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

Re-post: The God Who Raises the Dead

Mon, 03/22/2021 - 11:00

There’s an often-overlooked story in the Bible that moves me deeply. It’s in Luke 7:11-17. 

Jesus walks (according to what seems like a predetermined plan) from Capernaum toward a walled village called Nain, a distance of approximately 12 miles.

He is followed not only by his disciples but also by a large crowd of people. As he and the crowd approach Nain, coming out of a gate in the wall they meet a funeral procession.

A funeral at that time would comprise several sad elements: first a narrator who would speak of the good deeds of the deceased; then women assigned to chant and wail, attended by a flutist or two; then the funeral bier carried by friends and loved ones bearing the body of the deceased. All of these would be followed by family and a large number of grieving townspeople.  

As our Lord and his followers approach he sizes up the situation quickly. On the bier, he sees the body of a young man, an only son; following the bier, one lone woman, the mother who is obviously widowed. 

Luke tells us that “his heart went out to her.” Jesus then says to her: “Don’t cry.” I would love to have heard those caring words spoken by our Lord. Then stepping forward he touches the bier and the procession stops. To the lifeless body he says, “Young man, I say to you, get up.”

The people in both throngs are amazed as the young man sits up on the bier and begins to talk to those around him. Jesus tenderly restores him to his speechless mother.

The funeral procession breaks up. The professional mourners cease their wailing. The crowd is filled with awe, but when they gain their wits they begin to shout, “A great prophet has appeared among us!” And they add, “God has come to help his people!”

There is no indication that this miracle is performed to add to our Lord’s reputation or to enhance his popularity. This miracle is prompted by one thing — his instant compassion. Because of the remoteness of the town, the people may not have heard of Jesus, but they read the situation correctly. 

Here is a powerful picture of God Incarnate: tender-hearted toward the hurting, and at the same time with the power to raise the dead. We see in this episode of Jesus’ life that God wishes to enter our lives during every circumstance. Does he not deserve our fervent worship in return?

Image info: The Resurrection of the Widow’s Son at Nain (La résurrection du fils de la veuve de Naïm) – James Tissot, Public Domain.

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Re-post: About Companionship in Marriage

Mon, 03/15/2021 - 11:00

He’s nearly a hundred years old and he has a girlfriend. They don’t go on trips together; they don’t kiss much; but they meet regularly to enjoy each other’s company. It’s definitely a mellowed version of the male-female attraction God has built into humanity.

And this kind of relationship is not uncommon. I recall another elderly couple from several years ago. Both had earlier lost a life’s mate. Both were frail, but they held hands as they walked, and they smiled easily at each other. No marriage was in the offing, but the charm of it all warmed the hearts of their friends.

The attraction between a man and a woman is one of life’s wonders. It is a bond that can sustain a relationship through all of life’s seasons for a lifetime companionship. It is deeper and even more enduring than the sexual bond that seals the union — as strong as that bond is.

This companionship aspect isn’t always fully perceived by us when we are young. We are keenly aware of the sexual energies with which God has endowed us, and these are a compelling reality. But is there more?

Genesis 2 closes the story of Adam and Eve with this editorial word: “… a man will leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

“One flesh” implies more than sexual union. At the outset of the story God gives his reason for providing Adam a suitable helper: “It is not good for the man to be alone” (2:18). The sexual differentiation (male/female) God was promising in that moment was first for companionship. It was to be an antidote to Adam’s loneliness.

The issue of companionship must surely be a major reason the Scriptures forbid the marriage of believers to unbelievers. “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers,” Paul wrote the Corinthian Christians (2 Corinthians 6:14). He asks, “What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” (6:15b). The Scriptures always call us to loyalty to the Lord first. But for those who marry, they also call us to companionship in the Lord.

Who of us has not seen a young wife sit alone in church Sunday after Sunday? Her husband is off fishing or riding his motorcycle or golfing. Romance may have drawn them together, a lavish wedding may have been celebrated, but the spiritual union a marriage should provide is missing.

On the other hand, who of us has not known a couple whose shared love for the Lord enhanced every other aspect of their love? I remember leading a young man to faith in Christ at his dining room table. Days later his wife told me, “I loved him before but now I love him so much I could hug him to pieces.” The missing element, union in Christ, had been added. Hallelujah!

One of the greatest testimonies the church can give to a secular world — a world in which too many marriages suffer from weak or defective bonds — is the presence of radiant Christian married couples. Couples of all ages can witness to the world the riches of a companionship rooted in shared love for Christ. Didn’t Jesus say to his disciples, “You are the light of the world”?

Photo credit: renee. (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Re-post: God Knows Everything!

Mon, 03/08/2021 - 11:00

Today I thought of the simple lessons we learned in Sunday school 85 or more years ago. They would make a simple point about God the Father, or about Jesus, God’s Son. Or teach us a moral lesson about always telling the truth. 

The props for the lessons were very simple. Sometimes an oak sand table was used to create a drama, or what was called a felt-o-gram to make a picture. Or our teacher, Elva Tisdale, told us a colorful Bible story. Or we absorbed timeless truths from the choruses that we children loved to sing.

Today I recall a character I first learned about as a child, Herod the Great. I heard the story, drawn from Gospel accounts, many times during childhood and can fill in some of the grim historical background that learned since.   

Herod was outrageously wicked. But he was called Herod the Great for good reason. He built a magnificent seaport on the Mediterranean Sea and wisely named it Caesarea, after the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. Herod also built a grand theater in Jerusalem and an amphitheater outside the city. He set in motion the rebuilding of the temple, an awe-inspiring place of worship for the Jewish people. Herod was an exceptionally skillful administrator and diplomat.

But he used his power ruthlessly. His conscience didn’t seem to function. 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, and five of his children from other wives, met the same end.

Herod even had all but two members of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of Jerusalem, murdered. Herod’s viciousness was on par with a ruthless figure of more recent times, Saddam Hussein.

So, when some mysterious figures called Magi arrived in Jerusalem coming from a land as far away as Persia, word spread through the city fast. The place must have buzzed. And Herod’s paranoia flared when he learned that these Magi said they had been divinely guided by a heavenly light to find the birthplace of a baby born to be King of the Jews.

Jesus was a miracle baby sent by God to be the redeemer of the world. How could he be safeguarded against a powerful sovereign who would stop at nothing to keep his throne secure?

Of course God in Heaven knows everything, including what was in Herod’s mind. I learned this as a child partly from a chorus that began: “He sees all you do; he hears all you say.”

Because God knew Herod’s intent, he sent a message to the baby’s human father, Joseph, by a dream: 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.

The truth of the little choruses sung in Sunday schools so long ago concerning God’s omniscience has not changed. It is still a cornerstone conviction of orthodox Christians that God knows everything. 

The psalmist, David, wrote, “Before a word is on my tongue / you know it completely, O Lord” (Psalm 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.

And when we live every moment based on that conviction we are known as people of faith. We have a reliable moral compass. And we can live calmly and courageously, knowing that God sees all and he hears all.     

Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory (via flickr.com)

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Seven Vows That Promise a Durable Marriage

Mon, 03/01/2021 - 11:00

It is a privilege to see a man and woman stand together to make life-shaping promises to last a lifetime.  

What is at the core of this solemn wedding event? It is not the minister’s sermon, the special setting, the music chosen, or even the wedding couple’s attire. It is the vows they declare to each other before God, in the presence of witnesses. 

Contemporary couples have access to a variety of wedding rituals. Some are rich in history, some quite modern. Some are creations of the bride and groom themselves, and some may even be borrowed from bridal magazines.  

For comparison, here’s a look at the seven vows of the historic wedding service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. They were first published in the Prayer Book in 1562, and they remain in use, having survived 500 years of testing. They cover timeless issues forthrightly and do so with an economy of words.   

1.  I take you to be my wife/husband

First there is the public declaration of intention.

2. To have and to hold from this day forward…

This vow alludes to the physical intimacy their wedded life will make honorable; with God’s blessing, “they two shall be one flesh.”

3. For better, for worse 

This vow pledges that no matter what surprises come to brighten or test their union they will be careful to honor their vows and affirm their bond.

4. For richer, for poorer 

By this vow the two promise to stand solidly together whether their marriage is blessed with ample material resources or burdened by the limitations of poverty. Committed marriages can survive either circumstance.

5. In sickness and in health

Few marriages are shielded from the attack of health setbacks during a lifetime together, some being life-threatening and others shorter and less ominous. In this part of the vows the couple pledges loyalty to each other no matter the personal cost.  

6. To love and to cherish 

These gentle words call for attention to the tender side of the relationship — the unexpected embraces, the words of admiration, the notes on the pillow. Such attention should spring forth often in gentle and loving ways — a big factor in the development of a healthy, fulfilling marriage.

7. Till death do us part 

The mention of death may seem out of place where every part of the event sparkles with energy and life. However, this vow enfolds and enriches the marriage with an element of human realism.

To conclude and seal the vows each partner must declare, “In the presence of God I make these vows.”

This portion of the wedding ends with the minister’s declaration that the seven vows are consistent with God’s holy law (Genesis 1:27; Romans 7:1-3). The Scriptures undergird the vows as authentic. 

The minister then introduces the couple as husband and wife, and the congregation typically expresses its joy. By these seven vows their lives are changed forever!

Our morally confused world may respond to such elevated pledges with cynicism. They may say no one can keep such vows. 

It is true that they will need God’s grace and have many occasions to reaffirm their love and to seek or give forgiveness. The stronger the commitment to their vows made at the altar, the more fulfilling the marriage. And the stronger the blessing they will bring to the next generation of their own family — and to society at large.

Image credit: Charles Thompson (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

What Grows a Church?

Tue, 02/23/2021 - 04:24

I have believed for many years that the local church grows in substance and often in size from the pulpit outward.

This does not mean that with good preaching everything else in church life will care for itself. A community of believers is a complex body. High standards must be met in all of its components for the church to increase both in spiritual depth and numerical strength.

Nor does it mean that the whole burden for the growth of churches is upon pastors. The growing church must also have a core of lay workers who bear, along with the pastor, the spiritual burden for growth of substance and outreach.

Furthermore, the kind of preaching that results in growth need not be brilliant. As G. Campbell Morgan so clearly summarized, preaching must only meet three basic criteria: it must be true, clear, and anointed.

We have all seen hummingbirds hover in air, wings blurred, while they sip from feeders filled with a red liquid — sugar and water. If the mixture is made up of saccharin and water, they will continue to come and feed but gradually they will become weak and unable to fly. The taste of saccharin is sweet enough to fool them, but it lacks the calories they need.

Likewise, what is delivered from the pulpit not only must appeal to the ear of the listener; it must also nourish the spirit. It must speak the word of God to the deep hunger for soul-food that God puts in his people.

What can move pastors everywhere to come before their people with a well-formed word from the Lord? I know of nothing better than the commands of the Scriptures, and the best place to seek that prompting is in St. Paul’s pastoral Epistles, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. These were written to first-century pastors who were assigned to oversee young congregations. And what did the Apostle Paul say to them?

Consider these verses from 1 Timothy: “the overseer must be…able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). “Command and teach these things …” (4:11). “Until I come, devote yourself … to preaching and teaching. Do not neglect your gift” (4:13,14a). “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (4:16a).

And in 2 Timothy Paul writes: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others (2:2). And “do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth(2:15).

We take such exhortations as Spirit-inspired also for us today.

I cannot write these words without thinking that on many occasions I have fallen far short of this advice. But God is merciful. He forgives and keeps the passion alive.                                  

So, “forgetting what is behind,” I encourage any pastor who reads this to join me in seeking renewal in the Spirit: to provide anointed preaching to the pressing needs and hungers of today, for the edification of the Lord’s people and the growth of Christ’s church everywhere, in both substance and numbers.

Image credit: Vegan Photo (via flickr.com)

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When Bad Seems Good and Good Seems Bad

Mon, 02/15/2021 - 13:30

Ecclesiastes is a puzzling book of the Bible. At the same time, it speaks powerfully to the confused human state we are in.  

Kathleen and I have worked our way through the book several times in our daily Bible reading across the years. It has triggered many rich conversations.  

One morning we read verses 10 and 11 of chapter 8 (NLT):

I have seen wicked people buried with honor. Yet they were the very ones who frequented the Temple and are praised in the same city where they committed their crimes! This too is meaningless. When a crime is not punished quickly, people feel it is safe to do wrong.

The writer seems to pose two problems for people who believe there is such a thing as righteousness: (1) How is it that those who have done evil things seem to get away with it, and are even given accolades at their funerals? (2) Why do others not see that when wrongdoing is unaddressed, this encourages others to do the same? 

A couple of sentences later (verse 14), the writer voices a third perplexity: Why do good people sometimes get punished as though they are wicked?   

And this is not all that is meaningless in our world. In this life, good people are often treated as though they were wicked, and wicked people often treated as though they were good. This is so meaningless!

As we reflected on this passage, Kathleen mentioned the name of Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska. Certainly she was a controversial figure, particularly when running as a vice presidential candidate in 2008. And still, by all fair reports, she has been a decent person. She is married to her first and only husband, and faithful to her family, especially to her Down’s syndrome child. She has been an accomplished mayor and governor, and to our knowledge has never been indicted.  

Yet such public abuse was rained down upon her back then! It seems to us that there was more negative press coverage by far than for a contemporary, Bernie Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme bilked investors of billions.

There is also the late Dr. George Tiller, usher in his Lutheran church and infamous for the thousands of late-term abortions he performed in Kansas. Yet in death he was praised for his service to the cause of women. Killing babies perfectly able to survive outside the womb and weeks away from natural birth seemed to be hailed as a great service to humanity.

And we have more recently the worry that there are two systems of justice in North America: One for selected politicians and bureaucrats, and another for the rest of us. While the actual merits of each case are open to argument, the perception that Lady Justice is no longer blind is widespread indeed. 

But for the writer, these dilemmas are not completely unresolved. He writes in verse 8:12 that when you take the long view of life there is resolution: 

But even though a person sins a hundred times, and still lives a long time, I know that those who fear God will be better off. 

Jesus speaks the final word on this issue. He says in John 5:28 and 29:

Don’t be surprised! Indeed, the time is coming when all the dead in their graves will hear the voice of God’s Son, and they will rise again. Those who have done good will rise to eternal life, and those who have continued in evil will rise to judgment.

We are sobered to know of the eventual punishment of the unrepentant wicked. Their future is unspeakably bleak. But, at the same time, our Lord’s words prompt us to live upright lives. And this knowledge of eventual justice is a balm for the wounds of injustice we experience in this world.  

And above all, when we know that there is to be an absolute resolution at the Final Judgment of both good and evil, we can settle into the life of faith in God in Christ Jesus, in the midst of our dilemmas.

Image credit: Blogtrepreneur (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Reflections on 70+ Years of Tithing

Mon, 02/08/2021 - 11:00

Kathleen and I were 21 years old, newly wed and snugly settled into a one-room apartment above a two-car garage. It was winter and I was attending classes nearby. This was 73 years ago and our hearts were set upon serving the Lord.

Financial support, we knew, would come in pieces from part-time work. World War II had recently ended and money was still scarce and our income marginal.

Little more than a month into our marriage we had a serious talk about money. We agreed to the principle of tithing — the first ten percent of income was for the Lord and his church — but should we wait until income was more plentiful?

Our extremely small earnings appeared to be a good reason to delay, or to reduce the amount to two percent, or even to give only what was left after paying each month’s expenses.  

We also knew that until summer our income would especially be scant. Our one hope was that I would continue to sing or speak in churches nearby, in return for an offering.

All of this was set alongside our Christian awareness of God’s great generosity: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

We knew that the tithe belongs to the Lord, as stated in our Christian scriptures (Malachi 3:8-10). The first ten percent should be given to the Lord for Christian ministries. Christian mothers had taught us this in childhood.

We had seen early that tithing enriches the deep partnership of marriage. How could we be “together” in the fullest sense if we did not act on common convictions about the management of resources entrusted to us?

Looking back now, at ages 94 and 95, we recall three periods of seriously limited resources during our first ten years of marriage. But we persevered in tithing and recall now how God’s faithfulness was there for us in such times.

Here’s what we’ve learned in our 73 years together: the practice of tithing begins as a discipline but quickly becomes a joy. We both agree that this joy has only grown across the years as we’ve increased our giving to the Lord’s work.  

We also discovered that after giving away the first ten percent, as a tithe, the remaining ninety percent seems to provide as much support as the original hundred percent did.

We think this is because tithing made us more careful with the remainder. And God has blessed us even with modest resources.  

As well, tithing tended to deepen our sense of financial responsibility to the Lord for his many gifts. I recall the story of a Christian railroad engineer, back in the days of steam locomotives, who left the pay car each month and took a tithe of his earnings directly to his church.

Asked why he was so urgent, he responded, “My job has its dangers; I don’t want to die with the Lord’s money in my pocket.” That is scrupulous faith!

In a sense, the commitment to tithe is like the ratchet on a hoist. The ratchet doesn’t determine any upper limit, but it keeps what is being lifted from dropping back to earth.  

During my late teens I often used hitchhiking as a means of inexpensive long distance travel. Drivers who gave me a lift provided the vehicle, paid for the insurance, filled the fuel tank, and underwrote repairs. I rode for free. Today, Kathleen and I would feel like hitchhikers to have accepted the blessings of the church and its ministries while leaving others to provide the funds needed.

Looking back across 73 years we know that we are the richer for having started the practice of tithing together at the outset of a married life launched on meager resources.           

We agree with the Apostle Paul, who wrote, “You will always be rich enough to be generous” (2 Corinthians 9:11a NEB).

Image credit: ccPixs.com (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Repost: One of Life’s Neglected Words

Mon, 02/01/2021 - 13:09

Several years ago my wife, Kathleen, had a cataract removed from her left eye. As planned, she went back to the surgeon’s office a week later. He examined the eye and told her that everything was as it should be. “It’s wonderful what you doctors can do these days,” she said to him. “I want to thank you very much for this service.” 

There was a moment of silence, she says, as if he didn’t quite know what to say. Then, with a smile, he replied, “Well, that’s what we are here to do.” He held the smile but said nothing further. Kathleen told me it seemed awkward for both of them.

When she told me about this exchange I remembered that a few weeks earlier I had struggled with a complicated computer problem. It was a matter of getting the modem and router to talk to each other and then relay their message to the computer. Three different companies were involved. I spent the equivalent of one whole day working with technicians by telephone. 

One of them worked faithfully for a long period of time before admitting defeat and referring me to another service. I acknowledged his patient effort and thanked him, which brought a reply I wasn’t expecting. He said, “I can answer a thousand calls and not hear a word like that.”

Is it possible that the wonders of modern technology, which bless us in all sorts of ways, at the same time make us less thankful for these blessings?

The Bible has a great deal more to say to us about thanking God than it does about thanking our fellows. Unless, that is, the idea is subsumed in the Second Commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, or in Jesus’ instruction to treat others as we want to be treated.

And who can forget St. Luke’s story (17:11-19) of ten lepers who cried out to Jesus from a distance for healing? He sent them to the priests, ostensibly to be cleared for entrance back into society. Luke tells us, “as they went, they were cleansed,” and then is quick to report Jesus’ perplexity that, of the ten, only one returned and “threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” And he was a foreigner to God’s chosen people.

Little words of thankfulness dropped here and there add color and warmth to life. When they are withheld or neglected life can be gray or even painful. Shakespeare’s King Lear laments the ingratitude of his daughters in these words: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” And in As You Like It Shakespeare writes, “Blow, blow, thou winter wind, / Thou art not so unkind / As man’s ingratitude.”

While it’s good to express thanks to a surgeon or computer technician, the best place to release words of appreciation is in the home where relationships can be oiled by such words rather than be left to creak painfully through the days.

Image credit: Marco Verch Professional Photographer

License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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Health and Wealth, Anyone?

Mon, 01/25/2021 - 11:00

I once heard a sermon entitled If God Loved Me He Would Give Me a Cadillac. The title was a spoof, of course. But many subscribe to the notion that abundant faith is certain to resolve critical health needs or lead to remarkable wealth.   

It is true that health and wealth are often side-benefits of the Gospel. A new believer may be delivered, whether instantly or by a process, from addictions that have been robbing him of health and his family of material support. As a result of this, the whole family begins to thrive spiritually, emotionally, and financially.  

Or, a woman eaten up by bitterness because of a failed marriage turns in desperation to the Gospel and may find peace in forgiveness and support from a caring Christian community. Soon, various symptoms that have been driving her to the doctors begin to ease, and her health is gradually restored.

In such situations, the Gospel has paved the way to health and wealth. But this isn’t its first purpose nor always the result, because the Gospel is still first of all a call to discipleship, whatever that entails. Think of Paul’s beatings, shipwreck, and imprisonments, for example. There are no first-century equivalents to Cadillacs in that picture. Instead, he suffered afflictions and beatings for Christ but released the life-transforming Gospel into much of the known world.

And remember these words of Jesus: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). 

This verse is at the heart of Jesus’ call to discipleship. The New Living Translation says it even more explicitly: “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross daily, and follow me.”

Put aside your selfish ambition? Renounce the ‘“me first” impulse so deeply ingrained within us? Say no to self-indulgence, the love of ease, the desire to be pampered? It all seems so grim, so demanding. 

And consider our being asked to shoulder the cross — an instrument of torture and death. Does our Lord then call us to seek suffering? Wouldn’t that make us appear a bit sick in the head? 

No, Jesus transformed the cross into a symbol of divine redemption through his suffering. It’s “the narrow gate” that led to his resurrection. And our lives are to be redemptive on a human scale.

It all seems forbidding until we read what follows in Luke’s account: “As (Jesus) was praying the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning” (verse 29). This is Luke’s report of the Transfiguration, on the Mountain.

In that moment, the disciples saw who Jesus really was: God in human flesh. Many years later Simon Peter recalled that moment and wrote, “We were eye-witnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’” (2 Peter 1:16b-17).

Peter added: “We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mount” (verse 18). Peter bears witness to the certain health and wealth the Gospel provides. 

Catching a glimpse of who Jesus really is changes his call to discipleship from a call to self-abasing, grim duty to one of ever-expanding joy in his kingdom’s service.

So to reiterate: It’s true that for many, the Gospel makes our lives here on earth healthier and wealthier. But that isn’t even close to the main thing. 

The wealth all are assured of in the Gospel is that of knowing God in Christ and experiencing fellowship with him. And the health that’s certain is the promise of eternal life — that informs our existence in this life and in the next.

Either we say yes to Christ and discover true health and wealth of the soul (with or without earthly prosperity) or we say no to him and deprive ourselves of the fullness of life that only he can give.

Photo credit: Ervins Strauhmanis (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

Jesus Loves Me! This I Know

Mon, 01/18/2021 - 11:00

I paid a pastoral visit to an elderly retired minister. He had been a rugged man, a serious servant of the Lord in his pastoral days, but now he was failing in health and was suffering.  

My attempt to converse with him was not successful. He was moaning in distress and didn’t seem aware that I was there. So I sat down beside him and began to sing:

Jesus loves me! This I know,
For the Bible tells me so;
Little ones to Him belong;
They are weak, but He is strong.

He was instantly silent and appeared to be listening with his very soul. He remained more alert to his surroundings even when my singing ceased. I offered a prayer for him and his wife and departed. I was awed by the calming and nurturing effect of four lines of simple Christian poetry written to a simple tune a century earlier.

“Jesus Loves Me! This I Know” is a song Christian parents often introduce their little ones to at a very young age. Of our 13 great-grandchildren four are toddlers, not yet three years old: Isabel, Nora, Julia, and Naomi.

They are all at a stage where they often use simple words or sentences, sometimes surprising the adults around them. Isabel, the oldest at almost three, can sing the entire song. Nora can also, though not yet so clearly. I am told that the parents of Julia and Naomi, the two youngest toddlers, sing this song to them every day, at bedtime.  

Learning “Jesus Loves Me” is highly appropriate. Remember that Jesus himself in Mark 10:14 said: “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them.” Then Mark continues, “And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them” (v.16).

But this little song is appealing to more than just young children. In 1962, the famed Swiss theologian Karl Barth gave a lecture to an audience at the University of Chicago. At the close of his lecture, a student asked him if he could simplify the essence of his profound lecture to a few words. Without hesitation, Barth replied, “Jesus loves me! This I know, for the Bible tells me so.” 

Even now it seems remarkable to me that Professor Barth would use two lines of a simple children’s song to encapsulate the two fundamental aspects of Christian revelation — the Bible and Jesus. That is, the Written Word and the Living Word. 

As the Hebrew letter states: “The word of the Lord is alive and active” (4:12).       

What is intended here by the term “word” is the whole of the Christian Scriptures.

In one sense all who have been truly born again (that is, made spiritually alive by the Holy Spirit) are children of God’s kingdom. And there are occasions in our lives when we all need to be reminded that Jesus loves us as children in his kingdom, for the Bible tells us so.  

Photo credit: John Christian Fjellestad (via flickr.com)

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Persistence in Prayer: Our Best Hope

Mon, 01/11/2021 - 11:00

Living under a sense of injustice is one of the most corroding experiences to the human spirit. It can trigger unrelieved anger, cynicism, a desire for revenge. Or it can bring on depression, lapses into passivity, or an ongoing preoccupation with a burning grievance.  

Jesus knew that his followers would face injustices of many kinds, and that during some periods of their history injustice would be more intense than at other times. That is why his followers needed teaching about how to respond. 

According to Jesus, in Luke 18, the first response to injustice in life should be prevailing prayer. He said to his followers that “they should always pray and not give up” (v. 1).

Then, to underline the point, he told them a story about a woman seeking justice.  

The judge in the story was both godless and cold toward human need. We can guess he was available only to people who could pay up. 

But the woman who needed his help was a widow, completely on her own. The only one who could help her was this judge, who lived across town, but she could not pay. What to do?

The widow trekked across town, knocked at the judge’s door, and waited. The judge’s clerk opened the door, saw at a glance the marks of her poverty, and slammed the door. She had no chance to present her plea.

But the next morning, though weary, she made the same trek. This time the judge’s assistant directed a mouthful of abuse at her and slammed the door again. For several days she got the same response. But she kept on. 

Then came a surprise. One morning the judge’s assistant greeted her with a legal paper in hand. It assured her of the protection she needed. Her persistence had won for her the security she had pleaded for. 

Why did the judge yield to her repeated entreaties? It was not that his heart had warmed. Jesus explained that the judge had yielded because he began to fear that if he didn’t meet her need she might even attack him. The constancy and intensity of her asking had won her case!   

Why then dwell on injustices that cripple our spirits? If a heartless judge can be moved to do the right thing by persistent appeals, why not believe that unceasing prayers to a loving Heavenly Father, offered earnestly and repeatedly, will bring justice in this world or the next (Luke 18:6-7)?

Jesus then attached this question (v. 8): “When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” That is, will there be believers who are practicing intense prayer to overcome the injustices that plague them? 

This was Jesus’ searching question to his disciples two thousand years ago, and it is still addressed to his followers today. We must answer it individually.

Photo credit: Ninac26 (via flickr.com)

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Re-post: A Jolly Plane Ride into the New Year

Mon, 01/04/2021 - 11:00

In uncertain times, you would not expect to be treated to comedy while buckled into an airline seat soon to hurtle through the skies at an elevation of five miles above the earth.

But that is what happened a few years ago when Kathleen and I flew from Toronto to Tampa, Florida, on a morning flight. The departure was delayed by an hour because of a minor mechanical problem.

During that time, the passengers, mostly seniors, sat waiting quietly in the boarding area. Then the wheelchair brigade was first taken aboard and seated. When the rest of us were settled in our seats, the pilot appeared at the bulkhead of the cabin, smiling, with mic in hand, and the merriment began.

He announced that the flight was ready to depart but feigned confusion about its destination. He asked a man seated near the bulkhead, “Where’s this flight going?” This brought a ripple of laughter from the passengers. He then put us at ease by explaining the delay and giving various flight details.

Then came the flight attendants’ routine to inform us about seat belts, seat backs, tray tables, life jackets, and overhead bins. One of the three attendants had taken her place at the bulkhead to demonstrate the procedures while a second one out of sight added instructions over the public address.

Her first announcement welcomed us aboard Flight 2088, which she said nonchalantly, was headed for Yellowknife (the capital of the Northwest Territories, 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle).

“If you are not satisfied with the services of this airline,” she went on cordially, “there are six exits on this plane.” Straight-faced, the attendant doing the demonstration pointed out their locations. The laughter was genuine but not loud.

The attendant on the mic instructed us that should there be any need to use the oxygen masks while in flight they would drop down automatically. We were to put them on over our mouth and nose, pull the elastic band over our heads, tighten the straps, and wear them for two weeks.

At that point the attendant in the aisle held up a big yellow life jacket and slipped it over her head, tying the strings. Should we be required to use these jackets, the voiceover said, we could keep them as mementos, courtesy of the airline.

“If anyone is caught smoking in the restrooms in flight,” she went on, “they will be asked to leave the plane immediately.”

Then came her last bit of instruction. “If you find that the services of this airline do not meet your expectations, we suggest you lower your expectations.”

Kathleen and I had had the same flight attendant a week earlier for our flight from Tampa to Toronto, and she had treated us to the same light-hearted, comedic spirit. On that flight she told us the following story.

Three airline pilots were walking along a beach when they spotted a bottle in the water. They picked it up, uncorked it, and out came a genie who said, “You each may have any wish you ask for.”

The first pilot said he would like to be smarter than his two buddies on the plane, and his eyes were suddenly bright with superior intelligence.

The second said he would like to be more intelligent than all the other pilots serving that airline, and he too was filled with wisdom that appeared to change his countenance.

The third said he would like to be smarter than all the pilots in North America — and he was instantly changed into a flight attendant.

I read recently that children laugh about eight times more than adults on any one day. Here’s your chance to even the score, remembering, with the writer of the Proverbs, that “a merry heart doeth good like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones” (Prov. 17:22 KJV).

Photo credit: waferboard (via flickr.com)

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Will It Be Secularism or Faith in 2021?

Mon, 12/28/2020 - 11:00

For thirteen years I was pastor of a congregation that met across the street from a Christian college. I had many contacts with the students and heard their varied life experiences. It was during the years when faith-denying influences were attempting to supplant Judeo-Christian foundations with a faith-denying secularism.

Some conversations were about happy things — like wedding plans. Others had to do with working through highly personal problems. Yet others were about distressing circumstances and the need to find the best path forward. I carry the memories of many of those conversations to this day.  

One campus event, however, seemed to stun the whole student body. A member of the basketball team took a bad fall during a game. Unconscious, he was rushed to the local hospital and then transferred to a university hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. He died from a massive brain hemorrhage.

A pall fell over the college when his death was announced. Death wasn’t supposed to be a part of these young lives. Some were silent. Some asked, “Where is God in this?” Students came two or three at a time to a prayer room at the church. 

Why such an unyielding pall? Possibly because young people are geared for life, not death. Youth is for action, growth, new experiences, and long-term dreams. Death is generally not considered a reality to be reckoned with.

That shocking event took place more than fifty years ago. In our present era a shock of vaster proportions than the college death has struck us close at hand. It affects the whole of North American culture. Covid-19 has brought the word “death” back into daily conversation.

What can secularism say to this word? It may try to reassure by explaining that the percentage of deaths, as the virus works its way through communities everywhere, is relatively small even among the elderly. Also, we hear that science is coming to the rescue with effective vaccines. We are profoundly grateful for good news. But in spite of these blessings, secularism has nothing to counter death generally. 

A few days ago I discussed this matter with a well-informed friend. Why the increase in suicides, depression, a general undercurrent of uneasiness? I wondered. It’s a complex question. Among the answers is a deep-below-the-surface fear of death.

My friend’s opinion was that secularism has been settling on our culture for decades and is inimical to Judeo-Christian foundations. As a consequence, there is no place for death in life’s sequence of events, although death is destined for all.

This in turn brings forth the inescapable question for those without faith: After death, what then? Oblivion? Endless sleep? Some sort of vague reckoning? Secularism has no satisfactory answer. Therefore, for those in our own culture without faith the question about death is often met with denial or silence.  

I write as a Christian. I believe that hope for this life and the life to come is the twin blessing promised to those who have a living faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus said to the grieving Martha when she wept over her brother Lazarus’s death: 

I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. (John 11:25-26)

Christianity does not dismiss or diminish death. Its reality remains for all. But a living faith in the Lord Jesus, who indeed conquered death, removes the sting of death and gives the promise of joy at the end of our earthly journey.

Photo credit: Gedalya AKA David Gott (via flickr.com)

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Re-post: Questions for Mary, Jesus’ Mother

Mon, 12/21/2020 - 11:00

Saint Luke tells with amazing brevity the story of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary: You are to be the mother of the Messiah. Mary’s initial response, her subsequent visit with cousin Elizabeth, and her beautiful song of worship are all recorded in few words (Luke 1:26-56). 

And so there is a lot we do not know. Were responses in the rest of her family and community as serene and poetic as Mary’s? And what about her parents? After all, how could such an announcement from a young, unmarried woman fail to land with jarring impact? 

How did Mary’s mother find out about her daughter’s pregnancy? What was her first response? Imagine if a teenage girl today should say to her mother, “An angel appeared to me yesterday and told me I’m going to have a baby without any man’s involvement.” And how did her father take the news?

Then there’s Joseph, the man she was pledged to marry. Matthew tells us simply that Mary “was found to be with child…” (1:18) Had her parents told Joseph, or did she tell him herself?  

In Matthew 1:13-25 we see that, however he got the news, at first he was understandably upset. His immediate impulse was to break the engagement (actually to divorce her according to Jewish customs at the time). But he would do so as quietly as possible so as not to subject her to public disgrace.

An angel had to appear to Joseph in a dream to change his mind. He then took Mary into his home, though they were not intimate, Matthew tells us, until after the baby was born.  

And what was Mary’s state of mind during all of this?

Then I’m curious about Mary’s trip to be with her aged cousin, Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56). It is likely that Elizabeth and Zechariah, her husband, lived in Hebron, a town some distance south of Jerusalem, and 80 miles or more from Nazareth.

How does this carefully chaperoned young woman (according to the customs of the times) get from her home to that distant place? One assumes she walked. But was it with her father? Or a caravan of travelers? Where would she have stayed overnight during this three- or four-day trip?

Then, after staying three months with Elizabeth, she returned to Nazareth. How did the community respond to her now-obvious pregnancy? And how would Mary have dealt with probable shunning and scorn?  

I believe Luke, the careful historian, would have known the answers to these questions. He says his research had been thorough (1:3). Years later he may have visited with Mary in Ephesus where the Apostle John is said to have taken her to live out her days. 

If he had such firsthand information, why did he not tell us? It must be because he isn’t writing a novelette to portray human conflict and struggle. He’s reporting on the coming of God into our world in human form. And on the Virgin Mary’s willingness to be the servant of the Almighty in bringing into the world the Messiah. Above all, he’s writing the story of redemption. Joy is the dominant note.

Only later, a man named Simeon, a devout worshiper of God, prophesies to Mary that later in her life her suffering will be great as a part of this mission, telling her “a sword will pierce your own soul, too” (Luke 2:35).

So, what does all of this say about Mary? There’s no indication in the gospel accounts that Mary was to be worshiped or treated as other than one of us. But she is to be deeply admired as a devout young Jewish girl who has kept herself pure and is selected (with her assent) by the Almighty to be the bearer of the Messiah. 

We have many unanswered questions. But, during Advent, Mary should be held up as a model of openness to God’s will. Her response to Gabriel’s announcement rings down the centuries: “I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to accept anything he wants. May everything you have said come true” (Luke 1:38 NLT).

Photo credit: Randy Son of Robert (via flickr.com)

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Why Was the Priest Punished?

Mon, 12/14/2020 - 11:00

When I first read about the penalty of silence the angel Gabriel imposed on the aged priest, Zechariah, the punishment seemed too severe. Had he not merely asked the angel for clarification? 

Let’s review the story, as found in Luke 1. Zechariah was on duty at the temple in Jerusalem. He had been assigned by lot to offer up incense in the Holy Place next to the Holy of Holies. A great number of worshipers were in prayer outside. This was a sacred moment.

Suddenly the angel Gabriel appeared to the right of the altar of incense. He addressed Zechariah, who was gripped with fear. 

The angel told him that his prayer had been heard and he and his wife, Elizabeth, were going to have a son, who was to be named John. Across the years the couple must have offered up many seemingly unanswered prayers for a child. Perhaps by the time of this announcement, they had given up on this prayer since Elizabeth was past childbearing years. 

Gabriel then unfolded the promise: You will be filled with joy. Many will rejoice with you. This will be a special child. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth and will bring spiritual renewal to Israel. It will be as though the prophet Elijah has come back to bring spiritual healing to a nation in distress. The angel’s speech is full of promise.

The aged Zechariah then asked a simple question: How can I be sure of all this? My wife is aged; I’m an old man. He is understandably perplexed in the face of facts.

The angel responded rather sternly: I am Gabriel, he said, and I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent with this good news. But because of your cool response you will be unable to speak until all I promise has come to pass. 

There’s no question about the priest’s character nor of that of his wife. Both are descendants of Aaron, Moses’ brother, who was the father of the priestly line for Israel. 

In addition to this excellent pedigree, here are the couple’s credentials: Both are righteous as God sees them. They take seriously the laws he has given his Chosen People. From all appearances they are solid and upright Israelites. 

Even so, they have a great heartache. Across a long marriage they have remained childless. Elizabeth has not been able to conceive, and they are now both advanced in years. Gabriel’s message should have awakened joy.

My initial lack of understanding about the angel’s severe sentence would have been relieved if I had read the account more carefully. What reason does Gabriel give Zechariah for the penalty he has imposed? “You did not believe my words,” the angel pronounces. Unbelief!

Despite all of the priest’s ritual observances and faithfulness to his priestly duties, Zechariah reveals an unbelieving heart. He’s not wicked. There’s no trace of bitterness. But a living faith has been diminished deep within, perhaps beaten down by unfilled expectations. Gabriel’s words have come too late, Zechariah must be thinking. He is infected with a hidden distrust of God. 

The Bible has an unusual amount to say about this condition. The psalmist, for example, thinks back to memories of God’s people and their wilderness journey, and says: How often they rebelled against God in the wilderness (Psalm 78:40). They had mistrusted God’s messages repeatedly.

Jesus, our Lord, faced unbelief in his followers frequently. They often completely missed or resisted the truth even though it was given to them by the Incarnate Son of God. On one occasion Jesus said to a gathering: “But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe” (John 6:36). 

And a generation or so later the Christians addressed in the Hebrew letter are warned of this condition: “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has an unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). Unbelief has been a peril from Jesus’ time right to the present.

But it is a correctable condition. Many months after Gabriel rebuked Zechariah, the baby arrived. On the day of his circumcision and naming, neighbors and friends have gathered, assuming that the child will be named after his father — Zechariah. That was a deeply ingrained cultural custom. 

Elizabeth says, “No, he is to be called, John” (Luke 1:60). They turn to Zechariah, sure that he will favor his own name. Instead, he writes on a tablet, “His name shall be John” (1:63).  

That was the name ordered by the angel at the altar of incense many months earlier: Instantly Zechariah’s speech returns, and he is filled with praises recorded in Luke 1:67 and following. Unbelief has been reversed and a living faith restored.

It can be so for any today when faith grows cold, too. As with Zechariah, unbelief can be recognized and replaced with God’s fresh gift of a vital faith.

Image info: The Angel Appearing to Zacharias by William Blake, 1799–1800 (Public Domain)

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Re-post: Why Do We Celebrate Advent?

Mon, 12/07/2020 - 11:00

Why do we so carefully observe the four Sundays leading up to Christmas? What exactly are we celebrating for a month beforehand? We are joyfully anticipating the coming of the Messiah — Savior, Lord, Son of God.  

There’s the story of Mary, the teenage virgin who was to become the birth mother of our Lord. The angel, Gabriel, brought her the news. And there is the account of Zechariah, the aged priest, who, while on priestly duty at the altar of incense in the magnificent temple, was also visited by Gabriel.

Mary was told that, though a virgin, she would bear a son who would be the Savior of the world. The angel’s news to Zechariah was that he and his “older adult” wife, Elizabeth, were to be favored by the miraculous birth of a special son — known to this day as John the Baptist — and this in spite of their advanced years.

These are fascinating accounts, and all would agree that they make wonderful Sunday school material for children during the Christmas season. But, do they speak of actual happenings at a specific time in history?

It was the physician Luke who reported the primary advent stories and so he is the one to ask: Is this actual fact? He answers the question in the opening paragraph of the gospel account in the New Testament that carries his name (Luke 1:1-4).

Those of us who read his account only in English translation may not know that Luke wrote in the splendid classical Greek of a highly educated man. The beginning of his account is the longest sentence in the whole of Scripture. In that sentence he sets forth carefully what he intends to accomplish in his gospel account.                                     

Permit me to break down and paraphrase that one long sentence into a series of shortened sentences that state his purpose:

Truly remarkable things have happened. Many others have tried to capture the story in writing. They’ve gathered their details about these unusual events from first-hand observers. 

I have done my own careful investigation of everything from the outset, leaving nothing out. So it seemed a good idea for me to write my own account of what has happened.

I’ve done this for you — most excellent Theophilus — with a special purpose. I want you to be even more certain than you are now of the things you have already been taught.

Does this sound like Luke intends to support a myth? No, he emphasizes careful investigation, meticulousness, corroboration with eyewitnesses, and comparison with other first-hand accounts, and that from all of this he is creating his personal account. All of this is for the purpose of supporting the truth that his reader (Theophilus) already believes.   

Luke is self-consciously attempting to record history. Sacred history. He is regarded by most impartial scholars today as “one of the very best and most reliable historians of antiquity” (New Bible Dictionary, p. 756).

He wants to report what actually happened, avoiding inaccuracies. He knows his story can’t be authentic without details of the miraculous elements in the account.

And this is the key to the celebration of Advent. Our celebration is rooted in history. It’s about events that really happened. Advent is a holy season because we believe these things happened miraculously. Zechariah and Elizabeth really did receive a child, John, against the impossibilities of nature. And Mary was indeed the virgin mother of the one who became the world’s saviour, Jesus the Christ.

So in Advent we celebrate the historically-grounded coming of God in human form. He came as a real person, to be worshiped by his followers as fully human and fully divine. He came into a real world, blessed by resplendent beauty and scarred by the darkest of sins. He came to bring redemption through a perfect life and a sacrificial death.

For those who embrace this truth and declare themselves his followers his coming is threefold: he came in an historical moment; he comes to the hearts of his followers wherever they are; and he will come again to rend the skies and declare his universal lordship over all.

Photo credit: Gytha69 (via flickr.com)

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