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

Mary Magdalene: A Post-Easter Reflection

Mon, 04/26/2021 - 11:00

During my recent careful reading of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection I was surprised by the large place Mary Magdalene holds in the story. Remember that she was possessed by seven demons when she first encountered Jesus. He delivered her. This is recorded in two Gospel accounts, Luke 8:2 and Mark 16:9.  

All four Gospel writers place her at the tomb on the Sunday morning of Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10; John 20:1). In fact, the Gospel of John places her there twice, first when she discovered that the tomb was empty and ran to notify Peter and John, and again, presumably having followed them back, after these two had seen for themselves and then had left (John 20:1-2,10-11).

She is the only one the two angels at the tomb addressed directly: “Woman, why are you crying?” (John 20:13). Even more significantly, she was the first to see and speak to the resurrected Christ (20:14-16).

And then, she was the one who carried the good news to the apostles — that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead. (20:18).

Consider the story in more detail.

On the first Sunday after Our Lord’s crucifixion, Jesus’ followers were in utter confusion. The Jewish sabbath was over. The feast of unleavened bread was still in progress. But Jesus, in whom they had lodged such hope, was dead and buried –- permanently, they thought. 

For a small group of women who had supported Jesus’ ministries out of their own resources, all that was left was an emotional visit to Jesus’ tomb. There, they could finish the work of embalming and grieve together.  

Based on her history of deliverance from demon possession, Mary Magdalene had reason to love Jesus profoundly, and also to grieve deeply his brutal and shameful death.

John says that on that Sunday morning, she was first to notice the stone covering the opening to the tomb had been rolled to one side, and first to peer into the tomb, likely still by moonlight, and to see that the ledge where his body had been laid was bare. (See John 20:1.) 

What could this mean? She drew a mistaken conclusion and, likely distraught, hurried back into the city to report to two of the apostles: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:2).

In the darkness and in her grief, the possibility of a resurrection from death would be the last thing to occur to her.

As the passage of John 20:11-17 tells us, after her return to the tomb a short time later, after reporting to Peter and John, a stranger materialized behind her and repeated the question the two angels had just put to her: “Woman, why are you crying?” and adding, “Who are you looking for?” Mary thought he was the gardener, and addressed him, perhaps with an edge in her voice: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

At that moment, the risen Lord spoke her name, Mary … and she recognized the voice and responded with great surprise, “Rabboni!”

Before she hurried off for this second time, this time to carry exciting news, Jesus gave her notice of his coming ascension to the Father.

Why would Jesus give her such attention? Women in Palestine in the first century were on the bottom rung of the social ladder. A shocking rabbinic saying went: “Blessed is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female.” Another rabbinic saying goes: “Let the words of law be burned rather than delivered to women.”

The Gospel was ahead of its time. It elevated womanhood. Here is a woman whom Jesus had delivered from demon possession. Then to top all else, the Master had trusted her first with the Good News of his resurrection and coming ascension.

And she became the first human to bear this good news to others (John 20:18).

Image credit: John Taylor (via flickr.com)

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A Missionary’s Unexpected Petition

Mon, 04/19/2021 - 11:00

I have known many admirable missionaries across my 95 years, but one stands out especially. 

I was in my early twenties when I first met the Reverend J. W. Haley, a man known for his fervent prayer and bold faith. 

In 1902, he was appointed to serve in a developing missionary field in South Africa, leaving behind his pastorate in Westview, Saskatchewan. In 1933, by then an experienced missionary, he traveled from South Africa to the Congo in Central Africa to investigate a new opportunity for the Gospel. This trip opened a strong field in Free Methodism’s missionary efforts. 

Soon after the missionary’s work in the Congo began, God sent an unusual visitation of his Holy Spirit to that region. The Congolese people experienced a deep awareness of sin and a strong impulse to confess sins openly. This work of the Spirit went on for some time and many came to faith. 

Sometime in the middle of the 1940s Rev. Haley, now back in his homeland, visited Lorne Park College, a Free Methodist junior college near Toronto, where he addressed the students in a chapel service. I was a student and part-time staff, and afterwards I had a conversation with this unpretentious man whom I greatly admired. 

I mentioned my fundraising efforts for the college. I explained that took a singing group out to a congregation, had the group present special music and then I spoke of the ministry of the college and received an offering. Rev. Haley offered to make the school’s ministry part of his prayers.

Our paths crossed during the following summer when he was at the Maple Grove campground near London, Ontario, to represent overseas missions, and I was there to represent the college. I mentioned his promise of prayer, and he sent me to the missionary cottage where he said he would join me.

After a bit of conversation, he turned a chair around and knelt. I followed his lead. After a short period of silence, he began: “Lord, there is so much in us that needs forgiving.”

I was startled. I did not expect a prayer like that from a man of such spiritual strength. The opening sentence of his prayer remains word-for-word in my memory to this day. And I have come to see how acknowledgment of the need for forgiveness is appropriate in even the most mature Christian’s prayers.

With the passing of the years I believe ever more deeply that prayer is deficient if it does not have a note of penitence in it. After all, we are speaking to God, the Almighty, who is utterly holy, and lives in realms of light without a trace of sin. We may be his redeemed creatures, but even if we are filled with the energy of his Spirit, we need the benefits of the atonement continuously.

The Apostle John puts it this way: “My dear children, I write to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father — Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2). 

In living out the life of faith, we can be certain of our redemption through faith in Christ Jesus. And at the same time, we grieve over human deficiencies and foibles that limit our influence for Him. 

Being certain of our Father’s help, we can pray each day: There is much in us that needs forgiving.

Image credit: Alexander Baxevanis (via flickr.com)

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From Unbelief to Faith in Christ

Mon, 04/12/2021 - 11:00

The Christian Scriptures repeatedly present the resurrection of Jesus as a historic fact and a central issue for faith in Christ. Scripture also reports that many moved from unbelief to faith that he had indeed risen from the dead. As recorded in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, this was so for Simon Peter and the other disciples, Mary Magdalene, and a gathering of 500.

In this blog we’ll see how faith came about for a Jewish rabbi who was initially passionately resistant to faith in Christ Jesus.  

We first meet this man as Saul of Tarsus, a highly educated young rabbi in Jerusalem who was present when Christianity’s first martyr, Stephen, was dragged outside the city and stoned to death (Acts 7:54-8:1). 

Stephen, a disciple of Jesus, had  just recounted a large piece of Israel’s history before the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of Jerusalem. At his conclusion and in response to their refusal to believe in Jesus, he courageously charged them with resisting the Holy Spirit as their ancestors had done. This enraged them, and they responded by stoning him to death.

Saul stood guard over the executioners’ coats and apparently looked on approvingly as Stephen was cruelly murdered (Acts 6:8-8:1).

We next meet Saul walking the road between Jerusalem and Damascus, a distance of approximately 206 miles. He carried letters from the high priest, authorizing him to arrest and bring to Jerusalem men or women in the synagogues of Damascus who were committed to this new “Jesus cult” (Acts 9).

How intense was his commitment to his assignment? He is described in the Acts of the Apostles as “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1).

As he and his companions approached Damascus, however, a brilliant light flashed around him, and he fell to the ground.  

As Acts 9 documents, a voice asked, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”Saul responded, “Who are you Lord?” The voice replied, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”Saul got up, and having been blinded, was led by the hand into the city.

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. God instructed him to go to a certain street where Saul was waiting. Ananias was afraid because of Saul’s reputation, but he obeyed. Saul’s sight was restored, and he was baptized and filled with the Spirit.

Within days, Saul (renamed Paul, and now St. Paul) was preaching the Gospel in the synagogues of Damascus where he had earlier planned to search out disciples of the “Jesus way” to be persecuted or killed. With his remarkable turnabout and new zeal, his life soon came under threat from status quo Jews in Damascus. So great was the threat that fellow believers had to lower him over the city wall in a basket to escape. 

Years later, after his many travels to establish churches in Asia, Macedonia and Greece, he set his course to return to Jerusalem. At his stops for fellowship with members of young churches along his route, tears of love and faith flowed among them. Believers pleaded with him not to go to Jerusalem, but he remained resolute. 

Arriving in Jerusalem, he was very soon in trouble with mobs who at times called for his death. As a Roman citizen, he was protected by the Roman military. He was also tried by Roman authorities one after the other: Felix, Festus and Agrippa. 

Three times while he was held in Jerusalem, and then for most of two years in Caesarea, he pointed back to his spiritual turnaround on the Damascus road. That encounter with the living Christ became the defining moment of his life.  

Due to his Roman citizenship he was treated with some consideration by the authorities in Caesarea, before being sent on to Rome for a trial under the emperor’s court. 

In Rome, false accusations raised against him again and again aroused the masses. This gave him the opportunity to bear witness to his faith in Christ, though always grounded in Israel’s historic faith. 

For instance, he assured those who heard him at his trial under Felix that he was still a full-fledged Israelite (Acts 24:14-16).  

While facing his likely execution as a martyr, in a letter to the Galatians, he witnessed his living faith in the resurrected Christ thus: 

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

Paul had become ablaze for Christ.

Image credit: coolio-claire (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

What a Savior!

Mon, 04/05/2021 - 14:20

By request of Glenn Teal, interim pastor of the Greenville (Illinois) Free Methodist Church, Kay and I recorded for his congregation a video message about Jesus’ last words on the cross. Jesus did not deliver these words in a dying whisper, which is what we would expect. Rather, he proclaimed in a loud voice: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” You can view the video here.

For those who don’t read online, here are my two primary points:

First, after a brutal flogging and crucifixion, when Jesus died, his life was not taken, it was given,with a firm, loud voice, according to plan, to save us from sin and death.  

And second, Jesus then ascended to the right hand of God the Father, where, on behalf of believers, he intercedes for us even now.  

Hallelujah, what a Savior! May all the world know that Jesus died and rose again, to free them from sin and death. And, as well, may all know that, for those who trust in him, Jesus is interceding actively on our behalf before the Father!

A blessed Easter to you and your loved ones.

Image credit: Kimber Shaw (via flickr.com)

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Seeking Faith During Holy Week

Mon, 03/29/2021 - 11:00

During Holy Week 2021, March 28 to April 3, Christians will gather in cathedrals and storefronts. They will assemble publicly in free societies and secretly where persecuted, but always with joy and for the same purpose: to remember the events that led up to our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection. And to worship him with thanksgiving.

I’m going to summarize the events in the week as recorded in chapter 12 of the Gospel according to John. Consider reading this chapter several times this week to deepen your understanding of Jesus’ time among us in human form. 

Verses 1-3: A week before his crucifixion, Martha, sister to Mary and Lazarus, whom Jesus has recently brought back to life from death, puts on a special dinner in Jesus’ honor.

Verses 4-8: The dinner is interrupted by Mary’s generous act of worship with expensive perfume. Judas, the betrayer, and also identified as a thief, criticizes Mary’s action. The implication is that Judas may have had designs on the money that sale of the perfume might have brought “for the poor.” Jesus states that the real function of Mary’s gift is figuratively to prepare him for his death.  

Verses 9-11: A large crowd of Jews discover Jesus’ whereabouts and arrive to see him, but also out of curiosity to see Lazarus. The leaders of the people, seeing that Lazarus is part of the reason for the growth of numbers of believers in Jesus, add him to the list of those they must kill.

Verses 12-19: Jesus enters Jerusalem on a colt. The people shout “Hosanna,” thinking mistakenly that he has come as an earthly king. The Lazarus followers continue to spread the news of Jesus’ marvelous sign. The numbers of believers in Jesus increase. Leaders opposed to Jesus, called Pharisees, are exasperated at Jesus’ popularity. We see their growing hatred for Jesus.

Verses 20-22: Greek-speaking converts to Judaism seek audience with Jesus, prefiguring that Jesus has come for all the people of the world.

Verses 23-28: Jesus replies to their request by declaring what discipleship costs any who would follow him. “[The person] who loves his life will lose it …” And he declares his own willingness to die and prays to the Father to — by his death — “glorify your name.”

Verses 28-33: A voice is heard from above. Crowds mistake God’s voice for thunder or the voice of an angel. Jesus offers further words about his death and its meaning; in essence that it will seem like Satan’s triumph but in reality will signify Satan’s defeat.

Verse 34: Quite understandably, the crowd expresses confusion about who Jesus is. Jesus explains that, while he will be with them only a little longer, he is the light of the world.  

Verses 37-41: Even after so many miracles during Jesus’ time on earth, there were some in the crowd (and today) who would not believe. Why? The Apostle John explains by quoting Isaiah 6:10 about how some cannot see…

Verses 42-43: Among the Jewish leaders some believed but kept their faith a secret so as not to lose their standing among their fellow leaders “for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.”

Verses 44-50: In a closing statement Jesus raises his voice to speak of his connection with his Father and to speak of the ultimate consequences of not believing in him.           

Seek faith renewal by reviewing this chapter each day of this week, slowly and with prayer. A blessed Easter to you.

Photo credit: joey zanotti (via flickr.com)

Categories: Churchie Feeds

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)

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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.

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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).

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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

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Categories: Churchie Feeds

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.

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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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