Sunday, 23 April 2017

Early to Bed, Early to Rise: A Case for 4:30am?

The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16)

There is an old adage that goes something like this: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man, healthy, wealthy and wise.” Now, I’m not sure about the “healthy, wealthy and wise” part, but I am a bit of a creature of habit when it comes to the “early to bed, early to rise” portion of this quip.

The main reason for this is that those first couple of early morning hours, well before the sun rises and the rest of the house begins to stir, is my favourite time of day. While the house is still quiet enough to hear the proverbial pin drop, before my better half gets up and the dog scratches at the door to go outside to pee, I like to curl up in my favourite chair, coffee cup in hand, and spend some time in prayerful meditation in the pages of my Bible.

More recently, I have undertaken as a part of my early morning devotions to create a hand-written copy of the Bible. At the time of this writing, I have already completed the entire New Testament and am now in the Old Testament, nearing the end of Genesis. (For more on that, see these two blog posts: Me as an Amanuensis: Morning Devotional's Next Level? and Morning Devotions Are Awesome Once Again).

I’m not alone in my love for the early morning devotional lifestyle; many others throughout the ages have done likewise. Even Jesus himself, very early in the morning, would go off somewhere by himself to a quiet solitary place so that he could pray (Mark 1:35). “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed," says Luke 5:16. Likewise it was Martin Luther who is quoted to have said, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” Though Luther’s quote seems like a bit of an oxymoron, I am starting to understand the logic in it.

Getting up between 4:00 and 4:30 every morning (often before the alarm even rings) comes with a price, however. Since I need a solid 7-8 hours sleep per night, it means I’m usually ready for bed by 8:00pm. So while many others are just sitting down to their favourite television sitcoms, or going out for coffee or drinks, I’m already drifting off to dreamland. Not being much of a TV person, that’s a price that, for me personally, is easily paid. “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man, healthy, wealthy and wise?” Hmm, that would be nice, but that’s not really why I do it.

The real driving force behind my early morning ritual (“ritual,” for lack of a better word) is that I find it easier to hear God’s still soft voice when there are less noisy distractions to keep me from hearing Him. The point is, I want to hear God. Before the hustle and bustle of our fast-paced world heats up and inevitably rattles my nerves, my focus is easier tuned to God and that which He would desire to communicate to me. When I give God the first and best part of my day, when I am first awakened and refreshed from a good night’s sleep, and before the workplace’s pressures of the day begin to mount, Bible reading and prayer is the glue that ultimately holds my day together.

That’s not to say that I don’t also have stress-filled and anxious workdays as well; the Lord knows that I do. However when such days happen, it’s interesting to note that I’ve probably also either missed my early morning devotions, or simply didn’t spend enough time (or any time) in prayer at the start of the day. This is no magical formula, nor is it a simply a religious exercise or incantation seeking to force the hand of God, but I do believe that there is something special about the early mornings that honors God and brings about His peace for the day. And ultimately is that not what we all desire; to honor God, and have peace-filled days? For Christians, I think it is.

Well there you have it; my reason for “Early to bed, early to rise.” It has nothing to do with being “healthy, wealthy and wise.” But it does have everything to do with honoring God and striving to make it through yet another day. Peace and blessings to you and yours.
__________

I got up early one morning
And rushed right into the day;
I had so much to accomplish,
That I didn’t have time to pray.

Problems just tumbled about me,
And heavier came each task;
“Why doesn’t God help me?” I wondered.
He answered, “You didn’t ask.”

I wanted to see joy and beauty,
But the day toiled on gray and bleak;
I wondered why God didn’t show me,
He said, “But you didn’t seek.”

I tried to come into God’s presence,
I used all my keys in the lock;
God gently and lovingly chided,
“My child, you didn’t knock.”

I woke up early this morning,
And paused before entering the day;
I had so much to accomplish,
That I had to take time to pray.

(Anonymous)

Photo: A selfie (there was no one else up at that hour to take the picture).

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Morning Devotions Are Awesome Once Again

Well, I'm almost there. Twenty two more chapters, and I will have hand-written the entire New Testament! What an incredible journey that began just after Thanksgiving, in October of 2016, when I introduced my new devotional routine with a blog post that I called, Me as an Amanuensis: Morning Devotional's Next Level?

When I began this twenty-two weeks ago, I never really imagined how much I would get out of the exercise and how much I would enjoy it. I typically spend an hour to an hour and a half every morning, usually starting at about 4:30am. Depending on the length of the chapters, I will usually write one or two chapters in a sitting on workdays; weekends I sometimes add a third.

The main thing I've learned in this process is how much more I get out of reading the Bible now than I did before. When one has to copy each and every word and punctuation mark, the reading becomes slower and, I've found, much more meditative in nature. I've discovered so many little nuggets along the way that, though I've no doubt read them countless times before over the years, it was like reading them again for the very first time. Now I'm not just thinking about what I'm reading, but I'm also forced to think about what I'm writing, and in turn, then reading all over again once the text has been copied. The New Testament really has come alive, which in turn has enhanced my prayer life, and created a more calmness to my otherwise typically stressful workday. Morning devotions are awesome once again!

But twenty-two chapters won't take long; eleven days at the best. Then what? I don't just want to stop a devotional routine that has been such a blessing. I had thought of then continuing on by hand-writing the Psalms and Proverbs, but now I've changed my mind. Instead, I've decided to go big and hand-write the entire Old Testament as well. I am estimating that it will take about 18 to 24 months to complete, although it could take longer. There's no hurry, though. I'm now also looking forward to what God will show me in the pages between Genesis and Malachi. Exciting!

The only thing I need to do now is to stop by our local Chapters and pick up some more journal books. Bookstores are dangerous places for me, however, so I'll have to be very careful. It's too easy for me to get lost in an aisle and ultimately walk out with more books than I intended to purchase. Strange, the good folks at Chapters don't mind when that happens, however (ha, ha).

So if you're looking for a new early morning devotional routine, maybe this is for you too. Peace.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Reconciliation and the Return of the Prodigal Son(s)

I was in Chapters the other day and bought a copy of Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. It is a special two-in-one anniversary edition, which also features another of his works, Home Tonight. While not yet through the book in its entirety, I am having a hard time putting it down, which in my way of thinking, speaks volumes for the quality of a book. It is rich with insight and application, which for Nouwen began with a chance encounter with a copy of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son.

I guess I’ve always related to the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), often identifying myself with the younger of the two brothers in Jesus’ parable. No doubt you recall the story, of how a father had two sons, and the younger of them goes to his father and asks for his share of the inheritance, and then promptly takes off to a far country where he squanders everything in a wild lifestyle, eventually becoming destitute. After a season of hiring himself out to feed someone’s pigs, who the parable tells us ate better than the son did, he comes to his senses and returns home, apologetic script for dad in hand, and throws himself at the mercy of his father, not really expecting to be accepted as a son anymore, but hoping that perhaps he might just maybe be accepted as a hired servant, or even as a slave.

But for there to be a “Return,” there had to first be a “Leaving.”

Now when I said that I had often identified myself as the prodigal, I meant that only insofar as I was identifying with leaving home at a young age, a little ruff around the edges with a questionable lifestyle, a sixteen year old with forty years of life experience (or so I thought and acted), full of attitude and thinking the world owed me a big fat living. Boy, if I could only go back and meet that young man once again, I’d like to knock some sense into him! Several years later after (thankfully) maturing a bit more and coming to my own senses, I too returned as a changed man to my father’s house, figuratively speaking, though I never actually lived there again.

However, there is so much more to the parable of the Prodigal Son than just that of a rebellious teenager gone amuck. There is another way that maybe we all, from Adam right up to today, are just like the Prodigal Son; we all have gone astray to some far off country. “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). No exceptions; we’re all painted with the same brush. Ultimately, are we not all prodigal sons and daughters? I think we are, the only question is, where in this pilgrimage exactly are we?

The part in the parable in which the younger son asks for his share of the inheritance, I could not relate to, as that just was not a part of my experience, and in truth, it seems that for some reason, I usually tended to quickly read over that part without too much meditation. However, we would do well to think about that a little bit, for it really is quite troubling, especially when read through the eyes of eastern cultural understandings. In that light, Henri Nouwen goes on to quote Kenneth Bailey, who writes:

For over fifteen years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son’s request for his inheritance while the father is still living. The answer has always been emphatically the same … the conversation runs as follows: 
Has anyone ever made such a request in your village? 
Never! 
Could anyone ever make such a request? 
Impossible! 
If anyone ever did, what would happen? 
His father would beat him, of course! 
Why? 
The request means – he wants his father to die. (p. 40-41)

I can honestly say that I have never ever thought of it that way. Pretty harsh, wouldn’t you say? Do you suppose that is what the father in the parable was thinking too? If so, then that request from the younger son shows, not just an awful lot of nerve and disrespect, but also the extremes possible when sin is allowed to have the day. I mean, what was he thinking? Was his dad not dying fast enough? Maybe the younger son really did need a time out behind the woodshed with dad and a good old fashioned strap! But that was not the father’s way. The son didn’t get the lashing that he deserved for being disrespectful and wishing his father were dead; instead the father gave him what he wanted, and the son packed up and left his hometown, and his father's house, and moved far away to some distant place.

We’ve all wandered away from our Heavenly Father’s house, taking our share of the inheritance with us, though not perhaps wishing the Father were dead in so many words (and yet remembering that they did kill God the Son), but falling for the devil’s lies enough that the rest of the story may just be a case of semantics. What we really deserve is to be taken behind the woodshed and taught a lesson or two, but Father God, in his great love, just let’s us go, not giving us what our disrespectful and downright sinful ways deserve, but letting us choose our own paths, and hoping that one day we'll return home.

Thank God the story doesn't end there.

But the story doesn’t end there; the younger son returns and is welcomed home with the father’s embrace. I like to see Father God in that light. Yes, we’ve all gone off to our own “distant country,” and squandered our heavenly inheritances in immorality and debauchery, living lives that only prove all the more our need for a Saviour; our need for a Redeemer.

But the story also has an older son, and while he dutifully stayed home with his father, in his own way, he too left and became distant and sinful. He was angry and needed to be welcomed back into the fold. Maybe, as Nouwen observed,
The parable that Rembrandt painted might well be called ‘The Parable of the Lost Sons.’ Not only did the younger son, who left home to look for freedom and happiness in a distant country, get lost, but the one who stayed home also became a lost man. Exteriorly he did all the things a good son is supposed to do, but, interiorly, he wandered away from his father. He did his duty, worked hard every day, and fulfilled all his obligations but became increasingly unhappy and unfree.” (p.80)

So which of the brothers was closer to the heart of the father?

Did not the father love them both equally? Of course he did. But when the younger son returned from his “distant country,” the eldest son was still stuck out in his own “distant country.” Did the eldest son ever come around, make peace with his father and his lost brother, go into the house and join the party? While we hope that he did, we aren't told, we don’t know; all we can do is speculate.

While we all can conjure up images of the prodigal son easily enough; the child who grew up in a good Christian home, went to Sunday School, was baptized at an early age, and then somewhere in his or her young adult life, perhaps, he or she walked away from the church and from the faith that Mom and Dad raised him or her in. We’ve all witnessed or heard about those stories, although often mentioning them has become somewhat taboo in many church circles.

But the image of the older son we don’t really see as clearly; it’s a little hazier, perhaps, than that of the younger son, and as such is easily missed altogether. As I think about him or her, I see someone steeped in religion, going through the motions of a faith they don’t really necessarily even believe in. Tradition, perhaps, dictates their “walk with God,” though it’s questionable at best if God is even in that thing they so dutifully do Sunday after Sunday. I see someone who is perhaps even a little hypocritical, such as the Pope recently called them, suggesting that they try atheism instead (ouch!). Is this the older brother? He’s going through the motions well enough, but without his own genuine journey back to the Father, it may be that he remains just as lost as his younger brother earlier was.

Which son do you identify more with?

But regardless whether we identify ourselves more with the younger son or the older son, there comes a time when we really need to begin identifying ourselves with the father. As a former pastor, this is perhaps not too far off the calling I sensed back before entering seminary many years ago. It was a calling to welcome home the prodigals, to embrace them with the love of God, not to judge them or look down on them, but to just hold them and say, “Welcome Home.”

Though I am no longer in the pastoral ministry of the institutional church, my “ministry,” and that of everyone identifying with the father in Jesus’ parable, is really the only true ministry of the church today; it is the “Ministry of Reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5: 11-21). That is what the younger son received from the father; that is what the father wanted to desperately give the older son as well, but he wasn’t going to force the matter. When we identify with the father, the “Ministry of Reconciliation” has us saying with the Apostle Paul, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

Do you identify more with the younger son or the older son? Regardless who you once were, may you now identify with the father. May the "Ministry of Reconciliation" now be yours.

Something to think about. Peace.

Second photo source: Entitled simply, "Born Again." From a framed poster my wife and I have had hanging in our living room for many years. (2 Corinthians 5:17). Artist unknown.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Rediscovering Whit Sunday

“A church living between Easter and Pentecost is always behind closed doors”
(E. Stanley Jones).

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This past Christmas season, we took advantage of some Boxing Week sales and purchased a 7.5-foot tall artificial Christmas tree that came pre-wired with 600 LED lights. With its 59-inch diameter, it should be quite the tree when we set it up for the first time at Christmas 2017.

We haven’t had a Christmas tree in many years, at least since the kids grew up and moved out of the house, and we might not have bothered this year either, if it were not for the fact that we now are grandparents and will once again have a toddler wandering the house at Christmastime. Ah, the seasons of life.

But this is only March, and I’m not really interested in discussing Christmas. What I’ve been thinking about lately is that all but forgotten other event of the church calendar: Pentecost, and more specifically, Whit Sunday; the day the church used to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. What ever became of that? We celebrate Christmas and Easter well enough (all though how “well” is probably subjective), but what is perhaps the most important day of the church year, Pentecost, we have become strangely quiet on, letting it pass us by relatively unnoticed.

Is it easier to celebrate Christ’s birth, death and resurrection, than it is to celebrate being born again? Stop and think about that for a moment. Taken to the next level, is it easier to join the world and give lip service to his birth and resurrection, blended as it’s become with a plethora of secularism, than it is to go out into the world with his message? Maybe it costs less to give gifts to one another at Christmas than it does to give ourselves at Pentecost. If Christmas is about God “with” us, Pentecost is about God “in” us. Is God “in” you?

Imagine the early church with Pentecost eliminated

After that first Easter and before Pentecost, we read in John’s gospel that the disciples were huddled together behind locked doors for fear of the Jews (20:19). Now stop and try to imagine that for a few moments. They were hanging out together behind locked doors in fear of others. Does that sound familiar? At the risk of stepping on some toes, that sounds an awful lot like much of what we see in the church today. We’re really good at doing the holy-huddle behind closed doors, for fear of what our neighbors and the secular world around us thinks. But what are we scared of? Hmm, I wonder.

As I imagine the early church with Pentecost eliminated, I see a few pathetic individuals, people who have been given an incredible message of hope and good news, huddled together with their paralyzed message going no where. They would have been powerless. As I look at the church today, I see people big on Christmas, not quite so big on Easter, but when it comes to Pentecost, well, you have to wonder sometimes if they’ve even experienced it at all. Has the church of today become powerless too? I think that’s a valid question, don't you? At the very least we seem to be clinging to a paralyzed message. How sad!

But the disciples did not stay in their fearful holy-huddles

Moving forward from John 20 and into Acts 2, we see the Holy Spirit come at Pentecost. Suddenly their fear of the Jews led to Peter standing up with the rest of the disciples (Acts 2:14) and boldly tell the message of hope and good news, to perhaps some of the very people he was hiding from behind locked doors earlier. The result? “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41). Three thousand converts in one day! Wow! Can we even begin to really imagine that?

Suddenly, because of having experienced Pentecost, they were no longer paralyzed. Suddenly, a handful of formerly timid men, instantly grew in number to about 3000 in just one day. Suddenly, having gone beyond only Christmas and Easter, they experienced the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Suddenly, for that small group of disciples, "God 'with' us" became "God 'in' us." Suddenly, the church was born. Suddenly, there was good news and there was hope, and if ever the was a time and reason to praise God, this was it!

But something happened: The power of Pentecost didn’t last

Somehow, somewhere, the church became powerless. What happened? Did the riches of the world entice us a little too much? Did we lose sight of our first love? Did we once again become scared? Did we rely too much on our institutions and buildings with those big lockable doors? Did we become more comfortable once again in our holy-huddles on wooden pews? Would we rather celebrate a baby’s birth and decorate our homes with artificial Christmas trees and ornaments and tinsel, and in the process lapse back into a form of pseudo-idolatry (I know, ouch!)?

What became of the church’s once powerful soul-winning message? Never mind the 3000 converts in one day, when was the last time we saw even a handful of new church members (and I’m not talking about shuffling sheep from one institution to another either), converted from their godless way of life to being born again through the power of the Holy Spirit? Ah, but don’t we have such lovely Christmas pageants and live nativity scenes to invite our neighbours to? (Yes, I’m being facetious, but only a little). But seriously, have our priorities somehow become screwed up? Hmm.

Rediscovering Whit Sunday

I think there’s another fear that many of us have, at least those of us who come out of a more conservative or evangelical camp, and that is the fear that by celebrating Whit Sunday, the seventh Sunday after Easter, we might be embracing something out of the Catholic, Anglican, or one of the other mainline liberal churches, complete with religious pomp and ceremony. But who gave them exclusive rights to the celebration of Pentecost? And who says that observing Whit Sunday needs to be with religious pomp and ceremony? Can conservative evangelical Christians not also observe Pentecost like they do other dates on the church calendar? Cannot Christians who fellowship outside the traditional institutional church not also celebrate Pentecost? Still further on that, there is probably a fear by many that it too can become just another empty or shallow date on the religious calendar, and so we've thrown out the proverbial baby with the bath water. After all, didn’t the apostle Paul say, “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). If the truth were really known, I have usually held to the latter; every day is alike.

Still, I think there is real value in rediscovering Whit Sunday, if for no other reason, than that it refocuses us back on what happened on Pentecost, just as surely as we focus on the manger birth at Christmastime and celebrate the birth of our Savior. While I doubt there will ever be another Pentecost quite as grand as that first one, I do believe that God is still in the Pentecost business; he still gives his Holy Spirit to those who genuinely seek Him. So go ahead and circle June 4th, 2017, Whit Sunday, on your calendar. Celebrate Pentecost. Celebrate the birth of the church and the giving of the Holy Spirit. Unlock and open the doors and shake yourselves loose from your lethargic holy-huddles. Be free of your paralysis and stop being scared of __________ (fill in the blank). And who knows, we too may one day see many of our non-Christian family and friends join us in the family of God as they experience their own Pentecost.

So if you haven’t already, “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).

A last word

Finally, let me ask you: Are we going to continue being content with the status quo, or is it time for a real spiritual awakening, a real honest to goodness experience of God and his power? Is it time for the church to move back out into the world, or are we going to continue to be content, impotently stuck on our wooden sliver-infested pews, stuck somewhere between Easter and Pentecost, doing little more than counting down the days until we can once again put up our Christmas trees?

Christmas and Easter have already dawned, but has Pentecost? Sometimes I wonder.

Something to think about. Peace.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Will Islam Become the World's Largest Religion by 2070?

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven. ... Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me you evildoers!'" (Jesus; Matthew 7: 21,23)
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I just read an article that made the following claim: "Islam is set to overtake Christianity as the world's largest religion by 2070" (see source link at end of this post). Does that seem likely to you? Would you, like many of the masses, blindly accept that, or do articles like this raise a few red flags for you? Now maybe it's just semantics, and you're certainly welcome to disagree with me, but I have a few red flags when it comes to "studies" like this one.

According to the article, Muslim growth between 2010 and 2050 will virtually double that of Christianity's growth during the same period to the tune of 73% for the former versus only 35% for the latter. Do I think it's true? Probably. One could cite all sorts of reasons for this, the simplest of which still seems to me to be that some cultures seem to have larger families than others; simple math, and all that. However, true or not, that is not the first thing I thought of in reading this.

The first thing I thought of in reading this is, given how factioned the church is (acts of the sinful nature, says Paul, in Galatians 5:19-20), what do they even mean by "Christian?" Are they talking about Roman Catholics? Eastern Orthodox? Protestant (whatever that means)? Evangelical? Charismaniacs (sorry, couldn't resist)? And what about some of the cults? Even some Mormons like to think of themselves as "Christian." Maybe the authors of this "study" had still something else in mind; maybe they painted everyone with the same brush. Perhaps they have in mind everybody who uses the name "Jesus" in some fashion or other, regardless how far apart their theology might otherwise be from each other. But then again, someone might swear using the Lord Jesus' name (in vain); is he/she included in this group of "Christians" too?

While technically I guess I too fall in the "Christian" camp, but that's become such a loosy-goosy term of late, that I'm almost hesitant to use it to describe myself. If the truth be known, I dare say that many so-called "Christians" would not even label other "Christians" as "Christians." Does that make sense? Weird, I know. Hmm.

Having said that, obviously there are different factions within Islam too. Did the "study" include them all? Are the Muslim extremists included with the Muslim moderates? And what about the various other Muslim sects? Does once size really fit all in Islam like it seems suggested of in Christianity?

And then there is that nasty word: "Religion."

Many true Christians, myself included, loathe the use of that word to describe their faith. Granted, for much of the so-called "Christian" world, their faith is only something religious that they do or identify with in some form or another. But for many, if not most, true believers in the Lord Jesus, their faith is probably better described as a relationship, and in truth, anything but a "religion." So how does that fit in a "study" such as this? No doubt it was conducted by secularists who don't really understand the faiths they were studying.

It all sort of reminds me of a World Religions class I took back in Bible college. I remember thinking that it strange that a Christian professor could teach what other eastern and western religions believed, without actually believing in that religion himself. Doesn't that leave an awful lot open to subjectivism? Likewise, isn't it somewhat strange to have non-Christian (and even non-Muslim) people "study" these two faiths and and to group who knows what together under the same umbrella of the one or the other?

Call me a doubting Thomas if you will, but studies like this leave more questions unanswered for me than answered. So, according to this "study," some "religion" will become bigger than some other "religion." So what?! What does that even mean?!

But what about the true church; the born-again, Spirit-filled, bride of Christ; those who really "are" the church, as opposed to only those religiously "going" to some religious institutional church, to which Jesus will one day say, "I never knew you;" does that even matter? Are they also included in that menagerie pseudo-Christian smorgasbord? I wonder.

Something to think about. Peace.

Story and Photo Source: express.co.uk

Friday, 24 February 2017

Pope Recommends Atheism?

"If that person is a Catholic, it is better to be an atheist."
(Pope Francis)

So the Pope was in the news again this week, ruffling the feathers of the pseudo-Catholics; you know, those who profess to be Catholic in name only, but in lifestyle are anything but. What was it that he called them? Oh, yeah, "hypocrites." Ouch! He then went on to essentially suggest that such people ought to consider choosing atheism as opposed to living a double life. Religious atheists? Hmm.

I would like to suggest that before we jump on the bandwagon and slam all the hypocritical Catholics out there, maybe we should also stop to reflect on all the hypocritical Evangelicals out there. Or maybe better yet, we should stop and reflect on hypocrisy in the church as a whole. How many of us lead double lives? We say we believe one thing, but if the truth be known, our lives sometimes tell a very different story.

I remember a brother sharing about working with people sometimes for a few years before even discovering that they were also Christians. How is that even possible? Oh, the missed opportunities for fellowship in the workplace! The irony here is that we've all met atheists who live more Christianly than some Christians we know. Maybe they too deal with hypocrisy; hypocritical atheists? (I'm being facetious).

But double mindedness is nothing new. The prophet Zephaniah said that God would stretch out his hand against "those who bow down and swear by the Lord and who also swear by Molech." (Zephaniah 1:5). As an aside, for those who may not know who Molech was, he was a Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice. (Strange that the picture of the pope kissing a baby makes me think of Molech. Hmm; please don't read too much into that).

Jesus himself said: "No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." (Luke 16:13). The Apostle Paul said it this way: "You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord's table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord's jealousy? Are we stronger than he?" (1 Corinthians 10:21-22). James calls the double-minded individual "unstable." (James 1:8).

How many of us are "unstable?" Hmm, I wonder.

I'm not Catholic and I've long since stopped labelling myself an Evangelical. And while I've never recognized the authority of the pope or the Roman Catholic Church, perhaps this one time I do agree with him. Regardless whether we're Catholics, Evangelicals, or whatever other handle we might prefer to use to describe ourselves, who are we kidding with our duplicity? God's not fooled. We haven't pulled the wool over his eyes. If you want to be a Catholic, then be one. If you want to be an Evangelical, then be one. But don't just be half a Catholic, or half an Evangelical, or half a something else. That's not just hypocrisy; it's nauseating!

The risen Christ had another thing to say concerning nauseous double-mindedness in the church. He said, "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm - neither hot nor cold - I am about to spit you out of my mouth." (Revelation 3: 15-16). Stop and let that image sink in for a moment. Imagine being spit out of the mouth of the Lord, just as if he had bitten into a rotten worm-infested apple.

Hypocrisy, double-mindedness, lukewarmness; all part of the same coin. Maybe the pope is on to something here. Maybe being an atheist is better than play acting with our faith.

Anyways, that's the way I see it. Peace.

Photo Credit and Story Source: Reuters

Monday, 20 February 2017

Hell: Paved with the Red Letters?

“I had far rather walk, as I do, in daily terror of eternity, than feel that this was only a children’s game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end.” (T.S. Eliot)


Are people too optimistic in their belief that one day, they will be going to Heaven? I wonder sometimes. As a Christian, it may be easy for me to think that about a non-Christian, but what about people who might call themselves Christians? Are some of them equally optimistic about their eternal destiny, and specifically, a one-way trip to Heaven? Could it be that some may hear instead on that fateful day, "I never knew you" (Luke 13: 24-28; paraphrased)?

In “Next Stop, the Pearly Gates ... or Hell? (Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2003), K. Connie Kang reported that out of every one American who believes that he or she is bound for Hell, there are 120 Americans who believe they’re Heaven-bound.

On the surface that sounds great, doesn’t it? But when I read the Gospels, and specifically Matthew 7:13-14, I cannot help but come away with the feeling that there will be more people not making it into Heaven than those who actually do make it there. I know, I know; Ouch!

Furthermore, contrary to what seems to have become a common mantra in today’s world, even among Christians, there are many who either outright deny the existence of Hell, or who at the very least, question its existence. I wonder why. They argue that, if God is a God of love, how could He ever send anyone to Hell? Many, it seems to me, even in the church, have embraced a form of Universalism, believing that all mankind will eventually be saved. But will they really? Personally I can’t go there. In fact, as I already alluded to, I think that when we look at Jesus’ own words (for example, the narrow and the wide gates), the reverse of Universalism may actually be more closely aligned with the truth.

Does Jesus speak about Hell? Yes he does. In fact, he speaks about it more than any other biblical writer. If Heaven is paved with streets of gold, as it's sometimes euphemized, then perhaps Hell is paved with the "Red Letters," and to some of those letters we now turn.

JESUS ON HELL

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7: 13-14)

“But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8: 12)

“Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)

“Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn. ... As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. … This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13: 30, 40-43, 49-50)

“Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22: 13-14)

“The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 24:50-51)

“And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. … Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. … I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’” (Matthew 25: 30, 41-43, 45)

“What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8: 36-37)

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’” (Mark 9: 43-48)

“Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers! There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.” (Luke 13: 24-28)

“In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’” (Luke 16: 23-24)

“Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” (John 5: 28-29)

DO NOT BE DECEIVED

What is Jesus talking about in the preceding verses, if not Hell? Some might suggest that it is somehow unloving to speak of Hell. Is Jesus unloving? Of course not! As hard a subject as it is, however, I’d rather think that it would be more unloving of Christians not to speak of it. Why would you not warn someone you love or care for about the awful consequences they face if they do not accept Jesus? Not doing so would actually be quite cruel, if you asked me. Jesus also once said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:7). So long as our friends and loved ones choose another way, other than Jesus, well, you fill in the blanks. Yes, to not speak of Hell is actually quite unloving.

Is Hell a real place, and will real people one day be sent there? As much as many would perhaps like to say “No,” and contrary to many Christian books out there that present arguments against Hell, it seems pretty obvious to me that if we believe in a Heaven, then by default we must also believe in a Hell. Conversely, if we were to disbelieve in the one, then by default we must disbelieve in the other. That’s not to say that Heaven and Hell are equal opposites; they are not equal opposites any more than Satan is God’s opposite. Yet the one is just as real and eternal as the other and are both created by God.

But more important than just my humble opinion, there are the very words of Jesus recorded for us in the gospels; the "Red Letters." I’ve only highlighted the twelve texts above in which Jesus alludes to an eternity apart from God, an eternity filled with weeping and gnashing of teeth, an eternity of fire that just won’t quit. It will be an eternity in which people sent there, still will be able to see the good enjoyed by those in Heaven, but they themselves unable to join in the festivities, which no doubt only intensifies their misery of solitude and apartness from God.

The point is, the same Jesus who loves you and me intensely enough to die for us, wanting and yearning to spend eternity with us, also throughout the gospels describes a very unpleasant eternity for those who reject him and choose their own self-righteous path through this life. But God, as much as He’s about grace and love, is also Holy, and cannot and will not be in the presence of evil and sin. Still, he won’t force himself on anyone. As such, whether we end up in Heaven or Hell, is ultimately our own choosing. Yes, it is a hard word, but I didn’t say it; Jesus did. I’m just the messenger.

THERE IS STILL HOPE

But we cannot just end this discussion on Hell here; there is still hope. Thank God there is hope! The Apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, ‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17 – 6:2)

As my dear friend and brother in the Lord, Bruce Hubbard, says in his excellent book The Way of Grace, “It is only when we are in subjection and yielded to God’s grace that we are enamoured by the Almighty drawing near to us. Recognition of our need for grace is the only way for us to realize the benefit and working of grace. To declare that you do not need God’s grace is to declare Jesus a loser – that his grace is in vain” (p.163).

Is Jesus a “loser?” No, of course not! God forbid! But we sure will be losers if we continue to refuse to accept God’s grace and mercy! The price for our redemption has been paid. Forgiveness for our many sins has been offered. Grace and mercy have been laid out before us like the blessed gift that it is. But like anything else in life that may be offered us, we don’t possess it until we receive it. We still need to make a choice, a very important choice; a choice with eternal consequences. The choice will be either incredibly wonderful or incredibly awful.

Choose wisely. Be reconciled to God.

First Photo Credit: Marco Verch, Flickr Creative Commons
Second Photo Credit: Bruce Hubbard, used by permission
All Scripture Quotations: New International Version (NIV), 1984 Edition
Why Red Letters? See here for Wikipedia link

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Losing the Stones: Trump, Adultery, and Me

Recently the citizens of the United States of America elected a new President: Donald Trump. While I doubt that anyone can prove it, the negativity concerning Trump on the social media sites seems to outweigh those singing his praises. It’s interesting, in a sad sort of way, how before his presidency even really has taken off in earnest, some already think him worthy of a good old fashioned impeachment, whereas others seem ready to place a golden crown on his head (All hail, King Trump - Hmm). I’ve caught myself a time or two about to add my two-cents worth to the milieu of rhetoric spewed forth from both camps, but thankfully, for the most part, I’ve held my tongue. However, what really strikes me is the similarity of the nay-sayer’s camp with that of those who dragged a woman caught in the act of adultery before Jesus for his verdict of the situation, and more specifically, the punishment.

Is there is a correlation between Trump’s “coronation,” that poor unsuspecting woman, and you and me? “But what do You say [to do with her – what is Your sentence]?” I wonder.

Maybe a refresher of the biblical account is first in order:

“Teacher, they said, This woman has been caught in the very act of adultery. Now Moses in the Law commanded us that such [women – offenders] shall be stoned to death. But what do You say [to do with her – what is Your sentence]? This they said to try (test) Him, hoping they might find a charge on which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger. However, when they persisted with their question, He raised himself up and said, Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her. Then He bent down and went on writing on the ground with His finger. They listened to Him, and then they began going out, conscience-stricken, one by one, from the oldest down to the last one of them, till Jesus was left alone, with the woman standing there before Him in the center of the court. When Jesus raised Himself up, He said to her, Woman, where are your accusers? Has no man condemned you? She answered, No one, Lord! And Jesus said, I do not condemn you either. Go on your way and from now on sin no more.” (John 8: 4-11; Amplified)

I’ve often mused, what ever became of the man she was caught with? I mean, was he not just as guilty of committing adultery as she was? Did he not also deserve to be stoned to death? Perhaps in that male-dominated society he was strangely exempted. But that wasn’t really the point, was it? Ultimately, I doubt the accusers even really cared about the woman’s act of adultery; they were really only there in hopes of trapping Jesus. Sometimes I think political rhetoric is much the same; people don’t really care what the politician is or isn’t about, as much as they’d rather crucify those who think differently than they do on the matter in question.

Moses and Adultery.

There is an interesting parallel between this passage in John’s gospel and another passage in Numbers chapter 5 that I read recently, in which God gives Moses a “test for adultery.” I would suggest you re-read that chapter before reading on in this post. In both the Old and New Testament accounts, we see some striking similarities:

Both deal with a wife who has committed adultery, either by being physically caught in the act, or as suspected by her husband of being guilty of infidelity.

Both deal with a consequence; either being stoned to death, or cursed to the point of her body swelling up and her thigh falling away, in the case of being proven guilty.

Both deal with dust and dirt, in both the tabernacle and temple court floors, as part of the condemnation.

Both deal with holy, or living, water; in the Old Testament account, the Amplified translation suggests that it may have come from the sacred laver in the tabernacle, whereas in the New Testament, it is Jesus himself who is the giver of “living water” (John 7:38).

Both deal with a woman’s hair hanging loose, although I confess it doesn’t specifically say that in John’s account, but given that she was “caught in the very act of adultery,” it is safe to assume that her hair wasn’t neatly done up in a bun at the time, or tucked away in a hijab, during the sexual act in question.

Both offer hope, either by her body not swelling up and her thigh falling away (and by default, her being innocent of adultery), or by an encounter with Jesus. By the way, just what was this “thigh falling away?” Some commentators suggest it was little more than a polite way of suggesting that the woman would no longer be able to bear children, which in itself in that society, would not only be shameful, but essentially seen as being cursed.

Both offer hope in that neither the priest nor Jesus condemns; the priest leaves the judgment to the drinking of the dirt and holy water potion, and the accusers in the New Testament account look for a judgment from Jesus, the Living Water, who also stirs his finger through perhaps the very same dirt. What was he writing? Hmm, I wonder. Some have speculated that he literally wrote in the dirt the sins of her accusers. Maybe he did.

So what does Moses’ test for adultery, Jesus and the woman caught in the act of adultery, and political rhetoric concerning Trump (or any other politician) have in common? Maybe nothing, maybe everything; at the very least, I had a “Hmm” moment.

Law or Grace?

It’s not about whether Trump should or should not have won the presidency. It’s not about whether he’s honest or not. It’s not even about whether he is or isn’t a genuine Christian or whether he’s a “sinner” or not. It has nothing to do about whether or not a wall should be erected or admission to the USA be denied or granted to people of certain geographical areas, and by default, religions.

The way I see it all has to do with our attitudes towards others. We’re so quick to apply a legalistic test for adultery, or better yet, test for __________ (insert sin here), perhaps citing some Old Testament law-like penalty to Trump (or towards whomever we’re venting on this week).

Maybe we all need to spend a little time looking over Jesus’ shoulder as he writes in the dirt. What is he writing there? Do you see your own shortcomings listed in the dirt? Do I see mine? Yes, I see mine, and that is why I’ve started dropping my stones more and more regularly lately rather than hurl them at some poor unsuspecting adulteress (or politician), no matter how much I think they may deserve it.

In his excellent book, The Way of Grace, personal friend and author Bruce Hubbard writes:
when truth crashes into our little world, we just blame something or someone else, and insist that our own life is under control. We believe that if others would just change, then everything would be all right. In such a state, we walk in darkness and we neither see nor understand our actual condition; we are blind to our own poverty and wretchedness. We are sightless to our nakedness, and hence have no feeling of shame; our eyes of self righteousness are blinded to the fact that we are contemptible and pathetic, as we self define our world around us” (p.218; in reference to John 8: 3-11, and Revelation 3: 14, 16-20).

Ouch, and yet, he really hits the nail right on the head. Do you see yourself in there? I sure see me as being here a time or two … or ten.

Maybe it is time to understand our actual condition and practice a little more grace in the way we deal with others, and our perceived flaws in them, remembering that if we want to throw stones at others, there is ultimately no good reason that stones shouldn’t be thrown back our way too. As someone once said, when we point a (accusatory) finger at someone else, there are always four fingers pointing back at us.

How often has God been gracious to you and me? Ought we not to strive and treat our fellow man likewise, regardless of the “sin,” or pseudo-sin, we perceive them as being guilty of? But when our self-righteousness gets in the way, the truth of the matter is often very different, isn’t it?

That was the ultimate problem of the Scribes and Pharisees when they brought the woman to Jesus, but often it’s the ultimate problem with you and me as well. Thankfully at this point, I recognize that I have four fingers pointed back at me, and as such, I speak now primarily to myself: What about you, Will, are you really sinless enough to cast that first stone? Really? Hmm, I wonder.

Truth be known, I think I have some apologizing to do.

Finally, Consider This:

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Romans 13:1; NIV)

“The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments to rule well so we can be quietly about our business of living simply, in humble contemplation. This is the way our Savior God wants us to live.” (1 Timothy 2: 1-2; The Message)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Jesus; Matthew 5: 43-48; ESV)

I didn’t put that in the Bible; God did. Maybe it’s important.

Maybe, just maybe, no matter what we think of Trump (or any other political leader for that matter), he (or she) has been placed there by God in order to carry out God’s purposes, be they good, or be they evil; be they to bless the nation, or be they to curse the nation. Remember the Assyrians of old? As evil as a nation that they were, they were sent by God to the walls of Jerusalem to carry out God’s judgment on a sinful and evil and obstinate nation of Israel. What if God were once again raising a leader to punish a nation? What if this time it was America, or Canada, or __________ (insert your native country here).

Am I suggesting that I am a Donald Trump supporter? Not for a second! How about Canadian politics; am I a Justin Trudeau supporter? Not for even a fraction of a second! How about in my home province of Alberta? Do I support Premier Notley? Nope; as far as political leaders go, in my humble opinion, she’s probably the worst yet! Still, the bottom line is, we are called to pray for our leaders as opposed to cursing them. And the funny thing is, if I genuinely and earnestly pray for someone that I have a hard time appreciating, be it a political leader or some other “enemy,” my attitude toward them inevitably begins to soften. When was the last time you prayed for a political leader that you don’t agree with? Let’s be honest! I thought so! But I’m no better.

Got an enemy? Got a president or political leader you despise? Go ahead and throw those stones, if you must, or pray for them and take Jesus’ approach of raising yourself up from the dirt and saying, “Woman, where are your accusers? Has no man condemned you? She answered, No one, Lord! And Jesus said, I do not condemn you either. Go on your way and from now on sin no more.” You’ll be the bigger man or woman for it.

Anyways, I’ve rambled on enough; something to think about. Peace.

Photo Credit: Alisdare Hickson; Flickr Creative Commons