Paul’s Call to a More Wholesome Thought Life

Late in his life the Apostle Paul was a prisoner in Rome. While there he was allowed to engage his own dwelling but was chained to a guard by a short chain (Philippians 1:7, 13,14).

Remarkably, he did not let this break his connection with churches he had planted. One of them was the church at Philippi in Macedonia. His ancient letter to the Philippians still blesses the church universal to this day when it is read and studied.

Consider a short portion of the letter in which the apostle exhorts Christians to “Christianize” their minds further (Philippians 4:8-9).

He writes, in verse 8: “… whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about those things.” We can call this an exercise for enriching the Christian mind.

Whatever is true. Christians believe that God is the essence of truth. He cannot lie (Titus 1:2). He is the source of all that exists, the Creator and Sustainer of all things: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). To this conviction the Psalmist writes: “Your word, Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89). On these truths about God and his word, Christians are to lodge their thought lives.

Think of the witness Christians can have in a world saturated with untruths: scams, frauds, hoaxes, shady schemes, and intentional deceptions. When we become Christians we are still in that world, but, with the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit, we are challenged to stand against these things and to cultivate new thought patterns to exalt and glorify God.

Whatever Is noble. We can speculate that the apostle, upon noticing the vulgar language and behavior all around him, called Christians to raise even their hidden thoughts to an elevated and righteous level. I think here in particular of the crucial importance of avoiding the scourge of pornography that defiles, cheapens, even twists the mind. Without question, the Christian faith raises our thoughts to a much more elevated standard.

Whatever is right. William Barclay writes: “It is a law of life that, if a person thinks of something often enough and long enough, they will come to a stage when they cannot stop thinking about it. Their thoughts will become quite literally in a groove out of which they cannot jerk themselves.” (Since “right” is related to “righteousness,” we can see what Paul’s assignment here is.)

Whatever is pure. The Scriptures repeatedly set purity of heart as a primary goal for all believers: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8).  Purity is the cry of the penitent. As King David prayed after sinning grievously: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me (Psalm 51:10). And as Paul says: “Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). God plants in his children’s minds our heart’s longing to be pure and we must respond in agreement.

Whatever is lovely. Elsewhere in his Galatian letter the apostle gathers a list that demonstrates what he considers lovely — he calls this list the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). They are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When these qualities rule in the heart they beautify the outer life.

Whatever is admirable. Could this mean “that which calls forth love,” as one scholar suggests? Have we not all had contact with believers whose smiles and greetings are under nearly all circumstances warm and attractive, rooted in the heart, such that we cannot help but admire them?

At this point the apostle changes the structure of his sentence to add “excellence” and “praiseworthiness” to his list — two final descriptive words that make his catalogue complete. He does not suggest that the eight traits will blossom fully and automatically or overnight.

But they will advance when we meet two conditions. First, when we open our hearts to a fuller ownership of the Holy Spirit in all things. And second, when we organize our lives around the Scriptures daily and in company with other believers.

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Giving Prayer Its Proper Place

A loaded ferry was crossing a large body of water when a storm blew up. Rain pelted the upper deck; angry waves swept across the lower deck. Frightened passengers hunkered down in the cabin, fearing for their lives.

One woman asked the captain, “Whatever can we do?”

The captain answered, “We must pray.”

“Good heavens,” the woman replied, “has it come to that?”

There may be a touch of humor in the woman’s response, but to hint that prayer is only for life’s most perilous moments is to cheapen and gravely narrow it.

The Apostle Paul showed by implication how precious prayer should be at all times when he said, “In (God) we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

For Christians, where does prayer fit into the whole scheme of things? When the storms of life break upon us, is prayer our first thought or our last resort?

We look to the life of our Lord Jesus for an answer.

Jesus, recall, was God in human form. We know he limited himself in this way in order to fully experience our humanness. He was as much man as he was God, and as much God as he was man, one ancient creed declares.

At various times, the crowds favored him (John 12:12-19), and at other times they hated him with a vengeance (Luke 23:23). In all this, where did Jesus place the practice of communing with the Father in prayer?

First, we learn from the Gospel accounts that Jesus prayed in a multitude of circumstances, showing us that the Father is approachable at all times.

For example, Jesus prayed in moments of great joy: “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children …’ “ (Luke 10:21). We follow his example when we have learned to turn our joys into prayers.

Jesus also turned to prayer during vexing days of ministry. One example is his private prayer on a mountainside long into the evening to renew his strength after he had performed a night-time miracle on the Lake of Galilee.

In the gospel of Matthew, 14:23-24, we are told: “After he had dismissed (the crowd) he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.” We are also told that shortly before dawn, Jesus came down, and  walked across the surface of the lake to his disciples’ boat. For some time between the two events he was in prayer (Matthew 14:23-33).

Earlier, Jesus prayed before selecting from among his large group of followers the twelve he would assign as apostles. The process began on the mountainside (really, a large hill). As we learn in Luke 6:13, “When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles.” These were to be his inner circle of leaders, selected and set apart only after hours of prayer.

And of course he prayed on the brutal cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And later, “Into my hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

For Jesus, prayer was not the last element of facing the joys and stresses of life; it was the first. The range of his prayers was sweeping and for all circumstances. And throughout all our days, whether we are joyful, distressed, or suffering, we must never let ourselves forget that.

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How to Deal with Our Afflictions

Suppose a social worker interviews fifty people from a fine apartment building. He asks each person if he or she is dealing with any sort of affliction. We would expect a “yes” from most if not all of them.

The word affliction is defined broadly, for example as “a state of pain, suffering, distress or agony.”

Some might mention a physical affliction: complications of diabetes; macular degeneration; or perhaps arthritis, hearing loss, an autoimmune disorder, gluten intolerance, seizures, cancer.

Others might add a material affliction: a lost job combined with an empty emergency fund, hail damage to a car, or a flooded basement.

Yet another group might contribute examples of psychological affliction: a failed marriage; phone calls ignored by an alienated child who has in effect disappeared; the stress of an abusive or narcissistic boss.

Affliction comes to us all in one way or another over time. Nobody escapes, including those who appear to have it made.

The classic sufferer, Job of the ancient Biblical account, knew about mankind’s pervasive afflictions. Chapter 5, verse 7, asserts: Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward. And consider a New Testament sufferer, the Apostle Paul, who shared with the Corinthian church, in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29, a catalogue of his many sufferings for the gospel: shipwreck, undeserved whippings, three times beaten by robbers, in peril of being murdered, and on several occasions confinement in jail or under house arrest for months for no good reason.

What enabled Paul to successfully fend off gloom, self-pity, and despair when so many afflictions settled on him? He shares his secret in the same epistle.

Earlier, in chapter 4, verses 16 and 17, he shared the big picture about suffering. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles [afflictions] are achieving for us an eternal glory which outweighs them all.

Note three ways in which Paul reduces fear and supports the certainty of victory whether in life or in death.

First, he sets, side-by-side, two processes that Christians experience at the same time. One is that time is taking its toll on all of us and we are “wasting away.” This sobering reality is visible to each of us as birthdays mount into multiple decades. But Paul adds that, at the same time, inwardly we are being renewed day by day (16). The anniversaries that tick off our years also can deepen our character and our lives in Christ and awaken our awareness of a radiant future.

I heard a former bishop of the Free Methodist Church, Rev. William Pierce, then in his eighties, tell a large congregation at the 1947 General Conference, “Every day I live I am one day nearer to eternal youthfulness.”

In 2 Corinthians 4:18, Paul gives us a second secret to a life that can triumph in the face of mortality: So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. There is so much to be seen (and desired) in our world of material abundance. Fixing our eyes on the unseen — regularly looking “beyond” to the next world — fuels our confidence when serious adversities come calling.

Third, in verse 18 Paul introduces two words to underscore the assurance that we can triumph over our afflictions: current troubles, he says, are “light” when compared to our eternal future, and they are “momentary” by the same comparison.

The Apostle Paul faced his afflictions bravely and with strength — with a transcendent view not only of the current world but also of the world to come. His words and example encourage us to do the same — enabled by the abundant grace of God!

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The Changes New Life in Christ Will Bring

When we come to Christ in faith, confessing our sins and declaring ourselves his followers, we begin a new life. As the Apostle Paul exhorts: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Let us consider several ways in which this newness in Christ expresses itself for every Christian — though not always in the same way, and not always at the same rate of development. I hope this will help you or that you will pass it on to new Christians.

1. We have a new Lord. Before the change we were largely our own lord, seeking our own pleasures, captive to our own sometimes empty interests. Now, we bow before the lordship of the one who gave up his life for our salvation. His lordship brings us to a surprisingly enlightened state of mind! Understanding deepens! We are able to say with Paul: … no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God … can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).

2. The Holy Spirit becomes our new spiritual guide: He guides us, leading us in a righteous life. As Jesus said to Nicodemus: Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5). Spirit here refers to the third person of the Trinity. He is a personal, spiritual presence. How personal? The Apostle Paul exhorted reverently: And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption (Ephesians 4:30).

3. We have a new Guide Book. When we were dead in our sins and alienated from God we had little thought of the Bible, unless it was to speak of it casually or with disdain. But the new life in Christ awakens in us commitment to the Bible as the primary source of saving truth and also the guide for righteous living.

The Christian Scriptures are inspired by God as the source of his truth. It’s the book describing God’s redemptive purpose for our lives. The Apostle Paul had this practical goal in mind when he wrote:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16,17)

New Christians not yet well instructed in Bible truth may begin acquainting themselves with the Bible by first reading through one or more of the four gospels, preferably beginning with Mark, the shortest of the four.

4. As we live the new life some old relationships may fade and new ones take their place. When we experience Christ in a saving way friends will either show keen interest in our story, asking sincere questions, or they will appear skeptical, disinterested, or even hostile. Friendship may become difficult. The prophet Amos asks: How can two walk together unless they be agreed? (Amos 3:3) In such situations, the Holy Spirit will lead and comfort.

5. With the blooming of the new life, we find ourselves drawn toward a new community. Call it the local church. Most often, when we read the word church in the New Testament it is a translation of the Greek word for called out. That is, it is an assembly of believers who are called to gather regularly to understand and deepen their faith in Christ. We may also find new friends in such an assembly of Christians.

In looking for a good church in which to worship and to serve the Lord, look for one where pastors and other leaders carry on ministries rooted in Scripture and who themselves are alive to Jesus Christ; where church life is well ordered, love among members is evident, and Bible teaching makes clear what we are to believe and how we are to live. It should also be a gathering where fellowship looks inward to nurture the Christ-centered life, and outward to find opportunities to serve others.

As you ponder these suggestions keep in mind that the life God calls us to follow is a life that includes warfare, not against people but against the evil one who is the archenemy of God. Consider the Apostle Paul’s word about conflict and temptation to the church in Corinth:

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

6. The end result of these life changes will be the natural development of Christian character. It’s what Paul had in mind when he set before the Galatian Christians the wonder of Christian growth, comparing it to a beautiful collection of developing fruit thus: … the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). It was in our Lord’s thoughts when he prayed for his disciples when he was soon to leave them: Sanctify them [make them holy] by the truth; your word is truth (John 17:17).

If you are challenged and encouraged in your faith by these six points of change prompted by the new life in Christ, I wish you God’s rich blessings as you ponder and receive ongoing Christian guidance from them.

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Re-post: Thoughts About Serving Holy Communion

Young pastors sometimes struggle to see the value of liturgy, especially the service of Holy Communion. It may seem “unspiritual” to them because the words spoken are prescribed in advance. Consequently, they may feel the need to “reformat” this ancient rite of the Church.

I once heard of a young pastor’s novel come-and-go Communion service. The elements were laid out on the Communion table and people were invited to come anytime Sunday afternoon and serve themselves, without benefit of explanation, pastor, or possibly even fellow believers.

Or there was the pastor so opposed to rituals of any kind that he simply “announced” Communion and passed the elements around without invitation, consecration, explanation, or prayer. Any unchurched person would be sure to go away asking, “What was that about?”

Whatever the cause for disinterest or aversion, here are some simple suggestions to help pastors conducting a Communion service. They may also be useful for laypersons who feel the need for fuller engagement with this sacrament.

1. During the week prior to the service, live in the four brief New Testament passages that report the first Lord’s Supper, attended and hosted by Jesus Himself:

Matthew 26:17-30
Mark 14:22-26
Luke 22:19-23
1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Let the scene set itself in your imagination and let the words sink in. If the truths expressed in “this is my body … this is my blood (broken/shed for you)” seem wrapped in mystery, remember that in the early days of the Christian era the Greek branch of the church often referred to the Lord’s Supper as just that — “the Mystery.”

2. The day before the Lord’s Supper is served, spend time with the ritual itself. Read it aloud. Personalize its opening invitation for yourself. Think afresh what the sacrificial death of Jesus meant and turn that understanding into prayer. It is sometimes the savoring of words — “putting them under your tongue and sucking them like a sweetie,” as one Scottish divine advised — that releases their power.

3. Practice reading the service out loud slowly and thoughtfully. In doing so you may hear fresh truth for your own need. One teacher of pastors offered this advice to those called upon to read the Bible in public services: “Read it as if you are listening to it yourself, not as though you wrote it.” The same advice fits reading the ritual of Holy Communion.

4. If you have any impulse in your mind to diminish or neglect the serving of the Lord’s Supper, remember that, throughout history, it has often been called the central act of Christian worship. Let that understanding refashion your thinking.

5. Finally, whether you are a pastor or layperson, resist the tendency to seek innovation. Sometimes in our youth we are inclined to diminish the value of repetition in favor of new ways of saying or doing things. Innovation certainly has its place, but not with a fundamental practice of our faith such as the Lord’s Supper. Repetition is intended to fix its truths in believers’ minds.

After one communion service at which I had served believers of all ages, an elderly woman, the widow of a minister, spoke to me. She had heard the ritual all her life. She said to me with feeling, “The longer I live, the more meaningful the Lord’s Supper becomes to me.”

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Dealing with Our Doubts

It’s one thing to be racked by our doubts, wondering if God exists, if He cares, if He can do anything for us in our times of uncertainty. But to feel that our doubts are sinful and that we must keep them hidden compounds our distress.

The truth is that doubt is the not infrequent experience of aspiring saints. Smug, narcissistic, or spiritually complacent Bible characters like Samson, Absalom and the wicked Herodias give little evidence of wrestling with doubts. They were all supremely self-confident.

But the godly prophet Elijah is a different case. So are Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and John the Baptist. Even Jesus had his times of doubt. No one ever trusted the Father more implicitly than he, yet from his cross he cried, “My God, My God, Why…?”

In the psalms there are many doubter’s laments. At least 40 of the 150 are called psalms of lament, and some are from people wrestling with doubt.

Psalm 77 is one of them.

The psalmist is in such distress that he cannot sleep at night. He holds God responsible for even this, since for the Hebrew mind God is ultimately involved in every human situation.

The psalmist cries out in his anguish, Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in his anger shut up his compassion? (Psalm 77:9 RSV)

This psalm must have been written as the solitary cry of one believer. But when the psalms were collected, eventually to become the Old Testament hymn book, this one was seen as a cry common to many devout hearts. Thus it was made a part of the Old Testament worship literature. Today all readers, New Testament doubters too, may use it.

Doubters want to believe that God is there for them. But they struggle to see how things could be as they are, if God really cared. Doubters have faith but it is under assault, conflicted, strained.

Frederick Robertson, great preacher of an earlier generation, was sometimes subject to profound, sometimes overwhelming, doubts. His advice?

“Obedience! Leave those thoughts [of doubt] for the present … Force yourselves to abound in little services; try to do good to others; be true to the duty that you know …”

Good advice, but there is an even deeper word in this psalm. The psalmist says: I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; yea, I will remember thy wonders of old (Psalm 77:11 RSV).

This psalmist avoided the peril of self-absorption by meditating, principally on the mighty acts of God at the Red Sea.

We can go one better. We also call the mighty acts of Jesus to mind — his perfect life, his love for the oppressed, his healings — and particularly his deliverance from death at Joseph’s tomb. The Holy Spirit, by such meditations, can renew our faith.

When trying to overcome oppressive doubts, in addition to personal meditation, it is also good to go where a company of believers is worshiping the living God. Attempt to share in their faith as they sing and pray. Join with them and listen to the word of God preached.

You will be among friends. And, of course, on any given Sunday, there will surely be others there who also need to activate Psalm 77.

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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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The Second Coming: What Do You Expect?

The Last Judgment by Michelangelo (Public Domain).

The late Billy Graham made a statement long ago, the essence of which has stayed with me through the years. He said: “Every morning when I rise I say, ‘This may be the day!’”

His statement arrested attention, but is the doctrine to which he referred — the Second Coming of Christ — central to the gospel or merely a sidebar to it?

It is mentioned in the New Testament 218 times — eight times more than his first coming. Jesus referred to his own promised return twenty-one times. The letter to the Hebrews shows the importance of the Second Coming very clearly: So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (Hebrews 9:28).

Consider three effects this promise of a Second Coming should have on our lives as believers.

First, our Lord’s promised Second Coming prompts us to keep our lives morally and spiritually undefiled. The Apostle Paul wrote to Titus: For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope — the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:11-13).

In our fallen world, “ungodliness and worldly passions” make their constant appeal. They may entice through salacious magazines and books, seductive television and movies, gambling, pornography, illicit drugs, unhealthy companionships and even cheap and defiling talk.

Prompted by the hope of the Second Coming and with trust in the power of the Holy Spirit we are to purge ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit (2 Corinthians 7:1).

Second, our belief in the Second Coming prompts us to carry out our Christian assignments with diligence — always with the promise of Christ’s return. Consider a story Jesus told that reflects this point (Matthew 24:45-51). It represents a summons to faithful duty.

In a wealthy man’s estate there were many servants. The owner planned to be away for an unspecified length of time, so he assigned his most trusted servant to make sure all the workers were adequately fed and cared for during his absence.

The worker had two options: If his master returned to find him carrying out his assigned duties faithfully he would promote him, trusting him with a much larger responsibility. But if the servant should wickedly shun his duties, beating the other servants and drinking with neighborhood drunkards, the master’s return would bring severe punishment.

As it turned out, in Jesus’ story the master returned unexpectedly. The servant had failed his test. The punishment was severe. So will it be at the Second Coming of Christ: the faithful and the unfaithful will be identified and rewarded or judged.

Third, in the light of the promised Second Coming we are to live creatively as believers, making the most of the resources entrusted to us for kingdom purposes. The Parable of the Talents, in Matthew 25:14-30, represents the joy of service and the challenge of taking risks in the life of faith.

A wealthy man who had to go on a long journey did not know exactly when he would return. So he called his three servants together and distributed his wealth among them — to one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags of gold and to yet another one bag of gold. He dispersed the quantities according to each servant’s abilities.

The first two servants received the bags of gold with excitement. They immediately headed for the business district to invest their contents. They wanted to gain as much profit as possible for their master’s sake before his return. When the master returned, the five bags of gold had been increased to ten, the two had become four. To each of these servants the master said, Well done, good and faithful servant.

But the servant who received only one bag of gold had a different story. The trust the master had shown him had been a burden. He had dug a hole, buried the gold and forgotten about his assignment. When his master appeared the one-bag man returned exactly what had been entrusted to him. It had gained nothing.

He tried to blame his master for his failure. The master addressed him with two words: You wicked and lazy servant. He was thrown into outer darkness. As believers, our faith energies are to be joyfully productive.

The Scriptures’ exhortation to moral and spiritual purity plus Jesus’ two stories foreshadow a promised return of Christ. We are called to live with this awareness.

There is no scriptural suggestion here that by such means we could work our way into heaven. That is a grace issue. But there is the suggestion that whether we actually care about the things Christ cares about — that we live upright, holy lives, and live true to Kingdom purposes — will be revealed when the Second Coming breaks upon the world and leads us all towards great reward or divine judgment.

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Re-post: Good News/Bad News: It’s No Joke

Good news/bad news jokes add a touch of humor to our lives. Like this one:

A pastor reports to his congregation on Sunday morning that he has both good news and bad news for them.

He tells them: “The bad news is that last night’s storm blew a hole in the roof and there is a lot of water damage in the choir room.” The people respond with a concerned murmur.

The pastor goes on: “But there’s good news. The good news is that we have all the money we need to repair the damage.” The people brighten.

“However,” the pastor adds, “the bad news is that the money is in your pockets.” Spontaneous laughter erupts but sounds a little nervous.

Stories like this may bring a chuckle, but they also reflect the way life often unfolds. Good and bad news both descend on us, sometimes too close to each other for our liking.

This thought came to me some time back when I read an interview with Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback church in California. You recall that he made news over his runaway bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life. The book had brought him fame and great wealth almost overnight. Great! Wonderful news!

But shortly thereafter he was in the news again, this time because cancer had struck in his family. After much prayer, he and his wife came to terms with what they were facing.

Shortly after receiving the news, in an interview he said, “Life is a series of problems: either you are now in one, or you’re just coming out of one, or you’re getting ready to go into another one.”

He also said, “I believe that life is kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and that at all times you have something good and something bad running in your life.”

A decade has passed, but in saying this, Pastor Warren spoke from his own poignant experience. One day had brought surprising news of great wealth to the family; the next brought the threat of great loss. So it is for all of us.

Can we draw lessons from his two-rail metaphor for how we should live? We are enabled to face both good and bad that come so startlingly close together with a measure of equanimity when we see our lives in the context of eternity.

Rick Warren pointed this out when he said, “In a nutshell, life is preparation for eternity …This [brief life] is the warm-up act — the dress rehearsal. God wants us to practice on earth what we will do forever in eternity” — which is to let nothing dim our view of him in all his glory.

This is in complete agreement with what the Apostle Peter teaches Christians who apparently had been ripped from their homes and scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1).

We are born again into a living hope, he writes (1 Peter 1:3). We have an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade — kept in heaven for you (1:4). We know that our salvation will be fully revealed in the last time (1:5). All this is a treasure trove of reassurance and will sustain us even while we may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials (1:6).

When the bad news comes, we also have God’s word through the Apostle Paul: For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

Photo credit: Jon S (via flickr.com)

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Re-post: Diet and Exercise for the Soul

Every day, it seems to me, I get messages from the media about what I must do to keep in the best of health. The advice has now been reduced to two points. I must (1) feed my body a proper diet — which means a  diverse selection of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts, along with limited sugar and other simple carbohydrates — and (2) exercise vigorously from 30 to 60 minutes each day.

Our whole culture seems to have arrived at consensus on this. The words, “diet and exercise” have become a mantra. So, at our house we have tried to take the recommendation seriously.

But what about that aspect of our beings we call the soul? Mankind is formed by our Creator from the dust of the earth, the Scriptures tell us, but so are the lions and hippos. However, for us the Scriptures add, God breathed into that physical formation the breath of life and “man became a living soul.”

Consequently, we do not accurately say: “I am a body and I have a soul,” as though the body is the more significant aspect of our beings and our soul a  sort of attachment.  Instead, it is better to say: “I am a soul, and that soul inhabits my body.”  In saying this, we acknowledge that, as precious as our bodies are to God and to us, it is our indestructible spiritual natures that deserve our more careful attention if we must make a distinction.

How, then, is that soul to be kept in health? Just as I do for my body, I must (1) nourish it and (2) exercise it daily. With regard to nourishing my soul, here are helpful words written by J. I. Packer in his book, Knowing God: “There can be no spiritual health without doctrine,” he writes. Doctrine means organized Christian teaching. So we must seek to grow continually in Christian understanding.

After speaking to the nourishment side of things, Dr. Packer calls us to the “exercise” side of care of the soul by means of meditation. “Meditation,” he 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 gracious dining, takes time. It is often suggested that 30 minutes first thing in the morning is ideal. Just as the orchestra tunes its instruments before the concert, it is better to take time for meditation at the outset of the day, rather than after the day’s “concert”  has been played.

If we can’t make the early morning work, then we must choose another time. A college student I counseled with years ago complained that she couldn’t make the early morning hour work because she still felt too drugged from sleep. I asked her how long she took for lunches. She was a very sociable person and replied that she usually took an hour-and-a-half. I suggested she cut that time in half and slip away for a daily quiet time of Christian meditation. As the saying goes, “Where there’s a will, there are twenty ways.”

Meditation usually works best when it is a time for focusing on God, not our problems, and this can be done helpfully when we set our reflections on his attributes — that is, those characteristics or features of God’s being revealed in Scripture. We seek to see Him ever more clearly across our lifetimes.

For today, consider just one of them and take time to meditate on it. Consider the attribute, omnipresence, meaning our God is present everywhere — even where you are at this moment.

What scripture better than Psalm 139 will take us into the wonder of God’s omnipresence? Here, we learn that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is familiar with all my activities (verse 3). He knows what I am about to say before I say it (verse 4). I was not hidden from his all-seeing eye even during my pre-birth existence (Verse 15). All of this moves us to pray to be kept from any hidden wickedness, while at the same time being led in the ancient ways.

Image info: Ninac26 (via flickr.com)

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