Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Probably my favorite New Testament book...

... would be the book of Hebrews, or as Phillips calls it, the "Letter to Jewish Christians." Back in the '80s, I decided to spend one year in it: Every day in January that year, I read through Hebrews chapter 1. In February, chapter 2, and so on. Even today I can give you random quotes from various places in the book, though I can no longer remember which chapter they're from.

What's so cool about this book? Well, first, it doesn't begin with any kind of prologue or salutation, which makes me wonder if the first page went missing or something. Then we see right away how much the author loves talking about how great Jesus is. Greater than the angels (chapter 1, which was yesterday's New Testament reading), greater than creation (chapter 2), greater than Moses (chapter 3), etc. And then there is the way the author takes verses from the Old Testament and attributes them to Jesus, as
Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says,
"I will declare your name to my brothers;
in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises."
Hebrews 2.11-12
This is from Psalm 22, which, well, come to think of it seems like a foreshadowing of Messiah Jesus. But take verse 13:
And again, "I will put my trust in him." And again he says,"Here am I, and the children God has given me."
That's a quote from Isaiah 8.17-18. What's that about? So here's the deal. If you look back in Isaiah, the next thing he says is, We are signs and symbols in Israel (Isaiah 8.18). That's the clue: they are signs and symbols, what some people call "types," shadows cast before the real thing appears.

To me, Hebrews is the most typological book in the New Testament. Well, so what? I mentioned all this because the first few dozen times (:^>) I read one of these chapters, I tended to think the author's interpretation "magical" in some way. And it's not magical. Sure, he/she was guided by the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit still speaks today, and so one can imagine interpreting the Old Testament typologically today -- as some commentators and seminary profs do today.

As far as what I wish you and I would remember from today's reading...

For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tempted in what he suffered, he is able to come to the aid of those who are being tempted.
Hebrews 2.17-18
First, someone told me that "what is not assumed cannot be redeemed." That is, Jesus took on (assumed) the form of a human so that he could redeem humans. I guess this is the verse where that idea comes from.

Second, and this is the part I find encouraging about this chapter, is that whatever I'm going through is something he's gone through too, and he's available to help.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Great is thy faithfulness

Great is thy faithfulness
Morning by morning
new mercies I see

These words from the hymn come from Lamentations 3.22-23. Although the hymn sounds nice and encouraging, the chapter of Scripture that it comes from is full of wailing. And it's only because of the great mercy of the Lord, says the author, that Judah is not utterly destroyed. He underlines this a little further down:
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to the children of men.
Lamentations 3.32-33
This is good news, that affliction or grief are not willingly imposed upon us. In other words, in the midst of destruction (which God takes credit for by the way), when it would be easy to imagine God as a vengeful cosmic tyrant, the author tells us, "Not so!" He does not willingly afflict or grieve us.

As we'll see a few days hence in Ezekiel, he does not take pleasure in the death of anyone -- even the wicked.

Which is a good example for me and shows how far I have to go. Because when I think about the deaths of men like Hitler or Ceausescu or "Chemical Ali", my tendency is to feel pleased that these creeps got their just deserts. But God does not willingly afflict anyone and takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.

What a merciful loving God we serve!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

"Sharing your faith" means...?

It was over 25 years ago that a friend pointed out this verse as possibly related to evangelism, and this year I heard it applied that way again. Here it is:
I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.
Philemon 6
In the intervening years, I happened to notice that the word translated "sharing" by the NIV editors is usually rendered "fellowship." In other words, this isn't talking about evangelism. The New American Standard editors have "fellowship of your faith" here.

So what's going on? Why do the NIV (and the RSV) have "sharing" here? They surely know the Bible better than I do, and it seems just too easy to relate the phrase "sharing your faith" to evangelism, at least for a late 20th-century audience. Did they actually think this verse was talking about that?

I don't think so. This word is translated in the King James version as "fellowship" (12x), "contribution" (Romans 15.26), "communion" (4x), "distribution" (2 Cor. 9.13), and "communication" (2x; here and in Hebrews 13.16, where the NIV also has "share": "Don't forget to ... share with others.")

At least one commentary I looked at says this is talking about generosity which is inspired by faith.

That sounds about right. So how does generosity help us, as Paul says, have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ? Here's my take on it, assisted fortunately by this morning's sermon! Our pastor mentioned today that people who give lots of money (to the poor, to the church, to missions, etc.) also tend to worry less about money.

So by sharing and generosity we worry less and better appreciate the good gifts we have from God. H'm... sounds good to me!

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The good news in a nutshell

In this morning's New Testament reading, Paul gives a quick summary of an encounter with God:
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, spending our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another. But when the goodness and lovingkindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we had done in righteousness, but according to his mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit...
Titus 3.3-5 NASB (approximately)
When I was involved with the Navigators, I memorized verse 5 (it was on one of those little cards). The point being emphasized is that salvation (you can call it "recovery" or something else if you like) is not a matter of "I finally got my act together" or "I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps" or any other self-help myth.

On the contrary, the story of humanity is one of futility -- headed to hell in a handbasket, in the words of the cliché -- until God barged in somehow with his goodness and mercy. (I wondered if this was the same as the part in Psalm 23 where it says, "surely goodness and mercy will follow me", but it isn't; the word translated "lovingkindness" above turns out to be the word that's behind our word "philanthropy.")

In other words, it's all about God's generosity and grace and mercy, rescuing us from depravity.

And though I'd like to think I've "learned my lesson," so to speak, I find myself again and again wandering off the path. As I often pray, "You are strong and good, and we are weak and easily distracted."

Thank God for his faithfulness, his mercy, his philanthropic heart!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Holiness and Liberation: priorities

Today's reading includes one of those passages that makes me feel uncomfortable. But thinking about the historical context and looking at the textual context helps me feel a little better. Here it is:
Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.
Titus 2.3-5
Why does this passage make me feel uncomfortable? Because it's too easily used to force women into one particular social role and to exclude them from others. In particular, someone might latch onto "be busy at home" here and ignore the description of the empowered woman from Proverbs 31.

But when I look at Paul's comment at the end here, "so that no one will malign the word of God," it puts me in mind of one radical aspect of our faith: the incalculable value of each individual person. First-century infanticide of girls is well attested, and one of the distinctive things that early Christians did was this: they rescued baby girls who were abandoned outside of town.

The almost-universally held creation myth of the time taught that humanity was created by the gods to serve as slaves, and hence any individual person didn't have much intrinsic value. But the Bible teaches that we were created to reign with the one living God; we weren't made to supply his needs (cf. Acts 17). Therefore, each individual person is a regent for the master of the universe.

What might be the reaction to this new teaching? "Bring back the old myths!" they might say. "Without them - disorder, chaos, total disintegration; in short you have a ghastly mess!"

So I'm going to go out on a limb here and say what I think this passage is about: that yes, each individual has infinite value -- but no, that does not mean we are anarchists. Rather, the focus of all this is the grace of God, which
... teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age...
Titus 2.12
Is it important that women have freedom to engage other social roles? Is it important to rescue baby girls from exposure to the elements? Is it important that slavery be abolished? Of course those things are important to Christians, as history has shown. Who rescued those baby girls? In contrast, where is slavery practiced legally today, and which countries officially oppress women today?

But the highest priority for me as an individual seems to be to say "No" to ungodliness and so on. If I were a slave, it's worse than useless to tell me slavery is an evil institution (wouldn't I know it already?). Better to tell me how to deal with my situation in the present (evil) age.

Which I guess is what I guess it's doing here. I still don't feel real comfortable with it, but maybe it's not as weird as I've thought.

posted 10/28

Thursday, October 26, 2006

To the pure, all things are pure

To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience is defiled"
Titus 1.15
I had no idea about this -- no correct idea, anyway; I had always thought it was talking about how some people are evil-minded and always suspect the worst.

But I was reading it one of my teenagers tonight -- reading it from a modern translation/paraphrase -- and she asked what a modern-day equivalent of that would be. Beer, maybe? Because the passage reminded her of some parts in the Bible about meat sacrificed to idols (cf. 1 Corinthians 8), that sort of thing.

Shazzam! Look at the context, I said to myself. (Actually I think I said it out loud.)

Sure enough, just before that part, he says he wants people to ignore ... myths and the commands of those who reject the truth (1.14). OK, so what does that mean to us today? To the pure, there's nothing wrong with a beer on a warm afternoon, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, even a non-alcoholic "Sharp's" would be impure? H'rm.

To be sure, there are good reasons to abstain, particularly if nearby friends struggle with self-control and alcoholism. But absent that and any considerations of prudence, "all things are pure."

That reminds me of another passage where Paul says that we can partake of anything God made if we do so with thankfulness, because God has generously given us so much to enjoy.

Sounds good to me!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Keep the faith

I have sometimes wondered where the phrase "Keep the faith" comes from. I guess it's from this morning's reading in 2 Timothy 4:
For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day -- and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
2 Timothy 4.6-8
Last year, when I experienced some chest pains, I wondered if my departure was near. It wasn't, but it did make me wonder: what do I want to do over the next few years so that, when the time does come for my departure, I'll feel like I fought the good fight, etc.?

And what do I need to do today that'll move me in that direction?

I particularly like the last part of that passage -- the crown of righteousness is for all those who long for his appearing. I'm going to guess here that there's a connection between "longed for his appearing" and "fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith."

Do I long to see him -- see him at work in the world today, see him when he returns to earth in glory?

You bet I do -- all I have to do is see the front page, and I'm there. And when I see hurting people around me, and the ways I fall short even after nearly three decades following him (or trying to)... yes I do long for his appearing. Come, Lord Jesus! Come, Holy Spirit!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


In Good Will Hunting, the protagonist, "Will," is a brilliant young mathematician at some prestigious school. But he's not a student or a professor; he's on the janitorial staff, and on his shift he writes on blackboards the answers to unsolved math problems. He also picks fistfights with people. Eventually the cops catch up with him, he sees a psychologist, we learn about his background, he finds a girl, and by the end things mostly work out.

That's what these verses (from today's New Testament reading) reminded me of:
And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness teaching those who are opposed, if perhaps some of them may be granted repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth.
2 Timothy 2.24-25
This passage also reminds me of myself as a young Christian. When I came to Jesus, my guilt was instantly wiped away. But, as a recent speaker reminded us, my weaknesses, my bad habits, and so on, were not. It has taken quite a few years to get to this point, and I have not arrived by any means. I sometimes get a quarrelsome impulse, but with God's help I don't indulge it as often as I used to.

But let's look a little more at these verses. In this section, Paul gives Timothy advice to prepare him to be used by the Lord (2.21: If a man cleanses himself... he will be... prepared to do any good work; 3.17: that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work). Doesn't that sound good?

In particular, he's telling Timothy to flee evil desires of youth (he may have been about 35), to pursue growth with like-minded people, and to avoid "foolish and stupid arguments".

Which also sounds like good advice. To apply this to my life, I guess I should avoid the evil desires of the middle-aged!

As for the promise of being prepared and equipped for every good work -- that sounds like something I can ask for, and count on, at any age. What are the conditions? In 2.21 he talks about keeping away from (I think) godless chatter, and in 3.16-17 it's about having a life instructed and shaped by the Scriptures.

So the Scriptures then, and not godless chatter. (What is "godless chatter" today? People magazine? National Enquirer? Inquiring minds want to know!)

Monday, October 23, 2006

(Do not) answer a fool...

I remember being puzzled when I came upon this for the first time:
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you will be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
Proverbs 26.4-5
What is this? Is the author baiting the "Bible is full of contradictions" crowd? Is he just dumb?

I don't think so. I think what we have here is a warning: both courses of action have dangers: because of compassion, you don't want to leave the fool in his foolish state (wise in his own eyes); you don't want to sink to his level either.

There is, in other words, no sure-fire formula. What a disappointment! This looks like something that belongs in the "BUGS" section of a manpage.

Here's what I mean by that. UNIX™ computers are generally supplied with an on-line manual; you read it by typing the command "man". The manual section for a particular command or file is referred to as a manpage, even though it may contain dozens of pages.

Anyway, a typical manpage has a one-line summary (something suitable for an entry in the table of contents), a SYNOPSIS section outlining the command syntax, etc. Near the end, there is an AUTHOR section and maybe a SEE ALSO section. And sometimes a section labeled BUGS, which is supposed to describe known shortcomings or defects in the software. This section, when found, sometimes contains wisecracks. For example, the manpage for tunefs (a command used to tune filesystem parameters), the BUGS section says this:
You can tune a file system, but you can't tune a fish.
So if there were a manpage for dealing with fools, these two verses could fit quite nicely in the BUGS section:
There is no risk-free formula for dealing with fools:
  1. Don't answer him according to his folly, lest you sink to his level;
  2. Answer him according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes
Come to think of it, though, there is no risk-free formula for dealing with anyone.

Which I guess is just another way of saying that we humans are living beings, not machines, and certainly not UNIX™ software modules!

Politically incorrect section

Some wag wrote that it's easy to deal with a pregnant woman: just give her what she wants when she wants the way she wants it. This formula fails because it assumes that you can figure out what she wants, not to mention when and how.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Let's do it

One of the most encouraging verses in the New Testament, at least to me, is in today's reading from 2 Timothy:
For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, love, and self-control.
2 Timothy 1.7
Apparently Timothy wasn't too sure of himself, maybe feeling a little insecure. Maybe he was feeling like it all depended on him.

Because in the immediately preceding verses, Paul mentions Timothy's faith and a gift from God, and the verse immediately following begins, So do not be ashamed to testify... (2 Timothy 1.8).

Why do I think this is so cool? Because I often feel inadequate, I'm not sure of what I'm doing, whether it's what I should be doing, whether I'm making a fool of myself, whether I ought to just quit kidding myself and everybody else and get serious already. And then remembering this verse, I'm reminded to look back and remember what I've received from the Lord, which gives me the assurance I'm not going off half-cocked....

So when I think about what God might want me to do to encourage husbands and fathers, or to help strengthen his church in Japan -- or about just living out my calling as a husband and father and brother and friend -- Help Is Available for me through the Spirit of God.

And for you too. Good news, huh?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Attitude leakage

Some years ago, I was asked to help diagnose a system crash in a pre-release version of my then-current employer's timesharing operating system. When I saw what the problem was, I could hardly believe my eyes.

I called one of the managers in the other division to ask, politely as I could, how in the world such a bizarre code change could have been approved by their review process, what kind of review process did they have there anyway, and didn't they do any testing at all before sending their pile of junk to other divisions so we could do their testing for them?

Of course there is no polite way to ask that; I needed to change my attitude before talking to anybody because as long as I think they're a bunch of clowns, my bad attitude will leak out all over the place.

It was around this time that I first noticed something about today's reading:
All who are under the yoke as slaves should consider their masters as worthy of all respect, that God's name and our teaching may not be slandered.
1 Timothy 6.1
What I noticed was this: It doesn't tell slaves to treat their masters as worthy of all respect; it says to consider their masters as worthy of all respect. Because if they don't consider their masters as worthy of respect, their attitude will leak out and cause trouble, mostly for the slaves.

By the way, I don't think this passage says the New Testament condones slavery; rather, it's saying that for anyone who finds himself or herself in this situation, here's how you should handle yourself.

Anyway, what I take away from this is that my attitude is very important as I deal with people -- I can't paper over a bad attitude by trying to act polite.

But how can we change our attitude? The short answer is by pursuing contentment, as Paul tells us in verses 6-9. Even if we're not concerned about getting piles of money, what he says there can help us with being content because we'll have a saner perspective on whatever is worrying us. In the above example, I could have remembered that I make mistakes too, and that the fellow on the other end of the phone was created in God's image and worthy of professional respect besides.

May God help us to have his perspective on the value of people vs things, and to think correctly about what really matters in life.

An often misquoted or misinterpreted verse

Also from today's reading:
... the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.
1 Timothy 6.10
Here are two misquotations I have heard:
  1. Money is the root of all evil.
    Wrong because it says it's the love of money that Paul is talking about here, not money itself.
  2. The love of money is the root of all evil.
    Also wrong, because it doesn't say that every problem in the world comes from the love of money. Rather, the point is that the love of money causes all kinds of trouble -- not "all the evil there is", just "all kinds of evil." Which I suppose is evil enough.

written 10/21; posted 10/22 when the server was no longer swamped

Friday, October 20, 2006

Purity and a memory from the past

A long time ago, when I was still a young man, I came across this command for the first time:
Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers and the younger women as sisters, in all purity.
1 Timothy 5.1-2
Here is what I remember from it. I was single back then, and believe it or not, when I looked at a woman my thoughts were not necessarily always pure and edifying.

But right around the time I came upon this command (or it came unto me), there was a trick of the lighting or something, when I just about mistook this one woman for my sister. Well, actually, the closest sister was several hundred miles away, but what I mean is that this lady looked enough like my sister that if she had turned around and turned out to be my sister (I was watching her from behind) my question would have been "How did you get here?" rather than "How did you change so much?"

Anyway, I shook my head and the illusion passed, but I never looked at her the same after that. I think the "trick of the lighting" or whatever was help from God to spare me from embarrassment or worse at that time. (Thank you God!)

Now that I am older, I think that for myself I might add "the younger people as sons and daughters." Because really, now that my children are teenagers and soon to be out of the house, I rarely tell them what to do; mostly I suggest, advise, appeal, ask, encourage, and so on. Which is what we can do with younger people in the church; we can't really command.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


Last year or the year before, I underlined this sentence from today's reading:
This is a trustworthy saying... (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.
1 Timothy 4.9-10
I'll bet you can tell why I underlined it -- because I don't quite understand what he means. But now that I've mentioned it, I guess I have to take a whack at it.

So when I look at the context (Context Is King), I see what comes immediately afterwards is this: Command and teach these things. (1 Timothy 4.11). What things? Probably these:
  • Everything God created is good (4.3-4):
    • marriage (including sex),
    • all kinds of food.
  • Train for godliness as a higher priority than physical training. (4.8)
If I have that right, what does verse 10 mean -- especially that "especially" part?

Here's my take on it: If anyone is saved (and for "saved" you can read "healed," "fulfilled," etc.), it's only God who does it. Abstaining from, say, squid with black bean sauce, or an occasional BLT -- that won't bring spiritual maturity or a fulfilled life. You can train physically for the big race, as Abrams did in Chariots of Fire, but without a focus on God that won't bring lasting benefit; you can be just as dissatisfied and unhappy with a gold medal as without one.

So if anyone is healed, saved, fulfilled, it's only God that does it. Those of us who actually believe, though -- we are the ones who get the full benefit of salvation. Not only in this life, but in the world to come.

The other thing this makes me think is... that for us who believe, salvation is a sure thing, which means that whatever happens to me today, God can and will use that for my good. (No, I don't get that from this particular verse, but today's reading reminded me of Romans 8, which promises that.)

And that's good news for me today. Amen!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Sign me up!

Some years ago I saw a book titled New Covenant in the Old Testament. I saw it; I didn't read it. But today's reading from Jeremiah 31 reminded me of the title.
"The time is coming," declares the Lord,"
when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,"
declares the Lord.
Jeremiah 31.31-32
He goes on to explain the new covenant: He's going to put his law in our minds and write it on our hearts. (Perhaps I should say "their" because it's the houses of Israel and Judah, whereas I'm a Gentile.) And it's not going to be breakable; the thing that makes this covenant different from the previous one is, well, let me see...

First, the old one was breakable and broken. I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that the new one won't be breakable - at least not in the same way.

Second, as noted above, he's going to put his law into the hearts and minds of his people (rather than on clay tablets).

Third, as it says in verse 34, they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. In the old covenant, only Moses spoke with God, or after the time of Moses, it was only the high priest who went into the Most Holy Place in the temple...

And finally, still in verse 34, For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.

Is this good news or what? It's also somewhat of a puzzle, because if you look in Leviticus (clearly part of the Old Covenant "which I made with their fathers"), the phrase "will be forgiven" or "will forgive" appears more times there than any other book of the Bible.

The author of Hebrews unravels his puzzle, and we'll get there in a few weeks. But meanwhile, even with the puzzling part, I think this new covenant deal is terrific news. Although I often get distracted or confused, it is a great thing to know that God wants to tell me his will (that's how I take the part about putting his law into our hearts/minds). The thing now is to listen and cooperate.

So help me Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Can I pray confidently for that?

The other day, one of my teenagers was astonished to hear about Calvinism in her history class. She heard that the Presbyterian church believed Calvinism, and asked what we thought of it.

"Well," I began (always a good stalling tactic, to draw out that first word, "way-y-ell"), I believe that nobody ever seeks God on his own (Romans 3), that nobody can come to Jesus unless God forces him (John 6), and that anybody who does so must have been chosen by God (Ephesians 1)." Naturally she then asked me about the other side -- does God choose people for hell?

Which is where today's reading comes in. 1 Timothy chapter 2 talks about praying for kings and for all those in authority.
This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
2 Timothy 2.3-4
Except for very few cases (the king of Egypt at the time of the Exodus for example), the Bible doesn't say that God chooses or forces people to be destroyed.

It's on the strength of this passage that I believe -- and like the father in Mark 9 I have to say "Help me overcome my unbelief!" -- that we can pray in confidence for anyone to be saved.

Let me unpack that a bit.

John 15 and 16, and Matthew 21, all say that we can ask and receive; this is all the more sure if we pray anything according to God's will, according to 1 John 5. So of course you have to look at these passages yourself and examine the conditions on the promises. Anyway, if God wants all men to be saved (above), and if he hears us when we ask for someone to be saved (which the above says is in his will), then we can count on him to grant it.

I understand that George Mueller prayed all his life for some of his friends; one came to Christ at George's funeral and another some time afterward.

So why do I have to say "Help me overcome my unbelief!"? Well, I'm not sure I haven't oversimplified the intent of these passages or glossed over the prerequisites. And although the testimony of the Scriptures and of history (both mine and others') shows God to be trustworthy, there's a part of me that's just not quite sure. My friends talk about relatives who have virtually no exposure to the gospel (in a country of few churches) or have for decades been resistant to the gospel, and I wonder if God truly wants them to come to faith in him.

Guess I'd better pray. Which, come to think of it, is the point:
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone -- for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
1 Timothy 2.1-2

Monday, October 16, 2006

What's the point?

What is the point of the church? Paul gives a succinct summary in 1 Timothy 1:
But the goal of this command is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
1 Timothy 1.5
Well, OK, looking at this, at first I thought it was talking about the point of the church, which it still might be, but re-reading it again, it appears to be talking about the goal of Paul's command not to teach false doctrines (1.3). OK, so maybe it is the point of the church.

The thing I was going to say is that the point of the church, and I think other verses like John 3.16 and John 13.34-35 and Romans 5.5 point in this direction -- the point of the church has something to do with God's love. And I've been reading Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz and I'm afraid that we've been doing a sort of mixed job of that.

My friend Dave says that the major paradigm of political organizing is fear: we decide what "we" are for, and demonize those who are against whatever "we" are for. People are afraid and give money to promote what "we" want. And yes, we have been involved in this. Hardly the way to reflect the love of God poured out into our hearts (Romans 5).

Today -- today, let me be different. Let the goal of what I say and do be love from a pure heart, a good conscience, a sincere faith. May it be so in the church.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

What if it was us?

Jeremiah the Prophet is commissioned by God to speak bad news to the people of Judah. Early in Jehoiakim's reign (Jeremiah 26.1), Jeremiah warns them:
If you do not listen to me and follow my law, which I have set before you, and if you do not listen to the words of my servants the prophets, whom I have sent to you again and again (though you have not listened), then I will make this house like Shiloh and this city an object of cursing among all the nations of the earth.
from Jeremiah 26.4-6
He says this to the priests, the prophets, and "all the people". The priests and prophets arrest him and say he should be killed, but the officials and all the people tell them that Jeremiah should not be killed, because he's spoken in the name of the Lord.

OK, so the priests and the prophets are completely corrupt here; they're the ones who should be supporting Jeremiah. And the civil authorities should do the same thing, by the way; they should encourage each other and the people to listen to the Lord and obey his law. That's the way to avoid being conquered, etc.

In chapter 27, Jeremiah records another message that he received early in Zedekiah's reign (Jeremiah 27.1): Basically Judah (and a bunch of other kingdoms for that matter) are going to be subjugated by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and they should serve him rather than rebelling against him.

When I read this, and actually when I read about Jeremiah's prophecies in Kings and Chronicles, I thought the civil authorities would find Jeremiah's prophecies increasingly difficult to handle. Chapter 26's prophecy is fine: they need to repent, obey the Lord, listen to his prophets. In chapter 27, though, they're told to serve the king of Babylon. And unless I miss my guess, we're about to read Jeremiah's really hard prophecy -- that under siege from the Babylonian army, they should surrender!

That last one is really hard. Any military commander hearing someone preach surrender to his troops would have that person arrested and probably shot. And yet, these prophecies are really from the Lord.

But after looking at these again this morning, here's what I think.

In chapter 26, we read that the prophets and priests refused to listen to Jeremiah -- and therefore to the Lord. And later in the chapter we read about how Jehoiakim and his officials killed another prophet who prophesied the same things.

In other words, the priests and prophets and the king refused to listen to the Lord. That's why the "harder" prophecies came, why the country was handed over to Babylon.

And what if this happened to us today, here in the US? Well, maybe it has. Men like Martin Luther King, Jr., John Perkins, Ron Sider, and I'll include James Dobson here as well -- they have spoken to us and warned us of things we must change. Generally speaking, we have not listened.

I sense trouble coming, because it seems to me that we're headed downhill. I hope I'm wrong and that we repent from violence and arrogance, racism, oppression of the poor, and sexual immorality. Somehow I see echoes of the decline and fall of the Roman empire.

No nation, no kingdom, no republic lasts forever. But the Lord is in control, no matter what happens. Who knows - he may move enough hearts to change our course. Let us pray that he does, and let us cooperate with him and avert the coming disaster on our country.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

A word from the Lord?

Last night I went to a seminar called "How to Teach Dynamically and Effectively," where the speaker didn't say anything about technique at all. He listed several questions to ask before getting up to preach -- "Who am I trying to impress?" and "Do I really love these people?" -- this sort of thing. Then he asked: "Am I accurately presenting this passage?"

He referred to Jeremiah 23, which "coincidentally" is in this morning's reading:
"Therefore," declares the Lord, "I am against the prophets who steal from one another words supposedly from me. Yes," declares the Lord, "I am against the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, 'The Lord declares.'"
Jeremiah 23.30-31
This makes it a scary thing to teach the Bible, and it's the reason I tend to say things like "My take on it is..." or "Apparently it's saying..." unless I'm really certain that I have the correct understanding of a passage.

This is related to one of my concerns when I hear people say, "The Lord told me" or "I have a word from the Lord for you." That sort of comment tends to cut off all discussion and makes me wonder if maybe they're more certain than they should be. I feel a lot better when someone says, "I had a sense of being directed toward..." or something like this.

Which I hope I say myself when talking about these things.

By the way, what's the "therefore" there for?

The part just before that is talking about dreams, and the difference between dreams and a declaration of prophecy.
"The prophet who has a dream may relate his dream, but let him who has my word speak my word in truth. What does straw have in common with grain?" declares the Lord. "Is not my word like fire," declares the Lord, "and like a hammer which shatters a rock?"
Jeremiah 23.28-29
So that's why he's against them -- it's because
they say "The Lord declares" or "Thus says the Lord" when they ought to be saying at most "I had a dream where..." or "I wonder if this might be from the Lord..."

Not that we should never ever say the former, just that we do well to be careful when making pronouncements like that.

Friday, October 13, 2006

A word aptly spoken... but that word??

Today's reading from Proverbs includes this gem:
A word aptly spoken
is like apples of gold in settings of silver.
Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold
is a wise man's rebuke to a listening ear.
Proverbs 25.11-12
I may have mentioned before the idea, which I've heard in more than one sermon I think, that God created the universe by a spoken command. Words have power when spoken by God, and they have power when spoken by us, who were made in his image. So an aptly spoken word is like precious jewelry.

But a rebuke from a wise man is also precious, if the ear is willing to listen. Tell you what, I'd rather do the first than the second. Rebukes are no fun to give and not much fun to get, either. Yesterday's reading included the downside of the prophet's life...

So this morning's reading also included this rather uncomfortable verse from 2 Thessalonians. I don't like this passage, although Paul apparently intended it to be an encouragement to the church in Thessalonica. The deal is that these Thessalonian christians were being persecuted, and Paul was telling them not to worry, that those who stubbornly persisted in tormenting them were going to get theirs on the day of retribution, when Jesus reappears with his avenging angels,
dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his power...
2 Thessalonians 1.8-9
I guess this passage doesn't bring me a lot of comfort today because I've not suffered persecution for my faith.

But back in the days when I went knocking on students' doors to talk to them about Jesus, there was an evening when a student made some flippant remarks about Jesus and God and the Bible. The guy who was with me mentioned that part about retribution and eternal destruction, and I started feeling pretty uncomfortable. The student wasn't particularly impressed, as I recall.

The thing is that hell is real, and much as we don't like to talk about it today, people that you and I know are in real danger.

So what is the word that we're called upon to speak aptly today?

And is there a rebuke or a warning that we're called upon to issue today?

Lord, please help me to know what the mission is that you have for me today. Amen.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Who wants to be a prophet?

Jeremiah didn't. In the beginning of his book, when God calls him, Jeremiah tries Moses's trick: "I am only a child." This doesn't work. Now in chapter 20, they beat him and put him in the stocks. Naturally, he complains:
Whenever I speak, I cry out
proclaiming violence and destruction.
So the word of the Lord has brought me
insult and reproach all day long
But if I say, "I will not mention him
or speak any more in his name,"
his word is in my heart like a fire,
a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
indeed, I cannot.
Jeremiah 20.8-9
So he's stuck in a job he can't quit.

Have you ever felt like that? You know you're supposed to tell somebody something, but you don't want to do it? I hate that!

So why do it?

For one thing, like Jeremiah, we experience the irresistible call of God. (Balaam's donkey also experienced the call, but she didn't try to resist it as Jeremiah did.)

For another, as the rational part of me knows, it's a Bad Idea to refuse God because disobedience, especially willful disobedience, cuts off fellowship with God and makes it hard to understand what he's up to.

So what do we do? Well, as they say in Japan, "shikata nai" or "it can't be helped."

Maybe one day I'll be mature enough, and trust God enough, that I'll just obey immediately with joy. But for now I still resist, get beaten down, do it with gritted teeth.

And afterwards ask myself, "Why did I make this so hard?"

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

More and more...

When I hear "room for improvement," I usually translate that in my mind as "not so good." But listen to Paul encourage the Thessalonians:
Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more.

Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.
1 Thessalonians 4.1,9-10
Sometimes, it seems to me, we are looking for some exciting new teaching, a fresh word from God for today's challenges, or something like that. But do we always need that? Sometimes I think what we need is something just like this: You're doing great; just keep it up!

A little further on in this chapter, we see this passage that I have to comment on:
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
1 Thessalonians 4.16-17
People have written a lot of stuff based on this passage (Can you say "Left Behind"?) so I don't want to add a whole lot. I'll just observe that this begins with the word "for". What is the "for" there for?

Well, looking back a few verses we see this: Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. (verse 13). So this passage is all about hope and encouragement (for which see 4.18).

In other words, these verses about meeting Christ in the clouds weren't written to make us "smarter" but to give us hope.

So, bottom line: You're doing great; just keep it up!

And Don't give up hope!

posted 10/12

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Now that's depressing. But there is a happy ending. Sorta.

I was telling the lovely Carol about yesterday's entry, and afterwards I should tell you that my 2-step plan really needs a step 3: "Repeat as necessary for 20 years or so." That's when I'll be able to tell you for real how well it worked.

OK, so today's reading includes this depressing passage from a depressing chapter of a depressing book:
Then the Lord said to me, "Do not pray for the well-being of this people. Although they fast, I will not listen to their cry; though they offer burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Instead, I will destroy them with the sword, famine and plague."
Jeremiah 14.11-12
Jeremiah points out that there are lots of prophets who predict good things for Judah and Jerusalem, but they're just making stuff up.

When I read about those prophets -- and if I recall correctly they do that throughout the book -- I wonder how it was that these guys felt confident saying "The Lord says" or whatever, and then spout off a bunch of stuff they just made up. I also wonder how the hearers decided that some "prophets" were credible and others were not.

I wonder if they were so much different from us today, looking at the New York Times vs the Washington Times, Fox News vs Air America? Today's mainstream press has a lot less of "the Lord says," but they claim to give us The Truth.

How do we know what to believe? Two things stand out to me from this chapter. First, the truth is not always pleasant. From our earlier reading in Kings and Chronicles, we know that Jeremiah was right and the lying prophets were... well, they were lying, giving the king and others what they wanted to hear.

The second thing is, as written elsewhere, to examine the evidence. "Give careful thought to your ways" (Haggai 1.5). If I want to know what the Lord is likely to do, then like the psalmist I want to be able to say "I considered my ways, and turned my feet to thy testimonies." I need to look at my life and see how well I've been obeying what I know of God's will. That plus the Scriptures will give me some important information that can help me judge whether a self-proclaimed prophet is giving me God's words or just making stuff up.

Later on in today's reading, we see Jeremiah going through what must have been the inspiration for today's cynical observation that "no good deed goes unpunished."
When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart's delight, for I bear your name, O Lord God Almighty. I never sat in the company of revelers, never made merry with them; I sat alone because your hand was on me and you had filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? Will you be to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails?
Jeremiah 15.16-18
He speaks the truth but what he gets for it is persecution.

God tells him, "I will make you a wall to this people...; they will... not overcome you, for I am with you to rescue and save you." (Jeremiah 15.20) But Jeremiah's life isn't a happy one.

What I take from this is that following the Lord doesn't always lead to "the good life" here on earth. But is it worthwhile?

Jeremiah may have had his doubts at times -- like you and I do -- but at the end I'm sure I know what he thought.

Monday, October 09, 2006

On becoming a model

And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.
1 Thessalonians 1.7

I've always wanted to be a model. Really? No, not really. Certainly not a model that struts or slinks down the runway -- more like, you know, a role model. And it's not something I've wanted always. When I was a kid, my parents would tell me to try to set a good example. This put pressure on me for no profit I could see.

But now that I am an adult, or at least I act like one most of the time, the idea of being an example to others, a role model, is something that gets my attention. Would there be glory for me in that? Maybe a little. But the exciting thing is the chance to be helpful to others.

So in order to be a model, what do I have to do, or to become?
We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.... You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.
from 1 Thessalonians 1.3,5-6

So work of faith, labor of love, endurance of hope, acceptance with joy in spite of suffering. Got it. No wonder they were a model! So how does someone like me get to be like that?

Well, I can see one clue in the passage, right there at the end: "joy given by the Holy Spirit." How do I get this joy? Apparently the Holy Spirit gives it, so I think I'm going to try this two-step plan that I just made up.
  1. Ask.
  2. Wait expectantly.
I'll let you know how it turns out.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Archippus who?

Today's reading contains what my friend Paul says is his favorite verse:

Say to Archippus: "See to it that you complete the work you have received in the Lord."
Colossians 4.17

When I read this verse, I sometimes wonder who Archippus was, what he was like, what his work was, and why Paul felt it important to tell him this. Of course this is in addition to wondering what my work is, whether I'm doing it, and what Paul would have written to me.

So here are a few thoughts about this verse.

Apparently Archippus knew what his work was; Paul didn't have to give him a lot of specifics.

But he did seem to need encouragement, or maybe a reminder. Did he get discouraged or distracted? Did he wonder if he was being effective? Was he unsure whether he really did receive his work "in the Lord"?

Is it obvious how I came up with that list?

This is a good verse for me, because I am easily distracted and often find interesting things to think about or do - things that can take up a lot of time and energy. So a reminder like this one is good for me.

And it's also good news, because to think that I really do have a mission from God - well, that's a powerful thing.

So I have a message for us today, for you and for me: See to it that you complete the work you have received in the Lord.

I just thought of something else: The work we have not received in the Lord... that's work we do not have to do. That's good news too!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Let him who boasts...

Here's another Sunday School verse. You know, one of those things every Sunday School kid memorizes. (Well, if they went to a really good Sunday School they did! ← that's a joke by the way)
Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom
or the strong man of his strength
or the rich man boast of his riches,
but let him who boasts boast about this:
that he understands and knows me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,"
declares the Lord.
Jeremiah 9.23-24
So that's a cool passage. One of the things I noticed about it is that when the Lord identifies himself, "that I am the Lord, who exercises..." the first attribute he mentions is kindness. And people say the Old Testament shows a rigid, vengeful god!

Kindness, justice, and righteousness - in that order -- that's how the Lord identifies himself.

That's all very cool, but I don't think I noticed before this morning what he's talking about in the part immediately before this nice admonition. Verse 22 says that dead bodies of men will be like refuse on the open field and verses 25-26 talk about days when the Lord will punish Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab and all who live in the desert....

I think this is very interesting, because the Lord is reminding us of his character right in the middle of a passage where he says his character will be, well, less obvious and apparent to us. Is this what faith is about - remembering the truth we know, even when circumstances make it easy to forget?

Come to think of it, boasting in the Lord would be particularly poignant during times of disaster. When things are going well, anybody can say that s/he knows the Lord who brings blessings. But when everybody in sight is getting punished and dead bodies are everywhere -- to say that you know and understand the Lord who exercises kindness? -- that would get people's attention. And either they'd listen, or they'd think you were nuts.

Which I guess is about the size of it today.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Complete in him?

For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the godhead bodily, and ye are complete in him, which is head over all principality and power
Colossians 2.9-10 (AV)

So that's how I recall that verse, probably because I heard a preacher quote it from that version some 25 years ago, and liked the sound of it.

But what does it mean? Some years ago, I heard someone claim that an unmarried man is somehow incomplete, and in response I quoted that verse. "Isn't he complete in Christ?" I asked.

Well, if a man loses an arm in an accident, he's, well, he's missing an arm, even if he is complete in Christ.

Good point! So I came across this verse in today's reading, but since it was in the NIV, it looked completely different. I'll include the preceding verse too:
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.
Colossians 2.8-10 (NIV)
Aha, so what this is talking about is not about whether you're complete without an arm, a job, a mate, a 40-acre spread with flocks and herds (which is another topic entirely). What he's talking about here is that Christ alone is what we need for all that good stuff we read the other day: to please God in every way, bearing fruit in good works, and all that. We do not need any extra secret knowledge or rituals or any esoteric philosophies in order to grow spiritually.

What does all this stuff mean about traditions and the basic principles of the world? Does that mean it's bad to study history, mythology, folklore, or string theory? I certainly hope not! I think the key thing is not to be captivated by them. And I think it's possible to be captivated even by the Bible in an unhealthy way. For example, there's an incense formula somewhere in the Old Testament, and it's to be used only in the Tent of Meeting -- and neither it nor the Temple are standing today. I wondered once what would happen were one to make up that formula today and light it. Was there anything magic about it?

Then, as if shaking off a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, I shook my head. I was about to take a useless side-trip. No, there's nothing magical about that incense formula; it was a distraction which could have turned into a captivation. Though it probably wouldn't have lasted long, it would have been a complete waste of time.

But I do sometimes worry whether I've already been captivated by the activities I fill my day with. Like my job. How to be diligent, a good and profitable worker, and do a good job, but not be captivated? Do let me know if you figure it out!

posted 10/7

Thursday, October 05, 2006

How to begin a spiritual life?

I am starting to read Eugene Peterson's The Wisdom of Each Other, and tonight I saw this:
..the phrasing is askew: you don't begin the spiritual life, the Holy Spirit does. ...

So the question is not primarily "What do I do?" but rather "What has the Holy Spirit been doing in me all these years of my noncooperation and what is He doing still?"
from page 32
See why it struck me? It was something I was writing about the other day, something I heard in church the other week. It's not what I do, but what the Spirit is doing in me, and I'm not resisting.

Doubts and Remembrance

Have you ever had doubts -- when you felt you weren't sure whether God cared, or even if he was actually there? You aren't alone, because I know of at least two others with doubts. One wrote a psalm:
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Psalm 77.8
Now that's what I call "doubt." I mean, that's pretty severe; it's practically a contradiction in itself.

And who's the other one with doubts? It was me, as if you didn't know. I found great comfort in this particular psalm, and I actually memorized verses 10-12 once:

Then I thought, "To this I will appeal:
the years of the right hand of the Most High."
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will meditate on all your works
and consider all your mighty deeds.

Psalm 77.10-12

Because this is the thing that gets me out of the valley when I'm in doubt: I remember the things he's done in my life, how he rescued me from the dumb and dangerous things I did when I was in high school. And afterwards too.

And how he's been teaching me throughout my life -- whether I learned well from that is another issue -- and how he's brought blessings into my life, one after the other: a church family - it's not perfect, but it's good; a career - ditto; the right mix of challenges and annoyances and setbacks and encouragements that I can have joy and gratitude in my life, but I also have to lean on him because, like everyone, I have struggles, doubts, difficulties.

And when those come, I have to remember to remember.

May God help us to remember what we need to.

Where you should have your next party

Recently I had a milestone birthday celebration, which was held at Suraj Restaurant in Redwood City, on El Camino near Woodside Road. They put on a terrific spread - everything was wonderful. Here's how it works.

First, you need to plan on at least 50 people to get his banquet room. It is a really nice room, too; it accommodated 80 with no problem. If we wanted to have dancing then, well, let's just say that not everyone could dance at the same time in there.

If you have more like 50 people, they can put the buffet inside the room, but if you have a lot more (which we did), it's just outside the double door.

Anyway, the boss suggests a menu - appetizers, salad, entrees, and mango ice cream. Soft drinks and coffee are included in the price. I wanted to tweak the menu; the result is below.

There were appetizers - some kind of chicken, and mixed vegetable pakoras. For the main part of the meal, there was salad (iceberg lettuce), naan bread, rice, navrattan korma, dahl curry, saag paneer, I think another chicken curry, lamb vindaloo, cucumber raita. Mango ice cream was brought to the tables afterward.

We brought a cake and they provided a cake server, paper plates, and plastic forks.

At one point, I started introducing the groups of people to each other (standing on a chair), and the manager brought a microphone to me with a long cord. That was a freebie. One of my friends noticed a complete entertainment system. Sure enough, when I asked to use the CD changer, he said that was fine. So the accompaniment CD for Jenny's song and the dance CDs for Sheri's dances were played through his stereo system. Very nice.

I noticed a DVD player, a projector, and a screen, too. He might charge extra for those, but anyway there they are.

Speaking of charge, how much was it? The bar bill was about $140 (guests had to walk from the banquet room to the bar). About 85 said they'd come, a few sent late regrets, and a few just didn't show. I told the restauranteur 80 so that's what they charged me for: $20 a head including the use of the room from for four hours. Total bill: Under $1750. Terrific food, great facilities, friendly service, and it didn't cost an arm and a leg.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Sign me up!

Here is something that always stirs up my feelings when I read it. From Colossians chapter 1:
For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you might have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.
from Colossians 1.9-12
I mean, it sounds great! How would it be if I knew in my heart how God looked at things, if I had spiritual wisdom, if I pleased God in every way, and all that? Wouldn't that be great?

So I wonder why Paul prays that for these Colossians? And what does that mean to me? Here's how I look at it. This being in the Holy Bible, and Paul being an Apostle and all, this prayer of his might represent the kind of stuff God wanted for them. Because it sometimes seems like when God wants to do something, he moves someone to pray for it, then he acts. In response, sort of.

Then, if the above represents God's will for the Colossians, it might represent God's will for you and me, but first I think we need to check out whether there are any important similarities or differences between them and us.

So... what do we know about these folks? Well, you may have noticed that Paul started this off with "For this reason..." For what reason? [B]ecause we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love you have for all the saints (Colossians 1.4).

That sure sounds familiar. It's something that -- I was going to say "strive for," but if I said that I'd have it wrong, wouldn't I? It's the direction the Spirit wants to take us, and so we should try not to resist His promptings in that direction.

So to have faith, not doubt, in the Lord Jesus Christ, and to love, not be indifferent toward, our brothers and sisters in Christ. May the Lord help me, and you, to move in that direction.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

What weapon, what tool?

Today's reading, from the first chapter of Jeremiah, records his commission from the Lord:

"See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant."
Jeremiah 1.10

Sounds pretty intense. What kind of weapons, what kind of tools or equipment did he give Jeremiah to accomplish all this? A Superman™ suit and X-ray vision? 29th century technology?

Nope. See what he says in verse 9: Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, "Now, I have put my words in your mouth."

I find this astonishing. I can hold in my hand the Holy Bible, sixty-six books. I have several of them in my house. And these are the words that have the power to uproot and tear down nations and kingdoms.

I've heard more than one sermon pointing out that God created light and land and life by speaking them into existence, and that we are made in his image. So the power of speech is a huge responsibility - it holds the possibility of great blessings, and it can cause a ton of trouble. It can uproot and tear down, it can destroy and overthow
nations and kingdoms.

Or it can build and plant -- nations and kingdoms. Or a marriage, a friendship, a family.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Rituals, or changed hearts? Gee, I wonder...

There seems to be a sort of religious impulse in humanity - an impulse to build places of worship and a desire for ritual. God is not always happy about these, and in Isaiah chapter 66 he talks about the temple without a lot of fondness. He's made heaven and earth, he says...
"All these things my hand has made
and so all these things are mine," declares the Lord.
"But this is the one to whom I will look:
He that is humble and contrite in spirit
and who trembles at my word."
Isaiah 66.2
He then goes on to say that he doesn't like the animal sacrifices (which he instituted himself in Leviticus) any more.

What he seems to be after now is not so much buildings and rituals but a transformation of our hearts. Speaking for myself, there's a part of me that, as Donald Miller says in Blue Like Jazz, prefers a sort of vending-machine god. I do this and that, to make him happy, then check that off the list and go on my way.

Which I guess is why God talks so much about this in the Bible. He says again and again that empty ritual is just that; that a relationship, a change in our hearts, is what he's after, and is the thing that will make us better.

And who is adequate for that? Boy, do I need help! And the good news, as always, is that God is here, as he says - this is the one to whom he will look (the NIV has "esteem"). Not to the mighty, not to the great, but to the humble, to the one who trembles at His word.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Self Talk

"Every day in every way I'm feeling better and better." That's not in the Bible, but this one is:

Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart
Psalm 73.1

This guy knows, sort of, that this is the way it's supposed to be. It's what God promised. It's what he wants to believe.

But then he goes on and 'fesses up: he sees the wicked prospering; they are rich and well-groomed and have plenty to eat. They don't have troubles like other people do. They order everybody around and act like they're God or something (which reminds me of a book I heard of but have never read: The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison).

This really bothers him:
Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure;
in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.
When I tried to understand all this,
it was oppressive to me
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
Psalm 73.13,16-17
He goes to the Temple and then he understands that justice will eventually be done. He turns his eyes toward God, and he becomes wiser by doing that.

So what does that mean to me, today?

Here's my take on it: if we look only at the way the world is going, we are left with perplexity and despair, because so often it seems God isn't doing what he says he's about.

That is, we have to look at the world and see it, but then we have to look at God, too. Not because he'll answer all our questions, but because by turning to him, fixing our eyes on him, we'll develop a more balanced perspective. We'll remember his character, his goodness and mercy, and we'll remember that things are not totally out of control.

Which will help us to trust him more, and to be saner people. Kinder and more compassionate people. Amen?