Last week I took time for a walk up into the woods. The woods that I normally walk is filled with beautiful stands of oak, but on this particular noontime walk I happen to notice that there were many smaller black birch trees scattered in the hilltop area where I had stopped to half sit, half lean against a loaded-pallet sized boulder to rest.
I was suddenly taken back in my mind to a walk that I had taken with my family as a boy. Occasionally we picnicked in a deep wide ravine which we called Tough Gully. One day as we were hiking back up out of the gully from our picnic, my father pointed out a large black birch tree with branches hanging over into the field where we were walking. He plucked some twigs and told us to chew them because they would taste like root beer. I did.
Now on this day, more than 50 years later, I suddenly remembered and I walked over to the nearest black birch and knocked down a twig from its 9 foot perch with my walking stick and began to chew it, and, sure enough, it tasted like root beer! Thanks, Dad for the memory and the lesson. I’m sure such demonstrations are one of the reasons I know what a black birch tree is today and how its twigs taste. I snapped a picture of my twig with the tender bark gnawed away.
On the way down the hill from my walk I saw a young man walking up and I thought he might think it strange to see me chewing on a twig. So I explained what was going on. He gave me the strangest look.
I wondered to myself. Who in my family will know this little piece of forest lore when I am gone? Not that it is an earthshaking or survival-crucial fact. But how many other tidbits like it will fall forgotten when my generation passes? And how much practical info must have already fallen forgotten when the generations before us have gone on?
I thought about how important it is to spend somewhat unstructured time with future generations. For as things come up in life experience or in conversation, it is then that we in the older generation have an opportunity to pass on something that we have learned or that was passed on to us. Some of it might be interesting trivia, like enjoying the root beer tastes of a black birch twig. But something else more weighty that we share might someday become crucial for the emotional or spiritual or even physical survival of someone we love. Chewing on the memory made me value all the more the time I get to spend with my daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren.
Pilate proposes a choice
One of the illuminating side stories of the passion of Jesus is the mini drama of the choice that Pilate proposes to the people of the crowd assembled at the trial of Jesus. Pilate is looking for ways to avoid condemning someone he believes is innocent and he remembers that it is time for him to honor a custom of releasing a prisoner at the time of the Jewish feast (Matt. 27:15). So he asks the crowd who they would like him to release, Barabbas or Jesus.
Barabbas’ full name
There is an interesting historical fact that adds further drama to the narrative. Twice Pilate uses the phrase “Jesus who is called Christ” (vv 17, 21). The reason for this becomes clear when we discover that in some of the very oldest manuscripts Barabbas is named Jesus Barabbas (Barclay p. 361). This reading was known to Origen and Jerome, very early church scholars, who both thought it was correct. Most modern translators agree and have included it in their translations (NIV, NRSV, TEV). It makes Pilate’s choice of words make more sense. He is asking the crowd for a choice between Jesus Barabbas, a rebel against the government, and a murderer, and Jesus who is called Christ. Influenced by the Jewish leaders they shout for the release of Jesus Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus who is called Christ. Pilate was hoping they would choose the good man over the murderer, but the chief priest’s contrary influence won out.
The irony of the choice
The irony of this choice is incredible. First, the name, Jesus, comes from the idea of salvation (Matt. 1:21). Jesus who is called Christ had said, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
- The first irony is this. Barabbas means “Son of the father,” father being a term for a Jewish teacher and leader (Barclay). So the name Barabbas itself speaks of the choice the people were making. The people were choosing the influence of the Jewish teachers and leaders over that of the true Anointed One who came from the heavenly Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). They listened to the Jewish teachers and choose Jesus Barabbas. Jesus who is called the Christ had warned, “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20).
- Second, being a rebel, perhaps even a Zealot (J. Sidlow Baxter in Explore the Book), Jesus Barabbas represents salvation by political and even violent means. This was the way the disciples mistakenly thought the Kingdom would come. On the night Jesus was betrayed, Peter drew his sword to start the battle. But Jesus forbade him. Earthly politics and military action was the way the Jews also thought they would be rescued from the Romans. Their choice of Jesus Barabbas, the insurrectionist, was ironically consistent with that erroneous view. In rejecting Jesus who is called Christ, they rejected God’s way to salvation, a salvation that changes hearts and transforms minds first. Jesus who is called the Christ rules a heavenly kingdom as he answered Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36).
- In a third irony, Jesus Barabbas was a robber (John 18:40). Jesus who is called Christ accused the Jewish leaders of turning God’s house into a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:17). Jesus who is the Christ warned that the thief comes to “steal and kill and destroy.” But in contrast “I am come that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). In choosing Jesus Barabbas, the people unwittingly choose allegiance to the Enemy of our souls, the one who steals from our lives and rejected the Anointed One who gives life.
This would all be very academic if it did not so accurately reflect the parallel choices that we make when we choose against Jesus who is called the Christ.
- We can also heed the wrong voices! Sometimes we listen to the insistent and immediate voices of peer pressure, rationalization and other influencers. We cast our lot with them even though we sense the opposing pull of the moral power of “Jesus who is called the Christ.”
- We sometimes choose the weapons of this world to fix things. We can’t quite envision how a spiritual kingdom makes a difference so we indulge in hatred and succumb to the lure of seeking salvation for our world by political intrigue, or even by violent intervention. We crucify anew the one who urged us to love our enemies, whose coming had been announced with “Peace on earth” (Luke 2:14), and who himself said, “Peace I leave with you” (John 14:27).
- We unwittingly choose that which depletes our joy. We give in to the siren call of habits that harm our health, relationships that are not God’s best plan, and we hate discipline. Then we wonder who has robbed us of health and peace and why our selfishness has also left us lonely. It’s hard to admit that we have been influenced by the enemy and have little by little rejected the one who wants to make us truly alive (Ephesians 2:1-5).
This is why we need to celebrate Good Friday–to remember how much a part of wrong side of that frightful day we are. In the words of a contemporary hymn,
“Behold the man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders;
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers”
(by Stuart Townend in How Deep the Father’s Love for Us)
Business as usual not an option
What will you do to honor Jesus this Easter? Let’s be creative and look past traditional habits and token self-denials. Are there other practical answers to that question? Unfortunately, many people who answer to the label as Christians will do little or nothing to honor Jesus this Easter! No one could guess from their Holy Week activities that they were a Christian at all. That’s not the way it should be.
Honor Jesus with action
During Holy Week true Christians remember the suffering of Jesus including his death on the cross. Easter is the highest point of the church year, the time when we remember Jesus’ climactic victory over death. Above all times, this is when Christians should be most active in celebrating their Savior. And our celebration should not just be with words. Words alone cannot honor one who taught us to put his sayings into action (Matthew 7:24-27). But not everyone will want to honor Jesus in exactly the same way. So here are five suggestions all of which will help us truly honor Jesus this Easter.
- Give a gift of your time and love to help someone in need. This could range from random acts of kindness to strangers to volunteering at a nursing facility to visiting a disabled friend to doing outdoor work for an elderly neighbor to… The more in-person the gift, the better for this one. Jesus was always helping someone in need. He told us he came to serve others and urged us to do the same (Matt. 20:25-28).
- Give a gift of money to a cause that helps those who are among people who the OT would include among the “oppressed.” Such causes include aid to those suffering from natural disasters, aid to refugees, aid for victims of racial injustice, groups working against systemic poverty, food banks, etc. If we are not willing to acknowledge God’s gifts to us and give of our finances to others, we have not yet caught the Spirit of Jesus.
- Worship at church during Holy week. First of all, Jesus deserves to be honored by our presence in services in his honor. Second, it is the upward look that sustains our outward focus and dims our self-centeredness. At Copper Hill there are three opportunities from Palm Sunday through Easter.
- Speak to someone about your faith in Jesus. This conversation could be a short personal anecdote describing some way that your faith has helped you. It could be an invitation to a friend to attend a service with you. It could be an offer to pray for someone who is going through a tough time and would appreciate a prayer. There’s no better time than Easter time to make Jesus a positive part of our conversation.
- Read the story of Jesus’ last days again (Matthew 26-28 and/or John 13-20) or watch a video of it such as the Jesus Film with a friend. It is the most watched film in history and was digitally remastered for HD with a new sound track in 2014 http://www.jesusfilmstore.com/35th-Anniversary-JESUS-Film-Blu-Ray-Disc/productinfo/ZBRD-35TH-BLU-RAY/. The original version is available on NETFLIX.
People always wonder, “What should I do to observe Lent?” Here are three excellent suggestions I have printed in my bulletin for Ash Wednesday for the last two years. They are strongly inspired by the 2015 Lenten Letter of Methodist Bishop Jane Allen Middleton to whom I give credit for these ideas.
“Give Up” — Sacrifice of some kind is an honored Lenten tradition. The sacrifice of Jesus for us inspires us to discipline ourselves by meaningful sacrifice.
“Take Up” — Jesus encouraged us to take up our cross and follow Him. Often this means tackling some project or ministry on His behalf. We are His hands and feet of love and caring. We are His influence working for justice and healing. So during Lent is an ideal time to take up a special ministry for Jesus.
Look Up and Open Up to “Receive from Jesus.” — We live in the age of the Holy Spirit, and God does not expect us to live the Christian life in our own strength. So during Lent is an ideal time to draw on God’s strength. Another great way to observe Lent is to choose an additional way to draw close to God and allow His Spirit to fill you.
A gem from my favorite devotional
One of my favorite devotional books is a little volume titled, “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants” by Ruben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck, (The Upper Room, 1983). A rich collection of readings for each week, taken from various classic Christian authors always provokes thought and provides inspiration. This last week I discovered again a quote from Albert Edward Day taken from his book “Discipline and Discovery.” I found it so amazingly relevant to our world today and to the state of the church today that I thought I would share it with my readers.
True faith calls us to disciplines of discipleship
True holiness is a witness that cannot be ignored. Real sainthood is a phenomenon to which even the world laying pays tribute. The power of a life, where Christ is exalted, would arrest and subdue those who are bored to tears by our thin version of Christianity and holy uninterested in mere churchman ship.
We have talked much of salvation by faith, but there has been little realization that all real faith involves discipline. Faith is not a blithe “turning it all over to Jesus.” Faith is such a confidence in Jesus that it takes seriously his summons, “if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”
We have loudly proclaimed our dependence upon the grace of God, never guessing that the grace of God is given only to those who practice the grace of self-mastery. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for God is at work in you both to will and to work his good pleasure.” People working out, God working in – that is the New Testament synthesis.
Humans, working out their salvation alone, are a pathetic spectacle – hopelessly defeated moralists trying to elevate themselves by their own bootstraps.
God, seeking to work in a person who offers no discipline cooperation, is a heartbreaking spectacle – a defeated Savior trying to free, from sins and earthiness, a person who will not lift his or her face out of the dust, or shake off the shackles of the egocentric self.
We must recover for ourselves the significance and the necessity of the spiritual disciplines. Without them we shall continue to be impotent witnesses for Christ. Without them Christ will be impotent in his efforts to use us to save our society from disintegration and death.
–Albert Edward Day
Since I am an alumnus of four different colleges, I receive more than my share of college magazines. Usually they are marginally useful, just a vehicle for touching base with good memories, educational traditions, and news from former peers. But this winter edition of Houghton Magazine easily stood out as one of the best of the genre. On the issue of relevance alone it stood above the crowd. Titled “Reconciliation,” it addressed the issue of racial division in our country, not so much from a philosophical point of view as by examples of servants of God who are working to bridge the racial chasms in our country in various ways. It featured articles by three different alumni from different generations who are all working directly and in different ways to heal the divisions of our land. Outstanding pieces by our President, Shirley Mullen, and the new college chaplain, Michael Jordan, added to the issue’s power.
In addition. I was very happy to see in this issue other evidences that Houghton itself continues to be a healing force. In the same issue the college announced the initiation of the new Associate of Arts program in Utica, aimed primarily at helping refugees in that city. That initiative is modeled after the highly successful and acclaimed effort in Buffalo. In addition, the college noted that this year’s freshman class has the largest percentage of American-born minority students in the history of the school.
Is everyone a preacher?
I was going to write a typical article rating Super Bowl advertising again this year. I watched the game especially for that purpose. But as I watched the different advertisements, I was surprised by the number of advertisers who all but forsook the direct advertising of their product in favor of generalized moral admonition. It struck me that nowadays it seems everyone’s a preacher!
I was glad for those who spoke up favoring immigrants
Now since I am a preacher by profession (for almost 38 years now), you would think that I would be glad for this turn of events. And, in one sense, I am for it reveals that the high leadership in many of our top companies realize that some of the major issues of today are moral issues and they are courageous enough to speak out. I’m also glad to have allies in speaking up for some key topics of today. I noticed the issue that was most frequently spoken about in Super Bowl ads was the matter of welcoming immigrants, a subject dear to my own heart. All of us with the exception of Native Americans, are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Having worked directly with Burmese Karen immigrants as a teacher during my last pastorate, and heard the stories about refugee camps, it is very easy for me to be in their corner. I also feel the Bible is very clear that we need to be welcoming to those who are strangers and immigrants among us. (For a complete Biblical statement on immigration see https://www.wesleyan.org/237/a-wesleyan-view-of-immigration)
But I’m uncomfortable when everyone is a preacher
But, in another sense, I found myself being surprisingly uncomfortable with the concept that everyone is a preacher. Is it that I am jealous for my position or my profession? Not directly. The more voices take the side of justice and righteousness, the more powerful the cause. To be jealous because someone else speaks up for good would be foolish. Why my concern then? My discomfort arises from the questions of motive and authority for moral exhortation. That’s a mouthful. But let me explain like this.
The preacher’s motivation must have integrity
Would companies like Budweiser and 84 Lumber have advertised as pro-immigration as they did if they had thought that it would be unpopular, detrimental to their bottom line, and cause the company’s leadership difficulty? I doubt it. They advertised as they did because they knew that those positions are very popular and would result in a good feeling about their company in most circles. But true preachers are called to speak the truth even if it hurts their own position and popularity. Most American preachers today cannot do so very often because in many American churches, we would either be voted out or people would stop attending and supporting the church. But in a true church, one where growing in discipleship is prized, people expect that sometimes the preacher will tread upon their toes, so to speak. To put it another way, sometimes the truth will cut across the grain and that is a good thing. How can we grow if that does not happen? Now you can see the motivational issue for my concern. Not just any preacher will be faithful to say what is not popular yet needs to be said.
The preacher’s authority must come from God’s Word
The second half of my concern has to do with sources of authority. When everyone is a preacher, everyone is entitled to use whatever source of authority they feel is right. Most of the time popular figures are drawing from some kind of perceived cultural consensus that supports what is being advocated. There is a strong relationship between the laws of society and cultural consensus. But for both Jews and Christians, the only true source of moral authority is the revelation that comes from God in Holy Scripture. When everyone’s a preacher, it is anybody’s guess what the relationship or lack of relationship will be between what is advocated and what the law of God says. That is another key source of my concern. The Christian preacher’s first job is to see that what he or she teaches is congruent with, indeed arises out of the Words and teachings of Scripture.
So not everyone is a preacher!
So there you have my concerns. When politicians, beer advertisers, movie stars, sports figures, businessmen and TV personalities all become preachers, there will be an increasing need for people to discern who the true prophets are. The genuine purveyors of godly ethics will be distinguished as those whose authority is not their own, it is derived from God’s Word; and the preachers to be listened to will be those whose motivation over time shows love for God and for others above oneself. Anyone can address an issue and oft times they should as a part of their own moral responsibility, but not everyone is a preacher!
On a news site I use, I saw an article by Arizona State University Online. The headline for the accompanying picture read, “Checklist for Student Success” and the article’s long title was “Thoughts and Insights for Prospective Students.” I think it was picked up because it is a topic that needs discussion. In many colleges, a high percentage of the enrolling students do not make it through. How can we help them have more success?
I remember my experience as a student who was a valedictorian from a very small high school attending a top ranked University (U of R) and studying physics. The transition was huge. There was so much to learn besides classes. The routine of farm life was gone and in its place was the chaotic lack of schedule called dorm living. When it came to classes, there was so much to learn about how to learn that I had never had to learn because the school I attended had not been sufficiently challenging. Adjustments were major. I made it through but barely that first year. I would have benefited hugely from some advice about how to succeed in college.
I did graduate from U of R in physics so most people are a little surprised at my shift of profession into Christian ministry. But that is a story for another day. For this article it is enough to note that I have since had the privilege of attending college three more times. In recent years, I also had the privilege of serving on a college board of trustees for six years (Houghton College). So with my own experiences in mind, both my early struggles and my later successes, I offer my own seven point version of “Thoughts and Insights for Perspective Students.”
Use the course syllabi as a planning tool
I agree that keeping close track of those class syllabi is key. No doubt the means have changed since I was in school but the principle is the same. Student success is directly related to knowing exactly what the professor expects. You will need to use syllabi to develop the discipline of scheduling your own semester work ahead of time too. Such things as research projects, semester term papers, collaborative work, cannot be done last-minute. In addition, even if you can do a paper in one night, you will not be able to do one for each of two different courses because you didn’t discover until the last-minute that they were due on the same day.
Plan your schedule with study time included
Set yourself a daily and weekly schedule that includes study time. Don’t expect study time to just happen as I seemed to do my first year. If you can’t study in the room because of interruptions, use a library or some other place regularly. If your friend time starts controlling your schedule, you are headed for trouble. Don’t make excuses; take responsibility and learn to discipline yourself. One semester we got in the habit of playing cards late at night and into the wee hours and I wondered why I was failing the 8 am class I had.
Ask for help when you need it
Seek help when you are frustrated. Dig for additional resources if needed. Most teachers are much more approachable than it seems. This one tip would have saved me much grief. My background in math was not adequate for what I was attempting in physics. I needed to seek some help to catch up a little. I thought the problem was just me so I struggled through with much frustration. Seeking help would have been so much wiser.
Choose friends wisely
Choose friends with values like yours. This is actually one of the most important choices you will make. This is also good advice for high school students, active duty military personal and anyone else starting a new chapter in their life in a new setting. Friends influence us! One of the probable reasons for my later success in my first college was that I found a group of students who had religious values like mine and study values even better than mine and I associated with them as my friends. That helped me immensely.
Professors are people too
Realize that professors are real people too. They have just taken many more courses. But they probably haven’t read the same books that you have. They don’t know every subject equally well. They know one subject very well. Learn from them eagerly but do not be surprised when they are not perfect or when some are better than others.
Remember to grow in good character too
Remember that unfortunately most colleges only teach subjects. But character education is even more important. Knowledge without good character will not result in a successful career. So beware of those peers who would treat college years like a moral holiday. The result of that attitude is a bunch of moral infants as graduates. Unfortunately, fraternity and sorority houses have a bad reputation in this regard. I don’t recommend joining them.
Embrace the stretching
Finally, college is a stretching experience. This is a wonderful part of those years. Embrace it but exercise discretion too. As I look back I can think of so many things that stretched my perspective from that of a Western New York farm boy with very strict roots. Here are a few: I first flew in college as my roommate flew me to his house in Ohio – I had not been West of Niagara Falls either. I rode a public bus in college when I took lessons at Eastman and saw an inner city neighborhood for the first time on my return trip. I had a professor who was an immigrant who had a heavy accent. I had another, a favorite, who smoked a pipe which I admired too much and almost decided to imitate – thank God I did not. I attended Pentecostal/charismatic worship services for the first time and began to learn about the wonderful variety in the family of God. Sometimes I was conscious of the stretching. More often I was not. We learn and grow through such new experiences.
Change creates opportunity for progress
I’m starting the New Year with a new blog theme (Twenty Seventeen). I really liked the old one (My Life), especially its three column format, so I kept it a while. But I’m following a principle that change is needed to keep things fresh. If we don’t plan positive change, our product becomes stale and stagnant. I have learned that staying with the comfortable keeps me in a rut and eliminates the opportunity for progress which change usually brings. I may change again if I am not satisfied with the result of my new theme. I’m hoping for a fresh look, more readable fonts, different menu locations, and increased ability to handle tables. Looks like I’m getting some new video capability thrown in. Perhaps that will challenge me to grow in a new area. The whole exercise caused me to reflect on the role of change in what I do.
Change can be confusing
I discovered again that there is a natural resistance to change. The old is familiar. Change creates work. In the case of a theme change, I have to manually reset the menu and widget structure of the blog. I need to choose pictures and backgrounds. There is always the hidden fear that the change will be for the worse. The wisdom of past experience lessens this risk immensely, but it can feel risky anyway.
Change has a logical side and a psychological side
“A good exercise when you face change is to make a list of the logical advantages and disadvantages that should result from the change, and then another list indicating the psychological impact. Just seeing this on a sheet of paper can be clarifying” (Bob Biehl in Increasing Your Leadership Confidence p. 46).
There are several up sides to my blog theme change. When I redo a theme, I learn in the process, sometimes reluctantly, but I learn. That’s a good thing. Usually the new theme has capabilities that the old one did not. A new theme presents the blog reader with a fresh look which hopefully creates new interest. For example, this one seems much cleaner in appearance. From the blogger’s standpoint, deficiencies in the old theme can be remedied. For example, this one handles tables much better. I’m excited about the opportunity for a video message provided by this theme.
Concerning creating change in an organization, here is a great resource to read; John Maxwell, Developing the Leader Within You, chapter 4 “Creating Positive Change.”