Following Jesus requires life-long learning

A devotional excerpt from today’s message

The evangelical and revivalist traditions of the American Protestant churches over the last hundred years have strongly emphasized making a decision to follow Christ.  That is a good thing because until we make a decision, most of us drift in indecision and ultimately drift away.  Better to decisively answer the call of Jesus.

But there has been one downside to this emphasis.  Some have emphasized the decision to the detriment of the walk with Jesus.    Like a hypothetical person who buys a car and then inexplicably keeps walking, riding the bus, or hiring a taxi everywhere they go,  some so-called Christians think that having a “decision” in their records is all that is needed.  More liturgical types might substitute becoming a member or being baptized as their moment of decision.  But anytime our Christianity is only a decision of the past and not a present pursuit, there is a big misunderstanding.

Jesus calls us to continuing discipleship

However, if we remember that Jesus calls us using the word “follow” we will easily avoid this error.   Following is by nature a continuing activity.  It’s something you do every day.  The word “follow” reflects the true nature of our relationship to Jesus.   We are continually modeling after him.  We are continually listening for his voice.   We are continually understanding and appropriating more of his instructions.   We are continually seeking to walk in his footsteps.   Another way to say this is that Jesus doesn’t just call us to a one-time decision, he calls us to a day by day, week by week, year after year discipleship.  Think about it this way, nearly all professions I know of require continuing education for continued competence.  Anyone who is successful in their field is already doing continuing education whether or not it is required.

Your future is built on the improvements you are making today.

This is true of your Christian walk.  This is true of your marriage.  This is true of your relationship to your children.  This is true in your professional life.  This is true in your hobby.  Continued learning is part of our basic commitment to Jesus.   As Peter put it.

“Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 3:18 NIV 2011

So the corollary is that following Jesus is a life-long learning process.  And there is a wonderful promise that goes with this.

“He who pursues righteousness and love finds life prosperity and honor.” Prov. 21:21

The Vision of Peace is to be Pursued

The Christmas Angels announced God's vision of Peace of earth.

“Peace on earth…”

This morning’s message spoke of the dream of peace that began with the angel announcement to the shepherds on that first Christmas night.  Often in our warring world, that ideal seems so far away.  But it is up to us to put it into action anyway.   Here is a comment by famed Catholic writer Henri Nouwen on the same subject.

Henri Nouwen speaks to our time…

The marvelous vision of the peaceable Kingdom, in which all violence has been overcome and all men, women, and children live in loving unity with nature, calls for its realization in our day-to-day lives. Instead of being an escapist dream, it challenges us to anticipate what it promises. Every time we forgive our neighbor, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, offer care to tame or wild animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens, and work for peace and justice among peoples and nations we are making the vision come true.

We must remind one another constantly of the vision. Whenever it comes alive in us we will find new energy to live it out, right where we are. Instead of making us escape real life, this beautiful vision gets us involved.

First frost and snow flakes too!

Flowers rescued from the first frost and arranged in a basket that was my grandmother's
Flowers rescued from the first frost and arranged in a basket that was my grandmother’s

As one who dabbles in gardening, I like to keep track of first frost dates.  Here in northern CT, this has been a wonderfully warm fall and we have not even been close to a cold night until the last two nights.  There has been frost in each of them.  I went out on Saturday to do the things that gardeners do on the last day before frost.  I gathered green tomatoes and  cut zinnias, marigolds, daisy mums, Shasta daisies, and a few other flowers for a couple last fresh bouquets.   Never mind that I hadn’t really picked many until then. It’s the sense that it’s the last time I’ll have that opportunity until next year.   More then once I’ve been known to go out with a flashlight to get those last minute items.   In fact, I picked the marigolds in the dark this year after arriving home from a church event.   The first frost seldom arrives on a convenient night.   Like judgment day,  or consequences from bad habits, first frost descends into the schedule just when you wish it wouldn’t.   Blessed are those who have been listening to the weatherman ahead and those with a little margin in their schedule so they have time to do the last minute things.   It reminds me of Jesus’ words concerning his second coming, “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes” (Luke 12:37 NIV 2011).

Give Thanks to God

Praising God for his blessings.
Praising God for his blessings.

Praise the Lord, O my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits
Psalm 103:1-2 NIV84

Today my daughter and her husband and our two grandchildren visited us.  What a joy to hug them all.  Even though we see them regularly, it is still a special gift to treasure their company.

This week I will be preaching on why Communion is called a means of grace among Methodists.  One cannot reflect upon this topic without becoming profoundly grateful for all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ.   The seemingly simple gift of this sacrament has become for us a magnificent mystery full of both theological and existential richness.    Every time we partake it not only reminds us of the facts of Jesus’ act of initiation of the sacrament, but it becomes for us an acted symbol of our own participation in the greater realities which it represents.  We are prompted toward ongoing repentance and faith.  It is no wonder that in many Christian traditions, this sacrament is called “The Eucharist.”  The word “Eucharist”  comes from the Greek meaning gratitude or thanksgiving.  How appropriate.

As I was studying for this sermon I noticed an excellent paragraph of encouragement to praise from Spurgeon in one of the devotionals in my Bible program. 

The Lord always deserves to be praised for what He is in Himself, for His works of creation and providence, for His goodness towards His creatures, and especially for the transcendent act of redemption, and all the marvelous blessing flowing therefrom. It is always beneficial to praise the Lord; it cheers the day and brightens the night; it lightens toil and softens sorrow; and over earthly gladness it sheds a sanctifying radiance which makes it less liable to blind us with its glare. Have we not something to sing about at this moment? Can we not weave a song out of our present joys, or our past deliverances, or our future hopes? Earth yields her summer fruits: the hay is housed, the golden grain invites the sickle, and the sun tarrying long to shine upon a fruitful earth, shortens the interval of shade that we may lengthen the hours of devout worship. By the love of Jesus, let us be stirred up to close the day with a psalm of sanctified gladness. (Charles Spurgeon – Evening Devotion for July 31)

Pray for Wise Peacemakers

A Word for the wise
A Word for the wise

My heart is filled with grief at the picture of Muslims affiliated with IS lining up Christian Copts for martyrdom. My mind reels. In addition, religiously motivated shootings in Denmark and France are shocking as the specter of anti-Semitism appears. The potential in humans for barbarity is surfacing in several places.   On another front, I am saddened also at the losses and broken promises in the war in Ukraine. One country invading another to take over more territory – sounds like greed in action, lightly covered under the pretext of a rebel cause. There is so much fanaticism and aggression!

Is there a word of wisdom for our warring world today? This morning I was reading James 3:13-18 and was impressed by it.   It is a rebuke to the spirits both of fanatics who kill and to aggressors fulfilling their selfish ambitions.  A popular paraphrase brings it down to a more personal level and warns, “Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats” (James 3:16 The Message).

In New Testament times the fanatics were the Zealots.   The word translated envy in this passage is the word for zeal that they used. The Apostle James warns that in contrast to hearts filled with bitterness and selfish ambition and behavior marked by evil, “true wisdom is the wisdom of peace not of violence” (IVP Bible Background Commentary on the NT). A person who is truly wise shows gentleness and consideration for others. They are merciful, impartial, reliable and straightforward in their dealings. Those who sow bitterness and violence reap bitterness and violence.   But the harvest of peacemakers is joyful. I pray for wise peacemakers in our world.



Observations on the 2011 NIV

NIV2011Now they’ve done it! They changed my favorite verse, my life verse.   “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work (2 Co. 9:8 1984 NIV) becomes “And God is able to bless you abundantly …. (2011 NIV).   At first I felt the gut reaction of reading a new translation. It is different. I resist change to that to which I have become accustomed and especially hold dear.   But then I thought about the new version. It’s so accessible to the uninitiated, so immediately plain; it requires no accompanying explanation of the varied meanings of the word grace in the NT in order to understand it.   I could not help but be impressed that for many readers, probably for most readers, the new version was more understandable, more in today’s language.   That is really the point of this new translation in a nutshell.   And I could not help but approve, in spite of myself.

I have been working on a comparison of the 1984 NIV with the 2011 NIV for some time. I have now been using the 2011 NIV for my sermon text at church for more than a year. I like it very much and find it to be in keeping with the reformation principle that the Bible needs to be in the language of the people.

10 Observations

  1. First of all, reading this translation is so easy! One morning, I easily read Galatians through in morning devotions.
  2. Second, I am much impressed with the gender sensitivity that has been used to respond to the fact that modern English usage of gender pronouns has changed. It has resulted in a translation that is gender friendly yet does not sacrifice the patriarchal nature of OT culture or impinge upon the ubiquitous divinely chosen metaphor of the Fatherhood of God.
  3. The 2011 version will be more easily understood by new Bible readers. I think the translators of this version have tried to keep them in mind as they worked.
  4. Perhaps more than any other version I have read, there is excellent feeling for the overall outline of passages rather than just verse by verse translation (Example 2 Cor. 9).
  5. Often the 2011 has moved a little more away from the tradition of translation into English and toward increased accuracy. A relatively trivial but noticeable example is the dropping of the traditional “O” in front of “LORD” in translating in the Psalms (Example Ps. 8:1).
  6. The exceptions to the move toward tight accuracy are when the 2011 includes more explanatory phrases to help newer readers (Example Rom. 15:4).
  7. The new version tries to translate more for the immediate context with less intent of creating general quotable wise sayings as previous versions have done (unfortunate example Ps. 19:14).
  8. Subtitles make it much easier to skim for pericopes and follow the thought outline of the passage. John 17 is a good example.
  9. Female leaders in the NT church get better treatment in the 2011 version.   In Rom. 16:1, Pheobe is called a deacon – using the usual translation of the Greek word.   In Rom. 16:7, Andronicus’ companion is called Junia, rather than Junias (The Greek form can be either m. or f.).   1 Tim 3:11 refers in the 2011 version to the “women” rather than the “wives” (1984) leaving open the possibility in English that is open in the Greek that the reference may be to women leaders—to deaconesses as well as other leading women.
  10. The treatment of Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11 seems problematic for contemporary translations.   In the 2011 NIV, the language of the notes setting apart Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11 has been softened and in the case of John 8:1-11 also balanced. This is an improvement over the 1984 version, but I would have liked to have seen the notes moved to the footnotes. In my red letter version, the publisher made things worse by not putting the words of Jesus in red in these passages. They should be!

Continue reading “Observations on the 2011 NIV”

A 10 point strategy for dealing with the many charitable requests we receive?

Question:   One of my parishioners recently wrote me about a dilemma that is certainly common to all of us today.

“I received email from 6 organizations wanting donations from me today. This is pretty much a daily happening and it’s causing me mixed feeling. The question is how do I handle this situation? I have my pet charities; but I don’t feel I should support them all.   Some of them do grab at my heart when it comes to children and animals, and even disabled or blind vets.  The list is getting longer and I feel guilty when I discard them. This is not counting the many calls I get via phone – please give me some advice.”

Answer  from the Pastor’s Desk:

It is unfortunately part of the modern world that we are able to receive so many calls for donations. As you mentioned, some come by phone and some by email, not to mention TV.   Many come from automated mailing systems.   I’m sure before long they will figure out how to send them in other ways as well.   Even at church we have plenty of fund appeals. There are twin spiritual and emotional dangers. On the one hand, we can become overwhelmed by them and laden with guilt so that we hardly know what to do.   On the other hand, and this may be even worse, we can become immunized by the barrage of them to the point that our compassion atrophies and we can no longer respond when we should.

Here is a strategy that I recommend that I believe will allow us to respond in compassion appropriately while protecting ourselves from overload.

1. Pray about where God is calling you to help.

2. Then choose a few charities that are very reputable and that deal with issues that are dear to your heart.   Use your passion for issues and world needs as a guide.  For example, if you feel strongly that you would like to eradicate cancer, then you might choose the American Cancer Society as one of your charities.

3. The number of charities you choose may depend on your means but for most people, I think it will probably be from 3-6. Keep the list small enough so that you can respond occasionally to all of them every year.   Don’t worry if you don’t respond to every call. I don’t think anyone does that. Most of us can’t.  Married couples may decide to each add some favorite ones to a joint list or they may each have their own.

4. Your local church will likely be your number one charity.

5.  I recommend that all Christians in developed countries like ours include at least one charity that ministers to needs in the third world in their list.   It might be UMCOR or World Hope (the one JoAnne and I have chosen), or Samaritan’s Purse or World Vision, for examples (Gal. 2:10).

6.  Consign all other email solicitations ruthlessly to the junk email box. For most of the repeated ones, you can get your browser to do this for you before you even see them. Trash both email and snail mail from other charities without even opening it.

7. For phone calls, tell the person up front if their charity is not on your list and if they won’t take “no” for an answer, they deserve a hang-up.

8. The fact that you are obeying God in generosity to the charities you have chosen helps you to not feel guilty in disregarding the others.  Seek to be at peace with your level of giving.   God does not want you to feel burdened with guilt about it but to be a joyful giver (2 Cor. 9:7).

9  Follow faithfully the charities that you have chosen, allowing God to use you to help them.  Read their materials and become knowledgeable about them.

10. Annually evaluate your overall participation in your chosen charities.   If you do taxes, that is a natural time to evaluate.  Your ultimate goal as a Christian steward is God’s well-done for your handling of the wealth he has entrusted to you.   A term that I have found helpful in measuring my response is to ask whether or not I have been generous.   God loves generosity and his economy rewards it.   As the Proverb says, “The generous will themselves be blessed” (Pr 22:9 NIV 2011).

Meditation on Prayers for Healing

 A thoughtful discussionprayerfor healing1

I have a good friend, Eva Boswell, with whom I have a running theological discussion about God’s will concerning healing. It is a good-natured discussion between friends and I think we both learn from each other’s perspectives. Both of us believe strongly that God does miraculously heal in answer to prayer and we both pray for ourselves, our families and others that God might bring physical healing as well as spiritual healing to them as needed and we both have received answers to such prayers.   I have learned to have a great deal more faith through Eva’s example and positive expectation. 

Eva’s perspective

Eva takes a very positive position regarding God’s will for healing.  In a recent Facebook post she begins with the following quote from Gloria Copeland, follows it with an example that she has discussed with me before and concludes with verses from my favorite Psalm.  I include her post in its entirety and then my own perspective. 

God is not schizophrenic. But the way some people talk about Him makes it sound like He is–especially when it comes to the area of divine healing.” Some people say things like, “God puts sickness on us to teach us something, a lesson. Then sometimes He heals us, if it’s His will. You just never know what He’s going to do.” Such statements, as well-intended as they might be, are wrong. God does not have a split personality or a divided will. He is not the source of disease AND its cure! He doesn’t will to make people sick one day….and then will to heal them the next. — Gloria Copeland


 If you, as a parent were to “give your child a sickness” just to teach them a lesson, or if you were to place their hand on the hot stove and burn them to teach them not to touch the stove, or if you were to break their leg to teach them how dangerous a situation could be, you would be called a child abuser and your child would be taken from you. God is not a child abuser. — Eva Boswell

 Psalm 103:1-2 Bless the LORD oh my soul and forget not all His benefits. He forgives ALL my sins and He heals ALL my diseases. AMEN

My meditations on God’s desire for our wholeness

I suggest that the healing theology of Mrs. Copeland and Mrs. Boswell needs a tweak to account for some of the data of Scripture and experience.  Here is the kind of summary I would make.

God wills our wholeness always.   However, God’s definition of wholeness is usually bigger than ours; it includes spiritual wholeness, emotional wholeness, mental wholeness, moral wholeness and physical wholeness.   Not only does it include these different facets, but it includes appropriate maturity levels as well.    His idea of wholeness also has eternity in view and because of that, He prioritizes spiritual wholeness which prepares us most for eternity.   On the other hand, our idea of wholeness is centered mostly on our physical bodies now. This is partly because our physical bodies affect so much about our mental, emotional and spiritual lives, and partly because we just simply crave comfort.   Paul compared the relative value of the two spheres in his writing to Timothy.  “Physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Ti 4:8 NIV).

There are repeated examples in Scripture of times when God allowed, at least, physical illness/infirmity to persist as a means of testing or discipline, each time for a higher spiritual purpose.   One example is Job.   While God was not the immediate author of his suffering, it is clear in the theology of the book that God allowed the suffering to happen. But it is equally clear that a key result of that suffering was the purifying of Job’s attitude, from arrogant self-righteousness to humble dependence on God.  One of the key points of the book and the reason Job’s three comforters were rebuked is the idea that righteous people do suffer.    A second example is in 1 Corinthians 11:30–32.   The text clearly says that some in the church had become ill as a direct result and as a “judgment” from God because they had misused the Lord’s Table.   The purpose was that they would “not be condemned with the world.”     A third example is what Paul refers to as his “thorn in the flesh.”   Most commentators believe it was some physical affliction, though we do not know exactly what it was.  Paul believed it was allowed by God for the spiritual purpose of keeping him from becoming conceited because of the great revelations that had been given to him (v. 7).   In each of these three cases, God, in allowing physical illness/infirmity to persist, had in mind the purpose of greater wholeness.

All this does not mean that we should hold back from praying for release from physical illness.  We should pray as both Job and Paul did in the circumstances cited.  

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven (Jas 5:14-15 NIV). 

We should pray both that we might be healed and that we might be taught any lessons that God wishes us to learn as long as the physical infirmity persists.  It is instructive that the promise given us with this exhortation to pray has both a physical and a spiritual result.   God’s desire is that wholeness return quickly.  It is also important to understand that the great majority of physical illnesses and infirmities are not for the purpose of discipline, but rather simply results of the fall, of the groaning of creation as Paul teaches (Romans 8:19-24).  Thank God the creation is being liberated from this bondage to decay through Jesus Christ.  That glorious fact also encourages us to pray with faith for healing. 

But creation will not be completely liberated until Jesus makes all things new.    Only then will the curse of death cease.   Until then some disease/infirmities will happen as a part of aging and leading up to death. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Co 15:26 NIV).   It’s important to think also that God’s plan is that any illness of ours be temporary in some sense.  If it is not temporary from the perspective of this life, then He will heal it when we meet Jesus and so it will still be temporary.  Praise be to God for the great healing of the resurrection.  When we pray for healing of an illness, we are praying that God’s ultimate purpose for complete healing be made real—break into our lives— now as a present witness to the eternal purpose of God to renew his creation in wholeness.