How Powerful Are Genes and Family Influence?

I lost both parents 52 years ago this past Christmas season. My mind travels back to ponder ways I am like them due to the genes we share and my long exposure to their influence throughout childhood and youth.

As a young man, I was not wise enough to ask my parents many questions and write their answers down to save family lore. But their children (three older siblings, a ten-year lapse, and then me and my younger sister, Eunice) retained enough insights to patch together often-repeated highlights of their early days.

As well, Carol, our niece by marriage, has shown keen interest in our family history and her research has added to what we know.

My parents came to Canada from Lancashire, England, choosing to settle on the sparsely populated prairies in the West. My father arrived alone in 1904, one year before Saskatchewan was declared a province.

Imagine the resolve and courage my father and mother must have shown. At 20 years of age and not long married, Dad left my mother behind, boarded a ship in Liverpool, and sailed across the vast Atlantic Ocean to Halifax at the eastern ship approach to the young country of Canada.

In Halifax he boarded a train of turn-of-the-twentieth-century vintage and endured what must have seemed an endless journey of two thousand miles into something like oblivion—the unknown and largely unsettled prairies of Western Canada.

He landed in Roche Percee, where there was a developing coal mine in the southeastern region of what was about to be incorporated as the Province of Saskatchewan. His design was to put his coal-mining skills to work and thus provide for the arrival and support of his wife, Esther Jane (née Millington). She was able to join him five months later.

He had good reason to begin his life in Canada as a coal miner, because back in England at fourteen years of age he had been taken into the Lancashire coal mines to work full time with his father. This was permitted by law, and so by the age of 20 he was well qualified, having spent stretches of six years underground, digging coal.

Although he had completed only five weeks of schooling before being taken out of school permanently, he soon graduated from coal mining in Saskatchewan to become a market gardener and later a merchant. In today’s parlance we would say he had no education at all and few “marketable skills.” But he had ideas and vision and endurance.

He was also intensely motivated. This showed to the end of his life. Hard work was a challenge, not an insult or imposition. I remember him as restless, always moving, thinking of other possibilities. To the best of my knowledge he wanted to get out of the rut of the working poor. It was that, I believe, more than anything else that pointed them toward Canada.

His behavior and interesting brogue never let his family forget that he was a Lancastrian by birth and acculturation. In one sentence he might speak of the ’air on his ’ead. In the next his subject might be the hair in the hatmosphere. He never confused the patterns.

For my mother’s later journey to join him she had the association of some other family members. But she also had the added challenge of an ocean storm that kept the ship rolling in rough seas and the passengers secured below deck for several days. Then she had to face the same tedious railroad journey into the far reaches of the developing Dominion of Canada.

My mother’s family also was poor but she had a certain sense of propriety in her manner. She was the disciplinarian of our home. She had the notion that children should obey always never be “cheeky” with adults, and believed that laziness was an offense and would be sure to lead to the poorhouse. She read the Bible to us daily and I think that’s where she got some such ideas.

As immigrants from England to Western Canada, they had no savings to fall back on and no family behind them to rescue them. They knew that if they were ever to come to a place of reasonable security it would be by their own ingenuity and hard work.

I look back on their homesteading venture as noble. They were not complainers, but occasionally they gave us glimpses into how exacting their pioneering life had been. Once my mother spoke of a time of drought early in their days in Canada when she walked three miles across the prairies to the nearest neighbor to exchange turnips for a few carrots so there could be some variety in their diet. All of this helps me to understand why they lived so frugally right up to the end of their lives.

When I think of the early chapters of their lives as immigrants I am filled with awe at their courage and determination to establish themselves in the New World. They both lived to be 83. With a few weeks more than six years of education between them, they established themselves as self-supporting, responsible citizens.

If they were alive today they would blush to learn that I write this way. They were humble people, aware of their imperfections and those of their offspring. But God had put in them a flame of energy to achieve and they exercised it with a will. I treasure their heritage.

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Why Must Christians Pray in Jesus’ Name?

13712688913_80b64ee497_mAttend a Baptist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, or Interdenominational church service in your community and you may notice some differences in forms of worship or theological emphases. But, in every case, you will observe a common likeness in the conclusion of prayers offered — the prayers will end with words like these: We pray all this in the name of Jesus, our Lord.

The practice of praying in Jesus’ name can be traced through history to the final and intimate words of Jesus, spoken to his distraught followers hours before his trial and crucifixion, as recorded in John 14-16.

John tells us that seven times Jesus instructed his followers to energize their continuing work through prayer. In five of those references he told them (and us) to offer prayers in his name (John 14:13a; 14:14; 15:7; 15:21: 16:23). In the other two, Jesus does not mention using his name, but it can be assumed (14:6; 15:7).

In 14:6 Jesus says to his followers, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.” This is comprehensive. It refers primarily to the eternal destiny of believers, but it seems to me to also support the additional truth that in all our prayers we come to the Father through Jesus.

Frequent approaches to God through prayer in Jesus’ name during our lives on earth can be seen as preludes to how we will experience our eternal destiny in heaven.

Only one of these references is a promise without limitations: “You may ask me for anything in my name” (John 14:13b). The absence of limits to what we can ask here has been troubling to some. It’s as though prayer gives us access to a candy shop.

In the instruction that precedes, however, Jesus tells his followers to ask in his name so that the Father will be glorified in the Son. Our prayers in his name are in this promise first and foremost to bring glory to God.

In another of the promises of abundant resources through prayers offered in his name there is the expectation of constancy or faithfulness: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). Intimacy with Jesus through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit appears to be a prerequisite to effective Christian prayer.

Such promises of fruitfulness, however, do not assure smooth sailing in the life of a disciple. Jesus tells his followers that the world will hate and treat them roughly because of his name: and “If they persecuted me they will persecute you also” (15:21).

As an aside, it is interesting to note that in our fading Judeo-Christian culture, when ministers or laypersons are asked to offer a prayer at the start of a community function, the protest heard most commonly is not against the act of prayer itself but against its being offered in Jesus’ name.

Returning to John’s account, Jesus gives a final assurance of results from the effect of praying in His name. “My Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be full” (John 16:23b-24).

There is a connection here between the constancy and depth of our prayers and the joy we experience in the Lord’s service. This explains why Christians who suffer severely for their faith and pray deeply in their suffering may appear to have a joy more abundant than those living untroubled, comfortable lives.

It is clear from these verses that even on the eve of his crucifixion Jesus expected the work of his Kingdom to go on in the world and he gave out the prime resource for expansion of that Kingdom: prayers uttered in faith and in His name.

However much we have yet to learn about prayer, may our prayers offered regularly in Jesus’ name bring depth to Christian living and joy to the Father’s heart.

 
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Re-Post: Making Good Decisions and Sticking to Them

Our grandson Zachary is about to complete his residency in anesthesiology. After four years of medical school, this five-year program, as you would expect, has been highly focused on what an anesthesiologist must know.

But along the way, nuggets of truth tangential to his training have also proven to be valuable. He gave me an example.

Some time back, he listened to a talk a medical doctor had given to a chapter of the Christian Medical Fellowship. It was about how to make good decisions.

The doctor, he explained, set forth two reference points that should be reckoned with when one is making decisions: righteousness and wisdom.

The doctor’s first point was that the standards of righteousness are fixed. They are set down in the Scriptures, and these standards, God’s Ten Commandments, are solid and unchanging reference points.

They may not break down for us the thousands of questions our minds can raise but our decisions are more to be trusted if we act in accordance with them.

For example, we are to worship no other gods, and to revere God’s name; we are not to steal or bear false witness, etc. Issues like these are not negotiable (Exodus 20).

At the same time, the standards of righteousness, though changeless, do not need to be consulted for every decision. For example, whether to wash the car on a Saturday afternoon may not require moral pondering. But whether to return an extra five dollar bill given out unintentionally by a cashier requires a clear and instant moral response.

What to wear to a picnic may not take a lot of moral thought, while whether to enter a business partnership with someone whom you sense may not always be honest does trigger a process that should lead to a clear moral decision.

Wisdom, Zach heard, is the application of common sense undergirded by our understanding of righteousness. Both of these aspects of our reality must be factored in for good decision making.

For example, wisdom helps us to choose our friends wisely. It aids us in making good vocational moves. Working together with the demand that we must aim to be righteous, wisdom applied can save us from entanglement with false friends and such entrapments as substance abuse, pornography, and other soul-destroying enticements.

Wisdom encourages us to maintain our commitment to righteousness and at the same time wrestle with the unknowns and perplexities of life. That is, our commitment to righteousness gives us a solid footing for decision-making while wisdom helps us probe the options, imagine consequences, and evaluate godly advice.

The point the doctor made that seemed most helpful to Zach — and would have been most helpful to me at the same age — was that when we must make a decision for which there is not an obvious “wisdom-directed” answer, after we have satisfied the righteousness criteria we can move forward without paralyzing fear.

That’s because when our first impulse is to honor God and always make righteousness our primary aim, and when we use the best wisdom at our disposal, we can believe that God will take our decisions and bless their outcomes, or even teach us from them. And we can believe as well that he will deliver us from the paralysis of second-guessing our decisions.

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Christmas Makes Us Want to Sing

Saint Luke lays out very carefully the story of our Lord’s coming to earth as a baby. In the process, he includes hymns, or releases of lyrical praise, in four situations in the drama.

After receiving the angel’s message of the special child she would bear and name Jesus, the Virgin Mary traveled from Galilee to the hill country of Judea to visit her relative, Elizabeth. There, Elizabeth exclaimed to her prophetically that she would bear the Lord Christ, and in response Mary broke forth in a beautiful song of exaltation beginning with: My soul glorifies the Lord … (Luke 1:46-55).

I visualize this outbreak of joy and amazement as beginning at the entrance to Elizabeth’s humble dwelling when the two women greeted each other and began to share their stories.

Months later, eight days after Elizabeth’s baby was born (to become John the Baptist), the infant was taken for circumcision and naming. There was some disagreement among friends and relatives about the name, some of whom expected the baby would be named after his father, Zechariah.

As you will recall, Zechariah was unable to speak. This was punishment for his disbelief when the Angel Gabriel made promise of the baby’s coming birth. At that time, Gabriel had also told Zechariah what the baby was to be named. Now, in obedience, Zechariah settled the community discussion by writing on a tablet, “His name is John” (1:62-63).

With that, Zechariah’s powers of speech were restored and the Holy Spirit came upon him. He began to prophesy in a second hymn-like burst of praise, beginning with: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them … (1:68). It’s a long prophecy full of a great hope for Israel.

Luke then tells us about a group of shepherds who some months later were in the region near Bethlehem guarding their sheep from the perils of the night. Unexpectedly, an angel of the Lord appeared and the region glowed with a heavenly light so beyond the ordinary that it terrified them.

The angel first spoke calming words, assuring them that nothing in this extraordinary moment should frighten them. Then followed his message: I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord (2:10-11).

The heavenly messenger then gave simple instruction on where to find the baby: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger (2:12).

As soon as this message was delivered, the lone messenger was joined by a vast company of the heavenly host filling the nighttime skies with their radiance. The heavenly choir sang the third song in the Christmas account: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests (2:14). Due to this special announcement, the shepherds were the first visitors to the newborn baby Jesus, God’s Messiah.

Finally, Luke writes that when the time for Mary’s purification came (forty days after the child’s birth), the parents appeared at the temple to offer two pigeons, the sacrifice required of the poor, and to present their firstborn to God, all in keeping with Jewish law.

While in the temple, this couple was met by Simeon, who was a regular presence there. Simeon not only was a righteous and devout man but a man living under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. He expected to see God’s Messiah — the consolation of Israel — before leaving this life.

That day Simeon, by divine appointment, met Joseph and Mary and the six-week-old baby Jesus. He took the baby into his arms and there on the spot sang a song of praise to God: Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation (2:29-30).

And before Joseph and Mary had even left the temple that day they were accosted by yet another constant worshiper — a prophet named Anna. She was 84 and had been widowed after seven years of a marriage. She had given her life to worship and never left the temple, spending her time there in fasting and prayer.

When she came upon the couple with a baby she too discerned instantly what his unique mission would be. From her, there was no fifth song but she gave public thanks to God and spoke prophetically about the child to other worshipers who were looking forward to the redemption of Israel.

Luke tells the story of that first Christmas as having been saturated with song. The Almighty was manifesting his glory in Jesus the Son and believers were responding. And to this day choirs gather in cathedrals and house churches and even in the aisles of department stores or hospital wards to sing the good news; a Savior has been born — Christ the King.

Along with Mary, Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon, when we observe Christmas well may we also break into song — to the glory of God.

Photo credit: Shehal Joseph (via flickr.com)

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The Faith of a Beautiful Young Woman

Leonardo da Vinci – Annunciazione – Google Art Project

As I reviewed last week, the angel Gabriel told the aged Zechariah that his wife would bear him a son in spite of her lifelong infertility and advanced age, and that this son would be a delight to them and would do wondrous things (Luke 1:13-17).

Zechariah returned to his home when he had completed his temple duties in Jerusalem, and in time he learned that Elizabeth was expecting a child just as the angel had foretold.

Then, in Elizabeth’s sixth month, Gabriel appeared again, this time to Elizabeth’s relative, a young woman named Mary who lived in Nazareth, a small town 85 miles to the north. Luke (1:26-56) tells us she was already formally committed to be married.

The angel’s address to Mary was clear and forthright: Greetings, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you. But his words frightened and perplexed her. After all, angels don’t often visit in visible form and this unusual appearance would at first be troubling.

Gabriel calmed her fears. Don’t be afraid, Mary, he said.

He went on: God is pleased with you. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. The angel declared both the child’s sex and name before a conception had even taken place. The information was being delivered directly from God.

Gabriel continued: Your child will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end. Amazing!

Mary would know the facts of life. Hence her perplexity: How can this be? she asked. What the angel foretold would be contrary to nature as she understood it. Virgins did not have babies; babies were born to mothers and fathers. Gabriel responded: The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.

Mary’s response was wholehearted. Without hesitation, she answered: I am the Lord’s servant. May your words to me be fulfilled. With that, Gabriel vanished.

Some who consider this account are left asking: Is a virgin birth possible? Therefore, some believers struggle with doubt over this part of the Advent account.

Here are two thoughts to encourage faith.

First, the language used describes not the natural but the supernatural. Gabriel’s message is not from those who know only the sciences, but from God the Most High. The Most High is above all — Transcendent, Unlimited, Unrivaled — and he is thus able to do whatever is in accordance with his purposes.

Further to this thought, consider that Mary was told that the conception of this baby was to be a divine enablement radically beyond the natural. Moreover, when the angel said, the power of the Most High will overshadow you, he was using the language of creation (Genesis 1:2b). If God could create the universe with supernatural power at the beginning by the utterance of his word, why could he not work the wonder of a virgin birth?

Second, our personal faith is also encouraged by looking back on the creeds of Christendom. They appear to be unwavering on this matter. Consider the ecumenical version of the Apostle’s Creed. The middle section makes ten affirmations about Jesus Christ, God’s Son. Here are the first two: he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary…

When we utter that creed’s declaration from the heart we join with millions of believers across the centuries and in many parts of the world. We believe! And while we worship Jesus the Christ as our Lord we honor the maiden who willingly, and at great initial cost to her reputation, became God’s servant in his plan to dwell among us in the person of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ, was born
In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn.
And Christian folk throughout the world will ever say —
“Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!
(from a Basque Christmas Carol)

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When Unbelief Becomes Belief: Zechariah’s Story

The first chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke introduces us to Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, both of whom were descendants of the priestly line of Aaron.

They were clearly a godly couple. They kept the Commandments and were careful to seek divine favor. But in spite of all this, they were now advanced in years, perhaps 80 or so, and had remained childless throughout their long life together.

The numbers of Aaron’s descendants had increased across many generations, so all priests could not be on duty at the same time. So they were divided into groups, each with its assigned time of service.

On this occasion, Zechariah’s task was to burn incense at the altar in the temple room adjoining the Holy of Holies, the latter room believed to be where God dwelt among his people.

To the worshipers outside the temple, Zechariah appeared to take much longer than usual and this made them uneasy. The holiness of God was a mystery not to be lightly regarded.

Luke, a doctor known to research and report meticulously, must have learned the details of Zechariah’s experience of that day: An angel had appeared to him. He was startled and shook with fear. The angel calmed him before delivering his special message.

The message was that their decades of prayer about childlessness had been heard. (We might assume they had long since ceased praying for a child. In the world of prayer inexplicable divine delays are not uncommon and are tests to faith.)

The angel went on to tell Zechariah: Your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son. His name will be John. He will be a delight to you; he will bring rejoicing to many beyond his parents; the Lord’s blessing will be on him in abundance; he will never drink wine or other fermented drinks (Luke 1:13b-15a).

This amazing news was followed by a more astounding prophecy in three parts. (1) This child will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. (2) He will be God’s instrument to bring a great revival of faith to Israel. And (3) His ministry will be as though Elijah had reappeared (1:15b-17).

Just as in Elijah’s sweeping ministry, Zechariah’s child was promised to bring healing to the broken relationships between parents and children or children and parents all across the nation. There was to be a great revival of family unity and strength. This promised likeness of miraculous events spanning four hundred years between the Testaments was uncanny.

Zechariah responded in unbelief. He cited his and his wife’s advanced age as a ground for his not believing. Given the long delay of unanswered prayers and the natural impossibility of a pregnancy at their ages, the reader might at first sympathize with his unbelief. But a second look makes it harder to let Zechariah off.

Consider that it was an angel who addressed him. The angel had introduced himself: I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God. I have been sent (1:19). Gabriel is named explicitly only four times in the Bible. He is one of God’s most elevated servants.

Moreover, Zechariah, the Aaronic priest, must have known about the promise of the miraculous return of a prophet in the form of Elijah as given in the last lines of the Old Testament.

In addition to all the above, Zechariah received the announcement while he was burning incense in the Holy Place. Where would one get a more convincing revelation of some miraculous and hoped-for event? Where would it be easier to believe? Despite the long-practiced faith and piety of Zechariah, he is caught in the clutch of unbelief.

All of this explains why Gabriel pronounces a temporary judgment on him. Zechariah is told he will be speechless until the promised event is realized. In this way, God would both chastise his doubting servant and at the same time promise to be gracious.

Doctor Luke tells how all this came out (1:59 – 66). After the birth of John the Baptist there was general disagreement in the community over the baby’s name. Asked to weigh in on the controversy, and remembering Gabriel’s words, Zechariah took a tablet and wrote on it: His name is John!

Zechariah’s unbelief had been grave but its penalty was erased by this moment of obedience: Immediately his powers of speech were restored and he began to sing: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them (1:68).

Photo credit: Dr. Partha Sarathi Sahana (via flickr.com)

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Advent Calls to Deepen Our Faith

You’ve heard some say that key narratives in the Bible are based on myths — stories that serve to explain issues otherwise beyond human explanation. This claim can be used to dismiss portions of the Bible and eventually the Bible as a whole.

It is true that the Bible is a library with literature of many kinds — parables, proverbs, history, poetry, letters, apocalypses, etc. — and that each of these genres may convey truth in a different way. But in the light of this variety, is the Gospel narrative in particular a made-up story intended to brighten the reader’s spirit? Or is it truth to nurture saving faith?

The Advent season of the church year is a good time to face the question afresh: Are the historical claims of the Gospel account to be trusted? Was Jesus miraculously born? Did he really heal the blind? Did he die to grant forgiveness of sins? Is he the only way to God in this life or the next?

One faith-prompting passage for me and many other believers is the opening paragraph of the Gospel as Luke presents it (Luke 1:1-4). Luke was an educated man. The Apostle Paul refers to him as “our dear friend Luke, the doctor” (Colossians 4:14). That is significant. He would have the scientific training of that era. His first paragraph is like an introduction to a medical treatise.

It is also significant that Luke’s introductory statement (verses 1-4) is one complete sentence in the original language (though divided into more than one in our English versions). It is written in beautifully crafted Greek without punctuation or spaces. It is the longest sentence in the Bible and shows a style and content any qualified first-century scholar would use to introduce a serious historical document.

Without taking anything from the beauty and thoroughness of the sentence, I break it down to show its several elements, with an editorial touch, perhaps, to aid clarity. Luke writes as follows:

Something wonderful has actually happened among us and this has prompted a number of witnesses to try to capture its essence in writing.

The witnesses I speak of were eyewitnesses to these wonderful events and were already testifying to them and telling their meaning when they passed the truth on to us first hand.

I take the information I’ve received seriously but at the same time I have investigated every detail for myself from the very beginning. I’ve left no detail unexamined.

I’m doing this for you, Most Excellent Theophilus. I decided that I too would write a carefully researched and ordered account for your benefit. I write to reinforce your faith in the truths you already have been taught.

We don’t know who this Theophilus was. His name means God Lover. He may have been a convert from paganism to the faith who needed further guidance and grounding. The way Luke addresses him he may have been an elevated officer of the Roman government. It is even possible, though not likely, that Theophilus was a fictitious name that Luke used as a foil to tell his story.

Whatever the case, Luke’s first paragraph radiates seriousness and substance. And God’s Spirit uses his thoroughness to testify to the truth that follows. When we feel the power of Luke’s first paragraph, we are like someone standing at the entrance of a beautiful cathedral — The Gospel According to Luke. We hesitate momentarily before entering his report.

Pausing there, we are filled with wonder and awe. We kneel instinctively to absorb this ancient man’s forceful account as inspired by God Himself. And once we enter Luke’s narrative, we are open to the possibility that it is indeed a cathedral of God’s truth and love and no myths could renew us as these sacred words stand ready to do.

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