Sunday, 16 October 2016

Me as an Amanuensis: Morning Devotional's Next Level?

Looking for something a little different for your early morning devotions? I may have an idea for you.

Years ago I remember working with a guy who had an interesting hobby, if I can call it that, of creating a handwritten copy of the entire New Testament. “Hobby” is maybe the wrong word. Regardless, his intent was to make a present of his personally handwritten New Testament to his child at his upcoming high school graduation.

Apparently this wasn’t the first time he did something like this; he had already done the same thing for another of his children and he planned on doing so for them all. If memory serves me correctly, he said he had four kids. Assuming he stuck with the task, that means four handwritten copies of the entire New Testament. I remember thinking, “How cool is that; not your typical grad present from Dad!”

I had forgotten about that until this past Thanksgiving when my son shared that he had undertaken a similar venture as a part of his early morning devotions. With a copy of his Greek Interlinear KJV/NIV Parallel New Testament (Yes, I can proudly say that my son is also a New Testament Greek scholar), he was handwriting the New Testament for himself. At the time he shared this with me, he was nearing the end of the Synoptic Gospels. Wow!

All of this got me thinking of how easy it is to get into a devotional rut (Lord knows, I’m there too) and that maybe I should consider doing likewise. So, after purchasing a nice faux-leather journal from Chapters, I dusted off my own Greek Interlinear KJV/NIV Parallel New Testament off the shelf, and got to work. At the time of this writing, I’ve only just completed the second chapter of Matthew, but I’m in no hurry. Conspicuously absent from my version is the lack of chapter and verse. I am, however, including the sectional headings as supplied by the translation I am copying. As an aside, perhaps this will help polish my own rusty Greek. Hmm.

The thing I noticed right off the bat was how this exercise was almost like reading the Scriptures again for the very first time. How so, you might ask? Well, unlike simply reading the Bible, reading it with the intent of copying it word for word requires a more careful and slower reading. This in turn has the added benefit of producing a deeper thought, and by default, study.

So, like the amanuensis of old who was employed to copy a manuscript by hand, and usually by dictation, welcome to my new (hopefully) daily 5:00am devotional routine. I’m looking forward to the exercise and to hearing what God may say through it along the way.

So here’s to trying something new. Who knows, it may be just the ticket to also kick-starting my blogging in a whole new direction. Peace and Blessings to you and yours, from a fellow sojourner in Christ.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Peace Amidst the Bum Rap

Some days it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed and go to work.

I was reading the account of how Herod had James beheaded, and noticing how that pleased the Jews, he arrested Peter as well and put him in the custody of sixteen soldiers to be guarded until after the Passover at which time he would have his day in court.

One prisoner chained and guarded by sixteen soldiers behind multiple locked doors deep within a prison; what could possibly go wrong?

What the soldiers didn’t know at the time, or if they did, they didn’t see any significance in it for them, was the fact that the church decided that it was time for a prayer meeting. They were concerned for Peter’s well being, and rightly so. So, just as the soldiers were no doubt earnestly guarding Peter, the church was earnestly praying for him.

Standoff? Far from it! Sixteen soldiers in a prison guarding one man were no match for one angel sent by God in answer to the prayers of the church. Right under their noses the chains fell off Peter, one after the other the doors opened, and Peter and the angel walked out into the night air and on to freedom.

It would be easy right now to close the story and simply say something to the effect that prayer changes things, and it does. But for some reason, all I could think about was those sixteen soldiers who came up with the short straw on that nightshift. If ever there was a day to stay home and play the sick card, perhaps that was it. Instead, when Peter could not be found, Herod orders the execution of the soldiers whose only crime really wasn’t a crime on their part at all; they simply were the unwitting pawns in a divinely decreed set of unfolding events.

As great as the story of Peter’s miraculous escape from prison is, it cost sixteen men their lives, sixteen men who right up to their final breath’s, still had no idea what had just happened. And deep down inside, I cannot help but feel a little sorry for them and for the seemingly bum rap they ended up with. Talk about unlucky; talk about unfair!

But God is just. And even as we’ve all heard people ask sometimes why bad things happen to good people, and maybe we’ve even asked that ourselves, God is still God, and He is still in control, even if it appears that we too are getting a bum rap and none of our circumstances makes any logical sense to us today.

At the end of the day, the event reminds me of the power of prayer and of the need to trust that God is in control, even if my circumstances seem to say otherwise. And right now as I ponder my week ahead, a part of me also wants to play the sick card and stay home, but I won’t. Instead I will trust that whatever my week holds, I know Him who ultimately holds it. And in meditating on that, Lord willing, I shall have peace.

Story Source: Acts 12: 1-19
Photo Source: Unknown

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Lessons from the Pastoral Visit and the Mortuary

"There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, ..." (Ecclesiastes 3: 1-2).

My brother shared this amusing picture with me of the hearse towing a U-Haul trailer. I laughed, not so much because of all the potential captions and stories that the image conjures up, but because it took me back about twenty years in time when I had some of my most memorable “ministry” experiences.

Already well into my thirties, I felt the call for some more education which included some undergraduate studies as well as a theology degree from a local seminary. While I studied a full-time course load, I also worked full-time night shift and juggled family responsibilities of being a husband and father. Apparently I still wasn’t busy enough, and so I also volunteered at a small local church as an Associate Pastor with primary responsibilities being the visitation of seniors and elderly, including several shut in’s. Despite the hectic schedule, I loved those four years.

Now, you may be asking yourself, “What’s that got to do with a hearse towing a U-Haul trailer?” Good question.

There was one dear elderly lady that I used to visit regularly who couldn’t get out much. As I recall, one of her favourite topics of discussion was how people, Christians included, seemed to be trapped in a materialistic mindset. She would often say, seemingly unaware that she told me the same story a hundred times before (sound familiar? –LOL), “You know, Reverend Roach, I ain’t never seen no hearse pulling no U-Haul.” I would, of course, respectfully acknowledge her statement, while deep inside be amused at how she would always get my name wrong, and still insist on calling me a Reverend. I never did have the heart to tell her that, though on more than one occasion I had been offered ordination in the church, I always declined. But that’s story for another time.

But her point was taken; perhaps we do tend to cling to material possessions and wealth a little tighter than we ought. And now, some twenty years later as my wife and I begin to discuss the possibility of downsizing and as we prepare for, Lord willing, semi-retirement, the picture of the hearse towing the U-Haul trailer and the memory of that dear lady, reminds us that we will not be leaving this world with fists clenched tightly around our possessions, but rather with hands held wide open, leaving this world just as we entered it; empty handed.

A few years later we moved away to answer the call to serve another church in another community. While I haven't heard to the contrary, I'm sure that based upon her age at the time, that dear lady has long since had her ride in a hearse. And I'm also certain, there was no U-Haul attached to it at the time. 

It is interesting how, the older I get, the more faces and names I recognize in the obituary columns. Many are even younger than I am now. I don’t say this to be morbid, for as Paul said, “to be away from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). Personally, I look forward to that day; don’t you?

So I just want to take a moment and thank my brother for sharing that picture and for reminding me of what’s really important in life as I too begin the process of loosening my grip on some stuff.

“I ain’t never seen no hearse pulling no U-Haul,” said that dear old saint on my visitation schedule. And if you ever do see one, don’t for a second think the deceased has figured out some way of taking their stuff with them to the other side. It just isn’t so, and it begs the question of how we ought to use our “stuff” this side of the mortuary. Something to think about. Peace.

Photo Source: Unknown

Saturday, 2 April 2016

The Tale of the Long Spoons

At my son's wedding, the grandfathers were given the opportunity to share a "blessing" to the bride and groom following the service. Little did my Dad know that the whole theme of their wedding would be one of "serving one another," and would include such elements as the literal washing of each other's feet, which left a very powerful and wet-eyed image to most, if not all, of the wedding guests. So when Dad came up front and included this story, well, it fit the overall theme of the wedding like a glove. Here's the story he told:

A Rabbi once asked God to be able to see heaven and hell. God permitted it and gave him the prophet Elijah as a guide. First, Elijah led the Rabbi into a large room. In the midst of it, on a fire, there was a pot full of delicious food. Round about people were sitting with long spoons which they dipped into the pot. However, the people looked pale, thin and miserable. The handles of the spoons were much too long, so that they could not bring the wonderful food to their mouths. 
When the two visitors were outside again, the Rabbi asked the prophet what strange place that was. It was hell. 
Then Elijah led the Rabbi into a second room that looked exactly like the first one. In the middle of the room was a fire and delicious food was cooking. People sat about holding long spoons. However, these people looked well nourished, healthy and happy. They did not try to feed themselves, but rather they used the long spoons to feed one another. This room was heaven.

Yes, there are a few theological liberties concerning heaven and hell in that tale, but I love that story nonetheless. I'd heard Dad's story several times before, but every time I hear it, it leaves me with the image of Jesus' call to each of us as to how we are to care for our fellow man. He, who fed the 5000 men (plus women and children) in John chapter 6, and fed the 4000 (Matthew chapter 15), through those feedings illustrated the importance of one-anothering and of giving the other a higher priority than ourselves. How well are we doing in that department? I wonder.

Perhaps this side of eternity there is also some measure of heaven and hell, and it's largely predetermined by the way we respond to the needs of one another. After all, as John said, "If anyone says, 'I love God,' yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother." (1 John 4: 20-21; NIV).

Recently someone shared the following video on Facebook, which instantly made me think of Dad's story. At the very least, it's something for all of us to think about. Peace and Blessings.

Photo Credit: Dino Abatzidis; Flickr Creative Commons
Story Source: Translated by Gunter Rochow from: Both, Beate. "Die Geschichte von den langen Löffeln". Wenn wir anfingen mit dem Herzen zu denken. Wuppertal: Kiefer Verlag, 1986, 2. Auflage, p.38.

Friday, 25 March 2016

An Email Rant and A Good Friday Reminder

"One look at an email can rob you of 15 minutes of focus. One call on your cell phone, one tweet, one instant message can destroy your schedule, forcing you to move meetings, or blow off really important things, like love and friendship." (Jacqueline Leo)

Well here we are on another Good Friday, a Statutory Holiday in many places. Translation: a short workweek. Translation: a long weekend. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Ahh, who doesn’t love a loonnngggg weekend?! Truth is, however, it comes with a price, which is the essence of my rant today.

<< Start Rant >>

Despite all the hype, and being not completely mindless of the significance of the Good Friday “day off,” it seems that sometimes long weekends aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Perhaps in some types of work, they’re still great; I used to like them more too once upon a time. I’m sure that I can speak for many of us, especially those of us in some form of leadership capacity, that the workload doesn’t proportionately decrease just because the workweek suddenly becomes shorter.

The fact is, when I’m barely keeping my head above water on a normal five-day workweek, and suddenly along comes that wonderful extra day off on my weekend afforded to me by the government-imposed statutory holiday, having one less day to get my work done is almost as bad as committing suicide by drowning! If I can barely get things done in five days, how on earth am I supposed to get the same amount of work done in four? I was never good at math, but I do know that those formulas don’t add up; five minus one does not equal five!

By way of example, I worked four days this week, two of which already contained several extra hours in which I worked well into the evening, one night of which resulted in getting only 2.5 hours of actual sleep. Then yesterday, on the eve of “Good Friday” (a long weekend) I arrive home later than normal once again, only to look at my work phone and notice that I still have 89 unread email messages. I should also add that there are probably almost half that many again that I’ve already read, but haven’t yet fully dealt with. In other words, they too are still in my inbox. “Good” Friday? I know, I know, Good Friday has nothing to do with my workplace woes, but there is at least a little irony there, wouldn’t you say?

Translation: Between the read and unread emails, there are approximately 130 emails that still need my attention … this week (and never mind all those +/- 30 more unread emails in my personal email accounts) ... and they said that computers would make our lives easier! Ha! In my humble opinion, in some ways the reverse seems closer to the truth; life somehow seemed easier before the advent of the computer age.

So here we are, another statutory holiday, and I’ll take the day off with pay as the government says that I may. And while I’m twiddling my thumbs at home, enjoying my time off from the workplace, I’ll ignore the fact that those 89 unread emails will probably grow to the 110-120 mark by the time I return to the office Monday morning, which in turn obviously means that not everyone is taking the long weekend off. But, hey, computers have made my life easier. So what have I got to complain about? (Yes, I’m being a little facetious).

Having said all that, I do not want to end all this on a negative note or sound ungrateful. In a day and age when there is so much high unemployment, I am indeed very thankful for my job, plethora of emails and all.

<< End Rant >>

A former Catholic priest and friend of mine reminded me recently of how he prioritized his life into five categories. He said that only then did he seem to get control of some of the angst of workplace pressures. From most important to least important, those categories are: (1) God, (2) Spouse, (3) Personal Health, (4) Rest of Family, (5) Job/Career (I’ve made reference to this before in Goose Theology and the Sermon on the Mount). Based upon my rant, I’ve clearly managed to get that order mixed up yet again. *sigh*

So in an effort to refocus and make things right again, I say hello to Good Friday. I will deliberately be unorthodox today, from a business perspective, and try and ignore all those business emails for at least today. This is, after all, the start of the most important weekend in the church calendar, and that’s worth stopping to reflect upon. Some might ask, so what’s the big deal with Good Friday anyway? Perhaps I can answer that best by sharing what I'm meditating upon today:

While at first the execution of Jesus seemed tragic to the disciples, the truth is that there was something very “good” that came from it. Peter reminded his hearers that the crucifixion of Jesus came about “by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23). Why would God do that? Peter soon answers that question: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Paul would later say that by means of the cross God was reconciling “to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20).

Fact is, it is God’s desire that mankind be saved, which is “good.” God knew that we could not be saved on our own efforts, so He provided the way, which is also “good.” The way God chose to do this was the cross of Christ, which is what Good Friday is all about. When combined with the empty tomb and Resurrection three days later on Easter Sunday morning, well that is the heart of the Good News. He is risen! He is risen! He is risen indeed! Therein is our hope.

So my goal this Good Friday is to slow the work pace down to a crawl and meditate a little more upon goodness and love of God toward me, a sinner saved only by His grace. Certainly that’s a little more important than clearing up my inbox of a bunch of emails. Peace to you and yours this Easter season. God bless.

Photo #1 Credit: Flickr Creative Commons
Photo #2 Credit: Flickr Creative Commons
Photo #3 Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Salt, Light, and the Itch for Publicity

Recently a friend found an old tattered book in a used bookstore whose title intrigued him. It was called, The Christ of the Mount: A Working Philosophy of Life by E. Stanley Jones, copyright 1931, The Abingdon Press. Amazon says it’s currently unavailable, but like my friend, you may still find a used copy somewhere.

Eli Stanley Jones was an American Methodist missionary who, according to Wikipedia was the Billy Graham to India. He died in India in January of 1973.

After my friend was done with this book, he loaned it to me to enjoy as well. There were several sections that caught my attention, including this discussion on salt and light based upon Matthew 5: 13-16. Here’s his take on that portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
The action of salt is silent, pervasive, hidden, unseen; the action of light is open and manifest – the most openly manifest thing imaginable. The influence of Christian character is to be twofold, a silent, hidden and pervasive thing reaching into the very fiber of men’s thought and outlook; and it is to be open, lighting the outer life of men and their affairs. But it is to be inward and pervasive before it is to be outward – we are to be salt before we can be light. No man can shine in obviousness unless he is willing to permeate in obscurity. Many of us would like to be light, but we are unwilling to work like salt, unseen, unnoticed, unapplauded. … We have no real passion to change things where change really matters, namely, within. The Christianity of the present day is hurt by a desire to be light coupled with an unwillingness to be salt. It is suffering from an outwardism that is more interested in statistics than in states of heart and mind.
So what is your take on that? Are we guilty of being unwilling to work like salt? Are we only interested in the applause of light? While I try not to dwell upon institutional church faux-pas like I once did, I confess that all I could think about is the showmanship of many modern church services. I know that’s an unfair caricature; not all churches are like that. Still I’ve long since argued that Hollywood has invaded the church service, such as in this post from January 2008.

Maybe that’s why Paul cautioned Timothy to not be too quick of laying on the hands (1 Timothy 5:22); maybe he too thought it important to make sure that there was salt before focusing on the light. It all reminds me of the story of the pastor who had served in a church for many years before he himself actually came to know the Lord and be saved. How ironic to think that he may have been converted by his own preaching. Was he “light” before first being “salt?” Hmm, in my way of thinking, and perhaps Jones’ as well, it begs the question.

Is the church today “suffering from an outwardism that is more interested in statistics than in states of heart and mind?” Perhaps the cartoon is truer than we care to admit; “The ministers’ gathering was going well until the question came up, ‘How’s your church doing?’” Perhaps we are more focused on being light than first being salt. Perhaps we’ve put the proverbial cart before the horse. Perhaps too many of us still suffer from Pinocchio-itis. Perhaps the real issue here is the demon Pride. Something to think about. Peace.

Cartoon Source: Unknown

Thursday, 4 February 2016

To Beard or not to Beard

I’ve been bearded most of my life.

Whenever people asked me about my beard, in jest I would often say something to the effect of, “I wear a beard for religious reasons. The way I figure it, if God gave me the ability to grow a beard, He must have meant for me to have a beard.

Then one day, after using that line on an uncle who asked a similar question, the uncle said, “God also gave you the ability to father hundreds of children, but He probably didn’t intend for you to do so.

We both laughed, and I was busted! Clearly my uncle had a similar sense of humor to mine. In truth, the beard probably remains more out of laziness and an aversion to shaving than it does for any religious reasons. Oh, and I also think I look better with the beard than without it, so I guess vanity has something to do with it too.

But seriously, as my son reminded me in a recent quote he shared with me, there was a time when a man’s beard not only had spiritual implications, but was also viewed as being akin to his salvation.

Church history tells us that back in the time of Tsar Peter I (1672-1725), also known as ‘Peter the Great’ of Russia, the church was essentially dragged into the modern age by importing several western customs and beliefs. Among these new reformations was the question of what to do with the man’s beard and which ultimately introduced the custom of shaving to part of the church which probably would rather have not discovered it. Historian Jonathan Hill says,
Western fashions were imposed on the Russians, and even beards – an enduring symbol of the Orthodox Church – were banned. Many old men obediently cut off their beards but kept them in boxes, convinced they could not be saved without them.
After I was done chuckling and sneering over that one, I was reminded of the story of how King David sent a delegation to Hanun, the heir to the Ammonite throne, on the occasion of the death of his father. Hanun’s advisors suggested that David’s men were spies, and so the Ammonites seized the delegation and humiliated them by cutting off half of each man’s beard (2 Samuel 10:1-4). There was a peculiar sacrosanctity to the beard, which is also seen in Samson’s case, that in shaving one’s beard, would lead one to being viewed as being less than a man (Judges 16:19). In Old Testament times, basically there was something about a man’s beard that was held in high and religious esteem.

A beard was a sign of maturity in the ancient near east. It was synonymous with the word “elder.” At the risk of digressing too far, this is interesting when compared with some cults, such as the Mormons, which send out young missionaries who, while called “elders,” ironically often appear too young to even shave, much less grow a real beard. But I’ve digressed.

Many ancient monuments often displayed bearded figures, and in some cases, even women were portrayed with fake beards on formal state occasions. The Old Testament likewise had some pretty strict rules about altering and trimming the beard (Leviticus 19:27). So severe was this that, when it came to a prophet’s beard, shaving it was viewed as bringing on the judgment of God (Isaiah 7:20). The fact that in some cultures, such as Greek and Roman civilizations, men were typically clean-shaven, only reinforced Jewish pro-beard stance. Essentially the beard was the man’s glory.

Going back to the previous quote of the Russian Orthodox Church, that almighty reverence for the beard seems to have remained well into the history of the church.

Let’s stop and think about that for a moment. What happened to the church to cause people to think that their salvation was somehow tied to their beards? I then wondered, what about those poor souls who suffered with follicular challenges, and couldn’t grow a real manly beard? Were they viewed as being lost spiritually, or perhaps as lessor Christians? Or was this merely cultural? At the very least, it begs the question.

Had the church of the day forgotten that it is by grace that we are saved (Ephesians 2:5), and not by the beard they possessed? If so, how many other anomalous, peculiar, and queerish things did they also believe when it came to their Christian faith?

Fast-forward to our modern western church; are there also some off-beat and screwy things that we’ve embraced in our Christian walks, which when it comes right down to it, are also inconsistent with the things Jesus taught? I wonder.