Checking on Our Intangibles

As a young pastor sixty years ago in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada, I began writing a weekly guest editorial, “Religiously Speaking,” for the local newspaper, The British Columbian.

Back then, I had to deliver my column as a paper copy. One day as I went through the newsroom a man named Bill called out to me, “Hi, Reverend –- how’s everything in the world of the intangibles?” That became his usual greeting.

Bill was a tough newsman, a recovering alcoholic, a man who knew his business. He was always friendly, not at all scornful or contemptuous. He just understood that “reverends” deal with an aspect of life that often can’t be physically touched or seen with physical eyes — the intangibles.

How right he was! This point was driven home to me by analogy one day. I started on my intangibles which were to include time studying Scripture for my next sermon, visiting in homes or hospital, listening to people’s stories and offering prayer or counsel.

That particular morning I glanced across the street from our home and church. A wide lot had been cleared, a foundation poured, and the men were arriving to frame up the first level of a two-story apartment building.

Later that day, I pulled into our driveway from an afternoon of pastoral calling, and, after getting out of the car, looked across the street. There stood the framework for the first floor of that building. The workmen had gone home, leaving behind tangible results of their day’s work.

This sight set me back temporarily. It was such a sharp contrast to my kind of work. I found myself reflecting on some intangible work I had done that day — not only sermon preparation but also prayer with a parishioner facing surgery, a visit with a distraught wife whose husband was about to desert her and calling on a family new to the community and our church.

Within this review of my day’’s work, Bill’s question came to mind. After all, I had put in the time and had reckoned each stage carefully but had done nothing as visible as the workers across the street. The work of carpenters, electricians and dentists is in a sense concrete; a pastor’s work is much more subtle, sometimes seen in substance only after a long interval of time.

Come to think of it, so much of what all Christians are called on to do is at first spiritual, mental, intangible: Honor your father and your mother; Be merciful to those who doubt; Abstain from sinful desires; Pray for one another; Preach the gospel; Pray without ceasing.

Most of us would like vocations that produce immediate, tangible results. Who doesn’t like to see the kitchen back in perfect order after a family meal? Or the Christian education center filled with children for after-school Bible lessons?

In large part, Bill was right: for those of us called to the pastoral life, so much we are assigned to do has its roots in the intangibles. But this only means we must be aware in our vocation that our activities are real and crucial though at the same time their results cannot be immediately seen. Understanding this deepens our dependence on prayer to do our work for the Lord, and sharpens our awareness of what we attempt for Him, leaving the results to Him.

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Photo credit: Concrete Forms (via flickr.com)

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When Life’s Foundations Seem to Be Crumbling: A Meditation on Psalm 11

Psalm 11 is one of the many chapters of the Psalter that David, King of Israel, is believed to have written.

He was a man after God’s own heart and, in one lifetime, rose from lowly shepherd boy to king over the nation.

Samuel the prophet anointed him to replace Saul son of Kish. Saul, who as Israel’s first king preceded David, seemed unable to follow a prophet’s orders and stay within the righteous boundaries of his kingship. Because of his disobedience his reign was shorter than necessary.

David first appeared on Israel’s national scene when he delivered supplies to his brothers who were serving in Saul’s army. While there, he saw Goliath, the Philistine giant, who was terrorizing Saul’s soldiers, challenging any one of them to fight him.

No one would accept the challenge. The war was at a stalemate. So David came forward, declaring that, in the name of the LORD, he would fight Goliath. It was a strange match — a young stripling fresh from the care of a few sheep going against a seasoned warrior who at a little more than nine feet tall towered above him.

Disregarding Goliath’s taunts, David ran toward him, swung his sling above his head several times and released a stone from its pocket. The stone struck the giant in the forehead. Stunned, he collapsed on the ground. David took the giant’s sword from its scabbard and made the victory complete.

The Philistines ran away terrified, with Saul’s soldiers in pursuit. It was a great victory for Israel.

This achievement and David’s general giftedness brought him fame and later a position as the royal musician in the palace. Later still it brought him a leadership position in Saul’s army.

His popularity made King Saul jealous and afraid, filled with hatred. His moods became dark and his impulse to kill David grew out of control. Twice he flung his spear at him to pin him to the wall. David nimbly jumped aside. All this took place although David in all circumstances was faithful to Saul, and had no designs on the throne.

Finally, David’s only option was to flee the court. For about 20 years he was a hunted man. In time he gathered about him a fighting force of men who were also fugitives in the wilderness.

They slept on the open ground when necessary and sometimes in caves when available. They foraged for food. Their goal was survival, knowing the king and his soldiers were often hot on their trail.

David, was also a poet and at some stages of those twenty years he must have jotted down prayers and snatches of poetic reflection about faith in God or life’s perplexities.

It appears that some of his poetry found its way into the hymn book of the temple, and that Psalm 11 may have been one of them.

It is a poem that reflects two opposite ways of responding when facing imminent danger. David declares his own fixed resolution in its first line: In the LORD I take refuge.

But this robust faith is not shared by some of his advisers. Who can blame them for being exhausted by the constant threat of death? Still, he quotes back to them what may have been their frightened advice:

How then can you say to me: “Flee like a bird to your mountain, for look, the wicked bend their bows; they set their arrows against the strings, to shoot from the shadows against the upright in heart. When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

It appears that his advisers’ counsel is to take his cue from a little bird that, when threatened by a bird of prey, flies like an arrow across the skies to the safety of the nearby hills. They argue that the very foundations of life are crumbling and flight is their only alternative.

Then comes David’s response. In essence he says: The LORD is on his heavenly throne. For him, everything flows from that conviction. God reigns. He elaborates this certainty in several ways, but he concludes with the following assurance to the beleaguered and fearful:

For the LORD is righteous, he loves justice; the upright will see his face.

David affirms for himself and his companions that however the days seem to be going in the moment, by God’s power they will end well.

For the righteous, in testing times the foundations of life may shake but they will not crumble — and we can rest in the larger perspective that God forever rules and our future prospect is to see his face when perfect justice will prevail.

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Photo credit: Jimmy Brown (via flickr.com)

The Importance of Christian Weddings in Secular Times

I recently heard a news report that, in America, fewer couples are turning to the church for their wedding services; more are planning to write their own script for the whole event; and a still-growing number are moving in together without a wedding service of any kind.

These are not surprising trends as secularism continues to oppose the Judeo-Christian mores and values that have shaped our culture. Moderns may say that no religious institution should prepare rituals for others to follow; after all, every couple will have its own ideas.

But the thought lingers that traditional marriage has had a constancy through the centuries. And that it is a venture so sweeping in its possibilities that it requires some elevated acknowledgment in the form of vows or declarations — if not holy, at least metaphysical. A wedding is one of life’s few rites of passage.

Although the percentage of weddings held in churches may decrease there will always be brides and grooms who want to be married in a Christian context.

I celebrated many weddings across a lifetime of pastoral ministry. I remember with particular warmth couples such as Ken and Judy, Larry and Cheryl, Jim and Fern, David and Faith, John and Sharon.

And I have had the blessed privilege of uniting in marriage eleven couples from my own family circle including children and grandchildren. Those moments were special for me and for them. In each case, every effort was made to reflect the Christian faith in word, symbol and song.

The Christian church broadly has always treated marriage as a rite to be celebrated, one of life’s most important events. It is an adventure in hope, intended as a once-in-a-lifetime pledging.

Across the years I have held that the core of a Christian wedding is not the attire the couple wear, the music they choose or the sanctuary’s decor. All are helpful in creating a beautiful setting and all must be chosen carefully. Nevertheless, the dominant feature of a wedding is the ritual — the words that are spoken, what they affirm and require and how they are delivered.

Thus, here are questions to ask of the words spoken: (1) Are they consistent with biblical truth about marriage? (2) Do they reflect with accuracy and beauty the commitments being made? (3) Do the words  bear the influence of established and time-tested rituals of the past? (4) Are they Christ-honoring? (5) Are they linked to the ages as marriage is?

If a congregation is to be present for the service it is good to remember that there will likely be young, in the gathering, people with eager ears; perhaps an elderly man who with his now-deceased wife repeated similar vows years earlier and now sits alone; a couple in marital conflict who may be privately discussing divorce; and a young man and woman gathering ideas for their own upcoming nuptials.

For a congregation a wedding may be both a resonating chamber for Christian truth and a microcosm of human experiences.

The key to a lovely, moving wedding service is a good rehearsal. Wedding parties for this event usually arrive with a high level of excitement. It is the pastor’s task to take charge and manage the event, making sure that every participant understands his or her part. Rehearsals can be chaotic and overly long if not properly managed.

The reason for such care at the rehearsal is that there are no do-overs for weddings. If a Saturday-night youth gathering goes poorly there will always be another Saturday night. Even if a pastor’s sermon should fail, the next Sunday is only a week away. But the wedding is a singular event with no opportunities to run it through again a day or two later.

Yet, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley (go often askew). So wrote Robert Burns, in Scottish dialect. Indeed they do. Things may happen at the best-planned weddings that excite laughter or sometimes the opposite.

On one occasion after all preparations were carefully made and the congregation was gathered I learned that the bride had forgotten her special gloves in a neighboring community and had gone after them. The congregation sweltered for an hour in a sanctuary without air conditioning. The organ played and re-played the music that had been chosen. When the bride returned the wedding proceeded. On a wedding day, guests usually take such a glitch in stride.

The hope is to plan and practice so as to keep anything from happening that distracts from the solemnity and beauty of the event. And beyond that, to provide the couple with a memory that will still be held as sacred decades later.

What serves better as a standard than the advice of the Apostle Paul who wrote, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

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Photo credit: Ryan Blyth (via flickr.com)

Why Christians Should Stand for Traditional Marriage

Why do conservative Christians stand firm for traditional marriage — one man and one woman for life? Is it because they fear change, or are bigots, or simply lack imagination?

Or is it that they believe the Bible is the Christian’s authority on the subject and it speaks to the question very clearly?

The book of Genesis alone reveals the mind of God on the matter of marriage. He is Creator over all and, as Creator, he declares marriage, as you will see, to be the union of one man and one woman for life.

Genesis begins with the account of creation, concluding with these words: So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27). This declaration, repeated three times, presents who may be participants in a marriage — one man and one woman.

Chapter two of Genesis then introduces us to the timeless story of Adam and Eve, teaching that God instituted marriage as a unique human union. It leaves open no other options, ending with this summary word: For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). 

In chapter 3 the picture of humanity darkens. Adam and Eve are disobedient to God and the consequences are dire. They feel estranged from their Maker and at odds with one another. Their descendants must live under the shadow of their disobedience. Marriage as God intended is scarred by sin but not dissolved.

Conditions deteriorate further in chapter 4. Lamech, the descendant of Adam and Eve, married two women. This veers from God’s revealed plan, and bigamy represents a further distortion of marriage in ancient culture.

Even Abraham, the father of the faithful, had children by two women — his wife Sarah and her servant, Hagar (Genesis 16). Abraham’s union with Hagar was arranged by Sarah, according to the cultural practices of the times. But, as we see, an arrangement such as this, so contrary to God’s declaration, created great domestic stress among Sarah, Abraham and Hagar from the very start of Hagar’s pregnancy.

And in another accommodation to the culture of the times, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, was tricked into marrying two sisters and eventually had children by them and their two maidservants (Genesis 29:31-30:23). This too was not in accordance with God’s creative declaration, and the story that follows shows the distressing consequences — family strife, jealousy and bargaining for sleeping rights.

All the while, here and there in Genesis a flag is raised in favor of “one man and one woman for life.” For example, consider Pharaoh, the pagan king of Egypt. He did not belong to the chosen people and had not been exposed to divinely revealed laws, but the account shows that he was aware how wrong it would be to invade the sanctity of Abraham’s marriage (Genesis 12:10-20).

It was so also with Abimelech, a heathen ruler in the southern regions of Philistia where Abraham and his retinue settled for a period of time (Genesis 20). Abimelech too reflects the fear of violating the union between Abraham and Sarah.

Later, in the story of Sodom, the book of Genesis speaks against homosexual practice. In Genesis 19, men in large numbers sought sexual satisfaction with men — and were violent in their pursuit. This deviation from the created order eventually brought about the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 19:1-28).

Genesis closes with the story of Joseph, a Hebrew alien in Egypt. He had no family there to support him and no faith community to guide him. His Egyptian master’s wife tried repeatedly to draw him into sexual sin. He steadfastly refused, asking his temptress, How then could I do such a thing and sin against God? (Genesis 39:6-20)

Thus, this opening book of the Bible consistently sets forth as God’s intention the vision of marital intimacy between one man and one woman. This remains clear in spite of the distorting influence of sin which brought into the general picture polygamy, adultery, incest, promiscuity and homosexuality to corrode his design.

Did the coming of Jesus many centuries later amend God’s initial design in any way? How did he speak to the issue?

We know that among the Pharisees of Jesus’ day there were two schools of thought about marriage and divorce. The liberal view said divorce was permissible for almost any cause. The other view said only adultery was grounds for divorce. These differences circulated around the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-5.

On one occasion the disputants sought to entangle Jesus in this debate. They asked him which interpretation was correct. Refusing to be trapped, he went deeper than the law of Moses, calling the disputants back to the initial teaching of the early portions of Genesis.

Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matthew 19:4-6).

The possibility and fruitfulness of a marriage between one man and one woman are gifts flowing from creation. That should settle the question. If Jesus, the most compassionate man who ever walked on earth, would not amend the law of marriage as presented in Genesis, we must not either.

Admittedly, this understanding of God’s design for marriage is received in pain by many who have experienced the marital brokenness of our times. What can the church do? It must first sound forth the message as God has given it — to the young, to any contemplating marriage, to the newly married and the traumatized or forsaken. At the same time, God gives his people resources for bringing support and healing to the wounded.

With regard to marriage and human sexuality, in taking both responsibilities seriously — to uphold the created order, and to aid the suffering and desolate — we fulfill Jesus’ declaration: You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14).

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I Believe the Resurrection!

Fra Angelico’s ‘Noli Me Tangere’ (c.1438–50), public domain.

To reflect on the resurrection of Jesus I like to read the account in the Gospel of John as he reports the first visits disciples made to the tomb where Jesus‘ body had been laid. This is reported in chapter 20.

First, I ponder what Mary Magdalene was doing there alone on that Sunday before sun-up in the deserted burial district outside Jerusalem. Why wasn’t she in solitude as other disciples were, almost in hiding, after the brutal death and hasty burial of the Lord?

She was probably drawn to his tomb by her great love for him, since he had given her life back to her by delivering her from demon possession. She was there seeking nearness, and to weep and grieve over her loss.

She did not expect to find the entrance to the tomb a gaping hole in the face of the rock. Its closure by the soldiers the day before should have been permanent. Historians tell us it would have taken great strength to roll back the stone in the groove at the mouth of the tomb.

A glimpse into the open tomb was all she needed in order for her to conclude that there could be only one explanation.

She ran to Peter and the other disciple (John, the one recording the account) to report. Panting from exertion, she said: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him!”

According to John, the two men ran to the site to verify her report. John outran Peter, and it is likely that Mary returned, though at a slower pace.

John arrived at the tomb first, but once there was less venturesome. Without entering he stooped down to peer into the gloomy interior. Impetuous Peter caught up to him and was the one who first entered.

There was no body. Mary’s assumption seemed correct. Unexpectedly, John saw the linen strips in which the body had been hurriedly wrapped for burial. They were lying on the stone shelf where the body had been placed in repose.

And, more remarkably, it was as though the body had sublimated out of the wraps, which collapsed in place, with the wrap from his head perfectly spaced and separated from the strips that had enclosed the body.

The writer tells us that John saw and believed. But what did he believe? Only that the body had been moved? Possibly so at first, since the Scriptures had not yet been opened to them clarifying the promise of Jesus’ resurrection. So the two men started back to their lodgings in the city.

After they had left Mary arrived back at the tomb. She stood weeping. Bending down to look inside this time, she saw two angels dressed in white sitting where Jesus had lain and they ask her why she is weeping.

Through her tears she answers that someone had robbed the tomb of the body of the Lord and she didn’t know where it had been placed. It was as though to say: I have unspent grief and am angry at such an indignity.

At that moment she turned around and saw a man standing there, but with vision blurred by her tears and grief, she does not know it is Jesus. He asks her the same question the two dressed in white had asked: Why are you weeping?

She assumes it is the gardener and, perhaps again indignantly, asks the location of Jesus’ body so she can see that it is properly cared for.

Jesus speaks her name, … Mary … In an instant she recognizes him and utters in a burst of joy: Rabboni! Teacher! She is obviously the first of his followers to witness the Lord as resurrected.

I review this particular account to refresh my faith and give life to Jesus’ promise elsewhere made: Because I live, you too shall live (John 14:19).

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Why Must Perfect Justice Wait?

Of Jesus’ 37 recorded parables, more than half concern issues of final judgment and life’s two alternate destinies.

Jesus’ stories are called parables because the lessons they teach arise out of concrete human experience to make a spiritual point, assuming that what is true in the physical world is also true in the spiritual world.

Here’s one of his stories, retold from Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43.

A farmer sowed wheat in his field and then he and his household went to bed. But while they slept an enemy crept into the field and over-seeded it with weeds.

The next morning, the field appeared unchanged. But weeks later, when the wheat sprouted and began forming heads, the farmer’s servants noted that weeds were threatening to crowd out the wheat.

The servants were baffled. They asked the farmer where the weeds had come from.

The farmer’s reply was that an “enemy” had done this. No more than that is said because Jesus’ lesson is not on the origin of evil. Rather, it is about the final accounting of good and evil.

Although the two often appear to be intermixed in this world they will eventually be dealt with separately and with finality.

The farmer’s servants wanted to act immediately. They offered to go out and pull up the weeds but the farmer said no, because in doing so they would pull up the wheat also.

Let them grow together until harvest, he told them, adding, “I will then tell the harvesters to collect and tie the weeds into bundles to be burned, whereas the wheat will be gathered into my barns.” One plant would be treasured, the other destroyed.

Later, when his disciples were alone with Jesus in the house and still baffled by his story, they asked him to explain.

He broke the story down by telling them the sower was the Son of Man (Jesus); the field was the world; the good seed represented the people of his kingdom; the weeds were the people of the evil one; the enemy was the devil; the harvest was the end of the age; the harvesters were the angels.

The parable helps us understand that wherever Christ’s kingdom is sown and growing in the world, the weeds of evil will be found. This may be true in a Christian youth group, a megachurch, a Christian home, or in a country like China, where the Gospel is advancing while at the same time being mercilessly resisted and persecuted by the state.

In the eyes of the servants, an immediate clean-up appeared to be the right thing to do, but the farmer knew that the clear and complete separation of wheat from the weeds must await the day of harvest.

Similarly, where the Gospel is operating and manifest in this life, evil often appears intermixed and deeply rooted. In such cases, we are sometimes called to be patient, being assured that evil and righteousness will be thoroughly dealt with in a final judgment.

Deep reflection on this parable and the reality it explains helps us to bravely endure wrongdoing that we are powerless to resist or “root out.” We know that all things in this life will be put right when Christ reappears to judge the living and the dead.

With this story before us, how can we escape the urgency of the Apostle Paul who wrote that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Photo credit: Sleepy Claus (via flickr.com).

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Re-post: Every Life Needs a Spiritual Center

Center_6788829651_a8c6da0f8e_nIn ancient times, the pagan King Cyrus of Persia was moved by “the LORD, the God of heaven” to release the Jews exiled in Babylon to return to their devastated homeland in and around Jerusalem. King Cyrus’ instructions were to rebuild the temple that decades earlier had been demolished in rage by Nebuchadnezzar’s army (Ezra 1:2).

When the people of Judah arrived in their homeland, they found temple ruins in shambles, scattered and burned. Where should they begin?

Today, builders would likely erect the shell of the temple first with roof and external walls so they could go on working even in bad weather. But that’s not how the leaders of the Jews went about it.

Their first task was to relocate the place where the altar had stood, to clear it of all defilement, and to faithfully reconstruct that sacred spot where the sacrifices could again be offered. Completing the temple itself could come later.

We’re told they “began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it” (Ezra 3:2). Not walls, the court of the priests or the Holy of Holies. First to be reconstructed was the place of atonement between God and his people — the altar.

Every life can benefit by having a symbolic altar. Whenever I write about weddings or baptisms, I refer to the parties involved as meeting at the altar — even when the worship space has no such symbolic furniture.

I think of an altar as the center of worship in a Christian church, the place where worshipers meet God. It is symbolized in many churches with little more than a replica of the cross of Jesus, sometimes on the wall behind the pulpit or set in miniature on a communion table.

That spot represents the place where sinners may kneel and seek God and believers may come to meet God. At the altar, marriage vows are made, babies are dedicated to the Lord, and even caskets rest temporarily as death is acknowledged in the presence of God and believers take comfort from the Gospel even as they say a temporary farewell.

Like the ancient temple, the Christian home too should have an altar. In our house, one corner of our family room has a round table draped with blue patterned cloth that matches the valences above a wide window. On the table there is a simple lamp and two brass praying hands. They are bookends holding two Bibles, Kathleen’s and mine.

Each morning after breakfast we take the Bibles, read a chapter from them, and discuss the significance of what we’ve read. Then we pray together. This exercise with its simple setting is the center of our home — our family altar. It stood in our minds’ eyes as a symbol of the center of our lives together even when I was traveling and we were apart.

We believe that as God’s redeemed children we experience life best when focused on Him. This focus can, as in our case, be facilitated by a mental and / or tangible setting, however simple, where we pause and meet regularly with the Living God — life’s true center.

Photo credit: Richard Matthews (via flickr.com)

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