The Second Coming: What Do You Expect?

The Last Judgment by Michelangelo (Public Domain).

The late Billy Graham made a statement long ago, the essence of which has stayed with me through the years. He said: “Every morning when I rise I say, ‘This may be the day!’”

His statement arrested attention, but is the doctrine to which he referred — the Second Coming of Christ — central to the gospel or merely a sidebar to it?

It is mentioned in the New Testament 218 times — eight times more than his first coming. Jesus referred to his own promised return twenty-one times. The letter to the Hebrews shows the importance of the Second Coming very clearly: So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (Hebrews 9:28).

Consider three effects this promise of a Second Coming should have on our lives as believers.

First, our Lord’s promised Second Coming prompts us to keep our lives morally and spiritually undefiled. The Apostle Paul wrote to Titus: For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope — the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:11-13).

In our fallen world, “ungodliness and worldly passions” make their constant appeal. They may entice through salacious magazines and books, seductive television and movies, gambling, pornography, illicit drugs, unhealthy companionships and even cheap and defiling talk.

Prompted by the hope of the Second Coming and with trust in the power of the Holy Spirit we are to purge ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit (2 Corinthians 7:1).

Second, our belief in the Second Coming prompts us to carry out our Christian assignments with diligence — always with the promise of Christ’s return. Consider a story Jesus told that reflects this point (Matthew 24:45-51). It represents a summons to faithful duty.

In a wealthy man’s estate there were many servants. The owner planned to be away for an unspecified length of time, so he assigned his most trusted servant to make sure all the workers were adequately fed and cared for during his absence.

The worker had two options: If his master returned to find him carrying out his assigned duties faithfully he would promote him, trusting him with a much larger responsibility. But if the servant should wickedly shun his duties, beating the other servants and drinking with neighborhood drunkards, the master’s return would bring severe punishment.

As it turned out, in Jesus’ story the master returned unexpectedly. The servant had failed his test. The punishment was severe. So will it be at the Second Coming of Christ: the faithful and the unfaithful will be identified and rewarded or judged.

Third, in the light of the promised Second Coming we are to live creatively as believers, making the most of the resources entrusted to us for kingdom purposes. The Parable of the Talents, in Matthew 25:14-30, represents the joy of service and the challenge of taking risks in the life of faith.

A wealthy man who had to go on a long journey did not know exactly when he would return. So he called his three servants together and distributed his wealth among them — to one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags of gold and to yet another one bag of gold. He dispersed the quantities according to each servant’s abilities.

The first two servants received the bags of gold with excitement. They immediately headed for the business district to invest their contents. They wanted to gain as much profit as possible for their master’s sake before his return. When the master returned, the five bags of gold had been increased to ten, the two had become four. To each of these servants the master said, Well done, good and faithful servant.

But the servant who received only one bag of gold had a different story. The trust the master had shown him had been a burden. He had dug a hole, buried the gold and forgotten about his assignment. When his master appeared the one-bag man returned exactly what had been entrusted to him. It had gained nothing.

He tried to blame his master for his failure. The master addressed him with two words: You wicked and lazy servant. He was thrown into outer darkness. As believers, our faith energies are to be joyfully productive.

The Scriptures’ exhortation to moral and spiritual purity plus Jesus’ two stories foreshadow a promised return of Christ. We are called to live with this awareness.

There is no scriptural suggestion here that by such means we could work our way into heaven. That is a grace issue. But there is the suggestion that whether we actually care about the things Christ cares about — that we live upright, holy lives, and live true to Kingdom purposes — will be revealed when the Second Coming breaks upon the world and leads us all towards great reward or divine judgment.

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Re-post: Something You Should Know About Jesus When He Was a Boy

In our culture, twelve is not a noteworthy age. Sixteen is more likely to be celebrated because at that age you can get a driver’s license. At eighteen you can join the armed forces. As well, twenty-one has long been special because it’s celebrated as the age of our maturity.

Our culture recognizes each of these ages to some degree. But age twelve is not among them.

When Jesus lived on earth, it was different. In his Gospel, Luke, the evangelist, first gives details about Jesus’ birth and infancy. Then he reports in abundant detail on the approximate three years of his public ministry which began when he was thirty. But the period between his infancy and maturity is sometimes called the silent years — except for one event when he was twelve.

St. Luke tells his readers that Jesus attended his first Passover in Jerusalem when he reached that age. Why report this event standing alone during those “silent” years?

It is because in Jesus’ times among the Jews, twelve was a very important age. At that age a Jewish boy became known as a “son of the commandment” (later called “bar mitzvah”). A boy’s primary accountability was now to God through obedience to the Torah — the Law.

Some branches of Judaism continue to celebrate the same transition to manhood today. At the event the twelve-year-old lad begins his speech saying, “Today I am a man.” He is now old enough to take part in religious services, to form binding contracts, and to testify before religious courts. Some authorities say he has even reached the minimum age to marry.

So, at twelve years of age Jesus makes the trek along with his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, covering ninety miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem. Here he sees for the first time the magnificent Herod’s temple, the throngs of pilgrims surging back and forth on its streets, the aged and bearded teachers holding forth in the temple’s courts. As we learn, his interest and involvement in the religious aspect of this great Jewish festival was keen for a lad of his age.

But the festival was over all too soon and his parents along with relatives and neighbors began walking the dusty roads back to Nazareth. At the end of the first day they searched for him among the company only to discover Jesus was not in the caravan. They were forced to turn back to the city. There they searched for three days for their son. They found him in the temple, listening to the teachers, asking and answering questions. You would think this an unlikely place and activity for a boy of his age to spend long periods of time.

When his parents found him and expressed their disappointment over the delay he had caused, he gave an unexpected reply: Why were you searching for me he asked. Did you not know I have to be in my father’s house?

There are a variety of explanations for this episode and why it stands alone to reflect his life as a twelve-year-old. For me, the most likely explanation is this: it was Jesus’ first awakening as to who his eternal Father really was. It was the beginning of his understanding of why he was in the world, and the beginning of his grasp of the meaning of his incarnation as the Son of God.

Whatever the case, it calls our attention to the spiritual development of sons and daughters today. Twelve-year-olds are more susceptible to deep truths about God than we may reckon. It’s the approximate age for their spiritual awakening.

Perhaps this insight should focus us all the more on the capacity any twelve-year-old in our circles has for religious knowledge.

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Photo credit: Daniel Lawson (via flickr.com)

Where Do Babies Come From?

When I was growing up back in the thirties and early forties of the last century adults did not talk to little children about where babies come from. Society was still quite Victorian.

If there had been a birth, a tiny infant would just turn up in a mother’s arms at church. Children were of course curious but were discouraged from asking questions, and simple answers were not offered.

If a child did ask where babies come from there was always the story of the stork with a baby wrapped in a diaper suspended from its beak. Storks made the deliveries. We children knew very early that it was just a made-up story.

I recall coming in from play one day when I was seven and finding my much older married sister, Ruby, sitting with my mother in our living room.

Mid-afternoon visits were not common so on the side I asked Mother why she was here. I was told her ankles were swelling and Dr. Creighton was coming to see her. That was all. Not many weeks after that I learned that she had a baby and that, at my young age, I was an uncle. It was all so mysterious.

Like any child I had a natural curiosity about such mysteries so I worked out my own theory. For one thing, I noted that it was usually the mother who carried the infant into our little church on a Sunday.

I learned also by listening guardedly to adult conversations that the baby’s existence was in some way connected to the mother’s recent visit to the little hospital on Fifth Street.

So, here was my theory: When a woman goes to the hospital for any reason, after she gets well and is about to be discharged, the hospital gives her a baby to take with her. I saw it as a going away gift that she could keep. I never went so far as to address the preceding question of where the white-clad nurses got the babies to give away in the first place.

My explanation satisfied me for a while and then it fell apart. Mae Darion was a single woman who worked for our family. At one point she was admitted to the hospital on Fifth Street for an undisclosed reason. Meanwhile, Mrs. Elliott from the west end of town was also admitted.

Both Mae Darion and Mrs. Elliott were discharged about the same time. But as I listened in on adult talk I learned that the hospital gave Mrs. Elliott two babies and Mae Darion none. I didn’t think that was a fair distribution of prizes. My theory collapsed.

I don’t think I was greatly cheated by being kept in the dark about these fundamentals of life in my earlier years. There was plenty of time in growing up to fill in the blanks and get a sensible understanding of reproductive processes.

Yet, unfortunately, children who aren’t instructed by adults near them may be driven by their curiosity to gather information from less trustworthy sources on the playground — sometimes helpful but usually crass.

This whole subject is in my thoughts these days because three days ago two of our grandchildren, Robyn and Richard, journeyed home from a Toronto hospital with a beautiful baby girl — Naomi Grace Junko Hicken. Two older brothers, Joshua (seven) and Alexander (four), had been well prepared and received Naomi joyfully even before parents and baby left the hospital.

In the weeks before Naomi’s arrival, Robyn tells me, there were plenty of questions, especially from the four-year-old. This was one of them:What was I before I was born? Was I air?” Robyn gave age-appropriate answers to this and other questions, but always made the point that all human life is from a God who loves us even before we are born and always will love us.

We have recently welcomed two more great- grandchildren, Isabel Grace Bastian and Eleanor Jane Ellis, and are already eager to welcome another at the end of the summer. In the months that follow, for Joshua, Alexander, and eventually Isabel and Eleanor, there will be many more curious questions for parents to answer.

And while we respond to the flow of down-to-earth questions little children ask about the biological origins of human life we must be sure to help them to ask and receive the fundamental God-is-our-creator answer that undergirds all others.

When the prophet, Jeremiah, announced his call to the prophetic office he began with the word as he had heard it from God: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you (Jeremiah 1:5a). What security that assurance gives to young or old who embrace it — God created us, loves us, and knows us altogether!

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Photo credit: R Hicken

How to Give Order and Enrichment to Daily Prayers

Seventy-three years ago, when I was 20, the main building of the Christian college I attended served many purposes. It held classrooms, dining facilities, the administrators’ offices, library and, on the third floor, a women’s dormitory.

People seemed everywhere.

There was no private corner where I could go right after breakfast with my pocket New Testament for a quiet time, and the men’s dormitory was too distant. So I found a place in the furnace room next to the coal bin, and each morning I sat there on a three-legged stool under a bare 25-watt light bulb and had my prayers.

That is not a boast. After a lifetime of attempting to make prayer a regular and central part of my life I feel I am still a beginner. Prayer is an inexhaustible subject and at 93 I am still a student of it.

But in this blog I share with you — as I have in past years — the format and strategy I often use to guide and enrich me in the practice of daily prayer. Call it the five stages of prayer: A-C-P-I-T.

1. ADORATION. Here’s one thing I’ve learned: prayers should always begin with time to focus on who it is we are addressing. We come before God with a keen sense of his majesty, his holiness, his infinite greatness and power. And we give time for these attributes to sink in.

The Virgin Mary burst forth, My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. Her flash of reverence is worth our pondering. We can set our minds to adoration by repeating such Psalm fragments as, Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name. Or, we can use the instruction of our Lord as a starting place. Jesus himself said of the Father: Hallowed be thy name. Hallowed means “greatly revered and honored.”

Adoration as an exercise clears the mind and takes us into the inner sanctuary of worship. It dispels the fog of our earth-bound living and awakens the soul to reality that is much larger than our realm of time and space.

2. CONFESSION. In a collection of prayers that John Wesley published before he was 30 years of age, he gave this helpful pattern for confession: “Heal, O Father of mercies, all my infirmities (_____), strengthen me against all my follies (_____), forgive me all my sins (_____). Wesley put blanks in so anyone using this prayer could personalize it. Our prayer should always have a place for self-examination and confession, sometimes made with tears and shame but always made with full confidence in God’s forgiving and sustaining mercy.

3. PETITION. In petition we bring personal needs before our Heavenly Father. They follow naturally upon confession. Our petitions are likely to grow out of issues we have confessed — our infirmities, our follies, our sins.

But we don’t remain there. We pray for more grace to overcome, more strength to do hard tasks, and a clearer vision to carry out our mission in life. George Buttrick wrote, “No situation remains the same when prayer is made about it.”

4. INTERCESSION. This means going beyond ourselves to pray for others — family, friends, work associates, neighbors, our congregation, enemies, other ministries, civic leaders in government, etc. To intercede thus for others near and far saves us from narrowness in our prayers.

The efficacy of intercession is one of the profoundest mysteries of the spiritual life. Prayer’s effects are often imperceptible. Answers to them on occasion may be immediate, but not always. And our intercessions are never to be viewed like approaching a vending machine, producing instantly what we ask.

Sometimes the answer is contrary to our desires. Isaiah the prophet proclaimed to a forlorn nation: They that wait upon the Lord (remain constant in their faith) shall renew their strength. James Hastings wrote, “It would not be unfair to estimate a person’s religion by the earnestness by which he longs for the welfare of others.”

5. THANKSGIVING. In adoration, where we began, we worship God for who he is; in thanksgiving, where we end, we praise him for all his benefits. For example, salvation through our Savior and Redeemer, Jesus the Christ, typically springs first to mind. In response to that unprecedented gift it is good to let our spirits soar in thanksgiving.

We might next recall the largest blessings of our lives, and give thanks. And we also remember the smallest mercies, and give thanks. Giving thanks is like priming a pump. It may take a few pumps before the sense of gratitude flows. But even if our thanksgiving is sluggish at first due to fatigue or low mood, it will begin to flow.

After many decades of regular prayer, I commend it to you as a daily practice. Try out the A-C-P-I-T strategy. Find a time and place, if even in a furnace room and under a dim light bulb. And continue along with me to plumb prayer’s depths and joys.

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Photo credit: Stephen Platt (via flickr.com)

Something Wonderful Happened After a Doctor Phoned a Pastor

The phone call (several decades ago now) was from a doctor, a member of the congregation I was pastoring. He had just informed his patient, Cedric (not his real name), that there was no treatment — neither surgery nor medications — to arrest his advanced bone cancer metastases.

After breaking the news gently to Cedric the doctor had asked if he would like to see a pastor and Cedric, somewhat shaken, had replied yes, so the doctor was phoning me to make an appointment for him.

But when the time for the appointment came, Cedric did not show up. I was not surprised. I had learned a bit more about him and thought prayer with a pastor was one of the last things he would have been interested in.

He and two other unmarried brothers lived on a farm a few miles from town. The three were reclusive and I learned that they wouldn’t have seen the inside of a church more than a half dozen times in their lives. I asked a church member who knew the area well if I should I go to the farm to look him up. He advised me not to.

But a few weeks later during a visit to another church member in the hospital, I saw Cedric’s name on the patient list near the entrance. He was in room five in the bed nearest the door.

When I introduced myself I could see he recognized who I was. There he lay, the head of his bed raised slightly and a Bible open and face down across his chest.

We conversed briefly about the words he had been reading from John’s Gospel, and before I left him I asked if he would like to open his heart to the Lord Jesus. He nodded in the affirmative, so I prayed a short prayer of repentance and faith, which he repeated after me.

It was my custom, after I had visited with two or three parishioners, to sit in the car in the parking lot for a few moments to review in my mind each visit before driving away.

That day I had mixed feelings about my visit with Cedric. I didn’t even know him, nor he me. Why didn’t I make the first visit just a friendship visit ending with a short prayer? Had I been too hasty? Was he really ready for that new believer’s prayer? I was hard on myself.

But a day or so later when I visited him again I could tell he was waiting for me to come. That began, as I recall, a string of visits across two months, as his body wasted away. First he was moved to a single-occupant room. Then, as his condition advanced, he was placed on a Stryker frame.

It became evident to me that, in that initial prayer weeks before, he had experienced God’s love and forgiveness. Due to his weakness, our visits were short, but they were enriching to both of us.

One day as I approached him I asked, “What are you thinking about these days, Cedric?” He responded matter of factly, “I’m thinking about dying.” That prompted a short but faith-enriching conversation. He obviously had the assurance of eternal life through a living faith in Christ.

The next time I saw him he said, “I would like to be baptized.” I replied that I would come back the next day to do this. There was a reason for one-day delay. In a close-knit community I wanted to be sure I was the main pastor if not the only pastor ministering to him. I didn’t want to invade another pastor’s territory for church services.

On my next visit, I said to a nurse, “Cedric tells me he wants to be baptized.” She understood immediately and provided me with a small basin. Then she offered a white towel, saying, “You may use this to wipe any excess water from his head.”

There the two of us were alone in the room, one strapped to a Stryker frame, the other holding a small basin of water. There was no instrumental music, no congregational singing. After a few words of instruction I raised my voice slightly and said, “Cedric, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I wiped the excess water from his forehead. After a short prayer I left him.

The next day I made my last visit. As I bent over his bed he said in little more than a dying whisper, “Yesterday was the most wonderful day in my life.” He was referring to his baptism.

I had Cedric’s funeral. His brothers were there. I told his story. I expect to see Cedric again.

Photo credit: nerissa’s ring (via flickr.com)

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An Unexpected Question to Those Who Favor Life Over Abortion

In his May 24 issue of Turning Point, John Stonestreet quotes a recent tweet sent out by Israeli journalist, Sarah Tuttle-Singer, who writes for the Times of Israel.

It reads: “Dear Pro-life Friend: What have you personally done to support lower-income single mothers? I’ll wait.”

Her assumption must be that pro-life advocates in general adamantly campaign against the abortion scourge but are suspected of doing nothing for “saved babies” after they are born.

That is, they crusade with a passion to spare unwanted babies from destruction at the abortionist’s hand but may do nothing to care for the needy little ones and their mothers after they are spared.

Those who stand for abortion on demand point this out and say pro-lifers should stop crusading because they don’t really care about human life after birth.

Tuttle-Singer’s question must have been intended as a ‘gotcha’ challenge, to silence pro-life advocates once and for all. But instead, her question brought an outflow of heart-felt answers — more than 13,000 of them in all.

For example, a Twitter user named Barbara wrote back, “Since I am unable to foster, I often babysit for my friends who do. I donate to a foster closet. We help pay bills for people in crisis situations and my older children help when they are able.”

Here’s another example. A Pastor named Hans replied: “Started a non-profit that gives free clothes etc. to those in need. Fostered a teen mom. Fostered another mother until she got her life back on track. Found them housing. Gave them a church family who helps and supports them.”

One might argue that these testimonials are the cream of a collection. Stonestreet believes to the contrary that the 13,000 plus responses as a whole flow in the same positive direction.

Attached to Stonestreet’s article is a miniaturized list of hundreds of similar replies as evidence that the number of pro-lifers who do care about the mother and baby after birth is large and credible.

And even these numerous responses do not tell the whole story. Stonestreet draws attention as well to the nation’s many pregnancy care centers. They outnumber Planned Parenthood and other abortion venues three to one.

Alabama alone has 70 of these centers dedicated to saving preborn life. Take the individual actions illustrated above together with the large number of crisis intervention centers, and one can see that pro-life advocates obviously care in a very active way. Thirteen thousand is a large number.

The controversial abortion issue appears to have taken on fresh energy in the United States — some say as much as anything due to high resolution ultrasound technology that shows us that what is being aborted is not a “fetus,” but more accurately a preborn baby!

This flow of pro-life responses — individual actions, pregnancy crisis centers, and legislation — shows that support for the unborn is not just rhetorical. It is a movement undergirded by compassion and hard work. Support for the dignity and humanity of the unborn cannot be quelled after more than 40 years of attempts to do so.

Abortion to many may be just a word signifying something about which they never think seriously. Some may turn away with a shrug; others insist it is every woman’s right and at her discretion alone; while Christians see it as a horrific offense against humanity and their opposition and response of mercy will never cease.

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Re-post: Good News/Bad News: It’s No Joke

Good news/bad news jokes add a touch of humor to our lives. Like this one:

A pastor reports to his congregation on Sunday morning that he has both good news and bad news for them.

He tells them: “The bad news is that last night’s storm blew a hole in the roof and there is a lot of water damage in the choir room.” The people respond with a concerned murmur.

The pastor goes on: “But there’s good news. The good news is that we have all the money we need to repair the damage.” The people brighten.

“However,” the pastor adds, “the bad news is that the money is in your pockets.” Spontaneous laughter erupts but sounds a little nervous.

Stories like this may bring a chuckle, but they also reflect the way life often unfolds. Good and bad news both descend on us, sometimes too close to each other for our liking.

This thought came to me some time back when I read an interview with Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback church in California. You recall that he made news over his runaway bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life. The book had brought him fame and great wealth almost overnight. Great! Wonderful news!

But shortly thereafter he was in the news again, this time because cancer had struck in his family. After much prayer, he and his wife came to terms with what they were facing.

Shortly after receiving the news, in an interview he said, “Life is a series of problems: either you are now in one, or you’re just coming out of one, or you’re getting ready to go into another one.”

He also said, “I believe that life is kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and that at all times you have something good and something bad running in your life.”

A decade has passed, but in saying this, Pastor Warren spoke from his own poignant experience. One day had brought surprising news of great wealth to the family; the next brought the threat of great loss. So it is for all of us.

Can we draw lessons from his two-rail metaphor for how we should live? We are enabled to face both good and bad that come so startlingly close together with a measure of equanimity when we see our lives in the context of eternity.

Rick Warren pointed this out when he said, “In a nutshell, life is preparation for eternity …This [brief life] is the warm-up act — the dress rehearsal. God wants us to practice on earth what we will do forever in eternity” — which is to let nothing dim our view of him in all his glory.

This is in complete agreement with what the Apostle Peter teaches Christians who apparently had been ripped from their homes and scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1).

We are born again into a living hope, he writes (1 Peter 1:3). We have an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade — kept in heaven for you (1:4). We know that our salvation will be fully revealed in the last time (1:5). All this is a treasure trove of reassurance and will sustain us even while we may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials (1:6).

When the bad news comes, we also have God’s word through the Apostle Paul: For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

Photo credit: Jon S (via flickr.com)

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