Could You Handle a First Day in School Better than Mikey? (A Slice Of Life by Kathleen G. Bastian)

14269622409_9468fd3e5e_mMikey would turn four by Christmas so he was old enough to attend the pre-school I, Kathleen, directed in the Free Methodist Church in Greenville, Illinois. It was 1971 and I held the school three mornings a week.

Mikey, the fourth son of a local doctor, had looked forward eagerly to the experience for most of a year because his next older brother, Matthew, had attended the previous year and Mikey had gone with his mother regularly to escort him to the church. He had seen what fun the children had in pre-school and also how much his brother enjoyed it.

Now, in September, at three-and-a-half, the big day came. He was standing in line with his mother to register. Several mothers and their children were ahead of them. The room was quiet.

Suddenly, he realized that one at a time, the mothers were leaving their children and going home. Mikey panicked, looked up into his mother’s face and said out loud, “I quit!”

He continued to whimper a bit as his mother instructed me to complete his registration. She intended to leave in spite of his protests but I persuaded her to stay until Mikey was comfortable.

She stayed through the play time. When the children went into the story room his mother told Mikey she would be just outside the door. Half way through the story, Mikey wanted his mother.

I quickly opened the door. His mother was gone. Mikey began screaming and sobbing. I tried to comfort him. An idea struck me, and I placed my expandable bracelet wrist watch on his arm. I showed him the small hand and told him that when it came to the top at 12 his mother would be there to pick him up. I then slid the watch as high on his arm as I could and it held. He stopped sobbing and entered into the morning’s activities.

When his mother arrived for him he was delighted. They started to leave but as they were about to go through the swinging doors he looked up and whispered something to her. She nodded and he ran back and gave me a big kiss goodbye. From then on Mikey came to preschool happy and unafraid.

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Here’s a Habit to Firm Up Your Faith for the New Year

King David

Statue of King David, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit makes the point that for all of us there are keystone habits and if we establish them they are likely to give rise to other habits that improve our lives and increase our success rates in life.

Good imagery: A keystone is “a large stone at the top of an arch that locks the other stones in place” (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

Most of what we do in a day is advanced by a series of habits. Depending on the quality of those habits, they either move us toward our life goals or they fritter away the opportunity to serve and achieve and grow, frustrating us in the process.

For example, we passively retire for bed at a different time every night, or we establish a pattern of the same bedtime for every night (possibly with some allowance on weekends). Or upon rising, we make our bed only if we feel like it, or we do so before departing the bedroom as one fixed element in our morning routine.

If we choose these two simple paired habits — regular bedtime and making our bed on a fixed schedule, together they can become keystone habits and without much further effort they result in unexpected benefits: we watch less late-night TV; feel more alive at work the next day; or we find ourselves with the time to straighten the house before leaving for work.

As Christians we would do well to heed the insight lodged in this idea — the idea that keystone habits tend to encourage and promote the development of other good habits. And in particular, they are supportive of the life of faith and righteousness.

Here’s a representative keystone resolution concerning good habits of faith made by the ancient psalmist, David.

He wrote: “Every day I will praise you, and extol your name for ever and ever” (Psalm 145:2). We may say “I do that, sort of.” But that’s like saying, “I retire every night on a time schedule, sort of.” The psalmist is making his pledge with the intent of making it a robust habit, as to “my God the King.” Moreover, his pledge is lavish: “I will extol. Praise. Exalt.”

To extol means more than to offer a polite thank you; it means to praise enthusiastically or lavishly, or without restraint. Extolling is the way we would express ourselves to a doctor who has brilliantly saved a loved one from death. Or a philanthropist whom we discover had paid off our mortgage unasked.

We note King David unfolds reasons for his promise of lavish daily praise: “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love” (verse 8). “The Lord is good to all, he has compassion on all he has made” (verse 9). “The Lord is faithful to all his promises, and loving toward all he has made” (verse 13b).

But the blessings that activate the psalmist’s praises involve infinitely more than the good things of this life even if that currency is given in large amounts. His praises will be given “for ever and ever.”

So we commit ourselves to extol the Lord daily and when we wake up in the morning our first thoughts are of the goodness of our “ God the King.” He rules. I am his subject. He knows me personally. His goodness enfolds me.

Then, before arising we recall specific moments of his mercies and as the list grows and we see how favored we are by his care we extol him. As we do, we renew our intent to extol him not only for 2017 but as long as life lasts – and then through all eternity.

This is a resolution to establish at least one keystone habit at the opening of this New Year. We do so with the expectation that this in turn will lock together other resolutions thus greatly enriching the life of faith we will live during 2017.

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Did God Really Become Man or Is That Just a Manner of Speaking?

Mary Comforts EveIt’s hard to comprehend that the Lord and Creator of the universe would descend from on high to enter the human family as a baby. And that as a result of such a miraculous birth and subsequent life he would so clearly reveal God the Father to us.

In a brief sentence at the outset of his Gospel, the Apostle John makes the point that Jesus, the Word, was (1) before creation, (2) was with God, and actually (3) was God! (John 1:1)

So from John’s introductory sentence comes our triple assurance that Jesus existed eternally, had the elevation and likeness of God, and was in very fact the eternal God.

John goes on to say that this Jesus became flesh and pitched his tent among us (John 1:14). Thus as a result of his miraculous birth and his life as a man on earth, he clearly revealed God to us. Stanley Jones got it right in saying “When I say God, I think Jesus.”

It was only at his incarnation — we call it his enfleshment — as newborn infant that he became fully human, subjecting himself to all things human from infancy forward — though, unlike every other human, he did not sin.

So, he clothed himself in our humanity without surrendering up his deity. He became the one referred to by the ancient church father, Origen, as the God-Man.

Christian orthodoxy across the centuries has believed with joy that Jesus, is very God of very God and very man of very man. That means, in the fullest sense he is God and in the fullest sense he is man.

Christians have believed across 2000 years that in him, two natures, the divine and the human, are joined in one person. Neither nature is diminished by the joining. He is God. He is man. Charles Wesley put this truth into verse as follows:

          Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see;

          Hail th’ incarnate deity.

          Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,

          Jesus our Emmanuel.


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Image info: “Mary Comforts Eve” by Sr. Grace Remington, OSCO. © 2005, Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey.

Re-post: Questions for Mary, the Mother of Our Lord

Saint Luke tells with amazing brevity the story of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary: she is miraculously to be the mother of the Messiah. Mary’s response, her subsequent visit with cousin Elizabeth, and her beautiful song of worship, are all recorded with few words (Luke 1:26-56).

But, when the news broke, were responses in family and community as completely serene as the account would suggest?

After all, how could such an announcement fail to land with jarring impact first on her parents, then on Joseph, to whom she was pledged to be married, and then on the town of Nazareth where she lived?

Here are some questions Luke, the physician, does not answer.

How did Mary’s mother find out about her virgin daughter’s angel-announced pregnancy? Did Mary tell her? If so, what was her immediate response? Imagine the response today if a teenaged girl should say to her mother, “An angel appeared to me yesterday and told me I’m going to have a baby without any man’s involvement.” Would she just say, “Fine,” and go on emptying the dishwasher? And how did her father take the news?

Then there’s Joseph, the man she’s pledged to marry. How did he find out? Matthew tells us that, so far as Joseph was concerned, Mary “was found to be with child. . . .” Did her parents tell Joseph? Or did Mary?

We know that, however he got the news, at first he was downright upset. His immediate impulse was to break the engagement (actually to divorce her according to Jewish customs at the time). But he would do so as quietly as possible so as not to subject her to public disgrace.

Was Mary in anguish during that time over what his decision would be? An angel had to appear to Joseph in a dream to settle him down. He then took Mary into his home though they were not intimate, Matthew tells us, until after the baby was born. (Matt. 1:18-25).

Then I’m curious especially about Mary’s trip to be with her aged cousin, Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56). It is likely that Elizabeth and Zechariah, her husband, lived in Hebron, a town some distance south of Jerusalem.

The distance from Nazareth to Hebron could have been 80 miles or more. How does this carefully chaperoned young woman (according to the customs of the times) get from her home to that distant place? One assumes she walked, as all poor people did back then.

Going straight south, she would have to travel through the hostile territory of Samaria. If not, to avoid this course she may have crossed the Jordan south of Lake Galilee and traveled along the eastern side to another crossing near the Jericho. From there, there would be a long upward climb to Jerusalem, perhaps for 15 miles, and then still a good stretch of travel further south to reach Hebron.

So, did her father go with her? Or was she sent in a caravan of travelers? And, where did she stay overnight on the three- or four-day trip? There were no Holiday Inns.

Then, after three months with Elizabeth, she returned to her home town, Nazareth. How did the community respond? Her pregnancy would then be in its second trimester. So, when her mother sent her to the well for water and she carried the vessel on her head, did her peers snicker behind their hands as she passed by? If so, how did Mary deal with such scorn?

I believe Luke, the careful historian, would have known the answers to these questions. He says (Luke in 1:3) his research had been thorough. Years later he may have visited with Mary in Ephesus where the Apostle John is said to have taken her to live. If so, he would have had the details firsthand.

Then, why does he leave such information out? It must be because he isn’t writing a novelette to portray human conflict and struggle. He’s writing a chapter in the story of redemption. He’s reporting on the Virgin Mary’s willingness to be the servant of The Almighty in bringing into the world a Messiah. Joy is the dominant note.

Only later, a man named Simeon, a devout worshiper of God, prophecies to her that later in her life her suffering will be great as a part of this mission (Luke 2:35).

So, what does all this say about Mary? There’s no trace in the gospel accounts that Mary was to be worshiped, or even treated as in any way unique from the rest of humanity. She is simply a deeply devout young Jewish girl who has kept herself pure, and is selected by the Almighty to be the bearer of the Messiah. She is immediately willing to carry that burden.

We can’t answer the many questions Luke’s story makes us want to ask. But, during Advent, Mary, the virgin, should be held up as a model for purity and openness to God’s will for service to Him. Her response to Gabriel’s announcement rings down the centuries: “I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to accept anything he wants. May everything you have said come true” (Luke 1:39 NLT).

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Advent: Do You Want to Experience it More Deeply?

AdventTo add depth to your faith and ardor to your devotion to the Lord this Advent season, spend extra time pondering the first sentence of John’s Gospel.

He writes, “In the beginning was the Word….” — on the face of it a perplexing line. Why didn’t he just write, “In the beginning was Jesus?” That’s who the fourth gospel is about, after all.

Or, John could have written: “In the beginning was the Messiah.” That term would be familiar to the Jews but not so familiar to others. He wanted both Jews and Gentiles to understand what he had to say.

Here’s the background:

When John wrote his Gospel, he was an old man living in Ephesus, where there were large populations of both Greeks and Jews.

To make his message attractive to the Greek mind while at the same time remaining true to Jewish thought, he had to find the right word to introduce Jesus to both.

Here’s why “Word” worked for his Greek readers:

More than five hundred years earlier, a Greek thinker named Heraclitus had lived in Ephesus. This man wrestled with the notion that all of existence was in flux. Nothing seemed to stand still.

To illustrate, he noted that one couldn’t step into the same river twice. If you step into the water, then step out of the water, then step back in, he reasoned, you are not stepping into the same river.

But if everything was in process of change all the time, Heraclitus pondered, why was all of existence not in chaos? He concluded that there was some unifying, ordering principle or influence over all. He called this the Logos – which meant “word” or “reason.” This idea had survived in Greek thought for more than 500 years.

Jewish thought had a similar idea. God’s “word” is presented in the scriptures over and over again as imbued with power. The story of Creation bears this out. In Genesis 1, eight times we read: “And God said” — and each time, His word brought an additional component of creation into being.

Jeremiah writes, “Is not my word like fire?” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). From the Psalms we read, “By the word of God were the heavens made” (Psalm 33:6). William Barclay writes, “the phrase the ‘word of God’ became one of the commonest forms of Jewish expression.”

In the light of all this, John concluded, Logos (word), was the best expression to open the mind of the Greek reader to who Jesus was and why he came, and at the same time to be true to the Jewish understanding as John talked about Christ — the Messiah’s first coming.

By saying “in the beginning,” John adds a new and deeper understanding for both Greek and Jew. In this way, he asserts that Jesus always existed; he is eternal!

And, he further adds the staggering news that, indeed, “The Word was God.”

The sentence with which John begins his good news account can stir us deeply: Jesus, the Word, is eternal. He is God, and in him God came into our sphere as an infant. We discover who he is and we call him Jesus, our Lord.

That truth, if reflected on prayerfully again and again during Advent, will deepen faith and Christian joy.

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What Serious Ministers of the Gospel Do: They Administer (Part Three)

8276676055_a1758f96c5_mWe don’t usually think of the clergy as administrators. That activity, we say, is for professions such as school principals, head nurses and shop foremen. The basic tasks of ministers are preaching and teaching the Scriptures, counseling, visiting those in need, and sharing the Gospel.

True, but even so, ministers know that administration undergirds their activity for the Lord.  Every church is a body of believers who will flourish in a context of organization and order.

Churches are complex organizations. Multiple programs may be carried out in the same building; membership is voluntary; programs are carried out by volunteers; difficult members must be respected; real ministers don’t have firing rights; and in all of this a minister must have his or her hands on the tiller.

In a small church, a pastor may be closely involved with administrative details such as who will unlock the doors, clean the church, and manage the lights during worship. In larger churches, the pastor may administer such details through a staff of co-workers for the Gospel.

Where does a minister begin to give serious input into the actual functioning of a church? If the church’s annual business meeting is in June, in my opinion, the minister’s first and best opportunity to affect the organization of a church administratively begins in the spring of the year.

At this June meeting the congregation votes to fill lay positions for the new church year. To prepare for the annual meeting, a nominating committee is in place and active by the month of March, and is composed of four or more respected members plus the minister.

With the list of all church positions before them, the committee begins to consider prayerfully who should be nominated to continue their position, who nominated to another position, and what fresh talent should be incorporated into the nominations. This is a delicate but rewarding task that should deepen relationships and trust in leadership.

At the close of each nominating committee meeting, names of potential nominees should be assigned to different members of the committee. Each committee member makes contacts with the potential nominees, in order to describe the position and seek agreement to stand for possible election to that role. The minister may take one or two names to contact–persons proposed for the most significant offices. By the time of the annual meeting in June all nominations are settled, ballots prepared, and the election proceeds.

When this work is completed thoroughly ministers will be freer in the fall to preach and teach, call on new contacts, and give spiritual counsel. When it is not done thoroughly they will discover they must spend time solving administrative problems that should have been cared for by the process just outlined.

Even when freed up to serve the congregation in this way, ministers demonstrate their administrative abilities most clearly by their conduct of public worship. There’s something about a well-ordered worship service that calms the human spirit and engenders harmony, thereby enhancing the worship of God. The preparation of the sermon; choice of what to sing, selection of Scripture readings, preparation to lead in a pastoral prayer, and even the presentation of announcements and offerings — all can be executed either so as to add to or detract from the sacredness of the moment.

When administrative tasks are shared by the congregation, under skillful leadership, the church is likely to reflect the holiness of God to the community. It is not just God’s children who are holy; the enterprise as a whole through all of its programs, and its times of worship can also reflect a “holy glow.”

Under a minister’s good administration and through well-chosen committees the building is kept clean and tidy; bathrooms are always fresh and presentable; closets are free of clutter; parking lots are in good repair; the kitchen is spotless; and into this setting ushers welcome worshipers in the name of the Lord. This context gives the serious minister and his or her congregation a set-apart and holy meeting place for members and visitors.

Such a church has reason to expect fruitful ministry, growth in faith and maturity, and often an increase in numbers by a Spirit-led ingathering of souls.

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What Serious Ministers of the Gospel Do: They Preach and Teach (Part Two)

William Hatherell; John Wesley Preaching from the Steps of a Market Cross, 1909

During 19 years as bishop in my denomination I listened at times to lay committees ponder the qualifications of a pastor being considered for appointment. One question was sure to surface from the laity with urgency: “Can this person preach?”

This question is particularly urgent now that a pastor’s neglect of this task can be concealed by the availability of “quickie” sermons from the internet. Real preaching takes more than that.

Preaching is rooted in the history of Christendom. It reflects, for one thing, the widespread influence of the Reformation – that mighty movement of the Spirit to renew Christendom in 16th century Europe.

Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox and many others came alive to the deeper truths of the Bible. As a result, biblical preaching was revived as God’s primary way of shining the light of the Gospel on his fallen creation and particularly on our human depravity. We can be saved! And begin to be ‘repaired!’

Later, the Methodist movement of the eighteenth century engendered the same high regard for preaching. John Wesley, a Spirit-appointed leader of that renewal, had much to say to his growing ranks of preachers.

For example, he gave them 12 rules to follow as Methodist preachers. The twelfth included this instruction: “It is your part to employ your time as our rules direct: partly in preaching and visiting from house to house, partly in reading, meditation, and prayer.”

They were to take the task of preaching seriously and also allow adequate time for reading, meditation, and prayer to inform and energize their efforts.

However, the often-asked question, “Can this person preach?” has deeper roots than either the Reformation or the Methodist revival. Long before and standing above these movements, the New Testament is rich in language that reflects the centrality of proclamation and teaching in the life of the church everywhere.

The most common word in the New Testament for preaching — used more than sixty times as a verb — means “to herald.” A herald is a servant to whom a ruler entrusts his message, expecting it to be delivered clearly and with authority, regardless of the cost.

A second New Testament word applied to preaching is translated as “to evangelize.” We know well that the word means “to broadcast good news.” Sermons, whatever the issue, should have some element of this in them.

These two words do not exhaust the vocabulary for preaching in the New Testament. The idea of teaching occurs, too, and these three elements — preaching, proclaiming, teaching — require that careful thought, serious preparation, and spiritual energy be invested into each effort.

In order to bring the three elements forward faithfully and with effect two pastoral habits are necessary. The first is good Bible study habits — the techniques and resources for exploring deeply what is in the passage upon which the sermon is based. The second discipline is to set aside and actually use significant time in study, prayer, and preparation at least five mornings a week.

And of course the congregation also has a role: to be committed to support the serious minister’s efforts with prayer, deep listening, and occasional encouragement for the pastor’s commitment to faithfulness in preaching.

To be a servant of the Word of God in the pulpit is a demanding assignment in these times of many distractions. But fulfilling the task enabled by the Holy Spirit and His work in the minds and hearts of hearers brings its rewards for the souls of both pastor and people — now and in eternity.

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Photo credit: John Wesley’s House & The Museum of Methodism