I Ponder Jesus’ Call to Discipleship

BibleThis past Sunday I heard a searching sermon on the cost of discipleship, based on Luke 14: 25 – 33.

In that passage, Jesus is traveling toward Jerusalem. Large crowds follow. Along the way he pauses, turns around and teaches the large number following him the rigorous demands of discipleship.

He explains first that a true disciple has to love him more than any other person in their lives, including spouse, children etc. His way of saying this is unusual to our western ears:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.

I remember puzzling over that strange-sounding claim when I was a boy in Sunday School. As I recall, the teacher drew out of the Sunday School quarterly that to hate in this case meant to “love less.”

According to that text, discipleship means Jesus must hold first place even over our family loyalties.

During the afternoon this past Sunday I sat down to ponder what the text of the sermon should mean to me, a 21st century western Christian, now a retired pastor. At 90-years-of-age is this kind of radical discipleship still a demand of the Lord? Or do I get to be a bit “retired” from it? And if radical discipleship is a continuing demand, how am I to respond to that demand?

I thought first of my daily use of the Bible. The Bible, and particularly the four Gospels, is the only place we can learn about Jesus with full authority. This Book is the guidebook, validated in us by the Holy Spirit, as followers of Jesus.

For many years, I’ve attempted to meet the Lord in the Scriptures early every morning. Perhaps I must intensify that discipline if discipleship is to remain fresh and current.

I thought then about the attendant practice of daily prayer. It’s hard to think loyalties and love for Christ can remain fresh if I do not take time each morning (along with the practice of flash prayers during the day) to talk to the one who speaks out of that book both instructions for life and precious promises for his followers.

As I pondered further Sunday morning’s sermon the Lord also brought to mind the issue of loyalty to Christ as manifested by loyalty to his church.

I remembered that for many Christians in contemporary society loyalty to the local church is a bit optional. I heard recently that “regular” church attendance now means turning up regularly once a month. For me that can’t be good enough.

The church – the gathered community of believers – is the body of Christ. It is more than an organization; it is a living organism — a body! As a disciple of Christ, I must continue to check in at least once a week to enter into the body’s corporate worship and prayerfully support, with my time, talent, and treasure, its many ministry efforts.

These are the basic disciplines of a disciple of Jesus Christ. They are foundational. With these, today’s discipleship must begin, not end.

But my pondering also made me consider my influence and readiness to speak up when I move about in society. I can’t see myself wearing a sandwich board on a street corner though something like that might be suitable for others.

In my case I will watch more carefully to speak the good word (and sometimes only a word) as the Lord makes opportunity and prompts me. Paul’s letter to the Romans speaks clearly on this matter:

“For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved” (Romans 10:10).

Is discipleship also a lifestyle? I recall that early Christians began to be called “people of the Way.” The unconverted Saul went to Damascus with authority to take captive any who were followers of “the Way” (Acts 9:2). And when Paul, the converted one, later presented the gospel in Ephesus his detractors “publicly maligned the Way.”

Apparently the early disciples became known for their manner of believing, living and serving. Discipleship apparently generates a recognizable character, demeanor, and lifestyle.

The sermon on discipleship will stay with me, I know. And I will pray earnestly that its message will fill itself out more fully. But for the moment, above are the checkpoints for my pondering and practice.

Please, dear reader, will you join me?

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Photo credit: Emuishere Peliculas (via flickr.com)

Re-post: Will We Recognize One Another in Heaven?

A former parishioner in Illinois, then a teenager and now a grandmother, poses the above question. Many serious believers are curious about it.

To address the question we must first purge our minds of a counterfeit Christian idea, the notion that after this life we will continue as disembodied spirits flitting about freely in the universe. This is nowhere supported by the Scriptures and if it were true would make our recognition of one another difficult and our experiences dreary.

The legitimate Christian understanding centers not on our survival as disembodied spirits, but instead on our resurrection as whole persons, with resurrected bodies. This assurance is fundamental to the New Testament.

Those who seek an answer to the question,” Will we recognize each other in heaven?” are often referred to 1 Corinthians 13:12: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

This passage refers primarily to our fuller knowledge of God in heaven, but even that assurance speaks indirectly to the question of our recognition of one another there.

What do the Scriptures really teach? Paul writes, “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” (1 Thess. 4:14)

Because God’s love for us is so great, our Redeemer, Christ, will resurrect us whole. Death will not be the last word. Our faith is built upon the New Testament testimony to the resurrection of Jesus, and the assurance the Holy Spirit gives us when we believe.

Though there will be significant changes in us when we are resurrected, nothing of ultimate value in our humanity as his redeemed creatures will be cast off. Thus, the ability to know and be known as social beings will, if anything, be enhanced.

Consider Scriptures that support the conviction that we will see and know those believers we have known here on earth even more fully.

Think of Jesus first post-resurrection contacts with his followers. Their eyes were blinded by unbelief, but one by one they came to recognize him and to note that his resurrected body was identifiable but that it displayed new qualities. For example, he could enter a locked room (John20:19), or cover a distance in a moment of time (Mark 16:12).

Paul states elsewhere, “Because he lives, we too shall live” — with the same transformed qualities! Does this not nourish the thought that our powers of recognition will not only be intact but enlarged?

Then there is Paul’s metaphor regarding his own hope for eternal life after death, based on Christ’s resurrection. He writes, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20, 21). Doesn’t citizenship as a metaphor suggest community and can there be community without social awareness and interaction?

To make the point stronger, Paul writes that when the general resurrection is called, “Jesus Christ will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body”.

We begin to see that, through a living faith in Christ, our wholeness in heaven is assured. Neither our identity nor our powers of recognition will be lost. What will be lost are the memory of our sins, the evils and sufferings of the fallen world, and the remembrance of those who refused to believe, because God “will wipe away all tears from (our) eyes” (Rev. 21:4).

Christians sometimes sing with great energy, “When we all get to heaven, / What a day of rejoicing that will be. / When we all see Jesus, / we’ll sing and shout the victory.” It’s glorious to ponder for those who believe!

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Does Repentance Really Work?

John the Baptist was a desert-dweller who dressed in garments made of camel’s hair. Yet crowds came streaming from all directions to the Jordan River, drawn by his fiery preaching. There was one word they would be sure to hear ringing forth again and again: Repent!

When Jesus later began his ministry in the regions of Galilee, his message was equally pointed: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:4, 15)

Throughout the New Testament this compelling word has a stable, constant meaning. It means to change the mind.

Changing one’s mind sounds easy. I pull a red necktie from the rack, but before I have it fully knotted I frown into the mirror, unknot it, and put it back on the rack. I reach for a tie more to my liking. We all change our minds often like this.

Surely, to repent as Jesus commands must mean more than to change the mind over some such incidental matter.

One of my seminary professors explained that to repent in the Christian sense means to change the very set of the mind. It means to acknowledge the depth of our sinfulness — the hostility to God we betray in what we do, say, or think — and to do so in abject sorrow and regret, humbly accepting God’s invitation to be changed and indwelt.

The good news of Christ’s kingdom is that we can, in fact, be changed. “If any man be in Christ he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17). But not without repentance.

We recall Jesus’ story about the prodigal son who eventually repented. At first he suspected his father limited his freedom and, to be free, he had to get away from father’s restrictive oversight.

So, on his own, he imagined he was granted this freedom, and for a time experienced what felt to him like liberty — no curfews, no work assignments, and all the resources divided out to him spent as he pleased. But this self-assigned freedom quickly led to desperation.

He spent these resources wildly and he was soon penniless; his circle of parasitic friends vanished; in his destitution he became the slave of a pig farmer.

Nothing but repentance could help him. There was no other recourse. He would have to change his mind — the orientation, direction, and content of his thinking — about decisions he had made and their consequences. For starters, he would have to see his father in an altogether different light.

In his desperation he began to review his actions and to feel a sorrow for his hurtful decisions while, at the same time, feeling an awakening love and respect for his father. He longed to see him, to say he was sorry, and to offer his services as a slave on the estate. The distrust that had ruled him evaporated.

He was being revolutionized, totally turned around in the very set of his mind. That’s repentance.

We know how the story ends. Repentance brought him back to his father for a joyful reunion and his father was extraordinarily generous, restoring him to his place as a beloved son.

In coming to experience the blessings of the Gospel, there is no substitute for an initial and heart-deep attitude of repentance. In fact, repenting and believing are linked so closely they cannot be separated. Believing is only authentic if matched with repentance.

This spirit of repentance doesn’t come to all in the same way. In God’s love and wisdom the realization of our need to repent may descend suddenly, like a thunderclap. Or it may grow for days, weeks, or months as a dawning sunrise. However the loving Father sends, it is a gift to which we must respond wholeheartedly.

Jesus’ message at the outset of his ministry was: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). In essence, that means, experience that radical change of mind and prepare for God to deliver his forgiveness with rivers of joy!

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Photo credit: Alan Levine (via flickr.com)

Helping Children to Listen to Their Conscience

481064169_03dc6507e6_mMy memory for this one winds back 58 years. The place was a parsonage in New Westminster, British Columbia.

Bobby, our first grader, and Donnie, our third grader, were settled in bed for the night. I went upstairs to their bedroom, as I often did when at home, and sat down on the braided rug between their beds for a few minutes before lights out.

It was a good time for reflection, and sometimes significant issues bubbled to the surface before sleep came.

How did the day go? I asked. Anything special happen for either of you? I then prayed with them and went downstairs, stopping in the kitchen for a glass of water. The house was quiet.

Breaking the stillness, I heard footsteps descending the stairs. Around the corner into the kitchen came Donnie. He had something he wanted to tell me.

“Remember the money you asked the people to give to the missionaries last Sunday?” he asked his pastor father. “Yes,” I said. “Well,” he explained, “I went to some neighbors and asked for money for the missionaries but I really was going to keep it for the bike I want.”

“Did you get any money?” I asked. He said Mrs. Bird had given him a quarter.

“Do you want me to go with you to take that money back and say you’re sorry?” I continued. He thought he could do it alone. With that he turned and I heard the sound of his bare feet mounting the stairs.

Almost immediately I again heard footsteps descending. Around the corner into the kitchen came Bobby. He too had something he wanted to tell me.

Apparently his first grade teacher had placed some attractive packets of blank paper for classroom use on a table near the classroom door. Upon leaving school in the afternoon Bobby had picked up two packets and brought them home.

“Do you still have them?” I asked. “And are they unopened?” To both questions the answer was yes.

I remember thinking to myself: it’s a pretty stiff assignment for a first grader to go on his own to his teacher and face his wrongdoing. So I asked if he would like me to go to the teacher with him. He replied that he could do it by himself.

I waited a couple of days and then phoned Mrs. Bird. She confirmed that Donnie had been to see her and had returned the quarter with an apology. I also phoned the teacher and learned that Bobby had carried out his assignment by returning the two packets and saying he was sorry.

A father’s interest in the daily experiences of two boys had moved each to own an otherwise concealed wrongdoing. Two developing consciences had been quickened. The offenses were never spoken of again during their childhood.

I recognize that one such encounter will not bring about the full ordering of a child’s conscience. There must be many prompts, given by at least one external authority on that child’s pathway, preferably a parent. This will encourage honesty and give positive stimulation to the child’s developing moral signals.

As well, there must also be many occasions when such authorities in a child’s life help the child to say “I’m sorry,” or, make amends. Saying I’m sorry is a factor in teaching growing children to know right from wrong, and to understand the principle of “consequences”.

Blessed is the growing child who has at least one parent to lead the way — a parent with a healthy conscience, warm but firm relationships with the child, and the will to persevere when the issues are clear.

Parents must be careful not to laugh at a developing child’s little deceptions or brush them off as cute. They are stuff to be directed toward character development.

Even the most careful cultivation of a clear sense of right and wrong in a child cannot promise with certainty to bring the right long term results. God has made us all with wills that can resist goodness. Yet the odds are very high that faithfulness in training will have its positive effect in character formation.

It’s a joy to us that, “Donnie”, now “Don”, is today a father, a grandfather, and a churchman. As an editor he has dedicated the whole of his vocational life to making words speak clearly and he is the owner of Bastian Publishing Services in Toronto.

To God be the glory!

And it is an equal joy that “Bobby”, now “Bob,” is an active Christian, a husband, parent, and laryngologist who owns and practices in the Bastian Voice Institute in Downers Grove, Illinois.

To God Be the Glory!

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Photo credit: Mandy Frediani (via flickr.com)

Will We Seize the New Year’s Opportunities?

16203126006_9cb707371a_mAt the stroke of midnight, December 31, 2015, the famed six-ton ball slid down the pole from high above Times Square, New York City. The skies then lit up with flashes of dazzling fireworks, while the wall-to-wall audience below, dressed in all sorts of interesting costumes, cheered wildly. Levity filled the air.

Interviewers circulated with mikes at the ready. Talented musicians mounted stages here and there and filled the air with song. Kisses and hugs were exchanged freely. Meanwhile, around the world a billion people watched all this through the wonder of television.

What was it all about? Why the throngs? No great name was being celebrated – like Alexander the Great or Charlemagne. No historic day was being remembered – like D-Day or the day the Iron Curtain fell.

It was observed as the precise moment separating a spent year from a new one. It was the observance of the passing of time itself.

When the ball would come to rest, the year 2015 would be forever spent. It could be remembered, but never re-lived. A new year with all its hopes and fears would begin. It, too, in about 365 days would pass forever. That’s how mankind experiences time.

On this New Year’s Eve people in lesser numbers went to church. My nephew, David, told me he and his family would go Saturday night and again Sunday morning. It was a family tradition and he anticipated it eagerly. Think about it – honoring God in worship for the gift of time.

Those across the land who went to church were celebrating the same reality as the celebrants in Times Square. The worshipers, however, would perhaps spend moments thinking of the year now closing and giving thanks for the Lord’s mercies. They also would ponder what they would like to do differently or better in the New Year and ask for God’s grace. Most of all, they would give thanks for the Savior.

But they would think especially of time itself as a gift from God. We all do not have the same amount of money, talent, or opportunities. But we all have the same number of hours in a day – 24 – and days in a week – seven!

The Greek of the New Testament has a word for the measuring of time. It is chronos and the name registers with us because almost all of us have chronometers on our wrists. We look at them scores of times a day because these instruments keeps us alert to the flow of time in our busy world.

But the Greek language has another word for time and that Is kairos. This word does not so much mark the flow of time as the significance of particular moments or occasions in time. Call them opportunities.

About a special situation we might say, for example, “The time is ripe” meaning circumstances had fallen into place that should prompt us to act at this special moment.

Using this very word, Paul writes to the Ephesian Christians to “Make the most of every opportunity (kairon) because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:16)

Christians should need no six-ton steel ball gliding silently from above, and no swirling, cheering masses rending the air, to alert us to kairos in this new year. We will watch for these moments. And whether they come in the form of great break-throughs in our circumstances or unexpected disappointments we will treat them as providences and pray for grace and wisdom to act.

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Photo credit: Kohei Kanno (via flickr.com)

Re-post: Departing Thoughts on Advent

Christmas greetings to all the readers of my blog, both those who read regularly and those who dip in occasionally. I enjoy the exercise of writing a think-piece on some subject of general interest once a week. As I now launch my 91st year on God’s earth I intend to keep up this exercise as his grace enables. This week we are revisiting a post published six years ago. I think its contents are appropriate as we move toward 2016.

A lay leader asked her pastor to recommend some songs suitable to be sung at an informal ladies gathering during Advent. The pastor responded, “How about some of the Christmas carols.” Her response: “But they’re all so theological.”

Indeed, they are theological. That’s the glory of them. At Christmas time, Christians are less inclined to sing ditties that lack good, singable theology. The meaning of the season and the beauty of its hymnody are too important for that. Consider:

For Christ is born of Mary, And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.

Or

Infant holy, Infant lowly, for his bed a cattle stall;
Oxen lowing, little knowing Christ the babe is Lord of all.

Or

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth;

Or, one more

O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him,
O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

Christmas carols are unavoidably theological. And their theological content is only enhanced by the fact that they are lyrics devised by such illustrious hymn writers as Charles Wesley and matched to some of the best music in the hymnal — tunes by great musicians like George Frederick Handel and Felix Mendelssohn. And, what’s more, they come to us from several periods of history and also from many different lands.

The world can’t seem to forget the Christmas hymns. During this advent season, I heard some of these memorable melodies wafted over the sound systems of business establishments as background to the buzz and click of computer-driven cash registers. I heard them several times on television and radio stations that are professedly secular in their programming. The whole world, it seems, cannot keep itself from remembering that a Savior has been born and his name is Christ the Lord!

So, as a wrap-up to Advent and a preparation for the celebration of New Years it is good for Christians to refocus on the fact that all of life, not just Advent, is inescapably theological. During Advent, it is about God and how he has revealed himself “bodily”. It’s about how deeply he cares for his world. That too is theological. It is about the predicament our world is in because of sin and about how this Great God provides for the redemption of man, both in time and for eternity.

Just because we say goodbye to Advent, we dare not let ourselves forget: Christ came! Christ comes! Christ will come again!

So, because of Our Lord’s humility in his first coming, his goodness, his power soon to be revealed I say: Blessings, and Happy New Year to my readers, one and all!

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A Christmas Poem‏

8296444516_507bc24596_mSeveral years ago our daughter, Carolyn, and her husband, Doug, had to make a six-hour trip from Toronto to Syracuse, NY. It happened that she was responsible for the children’s Christmas program at their church that year and planning was upon her. So as they drove she and Doug, created and wrote down the following rhymed way of telling children the Christmas story. Here it is, unedited from that journey.

‘Twas a Year Before Christmas

By Douglas and Carolyn Gonyou
‘Twas a year before Christmas and God sent Gabriel down
To a virgin named Mary in Nazareth town.
“God is sending His son to accomplish His plan.
God chose you to bear him and raise him to a man.”
In a dream God told Joseph what his part would be
So Joseph prepared for a family of three.
Then Caesar Augustus called everyone round
To travel back home to their ancestral town.
Joseph and Mary, who was expecting the child,
Walked day after day through the countryside wild.
For Bethlehem was where they had to go
But in Mary’s condition their pace was slow.

‘Twas the night before Christmas in Bethlehem town
And the inns filled up quickly as travelers came ’round.
Mary was weary and Joseph was worn.
They knew that the baby was soon to be born.
A baby was due and tonight was the night.
There was no place to rent, no rooms were in sight.
So they went to a stable and set up their camp
While the creatures looked on by the light of a lamp.
The baby was born, not a regular one:
God’s gift to the world, Jesus, His only son.

In the first hours of Christmas ’round a fire burning low
Sat shepherds who watched as their flocks slept below.
Then the sky turned to day from a light from a star
And the singing of angels could be heard from afar.
The shepherds fell down in fear of the light.
Then one angel stood out — what a glorious sight!
“Have no fear” he proclaimed “I bring news of great joy,
For in the town down below is born to you a boy.
God sent His son to redeem fallen man.
Now run, find, and worship as fast as you can!”

‘Twas a year after Christmas. To the town quiet and still
Three kings on three camels rode over the hill.
They had followed the star they had seen in the sky.
They had ridden for months and now could see why.
They found Mary and Joseph with their child not yet grown
And to God’s Christmas gift they gave gifts of their own.
They gave gold for a king, frankincense for a priest
Myrrh for a burial, precious gifts from the East.
They bowed to the child who was more than a king:
He had come to the earth God’s forgiveness to bring.

Two thousand years later, it comes down to you.
The question to answer is, What will you do?
God has given His gift, His son in our place.
Paid the sin debt for the whole human race.
Will you call him Lord, let him into your heart?
Will you follow His leading? Will you do your part?
In a world full of hate and a world full of fear,
Will you share His message with those far and near?

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Photo credit: optictopic (via flickr.com)