Learning to Fire the Bright Spots

When I was just out of seminary and beginning to lead my first church as a full-time pastor, a retired minister, the Rev. C. P. Stewart, told me a story I have carried with me throughout my life. Here it is:

Back in the days when steam-driven locomotives pulled 100-car freight trains across this continent, a westward bound train was laboring up a pass in the Rocky Mountains.

Its pace gradually slowed until finally it came to a standstill. The fireman in the engine cab was young and found himself defeated and helpless.

Riding the caboose at the end of the train was a retired fireman. He walked the length of the long string of boxcars, climbed into the locomotive’s cab, and offered his help.

The young fireman was glad to let him take over.

The retired fireman started methodically shoveling coal into the firebox. The steam gauge began to rise and when it registered that pressure was adequate he signaled the engineer to open the throttle.

After a couple of sharp tugs the train began to move again and this time made it up the grade of the mountain pass.

Amazed, the young fireman asked his senior what he had done differently, noting that he himself had been shoveling just as hard.

As the train moved forward, gradually gaining speed, the older man opened the door of the firebox. First he pointed out a couple of clinkers — residue of burned coal — lying dead in the ashes, then pointed to places in the bed where the fire was burning brightly.

Pointing out this contrast with his long poker, he said, “If you want the train to move you have to fire the bright spots.”

Rev. Stewart was giving a young pastor a tip on how to go about leading a congregation without becoming a casualty of stalled initiatives.

Local churches are complex and lots of activities are going on at the same time – children’s programs, choir practices, committee meetings, some of which can at times be stalled by a variety of conflicting opinions.

While helping a church grow, gaining momentum and depth in ministry, Rev. Stewart intimated, one must take courage from the programs that are thriving, reporting this good news to the congregation whenever possible.

But the story fits many situations: the highly energized family, the public school classroom, the student striving to work her way through college, to name a few.

Things in life go better when one learns to fire the bright spots.

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Consider Jesus at Twelve

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple by WIlliam Holman Hunt, 1860. Public Domain.

In our culture we don’t make much of the age twelve.

Sixteen is important because at that age a person becomes eligible to learn and be licensed to drive a car.

In Canada and the United States eighteen brings the right to vote. And twenty-one has long been considered the age of maturity.

Each is an important year, but not twelve. However, it was different in Jesus’ Jewish culture.

St. Luke tells us in detail about the birth of Jesus including the wonders that attended it. Then he skips to age 30, when Jesus’ public ministry began.

The years between Jesus’ infancy and the beginning of his ministry are sometimes called the silent years.

St. Luke breaks into that silence to report one important event in Jesus’ life when he was only twelve.

For background, Jesus’ earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, were serious practitioners of the faith of Israel. For example, they brought the baby Jesus to the temple to be circumcised on the eighth day of his life, as prescribed by Jewish law.

As well, they were apparently competent and committed parents since Luke tells us in passing that Jesus was obedient not only to his Heavenly Father but also to his earthly parents.

Also, during Jesus’ times a Jewish boy became known as a “son of the commandment” at the age of twelve. That is, a boy’s primary accountability was now to God through obedience to the Torah.

At that ceremony the lad would begin his speech saying, “Today I am a man.” — old enough to take part in religious services, to form binding contracts, and to testify before religious courts.

In Jesus’ times, a twelve-year-old could also attend his first Passover in Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph took pains to make this happen, and Luke reports the event.

When Jesus’ first Passover was over and his parents had begun the long trek north to Nazareth he lingered behind, in Jerusalem, talking to the teachers in the temple.

His distressed parents had to turn from their journey and go back to search for him. When they found him in the temple and expressed their distress he responded, “Didn’t you know I must be about my Father’s business?”

Was this Jesus’ first awareness of his purpose on earth? His surprising response makes it seem so — “my Father’s business.”

The consciousness of his divine assignment must have grown for in the later full stride of his ministry he was accepting of titles such as Savior, Redeemer, Master, Lord, and the very God incarnate — “he who has seen me has seen the Father.”

Think of it: all this was possible at twelve years of age — a rich knowledge of God’s law and an awakening awareness of God as his Father in a unique way!

It makes one think more seriously of the capacity a twelve-year-old can have for religious knowledge, spiritual understanding, and the experience of the living God!

And, as well, like Mary and Joseph, think of the accountability of today’s parents to the demanding spiritual task of laying a Christian foundation for their children’s lives.

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Let’s Give Thanks for Life’s Imperishables

On Monday of this week, October 9, Canadians will slow their pace to count their blessings and offer thanks. Whether or not you reside in Canada, please join in!

In Canadian gatherings, words of thanksgiving will flow — for food in abundance, family, safety, health, the beauty of nature, and many other things. The list must be long for we are greatly blessed.

But, these are the perishables of life. In recent weeks, shocking devastation by hurricanes, terror attacks, and a profoundly evil massacre have snatched life’s most precious relationships and possessions away from great numbers of people in the United States and Canada.

While we pray for the thousands directly impacted and in deep grief, and for others recovering from grievous injury, I suggest especially for the rest of us this Thanksgiving that we remember in particular three blessings that are imperishable.

First, the Bible.

Twenty eight hundred years ago, before our Bible existed as we have it today, the prophet Isaiah wrote: “The grass withers, the flower fades but the word of our God stands forever (Isaiah 40:8). This was a prophecy spoken in antiquity, fulfilled in history, and true to this day.

The Bible is not merely a great book; it is a unique book, a book that has remained strong and communicative against all critics. It has been a bestseller from the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century to the present.

It is really a library of Spirit-inspired truth — estimated to be the work of 40 authors written across a span of 1500 years. Yet its many voices and varied styles are bound together by a central theme – God’s redemption of his fallen world. We give thanks.

Second, the Cross.

The cross of Christ too is one of history’s imperishables.

Whether it is symbolized on top of the golden dome of historic St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England, or displayed in rustic fashion on the face of the pulpit of a wayside church in rural Manitoba, the symbol of the cross appears wherever Christ is proclaimed.

All this is no accident. As the late John R. W. Stott wrote, “Jesus’ death was central to his mission,” and that substitutionary death on a cruel Roman cross provides the way for us to be saved from death and punishment. All four gospels lead through the cross to bear witness to Christ’s resurrection and in turn to the assurance that believers will live eternally too.

Stott also wrote: “The cross sets forth three truths: first our sins must be extremely horrible; second, God’s grace must be wonderful beyond comprehension; third, salvation must be a free gift.” For the cross we give thanks.

Third, our hope.

When we talk about the Christian hope we mean more than our exclamation that “we hope” it won’t rain tomorrow. The Christian’s hope is called the anchor of the soul to keep us steady even in stormy times (Hebrews 6:19).

It was this hope that kept the Apostle Paul confident and joyful when he wrote to the church in Philippi, even though his letter came to them from a jail in Rome.

If he were allowed to live after his trial, he wrote, that would open to him further ministry; if he should be executed, and his earthly life taken from him, he would depart and be with Christ (Philippians 1:21-26). Either possibility was ground for rejoicing.

Life as we live it in this world cannot be lived to the fullest until we have the assurance that there is life beyond the grave and for Christians it is life with Christ. We give thanks for this Christian hope.

The Holy Scriptures; the Sacred Cross; the anchor of a Hope that does not disappoint (Romans 5:5). What a trio of imperishable gifts! Let us not neglect to give hearty thanks this week for perishable blessings but even more for the imperishable ones!

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Should We Respect Even Difficult Leaders?

David is a major figure of the Old Testament. His kingship followed that of King Saul who was anointed by the prophet Samuel as Israel’s first king.

King Saul was insanely jealous of David in spite of David’s sworn allegiance. The king and his army of 3000 were hunting David to kill him.

David had gathered around him a ragtag band of 600 men and whipped them into an effective fighting force simply to survive.

On one occasion, the two forces came dangerously near to one another. One night, Saul’s army was bedded down in a valley at the base of a hill and David was surveilling Saul’s sleeping soldiers from above.

In the dead of the night David and a brave soldier eased their way down into Saul’s camp, creeping to where Saul lay sleeping.

There, David’s soldier whispered, “Here’s our chance; let me run him through with my sword.” David rebuked him. “It’s not my right to kill the Lord’s anointed,” he said.

Instead, David instructed his soldier to take Saul’s spear, which was stuck into the ground near his head, and his water supply, as proof that the two had been there without harming him. The two escaped safely.

Why would David pass up such an opportunity? After all, if he had taken Saul’s life he would no longer be hunted like a wild animal. Was his decision simply eccentric?

Or, had David learned as a child from a godly mother the wisdom of showing respect for properly assigned authority, as elsewhere may be suggested (Psalm 86:16; 116:16)?

Showing regard for constituted authority as David did does not match the moods of our times. In growing numbers, voices against authority are becoming more raucous and even violent.

Those in authority are not always right, but the wholesale rejection and disrespect of authority is also very hurtful. Teachers may be endangered in unruly classrooms, parents are silenced by disrespectful children, policemen may be taunted and threatened for their lives, leaders are insulted vulgarly, and public property is wantonly destroyed.

The Bible has much to say about respect for authority. For example, at the core of the Ten Commandments is the divine law: “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).

This word is more than a suggestion. It is a law left to parents to administer, and if enforced nationally promises national health and longevity.

Widening the scope of that commandment to respect parents, the Apostle Peter instructs the members of the church scattered by persecution, “Show proper respect to everyone: love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17).

The holiness code of Leviticus commands: “Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:32). No one is left out when respect is involved.

In our unsettled environment, it is time for Christians to shine by taking a grace-directed approach to authority and respecting it! Taking our lead from David’s wisdom we can say all human relationships are to feature respect, making them relationally health-giving and life-restoring.

That is not to commend silence in the presence of evil. We should always speak up clearly, forcefully, even directly when authorities do wrong, standing for truth in the presence of falsehood — but always from a foundation of grace and respect.

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Am I Staying in Spiritual Health?

Every day we get messages from the media about what we must do to be in good health.

We must (1) feed our bodies a proper diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and modest portions of carbohydrates; and (2) exercise vigorously for 30 to 60 minutes each day.

There seems to be, in theory at least, a culture-wide consensus on this, so at our house we try to eat healthfully and exercise, though the latter is hard to do “vigorously” at 91 years of age.

But what about spiritual health? After all, we are not only physical creatures. As the Scriptures say, mankind was formed by our Creator from the dust of the earth as were the other animals.

But God also breathed into mankind’s physical bodies the breath of life and “man became a living soul” – spiritual, immortal, deathless.

So, how is that soul to be kept in health? I must (1) nourish it and (2) exercise it daily just as I do for my body.

The food we need is Christian doctrine, which means organized Christian thought. J. I. Packer writes in his book, Knowing God: There can be no spiritual health without good doctrine.

This is in a sense the “food” for the soul and we must therefore regularly seek to nourish our understanding of the Christian faith. We look seriously into the Bible daily.

But, what about spiritual exercise? Along with ingestion of spiritual “food” the exercise side of this formula calls for prayer, service, church attendance — but also for meditation, an easily neglected element in the formula.

Meditation, Packer writes, 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 God.

Meditation, like pleasant dining, takes time. It’s often suggested that it’s ideal to set apart 30 minutes in the morning for the feeding and exercise of the soul.

If that’s not feasible a lesser time can be set – even as little as 10 minutes — rather than just leaving this spiritual exercise to happen when convenient.

Morning is the best time. Just as the orchestra tunes its instruments before the concert begins, so it is better for us to take time for meditation at the outset of the day, rather than after the day’s concert has been played.

A college student once complained to me that she couldn’t make the early morning hour work because she still felt too groggy from sleep.

She was a very sociable person and I learned she usually took an-hour-and-a-half for lunch. I suggested she cut that time in half and use half for meditation in a quiet corner.

On this matter, as the adapted saying goes, for all of us, “Where there’s a will, there are twenty ways.”

Meditation usually works best when it is used to refocus on God, not on our problems. This can be done helpfully when we set ourselves to reflect on Scripture, such as a portion from the Gospels, a Psalm, The Philippian Letter, etc., holding ours thoughts to the passage.

In our fast-moving culture stopping to meditate may strike us as wasting time. We just want to plunge into the business of whatever we are doing – including even our meditations.

But there’s no getting around it — spiritual health means the daily feeding of soul and body with Christian truth. And it also means the exercising of the soul by taking time to reflect, digest and apply that truth.

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Advice about Prayer from Great Men and Women of the Past

Recently, a simple brochure fell out from the pages of a book I wrote many years ago on church membership. This little brochure was intended to help ministers I was mentoring in their practices of prayer.

I had begun and ended my recommendations by quoting some things great Christian leaders of earlier times have said about prayer. I offer some of them here because they may encourage you, too. 

We have to pray with our eyes on God, not on the difficulties. Oswald Chambers

Prayer is where the action is. John Wesley

Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work. Oswald Chambers.

A golden thread of heart-prayer must run through the web of the whole Christian life; we must be frequently addressing ourselves to God in short and sudden utterances, by which we must keep our communion with him… Matthew Henry

 Accustom yourself gradually to carry prayer into all your daily occupation. Speak, move, work in peace, as if you were in prayer. Fenelon

Prayer is for Jesus not nearly so much connected with resignation as it is with rebellion… Practically all that is said in the New Testament about prayer is said not in the interest of being reconciled to things as they are but in the interest of getting things changed. John Baillie

Don’t pray when you feel like it. Have an appointment with the Lord and keep it. [Christians] are powerful on their knees. Corrie Ten Boom

Prayer is the root, the fountain, the mother of a thousand blessings. Chrysostom

You may find among these promptings one or two that especially strengthen your resolve to pray more regularly and intentionally in the days ahead. If so, consider writing one or more of them on the fly leaf of your Bible to encourage you!

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How to Make Our Prayers Seem More Real

Several times I have heard fellow Christians say: I pray, but my prayers seem to lack a sense of reality.

They say: I start with good intentions, but my thoughts are interrupted by something I have to do or they just wander off subject.

Having had the same experience myself, I have a strategy that helps greatly. It is biblical and is in fact taught to us by Jesus, our Lord. I begin by taking time to reflect on who God is.

This is what Jesus intended when he said to his disciples, “This is how you should pray: Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name’” (Matthew 6:9). It’s a very short prayer but it begins by sharpening our awareness that God is our Father. And this is how our prayers are to begin.

The Gospel of John uses this title for God at least 111 times. It is often used by Jesus in address to his Father, and is to be used by us, although in a different way, when in prayer we address God as our Heavenly Father (John 20:17).

Even if your earthly father has not set before you a good model (an all too common complaint), don’t let that rob you of the reality that God is in every respect an unflawed Almighty Father and he can be fully trusted. Jesus is our authority on that.

After Jesus establishes that God is our Father, he adds, our Father in heaven. This means the God we address dwells in the unseen world that has a reality as great or greater than the world we experience with our human senses.

Our Father is above us as our Sovereign at the same time as he is a caring Father right with us, although unseen. When we give time to this exercise of focusing on God as our Father in heaven, we will experience God’s Holy Spirit intensifying a sense of who God is to us.

Jesus also teaches us to attribute to God, “Hallowed be your name.” John Wesley comments on this, May you be truly honored, loved, feared by all in heaven and in earth, by all angels and all men.” It matters that we take the time to address our Heavenly Father as holy, pure, loving and majestic.

We too easily skip over reflection on the holiness of our God. As a result, we rush into prayer with only a vague sense of God’s holy Fatherhood; thus we fail to identify ourselves as profoundly loved by him. So in reflecting on our God’s holiness and majestic rule we thus see our creaturehood as we should.

You may say: It takes time for such thoughts to sink in. True. So that is why it’s good at the outset of our daily prayers to get in mind the greatness, grandeur and goodness of God, our Father, and to consciously address him as such.

This title for God focuses our attention, clarifies our perspective, and the earthly plane on which we live becomes quiet. It was Jesus Christ, our Messiah, who said, When you pray, first say “Our Father.” That is advice from the highest source, and if we take time to follow it, rewards will be abundant.

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