God Knows

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God;

That shall be better to you than light, and safer than a known way.”

May that Almighty hand guide and uphold us all.

Minnie Haskins (1875 – 1957)

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Photo credit: fruity monkey (via flickr.com)


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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Do You Recognize Five Faces of Anger?

Someone has said a baby’s first cry is an expression of anger. Whether or not that is true, anger is a feature of our humanness. None of us is born without the capacity to be angry.

This is important to know because in our fallenness every aspect of our beings is marred by sin, and this powerful emotion can be legitimate and appropriate but when misused, is often destructive.

Upon returning to the Israelite camp after being absent for many days, Moses found the people indulging in pagan practices. In a show of legitimate anger, he smashed the sacred tablets upon which were written God’s law — the very law that they were breaking.

As recorded by Mark, when Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, the Pharisees arrogantly condemned him for “breaking” the Sabbath. Jesus saw their great lack of compassion and he looked around upon them “with anger” — but with complete and holy control.

His anger was the right emotion for the situation, but is probably the emotion hardest to manage well. Sadly, it can wrongfully destroy property or human relationships. In the extreme, for example, consider the terrible consequences of road rage, air rage, or domestic abuse.

Consider five faces of anger.

Sullen Anger. This anger is kept below the boiling point; face muscles are taut; the air seems charged. It’s better than an explosion but not as good as words that could convey meaning or a good walk to dissipate the emotion and regain perspective.

Nice Guy Anger. Some call it frozen smile anger. Kathleen and I took a short trip into the mountains in California on a narrow gauge railroad. The car was open on all sides, and seating was arranged around the edges. A couple with a child boarded at one of the stops and took more spaces than needed.

At the next stop another couple with several children boarded and chose to sit next to the first couple. Seating was tight and the first couple made no effort to give up space for the family. After the exchange of a few unpleasant words, the second woman sat with her back to the other couple. On her face was a fixed smile that appeared to say, “I’m too nice to be angry.”

Misdirected Anger. A cartoon in four frames first showed a boss talking harshly to his employee. The next frame showed the employee at home chewing out his wife. The third frame showed the wife talking harshly to her little girl. The fourth frame showed the little girl angrily scolding her rag doll. To pass on the emotion of anger to an innocent party rather than owning it and dissipating it is unfair and hurtful.

Anger Used to Punish. Insults, loud talk, swearing, or slamming doors do the work here. The abuser may walk away relieved by a kind of catharsis but his or her victim must deal with the aftermath. Anger used to punish that is not acknowledged can make ongoing relationships cautious and superficial.

Denied Anger. Children who, for example, grow up in the home of an alcoholic parent may be left with unrecognized anger that never goes away. This sort of anger is smothered in an unhealthy way, sometimes denied by practicing a three part mantra — “don’t talk, don’t feel, don’t trust.” I have met adults who were surprised when counseling helped them to discover they were living out this mantra and were encouraged to seek professional help.

The Apostle Paul wrote to Christians in Ephesus: “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” Anger is clearly acknowledged. Indeed anger is a strong and sometimes necessary emotion but tainted by sin needs to be managed in the power of the Holy Spirit.

That’s why the Apostle goes on to say, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30). By God’s grace, destructive anger does not need to be a feature of the Christian life.

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Photo credit: Muneef HameedPhoto/Nashad Abdu (via flickr.com)

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions – How We Make Good Ones

A two-month-old infant tastes the first spoonful of baby food. His tongue touches the tip of the spoon and his face reports his decision. A one-year-old child meets a grandfather for the first time and again, facial expression and body language show she is deciding whether or not to trust herself to his arms.

Decision-making begins early in life.

All the way from infancy to the end of life, we are daily faced with scores of decisions. Shall I study or surf the web? Is there time to stop for the yellow light or shall I continue through the intersection? Shall I go on with the relationship or ease out of it? Do I blow a whistle or just quietly leave this organization?

Our grandson, Zachary, told me about a talk he heard on this subject at a Christian Medical Fellowship meeting. The speaker’s outline was simple enough: To make good decisions there are two reference points that should always be reckoned with.

The two reference points are righteousness and wisdom.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). If we are true believers we want to honor God by making our decisions demonstrate moral uprightness. We are tested every day.

God actually “guides us in paths of righteousness, for his name’s sake” the psalmist tells us (Psalm 23:3). But we must be concerned that our life-shaping decisions grow out of our openness to and awareness of his directions.

So, where do we discover this core of the righteousness to which God calls us? We visit the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 1-17). Commandments one through four tell us how we are to relate to God, and six to ten, how we are to relate in our social settings — family, church, and state.

But we are often confronted by a dilemma that may not have one explicit answer or a particular verse of scripture to hold onto, such as shall I speak my mind on a certain issue or shall I remain quiet?

That calls into play the other reference point: wisdom.

According to the speaker Zach heard, we must depend on the application of common sense in concert with our understanding of righteousness. That is, we apply the two together to the specific decision we must make.

This wisdom may be given to us by God through his Word, or in the form of our prior life experience, or the insights of others, or our own instincts. This righteousness + wisdom formula helps us to choose our friends wisely, to avoid reality-distorting drugs and other harmful activities, to make good vocational decisions, and yes, even to speak or not to speak.

Wisdom helps us to maintain our commitment to righteousness as we wrestle with the uncertainties and perplexities of life. When we face life’s decisions with righteousness and wisdom guiding us to the best of our ability, always asking for God’s blessing, we are saved from the paralysis of second-guessing ourselves.

We believe that the Lord God can take our decisions and bless their outcomes because we have used the best resources at our disposal — righteous standards to which we are clearly committed with the help of his Spirit, and wisdom for which we earnestly pray (James 1:5).

Photo credit: Dennis Hill (via flickr.com)

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Is Regular Church Attendance Good for My Health?

An article on the internet this week makes reference to “hundreds if not thousands” of studies that have been done to explore connections between church attendance and health and longevity.

The findings are positive. For example, one study indicated that people who attend church regularly show lower stress in their lives and tend to live longer.

From infancy onward I was in church twice on Sunday with parents and sister. At 16 years of age, I tried to win freedom to make up my own mind about church attendance but my disciplinarian mother insisted that attending church was non-negotiable as long as I was at home.

Even after leaving home to work in another community I continued the practice into my late teens and young adulthood and then, of course, also during my years as a pastor and overseer. Throughout these years, gathering with God’s people on Sundays has been a joy.

Seven months ago, at age 91, I found myself in the hospital diagnosed with a smouldering form of leukemia. It took a few months to get back on my feet, and two setbacks interrupted my regular church attendance.

In those months I missed more Sundays than I attended. But the love to meet with God’s people in the worship of God in Christ remains unabated.

Last week, and again this week, we have reinstated our regular attendance. When our pastor begins the service with, “Let us stand for the call to worship,” I hear that call with greater intensity. I hear it as a summons to believers of diverse backgrounds, occupations, ages and ethnicities, to worship the Almighty — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — as one people.

We sang hymns and spiritual songs with fresh awareness. The prayers of the people were led by a layperson. Announcements were made to bring the congregation up to date on activities and interests; the children sang for us jubilantly; we presented our offerings, and the pastor gave a message from God on the power of Pentecost.

She had obviously spent significant time preparing it. As a pastor I had prepared fresh Sunday morning messages for many years. I knew the cost of preparation. I knew of the pastoral heart behind it. Her message was biblical. It was Christ-honoring.

There was something in it for me and I assume for others who had come to the gathering with their joys, perplexities or even sorrows. Anyone present who needed salvation would sense the call of the Spirit.

By the time the service was over, I felt in fresh touch with God my Creator and Sustainer of 91 years. The service was dismissed and there were handshakes and hugs. Worshipers showed evidence of joy as they dispersed.

Was this all really health-giving for me? For others in attendance? It appears that statisticians would say yes, and I would agree drawing on my own experience.

Jesus spoke to all people of all ages when he said, “For where two or three come together in my name there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). How inviting! How could public worship weekly giving thanks to God and shared with a company of his followers mean anything but health to both body and soul?

Photo credit: John Twohig (via flickr.com)

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How Our Worries Are to Give Way to Peace

We grieve in the night over a relationship broken irretrievably decades ago. We imagine a long-range missile flying from North Korea towards Los Angeles. We also stress about looming mortgage payment deadlines, the threat of unemployment, street shootings in a nearby city, the meaning of campus unrest, and even political corruption. Such worries rob us of the peace of God.

There is a formula in the New Testament that addresses such debilitating fretfulness and offers an assurance of God’s care and protection. It is written by a man who is in jail. He knows that even as he writes the authorities may be deciding whether he should be released — or executed. His name is Paul.

Here’s his formula and its promised result as found in the New Living Translation: 

Don’t worry about anything; instead pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. If you do this, you will experience God’s peace which is far more wonderful than the human mind can fathom. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

Consider a breakdown of his advice.

First, we take inventory of the issues that hold our minds hostage. The operative word in Paul’s instruction is “anything.” We must leave nothing out lest what we omit becomes like “rust” that keeps the prayer wheels from turning freely.

Second, turn every worry into a prayer. Tell God what is on your mind, and what you need. This can be in a quiet, worshipful way, or it can be intense as you cry out from a heart in anguish.

We can do this in our times of devotional prayer, during a bout of insomnia, or as we drive the highway to work. The more constant our prayers, the greater our reliance on God and his response to us.

Third, make sure that thanksgiving is the unifying attitude. Giving thanks tempers our anxieties. We give thanks even as we present our petitions. Thanksgiving is to be like a prayer rug that underlays all our prayers from beginning to end.

And now for the result: Paul assures us that our prayers will be followed by the peace of God, beyond our comprehension!

However, he does not promise that this peace of God will necessarily obliterate or remove what assails us. When we open our eyes the threats may still be there. But he does promise God’s peace will post a guard around us, like an army of angels. This peace will at the same time clear our thinking and calm our hearts.

Paul offers this gift of peace to us in Christ Jesus who is our Savior and Lord. It is from our blessed position in Christ that we inventory our worries, pray them out to God, and receive his peace.

Photo credit: Jason Lander (via flickr.com)

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Re-post: Mending Fences

In 1956, when I was a young pastor in the Pacific Northwest Conference, the late Reverend C. W. Burbank was my conference superintendent. I had been appointed to the New Westminster church on the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, and Kathleen and I had crossed the continent from Kentucky immediately after my graduation from Asbury Seminary. Our personal belongings and four little children were packed into our turquoise colored Plymouth and a large spring-less trailer joggled along behind us every mile of the way.

Before Superintendent Burbank entered the ministry he was a logger. He had an outdoors ruggedness about him. He was not a seminary trained man; back then, seminary training for ministers was less common and more difficult to attain than now. Many pastors of earlier eras got whatever theological training they received by means of serious correspondence courses they were expected to wade through.

But he was an urgent preacher, well respected by his peers, and a man of down-to-earth common sense, something he learned or polished, as I understand, while in the logging business in the Okanagan Valley of Washington State.

During one of my first conversations with him he shared a bit of wisdom. He explained that some ministers are more skilled at mending their fences than others. He meant that when a misunderstanding or even an unintended interpersonal rift developed, such pastors seem to have a knack for restoring trusting relationships.

Others, he went on, leave the gap unaddressed and allow it to take on a certain permanence. If this happens with another family, and then another, Rev. Burbank explained, the misunderstandings accumulate sufficiently to destroy the trust of the congregation as a whole. A wall develops and the minister loses the trust of the congregation and he must move on.

Rev. Burbank didn’t say exactly how to recover healthy relationships. Nor did he mention what to do if a pastor’s efforts to keep fences mended are rejected. That is another aspect of the issue, and there are such situations. To take his counsel a step further, here are a couple more suggestions.

First, the greatest hindrance to correcting wounded relationships is pride – that dangerous quality within us that makes us tend to over-rate our worth or abilities. Pride is a point of vulnerability with all of us, Christian or not. When something is said or done from either side that injures our self esteem the rift is in danger of opening. Before repair can even be attempted pride must be acknowledged and brought to heel.

Second, once a rift happens, anger tends to follow and it invariably only clouds issues. So, no correction should be attempted until anger has been faced and dissipated. Most of us have learned this lesson by unhappy experience. In the face of breakdown of relationship and accompanying anger, only the indwelling Spirit of Christ can save us from further anger-prompted division.

Third, wise pastors will know that once in awhile, a relationship may grow cool or may even seem beyond repair. This may be due to disagreement on a particular issue. Or it may arise when a parishioner seems to have a fixed point of view about some circumstance. In these sorts of cases, when honest efforts have been made to restore relationship and fellowship—without success—ministers should labor on. As all pastors learn, in a busy growing pastorate there will be those who do not agree with the minister on issues. After honest efforts have been made to seek corrected and restored fellowship — without success — ministers should go on with their work diligently, all the while treating objectors with civility and grace. Only humility can keep the door open to the other person permanently. And it can only be hoped that the minister’s continued faithful service to the congregation will bear fruit and that eventually hearts will melt and be reconciled.

Ministers are much more likely to stay afloat in troubled waters and navigate through rocky relationships if they remember that their ultimate accountability for their efforts is to God. Their hope is that God may be pleased, since it is to him they will finally answer. Just remembering this makes them more careful to avoid missteps.

Mending fences is not only a challenge to ministers. Broken relationships are a universal peril in our fallen world. It would be hard to find someone of mature years who does not have a measure of pain over damaged relationships and even unresolved relationship issues at this point. So ministers and laymen alike need strength and grace help in the arduous task of living openly and charitably — insofar as possible — with all. Praying for increased sensitivity to the needs of others for Christ’s sake is the starting point.

Many years after our conversation, Rev. Burbank died in the pulpit while doing what he loved — preaching the gospel. I am just one of many who profited from his ministerial leadership and wise counsel. His insight regarding mending fences was a lifelong gift, not always exercised to the greatest effectiveness, but always treasured.

Photo credit: Josh Liba (via flickr.com)

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