Beware of Spiritual Hackers!

I was on the phone with a banker to change a password. The officer I was speaking with suddenly informed me that my account had just been locked. Apparently an unauthorized party was trying to get into it.

After a few words of advice the call ended. Almost instantly there was a notice on my screen saying I should phone a certain number to obtain protection from a hacking attempt against my computer.

I didn’t suspect the banker. I had initiated the call to him. I also knew that clicking on a link is what you never do at a time like this. I also learned from a person of experience that you may take the risk to phone a number or receive a call so long as you provide the caller with zero information.

So out of curiosity that some might caution against, I phoned the number on the screen. When the voice on the other end of the line informed me that he was calling from “Mac” — I own an Apple — I began to sense I was in touch with the evil intentions of a hacker so I hung up.

That left me curious about the term. Where does it come from? What is its original meaning? I discovered a definition: “A malicious or inquisitive meddler who tries to discover information by poking around.” Our world has more than its share of computer hackers — clever but dishonest people who hone their electronic skills in order to cheat the unwary.

But does it occur to us that there is a Hacker prowling around in the spiritual realm and preying on the unwary, with even greater cunning, especially towards Christians?

I refer to a master spiritual hacker who goes by several names — Lucifer (star of the morning) satan (deceiver), the devil (false accuser). This evil force is known as well by many metaphors — wolves in sheep’s clothing, a (deceitful) angel of light, a roaring lion, a great dragon and a serpent.

Consider the Apostle Paul’s description of the spiritual environment in which believers in the city of Ephesus were to live out their faith: “For we are not fighting against people made of flesh and blood, but against the evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against those mighty powers of darkness who rule this world, and against wicked spirits in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12 NLT).

The Scriptures exhort us to beware of these spiritual hackers! They repeatedly caution us that our only eternal defence is to avail ourselves by faith of the grace, peace, and truth lodged in our Lord Jesus Christ. And not only to believe in him, but to surrender our lives to him so as to live under his guidance. In all of this, we are assisted by His Spirit, His Word and Christian friends.

The caution is real. As Saint Peter exhorted the early Christians: Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).

A loss of the contents of a bank account to a human hacker or valuable content in our computers could be costly–even devastating–in this life. But loss of faith and our very souls to the master of all spiritual hackers will be eternal and irreversible.

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Photo credit: Garrett Coakley (via flickr.com)

In My 92nd Year, I Heard the Gospel Afresh This Morning!

Ninety-one years is a long time to be a regular church attender.

When I was only two weeks old, my parents carried me into church in a wicker bassinet. It was the start of a long history. Growing up, I was expected to attend church faithfully so long as I lived in my parents’ home. It was the same when I spent three winter seasons of my teen years in a residential Bible School where regular chapels were just that — regular.

Later, as an ordained minister, evenings or weekends often found me ministering to a gathered congregation. And later, as a church overseer, special needs could draw me toward a congregation of believers during the week.

It all represents a great amount of church exposure.

I’ll admit, however, that across a long life of intensive church involvement there have been times when weariness whispered in my ear to take a pass. And there have also been church events that were without spiritual energy, thus refreshing to neither mind or spirit.

I tell you all this for a reason: I am just home from a Good Friday service at Wesley Chapel Free Methodist Church across Toronto 30 miles to the east of where I live. At least once a year, Wesley Chapel Free Methodist Church joins with the congregation of Briarwood Presbyterian church nearby for a Good Friday service. They alternate locations and participants.

I listened as the two congregations worshiped together, and in every part of the service I heard the gospel ring out afresh. It fed my faith and reminded me why all the evil of that dark and despairing first Friday turned out to be in a special sense Good Friday.

Near the beginning of the service this morning, a woman from Bridlewood read slowly and thoughtfully from Isaiah 53: 1-12. She used the New Living Translation. I recalled that verses 4 and 5 were part of a prophecy about Jesus written nearly 800 years before his birth. Here are those verses:

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried, our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God for his own sins! But he was wounded and crushed for our sins. He was beaten that we might have peace. He was whipped and we were healed.

All week long I had been pondering the doctrine of substitution described here — the idea that Jesus took the punishment for our sins to relieve us of that burden and set us free.

I heard the same assurance when the congregation stood to sing one of my wife Kathleen’s favorite hymns: Hallelujah, What a Savior. Again, the lines filled the sanctuary, igniting faith and warming the soul:

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned he stood;
Sealed my pardon with his blood.
Hallelujah, what a Savior!

In my place! In my place! I heard that resonant note in the Gospel so clearly today, and rejoiced.

The pastor of the Bridlewood church, Reverend Joseph Choi, preached from John 18. He explained Pilate’s political maneuvering to escape condemning a man he knew to be innocent, but despite his innocence, eventually had Jesus flogged to placate the crowds.

In this flogging, Jesus took my place, which he did again when he dragged his own cross toward Calvary, and when he suffered the harrowing treatment on Calvary’s cross. He was an innocent man and at the same time Creator God of the universe, dying for others.

When he bore the wrath of God for the sins of humanity he suffered so that I — and all other confessed sinners — would not need to suffer endless torment for our sin.

So, with Good Friday fading I face Easter Sunday with a renewed conviction that he who died to bear the burden of my sins lives to assure me of eternal life, bought for Christ-believers and followers at so great a price. This Good News, reiterated this morning, washes over me and I ponder it still.

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Re-Post: Getting Ready for Easter

[The following piece was first posted March 5, 2012]

On Sunday, April 8 of this year, millions of Christians on all five continents will gather, not only in magnificent cathedrals and traditional churches, but also in worship centers, store front chapels, and even thatched huts.

Some will risk their lives to attend. They will be there to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as they listen with intensity to resurrection Scriptures and sing with joy resurrection hymns.

But individual persons in these throngs will differ from one another in their grasp of resurrection truth and also in the intensity of their faith in Christ. What will make that difference? One possibility will be how well they have prepared heart and mind during the weeks prior to Easter Sunday.

The importance of preparation for Resurrection Sunday has been formalized in church practices since as far back as the fourth century A.D. when the forty days prior to Easter Sunday were set apart for that very purpose. During these forty days of Lent, special observances are encouraged – such as fasting, acts of self-denial, increase in the giving of alms, etc.

My idea is to live devotionally during those days with the Gospel accounts of the last days of our Lord’s life up to his crucifixion. To do this, my heart is drawn to the Gospel according to John. His account has 21 chapters; yet, as early as chapter 12, he introduces his readers to the events of one week — the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. So, chapters 12 to 19 – eight of its 21 chapters — are devoted to the events of that one single week. If a third of John’s gospel covers only one week of Jesus’ 33-year lifespan, that tells us they are very important.

Please note how Chapter 12 begins: Martha serves a dinner in Jesus’ honor. Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, is at table. In an act of extravagant devotion, Mary breaks open a jar of the expensive perfume, nard, and pours the whole content on Jesus’ feet. The fragrance fills the house.

Judas is openly offended and complains that this ointment could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. But John, writing much later, tells the truth about Judas: he “… was a thief; as keeper of the money bag he used to help himself to what was put into it” (John 12:6).

What a wide range of concerns in that room! Just so in this Easter season: some will love the Lord with the warmth and sincerity of Mary; others may be present but kept from worship by blockages of greed, pride or sensuality. How appropriate to test our love by a verse of an old hymn:

More love to thee, O Christ, more love to thee;
Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee.
This is my earnest plea, more love, O Christ, to Thee
More love to Thee; more love to Thee.

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Photo credit: Robin (via flickr.com)

Can One Be “Born Again” and Ignore the Life and Ministry of Christ’s Church?

At a youth camp I fell into conversation with the man hired to set up and manage the public address system. During our chat he suddenly announced: “I’m a born again Christian, but I haven’t been inside a church in years.” There are many thousands in this country, he went on, who would say the same thing.

His statement was assertive but not hostile. It needs to be examined.

In the Bible, expressions like “being born again” or “born from above” stand for an inner transformation God brings about that is indeed radical. It’s the giving of new life by his Spirit. A love for Jesus, the Savior, is born. New habits, new associates, new religious practices begin to form.

Jesus described what new birth involves when he said to Nicodemus, a devout Jew: “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:5)

To be “born of water” stands for our being cleansed from the moral and spiritual defilement of the old life. John the Baptist called sinners to take their sins seriously when he uttered the command: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (John 3:2) Jesus also began his ministry with the same call. (Matthew 4:17)

But, to Nicodemus Jesus adds, to be born again also implies to be born of the Spirit. This stands for the energy of the new life, the indwelling power of the Spirit of God, enabling the believer to live out the new life in Christ.

With new birth comes an instinct for fellowship with the people of God. Imagine a new convert in China walking to a house where several Christians are meeting secretly for worship. She takes a risk but is inwardly compelled to do so. The same is so for young people in Cuba who meet furtively for prayers.

The church has always been both a gathered and a scattered community. It gathers for worship and scatters to serve. The commonest word for church in the Scriptures means “the called out” or “assembly.” The Apostle Paul presented the church as “the body of Christ” — a living organism of which Christ is the head and director.

In the light of all this it is hard to imagine how the Spirit of God indwelling us would allow us to live in isolation from a company of God’s people. We are called to loyalty to other fellow believers by such words of example as these: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up (as a sacrifice) for her” (Ephesians 5:25b). He calls every believer to be there, sign in, take part, love what Christ loves and imitate him in service to his people.

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Learning to Prime Your Praise Pump

During Winter in the 1930’s the tap water in the Saskatchewan town where I grew up was occasionally undrinkable because it gave off an unpleasant odor. Mother had a solution and she made me a part of it.

In the center of a vacant lot two blocks from our house was a hand-operated pump that sank its pipes into a deep well. During those days of special need my mother would hand me a pail into which she had poured about a quart of hot water. I was to go to the well.

She knew that when I got there, the pump’s handle would likely be limp. It couldn’t create suction to raise water from below because when the pump was not in use a leather gasket that surrounded the piston would have dried out quickly and thus be unable to create a seal.

I would pour hot water into the top of the pump; the water would trickle down and moisten the gasket and cause it gradually to swell.

After I had poured and pumped a few times, up from the depths came a teasing spurt or two, then a slight trickle and finally with every strong thrust on the pump handle a continuous rush of cool pure water would pour forth.

The water was always available but drawing it up and into my pail took time and effort.

I consider that boyhood experience as a metaphor for the way we must sometimes prime the pump to bring forth praises to the Lord when faith seems dry and without lifting power.

All believers have such listless times. Circumstances can beat us down — unresolved family conflict, insufficient sleep, regrets over a missed opportunity, even the pain of an unpleasant relationship. Such reverses pile up, blocking the flow of praises to our Heavenly Father.

If this fits your case here are a couple of ways to prime the pump of praises.

First, concentrate your faith, however feeble, on a selected verse of Scripture. Here’s one of hundreds you could choose: But from everlasting to everlasting, the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children (Psalm 103:17).

Let your faith take hold of this passage with resolve. Repeat it again and again until it becomes centered in your consciousness. Ponder it. Turn it into a prayer. Say it when retiring at night and rising in the morning. It could make praises automatic.

Here’s a second strategy: Look carefully and you may see that what praises you offer are often offered to the Father in large pre-packaged lumps. You’re thankful for your family and your job and your friends and that’s about it. Instead, try breaking up your prayers into small units and fill them out in detail. Let your faith visit special ministries where your prayers are needed.

It may not be just your family you’re grateful for, it may be your sister and two brothers and a whole raft of cousins. Name them. Name the ministries too. Take time to give thanks. Use your God-given imagination. In all likelihood the praises you raise will prompt other praises. It’s like priming the pump.

You may be surprised at how such initially “mechanical” priming of praises can prompt the further flow of gratitude to the Lord. Outdoor pumps can flow steadily even on cold days after they’re primed, and so, too, can our God-given praise pumps.

Photo credit: Julia Maudlin (via flickr.com)

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Re-post: The Second Coming of Christ — Is it on Your Radar?

3184871233_83c52d668b_nIt’s been estimated that one out of every 28 verses in the New Testament has to do with the Second Coming of Christ.

I have three favorite verses that keep that hope vibrant and uncluttered in my heart. I call them my anchor verses on the subject.

First, there are the words Jesus spoke to his eleven disciples during their time in the upper room only hours before his crucifixion. He said, “I am going to (my Father’s house) to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-4).

Can such a lavish promise be trusted? In his teachings Jesus constantly pressed the issue of truth. He often introduced his message with the words, “Truly, truly I say to you.” Or, “I tell you the truth.” He even testified, “I am the truth!” Is it not reasonable then to take him seriously when he says, “I will come back.” so that, “you also may be where I am”?

If he made good on the first half of his promise to ascend to the Father to prepare a place for us, then we can count on him to make good on his promise to return for his followers.

Second, two angels spoke to the disciples on the Mount of Olives at the time when Jesus was taken up into heaven. To the astonishment of the “eleven” these heavenly messengers said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).

“This same Jesus.” Our Lord was fully human when he ascended. Why should it be hard to believe the promise of angel messengers that he will return “bodily.”

It was apparent that the brutal, disfiguring death Jesus had suffered had not in any sense diminished him. His identity was fully preserved, even though his distraught followers had to clear their vision to see it. In fact, by his resurrection they saw he had obviously been endowed with new qualities of life (Luke 24:30,31,36; 1 Cor. 15:44-49).

The Apostle Paul, taking his cue from these facts, later referred to a resurrected body as a spiritual body with new properties and capabilities. And — good news for us — Christ himself said to his followers, “Because I live, you too will live” (John 14:19).

The third scriptural portion I hold dear on the Second Coming of Christ was written years later by the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth. He compared living in this mortal body to living in a tent (2 Cor. 5:1). Tents can provide shelter but they are fragile. A sudden wind storm can blow them away. Then what?

By contrast, the Apostle visualized our state of living in heaven as living in “an eternal house, not built by human hands” (1 Cor. 5:1). The difference between living in a tent and living in a house built by God — a resurrection body — is infinitely great.

But what about the interim between “tent” and “house?” My third verse fits here. We are left to wonder about the intricacies of what some call the “intermediate state” — the time between the believer’s death and resurrection when Christ appears in his glory. The Apostle covers the interim adequately with the words, “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:8).

For the true believer that assurance is enough. We may not be told when or where or how, but we have the assurance that during the waiting time, for those who have died in Christ, the situation will be, “absent from the body, (but) present with the Lord.”

Some say it’s all a myth. A fairy tale. A cover for the fear of death.

In response: I believe in the resurrection of the body because our Lord promised it, the apostles proclaimed it, the early martyrs died believing in it, and through the ages the church on earth has born witness to it as an ongoing anchor point for faith.

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Photo credit: Mike Vondran (via flickr.com)

Re-post: A Protestant Equivalent to Lent

[The following was first posted March 28, 2011]

We’re about half way through Lent. This year, Lent is March 8 to April 23. It ends Saturday after Good Friday. It’s an ancient religious practice followed mainly by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Those who observe Lent include the 40 days before Easter Sunday. During that time, Sundays are not counted because they are intended to be days of celebration year-around – Christ is risen!

For the masses, Lenten practices are not usually severe. Observers deprive themselves of something important – meat, fish, television, sweets, coffee, movies, etc.

These self-deprivations are supposed to call believers to additional prayer, meditation, contrition, repentance, financial giving, or service to prepare themselves for the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection on Easter.

The observance of Lent has never in any large way made a place for itself among Protestants. I believe it was Billy Graham speaking on discipleship who once noted that Christ did not say we were to deny ourselves of “something;” he said we were to deny “ourselves.” The denial of self is more than saying no to the Internet or coffee, meat or movies, and so forth, except perhaps in a symbolic way; it is saying no to “self” – the self that keeps wanting to rear its ugly head and resist our full surrender to the life Christ calls us to – a life that bows fully to his Lordship and the joyful service of others.

But Lent has an element that should be of interest, even appealing, to all serious Christians. The self-deprivations, little or great, are supposed to be attended by special times of prayer and meditation, by repentance and self examination. Meditation is biblical. Consider what God’s word says (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2).

There will be an upsurge of attendance at Protestant services on Easter Sunday. It is sort of traditional. Women especially used to appear in new Easter outfits, a custom tracing back to the celebration of new life in Christ. That practice from my observation no longer seems to be the big thing it once was.

But think of the spiritual impact there would be if hordes of Protestant worshipers were to prepare themselves for the day by several weeks of daily meditation. Will you take the challenge?

Meditation for Christians is not humming a sound or turning the mind loose. It is “focused thinking” and it takes serious effort. Whether practiced by sitting quietly in a chair, kneeling by a bed, sitting on a porch, or walking back and forth in seclusion, Christian meditation can be set in four stages: (1) the deliberate reading of a Scripture verse or passage; (2) the pondering of its content; (3) conversation with God asking for understanding; and (4) a resting in His presence.

The three special times of the day marked especially for meditation are (1) with the last thoughts before falling asleep; (2) the first thoughts upon waking; and (3) a special time of the day set aside for quietness with the Scriptures and prayer.

This sort of disciplined pondering can be a time for taking stock on the state of the soul, repenting as necessary, reflecting on the condition of one’s relationships, asking for a renewal in love for Christ and others, and generally resetting the inner dial to tune in on those things that matter most.

If these thoughts prompt you to increase your times of meditation and devotion leading up to Easter, I suggest you choose the Gospel accounts of the closing days of our Lord’s life (Matthew 26-28; Mark 14-16; Luke 22-24; John 17-21).

Take one verse at a time. Set your mind on it. If thoughts wander draw them back. If light breaks forth and you want to carry the verse through the day, write it on piece of paper and keep it near. Meditation is indeed a discipline but when it engages our souls it is even better than nourishment to our bodies.

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