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.

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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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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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Re-post: How to Raise Your Happiness Levels

A lot of material that comes at me from the Internet gets a glance and then I press the delete button, but one recent item caught and held my attention.

It offered five ways to improve one’s happiness. These were not merely some psychologist’s suggestions, or points from some pastor’s “how to” sermon. They were strategies brought to light by recent research. That is, each point was backed up by information gained from studies involving large groupings of people.

Upon reading these five points, I saw immediately how fundamental they are to one’s being a happy Christian. Here they are, with my comments.

1. Be Grateful.

If one person in a wheel chair with crippling arthritis can be grateful for his blessings while another with a million dollars in the bank and a boat at the marina can find things to be grumpy about, that can only mean that gratefulness is a matter of “selective perception.” It has to do with what we choose to highlight in our living.

In one of his moments of worshipful exuberance King David exhorted himself to “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” As an antidote to forgetting, he then listed several — forgiveness, health, rescue from disaster, God’s love and compassion, even the satisfaction of one’s holy desires and the renewal of one’s youth. Lest we forget, we all should make our lists from time to time.

2. Be Optimistic.

Perhaps our genes regulate in some measure how inclined we are to be either optimistic or pessimistic. And for this reason, some may never reach the levels of Browning’s maiden who sang, “God’s in his heavens, all’s right with the world.” Christians with biblical understandings are realists, so we know that all is not right with a fallen world. But faith in God’s sovereignty helps us face every day, saying “God’s in his heavens.” This is the basis for our unforced optimism.

3. Count Your Blessings.

When I was 13 year of age, on Sunday afternoons I sometimes attended a Salvation Army Sunday School a block from our home. The Salvationists sang exuberantly to the accompaniment of horns and tambourines, and sometimes they revised their choruses imaginatively. For example, the chorus, “Count your blessings, name them one by one” became, “Count your blessings, name them ton by ton.” Whether we measure our blessings by the tons or not, it’s good to take time daily to identify blessings that permeate our lives. They are beyond numbering, and reviewing them expands our happiness.

4. Use Your Strengths.

We all have both strengths and weaknesses. It is a simple principle of Christian effectiveness to build on our strengths while at the same time monitoring our weaknesses. I recall Alma, a Sunday School teacher assigned to teach a high school class. Her effort was a disaster. While she attempted to teach, the boys climbed in and out of a first floor classroom window and otherwise disrupted the class.

The wise Sunday School superintendent reassigned her to a small class of nine-year-old girls. It was an immediate fit. The class flourished and grew and Alma was happy with her assignment. She had a strength that matched the needs of those nine-year-olds. We do ourselves no favor if we fail to find and build upon our strengths.

5. Commit Acts of Kindness.

Paul’s advice to the Galatian church during a time of severe conflict can be a tip to us all. He wrote, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10). Upon retiring from school teaching, Lila asked me for a list of shut-ins to whom she could take Sunday School papers each Monday. She developed a weekly ministry, even in some cases taking elderly folks to the store to do their grocery shopping. Happiness and service are close cousins.

We Christians know that happiness is not life’s primary goal. But we also know that when our spirits are joyful and our countenances bright our faith tends to be more contagious. So we’ll take all the help we can get to tone up our happiness.

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

King David

Statue of King David, Copenhagen, Denmark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One Sabbath in the Life of Jesus

6679741465_7cd29b9d3a_mLast week I wrote about the Sabbath principle — one day in seven set apart to desist from the labors of the week and to gather with God’s people for worship. I noted that in time Christians shifted to observe Resurrection Sunday as their holy day. My purpose in writing was not to reestablish a sabbatarian rigidity such as many of the Pharisees of New Testament times promoted but to note that today we Christians are at risk of an overly casual approach to our special day, allowing all sorts of unnecessary activities to crowd in and diminish God’s merciful intent.

Today, I recount the story of an event that took place on a particular Sabbath in the life of Jesus. At first, it can look like Jesus himself disregards God’s plan for the Sabbath. But instead, we see that Jesus does his special healing and reconciling work at all times, and that he is Lord of the Sabbath. The story shows also that even the strict observance of the Sabbath can become infected with human rather than divine prohibitions.

The Apostle John reports in his gospel that Jesus came upon a man who had been crippled for 38 years (John 5:1-15). He was lying helplessly beside the Pool of Bethesda among a great number of other afflicted souls. All of them were there for the same reason: they believed that from time-to-time the waters of the pool would be mysteriously stirred and at such a time the first among them to get into the water would be healed.

Ignoring the pool and it’s supposed powers, Jesus asked the man: “Do you want to get well?” The man answered with overtones of despair: “Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. When I am trying to get in someone else goes down ahead of me” (John 5: 1-7).

Jesus’ response was direct and firm: “Get up! Pick up your bed and walk.” At once the helpless man was on his feet, his mat rolled up under his arm, and he was walking about for the first time in 38 years.

Imagine what this would mean to that man! Life would become incalculably better! Still contrary to what would seem appropriate, this healing created a serious problem in the minds of the enemies of Jesus. It was the Jewish Sabbath and the man was about to carry the mat he had been lying on for so long. The Jews had strict laws against anyone carrying a burden on that sacred day. For example, one rabbinic law said anything weighing more than two figs was regarded as a burden and should not be carried on the Sabbath.

What was intended as a day of physical refreshment and worship had been made into a confining straight jacket by a long string of laws made by generations of Rabbis. For example, a woman was forbidden to look into a well on the Sabbath lest she see in her reflection a white hair and be tempted to pluck it. That would be work. By their laws, only emergency care for a wound or illness should be done on the Sabbath. For anything less, let the sufferer return later.

The religious leaders who saw Jesus’ healing of the lame man were angered by it. Jesus’ healing of a man on the Sabbath broke their list of rigorous Sabbath prohibitions. The undercurrent of their reaction to this was murderous.

Scholars of the times note that although the Pharisees of New Testament times made Sabbath a burden there is other information that shows many of the Jews observed Sabbath as a healthful and faith-renewing event in their times.

On Friday evening the trumpet was taken to the tallest building of the community and blown three times — the first time as a signal to the workers in the field to start for their homes; the second time to shop owners to close up shop; and when it sounded for the third time the Sabbath candles were lit all over the village.

On Sabbath morning people went to the synagogue. The noon meal that followed had been prepared the day before, and was in every way special except that it was eaten cold because fires were not lit on the Sabbath. In the afternoon, if the village had a school attached to the synagogue people gathered and local community scholars addressed some of the religious questions of the day.

The religious rulers who complained against Jesus’ healing of the man crippled for 38 years seemed to know nothing of this good side of Sabbath–its rhythms and rest and spiritual focus. And their religion lacked the compassion which Jesus demonstrated on that special day.

In today’s secular, frantically busy, and distracted times, Christians are in danger of going too far in making the day available for anything and everything they might do on other days of the week. We need to revive the original purpose: rest and restoration, and to focus on thanksgiving and worship, the holy side of Lord’s Day worship. (More next week)

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What Shall We Do With Sunday?

5977391697_7230c99dcf_mWithout question, our culture has embraced secularism and the absolute autonomy of the individual as the new credo for living.

In keeping with this change over the past several decades, practices that once regulated public life to a degree, such as Sunday store closings and the setting apart of Sunday for worship and rest, are no longer seen by most people as of any consequence.

Without realizing it, many Christians too appear to have become lax in how Sunday is to be observed. Rather than making it a true Lord’s Day for worship and rest from the labors of the week, Sunday might include doing laundry, shopping for groceries, washing the car, mowing the lawn, cleaning house, or spending hours of hard study to compensate for a poorly disciplined week.

To refocus on the Sabbath principle (Lord’s Day observance) consider a brief review of Bible texts that give a good sense of how Sabbath observance came into being and how Christians should be encouraged to set the day apart even in our secular times.

We begin with the account of Creation. The Book of Genesis tells us that after six days of creation, “on the seventh day God rested (ceased) from all the work of creation that he had done” (Genesis 2:2,3). This rest is sometimes referred to as a Sabbath rite, a standard to be observed by God’s creatures.

Then, in Exodus, the second book of the Bible, we learn that during Israel’s wilderness wanderings, God gave the miraculous gift of manna as daily food (Exodus 16:22). Each morning the Israelites were to go out and collect enough for the family for only that day. But, on the morning of the sixth day, they were to gather enough for two days so they would not need to gather on the Sabbath.

Again, this arrangement reflected God’s merciful provision for the temporal needs of his chosen people and at the same time his call for them to desist one day out of seven from their weekly labors in order to rest in his mercy and celebrate his care.

Then, later came the giving of the Ten Commandments. The fourth said, “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy” [setting it apart, sanctifying it] (Exodus 20:8). Commandments one, two, and three say “You shall not…” Commandment four is a ‘You shall’ positive command to remember and observe the Sabbath Day.

Many centuries later, the Israelites were well settled in the Holy Land and had become prosperous. As so often happens when people feel wealthy and secure, they became neglectful of God’s laws. Prophets like Isaiah prophesied against their wanton disobedience, pinpointing as one major piece of evidence their disregard of the Sabbath.

To counter their offense Isaiah prophesies, “‘If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath / and from doing as you please on my holy day, / if you call the Sabbath a delight / and the Lord’s holy day honorable, / and if you honor it by not going your own way / and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, / then you will find your joy in the Lord, / and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land / and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.’ The mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 58:13,14).

Do New Testament teachings agree with these examples from the Old Testament? In the four Gospels there are at least 58 references to the Sabbath. The problem with Sabbath observance then was that several generations of Rabbis had embellished the basic Sabbath laws with all sorts of picky regulations making the special day burdensome rather than renewing.

The Gospels do not cancel the Sabbath principle — one day in seven for worship and rest from one’s labors. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man.” He humanized it as the Father intended for creaturely renewal — a day to throw off the labors of the week, worship God among his people, and launch the new work week refreshed in body and soul.

In time, Christendom generally switched the rest day from Saturday to Sunday. That’s because Sunday is the day of Christ’s resurrection. It is celebrated as the Lord’s Day.

Is there adequate reason for this change? Jesus rose from death on a Sunday and appeared to his followers both morning (John 20:1-17) afternoon (Luke 24:13-32) and evening (Luke 24:36-49). These meetings set the stage for the weekly celebration on Sunday of our Lord’s resurrection and the promise of ours!

A generation later Paul and Luke were in Troas (now Western Turkey) and Luke writes, “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread’ (Acts 20:6-12). Again, Paul instructs the Corinthians to set aside their special offerings “on the first day of the week” — Sunday, rather than Saturday. (1 Corinthians 16:1,2).

Wise and devout Christians to the present see the wisdom of making Sunday a special day of worship and a day of rest from the labors of the week. They find joy in meeting with a company of Christians for the worship of the resurrected Christ, and setting aside week-day labors to renew faith and clear their vision of life through the living Christ.

In observing the Lord’s Day with care — carefully avoiding making it “just another day” — we acknowledge God’s mercy. As well, we bless ourselves and our families by turning our thoughts heavenward and consciously resting in God’s faithfulness.

(Adapted from my booklet, Give it Rest)

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