Re-post: Does Aging Scare You? Learn to Laugh

photo credit: deepblue66 (via flickr.com)

I first became aware of the relentless process of aging in an unexpected way. I was a college pastor, 37 years old, and a student from the campus across the street came for an appointment.

She talked out her problem and we had prayer. As she got up to leave, she said with a warm smile, “Thanks very much for seeing me; I thought it would be good for me to talk to someone middle aged.”

It was an entirely unexpected thought. Me, middle aged? I pondered it after she left. I’m not middle aged, I said to myself. I am not that much different from the hundreds of students I preach to every Sunday.

But the truth slowly sank in, and since then, people here and there have managed to keep me conscious of the aging process.

For example, I was holding a church conference in Western Canada when I was in my early 60s. I was crossing the conference grounds from the lodge to the meeting place, singing to myself, when I saw Maurice coming toward me.

Maurice stopped, put his hand on my forearm gently, and with understanding in his voice, said something like, “At your age, you shouldn’t be walking and singing at the same time.”

Some time later, my wife Kathleen and I were driving across Michigan on I-94. It was late afternoon and time to quit for the day, so I pulled into a motel and went inside. I asked the usual questions: Do you have a non-smoking room for two — preferably on the main floor?

The man at the desk studied his charts and then, breaking out in a smile as if he was going to be helpful, said, “I can give you a handicapped room. Fully equipped.” I showed no shock but it was another jarring moment. Did I look that decrepit, I wondered.

But the coup de grace came closer to home, administered by the boss of a roofing crew replacing the shingles on the house next door. I asked him to look at the roof of my house and give me his opinion. We walked together to my driveway and he stood for a few moments looking up. Then, he said pleasantly, “You won’t be around to replace those shingles.”

I’m not alone with such experiences. I was standing with the late Bishop Paul N. Ellis once when a young man asked him what it was like to be old (he was then in his 60s). He replied, “At least I’ve got there, while you aren’t sure you will.”

It was a humorous exchange, but his question did not surprise either of us. Observant seniors aplenty can tell about the subtle social changes that begin to manifest themselves as age creeps on: sales clerks may show lack of intere; con artists look on the aging as easy prey for their scams; people in a group may ignore their comments.

Growing old is not for the humorless. I’ve been collecting funny stories about aging and loss of memory for some time now. To do so is not politically incorrect because I’m telling stories on myself.

One story my wife and I both enjoy is about the elderly couple that were driving out to meet friends for a social evening. She says to him, “Honey, you try to remember where we’re going and I’ll try to remember who we are.”

Admittedly, there is a less pleasant side to growing old. Strength begins to wane, degenerative diseases show up, floating creaks and aches become regular companions.

Perhaps worst of all is the subtle uncertainty, always just under the surface, about what the future will hold in this brave new world. The Psalmist’s prayer takes on new meaning for us: Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone (Ps. 71:9).

In my experience, that sort of response is the right one. We can allow faith to take us by one arm and hope by the other as we walk, perhaps a little less briskly than before, down this pilgrim path.

Faith says in one ear, And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you (Rom. 8:11).

That doesn’t need to apply only to our future resurrection. It can also mean that even the closing years of this stage of our mortal journey can be infused with special spiritual energy from God’s Spirit.

Meanwhile, hope says in the other ear, Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of highest privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory (Rom. 5:2, NLT).

If faith brings the future into the present, giving substance to our hopes (Heb.11:1 NEB), then hope gives the present the assurance of a glorious future.

In the meantime, the people of God — the church — can do a wonderful thing for those in their midst who are of advanced years. It can counter today’s tendency to diminish and devalue the aged.

I think of this when I read one of my favorite chapters in the Old Testament at the present, Leviticus 19. It sets forth a summary of how God’s chosen people were to live out his holiness in community, and one verse says, Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord (Lev.19:32).

First published in Christianity Today

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Can We Be Christians and Secular at the Same Time?

Recently the Barna Groups’ annual report on the “State of the Bible” reported that half of Americans are Bible users and about six out of ten say Bible reading has changed their lives. This is good.

At the same time, however, the report showed a growth in the percentage of Americans with secular and non-traditional  views on such matters as: divorce, sex outside of marriage, same-sex marriage, having a baby out of wedlock, doctor-assisted suicide, pornography, polygamy …., etc. I suspect the Canadian picture would be little different.

Do these findings suggest that secularism is eroding the Christian faith to any serious degree? I propose three questions to ponder.

First, in the simplest words possible what is secularism? The word is from a Latin root that means this world or age. The emphasis of secularism is on human self-sufficiency and the concerns of this world only. Secularism tends to be anti-religious and has no place for the eternal or transcendent.

Secularism insists that religion is a private matter and should be kept within one’s own head or at most, within the walls of the church. We might ask ourselves: Am I buying into this, and subtly devaluing  Christian faith in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus  Christ, favoring instead what is secular only?

Second, in processing the flow of questions that repeatedly crop up in today’s social  discourse, what is my primary source of authority in matters of life and death? Do I seek answers from the Scriptures, and do I rest my beliefs in what the Bible makes clear? Recall that the Bible stood as a beacon on all of life long before we moderns came on the scene and it will continue to do so long after we are gone. It has proven to be timeless.

For example, when the Bible makes clear that marriage is a covenant between one man and one woman for life, as is beautifully described in Scripture and sanctioned by Jesus, do I lodge my faith there and seek to be obedient regardless of national trends? (Genesis 1:27; 2:20-25; Matthew 19:1-12; Hebrews 13:4)

Third, do I join weekly with a company of Christians to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, and to enrich my understanding and practice of the Christian faith? It is in neglecting this historic practice that secularism may erode faith and make inroads into my values, moral understandings, and lifestyle  commitments.

The New Testament’s most used word for church is ecclesia which means the “called out.” It appeared first in common Greek and was adopted by the apostles and church fathers. It means to assemble or to be called out to meet in a central place. A church is a gathering of God’s people whether in a store front or a cathedral, whether a dozen in numbers or a thousand.

Jesus was speaking of the church in its simplest form when he promised: Where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them (Matthew 18:20). Churches have their human weaknesses, for sure, but they are God’s way of gathering his flocks together for nurture and challenge. Our scorning or even neglecting such gatherings may reflect the drift of secularism.

The writer of the Book of Hebrews exhorts: Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another — and all  the more as you see the day approaching (Hebrews 10:25).

If we stay alert to the creeping inroads of secularism, assent to the authority of God’s holy word, reading from it daily, and join our energies regularly with a company of God’s people we will avoid the world’s secularity and live joyfully with eternal life in view.

 

Photo credit: Chris Yarzab (via flickr.com)

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No Helicopter Lifts to the Mountains of God

You’re in mountain country. You have little protection from squalls. Nights get cold and wild animals lurk.

Your guide points across a wide valley to a majestic range in the distance. “There,” he tells you,” the sun always shines; you breathe crystal-clear air; mountain gales do not batter; and wild beasts are unknown.

“Best of all,” he says, still pointing at the towering range, “one dwells there who is glorious beyond words, and he receives warmly those who respond humbly to him.”

You feel a sudden sense of longing while the image of a helicopter forms in your head. “I want to go,” you say.

No helicopter appears. Your guide beckons you to follow and he starts in the direction of the valley that must be crossed. The path descends, narrows and at points becomes difficult. At times it threads through a darkening canyon and the sense that predatory animals may be near chills the blood.

You feel like turning back but a moment later the path opens to a wider place, as it does by times. After a brief rest to catch your breath and with the encouragement of your guide you say, “Let’s go on.”

This is a story, of course. It pictures two of many experiences in the Christian life reflected in Romans 5:1-5. They are hope and hardship.

Hope is the expectation that someday we will be in “the land that is fairer than day,” as Sanford G. Bennett portrays it in his song, The Sweet By and By. There we shall see God face-to-face in his radiant presence! (1 Corinthians 13:12). 

In our mortality we can scarcely imagine the glory of God although across history there have been moments when he has drawn especially near. Moses returned from Sinai after being in the Presence and his countenance shone with God’s reflected glory. The tabernacle in the wilderness was marked by visible manifestations (Shekinah) of God’s presence. And the disciples experienced this too:  ‘We beheld his glory,” the Apostle John wrote.

All of this, and so much more, is the focus of the Christian hope. The majestic mountain range can only hint at God’s splendor.

Yet as marvelous as the hope of God’s glory is, there is a valley to cross and that  means hardship. There are no helicopter rides to the Mountain of God.

That’s why Paul speaks also of unpleasant times along the way. The King James Version uses the word tribulations to describe this reality. J. B. Phillips paraphrases it, trials and troubles. The Revised Standard Version reads, sufferings.

Whichever of these expressions we choose, none speaks of an experience we want, but each reflects an aspect of life every believer will have. Although life is also filled with times of great fulfillment and accomplishment, trials and troubles are a part of everyone’s experience in the valley of our mortality. They confront us all in the valley of our mortality.

Yet, the hope on our horizon makes the menacing shadows and storms of life endurable — even worthwhile. Note Paul’s progression of thought in Romans 5:3,4: Hardships produce endurance. That is, they develop grit as we learn to hold up under them. And, endurance produces character. Character is who we really are in intention and commitment. And character produces (more) hope.

To the new believer, hope may begin as little more than a doctrine. But the successful meeting of adversity nourishes it into a sustaining conviction. And even while still in the valley we may be granted fresh glimpses of the mountains of God, heightening our anticipation of seeing his glory as our journey progresses.

If the Christian life is an intertwining of hope and hardship shall we then resolve to bear this world’s suffering with resignation? Possibly, at times, but Paul has something even loftier in mind. Resignation is only one aspect of the Christian response. The other aspect is rejoicing.

“We rejoice in our hope,” the Apostle writes. The mountains are there; the valley must be crossed; the perils may be stark; but the Almighty God is bigger than them all.

The life of faith for Annie Johnson Flint was no helicopter ride to heaven. She lost both parents early in life and spent most of her years as an invalid. Yet she could write:

The danger that his love allows

Is safer than our fears may know,

The peril that his care permits

Is our defense wher’er we go.

 

Adapted from Along The Way

by Donald N Bastian

Photo credit: r chelseth (via flickr.com)

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Re-post: When the Church is Grounded in Truth

Kathleen and I read and discuss a chapter from the Scriptures together every morning. I wish you could have been with us for that exercise today.

The passage was Acts 6, telling how the young church resolved a social problem. The church at that time was made up of Jews, but some of them spoke Hebrew and others spoke Greek. Among both groups there were widows who were being supported by the benevolence of the church. But the Greek-speakers complained that their widows were being overlooked when the food was distributed.

The early church was a vigorous movement, not shackled with the complexities of today’s more institutionalized church. Nevertheless, they showed focus in the church’s primary duty — to proclaim — and administrative savvy — to respond — when an internal problem arose that needed addressing.

Here’s how the Apostles engaged the whole body of new Christians:

They themselves clearly held primary authority, but they did not rule autocratically. Instead they called the believers together to seek their assistance. This displayed a wonderful example of openness and shared responsibility.

First, the Apostles cast the problem in terms of right and wrong: “It would not be right for us,” they said, “to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.”

They asked the large body of believers to choose seven men who would be assigned to deal with this disturbing problem. They were to be men full of the Holy Spirit (foremost) and wisdom (God-anointed common sense).

The seven were consecrated by the laying on of hands and put to the task of caring for the apparent inequity among the widows. At the same time, the Apostles underlined that their own first priority was to “give themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.” Proclamation and teaching must dominate.

How the young church went about this choosing is not known since the number of converts had swelled into the thousands. Interestingly, the seven who were chosen all have Greek names and they are likely Greek-speakers. Stephen, the first-named, stands out as “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.”

Although set apart to serve in administrative ways, Stephen is singled out as a miracle worker and a strong proclaimer of the word. This got him into trouble. First, some members of a Greek-speaking synagogue began to argue with him, but they were no match for his wisdom and the energy of the Spirit he possessed.

So they went a step further and rounded up some false witnesses, plying them with lies. This stirred up the masses and irritated the city elders and teachers of the law. Stephen was dragged before the Sanhedrin – the most influential court of the Jews.

Fearlessly he spoke to this body, and his speech cost him his life. But as they stoned him a man named Saul of Tarsus was looking on.

Here’s what appears to stand out for us today. To be effective in our world, the church must be committed to the truth of the Gospel in all aspects of its life — in preaching, administration, facing of opposition, and seizing its opportunities.

The Apostles had a keen sense of their primary duty to preach the word of God, so they could speak about that duty in terms of right and wrong. Not better or worse. Not preferred or unsuitable. What they were to do was right and to neglect it would have been wrong.

There is the same sense of “oughtness” with regard to the needs of the Greek-speaking widows. The Apostles acknowledged the need, set the number at seven, and called the community to assist in the choices. It was done cleanly, openly. In reading the account one gets a sense of clarity and truth.

The issue of truth is critical today because truth — as the Scriptures see truth — is under attack. The Psalmist prays: “Surely you desire truth in the inward parts.” Jesus said, “I am the truth.” He also said repeatedly, “I tell you the truth.” John writes that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” The Apostle Paul encouraged the Galatian Christians to “speak the truth in love.” When we read the story of Stephen we feel like we’re reading about the embodiment of truth.

The relativism regarding truth is so wide-spread in our times that it makes it harder, sometimes even for Christians, to face many issues of life as either right or wrong. This episode from the functioning of the early church challenges us to give ourselves to God’s truth in the proclamation of his word and in the administration of his church.

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Photo credit: Jon Hurd (via flickr.com)

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Revised Re-post: How a Little Boy’s Cries for Justice Were Answered and Why

Imagine two brothers four and six. Their Uncle Carl gives them a bag of candies of all shapes and sizes.

They run excitedly to their mother for help in dividing their treasure.

She empties the bag on the kitchen table. The boys watch intently. Then toward each of them she slides one portion.

Suddenly the four-year-old lets out a mighty yelp. “That’s not fair!” he cries. He’s sure the older brother has more big pieces of candy than he. The older brother contends: “I’m older than you.”

The pleasure of the moment disappears. To settle claims and counterclaims the mother repeats the process. To them, she is the arbiter of fairness, and this time, the younger brother is satisfied.

Where would a four-year-old boy get such a distinct and insistent sense of fairness? He doesn’t even read yet.

Here’s the Christian answer: We humans are made in God’s image and fairness is inherent to the nature of God. The recurrent call for fairness is common to our humanity.

Speaking formally, when we call for fairness we are calling for justice. Justice means having a thorough review of details so as to give each party in a quarrel their dues.

Isaiah writes: For the Lord is a God of justice (Isaiah 30:18,19). He is in his very nature just, and he is the source of all true justice.

Because we are made in God’s image, both the impulse to be fair and our strong expectation to be treated fairly are inborn in us. For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones (Psalm 32:27-29)

In Old Testament times God sent prophets to his people to awaken them to their offenses. If, for example, the rich were cheating their neighbors in business deals and the poor were being impoverished at their hands, the prophets called them to repent before God and be just in their dealings.

Likewise, in New Testament times Jesus rebuked the Pharisees on this matter of fairness: You give a tenth of your spices – mint dill and cumin, he said, But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.

He insisted that both their religious practices and their interpersonal behaviors be above board and just!

Children get their first lessons on justice in their childhood homes if what they count their own is respected there — whether a small toy or a special keepsake.

Susanna Wesley, the mother of John Wesley, knew this. Among her rules in raising her large family, she insisted that no child be allowed to take the possessions of another, be it as little as a pin, without the owner’s permission. That’s how the experience of justice is awakened.

The mother who divided candy carefully between her two boys had an instinct for the importance of what she was doing; she was modeling to them the importance of fair play.

Fair play — justice — should also be practiced in the church — whether in a local congregation or a global denomination. Consider the application of justice in the early church, as recounted in the book Acts chapter 6:

In the early days of the church the Greek-speaking widows were not getting fair treatment in the distribution of relief for the poor. The Apostles did not brush the complaint off.

Rather, they wisely set apart seven men (with Greek names) to see that relief was distributed fairly. This ensured both fairness and the perception of fairness.

Blessed is that Christian body that conducts its business with meticulous attention to justice, honesty, and transparency.

When Uncle Carl gave two little boys a bag of candy, he didn’t know this would cause a disturbance; a four year-old boy set the stage by his unexpected urgent call for a recount; and his mother seized the opportunity to teach them a basic lesson about life.

Photo credit: James Cridland (via flickr.com)

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How Kathleen First Experienced God’s Holiness

My wife was seven years old and known as Kathleen Swallow, when her father died from complications after surgery. This left her widowed mother with six children, the seventh two months from birth, and the now-destitute family on a mortgaged farm in the dustbowl of Saskatchewan. It was 1933.

Her mother’s unmarried brother, Uncle Ossie, an engineer on the New York Railroad, wrote that if she would bring the family to Niagara Falls, Ontario, he would move from across the river in New York State and provide a home for them.

So, after going through the hectic details of auctioning off the farm while caring for an infant and six other children, this forlorn mother and children boarded a train for Ontario.

On that long and tedious trip a United Church missionary on board befriended the family. She was also traveling to Niagara Falls, Ontario, and volunteered that when the family was settled she would make sure they got to church.

Church had played no great role in the Swallow family on the prairies although occasionally in their rural community farmers arranged for the use of a one-room schoolhouse in order to attempt a simple service – a reading from the Bible and a few thoughts about that Scripture given by one of the men.

The missionary kept her word. When the family had settled in the dwelling provided by Uncle Ossie she came and took the five oldest of the seven children to the St. Andrews United Church where she herself attended.

Kathleen describes the experience as follows: After Sunday School all five were gathered up and led to the sanctuary where they sat quietly side-by-side waiting as the congregation formed.

To them, the church was a place of wonder, the large and beautiful sanctuary a new experience, so they waited in expectation.

The organist played softly as the congregation gathered. Worshipers entered and sat without conversation, waiting for the choir to appear in the the chancel.

The robed choir processed in and remained standing in the choir loft. The minister then entered, going directly to the central pulpit. Then the organ swelled, the congregation stood, and choir and congregation sang together,

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,

Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee.

Holy, Holy, Holy, merciful and mighty,

God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

She recalls that the service always followed this same sequence. And her response, she remembers, was the same each time -– she, by that time an eight-year-old — was awestruck and reverent as she was aware of God’s holy presence.

Kathleen recounted all of this to me one morning recently after breakfast when we read Psalm 99 together. That psalm brought back to her the never-to-be-forgotten sense of holy awe she felt at eight years of age in that Niagara Falls church.

Psalm 99 is about the kingship of God. He is king over all the earth so let the nations tremble, the psalmist proclaims (verse 1). Also, He extols, the king is mighty and he loves justice, (verse 4).

But what caught Kathleen’s and my attention as we read that morning was that amidst these elevated affirmations about God, the great king, the psalmist proclaims one particular attribute of our God and then repeats himself twice.

Of God, the eternal king, he declares: he is holy (verses 3, 5 and 9).

The word for holy or holiness occurs more than 830 times in the Old Testament. At core it means to be separate, or set apart. Applied to God, it signifies that he is separate from and transcendent over all his creation. To reflect this, some speak of the “otherness” of God.

Holiness is God’s quintessential attribute. He is all-knowing and merciful and all-powerful, for sure, but undergirding all God’s other attributes is his holiness.

When the Niagara Falls congregation sang, Holy, holy, Holy. Lord God Almighty the holiness of our God is what the hymn invoked in an eight year old. And that is what the eight year old experienced — though in an elementary way — but cannot forget 85 years later.

Photo credit: David (via flickr.com)

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Christian Meditation Makes For Healthy Christian Living

Say to someone, “A penny for your thoughts” and that person may surprise you with a flow of content being pondered even as you speak.

Our minds are never blank. They are either thinking, pondering, worrying, rehearsing, plotting, or aimlessly drifting. Our minds host a rapid flow of thoughts and sensations we are not always aware of.

Imagine your mind as a television set left to play all day long. During the day your inner set may drift from your upcoming doctor’s appointment, to your problem with a stubborn child, to getting the car serviced, to an argument with a fellow employee.

As for the TV you suddenly remember that the “remote” is within your reach. This analogy between TV and our minds can point out to Christians that what is in our heads is sometimes good, sometimes not so good, and always there because we allow it.

For example:  One man in love may rehearse in his mind every detail of an intended  proposal for marriage while someone across town may be strategizing every detail of a bank robbery. For both, all begins in the mind.

J.I. Packer, in calling for our disciplined use of the Christian mind, signals us to engage more in meditation. He says meditation is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of Christian truth.

The ingredients for meditation can be diverse: Portions from the Gospel accounts are always at hand. Or one may call up the rich lines of a favorite hymn, or a timeless psalm like Psalms 23 or 91, or the central point of a recent sermon.

Consider the testimony of an elderly man in Scotland. On Sunday mornings he walked the most direct route to church but after service he took the longest way home because he wanted to be alone to meditate on the sermon he had just heard.

Or consider the example of Jesus. Nowhere does the Gospel say he meditated as a separate aspect of his communion with the Father, but it is clear that his mind was actively attuned to the Father even when the devil was tempting him to take shortcuts to the fulfilling of his life’s mission (Matthew 4:1-11).

It’s a Christian practice. The Psalms call us to meditate at least 11 times. For example, the very first Psalm describes the person who is blessed of God as follows:

But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. “The law of the Lord”; there’s a cue for the content of our self-directed thinking. That divine law tells us what God is like and what he wants of us. We are to meditate by turning the truth of his law over in our minds, saying it to ourselves, rehearsing it, for example, either in the quietness of our room first thing in the morning or on the way to school or work.

The Bible gives us other rich resources. The Apostle Paul wrote the Philippian Christians a broad menu for meditation that could serve our purposes well. He wrote, Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things (Philippians 4:8).

Excellent or praiseworthy! This is an exhortation to set the standards of our thought life intentionally. Here the Apostle Paul gives us a bead on abundant material for the life of the Christian mind. If we take his cue seriously we will enrich both our minds and in doing so, our relationships too.

Photo credit: Thomas Leuthard (via flickr.com)

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