What to Do When A Little Boy Cries for Justice

Imagine two brothers, ages four and six. Their Uncle Carl gives them a small bag of candies of all shapes and sizes.

They run excitedly to their mother. They know they can trust her to divide the candy equally between them.

Each child mounts a chair on either side of her as she empties the bag on the kitchen table. When the content of the bag is divided she slides each portion toward one of the boys.

Suddenly there is a mighty yelp from the four-year-old. “That’s not fair!” he cries, pointing out that the older brother appears to have more big pieces.

The pleasure of sharing the candy disappears. Claims and counterclaims take over. Tears flow. So the mother patiently goes through the process again.

Where would a four-year-old boy come onto “fairness” language? And why does the mother take such care in being fair to both children? Christians would say it all derives from the image of God borne by both mother and children.

That is, Christians believe fairness is intrinsic to the nature of God and because we are made in his image, a basic grasp of fairness is inborn in humans. At our best we can see when wrong has been done, and want it to be corrected.

Of course, our human sense of fairness does not always function well because of the Fall. Selfishness or bias can distort.

We call the administration of fairness by the more formal word, justice. That is what the mother of the two boys was attempting. Whether consciously or not, she was honoring God himself in this apparently minor human transaction.

The Christian family should strive to model fairness not only between children but also between parents and children as well as between parents themselves. Parents need to remember that they are not always right even though they are always parents.

When our two boys were about 14 and 16 I corrected them pointedly for what I thought was an offense. The 14 year old spoke up strongly, “Dad that’s just not fair.” I sat down alone to reflect. I came to see that he was right, so I called the boys together and apologized for my error.

Commitment to fairness should be evident in the church too, whether in a local congregation or a denomination with stations in many countries.

Blessed is that body of Christ which not only preaches love and grace to its people but also strives in all the conduct of its business from local to international, to administer justice in plain view.

When Uncle Carl gave two little nephews a bag of mixed candies he didn’t know that the issue of justice would come to the fore and that an explosion might occur over the issue of fair play.

But fortunately the boys had a mother who knew about the need to promote fairness by practicing it early in the boys’ lives — with patience and understanding. In the name of Jesus and as a witness to the world, may that sense be evident, too, in the church!

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Photo credit: andrea (via flickr.com)

Re-post: What Did the Apostle Paul Look Like?

Paul_Albrecht_DürerThe Apostle Paul is featured in 15 of the 28 chapters of The Acts of the Apostles. Also, he is the declared author of 13 of the 21 epistles in the New Testament. So what did he look like?

Was he bearded? Tall or short, slight or heavy? Was his complexion light or swarthy, wrinkled or smooth? We are left to wonder.

But a document that appeared around the middle of the second century AD claims to know. It is The Acts of Paul and Thecla which never made it into the New Testament but was read widely in the developing early church.

Thecla, according to the story, was a virgin engaged to be married at a time when Paul was to come to Iconium. And, according to the story, Paul is approaching the city and Titus has given Onesiphorus a description of his appearance. He was to watch for a man who was “small in size, bald-headed, bow-legged, well built, with eyebrows that met, rather long-nosed and full of grace.”

Thecla, it turns out, heard and was fascinated with Paul’s message to the point that she abandoned her engagement and declared lifelong virginity. It was a notion held by some and circulated in the early years of the church that virginity was more holy than marriage.

The description of Paul’s appearance may be accurate and may have been kept alive for a century through oral tradition. Some church fathers believed so, and the story is still alive in the Church of Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

But, whether true or not, this ample description of the Apostle can be set over against the larger fact that we don’t know much about the physical features of Bible characters because physical features are not the critical issue. So, details are sparse.

In Genesis we are only told that Rebekah was “very beautiful” and described as nimble of movement (Gen. 24:15-21). We know only that Jezebel, Ahab’s pagan queen “painted her eyes and arranged her hair” (2 Kings 9:30). Absalom was handsome in appearance with an inordinately large mop of hair (2 Sam. 14:25,26). And we’re told that Saul who became King of Israel was a head taller than his fellow Israelites (1 Sam. 9:2).

In the New Testament, we learn of Zachaeus only that he was short in stature (Lk. 19:3); Bartimaeus was blind (Mark 10:46); and we infer that the Apostle John was likely slight of build because he was a good runner (John 20: 3,4).

We have no description of any of the 12 disciples. We are not even given details about the physical features of Jesus, our Lord, even though we have extensive reports of his activities covering three years of ministry.

Apparently what matters most about the Bible characters we encounter is not their physical features but their hearts and their motivations. In the Bible, the heart is the seat of physical, spiritual and mental life. It is that aspect of our beings known fully only to God.

What prayer goes deeper in the Scriptures than the penitential prayer of King David: “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps 51:10).
According to Jesus, the human qualities that bring us the greater and deeper happiness stem from the state of the heart. He said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God” (Matt. 5:8). For Jesus, the heart counts first and foremost.

None of this is to say that our physical features don’t matter at all. We do the best we can with whatever God has given us through our DNA – we may curl our hair or powder our faces or wear elevator shoes.

But by current beauty standards the Apostle Paul wouldn’t stand a chance. According to The Acts of Paul and Thecla, Paul’s features gave him less than a model’s physique. Except that what radiated out of him giving symmetry to all else, according to the story, was this: he was “full of grace.”

“Full of grace!” That’s what we hope and pray can be said of us. Abundant grace, we dare to believe, will enhance even our less-than-perfect physical features.

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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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Photo credit: Garrett Coakley (via flickr.com)

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

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

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

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

It all represents a great amount of church exposure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo credit: Koshy Koshy (via flickr.com)

Re-Post: Getting Ready for Easter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo credit: Robin (via flickr.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo credit: David Goehring (via flickr.com)

Learning to Prime Your Praise Pump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Julia Maudlin (via flickr.com)

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