For Christians – Why Daily Bible Reading Really Matters

21 07 2014

6884716134_1801f163b3_mLast week I wrote about the need many Christians have to make daily Bible reading a higher priority in their lives. Since then, in further research I discovered the neglect of this daily discipline by many believers might be more serious than it first appears.

It would therefore be easy for me to exhort with energy: “Grit your teeth and make daily Bible reading happen!” But responding to mere obligation often doesn’t work. So, Instead I’m going to come at the issue indirectly by laying out my thought in three parts.

First, we are made in the image of God.

That’s the climaxing point the story of creation makes in the first chapter of the Bible. After the fundamentals of the creation account were carefully laid out we read, “Then God said, let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26).  The account adds, “So God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27).

So what does it mean that we are created in God’s image?

An image is a duplicate, a derived likeness, that which has a similarity of appearance. In Psalm 8 the psalmist praises God in wonderment at his elevation of mankind. He sings: “Yet you have made them a little lower than God” (Psalm 8:5 NRSV). The Scriptures tell us that when Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, God came searching for them in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8). He had created them for fellowship with him, but fellowship requires some fundamental commonality — thus, God’s image in  mankind,

Second, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, this image of God in man was damaged but not destroyed.

Like our fallen first parents, we are afflicted with the sinful biases passed on from them. Our bent is to run from the very God who created us and who seeks our fellowship. In man’s fall we were first deprived of God’s holiness and as a result, then depraved in our inclinations.

The pictures the New Testament paints of pagan society amply illustrates where man’s disobedience has taken him (Ephesians 4:18,19; 1 Corinthians 6:9,10; Romans 1:18-32). We are all in that picture in some way — alienated from God, dead in trespasses and sins, prodigal.

Third, when we become Christians the process is put in place to restore the image of God and in doing so to restore our desire for communion with Him.

It is good to recall that with the launch of the Christian life remarkable things happen . Our sins are forgiven through faith in Christ (Romans 5:1-3). The life giving presence of the Spirit gives us a new quality of life (Titus 3:4-7). We are adopted into God’s family — we belong (Romans 8:15-17). In summary, we are “converted” – turning radically from self and sin to God.

Yet, in spite of all those beginning blessings conferred as a gift of God’s grace, the Apostle Paul exhorts Christians to seek the renewal of the Image of God. He calls the Colossian church to a fully amended life, as illustrated when he writes: “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:9-10).

A dramatic conversion is in itself not enough. As we walk in obedience, the Spirit-energized self “is being renewed in knowledge.” So, we ask, from whence must this renewing knowledge come?

The Bible, God’s Holy Book, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, must be its primary source. Read the Epistles carefully and you’ll see how incessantly and urgently Paul exhorts believers to be rid of every aspect of the old life and, in the Spirit’s energy, to surge toward a full renewal.

If that’s the urgency of God’s call upward, what light does it cast on the large percentage of church-going Christians who admittedly have little to do with the Bible on a daily basis? Have they settled for a quasi-experience of God without any provision for regular fellowship through his gift of Holy Scripture?

The full answer will only be given in that final day when, Paul urges, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

(For excellent daily Bible reading guides, the American Bible Society, 212-407-1200; or the Canadian Bible Society, 416-757-4171)

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What About This Decline in Daily Bible Reading?

14 07 2014

4947868946_2d58f6d7ae_mOnly 14 per cent of Canadian Christians read the Bible at least once a week, according to a piece in the July 9/14 issue of Christian Week. This figure is down from 27 per cent in 1996.

A further fact in the article is that  “Sixty four percent of Canadians and 60 per cent of Christians believe that the sacred texts of all major religions teach the same principles.”

How do we explain this decline in the daily reading of Scriptures by believers?  And how can we explain the shallowness of our understanding of this incomparable Book – even among Christians?

Some suggest it’s the result of the vast array of distractions in modern life. Christians don’t have time to think reflectively about their faith. Or to return daily to its source.

It is worth noting that most people still find time to see movies, watch TV, eat out, garden, golf, and the like.  Might not the above figures suggest not only distractions but also a diminished priority given to the Christian Scriptures in Christian ranks? And could this be because growing numbers of Christians feel less dependent on God’s inspired Word both for daily guidance and a clear path to an assured final destiny?

Near the end of his life, the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Paul’s admonition placed alongside the above figures on daily Bible reading should shock us into a course correction. The Bible is a “God-breathed” book. It overflows with sacred history, divine wisdom and prophetic utterances.  It’s an ancient source of truth and, best of all, it gives us the Gospel of eternal life.

Its Old Testament pathway leads, sometimes obscurely, yet unerringly, to the world’s Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. And what it teaches us about the Savior answers life’s most important question: “What must I do to be saved?”

Among the Bible’s 100 most pungent, distilled and therefore most read verses are: John 3:16; Romans 8:28; Philippians 4:13; Genesis 1:1; Proverbs 3:5,6; and Romans 12:2. Priceless, they each carry timeless truth.

If a kind of indifference is growing among believers with regard to the importance of daily Bible reading let’s remember the name and work of William Tyndale.

In the Sixteenth Century he hid in Europe as a fugitive in order to give the English-speaking world his English translation of Old and New Testaments. And when finally apprehended he was strangled to death and his body was then burned at the stake.

John Wesley, is another voice that we should hear. This founder of Methodism wrote the following paragraph that might stimulate us all to give the Bible its proper place in our daily lives:

“I want to know one thing, the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way; for this end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. Give me that book! At any price give me the Book of God.”

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Let Us Pray with Fresh Urgency

7 07 2014

day33_raised_hands-300x223In the Old Testament record, King Jehoshaphat’s remarkable military victory over a coalition of enemy nations came about by God’s direct intervention, but that doesn’t mean that Judah’s king needed only to sit back and watch this victory happen (2 Chronicles 20). His urgent prayers appear to be a critical element.

Jehoshaphat’s kingdom was in the south end of ancient Israel. Some men came and told him that a huge number of the soldiers of surrounding kingdoms had already amassed a vast army to wage war against him. These enemy states included – Moab, Ammon, Edom, and several other peoples, all located in present-day Arab lands of the Middle East.

The massive coalition was already on the march around the southern region of the Dead Sea and was moving northward toward Judah’s southern border.

The king was understandably alarmed. His first move was to proclaim a fast for the whole nation. The people responded and gathered in Jerusalem from every town to seek the Lord’s help.

Then, with this throng of people filling the temple area, King Jehoshaphat prayed one of the most moving prayers recorded in the Old Testament (2 Chronicles 20:6-12).

His prayer acknowledges God’s sovereign rule over all, and reminds the Lord that by divine providence he had given Israel the land they were currently occupying. Back then, he goes on, when his people were coming to claim the land as their possession, the Lord had spared these very attackers from fierce assault by ordering Israel’s fighting forces not to attack them.

Then comes the King’s impassioned acknowledgement: “O our God, will you not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you” (2 Chronicles 20:12).

The people must have listened in silence to Jehoshaphat’s prayer. It was both fervent and urgent, but not desperate because it was directed confidently to the source of all power in the universe: “Our eyes are upon you.” It was prayed in a spirit of dynamic trust.

A prophet named Jahaziel then stepped forward to announce the word of the Lord: “Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours but God’s.”

The story moves quickly to conclusion. The king appoints singers to lead the troops with singing. The Lord at the same time creates a mysterious ambush against the enemy coalition which throws their fighting forces into confusion. In their chaos, they begin to kill each other.

Jehoshaphat’s troops gather the spoils of battle. They return to Jerusalem with joy. The fear of the Lord falls on surrounding nations, “when they heard the Lord had fought against the enemies of Israel” (2 Chronicles 20:29).

Does physical warfare with all its horror and hurt stand as a metaphor for another kind of warfare Christians are engaged in – the struggle against “the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms?” (Ephesians 6:12)

It appears to. For good reason, some believe this event in the life of Jehoshaphat is the inspiration for Psalm 83: “O God, do not keep silent; / be not quiet O God, be not still. / See how your enemies are astir, / how your foes rear their heads. / With cunning they conspire against your people” (Psalm 83:1-3).

A many-faceted war is going on in our world today that is destructive to many believers who want only to live lives fully devoted to Jesus Christ.

According to a report from Roman Catholic authorities, over 100,000 Christians are killed annually because of something related to their faith.

That 100,000 would be vastly more than the troops of Judah that God spared millennia ago.

And, according to the World Evangelical Alliance 200 million Christians are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their faith. While we try to process such atrocious conditions we are aware of growing anti-Christian sentiment in the land where we live. It is mounting, and who knows what persecution will yet come here?

We of course cannot know precisely how Jehoshaphat’s prayer figured into God’s ways and his action. That is divine mystery. Still, this story suggests that it is time to pray our prayers with fresh urgency for those elsewhere in our world who suffer bitter indignities and even cruel death because of their faith. And that God himself will intervene to protect Christ’s church here at home and fashion its character for more effective witness.

But, however urgent, let us pray with the confidence and urgency of that very psalmist, who said: “Let your enemies know that you, whose name is the Lord – that you alone are the most high over all the earth” (Psalm 83:18).

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Dealing with People Who Punish

30 06 2014

3606314694_cf0a20a0ea_mThe doctor’s waiting room was filled with patients. All sat quietly except for a three-year-old child who took command of the floor and whose annoying conduct seemed to pollute the atmosphere. She was at war with her mother. The people glanced furtively in her direction and then away.

The mother was obviously embarrassed by the little girl’s conduct. Finally she attempted to reduce the annoyance in the room by picking the child up and holding her tightly. Predictably, this led to a struggle of huge proportions. The three-year-old protested loudly and writhed to be free.

The mother appeared in danger of being conquered, but not the three-year-old. She fought resolutely, likely knowing instinctively that she had a secret weapon: she had an audience which likely suppressed the mother’s resolution to manage her with authority.

Finally, the mother released the child from her grip. It didn’t seem to occur to her to take her out into the hall or even back to the car for a cooling-off period. Rob the little girl of her audience and the balance of power would change quickly.

Instead, the harried mother surrendered, setting the three-year-old back on her feet. It was not enough for the child to have won the battle, however. She then took a few steps away, turned back toward her mother and began to berate her in a loud voice.

“You’re a bad mommy. I hate you. I hate you. You’re bad!” Her little face contorted with anger as she spit out the words. The poor mother sat looking straight ahead. It was as though she had been thrown to the mat.

Some of the older persons in the room must have blanched at the unchecked punishment the child was handing out. They may have thought to themselves, if such developing behavior is not soon arrested the three-year-old is on her way to becoming a lifetime punisher.

As she grows older, siblings will get punished. So will school or work associates. Perhaps many years hence her spouse will slowly wilt under her tested, sophisticated skills of punishing. Her close friends will be few.

Consider some forms of punishment these practiced punishers use.

Anger appears to be a foremost weapon. Sometimes it explodes, like a bomb. Sometimes it is less obvious, lying below the surface, yet ready for release at any moment. The person who has previously experienced the emergence of this concealed anger is rendered uncomfortable and off-balance, but uncertain of the reason for it or how to counter it.

Some punishers use a sullen silence to show their displeasure. It may be effective in delivering the intended message, but it’s never effective in returning a relationship to some sort of normalcy. It’s a dead-end method, and unchallenged early in life it is a method hard to counter.

I’ve also seen sarcasm used as punishment. The person skilled with this technique usually doesn’t use explosive sarcasm for all present to feel. Rather it is made up of little underhanded cuts slipped in here and there and left to create internal pain and confusion.

Sometimes the most damaging kind of punishment is “bad-mouthing.” Children who grow to adulthood without sufficient parental and societal restraint and the pruning of their modes of relating may have learned to respond to thwarting with this technique.

They diminish their target by eagerly spreading false complaints and rumors about them behind their backs.  This can damage the victim’s reputation and cripple relationships. Punishers deeply steeped in this mode of vying for control seem to have no conscience about the hurt they cause.

All this makes firm parental responses exceedingly important to such punishing skills as the three-year-old displayed in the doctor’s waiting room.   In her best moments she was probably a delightful child. But this inclination to punish those who thwart her will cripple her, if not treated as serious. It will greatly diminish her pleasure in life as well as the pleasure of close associates.

One can ask: if parents neglect to confront these anti-social modes of relating early and with serious intent, is this neglect not a form of child abuse? What makes such failure all the more serious is that such conduct in a three-year-old can be quite readily confronted with success.

On one occasion my wife and I saw an example of effective parenting close up. We were invited to dine with a young family in a fine restaurant. The three-year-old, a delightful child in our experience, had apparently already been inclined on several prior occasions to make a fuss whenever a public setting provided the stage where she could set her will against parental wishes. Her parents had developed a strategy that they said was gradually curbing this behavior. Here is what we saw.

Before entering the restaurant, I heard her father rehearse the ground rules. He told her quietly as we walked from the car that there would be many other people around us and, for their sakes, she must not cause a stir; she must do as she was told while inside.

And then I heard him say quietly but clearly, “If you cry or make noise, or if you don’t do what Daddy tells you, I will take you outside and we’ll wait outside until you tell me you are settled and ready to return.”

Soon after we were seated there was a slight stir where she sat. The father had apparently detected the early symptoms. He got up quietly and carried the three-year-old out. Fellow diners heard only seconds of her protests.

We later learned that all he did was to hold her and lovingly tell her she must stop crying and be ready to do what he told her before he would take her back into her dinner.  Some time later they returned. Her cheeks were wet with tears. She took her place and the meal went forward happily without episode.

As we were leaving the restaurant, the patrons around us, not knowing the meaning of the father’s earlier departure with the child, spoke warmly to the parents about how amazed they were by the fine conduct their young children had shown — an uncommon sight in fine dining places, I’m told.

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One of My Life’s Big Surprises

23 06 2014

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On the evening of June 11 Kathleen and I attended an enjoyable celebration for writers in Mississauga, Ontario. It was the Word Guild’s gala for the annual presentation of writing awards — an evening to be remembered!

The Word Guild is an organization made up of approximately 400 writers and editors from across Canada who are committed to offer the public their writing from a solid Christian base, whatever the category. The objective of Word Guild is to encourage aspiring Christian writers of all ages to write Christianly for publication.

And so it was that this early summer event was held primarily to present awards for writing of all genres that had been published in 2013 – columns, poetry, song lyrics, short stories, and books of nonfiction and fiction. There was even a category for “fresh ink writers” — aspiring writers from 14 to 25 years of age.

My son Don, my editor and publisher, had entered my recent book, The Pastor’s First Love: And Other Essays on a High and Holy Calling, published by his company in April 2013. I knew in advance that it had been categorized as “instruction” (one of ten categories) and that I was one of five finalists.

And I had been asked in advance to provide a quote not longer than 100 words from The Pastor’s First Love. This request did not raise any hopes because I assumed the other finalists had been asked for the same. So I went with low expectations.

Then something in the Master of Ceremony’s introductory remarks made me even less expectant that this would be my night. I sat back with these facts playing quietly in my mind until the books categorized as “instruction” were introduced.

Before the MC spoke to announced the winner, a masculine voice I did not recognize broke into the silence and began to read into the public address system words about weddings – the very excerpt I had sent the Guild. Slightly stunned I went forward to receive the winner’s certificate, a check for $100, and an opportunity to offer words of thanks as all other winners were doing.

I was surprised and gratified to have won the prize for my category, but even more surprised when, later in the evening, my book was also announced as one of four having been shortlisted for the Grace Irwin Award, the award for the best of all the winning books. The award to the winner was $5000.

(The winner of the Grace Irwin Award had written an eminently worthy book, Carolyn Weber’s Surprised by Oxford. In it she tells of leaving Canada as an unbeliever and returning a believer, having been shocked that academics at Oxford were not afraid to discuss their faith. As a result of their openness she was drawn there herself to faith in Christ.)

But my deepest pleasure of the evening was to know that the message of a book on pastoring was being recognized by Word Guild as having significant merit.

The Pastor’s First Love is a collection of writings done over a number of years. Here in a few paragraphs is the book’s thesis:

There are certain duties pastors are expected to perform out of love. They are expected to love the challenge of preaching. They are expected to love pastoral care. That is, visiting believers and unbelievers – whether in their homes, apartments, hospital rooms, or wherever a pastoral call can be made effectively. And they are to love the administrative task of ensuring directly or by careful oversight that the business of the church is carried out with order. These are basics of the pastoral task.

But the pastor’s first love is none of these tasks. Instead it is a love for Jesus Christ from which they all are supposed to flow. Before Jesus laid the pastoral assignment on his disciple, Simon Peter, he asked him three times, “Do you love me?” Only when pastoral duties are supported by an ever-freshening love for the Lord does the pastor’s task succeed authentically.

The book then proceeds to give instruction on such matters as the significance of ordination, the effective conduct of worship, what congregations want most in a pastor, a pastor’s first thirty days at a new church, the hallmarks of a Christian wedding, sexual integrity in the ministry, and so on.

I close The Pastor’s First Love with a chapter reviewing in outline the pilgrimage in ministry Kathleen and I have made together across 66 years. We are still a team: I continue to preach, teach and write as God gives me opportunity and Kathleen is my full partner in this.

The idea intended to carry through the whole book is that if one loves Jesus Christ above all and is truly called to this ministry, one should do ministry with excellence. Also, the book is intended to reflect the conviction that pastoral ministry is a profoundly fulfilling way to invest one’s life. On the other hand, if the call is merely to do a job, lacking the primary motivation of love for Christ, its challenges can become tedious and even embittering.

As you read this, please offer a prayer that my book will find its way into the hands of many young men and women in the early stages of responding to the pastoral call.

(The Pastor’s First Love is available at Amazon, and other publishing websites, or the Wesleyan Publishing House)

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In Our Struggles, How Much Does God Care?

16 06 2014

2670919541_28ec98cbae_mOn my walk one morning recently I came upon a dead sparrow at the edge of the sidewalk. I knew that none of its relatives would come forward to mourn this sparrow’s death and no kind hand would provide the honor of a decent burial for it. How much value then does it have?

I have since recalled Jesus’ words about the value of sparrows. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father” (Matthew 10:29).

A penny in Jesus’ times set a sparrow’s value at next to nothing. Yet Jesus said that no sparrow’s death was beyond the knowledge and care of the Father who rules the universe.

His point was to declare with a picture that even the most common and insignificant things in our world are within God’s purview and care. He is all-knowing and everywhere-present, and he is engaged.

For Jesus to  make his point even more compelling he added, “And even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matthew 10:30)  What feature of our lives could be less consequential? Yet this daring word further underlines vividly our Lord’s assurance of God’s care even over our life’s slightest detail.

It is called Providence, which means “God governs and guides in all the affairs of his universe.” He is not only sovereign over all; he is actively engaged in all. Thus his assurance to those who believe and submit to his will:  “Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31).

Jesus’ words are bracing when grasped in faith. Our God is not an absentee landlord who has set the world in place but leaves it to run by itself. The world is not ruled by Chance, nor governed by the Fates. He takes note of its every detail, though we don’t always understand his ways.

Yet, for some sincere believers who aren’t always sure of  God’s care, can we further outline the path of faith?

Remember that God is the “maker and sustainer of all things”. The Psalmist affirms: “He sets the earth on its foundations; / it can never be moved” (Psalm 104:5). And “The lions roar for their prey/ and seek their food from God” (Psalm 104:21).

Still more, remember Calvary. Our Lord’s physical suffering was brutal. Even beyond this, however, was the suffering of being separated from the Father as he bore the sins of the world. He cried out: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). Bystanders could be excused for thinking God did not care.

But, the Father did not forsake him. In due time he resurrected him from death, bringing him forth from the grave triumphant (Acts 2:25-28). And God’s care is just as certainly there for us, whatever troubles afflict us–even unto death!

Jesus assures us that God our Father sees every sparrow that falls.  “So don’t be afraid;” he says to the beleaguered, “you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31).

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Airline Terminals and Heaven

8 06 2014

2241806475_c23d9a6047_mRecently our daughter, Carolyn, and I flew from Toronto to Vancouver and back.  While walking through the massive terminals at each end of the journey, I thought of these terminals again as symbols of our lives both while here on earth, and also in the hereafter.

Airline terminals surge with life and swarm with people of all ages, stations, ethnicities, and costumes. Everyone seems to be on a mission. Smiles are not common as they stand patiently in long lines, browse in shops, wearily scan newspapers, or catch naps in boarding areas.

Each activity is fleeting: The browsers soon move on. The sleepers come to life. Newspapers are scanned and left behind partially folded on empty seats. Lines move forward, or dissolve and then reform.

A notice over the public address system breaks into the background commotion, and people stir. They line up at what appears to be a break in the wall, show their tickets and disappear from sight, one at a time.

A little child may be fooled by their disappearance but we are not. We know that they have entered a long corridor that leads to a waiting airplane.

The travellers will be comfortably seated, their cases stashed overhead, and when flight attendants give the captain the signal that all is in readiness this enormous metal bird will taxi to the end of the runway and in no time will rise aloft, disappearing from sight.

Again, those of us who might be watching from the ground are not fooled by their disappearance. It is this constant vanishing from sight that takes passengers into the wide blue yonder. And it is this constant flow of arrivals and departures that make the vast terminals necessary.

The compressed “world” of the airline terminal can remind us, if we will allow it, that this earth, with its variety, beauty and allure, is nevertheless also our point of departure for a life beyond. And just as we know from experience that there is life beyond the break in the wall and the runway, so intuitively we sense that there is life beyond our present human existence.

It is God who plants that awareness in our hearts. We find it there either to take seriously or to reject and bury our futures in a dangerous uncertainty.

For those who take the life-to-come seriously, the New Testament shines with unusual brightness. It promises “life” and “eternal life” again and again as the result of our believing the Gospel. The word “life” here means more than a physical existence such as we have on earth – as great a gift as that is. It means a new and much greater quality of life that shines from the life to come back into our lives today, enriches our experience in the here-and-now and equips us for that larger, fuller life with God forever.

God gives us eternal life when we hear the Gospel and believe, heart and soul, in Christ Jesus as our Savior. It is a new mode of life and it is the supreme gift of the Gospel.  This life to come when we depart this earth is most commonly spoken of in the Gospel of John and in John’s first Epistle.

How could St. John have said it more crisply than he did: “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life. And this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11,12).

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Image credit: Andrei Dimofte (via flickr.com)








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