Dealing with Our Doubts

20 10 2014

DoubtIt’s one thing to be racked by our doubts, wondering if God exists, if He cares, if he can do anything for us in our uncertainties. But to feel that our doubts are sinful, that we must keep them hidden, compounds our distress.

The truth is that doubt is the not infrequent experience of aspiring saints, while the smug or narcissistic or spiritually complacent know little about it. Bible characters like Esau, Samson, Absalom and Herodias give little evidence of wrestling with doubts. They are all supremely self-confident people.

But the prophet Elijah is a different case. So are Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and John the Baptist. Even Jesus had his times of doubt. No one ever trusted the Father more implicitly, yet, from his cross he cried, “My God, My God, Why…?”

There are many doubter’s laments in the Psalms. At least 40 of the 150 are called psalms of lament, and some are from people wrestling with doubt.

Psalm 77 is one of them.

This psalmist is in such distress that he cannot sleep at night. He holds God responsible for even this, since for the Hebrew mind God is ultimately involved in every human situation.

The psalmist cries out in his anguish, “Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in his anger shut up his compassion? (Psalm 77:9 RSV).

This psalm must at first have been the solitary cry of one believer. But when the psalms were collected, eventually to become the Old Testament hymn book, this one was seen as a cry common to many devout hearts. Thus it was made a part of the Old Testament worship literature. Now all doubters, New Testament doubters too, may use it.

But it is not for committed unbelievers. They are inclined to resist being nudged in the direction of faith. Answer one question and they will likely raise another.

No, Psalm 77 is for devout doubters. Doubters want to believe God is their friend, that God is there for them.

But they struggle to see how things could be as they are if God really cared. Doubters have faith but it is under assault, conflicted, strained.

Frederick Robertson, great preacher of an earlier generation, dealt with black, sometimes nearly overwhelming, doubts. His advice?

“Obedience! Leave those thoughts [of doubt] for the present … Force yourselves to abound in little services; try to do good to others; be true to the duty that you know …”

Good advice, but there is an even deeper word in this psalm. “I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord,” he says, “yea, I will remember thy wonders of old” (Psalm 77:11 RSV).

This psalmist avoided the peril of self-absorption by meditating, principally on the mighty acts of his God at the Red Sea.

We can go one better. We have the record of the mighty acts of Jesus to call to mind – his perfect life, his love for the oppressed, his healings – and particularly his deliverance from death at Joseph’s tomb. The Holy Spirit, by such meditations, can renew our faith.

When trying to overcome oppressive doubts, in addition to personal meditation, it is also good to go where a company of believers is worshiping the living God. Attempt to share in their faith as they sing and pray. Join with them and listen to the word of God preached. You will be among friends. On any given Sunday, there will surely be others there too who need to activate Psalm 77.

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Nurturing A Healthy Christian Mind

13 10 2014

UpPhilippians is a love letter to a young church for which the Apostle Paul has a great fondness. It is written while he is under house arrest in Rome, awaiting a sentence that may condemn him to death.

One of his counsels to believers is — to think! Not stream of consciousness thinking but thought in an elevated and disciplined way. Here’s how he puts it:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things . . .  And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8,9).

Ponder with me these targets of wholesome thought.

Whatever Is True. There is mathematical truth (two plus two equals four, everywhere and always). And there is historical and scientific truth. But the truth Paul has in mind is spiritual or moral truth. Elsewhere he writes of truth “as it is found in Jesus.” (Ephesians 4:21). Jesus himself said, “I am the truth” (John 14:6). And throughout the Gospels countless times he introduces his teachings with, “I tell you the truth.”

We Christians are to hold truth in high esteem. Therefore, we turn to the Gospels often and search for its words of truth in a spiritual sense as grounds for our meditation. As a consequence we are lovers and practitioners of truth.

Whatever Is Noble. Weymouth translates the word as “whatever wins respect.” We might say, whatever is honorable, or whatever we are inspired to look up to. There is so much in our world that is crass and vulgar. Paul calls us to avoid reflecting on that which is cheap by consciously fixing our thoughts on that which is noble.

Whatever is Just. There is a connection in the original language between the words “just,” “right” and “righteous.” Paul’s counsel is, think on whatever assures of fair play or meets just standards. When moral concerns are so readily set aside by deception and favoritism in our times Christians are called to reflect on what is just in order to practice being just.

The psalmist wrote in the Shepherd’s Psalm, “He guides me in paths of righteousness”(Psalm 23:3). That imagery of a righteous or straight path is repeated again and again in the Old Testament, suggesting the path the Good Shepherd leads us on is always free of hidden obstacles that would trip us up (Jeremiah 31:9).

Whatever is Pure. The prophets of the Old Testament, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, constantly preach that God is not pleased with the mere external ceremonies of religion, however elaborate and well performed; he wants the hearts of his people to be pure and undivided toward him.

And that of course requires a Spirit-disciplined thought life, and active avoidance of whatever would sully a pure heart — such as internet pornography, movies that promote lust and literature that excites lewd thoughts. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8).

Whatever is Lovely. Weymouth translates this word, “loveable.” The NRSV uses the word, “pleasing.”

A vase can be lovely. So can a flower garden, a bride – or the life of a saintly person of our acquaintance. We are to align our minds to see such lovely things as we move through each day.

Whatever is Admirable. This is an extremely rare word, used only once by the apostle according to The Expositor’s Greek New Testament. It might call us to look for what is of value in any situation and to speak in a kindly spirit. It is not a call to forgo judgment when moral integrity is under siege but to affirm goodness insofar as that is possible.

If anything is Excellent or Praiseworthy, Think on These Things. The Contemporary English Version gives this rendition: “Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise.” It strikes me that the Apostle, having finished his list, is doubling back to be sure the list will have a permanent place with his readers as they think Christianly about all of life.

This brief scripture gives us a pattern for nurturing a healthy Christian mind across a lifetime. And the conclusion of this passage assures us that as we do this, “God who gives peace will be with us” (Philippians 4:9).

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Christ Loves the Church – But Do We?

6 10 2014

73616489_de343e0f42_mThere’s a story about a man who loved the children in his neighborhood. When they called to him he waved. When he gardened, they gathered around him and chattered enthusiastically. The relationship seemed mutually nourishing.

On one occasion the man decided to have the gravel in his driveway replaced with concrete. The workers came, completed the job, and left.

The neighborhood children could not resist the wet concrete and enthusiastically carved their initials into it.

When the owner came home and found the driveway decorated with initials, his affection for children seemed to cool. He scolded them, sending them home crying.

One annoyed parent accosted him. “It appears you don’t like children after all,” she chided. The man replied, “I like children in the abstract, but not in the concrete.”

A surprising number of self-professed Christians appear to feel somewhat like that about the church. In an abstract way, church is a good idea — a place for children to learn the Ten Commandments; a good site for the occasional wedding; a setting for pleasant carols and Christmas skits. It’s even okay as a place for worship, but not necessarily weekly worship which would call for sustained, practical, and responsible involvement.

The Scriptures do not support such a vague, detached view. Instead, they tell us that for true believers, belonging to the body of Christ in substantial ways is serious business.

For example, the main word for “church” in both Testaments means an assembly.  More than that, it can mean an assembly meeting at the call of a herald. When Christians gather in one place to worship the Living God they do so in answer to God’s summons: “Come let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (Psalm 95:6).

My wife and I usually arrive for Sunday morning worship 15 minutes before the service begins. We sit quietly for personal reflection.

I love it Sunday after Sunday when the prelude ends and the pastor steps to the pulpit to say, “Let us stand for the call to worship.” That invitation quickens the spirit and sets the stage for what’s to follow.

The call to worship! For me this is a moment for believers to recognize again that we have been summoned by God to come together for a high hour of worship. It is he who calls us and him whom we worship.

Moreover, the major biblical word for church meaning “an assembly” can also mean, “called out” — that is called out from our various locations to assemble for worship. In the New Testament the word is translated “church” for 112 of its 115 appearances.

The call to worship is God’s call to those who are his redeemed. Someone writes, “Wherever the Holy Spirit unites worshiping souls to Christ you have the mystery of the church.” And this is a visible, audible, active gathering.

At a youth gathering I fell into conversation with the man who had been hired to manage the public address system. While setting things up in the retreat center he said to me, “I’m a born again Christian but I haven’t been inside a church building in many years.” He then added, “And there are tens of thousands of people out there who are just like me.” He seemed to be bragging that Christians can be loners.

One could wonder how he would respond to the Apostle Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (in the offering of his own body) (Ephesians 5:25). Multitudes answer God’s call to gather regularly to celebrate that completed sacrifice and worship God in Christ.

Christ’s sacrificial love was obviously not to make believers loners, nor to prompt them to think loosely of some mere abstraction. It was to demonstrate love concretely manifested at Calvary and to recall that love wherever a body of believers is called by the Father to gather.

Think of the reality of it. When we gather in a physical setting, however lofty or lowly, we can claim afresh Christ’s promise, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).

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Someone Nearby Might Be Watching

29 09 2014

MandarinAfter an appointment with our optometrist, Kathleen and I decided to go on to the Mandarin for our noon meal.

The Mandarin is an acclaimed Chinese restaurant here in Brampton, Ontario. It is one of several Mandarins but this one is the teaching site for all of them so diners receive a care that is unusual for its warmth and attentiveness.

We understand that its five large dining rooms could accommodate 500 patrons at one time, and during the time set for the noon meal (from 11:30 am until 2 pm) all five appear quite well used.

We were graciously seated in the bird room, where a large glassed-in bird enclosure, large enough for a human keeper to enter and move around in, frames one wall. In it were several pairs of love birds patrons could watch while eating.

Once shown to a table, diners remain seated until servers have introduced themselves and offered them steaming hot cloths for their hands. Then they leave their table and join other patrons in a large central area where the vast array of delectable choices awaits.

First there is the long two-sided salad bar where one could fill a plate with more than 30 choices.The second trip to the buffet area is to the long two-sided serving tables where a wide variety of Chinese-style entrees await. The third trip back is to an elaborate dessert bar.

Our table was set for four but Kathleen and I sat on two adjoining sides so we could be close enough to chat as we ate.

We were enjoying our entrees when a woman came from another table of four who were eating nearby and spoke to us. “It’s such a delight” she said pleasantly, “to see two elderly people relishing a meal together and appearing to enjoy one another’s company.”

Kathleen and I are not yet fully adjusted to the adjective, “elderly” but we smiled and agreed that this was a pleasant experience for both of us.

She had noted and wondered at our serenity and apparent pleasure. She asked, what was the secret? I offered in a few words that we pray together regularly, and we enjoy our life together.

”With the word, pray, she brightened further. “Oh.” she said, “That’s precious; you’re believers; I’m a believer too; I have trusted the Lord Jesus Christ to be my Savior.” She later added that she was a Baptist from Northern Alberta. The buzz of many conversations going on at the same time in the large room kept our talk easy but private.

She was an attractive woman, much younger, with stylish glasses, and she exuded a sense of inward joy herself. She left us briefly and then returned to ask permission to take our picture. We accommodated, moving close together so she could get a close-up.

Later Kathleen and I agreed in our conversation alone that we never know when someone nearby is watching. Nor what a quiet, well-chosen word might draw from total strangers.

With the increasing secularization of our society and the growing hostility toward Christianity, it’s going to become more and more important for serious Christians to “let our lights shine” in whatever ways are possible and appropriate.

Sometimes we might have occasion to let it shine like a spotlight, focused and declaring unabashedly the Lordship of Jesus Christ; at other times it might shine by a mere gesture such as bowing our heads in a public place to offer thanks over a meal; or it may be merely a gracious word dropped to a waitress when paying the bill; at other times it could be no more than some unplanned kindness offered with a quiet: “God bless you.”

But at the least our witness must be reflected merely in a general demeanor — personal and Christ-honoring — that carries a wordless message, realizing that we seldom know who’s watching.

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When Must We Turn the Other Cheek?

22 09 2014

The Sermon on the Mount Carl Bloch, 1890Jesus taught his disciples that if anyone strikes them on the right cheek they were to turn the other cheek also.

On the face of it, this doesn’t seem like very useful advice: your one cheek is already stinging and you’re to say, “Go ahead; hit me again.”

But our Lord’s words (Matthew 5:39b) are lodged in the Sermon on the Mount, the manifesto of Christ’s kingdom  (Matthew 5 – 7). And this saying has been treated authoritatively by Bible believers for two millennia — even when not understood. The words deserve deeper thought.

In order to penetrate Jesus’ meaning, first consider why Jesus speaks of being struck on the right cheek. Why so specific?

Commentator David Hill explains that the Greek word for strike means in this case to strike with the back of the hand. It’s not a fisted blow. I’ve heard this action referred to as a “backhander.”

Visualize the act as follows. Suppose A is facing B. A intends to insult or demean B. In order to strike B on the right cheek, he will use the back of his right hand delivering a quick slap.

According to Hill, taking these details into account, Jesus is using the image of a backhander to represent the insults that may come our way because we are Christians. These insults are annoying, and when they come, Jesus says to us, according to HIll: “If a man insults you, let him insult you again, rather than your running off to the court seeking reparation at law.”

It appears Jesus is not thinking of a physical offense at all. He is creating this verbal picture of a backhander to represent the insults that may come our way because we are believers. He means let them be an annoyance and nothing more.

Elsewhere Jesus gives different advice regarding what to do about greater offenses that disturb relationships, threatening the health and harmony  of the church. His sequence is, first let the offended go alone directly to the offending brother and present your complaint; then, if not effective go with one or two witnesses; then if more is needed take the matter before the church. (Matthew 18:15-17). Such offenses should not be allowed to simmer.

Did the early church understand this backhander message, that had been so carefully preserved by Matthew? Probably not in every case. In the early church, interpersonal issues arose and there were insults from outside too. Consider the carnal offenses within the Christian community that surfaced in the Corinthian church, such as playing favorites and behaving like immature children.

But the word of Christ as reiterated by Paul remained the same. When addressing the churches in Galatia, he composed the list of nine graces he calls collectively the fruit of the Spirit. These include, “long suffering,” more recently translated “patience.” His reference is not to patience when we can’t find our car keys. The reference is to patience when others offend us.

And even years after Jesus’ ascension the Apostle Peter wrote to believers who had been dispersed by persecution and were taking undeserved mistreatment in society. He reminded them of Jesus who, “… when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead he trusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23b).

In summary, turning the other cheek is a distinctive response of Christian’s to moments of humiliation and scorn. We take this instruction as a key element in discipleship.

But at the same time we pay attention to Jesus’ other teachings about more serious offenses, and stand resolute in the face of evil, speaking up for truth and fighting valiantly in solidarity with the saints and even heroes of many centuries.

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Image info: The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1877)

High-Level Living — Made Possible By Grace

15 09 2014

7979607525_eb4cedd988_mThe New Testament calls us to live the Christian life with excellence. Romans 12:9 — 21 is one passage that describes this excellence. Here I set segments from it in bold italics and add collected comments from various commentators and translations of the Bible. One or two of these might provide for deep reflection each day of this week.

Love must be sincere. “Let not your love wear a mask” (The Message). “Let us have no imitation Christian love” (J.B Phillips). Let each expression of warmth or concern be genuine. Never different faces for different circumstances.

Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. “Hate sin as you would the hell to which it leads. Be cemented or glued to that which is good” (Adam Clarke). Under all circumstances, keep your moral compass in sync with Jesus and the Father’s timeless standards for living.

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. “Love a brother/ sister Christian with the affection of a natural sibling.” “Consider all your brethren as more worthy than yourself” (Adam Clarke).

Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. “Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fuelled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant” (The Message). Real love for Jesus will keep you going strong.

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Keep clearly before you that your long term future is heaven. This will help you to take the sufferings and ills of the present with patience. Keep the fires of prayer stoked daily. Never slack off from daily private prayer in the secret place.

Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Keep alert to fellow believers who have material needs — whether next door or across the seas. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat …. I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:35). Real faith in the Lord quickens us to human need.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and don’t curse. “Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath” (The Message) “Give good words; or pray for them that give you bad words …. Have the loving, forgiving mind that was in your Lord” (Adam Clarke).

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Have empathy in both of these directions in the family of God. However, “To weep with those that weep is easier than to rejoice with those who rejoice” (The Expositor’s Greek Testament). Those who have cause to rejoice don’t feel the need for support in the way those who weep do. But we are to keep our awareness balanced in both directions.

Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but associate with people of low position. (That is, those who do menial work or are unemployed or even disabled.) Do not be conceited. “Do not pass by the poor man to pay your court to the great man …. Do not suppose that wisdom and discernment dwell alone with you” (Adam Clarke). “Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody” (The Message).

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. Don’t let yourself get into the “tit for tat” mode. And, it is not enough to do what is legally right; we must do what appears to others to be right — that is, do what meets the generally accepted standards drawn from the written law. Paul: “For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but in the eyes of men” (2 Corinthians 8:21).

If it is possible as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Living at peace with everyone is sometimes not possible, but the burden is on us to try, and never to be the responsible party in the breaking of the peace or living in alienation from others.

Do not take revenge my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay, says the Lord. The evil actions of others can cause deep hurt often seemingly beyond repair. In our fallenness, personal revenge may appeal. But knowing that God is the judge of all the earth restrains our impulse to seek revenge. We can say “God’s righteousness will prevail.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Do not become of the same character as the wrong doer you are complaining of. “However frequently he/she may grieve and infuriate you, always repay him/her with kindness; your goodwill in the end may overcome his/her evil” (Adam Clarke). “Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good” (The Message).

Each of these admonitions is a tall order; together they are impossible to attain by human effort alone. Still, the grace extended by the Spirit allows us to pursue life on this high ground. And, we find that these words lead us along the least stressful and most productive path in the long run — a life of minimal regrets. Grace and peace to us all as we travel on high ground.

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Distraction from the Balcony

8 09 2014

img_2000_2The sanctuary of the last church I served seated approximately 700. There was a balcony that would seat another 100 or so, but was normally kept locked. There was enough seating in the main body of the church to accommodate the Sunday morning gathering.

Even so, as I began the sermon one Sunday morning, I looked up to see a young man enter the balcony and noisily make his way toward its front row carrying a big book. He sat down clumsily and began to turn its pages with exaggerated motions.

I looked a second and third time and realized that whatever his message was I was to be the recipient. I knew that if I allowed my eyes to be drawn there again I would lose focus on what I was saying.

The following week a young man whom I did not initially recognize made an appointment to see me. I invited him into my study and immediately felt the crackle of conflict, like electricity in the air.

He was there to argue and critique what I did as a pastor. At one point he said that he believed he could preach a much better sermon than I (although he had never preached a sermon).

Eventually he asked, “Didn’t you see me in the balcony on Sunday?” His question finally lifted the veil of mystery from the visit. He was in some sort of flaming rebellion and had made me the target.

I learned that he was in serious conflict with his father and in his mind I must have become something of a surrogate – an authority figure he felt the need to conquer. Still, our visit ended peaceably and he left.

In the context of the church one doesn’t often see close up such overt opposition to authority. His acting-out dealing with conflicted impulses was visible and public.

Still, we can all relate even if in some small way to this young man. Because sin has twisted us, the struggle to live within the confines of authority is universal. I saw the battle in my own children as they were growing up, and then in my grandchildren. I can already see it in its early stages in my great grandchildren.

In fact, none of us has come to full adulthood until we have learned three things: to accept legitimate authority, to question it with appropriate respect, and to stand against it when it is applied lawlessly or abusively.

When it comes to this struggle, the Bible does not leave us without guidance. Perhaps its most sweeping instructions for Christians on this matter is given in Romans 13. I read it for my devotions this very morning.

In Romans 13 the Apostle gives the reader pointed advice on how we Christians are to relate to civil authority that impinges on our lives. Here’s a portion of the chapter as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message:

Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear. (Romans 13:1—3a).

Duly constituted authorities. That could extend this principle to the whole of life — family, church and state.

The irony in reading this chapter and the noteworthiness of its advice is that the emperor was the infamous Nero! He had caused the cruel torture and slaying of many Christians.

Yet Paul’s concern was that believers — insofar as possible — treat even Nero’s authority with respect because all authority is ultimately from God. His foremost concern was for the clear, unsullied witness of the church to Christ in society.

Our situation is vastly different. We read Paul’s words today as citizens of a society with remarkable freedoms, historically speaking. Yet, this freedom does not release us from various kinds of authority under which we live — those laws and principles that regulate family life, campus behavior for students, civic life, and not least, laws by which the church is governed.

If we yield to the temptation to ignore or sidestep these various authority systems, our rebellion may not be as visible as that of the young man in the balcony. But our witness to freedom in Christ registers as lawlessness. The God who inspired Romans 13 sees everything, and the passage that is there for the young man is equally there for each of us as believers, whatever our age or status!

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