quiet.
Suddenly, he realized that one at a time, the mothers were leaving their children and going home. Mikey panicked, looked up into his mother’s face and said out loud, “I quit!”
He continued to whimper a bit as his mother instructed me to complete his registration. She intended to leave in spite of his protests but I persuaded her to stay until Mikey was comfortable.
She stayed through the play time. When the children went into the story room his mother told Mikey she would be just outside the door. Half way through the story, Mikey wanted his mother.
I quickly opened the door. His mother was gone. Mikey began screaming and sobbing. I tried to comfort him. An idea struck me, and I placed my expandable bracelet wrist watch on his arm. I showed him the small hand and told him that when it came to the top at 12 his mother would be there to pick him up. I then slid the watch as high on his arm as I could and it held. He stopped sobbing and entered into the morning’s activities.
When his mother arrived for him he was delighted. They started to leave but as they were about to go through the swinging doors he looked up and whispered something to her. She nodded and he ran back and gave me a big kiss goodbye. From then on Mikey came to preschool happy and unafraid.
Photo credit: Bridget Coila (via flickr.com)
Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit makes the appealing point that for all of us there are keystone habits that, if established, would give rise to other habits that improve our lives and increase our success rates in life.
Good imagery: A keystone is “a large stone at the top of an arch that locks the other stones in place” (Merriam Webster Dictionary).
We are all creatures of habit much more than we realize. Most of what we do in a day is advanced by a series of habits. Depending on the quality of those habits, they either move us toward our life goals or they fritter away the opportunity to serve and achieve and grow, frustrating us in the process.
We passively retire for bed at a different time every night, or we establish a pattern of the same bedtime for every night, possibly with some allowance on weekends. Upon rising, we make our bed only if we feel like it, or we do so before departing the bedroom as one fixed element in our morning routine.
If we choose these two simple paired habits — regular bedtime and making one’s bed on a fixed schedule, together they can make a keystone habit of order that without much further thought or effort results in unexpected benefits: we watch less late-night TV; feel more alive at work the next day; or we find ourselves giving five minutes to straightening the house before leaving for work.
As Christians we would do well to heed the insight lodged in this idea — the idea that keystone habits tend to encourage and promote the development of other good habits. And in particular, that they are supportive of the life of faith and righteousness.
Here’s a representative keystone resolution concerning good habits of faith made by the ancient psalmist, David.
He wrote: “Every day I will praise you, and extol your name for ever and ever” (Psalm 145:2). We may say “I do that, sort of.” But that’s like saying, “I retire every night on a time schedule, sort of.” The psalmist is making his pledge with the intent of making it a robust habit, as to “my God the King.” Moreover, his pledge is lavish: “I will extol. Praise. Exalt.”
To extol means more than to offer a polite thank you; it means to praise enthusiastically or lavishly, or without restraint. Extolling is the way we would express ourselves to a doctor who has brilliantly saved a loved one from death. Or a philanthropist whom we discover had paid off our mortgage unasked, or has offered to support our child’s way through university.
We note King David unfolds reasons for the promise of such lavish daily praise: “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love” (verse 8). “The Lord is good to all, he has compassion on all he has made” (verse 9). “The Lord is faithful to all his promises, and loving toward all he has made” (verse 13b).
But the blessings that activate the psalmist’s praises involve infinitely more than the good things of this life even if that currency is given in large amounts. His praises will be given not only “every day” but “for ever and ever.” That’s a resolve worth pondering.
So we commit ourselves to extol the Lord daily and when we wake up in the morning our first thoughts are of the goodness of “my God the King.” He rules. I am his subject. He knows me personally. His goodness enfolds me.
Then, before arising we review specific evidences of his mercies and as the list grows and we see how favored we are by his care we extol him. As we do, we renew our intent to extol him not only for 2017 but as long as life lasts – and then through all eternity.
This is a resolution to establish at least one keystone habit at the opening of this New Year. We do so with the expectation that this in turn will lock together other resolutions thus greatly enriching the life of faith to be lived during 2017.
Photo credit: Blondinrikard Fröberg (via flickr.com)