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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Photo credit: answersingenesis.org


1 09 2014

4021506641_7e282960b7_mKathleen and I didn’t know Moka well; we only saw her three or four times a year for many years. But even though we were no more than “good acquaintances,” when we visited her home, or she visited ours, her pleasure at seeing us was pronounced. It was as though we had been friends forever.

Moka was the Welsh Terrier of our son’s family. She was diminutive by this breed’s standards, but she had the typical whiskered squarish face, the slightly elevated front shoulders, the brown lively eyes, and the coarse tan and black coat of her breed. To Robert and Jan, Zachary and Charis, she was one of a kind.

Moka loved fun and begged for it. Her zest for life was contagious. The request for fun wasn’t always disciplined because as pleasant as she was to be around she preferred to set the agenda for herself — as terriers tend to do. But she was never intentionally boisterous or destructive, just eager and tireless.

After being a much-loved family pet for nearly 17 years she became gravely ill for only a week recently and had to be put down.

The news has brought great sadness to the whole family but it has also caused me to reflect on the place of family pets in our fast-paced and often impersonal world.

The biblical story of creation makes it clear that the sixth day of creation was, like the five prior days, typically full of God’s creative energy. That day’s work included the speaking into being of the animal kingdom and, last of all, Adam and Eve.

It was on that day, “God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:25).

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion (meaning stewardship or governance, not mere dominance) over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26).

And in the intervening ages (Who knows how long that period was?) humankind in their discretion have singled out certain animals for a closer association, to work together with them, and to live with them as their pets. We can think of such pets, as we certainly do of Moka, as one of numberless gifts from God.

When I see on television the healing effect of a trained dog on a wounded or handicapped veteran, or the way children in hospital brighten when someone’s puppy is brought to see them, I realize in God’s economy there is a possible therapeutic value in that sort of human/pet interaction.

It seems to me also that the the service of trustworthy pets is made all the more valuable in light of the growing coarseness of our society: Children bullying children mercilessly on the Internet; televisions spewing into family rooms intimate details of life that belong in the doctor’s office; families breaking up too easily leaving children sometimes on their own to sort out their conflicted feelings or grieve their losses alone.

In this tattered society, a pet can give a measure of security and comfort needed by growing children facing these kinds of traumas, but it can also add a special quality to those with more normal childhoods.

Zach and Charis grew from childhood to adulthood with responsibilities to care for Moka. They made sure she was fed, walked, played with, and even at times given her medicines. They did this with commendable care and this was a great training experience for the other routine duties of life. All the while they experienced the joys of special animal companionship.

Moka will not be forgotten. She has left behind an acute sadness, but also a great store of memories. Her quickness of movement, her unquenchable appetite for play, the welcome she always extended to anyone who wanted to be a friend, and her special attachment to those who gave her care – these features cannot be forgotten.

And when we visualize her, it will be her whiskered face inviting interaction, her bright eyes asking for fun, and her beautiful black and tan coat that will frame our memories.

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Photo credit: sWrightOsment (via flickr.com)

Can Secular Work be Sacred Too?

25 08 2014

38637594_141a1c401a_mIn evangelical circles Christians sometimes seem to believe that ordained or otherwise specially assigned Christians (for example, pastors, Bible scholars or missionaries) are more honorable or deeply Christian than those living and serving the Lord in the secular world. Some might not even be aware they entertain such thoughts.

Personally, here is how I understand the matter. By the grace of God, I am an ordained minister. In my youth I responded to what I believe was a call from God. The church affirmed that call, trained and ordained me, thus “setting me apart” to carry out special tasks like preaching and teaching the Scriptures, proclaiming the Gospel, and giving order and leadership to a congregation.

However, I have three children who do not feel called in this special way. A daughter, until her recent retirement, taught in the public school system; a son is a publisher in the secular marketplace of ideas; and another son is a laryngologist.

From high school days forward our daughter was set on becoming a teacher. Our publisher son while in college listened for a divine call but did not hear it; he felt he didn’t have the temperament or gifts for such a life. My doctor son’s response to the question was essentially the same. Yet none of them resisted the possibility.

A divine call to full time ministry is known by a persistent inner sense of calling, mediated to the person’s consciousness directly or indirectly. It may come through Scripture or the godly counsel of other believers. The church recognizes and certifies the call, and the Lord in some measure blesses it when it is exercised.

So, I live with the sense that I am called while none of my three children profess such a calling. Even so, they are earnest Christians who believe they are living out professions to which they were providently led. They are content that their assignment is to serve the Lord and shine for him in the secular world.

All three (and their spouses) give significant service to the Lord’s work, whether in the church or through some other Christian enterprise. I’m inclined to say I have a calling; theirs is a career lived out as Christians.

I believe a calling to full-time Christian ministry has in it this central element of divine summons, whether given forcefully or gently, whether at a particular moment or over time. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16). His call on the Damascus Road was forceful and precisely given in a brief span of time (Acts 9:1-9).

A career, by contrast, can appear to be self-chosen, even when chosen prayerfully. Or it can even be pursued with a similar degree of certainty as that of pastors and others living under a call. Christians who are motor mechanics, optometrists, farmers, or who pursue any of 100 other livelihoods, can work with a similar degree of conviction.

I call it a career because it does not ordinarily have the sense of summons or the same binding continuity that a call to full-time Christian ministry should have.

During the middle ages monks and priests were elevated and considered more spiritual than the lowly laity. But Reformers like Luther and Calvin introduced into the understanding of the church that, while the ordained have a special assignment which is critical to the soundness and effectiveness of the church, all believers should treat their occupation as a calling – a vocation – and seek to exercise it as such.

It’s true the Scriptures give special attention to the work and importance of “set apart” Christian workers (Hebrews 13:7,17,24; Acts 13:1-3). This work has in it that sense of divine summons (Mark 3:13-15; 1 Timothy 2:7; 4:11-13).

So, respect for these “called” workers is commended, and the congregation that looks up to its faithful leader is blessed.

Even so, lay persons are not thereby rendered second rate. Nor is the work they do in the secular realm less significant. Whether laboring in a bicycle factory or an insurance office, they labor as in the sight of the Lord and that makes their work a vocation. They might rightly consider their career as divinely appointed (Romans 14:12).

It was to all believers, lay persons and the ordained together, that the Apostle Paul addressed the words, “And, whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

So, secular work may in several respects be different from work to which one is divinely called, but for Christians self-chosen secular work can be sacred too. In either role God is to be glorified and glorifying God is what we’re all in the world to do.

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Photo credit: Eric Chan (via flickr.com)

Work: Our First Line of Christian Witness

18 08 2014

6388137639_efaf640569_mWhen I was 17, I finished my first year of Bible School and went from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, to Regina, 40 miles to the east, seeking work for the summer.

I got a job in a high-class men’s clothing store – Fred Barber’s on Hamilton Street. I have forgotten how I went about it. I probably walked in off the street and asked for a job and by the providence of God they hired me.

The boss, Mr. Barber, was a short, watery-eyed man who had a cigar in his mouth most of the time. His son, Gordon, managed the store; Jerry was a longtime employee; and Pat, the Irish tailor, had his workplace in the back room, open to the store by an archway.

I believe I was a fast learner, partly because I had already worked part time as a clerk in my brother’s grocery store in my hometown.

On occasion when the other men were busy I was able to sell several items of apparel to customers. I even got one or two men over to the suit racks and got a suit jacket on their backs before I was discovered and Gordon took over.

These men knew I was attending Bible School and this seemed a curiosity to them. They took opportunity to rib me about Christian things. On occasion when I was selling a customer a shirt and tie, Jerry would stand behind a clothing rack where only I could see him and sing in a little above a whisper the first line of “O come, all ye faithful,” beating time with his two index fingers. I think that was all the church music he knew.

Once when four of us were in the tailor’s quarters they got a bet under way. Each produced a one dollar bill and before I knew it they thrust the three bills into my hands saying someone had to hold the bet. I had neither the readiness nor the courage to refuse on the spot. They then teased me, noting that normally a Christian wouldn’t be involved in betting.

But they were not mean. Their playfulness showed they liked me. And they respected me, though to them I was just a 17-year-old kid.

They trusted me increasingly with the cash register and their customers. I sold a good number of Stetson or Biltmore hats that summer. In the forties men weren’t even properly dressed if they didn’t wear a quality felt hat, neatly creased on the crown and the crease steamed in place. That was part of the sale.

In that work situation, I believe the example of my immigrant parents, the severity of the times, and especially the benevolent promptings of the Gospel all worked in my favor.

In September I told Gordon I would be leaving soon to go back to school. To my surprise he eagerly began to persuade me to change my mind. He offered to double my salary (from $13.52 a week after taxes). Then he promised to teach me window dressing. I remained resolute.

Being a Christian had been an asset and a challenge in that situation. The Scriptures say, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). Could that exhortation apply even to the workaday world and one’s secular job?

In the beginning, God worked — creating the universe (Genesis 2:2). Then he made a garden in Eden and put “Man” to work in it (Genesis 2:15). Adam and Eve’s two sons were identified first by their work – “Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil” (Genesis 4:2). The Apostle Paul was not only a trained Rabbi but also a tent maker. Even our Lord was known in his community as a carpenter (Mark 6:3)

The entrance of sin into the world made work more difficult (Genesis 3:17-19) but did not annul it as a duty. Paul set this rule for the early church: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

Thinking back more than 70 years, although I was a typical teenager still growing up, I believe I left a good influence behind with those men. It wasn’t that I had any opportunity to present the gospel to them or even enter into prolonged discussion on Christian topics.

But they saw I could be trusted, I was eager to work, and did as I was told. By my enthusiasm for the work and my willingness to put out for the customers I commended myself to them and many customers I served.

In the secular world, the quality of our work is our first line of Christian witness.

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Photo credit: Ciara McDonnell (via flickr.com)

Do Christians Today Really Live in Two Worlds?

11 08 2014

Gin Lane, a print issued in 1751 by English artist William Hogarth — depicting the misery caused by widespread consumption of gin among England’s poor.

In the fifties of the last century the late Mary Alice Tenney, head of the English Department of Greenville College, wrote a little book called, Living in Two Worlds: How a Christian Does It.

It was really made up of elements from her doctoral work on John Wesley and the Methodist Revival in Eighteenth Century England, and was written to appeal to lay readers. In an introductory note she writes, “This book is written first of all to people who want to be really Christian.”

In North America, we readily acknowledge that our culture has been in a moral decline over the last sixty or so years. Yet Dr. Tenney explains that the state of affairs in England was gravely worse at the time of the Methodist Revival.

Life there was almost unimaginably coarse and dehumanized. Here are some of my gleanings from her book:

“As for family life in England, divorce, of course, could not be obtained. But a double standard of morality wrecked full as many homes as divorce would have. Prostitution was an accepted, and even protected, institution among all classes, a subject of humor in the literature and art of the intellectuals and the aristocratic, and a heavy contributor to the beastliness of the lower classes.”

“Hanging was the punishment for 160 different sorts of offenses. Many a day saw ten or fifteen hangings – spectacles attended by mobs of sensation–mad men and women. Grandstand seats were provided; hawkers peddled broadsheets recording Dying Speeches. Gin was sold at stands; pickpockets and prostitutes circulated freely.”

Dr. Tenney’s book subsequently focuses on the lifestyle practices of the early Methodists, so she says little about Wesley’s theology. I dub in here a thought about that: Wesley’s preaching was in line with the English Reformation – Justification by Faith Alone; The Witness of the Spirit; Good Works flowing from faith and as evidence of that faith; Salvation by Grace through Faith; etc.

To Wesley and his converts, the unseen world was real.

Dr. Tenney writes:

“The surest evidence that God is what the Bible claims him to be, the One and only God, the All-Wise, the All-Powerful and the All-Loving, is the moral transformation which he works in a sinner. The revolution that occurs in a human being who believes God so fully as to give Him complete control over his life constitutes a supernatural event. Christianity is the only religion which carries with it any such moral empowerment. It performs the miracles promised by the Bible.”

Dr. Tenney pinpoints the a major aspects of Wesley’s life and teaching that we would be wise to adopt in this present materialistic world of ours:

“Four attainments clearly distinguish the early Methodists from the modern professing Christian. First he seems to have found the secret of soul serenity. Second, he gave convincing witness to his business and social world. Thirdly, he contributed amazing amounts to the work of his church. Fourthly, he lived a life of such appealing simplicity that the concept of ‘plain living and high thinking’ finally penetrated the thought of the whole nation.”

Methodism was a Heaven-sent awakening. It was God’s doing. John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield and others were only God’s instruments, making themselves available to him. Would anyone question that it is time for another such awakening on this continent to bring both moral sanity and joy back to many lives?

It could start with us who are already Christ followers: more daily attention to the Book; greater time commitment and intensity for that daily prayer time; rebuilt family altars; increased devotion to the ministries of the church; cleared up unfinished business with family or fellow believers; partnership with other  believers concerned for renewal.

Of course renewal is God’s work. It always begins with Him. But there is an interesting challenge in the Scriptures which is repeated often and speaks to us of our part: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13)


Re-post: One of Life’s Neglected Words

4 08 2014

Photo credit: AlexWitherspoon (via flickr.com)

My wife recently had a cataract removed from her left eye. As planned, a week after the surgery, she went back to the surgeon’s office. He examined the eye and told her that everything was as it should be. She then said to him, “It’s wonderful what you doctors can do these days. I want to thank you very much for this service.” There was a moment of awkward silence, she says, as if he didn’t quite know what to say, and then with a smile he replied, “Well, that’s what we are here to do.” He held the smile but there were no more words. My wife reported that this seemed awkward for both of them, as if he wasn’t used to handling generous words of appreciation. When she told me about this exchange I remembered that a few weeks earlier I had had a complicated problem with my computer.

It was a matter of getting the modem and router to talk to one another and 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 the technicians worked faithfully for a long period of time before admitting defeat and referring me on 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 in our high-tech culture the wonders of modern technology that 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.

Who does not appreciate a simple word of thanks? And who can forget St. Luke’s story 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. In this case, Luke tells us, “… as they went, they were cleansed.” Luke is also 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 (Luke 17:11-20).

Little words of thankfulness dropped here and there add color and warmth to life. When they are withheld or neglected life can be grey or even painful. Shakespeare’s King Lear laments about the ingratitude of his daughters in these words: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / to have a thankless child.” Which reminds me that it’s good to express thanks to a surgeon or computer technician but the best place to release long overdue words of appreciation first of all is in the home where primary family connections are either oiled by such words or left to creak painfully through the days.

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