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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How to Cultivate a Christian Mind III

If you were under house arrest in ancient Rome as the Apostle Paul was late in his life, what would you be thinking about? How to escape? How to win an earlier hearing from the Emperor? How to get on the good side of your guards?

None of these were Paul’s first concerns. Instead, from his confinement, he was thinking about a church he had planted and loved deeply at Philippi, in Macedonia, seven hundred miles away. The letter he wrote to that church became the Epistle to the Philippians in the New Testament.

Always on the alert to advance the Gospel, his final point in this letter is an exhortation to young believers to nurture their thought lives to become ever more consistent with their faith in Christ.

In Philippians 4:8 his counsel about their private thoughts is captured in six important words. Here they are:

Truth. This word fits and affirms that which corresponds to reality. Two plus two equals four. (Jesus) is the way, and the truth and the life (John 14:6).

Nobility. Let your thoughts be elevated, worthy, honest.

Right. Stand fearlessly for what you know to be right. Be righteous in all your dealings.

Pure. Avoid moral defilement. Be inwardly pure. God is present at every moment of your life; nothing is hidden from Him.

Beautiful. The reference is to winsomeness. There is no need to be unpleasant in order to model serious faith. The Christian mind, says William Barclay, is set on the lovely things like kindness, sympathy, forbearance.

Admirable. Be alert to what is fine in the world and be free to admire whatever is deserving. See the handiwork of God and admire the wonders of his world.

As I read this passage it appears to me that the Apostle doesn’t want to leave out any important words from his list so he adds — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy…. He appears to say, If there is anything I’ve forgotten, add those words also to the list for meditation and practice.

In the above list of words, the Apostle sets a foundation for morally wholesome thoughts and healthy relationships. The words seem to share a sense of firmness.

They are strong words, binding together ideas rooted deep in reality. To adopt and practice them seriously is to develop staunch character.

Paul’s teaching is apt for our age. Our culture’s saturation with relativism makes many people think truth is flexible, according to whim, and a moveable target: my truth, your truth…

Nobility of thought and behavior has fallen too often to coarseness of expression; righteousness, or right judgment and action, is now replaced with winning by the exertion of naked power; and purity and its subset chastity are too often reduced to vulgarity.

Not so for the Apostle Paul. His conviction is that moral excellence is to flow naturally from the embrace of the gospel. He dares to invite the young believers of Philippi to follow his example in whatever they have learned, received, heard or seen in him. He exhorts them to practice the above list of virtues, at the prompting of God’s Spirit assuring them that as a result the God of peace will be with them.

Paul’s urging to “think on these things” is appropriate because the human mind is like an electronic device that is always processing its environment. It continues even when its owner is not paying attention.

That is why Paul’s advice is so important. As believers, we are to monitor and assume responsibility for what our minds take in and doing so is a Christian discipline.

Christian minds need to be re-educated away from worldly values and enticements, and often some dark and hurtful thought patterns of anger, envy, resentment, greed, lust and such.

God wants us to be selective in our thought lives, searching within our day-to-day environment for thought content that is lovely and admirable.

The payoff is a buoyant and truly Christian mind as the Apostle Paul demonstrates. He was giving his counsel from confinement in Rome. He reports he was in chains. His future was uncertain. Yet the spirit of his letter is firm and upbeat. This shines throughout the whole piece and in that letter he uses the words joy and rejoicing sixteen times.

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Image info: Saint Paul in Prison, Rembrandt, 1627 (Public Domain)

How to Cultivate a Christian Mind II

In a loving pastoral letter to the Philippian congregation the Apostle Paul recommends eight words that describe what should be the content of a healthy Christian mind:

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 such things. (Philippians 4:8)

Last week, I dealt with the first three: true, noble, and right. In this blog I deal only with pure. In essence, set your mind on what is pure. 

I asked my wife what the word “pure” brought to mind. After a few moments she responded: a drink of cold water from a swiftly flowing stream high on a mountain, a newborn baby, or an object of gold purged of all foreign matter.

Not many things in our world can be called pure. Some psychiatrists tell us that pure motives are never possible, even for Christians. For example, we may contemplate doing some great kindness to someone in need but lurking in the shadows of our mind may be a twinge of pride in our intentions. The human mind is tricky.

Because we are fallen creatures and have failed many times we might be tempted to brush aside purity of motivation as a fool’s errand. Yet we have the unqualified word of our Lord, telling us a pure heart should be a goal.

He said, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matthew 5:8). And the Apostle Paul includes the call to think on whatever is pure in his bouquet of good things to ponder as quoted above.

Even in Old Testament times, when the Prophet Nathan faced King David with his sin against Bathsheba, first David prayed: Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean (Psalm 51:7a). Using the imagery of the temple, he acknowledged that sin brings defilement and must be cleansed.

He then prayed: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me (51:10). This suggests divine enablement. We exercise faith and are not left to do it on our own.

And we learn equally directly in the New Testament that inner cleansing for believers is an ongoing need. The writer of Hebrews says: Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:22).

In our profoundly defiled world our Lord wants to raise up an army of Christian men and women who take seriously the call to purity of thought and action. Here are three suggestions to help in the struggle.

First, we can recall and reaffirm daily such scriptural fragments as …not I but Christ, not I but Christ, not I but Christ… (Galatians 2:20). We can carry such fragments of truth anywhere. Another is, …except you are born of water and the Spirit… (John 3:5). In the latter case it is the Holy Spirit in us who gives us the energy to resist our world’s many impure attractions.

Second, we can conduct a thorough inventory and house cleaning of what is not pure in what we listen to and what we read. We may well be faced with wrenching decisions about friends who intentionally would take us in wrong directions.

I remember a large youth gathering where the young people were moved by the Holy Spirit to commit their lives fully to Christ. One of the results of their response to that moving of the Spirit was a massive surrender of impure objects and behaviors.

Finally, once cleansed, we can make use regularly of two instructions of the Apostle John: (1) No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him (1 John 3:6). That is, the power of habitual sin must be broken and God is able to deliver us. Also, (2) If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1:9).

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Photo credit: Takahiro Kyono (via flickr.com)

How to Cultivate a Christian Mind

The human mind is a vital component of our uniqueness among God’s creatures. Even so, because of the fall of mankind, our minds are damaged and need redemption plus ongoing enrichment.

The Apostle Paul deals with this need for enrichment. He points out that, after we become Christians — that is, after we are justified and made new creatures in Christ, we need the enrichment of the Christian mind.

In a loving pastoral letter he sets before the Philippian congregation eight key words to focus the process of refreshment that their minds needed — and our minds need.

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 such things. (Philippians 4:8)

I intend to comment on the first three words in this blog, and deal with the remainder next week. 

Think on whatever is true. Our God is the very essence of truth (Numbers 23:19); grace and truth came by Jesus Christ (John 1:17); as well, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth (John 16:13). Truth should therefore be a foremost issue in all our thoughts and communications. God’s truth is like the North Star to the mariner; it will guide us through every dark night and eventually bring us safely to the harbor.

For example, the Bible claims to speak God’s truth when it considers marriage to be the union of one man and one woman for life. From the perspective of divine truth this is not negotiable. The Bible challenges us to test these and all other truth issues by the words of our Lord Jesus. He is The Truth (Matthew 19:3-12).

Think on whatever is noble or honorable. That is, whatever is elevating, or worthy of respect. We are to train our God-redeemed minds to sort the noble from the ignoble in all our dealings and to come down on the side of whatever is noble or honorable.

Jesus is our best example. He saw worth in little children in a way the disciples did not and he demonstrated it. He honored the dignity of the deaf, not putting them outside his concern because of their affliction. Even lepers, who were shunned by everyone at that time, got fair and compassionate treatment from him because disease did not hide from him their worth.

Think on whatever is right. The word “right” is from the same root as the word “righteousness.” This in turn conveys the sense of obedience to God’s law. No one except our Lord Jesus himself has met the requirements of God’s law perfectly. We joyfully profess that God made him who had no sin to be sin for us that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). He and he alone is the Lord, our righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6).

The Apostle Paul reflects how that marvellous gift of righteousness should affect our characters when he writes to the Corinthian church regarding a misunderstanding: For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man (2 Corinthians 8:21).

When it comes to righteousness we more often think of “doing” what is right than of “thinking” what is right. But our doing what is right begins with our thinking what is right. In this precious passage in Philippians the Apostle gives us guidance: Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is just. Here is a good start.

CONTINUED NEXT WEEK

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Photo credit: Surya Teja (via flickr.com)