Christmas Brings Fresh Ways of Giving

15 12 2014

GiftThe grumpy voices trying to cancel all celebrations of the Christmas story don’t seem to be speaking against the widespread practice of gift-giving itself. As a result, all around the world, the Christmas season is marked unhindered by the generous flow of gifts.

So, from before the time the leaves change color, inveterate shoppers watch store displays, posted ads, and internet offerings for gift ideas. Many bargain hunters hit the malls early on Black Friday, and last-minute shoppers search feverishly in picked-over displays for the right size or color.

The result of all this is that gifts of all shapes and sizes will materialize for Christmas. They’ll be heaped at the base of Christmas trees, left at the door by delivery services and pulled from hiding places to surprise and excite family members young and old.

But there are other kinds of gifts that could bring great joy to the receivers: phone calls to nieces or nephews, or aunts or uncles, or friends who don’t often hear from us; a note to an elderly relative who lives at a distance; a card of goodwill where relationships are strained; homemade cookies to a neighbor or friend.

I recall a special Christmas long ago before our children had reached adolescence. My wife made batches of cookies and the children and I delivered them neatly boxed to the homes of several shut-ins. The children’s eyes sparkled as they gave and the recipients received with joy.

It’s the pleasure of the unexpected that often makes a gift stand out. When the first ballpoint pens appeared and were not yet even on sale, my older brother, a merchant, received one as a sample to encourage him to order some to sell.

The box had $13 printed on it, a huge price for the late 1930s, and he gave it to me as a Christmas gift. Never mind that the technology was not yet refined and the lines it drew were sketchy. It could not honestly be called a fine writing instrument, but I hadn’t expected it and I received it as a treasure.

Whatever our techniques for celebrating the season by the exchange of gifts, we hope not to become so caught up in our gift-giving strategies that we forget to whom we give first honors. It is God, the “giver of every good and perfect gift,” and in a special way, the Son of his love who entered our sphere of existence as the Father’s finest offering.

For us to lose sight of that core fact would be like our going to a birthday party and entering heartily into the celebrations with friends while the person whose birthday we were gathered to celebrate sits quietly and unnoticed in the corner.

Christmas is a good season to remember Christina Rossetti’s lovely words:

“What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a wise man, I would do my part;

Yet what can I give him –

Give my heart.”

 
 

Photo credit: ahenobarbus (via flickr.com)

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About Ferguson and Little Things

8 12 2014

B3TPpPmIAAAHNEVThose of us who watch the news daily have had more than our fill of the devastation in Ferguson, Missouri. The sight of flames from torched police cruisers vivid against the night sky, and businesses being looted and destroyed at will — such sights leave us feeling sick at heart and helpless.

Owners and employees of the devastated businesses have won less camera time than the rioters, even though their losses are enormous and arguably more than half the story. Their future appears bleak, their hope tested. So, in the aftermath, where is there something good to balance the anger and criminality and chaos?

There’s Terrence Williams. He’s a 23-year-old African-American native of St. Louis who aspires to become a police officer. A cameraman caught him walking the forsaken streets of Ferguson carrying a plastic bag and picking up debris left after the nights of destruction. He was doing what little he could to help the recovery. His picture went viral on the internet.

Here’s a link to get more detail.

Often in times of crisis we are passive because there’s nothing we can do big enough to appear to matter. But Terrence Williams demonstrates that if one can’t do a lot one can do a little, and a little can help more than one might expect. His action contributed fractionally to the cleanup, but his example likely fanned hope and we believe encouraged others to respond nobly as he did.

In crises, do the little things we do really matter? Consider a story from the Acts of the Apostles. In a place called Lydda, Simon Peter healed a paralyzed man in the name of Christ. Getting him up off his pallet was certainly dramatic (Acts 9:32-35). As a result “many people of the area turned to the Lord.”

Then Peter was called to Joppa nearby because a disciple named Dorcas had died. Peter entered the room where her body had been washed and prepared for burial. After kneeling to pray, he called her forth from the dead and by God’s power, she responded. Another mighty event.

But tucked into the center of the account is this line: “All the widows stood around him, crying and showing the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.” (Acts 9:39) Dorcas had not achieved fame, but she had done practical, down-to-earth things for widows.

And her small acts of kindness were considered important enough to be placed alongside the account of Peter, who by the power of God, raised the dead. Her seemingly inconsequential and mundane deeds were bigger than she knew.

Here’s one version of a poem that fits, written by Edward E Hale: I am only one, but I am one. / I can’t do everything, but I can do something. / What I can do I ought to do; / and what I ought to do, by God’s grace I will do.

Imagine if Christians everywhere were to embrace the example of Terrence Williams, Dorcas, and Edward Hale in the name of Christ!

Photo credit: Ryan J. Reilly

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Can Christians Live Without Sinning?

1 12 2014

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When we are converted to Christ every sin we have committed from the age of accountability forward is forgiven. We are justified or acquitted of these sins by faith in Christ who paid our sin debt on Calvary (Romans 3:24);

At the same time, a new life is established within us. That is, we are “regenerated” or born again (John 3:5-8), and we are adopted into the family of God (Romans 8:15). We are created anew in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:10), and our body becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19).

At the moment of our rebirth, this glorious reality often enraptures our souls as we experience a keen sense of reconciliation with God and deliverance from a life of sinning as well. The bondage to our “unregenerate” life is in a broad sense clearly broken.

But in addition to reference to our sins committed, the Christian Scriptures also refer to sin in the singular to describe sin as a state of being in this fallen world — imprinted upon and woven into us from birth. This explains a universal corruption of the heart, a carnal mind, a bent to wrongdoing. Romans 6 refers to sin in this singular sense 17 times.

However, at the outset of the new life we discover conflict between our fallenness and the energy of the Spirit of God. This represents a kind of civil war in the Christian heart.

The fallen nature can manifest itself in unpleasant temperaments, dispositions or traits, the bondage to such addictions as pornography or substance addiction, or habits of deceptiveness or grudge-bearing. These vie to persist or return the believer to the old life.

In fact, new Christians might for a time rest in this kind of double-mindedness, leaving them too near the entry point to the new life. That was apparently the Corinthian Christians’ situation. Yet Paul refers to them as “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1Corinthians 1:2).

This means that in a primary way they were set apart to God and, through Christ, had good standing before him. Yet he writes to them as “carnal” or “fleshly” for there is “envying and strife” among them (1Corinthians 3:1-3).

To believers who have been forgiven yet still struggle with their sinful nature and habits the Apostle Paul asks: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1,2).

For the serious Christian, then, it appears that it is never necessary to sin. There is always divine grace (1 Corinthians 10:13). If sin were “necessary” we could not be held accountable for it.

But, at the same time, it is always possible to sin. So we are quick to deal with our omissions, sins of surprise, slips, or failures to do what is right in the Bible’s ordained way: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1John 1:9). This is instruction for believers.

To live as a victorious Christian means to live in obedience to the indwelling Holy Spirit as he deals with us in accordance with God’s holy word, and at the same time to be alert to the need for the constant covering of the substitutionary death of Christ.

Jesus taught us always to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).

 

Photo Credit: Milos Milosevic (via flicker.com)

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Re-post: 10 Tips for Young Pastors

24 11 2014

Photo Credit: "Outside the camp" via flicker.comPastoral work is demanding. It has its peculiar stresses. But, it is also deeply satisfying when done with wisdom and care. Here are some suggestions gleaned from 22-years of pastoral ministry and another 19-years as a general church overseer.

1. Ground your ministry in daily Bible reading and prayer. Pray daily for your people. Pray often through the day. Consider that pastoral labors grounded in prayer are the “gold, silver and costly stones” the Apostle Paul speaks of as durable building materials used in pastoral labors (1Cor. 3:10-15).

2. If your study is at the church, be there at a set time each work day. I suggest 8 A.M. God honors a good work ethic.

3. Spend your mornings in sermon preparations, reading, and related study. Be diligent. If you have a secretary, have her guard these hours. Don’t allow legitimate resources to become time-wasters — the Internet, TV, video games, long telephone calls, news papers, news magazines, etc.

“If in the morning you throw moments away,
You’ll not catch them up in the course of the day.”

4. Get an exercise program and stick to it, whether it be jogging or swimming or walking or exercising to a DVD. If you have no better idea, consider, as one possibility, incorporating this routine into an extended noon hour. A jog, then a sandwich, an apple, and a beverage need take no more than an hour-and-a-quarter.

5. Do not have favorites. If your attachment to one person or couple or family becomes obvious — you meet regularly for meals together, even go camping together — this will make other members feel second rate. The pastor must be pastor to all the people all the time. If you need more intimate friendships, form them outside the congregation — with a neighboring minister, for example.

6. Never, discuss church problems in the presence of growing children.  They do not have the wisdom to handle adult problems.
Their trust may be damaged, and eventually their respect for Christ and his church.

7. If division develops over some issue (whether to launch a building program, add a staff member, change the music program, etc.) give leadership through proper channels. But don’t take sides by talking informally with one faction or the other. To do so will deepen the congregational rift and likely shorten your tenure.

8. Develop a clear understanding of your boundaries and observe them — with the opposite sex, the aged, children, young people, church officers, staff members, etc. Strive to keep all pastoral relationships above reproach.

9. However modest your income, set an example of responsible stewardship. Show leadership in tithing your income. If you have debts that are out of hand, seek professional counsel. Your care with money will increase the congregation’s trust in your leadership.

10. Never ask to borrow money from your parishioners. To do so puts parishioners at a disadvantage, may reduce their respect for you, and if not repaid as agreed may create a rift that puts your pastoral tenure at risk.

Pastoral ministry is built on the ability to preach and teach the Bible. But it is also grounded in genuine godliness, basic ethical competence, good interpersonal skills, and beyond these on common sense. These ten points do not tell the whole story but they offer some time-tested suggestions about how to avoid the traps that sometimes spring and limit or even shorten a minister’s usefulness to the Lord and a congregation.

 

Photo Credit: Outside the camp (via flicker.com)

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Billy Graham’s 96th Birthday

17 11 2014
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Billy and Franklin Graham, Cleveland Stadium Ohio June,1994

I’m writing this on Billy Graham’s 96th birthday – November 7, 2014. His son, Franklin Graham, reports that he is in good spirits, eating well and his mind is still sharp.

He notes that although his father’s hearing and vision are failing he still enjoys daily devotions and reading the Bible with his staff.

Last year’s birthday celebration included 800 guests. Celebrations this year will be smaller and quieter – family members and a few friends. And his preaching will continue only via his books and audio- and video-recordings.

Also, on this birthday another “My Hope” telecast will be broadcast nationally. In the film Billy Graham says, “I know I’m going to heaven. I’m looking forward to it with great anticipation.” Also this presentation will air him preaching one of his sermons never before released.

Although Billy Graham has been a public figure for six decades the respect of the national press is still said to be very high. And the Christian community’s gratitude for his gospel witness remains strong.

During six decades of ministry it was not only his clear, resonant proclamation of the gospel that never faltered, keeping the Good News unsullied before even the cynical element of the public; it was also his high ethical standards that marked and undergirded every aspect of his ministry from the start.

The one shadow on his record has to do with his friendship with American presidents, especially his close relationship with the embattled President Nixon. More information on this has recently been released from the Nixon Library in San Clemente, California. Long ago, Rev. Graham offered apologies for offenses caused by political and other comments made in these relationships.

And the ethical standards followed for his ministries were sterling.

I remember that at the outset of his nationwide ministry some businessmen agreed to underwrite his salary so that no monies raised at the campaigns or through other avenues of Billy Graham ministries would come to him.

And whenever he stayed in a hotel during a campaign an aide checked the room thoroughly before he entered to be sure no compromising situation could develop. In addition, he never rode an elevator alone. Extraordinary care was taken to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, so as to not damage his ability to proclaim the Gospel.

Billy Graham, the Baptist evangelist, and Ruth, his Presbyterian wife, made a striking couple. In their commitment to proclaiming the gospel of redemption, a redemption purchased by the Cross of Christ, they were one. Denominational tags tended to fade at the cross.

Ruth spent long periods raising the children and keeping the home intact while he was in other parts of the world preaching the gospel. Once asked about this she said she would rather have Billy for one month of the year than any other man for 12. Ruth preceded her husband in death in 2007.

How did Billy Graham become the convinced and convincing preacher he was? It was not a straight road. He started modestly. He had mentors who were faithful to him, such as V. Raymond Edman, fourth president of Wheaton College.

But he settled a major issue not long before the Los Angeles big tent meeting in 1949. It was that Los Angeles engagement that caught the attention of the nation, launching him into a lifetime of preaching to massed gatherings around the world. What was that major issue?

It was about the trustworthiness of the Bible. His friend, Charles Templeton, was a brilliant and engaging preacher. But Templeton began a slow turn from the faith saying the Bible was full of errors and could not be trusted. He pressed this opinion on Billy Graham with intensity.

In the face of this pressure, the Los Angeles meeting was approaching and Graham had to go one way or the other. He was in conflict. He made a decision to trust the Bible’s authority and to preach it without fear or apology.

People thronged to the big tent as meetings got under way. (I seem to remember the tent could hold 12,000 people) Many well-known people responded to Graham’s invitations and received Christ by faith. Lives were changed in radical ways. Billy Graham’s gospel influence continues right up to the present. The rest is history.

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Photo credit: Paul Walsh (via flickr.com)





Sexuality and Sex Education: A Christian Perspective

10 11 2014

6987482795_c355d9c121_mTwenty-one years ago I wrote a piece on sex education, later adopted by the Canadian General Conference of the Free Methodist Church in August, 1993. Some time ago I reviewed that piece and decided to borrow from and adapt it for 2014, believing it still gives a needed Christian perspective to a subject even more controversial now than then.

My intent here is primarily to present concepts that should precede and undergird what is taught in the church about human sexuality. Here’s part of what I wrote, with minor edits:

The task of sex education is to help growing children, at the level of their understanding, to acknowledge that their sexuality undergirds and shapes their view of the world. Sexuality is not one aspect of being human that can be separated out and experienced in isolation; it is integral to the whole of our humanness.

In today’s society there are sharply conflicting views on sexuality. The issue is not so much what information is taught; it is what assumptions underlie the information. Christians believe humans are more than animals who are socially advanced and intricately developed, and who must respond to “natural” urges; they are unique creatures among God’s creation, bearing his image and accountable to him for their behavior.

The modern mind often begins by asserting that sexuality can be shaped into different exceptions, options, and variations and therefore is offended at and even intolerant of age-old understandings. So, it may be enraged at the claim that a family made up of a mother and father and children still provides the best environment for wholesome education about sexuality. Such education begins in the loving attitudes of parents to each other and the respect they show one another and their children from infancy onward.

Christian education about sexuality is based on the revelation that God created humankind to be male and female, each bearing fully his image (Genesis 1:26,27). From birth onward this differentiation of humans into male and female has serious implications. Teaching about sexuality should help us to understand and rejoice in what God has created us to be.

This education can be enhanced in the home by the use of Biblically-based literature, and Christian audio and video presentations. The anatomy and physiology of sex may best be taught in a gradual way, according to a growing child’s ability to understand. Sex is not taught as a mere biological function of the human body. The Christian faith maintains that there is a mystery to sex – a spiritual dimension – and sex educators must respect this

What about homes that are not headed by father and mother? Single parent families are increasingly becoming a part of Christian congregations. Foster families have also increased in the mix. These represent families or children often brought into these circumstances against their own choosing. They carry on nobly and are often filled with love and grace.

But such parents need special support from a caring congregation. And children in such families benefit from the influence of Christian men and women who, in the normal flow of church life, become role models. The same resources in literature and other teaching aids, as well as courses offered by the church, are to be made accessible to these families.

Children today are exposed via media, movies, online, and some school lessons to the notion that we have progressed past older views of sexuality, and, for example, that now same-sex marriage is to be celebrated equally with traditional marriage. It is an agenda being pressed forward forcefully.

In both church and Christian family, children need to be taught the biblical underpinnings for the orthodox Christian view of the past two thousand years: marriage is between a man and a woman. That is crucial. But at the same time, we must both teach and demonstrate the way of love towards persons in these alternate lifestyles whose paths we cross — without in any way endorsing the lifestyle.

The church must also continue to teach, against the strong opposing cultural tide, that sexual intercourse belongs within marriage. . . .and that marriage is between a man and a woman. At the same time, in our broken society the church needs to reach out in ministry as well to those victimized by others or by their own sexual wrong choices.

In all this, in both intact and sundered families, the undeserved generosity of God toward sinners – his grace – must be emphasized. It is grace that gives the gift of human sexuality to begin with. It is grace that enables those who affirm this gift to remain sexually pure. And for those who have failed, God offers the grace of forgiveness and the assurance that in Christ, wholesome attitudes toward sex can be recovered and purity restored.
 

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Photo credit: Mark Dayton (via flickr.com)





Reflections On a Long, Shared Journey

3 11 2014

Photo credit: Jon RawlinsonOur 67th wedding anniversary is near (December 20) so you can understand that Kathleen and I are reflecting these days on our long, ongoing journey together.

We remember the modest bungalow on North Street in Niagara Falls, Ontario, where we exchanged simple wedding vows. Kathleen’s sister, Muriel, hosted the event and provided a chicken dinner for the eight who were present. In recent years I’ve driven along North Street several times for sentimental reasons but it appears we have outlived the house that was there.

For that event, I had bought a bundle of plastering laths to erect an arch the bride and groom could stand under for the exchange of vows. What I produced was so unstable that it couldn’t be trusted to stand upright for the whole ceremony. A collapse mid-service would have been a bad omen. My best man, the late Mel Prior, took it apart and rebuilt it.

After a night and day in Toronto we boarded a Canadian Pacific train to travel 1600 miles to my home town, Estevan, Saskatchewan, where Kathleen would meet for the first time my parents, a younger sister, and an older brother and his wife. That plan wouldn’t meet today’s honeymoon standards, but in 1947 life for most people could be simplified and made with fewer demands.

As we learned when we arrived, also two older sisters, their husbands and families, had driven 1200 miles from British Columbia to surprise us. We might say to overwhelm us. Kathleen managed this in her usual gracious way, and when newness wore off and curiosity was satisfied, we had very pleasant family celebrations for Christmas week.

Then it was back to Winnipeg on the Soo line and thence via Canadian Pacific to Toronto. There, we caught a Greyhound bus to travel 15 miles to Port Credit where we took occupancy of our one-room apartment above a garage and across the Queen Elizabeth highway from Lorne Park College.

That tiny apartment was a charming place from which to launch our life together. I went back to my studies and other assigned duties at the college. Kathleen had left her teaching position to settle into a new life. We traveled together on weekends to speak and sing in churches in Southern Ontario and nearby States.

Our first ten years were packed with activity and movement. With Kathleen’s invaluable support and her uncomplaining oversight of domestic matters, I ploughed through two academic degrees; we moved seven times; accepted our first pastoral assignment; and welcomed into our union four children — one born in Ontario, two in Illinois, and one in Kentucky.

Toward the end of our ninth year, after three years in Lexington, Kentucky, we loaded four little children, one a five month old infant, into our Plymouth, and, towing a big springless trailer, we joggled across the continent to New Westminster, B.C. to serve our second church.

It was in New Westminster, while serving a loving congregation, that we learned we would not have the privilege of raising our fourth child, John David. At the end of three days for tests in Vancouver Children’s Hospital, we were told that he would be severely limited in his development and would need the special care of an institution. After three years of Kathleen’s dedicated mothering we surrendered him broken-heartedly to the care of professionals, where he is to the present.

We approach our 67th anniversary recalling many bright occasions and a few times of struggle and even crisis — not with each other, but with unexpected circumstances. Early on, for example, we endured major financial stresses. There was a string of surgeries, and our experience with John David was wrenching, leaving us with a sadness in our hearts that has never gone away. We’ve wept together, suffered sleepless nights together, and endured the anxieties and fears that go with raising a family.

Much more than all of this, however, we have relished the joy of each other’s company, and the pleasures of seeing our children launched into stable, successful lives of their own. Looking back, we declare the life God gave and continues to give is a life of predominant joy.

Looking back also I can identify three constants of our years: from the start, we prayed together daily, a lifetime practice; we tithed to the Lord’s work the first money we owned jointly; and through all those years Kathleen has been my adviser and behind-the-scenes consultant in matters of Christian ministry. To God be the glory.

And the memory of that simple but life-changing event on North Street in Niagara Falls continues in a special way to ignite my joy even yet after our 67 years together.

Long years ago a young man and woman, each 21 years of age, stood under a beribboned arch. An older man in a black suit faced them. In his hands he held a little black book. He read from it words of ritual and asked the couple some questions. They responded in the affirmative, without reservation. He declared them husband and wife. It all took about 20 minutes, but sixty-seven years later the two still live under the wonder of that enduring covenant made before God and to each other.

Photo credit: Jon Rawlinson (via flickr.com)

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