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Chapter 50 in a Series

1-peterThere are lots of question about who really wrote these letters.  Many thought of Peter as an uneducated fisherman who couldn’t have written them in the sophisticated Greek style, although he probably could speak Greek due to his occupation as a fisherman around the Mediterranean Sea.  At the end of 1Peter, gratitude  and attribution are given to an acting secretary of his when Peter says, “By Silvanus, I have written.”  Even the debating scholars are slow in recognizing God didn’t use the elite, the educated, the hero to accomplish his will.

This first letter is written in code with mentions of Babylon, a stand-in name for Rome, the central city of power who, not unlike the iconic city of the same name, gave itself over to licentiousness, evil, idol worship, and false gods in their self-arrogance.  The letter, written in the later years of Peter’s life, is during the time of that fateful fire in Rome around AD 64.

If the Christians were so good, kind, and generous, what was the Roman’s beef with them?  Part of the challenge was the false interpretations of their actions were propagated by the authorities through defamatory headlines of the day.  Rome knew Christians followed the teachings of Jesus yet they capitalized on the strange and different rituals done in Christian fellowship.  The rumor was published that Christians were cannibals because of drinking someone’s blood and eating his body.  And then there were accusations of sexual orgies that began with the Holy kiss shared between each other. Of course, the Roman headlines would conveniently forget to mention the brutality of Nero, who would drag the Christians through the street behind horses until they died.  Or how he would ignite their dead bodies to light outdoor parties. The beheadings, crucifixion, murdering of his mother and family members and, of course, the arson of Rome he was suspicious of committing so he could rebuild edifices to glorify him were overlooked.

This was the current environment the Christians lived.  If there is a parallel book in the Old Testament to this one, it would be the same as the suffering as in Job. The persecution and suffering are also in the background in the writings of the Gospel of Mark who used Peter as his source.

Peter calls his readers to the theme of endurance in the suffering despite righteousness. Peter wrote about the good news of Jesus during the period of Christian persecution.  He reminded them, in 1Peter 2:12, to “live such good lives…they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits.”

Each year, our headlines say the previous year was the worst year of Christian persecution in modern history.  Not to make light of their martyrdom, the tendency for societies or groups within to alienate or repress different cultures is a recurrent historical theme in humanity.  Opinions on morality, worldview, self-image, attitudes towards others and overall identity contribute to determining a person’s spirituality and religion.  Religious differences can be significant cultural, personal, and social factors.  Worldwide freedom of belief has been deemed a human rights issue.

Returning to the verse I ended within the last chapter, 1Peter 3:15, it says “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  But do this with gentleness and respect.” This verse is a good strategy at different levels, one in recounting that moment of salvation reminds us of the who, what, when, where, and why of our personal commitments.

As mentioned earlier in the Proverbs chapter, my admonition to my kids about what they listened to, read or watched as entertainment influences who they are was saw by them as extreme. They probably can recall when we would temporarily not have a television or cable in our home for a few years.   It was done as a fast from the bombardment of worldly influence.  Those influences, however, still filter through.  I once gave up women’s magazines hoping I could build an immunity to its influence only to learn later that I was still following trends in lifestyle.   The subliminal influence of the constant barrage of advertising etc. is everywhere and unavoidable without a conscious effort.

I  hold that we are what we read, listen to, and watch under the auspices of entertainment.   It infiltrates our lives and becomes a part of us. For a point of reference, today, by age eighteen, the average American has seen two hundred thousand acts of violence on TV, including forty thousand murders. When I am curating information on an idea, I double check myself on what topics I research that lead to predictions of doom, sorrow, depression, etc., or when watching television shows and movies that are subtly putting down men, women, ethnic groups, my beliefs, etc.  The fluidity of vulgar vernacular in daily conversation is becoming more and more disgusting to me particularly from those I think are more educated with a vocabulary to draw from.   It weighs me down and I have a hard time listening for and to the topic.   To try to live a positive life cannot be done with a mind full of negative.

During one of these extreme periods of trying to live without the clutter of worldview news and propaganda, I happened upon news of a death of a favorite musician.  I mentioned it a few days later to the office’s secretary about how sad I was still over this death.  I didn’t know the musician, never saw him perform live, familiar with him only through his ballads and songs.  The secretary rebuffed me by saying, “My, you are overly sensitive!”  In my typical way of developing a response, hours after the fact, I should have agreed with her and said she was right because I was not insensitive or immune to the emotion’s provoked by the headlines and violence of the world.

I still react when I hear of someone’s death,  particularly when I can relate to them in some way by letting them into my life even if they are in the peripheral of my life and I don’t personally know them.  It is a slow process to filter out the headlines and yet stay relevant to what is going on in the world. I am so sensitized to visual things that I, like a child, cover my eyes or look away from violent broadcasted images knowing if I did not, those images would be future nightmares for me.  One of my boys is particularly aware of this and sweetly warns me when recommending a show that “Parts of it are graphic, Mom.”

Some would argue if I didn’t shy away from negative news, would expose myself more to it that, then I would not be so affected by it when it unexpectedly reveals itself. True enough, but I think God made me highly sensitive for a purpose.  Besides I do not desire to become so insensitive to the hurting of the world that I become hardened to try to respond or help.

It is not as naïve as it sounds, however for many who become Christians, they believe the circumstances in their lives will sort themselves out or become better if they believe in God as if it is a quick fix for all that is wrong in their life.  This can fall under a theology of comfort.

I have a friend whose wife was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer.  They have three children at home and are a delightful family.  I offered my prayers to them upon learning of her diagnosis then asked if he worshipped at a church, wondering if they were getting spiritual support during this time.   He quickly answered no.  Then later I met with my friend’s parents over lunch on another matter and the father explained how his son was mad at God about the current situation.  He said his son wondered if he acknowledged God in his life, would He heal his wife.  And if he didn’t acknowledge God, would his wife heal anyway?   That’s a version of Pascal’s wager. This wager’s bet is if someone can’t come to the knowledge of God’s existence the wise thing to do is to live your life as if God does exist because, in the end, such a life has everything to gain and nothing to lose.  I expressed to his father that I do not think God is responsible for cancer, evil was. There are so many things we, as a society, have done through our own free will that has, in turn, left us susceptible to cancer’s threat by what we eat, the polluted air we breathe, etc.  And then there is natural evil.  I do believe God goes through the process alongside us and can comfort us.  I am not minimizing the struggles in dealing with personal diseases and sickness, but I don’t blame God for illnesses.  She is now in remission and I believe God will use this, and other examples of those who are in remission.

When life’s inevitable hardships come along, those watching may see the new believer fall away from their faith, not gather strength from it, not carry on despite whatever persecutions.  It casts a shadow on just how powerful faith can be.  The new believer may think perhaps they do not measure up because of some bad thing they did in their life that they were not worthy of healing (again like mentioned in the chapter of Joshua application of miracle healing). Part of the extraordinary aspect of faith is its coping mechanism, an ongoing toolkit helping us get through life without becoming too jaded or hard-hearted. We tend to want the “present or gift” given to us in Christ but not His presence, which included suffering or to use Christian vernacular: each will have their our own cross to bear.   There is a sense of comfort in a believer’s life because of our hope but Christianity is not the gospel or theology of comfort.

On the heels of receiving the first letter comes Peter’s second one to the same church audience in Rome.  It was written between the years of AD 64 to 68.

One of the first lessons, while studying to be a journalist, was to verify comments or ideas from at least three other sources.  We deal with the false, misleading, digital click bait headlines of supposed news when not verifying the information elsewhere.  Disinformation is not a new problem, it dates to when information started to be distributed to the masses.

The issue came up once when the kids were small.  While I was waiting in line to pay for my shopping cart full of groceries in the checkout line, they would see all the items on the display rack for last minute purchases.  Often magazines and newspaper tabloids are in this area with their printed headlines screaming out topics from what makes us beautiful to the alien who recently landed and lives in Nebraska.  My kids would eventually ask if the headlines were true.  I would give them my three-verification rule to encourage them to take responsibility in learning the truth and be knowledgeable about what they are reading.

Peter says to guard our minds with the proper knowledge of God so as not to drift off the path that He has laid out.  Second Peter 2:2 warns about the biblical abuser: “Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute.” Our tendency is to be impatient and lazy about searching out the truth.

The phrase, “make a decision; then make it the right one” can have a double-edged meaning.  The danger of it is in trying to make the decision work when it’s the wrong one to make it right through human self-manipulation of our own will and selfish desire over God’s plan for our life.

In his book, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis wrote, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell chose it.”

Peter repeats that God has His sense of time and our need to turn to Him. God is never late in answering prayers; He is never early either.  Prayers are answered at just the right moment.  Peter points out that “the Day of the Lord” (Jesus’s return) shall come like a thief (2Pt. 3:1-10).

Sandwiched in the middle of those three verses, in verse 9, is the inscription, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”

Peter did not teach by theory; his life was an example of someone who showed up as impetuous, outspoken, impulsive, impatient, and emotional, yet still, God used him despite these unguarded traits.  Consider his character traits and how often Jesus corrected Peter.  There was Peter denying Jesus when the latter predicted His own death. Jesus responded with, “Satan, get behind me!”.   Peter wanted to walk on water like Jesus, who was walking on sea toward him. Peter tried. But when he turned to see the wind blowing the waves (another way of saying that as the wind blows so do people’s convictions); he started to lean toward the wind, taking took his eyes off Jesus and sunk. If the cultural breeze feels good it might be a wakeup call.  Living in the world as a believer is more of a harsh, stinging breeze often against the biblical truths.

Then there was Pete wanting to erect an altar to mark the holy place of the transfiguration of Jesus with Moses and Elijah.  The spontaneous Peter also drew his sword and lopped off the ear of a soldier arresting Jesus (with the ear being restored miraculously by Jesus, then, of course, to his disowning his part of any future denial of Jesus as the cock crowed during Jesus’s trial.  Peter’s lapses were short-lived, and they never went so far as a loss of his faith in Jesus.

Peter is a lesson in the growth of changing his outlook from being set on the things of man or the things of the world and its values to more of a mindset on the things of God.  He shares his secret to growth in 1Peter 1:5-9.  His education, or lack thereof, came from the school of hard knocks.  He was streetwise, no pushover, a leader rather than a follower.

After being the first man Jesus showed Himself to at the post-resurrection, Peter continued to grow in his faith transition from the OT law (from food restrictions, dining with Gentiles, circumcision) to learn God was no respecter of men in this way.  Even Peter’s name symbolized his prophetic character. Jesus changed Peter’s name,  a.k.a. Simon,  to one meaning “rock”.  Because Peter’s faith would become like a rock, an example of a foundation that someone can have in their spiritual life.

Change is not a process for the impatient.   Not all change is growth, nor is all motion is forward as the saying goes.  Change may not be progress but all progress is the result of change. Part of a poem Ella Wheeler Wilcox, a contemplative writer who obsessively strove for more divine spirituality in her life, describes the tenacity it takes.  She ultimately leaned toward Gnosticism in her spiritual quest.  The lines from this poem entitled Consciousness are from her series of passion poems:

“Not to the curious or impatient should

That in the start, demands the end be shown,

And at each step, stops waiting for a sign;

But to the tireless toiler toward the goal,

Shall the great miracles of God be known

And life reveals and immortal and divine.”

 

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Chapter 49 in a Series

slide_1These two letters are written by Jesus’s half-brothers.  James’s letter is one of the earliest written ones to the new Jewish Christian community and expounds on the topic of faith.  Jude’s letter was written about twenty-five years before John’s writings.  James was written in the beginning era of the acts of the apostles with Jude’s letter listed last in the New Testament before its last book: Revelation.  These remaining letters in this section are entitled with author’s name (like the Gospels are) who wrote them (with Hebrews title only known as written by a Hebrew) whereas Paul’s letters were title according to his mentees and churches.

James is compared to the wisdom book Proverbs.  It is full of the practical actions of faith, encouraging God’s people to act as God’s people should.  “Act like somebody” is a family quip said in my household when encouraging good behavior. James, however, gets more emphatic about acting out faith through service.

A character sketch of James shows the writer of this letter to be held in high esteem.  He is one of the five half-siblings in Jesus’s family (cf. Matt. 13:55-56, Lk. 8:19, Mk. 3:31).   This James is also known as James the Just, a bishop of the first and oldest church in Jerusalem, and one Paul calls out as having outstanding virtue as a pillar of the Church.  The Jewish historian Josephus said this James was a man of preeminent justice.  He was killed by  Jewish leaders stoning him around AD 62.

The original audience is the Christian Jews from the twelve tribes who were dispersed beyond Jerusalem.  It is thought to be one of the earliest written (possibly in AD 45) letter in the New Testament, along with Galatians.  At the time, the first century Christians had to contend with Roman authorities as well as that of the Jewish religious leaders wanting Mosaic law to be fulfilled (circumcision, forbidden foods observed, etc.) by the Christians.  Later in life, James’s enemies took advantage of an interval between Roman governors in AD 62 and had him put to death by stoning.

It was not until this side of the cross that James (and hints of others in Jesus’s family 1Cor. 9:5) realized who Jesus was.  In James 5:7-9, he encourages patience for the Lord’s second coming. Jesus said during His lifetime on earth how a prophet is not accepted in His hometown (Lk. 4:24). A hometown can encompass family as well.  Jesus was fully human yet sinless.  Like Joseph in Genesis, His siblings probably had difficulty relating to Him as being superior.  For us who like Joseph are less than perfect mortals, as we grow in our faith walk, we find it is bumpy and slippery. We hit speedbumps of mistakes by not being more Christ-like, or we seem to slide backward as in one step forward two back into our self-centeredness.

Many have had parallel experiences when sharing their beliefs with siblings and other family members who listened, but their facial expressions said, “Yeah that all sounds good, but I know who you really are.”   I hardly consider myself a prophet if not for only a little biblical discernment.  I am sure my family saw me as acting self-righteous, someone who thought they were their better, judging them.  My family didn’t see I was trying to draw near to God nor do they know or realize as I did that He and his truths drew near to me (Jas. 4:8).  Whatever my spiritual transformation is, part of the outcome is to show what the impact of Jesus is in a person’s life.  It’s interesting Jesus did not come to judge he came to be an atoning sacrifice.

It can get confusing comparing Paul’s teachings on justification by faith alone and James’s teachings on the works that orthopraxy verse orthodoxy. James wanted to keep Christian faith in balance with works, emphasizing that good actions naturally flow from our faith, and it is how the Fruit of the Spirit and Christianity manifests and is observed by others.

The book of James was probably the most Jewish of the post-resurrection apostles.  He cites Mosaic law and explains works of faith with the Christian Jews.  He reminds them of their heritage through Abraham and Rahab who acted out their faith through their works. James writes that faith should activate works in us (Jas. 2:22). It’s understandable when my birth family, basing their opinion of my faith from previous works because they themselves didn’t have the perspective of any current or future hope.  They could not see that what I wanted to do was influenced by my faith.

What determines people to do good works?  When does helping others hurt them and their growth?  When does it not enable poor behavior?   Faith and service have become the great divorce of our nation.  Some of this can be blamed on the federal mandates for nonprofits, particularly when partnering with the government for financial grant support. I have volunteered with organizations that fall under the umbrella of ministry and government.  The laws about separation of church and state take its toll on some of the workers and the places of worship have become less and less the face of social ministry. I believe for faith to remain relevant and transformative, it must intentionally serve others. Scratch the surface of the skin of many volunteers, and you find a person of religious conviction.  But to partner with the government to provide a service to the community, faith communities cannot speak of their hope (unless asked then a brief statement can be made).  Still, many of the volunteer opportunities I have organized for the youth to participate in were at faith-based ministries.  My favorites are the holistic ones: those meeting multiple needs of teaching life skills, resumé building, training opportunities versus just meeting a singular need.

I was first introduced to the concept of When Helping Hurts (a book mentioned previously in the Ezekiel chapter) in a social ministries class when it was recommended by a South American missionary in my college cohort.  Slowing down to analyze what the motivation behind help or good works alleviates compassion fatigue of the helpers who usually leave with a bad taste in their mouth wondering if their efforts are having any long-term impact at all.  When giving a helping hand, we need to be careful that we are not enabling a recipient’s behavior to continue doing the same things that are holding them back. If that need isn’t meet, we are not helping them to move beyond their situation.   Social ministry can be an exhausting endeavor, but when said and done, it is a good tired: a labor of love.

Most of the time relief from suffering  (hunger, housing, health needs) is the first step, but it does not stop there. Practical steps need to be taken to reduce the sufferer from going back to their pre-crisis condition, and that is through sustainable self-development.  As the saying goes don’t just give a man a fish but teach him to fish, which by the way, isn’t a direct quote from the Bible but is a statement from Rabbi Moses ben Maimon commonly known as Maimonides (1135-1204).

If I could turn back the hands of time to correct one out of many moments when I was remiss, it would be when this antidotal story was put to me.  The storyteller’s personality is one who is dogmatic, loud, and gregarious. He used to come over to our house, situated across the street from the Missouri River that provided the view to smoke his cigar.  He prefaced by saying he had a question at the end before launching into a story about this old woman who lived alone on an island. She was visited by a missionary.  The missionary witnessed to her about Christ and she accepted Jesus as the Son of God who died for her sins.  The missionary left.  Was that woman saved?  She was isolated and did not share the message with others or do any other kind of work of faith.  She just went back to her life as she knew it.

When told this conjecture, I had a memory lapse on the biblical address or writer who wrote: “Faith without deeds is dead” (Jas. 2:26).  Martin Luther expresses it as, “To love is not to wish one another well, but to carry one another’s burdens that are grievous to us and that we would not willingly bear.   Therefore, Christians must have strong shoulders and mighty bones…”   A comparison can be made to those who put too much emphasis only on their personal salvation.  If salvation is exclusively emphasized or focused upon then Karl Marx is right, religion is an opiate for the masses. Living out salvation through the show of benevolent works is how God intended for man to live in the Kingdom.

The above exchange with my friend could fall into the same category as the hypothetical question my son asked about someone’s salvation if they never heard about Jesus.   In retrospect, I think my friend was under the misconception of trying to prove a point that once salvation is yours through Jesus, you are always saved, nothing can undo it. It could be another example of “common grace”.

I foolishly was influenced by a secular book on how to work with difficult people that advised to confront a person in the in the same manner they spoke to you.  I did so in this incident, miserably I might add, because it is not my style, and I did not do the topic on faith without works the justice it deserves. It was a crazy exchange, almost a shouting match between us.  That conversation haunts me to this day how I was not better prepared or equipped with the wisdom of the Bible, and to use it as the credible, authoritative source versus opinion.  It was a good lesson for me to study the Word further to be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks the reason for my hope (1Pt. 3:15).

Another half-brother, Jude, wrote a short letter included in NT canon, on what he saw as apostasy  (defection from the true biblical faith).  He launches right into the Jewish Christian community with condemnations, about ungodly people who pervert the grace of God into sensuality and denying who Jesus is.  In contrast to a similar name to Jude’s , Judas, the betrayer,  this Jude did not shrink from faith or the truth.

The letter is a warning about false teachers and dividers who were convincing believers that being saved by grace gave them license to sin since their brokenness would no longer be held against them.  Jude gives us a character sketch of the apostates:  they were ungodly, morally perverted, denied Christ, defile the flesh, rejected authority, ignorant, self-destructive, and devoid of the Spirit just to name a few moral deficits.

If this is not a repeated refrain to sing on the definition of “cheap grace”  or on what Peter describes in his second letter about not standing your ground in the proper knowledge of God so as not to drift off from the path, then why do we sing choruses if not for emphasis?  Jude points to a popular misconception that there is plenty of time to get our collective acts together before Jesus returns (Jude 1:14) so the refrain is sure to be sung again.

Depending on how far God’s message of grace can get perverted, it can end at creating a place where nothing is required.  Rampant gnosticism (false esoteric spirituality) was such a perversion that it was taught that it is not necessary to believe in everything God says.  That sounds a little like how people view the Bible today.  The Gnostics also spread that it is not essential to develop a relationship with Jesus.  Being a disciple of Jesus’s in the world is not important either.  It then suffices to just say, “I’m really spiritual.” To apply it to current day, let us instead say we engage spiritually when in yoga, in social book clubs, in a therapist office, an art class or in a glass of wine.  All those things are not bad in and of themselves, but they are different than behavior worthy of a believer.  What’s concerning is the slow and steady rejection of theological depth and meaning for what is easier, familiar, and trendy.  As much as it sometimes can give a hangover from Christian ancestry and scholarly debates, it is in seeking to answer questions about why we believe what we believe that brings us closer to understanding the sovereignty and mystery of an awesome God.

Jude wrote in the first chapter, verse 21 to “keep yourself in the love of God, as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.”  Dr. Carl Jung said when asked if he believed in this God of the church of his youth, he paused and said that it is a hard question. “Do I believe? (insert a pregnant pause here)  No.  I know.”

Similarly, I just know someday, in God’s perfect time He will return and the fact of the matter is it could indeed be tomorrow.  I turn back in a circular fashion to what I wrote in the first chapter about the way humans measure chronis time as opposed to God’s kairos time.  We have become complacent with no sense of urgency about the time of Jesus’s return.  The expediency or wanting to anticipate Jesus’s return usually happens when a catastrophic or a life-changing personal event takes place, waking us up from our catatonic sleep.

Jude’s doxology, or benediction (Jude 24-25), is a promise and affirmation which basically confirms God never gives us more than we can handle.   I repeat something similar (Numbers 6:24-26) when I toast at weddings.  Jude ends his letter on the continued focused attention on God, omnipresent with us and in our future.

Chapter 51 in a Series

1 2 3 JohnThe five Johannine epistles in the New Testament (the Gospel, these three letters, and the book of Revelation) are considered the last ones, leaving his legacy for the end of the NT.  They were written in the late part of the first century. They are particularly nuanced by his expressions of brotherly love.  He was the beloved disciple of Jesus, the youngest one of them who had an eyewitness account of the Savior.   He outlived all the original disciples and lived through the destruction of the temple in AD 70.  The spiritual perspective John had gained in his life is evident, particularly in light of how he wrote his version of inspired  Gospel.

The letters include aspects of the attitude of hospitality which is part and parcel towards the outreach of others.  John’s Epistles reinforce the three cardinal values of truth, righteousness, and love.  One way I read see this is through the three kinds of Christian outreach that carry on for today: House church (3John), urban fellowship (2John) and the regional web of churches (1John).

It is a sign of intimacy when someone’s handwriting or the hearing of their voice without any self-identification is recognizable without their name revealed.  This would be John to the Christian community.  The changing winds of the world in politics were affecting believers, the same foreshadowing of the types of wind of the world that created the waves affecting Peter when he tried to walk on water.  The winds show the turbulent thrusts the early Christians went through. Those winds still blow today.  John pulls the reader back to firmer foundations of sound faith, obedience, and love.  He wrote positive affirming statements on Christian beliefs instead of specifically targeting the heresy that was rapid. He did not dignify the heresy falsehoods by commenting on them.   In 1John 3:2, he says “…Now we are children of God, and what we will have not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  He explains whoever is in the light but hates it is in darkness.  And they walk in this darkness not knowing where he is going because the darkness has blinded them to the light.

I have stood on the edge of that cavern of darkness, peeked in, and felt its negative foreboding nature.  It would be so easy to jump down into a dark pit to hate this or that person.  But I could not and cannot because I am more afraid that the hate would consume me, it would metastasize like cancer throughout me.  I will even err on the side of loving someone when it is no longer good for my wellbeing.  I do not think I can have fellowship with God if I harbor hate.  The closest I come to experiencing hatred toward someone may be apathy, but still I never really hope the worst to happen to someone.  Apathy, not hate, is the opposite of love.  Hate has one thing going for it: it is an emotion and full of passion.

There is John’s emphatic question about whoever has the world’s goods (material and spiritual blessings) and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how can the love of God abide in him?   This is hospitality at its most sincere. Treating people with consideration, respect, and acknowledgment, even when not reciprocated, is the better way versus rejecting people, writing them out of the book of life, or shunning them.

The second letter from John is short and could probably fit on a single page with its three hundred words.  John refers to himself as “the elder” due to his advancing age, his spiritual authority over the congregations, and his being who personally witnessed the early days of Christianity walking with Jesus.  This letter is probably written under the same roof, at the same time as the previous one.

The audience, though, was not the then established churches but were instead the home churches or what we might refer to today as the startup churches.  They were infiltrated by the same false prophets who used their entrance as a way of taking advantage of the open hospitality of their hosts.  These teachers had an agenda: to convert the new Christians to their cause and not to Jesus.

The letter is directed to a woman and her children, possibly cipher for the church and her congregation.  The era dictated the letters be written more discreetly or in a code for safety.  This letter is about the wisdom of discretion when it comes to hospitality. That discretion includes the fundamental teaching of Christianity, the type of behavior and the boundaries of such behavior.  John also points to the second coming of Jesus in 2John 1:7.

It takes discernment to know when to be all things to all people as Paul espouses.  Take using Christianese for example in our dialogue.  If not careful, anyone with familiarity or expertise in a chosen field can communicate in its given vocabulary (or acronyms) making it off-putting and sound as if holier (or smarter) than thou. Jargon risks alienating people.  There is a fine line between incorporating Christianese in everyday conversation or to speak in a way that is not inclusive enough for understanding. Conversely, we are vulnerable in dummying down our rhetoric by not using the proper words and titles for things of a Christian nature or of the church.

One of the current Christian words taken to the extreme is blessed or blessing.  Unfortunately, it is being used in such a way that it comes across as boasting or bragging yet under the auspices of being humble.   It oozes the nuance of modesty.  I use the word blessing often in this book to convey an idea, but I seldom use it verbally in conversations.  The use of the word verbally comes from the fringes of prosperity gospel teaching.

Another way it is used is in response to “How is work?” or “How are you?” even when you do not feel blest.  As if it’s an unspoken requirement for you to live up to some image even though times may be difficult.  When Christianese (jargon) is used in conversation, it is at risk.  Any calling or profession can use abstract language (the military does for example) which distracts the communication to outsiders with its use.  This is also so, particularly with theological jargon. The conversation can get lost in translation.

One of my kids would answer in response to an expressed sympathy or concern over something is by replying emphatically, “It is all good.”  It is his way of saying all things work together for His good (Rom. 8:28). When he says that, I know he is saying a prayer.  It’s not passive aggressiveness as it can be misconstrued, but it means you may not like something but it will work out in the end.

My bigger than average family that I raised was fortunate to live in a larger, historic home for the majority of our lives (with all the cold drafts, poor plumbing and need of upgrades).  One child asked me if we were rich after one of their peers said we based on the child’s assessment of the house size.  I told them we were not, but that we were blest (Luke 12:47-48).   I do not think he repeated that to his friend, but hopefully, he understood what I meant about being blessed to be a blessing.

In this scenario in 1John, the setting is a house meeting.  In our homes, we should be able to choose who we welcome, trusting that they will respect the aesthetic, ambiance and atmosphere we create in our domestic sanctums.

Once when helping host a neighborhood Memorial Day celebration at a friend’s house, a disturbing incident happened by a neighbor who attended.  The man, in all his chutzbah, kept shouting “Happy Dead Soldier Day! Happy Dead Soldier Day!”  I, to say the least, took offense by his insensitive exclamation then being shocked into submission by his caustic outburst.  I was dumbstruck to find a response. I am ashamed to this day of my lack of reply particularly considering the veterans in my family who died on active duty.  This neighbor seemed happier about soldiers being dead than remembering our soldiers who died in service to our country.

That incident reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from the story The Wizard of Oz: “Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?”   I retell myself that people who are hurting, hurt others. In retrospect and fairness,  I think he was high from marijuana  before he came to the party and as  Al-Anon (a support system for families and friends of alcoholics in recovery)  says, “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.”

In revisiting Hebrews 13:2, it is a verse I take to heart when inviting someone into my home.   I regret not doing more hospitality earlier in my life (inviting people over spontaneously for meals, or helping a wayward teenage friend of one of my kids for a few nights).  In our family home everyone’s voice counted, and if one dictated their dislike and uncomfortability, or felt an invasion of their privacy in the case of a sleepover, we did not extend the invitation. I must admit it started to get a little too inclusive when I wanted to bring together and socialize with people from different circles of our life at one gathering instead of a controlled situation of just the church crowd, or just the office colleagues.   Now there is only one vote in my house (mine), and I welcome others, depending on the need, who do not necessarily fit in my circle.

It is good to try to treat family like friends and treat friends like family. It is disheartening when you can guess who is related and who is not by the way family publicly talk to each other without concern or care.  It seems like are we nicer to strangers than relatives. Jane Austen, from her book Pride and Prejudice, could interject a phrase here: “Is not general incivility the very essence of love?”

In John’s last letter (the shortest one of the New Testament), his character and integrity continue to pour out to the people.  He now comes across to me as a gentle, sensitive old soul;  indicative of why he was the disciple whom Jesus loved.

John’s topic is still on hospitality and explains what can happen when it is taken to another extreme.  The venue now switches back to the church at large.  A leader abused his role by dominating situations where selective visitors weren’t welcome if they didn’t adhere to the leadership’s opinion.  There was no room for a different style, no safe place to agree to disagree.  We go from an open invitation for all to come and discover the good news to only allowing a select few who already comply.

There are two contrasting characters in this letter, one who offers hospitality and the other who does not do it in a manner that honors God (3Jn. 1:6).

Although I have not ever been personally associated with a heavy-handed pastoral leader like in the third letter of John but does not mean they are not out there.  The church, at large, works well when they have intervention policies to help leaders through this kind of behavior.  Sometimes it is necessary for a leader to step down from their position.  John does not state an opinion on the rejected hospitality to itinerant gospel preachers in this situation, leaving it open with an intention to a future meeting with the church to resolve.  History shows John’s next assignment was not of his choice, but instead, he is banished into exile by the Romans to the island of Patmos.

A family member lived through such a trying time in her church when leadership was forced to change.  She was edifying of, inspired by and loved the worship message given by this departing pastor.  It became unfortunate when it became public knowledge that the pastor was engaging in compromising behavior that undermined his integrity, reputation, his family, and the ministry at large.  In time, he was asked to leave the church he had founded.  The congregation was at a crossroads on whether the ministry would continue or not without him.  His ordeal was fodder ravished by the press.  Predictably when a pastor leaves, usually, there is a fallout of parishioners who elect to leave as well.  In talking it over with the family member, I wondered out loud if those leaving the church was because the pastor left or because the members were more driven by a dynamic human personality versus the Holy Spirit (1Cor. 1:10-18)?   The good news is this church is still going strong, with new leadership and is as large, if not more so as dynamic as ever.  They handled the situation better than most.  The former pastor has since gone on to plant another church and is leading it.

Because of our independence, we are sorely tempted by our own sinful nature, letting it dictate our lives (Rom. 8: 15-20). The battle’s success in one area doesn’t mean failure in another. It just means to allow Christ, rather than our whims and small desires, to shape us which is an enormous challenge.   Sin is so woven into the fabric of our souls, it’s a lifetime to sometimes identify it and then a lifetime of effort to root it out says Mark Galli in his book  Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals. It’s in our very weaknesses that we have the need to steep ourselves ever more deeply into the scripture, fellowship, accountability, and prayer.  Contradiction in our life that is overcome shows the glory of His ideas and how absolutely necessary they are.  Many pastors preach to themselves in their sermons (or to the choir as I say) just as in this memoir I am also writing to myself.

This fodder of the previous incident inspired a book by another pastor, Michael Cheshire, entitled Why We Eat Our Own. The catalyst for the theme was in response to the self-righteousness and pious public responses from other church leaders or those who proclaimed to be Christian not to mention secular society.  He points out the internal struggle of the issue of Christians behaving badly toward other Christians.  We, who are supposed to be worshipping a God of love and forgiveness (Lk. 17:3-4).  Cheshire explores the unsavory questions of why do believers do a better job of forgiving the fallen than those who fall in the  Church?  When did the Church become cannibalistic?  Is the decline in Christianity due to the world, or have we just become so horrible to each other in our fellowship?  And oh, by the way, the world notices how we treat our own.  In fairness to the church body’s ruling, when church leadership assumes a role, they are familiar that they called to live at a higher level, yet in humility.

The answers to these questions are compelling and can ultimately point to whether we are conducting ourselves worthy as witnesses for God.  It is sad to think that the unchurched are watching us, thinking about our message of love contrasted with the lack of forgiveness shown in the public comments of one another in the church (2Cor. 2:5-11).  Privately, there are those who walk away from their faith because of a disagreement or insensitive criticism from another in the church. The unchurched watching, wonder about this disconnect in the message of the church and consequently question if they should participate in a fellowship if this is the outcome when a sin is committed. It is not the forgiveness that they read about in the Bible.  I am not condoning the sin except to say for the grace of God we all are fallible.  Believers and those in leadership are held to a higher standard but still can fall short.

Richard Niebuhr is a Christian ethicist whose concern was the way in which humans relate to God, each other, community, and the world.  His message is the idea of Christ transforming culture.  Today, if the church is to be “marketed” to spiritual seekers under the age of forty, this will be the strongest selling point.  If people fill pews, it will not be because we are offering what they can get anywhere else.  Church competes for the heart and minds of people.  I do not agree with the thought of marketing a church.  That’s at the risk of leaving God out of the formula.  In the best scenario, outsiders are attracted to church by a reputation preceding the example.

There is a tradition in recovery communities such as Alcoholics Anonymous (is not church a community for recovery from ourselves?) through which their program grows: by “attraction, not promotion.”

 

Chapter 48 in a Series

hebrewswood_webbanner

God only knows! It’s true. Take the book of Hebrews.  This letter takes on the task of explaining faith.

The date of this writing is somewhere around AD 67-69 during the onset of the Christian persecution under Nero ’s madness before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.  Scholars do not agree who wrote it.  It is commonly thought as being in the autograph of  Paul, but the writing style (higher Greek) isn’t one he usually wrote.  Other considerations of who the inspired authorship extends to his circle, to either Barnabas, Apollo (who was mentored by Priscilla and her husband, Aquila) and even Priscilla.   A female author is feasible (she could have written in the masculine tones) because in that era it would not have been considered to be put in canon if it were so. It’s the only book in the NT without an overwhelming consensus of who wrote it.  God only knows!

The author of Hebrews was most certainly a Jewish Christian who knew their audience.  He was not unsympathetic to the Jewish Christian thought process and knew they were possibly contemplating returning to Judaism for fear of persecution that was befalling onto the new Christians. It’s been noted that this letter reads more like a sermon, perhaps is an oral presentation that was recorded for others to read in their churches and house meetings.  Making a commitment or declaration of belief about Jesus the first century was more than a faith statement, it would mean a matter of life or death.

There is a lot of reference in Hebrews to the book of Leviticus’s sacrificial system. This letter is written to a Hebrew audience who fall into one of the following three camps:  the Jewish Christian believers, unbelievers who were only intellectually convinced and the unbelievers that were attracted to Jesus, heard the message but still lack total conviction (chapter 9).  Enough time has now passed that it was a second or third generation since Jesus who heard the Christ-event message.  It was customary for their Christian introduction and edification to start slowly, like a babe receiving liquid (milk) first and not meat (Heb. 5:12) for their spiritual nourishment in the first steps of their faith walk.  Hebrews 9:28 is a reminder of Jesus’s return with another verse further down the address list, Hebrews 10:24-25, saying, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love  and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

The writer of Hebrews admonishes the Jewish Christians not to turn away from their only hope of salvation. One scholar surmises that the letter was written by a Hebrew to other Hebrews telling the Hebrews to stop acting like Hebrews. The never-ending sacrificial system in the OT was inadequate.  Hence Jesus, the final sacrificial lamb, is the culminating and superior atonement for all who accept him in faith.  The new covenant about Jesus is the “superior” way (Heb. 8:6). I don’t diminish the Old Testament as it is our Christian heritage, and it leads to the new covenant.   It is part of the progression in preparation for Jesus Christ.

For the Jew, Abraham revealed the nation for a Messiah. Through Jacob, the tribe of the Messiah is depicted.  Through David and Isaiah, we see the family of the Messiah. Micah tells us the town where He would be born. Daniel tells of the coming of Jesus. Malachi tells of a forerunner to precede the Messiah. In Jonah, His resurrection was symbolized in the three days. Every one of those parts plus more from each book of the Bible come together to point to Jesus Christ (Col. 2:9-10). The Bible is a circular story, woven into a divine tapestry.  Or perhaps another metaphor is Jesus can be seen through the spiritual kaleidoscope viewfinder of complex mirrors, shapes, event, and circumstances.

It was extremely difficult for the Jews to accept the superiority of the new covenant, over the old, which can be true for all of us when it comes to transitions.  Once as the butt of a joke, I was told a lie.  It was innocent enough of a falsehood that even when I figured out it was a joke, I keep reverting back to it as if it was a truth.  I so believed the tease that it was part of my reference to whom this person was.  I was surprised how often I had to intentionally remind myself and reverse my train of thought, remembering it was a false prank.  The Old Testament is not a joke or a lie; however, I share this antidote to give a minor comparison to the concept of wholeheartedly believing something and then to discover a new revelation that shines a light on it,  takes faith to adjust the new belief.

The Gospel is a new build on an old idea.  Some think the gentiles don’t’ have the problem of previous teachings because they had never been a part of the old Jewish ways.   It needs reminding that most of the New Testament authors were Jewish, to begin with, so that is the backstory to it, giving context and richness to the message of Christ.   Repeatedly the Bible shows the Israelites had lost the knowledge of the true God often enough, an example of what all of humanity does.  They resorted to worshipping idols. Their idols may have been statues, but people are still people, and today idols can be found or made by titles, by the status of income, or whatever occupies the heart.  Today, how we spend personal finances and a look at our planning calendar is a good indicator where our heart is, what is important to us.

What is faith?  Martin Luther King, Jr., said: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” St. Mother Teresa said to be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.  We only need faith the size of a mustard seed (Matt. 17:20) so says Jesus. “ Faith makes all things possible…love makes all things easy” says Dwight L. Moody.”

“Faith does not eliminate questions. But faith knows where to take them” says Elisabeth Elliot. One definition of faith is “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. In this chapter  (Heb. 11) is where the entrance in Hebrews is to Faith’s Hall of Fame with the listing of names of the Old Testament faithful.

I think about the faith of the patriarchs which seems almost unfathomable at times.  They saw God’s miracles.  Musician Peter Mayer challenges in his sacred creation song Holy Now, not to look for miracles but try and finding where there isn’t one.

However, the Old Testament endless sacrificial system could never make them holy or good enough to enter into God’s presence.  For current-day believers, we don’t shine in much of a better light of having to repeatedly confess our sins (sometimes the same ones which were forgiven in our first confession) or to trust in God’s process.  Maybe it’s because we have gotten used to the immediacy of obtaining our desires thanks to technology and medicine today that if God’s answer to our prayers is not as instantaneous, we waver, believing it did not or will not happen.

One of the overwhelming blessings of knowing and trusting Jesus is that he is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). In this letter, the intended audience is beyond the second generation of Christians.   Like them, none of us have seen Jesus. Like them, we believe in Him (1Pt. 1:8). It’s an organic living hope for and in us.

Is there anything God can’t do?  Reading the Sacred Scrolls shows God’s long-suffering and patience never tires out (Isa. 40:28) when working with man.  God cannot be contrary to His own character and nature.  Go back to Titus 1:2, where it says He cannot lie.  He cannot sin because He is holy (cf. Isa. 6:3; 1Pt. 1:16). He cannot overlook sin because He is just. Christ paid the penalty for sin; He is now able to forgive those who will turn to Him (cf. Isa. 53:1-12; Rom. 3:26). God is unchanging, eternal, unlimited, majestic, in all knowledge of wisdom, love, and mercy.  When life spins out of control, that is of great comfort to know.

I do not have the kind of faith that some have to be their own person without God.  I can only go so far before I quickly come to the end of myself, to my limitations.  But with God, I can go further, and the future becomes limitless.  It has taken me awhile to quit trying to always steer my story or to not take the steering wheel from God.  When I sit on the passenger side and go where God, the master pilot or driver takes me, I find the adventure exceeds my expectations.   Life becomes more extraordinary in its ordinary when seen through the eyes of the Bible.

 

Chapter 47 in a Series

philemonPaul envisioned Christianity as totally transforming not only for the individual but in social structures (like slavery). This message of reconciliation depicted on the cross of Christ is found in this letter to Philemon by presenting an encouraging story.  The letter is not unlike the stories with a similar message found in the books of Ruth or Esther.  Philemon shows an even more intimate side of God towards personal matters.  It is an example of how a thoroughgoing God (and in turn through Paul) makes himself small enough for the intimate details of our lives.

This letter (Paul’s shortest one) does not specifically mention Jesus’s second coming.  Like the books of Esther and the Song of Songs that do not mention God, the advent of Jesus, however, is in the background.  It’s a story about a slave, Onesimus, who appears to have run away from his master, then has second thoughts.  Paul acts as a mediator, interceding for the slave, and asks the Philemon to take the slave back without punishment and accept him as a brother in Christ.  It reminds me of humankind trying to run from our true Lord and Master.  Jesus intercedes for us and paid the price (like Paul who offers to repay the slave’s master [Phlm. 1:18-19]).

“Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Phlm. 1:16) and “He was parted from you for a while that you might have him back forever” (Phlm. 1:15) are verses with an undercurrent of meaning about Jesus.  He is the bondservant of mankind, who Jesus incarnate was and will be again upon His return.

In this letter, Philemon can be described as probably being converted under Paul’s teachings.  He lived in the nearby city of Colossae and the letter was written about the same time as the letter to the Colossians. It serves as part of the defense (the apologetic) against how the Bible views slavery.  Slavery in the context of biblical times was never as harsh as it was during the Civil War era.   There was also the mandate of the seven-year remission of slavery found in Exodus 21:2 that gave relief.

One interpretation of the last of the prison letters is that Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus escaped from his master/owner and traveled to Rome from Colossae. It does not say how or explains the circumstances of the meet up with Paul.  Paul was instrumental, “in the midwiving the birth of these souls, Onesimus and Philemon (echoing poet John O’Donahue’s beautiful words) for Christ. This conversion of faith was so powerful that it gave Onesimus courage to carry a personal letter back to his master.  Runaway slaves were to be dealt with punishment if not the death sentence.  Paul implored Philemon to honor and foster the kindness and forgiveness principles of faith to his slave and accept him in a brotherly kinship.   Paul implored Philemon in his letter to forgive Onesimus’s of his slave debt and treat him as a brother in Christ. Both men were gently encouraged in their Christian relationship toward one another. Philemon receives him back and sets him free.  Onesimus’s name means “useful”.

That’s not the last we hear of Onesimus in the NT.  He is referenced in Colossians 4:9. And historical records show a Saint Onesimus.  It seems like after his emancipation he went back to serve Paul and then, after Paul’s death, served the other apostles.  A Bishops list that follows the line of leaders of the Ephesus church, shows Onesimus’s name right after Timothy’s.  Onesimus became the Bishop of this church.  His is a beautiful story of restoration from slave to a bishop that can only happen through God’s economy.

The words of this letter demonstrate the life-changing power of the Gospel in just one of many social conditions of society.  It is how relationships can change for the good. In other eras, there have been similar examples of slaves being freed (through manumission), some chose to stay and continue to serve their former masters.

This letter is an interesting play on the words enslaved and imprisoned by comparing them to sin and forgiveness, not just for Philemon but for Onesimus and Paul as well.

Theologian Lewis Smedes writes, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”  That portion of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:14-15) to forgive those who hurt or treated me unfairly (trespasses) as God forgives me of mine is a reminder of the state of our heart.

I think about those I try to forgive for conning, scamming, gaslighting, stealing or telling lies to me.  It is easy to say I forgive someone, but it still takes time to get through the forgetting part.  I have had encounters with specifically three people who left invisible but indelible marks on me by the show of their sociopath mrks.  I faced the grim reality of being spammed, had money stolen from me or intentionally mislead to a dashed career promise (after leaving the previous job). With a one, I had hoped their disingenuous behavior was left in the past but in the end it wasn’t.    I do not use the word sociopath flippantly.  Sociopaths (different from psychopaths who tend to be more physically dangerous) are people who chose to live their life in such a way that they superficially appear as high functioning in society. It is a personality disorder manifesting in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior lacking conscience, remorse, empathy or guilt.  Sociopaths often continue repeatedly in their antisocial way of doing life,  always a few steps ahead of their prey.

I cannot help but reflect on that line from Shakespeare’s play Richard III when I think of these kinds of people wondering why they chose their path to hurt others.  Richard justified his cruel actions by saying, “Since I can’t amuse myself by being a lover (his deformity was something that others thought so repulsive that he never found a mate), I’ve decided to become a villain.”

My initial desired response, when victimized by this behavior, is to strike back in kind to that person, but better judgment overrules me.  Vindictiveness takes too much out of me.  Instead, I leave the vengeance in God’s hands that He deems needs to be done.  When I ruminate on it too long, I pray for them.  Reflecting on his horrendous holocaust experiences, Austrian neurologist an psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (author of Man’s Search for Meaning ca 1946) recalled, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”.

While being part of the Stephen Ministers group, a tragedy occurred.  The leader of that group (who initiated it) performed a good valuable service by offering this type of ministry for the church.   One day we received the tragic news of the leader’s suicide.   The group was dumbfounded and remorseful that here we were trained to watch for the signs of mental duress when working with people in crisis, and did not see this coming.  Suicide has a lingering false stigma of being the unforgivable sin thought in days gone by. It’s not. It was thought so because there is no opportunity to repent of this sin after a person commits it. The stigma was such that for a period of time, suicides were buried separately from others in the graveyard.  The only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

During the funeral, Pastor explained that God knew our friend’s heart, and He also knows that mental illness can cloud a person’s judgment so much that they are not fully responsible for their actions.  King Saul suffered mental illness.  Remember how he initially hid when he was about to be anointed (1Sam. 10:22) king? That should have been a foreshadowing of his insecurity and its future impact on his reign as King.  He went in and out of madness, but he had his moments of lucidness.  Did God make a poor first choice for the king?  No, He would have equipped Saul for what needed to be done. Saul instead listened to his demons.

When David had the opportunity to kill  King Saul who was pursuing him to destroy, he didn’t succumb to the urge.  Saul said,

“Is this your voice, my son David?” Then Saul lifted his voice and wept.  He said to David, “You are more righteous than I,” he said. “You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly. You have just now told me about the good you did to me; the Lord delivered me into your hands, but you did not kill me. When a man finds his enemy, does he let him get away unharmed? May the Lord reward you well for the way you treated me today. I know that you will surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hands.  Now swear to me by the Lord that you will not kill off my descendants or wipe out my name from my father’s family.” (1Sam. 24:17-22)

The concept of forgiving is nice to contemplate, but in practice, it’s a different story. I can more readily forgive on the grounds of mental illness when there is no other explanation nor repentance.  Once in confidence, a teaching colleague and I discussed working with a volunteer who would make outlandish demands and would misconstrue situations (the context of this was money raised at a fundraiser [partly through her efforts] that she considered hers to direct to a chosen ministry versus the predetermined stated cause).  The teacher then shared that she and her husband, the principal, observed this woman when she was a student in school with similar outbursts arose.  Over time it became more and more apparent that the student’s family were at her side frequently when she worked in a public setting to help smooth things through.  I could not deny the woman was not a hard worker and very creative.  Once I understand the behavior, that I had formed the wrong opinion. I took the judgment back as was the case with this woman.

I read somewhere about a person forgiving someone yet at the same time still being able to see through them.  I observe in precaution to not continually make myself vulnerable for more of the same offense from same offenders.  My survival instincts tell me to not get too close to my known tormentors.  I guess I am better now at recognizing my enemy. The act of forgiveness does not deny that a wrong has taken place. At times, I have told people I forgive them even when I didn’t feel it.  I did it to lay the groundwork and start the ball rolling to that end.

Chapter 46 in a Series

titusThe letter to Titus, another personal convert Paul was close with, was written after 1Timothy, and in between Paul’s last imprisonments.  Like most of us, Titus was a Gentile who was accepted by God through his faith in Jesus Christ.  His association was similar to that of Paul’s Gentile colleague Luke, except Titus is seen as a spiritual son “after the common faith” (Tts. 1:4). Paul, not only he discipled  Titus but coached and trained. Titus probably at times served as a scribe secretary for Paul what with the former’s proficiency in homeland language of Greek, in addition, his roles in churches.

An analogy to each New Testament sightings of Jesus’s second coming is the comparison of each to a pendulum mechanism of a clock.  This pendulum swing is between the Jesus sightings found in the shared testaments of the Bible.  Each a reminder or foretelling that brings us one tick closer to the final event of His will.  Titus 2:13-14 explicitly is about the deity of Jesus, a blessed hope “to purify for Himself a people that are His very own, eager to do what is good.”

Both Titus and Timothy were Paul’s protégés then successors in churches. The words in these chapters are Paul’s final ones, his last labors of love for the growing new church and their leaders before his martyr’s death.  It provides a message of a higher standard of living in a world.

Titus is mentioned thirteen times throughout the NT but not always by name (Acts 15:1-2).  It’s to be noted,  voluntarily Timothy was circumcised later in his life according to Jewish tradition yet Titus was not.  The point of a topic (Gal. 2:3-5) that Paul addresses may seem an inconsistency by him about the two men.  It is explained in this context: Timothy’s family was part Jewish and Titus’s was a gentile.   Timothy being circumcised was in compliance with the law so that the mission strategy of his would be accepted by his audience (1Cor. 9:20-23).

Titus was a man developed to be a troubleshooter.  He was grounded in his faith,  giving him his authority.  Titus’s final assignment from Paul was to the church that the latter launched on the island of Crete.

A keyword that jumps out in this letter when considering it is the “island” of Crete.  Crete could be the study in John Donne‘s circa 1624 poem, “No man is an island entire to itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.”  We, all individual living beings, are part of a greater whole, part of the same divine plan whether we live on an island isolated from the mainland or not.  If someone’s motivation is to be civic-minded, part of the whole implies seeing yourself as providing good works for others.  It should be entered into as an expression of spiritual devotion to living up to divine standards.  Not vice versa.  Everything we do influences another person or event. Our actions can have continuing and far-reaching effects either for good or evil,  St. Mother Teresa said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

The letter’s instruction to Titus is to help and inform people of Crete about godly living within social groupings, not just in church.  The Islanders had a mindset that it did not matter how they behaved.  It had no impact on the outside world.  Their world was surrounded by water, separating them from the mainland, thereby creating for some a perceived kind of isolation and insulation.  We have all seen people who claim to know God but their actions deny Him (Tts. 1:16). Paul evokes the essentials of right living because Christ “gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed,” saving us “by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Tts. 2:14, 3:5).

The church is an organization, and hopefully a sanctuary, in a fallen world, so the onus is on them to measure everything against God’s Word.  How?  One way is found in the passage where Paul specifically instructs older women to have the same goal of Christian respectability as he gives to the men. The positive quality of “teaching good things” tells the more mature women to model living in an acceptable and respectable life for the younger women to see (Tts. 2:3-5).  A person’s life can teach and set an example, either for good or bad.  On the island of Crete, good behavior was lacking.

What happens when we do good within the context of society?  Is that good enough?  Titus offers seven things to do to separate from that trap:  be submissive to rulers and authorities, be obedient, be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people (Tts. 3:1-5). Those things are easy to skim over when reading, but by rereading them, trying to comply with them, much of life’s ills could be avoided.

Titus chapter two offers instruction to the different groups in the church and how they are to lift one another up.  I am grateful and fortunate to have associated with “Titus Two” women who were there to fill a spiritual leadership void in my life and enabled me with their wisdom in different seasons of my life.  I never had a formal mentoring or eldering arrangement per se or professional coaching arrangement, yet informally these women spiritually nurtured me, spoke wisdom into my life, and said what I needed to hear and learn.

Coretta Scott King said, “Women, if the soul of the nation is to be saved, I believe that you must become its soul.”  I wouldn’t trade the contribution my intuitive nurturing spirit can make in the world for anything.  I believe it is one of the greatest strengths God gives us.   William Ross Wallace (1819-1881) wrote the poem The Hand that Rocks the Cradle is the Hand that Rules the World.  For me, there really is no greater sense of obligation or duty than the privilege of raising a child into an adult who makes a contribution to society and to use what nurturing ability I have (through teaching, writing, serving others) to make a broader contribution.

The first woman who unbeknownst to her modeled and exemplified the beauty, graciousness, and humor of a godly woman and was an entrepreneur in her own business. By her example, she taught me about character and integrity.  We had discussions about ways to work with people and business from a biblical standpoint.  Then there was the minister’s wife (whose idea was the impetus for this book) whose words I soaked up like a sponge when she spoke to me about motherhood, her role as a wife, and how to look plan and look forward in life when the empty nest came. She gave me a lot to think about.  When we returned stateside after living in Korea I picked up the first edition of The Wisdom of Menopause by Christiane Northrup, wondering what to expect in my future.  Northrup is very upbeat about postmenopausal women and their accomplishments. She helps destroyed the myths about this stage of life.  One of the things she wrote was that midlife is designed to help us burst through to the upper limits of the first half of our life. You have to conceive first before giving birth.  That birth can be about babies but it also can mean the conception of new ideas for myself to do something outside the family unit,  in God’s kingdom on earth. The number of women who did and do outstanding things after the age of fifty is revealing.  To be blunt, the main focus and energy of a woman’s body to procreate is replaced with the discovery of a new opportunity to focus upon: what she can do with her mind.  The brain catches fire after menopause to quote the chapter title out of the book mentioned. The years of being able to conceive birth to babies are over yet now I can birth other ideas and things in life.  An older southern gentleman from a couple we sought advice said that once the children left the nest that it was “my turn, my time”, after years of supporting others and that I was to be encouraged to do those things I always wanted to do but had put aside. That was certainly a forthtelling of the new now I live in, although not how I originally thought.  I have learned that one of my greatest faults when encouraging others is that I would minimize the importance of what was true for me, for my sake, while in relationships.  Don’t get me wrong, there is a time to die to self (like when meeting the demands of child-rearing) but later there is a time for more.

Another mentor was the first female supervisor I worked for, who encouraged me to further myself and finish my post-secondary education. She opened a window for me to help me understand others, what made them tick in their given personality, and how I could work better with people.

A more recent mentor, one closer to my age, exemplified how to survive regardless of what life throws at you by her living example and words.  She does it in a graceful, unique style in the consistent way she lives her life in her job, her avocation in ministry and life endeavors with her dogged faith present through it all.  She was and is someone who expressly built me back up when I felt lost, defeated, self-sabotaged myself at times or felt sorry for myself. She helped me to believe in myself again.

While walking alongside these ladies, I saw them struggle with the messiness of their life within their families and professions.  I watched their navigational ways through a divorce, mental illness, death, blended families,  homesickness, behavior in the public eye, and the Christian approach to the dynamics of working outside the church (as well as in) and how to (in balance) put a person needs ahead of the job demands.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that my pastor mentored me spiritually both as an academic advisor and personal shepherd.

By extension, there have been two women who I observed as they mentored my girls.  Both were teachers causing me to remember the two or three teachers that were instrumental in my life, there for me at critical times.  For my girls, one teacher/coach hosted an independent Bible study for girls that were her high school students (showing me the benefits of being present in a young person’s life), and the other was a nationally ranked high school coach (multiple times) who showed me how to be an advocate for youth through her tough love  and encouragement.

That works out to having a mentor about every six years of my adult life, although with some overlap.  Now I have a couple of advocates I go to for advice to help me with the movement from where I am (here), to where I want to be (there).  Some of which are mentioned above.  Like parenting, I don’t think you ever really needing the mentoring mentee relationship.  I may not be where I want to be but I’m, thankfully, not where I was before.


 

 

Chapter 45 in a Series

the-pastoral-epistlesFrom the prison letters, we go to Paul’s Pastoral ones. Timothy was left at the Ephesus church when challenges on the leadership infrastructure took some dings.   Paul wrote these letters in between imprisonments.  2Timothy is considered one of Paul’s last letters.

 

Paul met his protégé, Timothy, during the former first missionary journey to the city of Lystra. As a young man, Timothy’s reputation preceded him as far as the city of Iconium, two travel days away from where he lived. He mentions Timothy more in his letters than any of his other companions. Despite Timothy’s youthful age, Paul gave him some challenging assignments.  He left Timothy in Berea to support a new church plant; he sent him to Athens; then assigned him to Thessalonica, and before going to Corinth. Later, Timothy became the pastor of the church in Ephesus, arguably the world’s first megachurch of its time.

Timothy was introduced on Paul’s second missionary journey in 1Timothy with this being recorded for canon fourteen years later after the sojourn.  Scholars estimate Timothy was sixteen years old when Paul first meet him.  At the time Paul wrote this letter, Timothy would be at least thirty years old.

Prior to meeting Paul, Timothy read all the Holy writings he could get his hands on, encouraged by the examples of his mother and grandmother.  Timothy’s father was a Gentile, his mother, Eunice, a Jewess. She and his grandmother, Lois, embraced Christianity.  Paul commended their faith and saw that Timothy had made the Holy Scriptures his study since his infancy creating a fervent thirst for God’sWord.  Paul noted the young man’s virtue, and then later, made ample amends for him because of the want of others for someone more mature  for ministry.  Paul asked him to accompany him during his travels in the mission field. Timothy’s presence served a purpose and perhaps a need for Paul as their friendship arrived on the heels of a temporary split with his close friend and partner in ministry, Barnabas.  Paul was more than just a mentor and leader to Timothy, he was a father figure to him. Timothy was Paul’s son through faith.

Timothy’s character exemplifies the type of leadership that is beyond reproach.  It fit the criteria of having only one spouse, being temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, and able to teach.  Church leaders were instructed to not give in to bouts of drunkenness, or be violent, but instead be gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money.  He must manage his household well.   The prohibition in 1Timothy 2:12 about the women of the Ephesus church is a contextual guideline addressing a specific situation.

Most of religious affiliations with denominations do not permit women to preach from the pulpit nor to be an overseer of the pastor.  However, women can be Bible teachers.  The Bible speaks a lot to the roles of man and woman which should not be confused with equality in scripture (1Tim. 2:4, 4:10).

I don’t get too hung up on this gender mandate (complementarianism versus or equalitarianism) as there are plenty of other opportunities for women to serve in the church.  Quite frankly I find more constants on being a divorcee versus a woman serving in church.  There is a caveat within churches of religious institutions. In addition to some higher governing body guidelines; the church’s organization is ultimately left to be run by the local pastor and congregation allowing opportunities for women to fill.   Female leaders are held accountable to the same guidelines of leadership as the men.

I resonate more with equity versus equality.  Treating everyone exactly the same actually is not fair. What equal treatment does is erase our differences and promote privilege.  When we say equity (or justice), we refer to the qualities of justness, fairness, impartiality, and even-handedness. When we talk about equality, we are saying equal sharing and exact division. Equality assumes everyone is the same, has the same abilities/talents, and the same history.  Justice doesn’t. Justice is about making appropriations towards fairness even in light of past inequality.

The latter part of this letter is an intimate one to Timothy.  It encouraged and reminded him to use his spiritual gifts, to be an example of consistent faith and to be beyond blame.  Paul recommended he develop a thick skin against criticism, maintain a clear purpose and to fight the good fight.  Timothy’s youthful energy and vigor no doubt served him well. However, it also caused some older Christians to be uncomfortable with the leadership of such a young man due to his perceived lack of knowledge and experience.

I have a special empathy for Timothy.  He faced an ageism bias in ministry because of his youth. I relate facing it on the other end of the age spectrum particularly as I try to enter into a new workplace.

In the progress of time, potential supervisors are now younger than me, and I cannot help but think part of their decision not to employ the older is they do not want to hire someone as old as their mothers.  My life direction never permitted me tenure at one place for a long time.  Also, the opinion of not being able to teach an old dog new tricks may linger in a younger person’s mind about working with someone older.  Ironically when I was young, the pushback I received was for lack of a college degree and/or professional experience.  Now that the justification for not being hired is I am overqualified.  The paradox is there are older people who feel unneeded, younger ones who feel lost. The two longing souls never seem to meet, not just in the professional environment but in ministry (cf. Job 12:12, Jer. 1:7).

Timothy was not an ideal Christian; he was not without faults.  He had his share of social, psychological and health problems (1Tim. 5:23). Paul told him (another exhortation for leaders today) to take care of himself. Still, he served Christ through his sensitivity and concern for others and his optimistic outlook on duty and life.  He didn’t look for excuses not to serve when the messiness of opinions, marginalizing or being disenfranchised in life.  But Paul was aware it happens and encouraged him.

A firsthand experience on the reasoning behind the guidelines put in place came before I felt the stigma of divorce in church work.  While actively involved for over seven years with an international renowned Bible study group, the senior leader went through a divorce.  For this large of an organization to run smoothly and efficiently, it was determined the head leadership position could not be served by a divorcee.  She had to step down.  Those of us (whom she trained and guided through Bible study curriculum on a weekly basis before we facilitated in leading our assigned smaller groups) quietly struggled with this guideline.  We had known of the guideline before we volunteered to teach.  The leader leaving was the catalyst who fifteen years earlier prayerfully began a Bible study of this kind to the region and it grew into five more sites for this the area.  This leader ministered to three hundred women weekly for nine months out of the year.

While a new leader was being sought out, I had some one-on-one time with the departing one.  In retrospect, I do not know what I was thinking or how I could have been so insensitive to her situation, but I shared something that had happened in my marriage with the story’s ending of reconciliation because of a confession,  and a promise of repentance.  Her response was direct in comment  She did not believe the repentance part and said he was lying.  I was so taken aback.  I feel sure she said that because of her personal situation.  One of the reasons for the organization’s guideline about a divorcee not in leadership was to prohibit just such response that is less in line with what God would have conveyed. I heard through the rumor mill that the organizational guideline has since been revoked.

Life circumstances can change temporarily undermining the effectiveness of sharing God’s Word.  If I had a preference, I would not want to be ministered on how to have a successful marriage by someone who did not achieve it. I would rather hear from those whose marriages endured.  Life is messy and unfair.  But at the transformational edges of uncomfortable change or suffering there is a beauty to come out of it, so says Irish priest, poet, and philosopher John O’Donahue.

About four years passed since Paul’s first letter to Timothy.   It was written in AD 67. Emperor Nero had been descending into madness since taking the throne in AD 54, probably culminating into full insanity by the time of the fire of Rome in AD 64 where history says he was responsible for the lit match that burned half the city.  Christians were scapegoats, blamed for the fire. Paul was caught up in this persecution and was beheaded (rather than crucified as was done to Peter during this same period) by Roman officials soon after writing this letter.  This correspondence is compared to being Paul’s last will and testament. He asked Timothy to come to him but that was not to be.

With that somber thought in mind, Paul echoed from his previous letter encouragement to Timothy to continue to “fight the good fight.”  Paul wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith ” (2Tim. 4:7).

The thought of Paul’s death overshadows my reading of this letter. I have hope for an afterlife (1Thes. 4:13-18), so death per se does not frighten me.  I see it like Quaker William Penn said: “It is no more than turning the page from time  to eternity.”  In all honesty, I look forward to heaven when considering the alternative of living out life in this secular world.  As in the words of  actor and producer Woody Allen:  “It’s not that I am afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  George MacDonald adds that philosophy is really homesickness.

Not until my mothers, had I ever witnessed a  person dying although I was familiar with death’s grief.   When Mom turned ninety years old, I began to try and prepare myself for her eventual demise.  As her advocate during the last years of her life, it would become emotionally difficult for me as it would for any child during this season of life. I planned for the worst, hoped for the best.

I relied on a trick I discovered when my daughter, at nine or ten years of age, first started performing in plays on stage.  After the rehearsal, the director would give verbal notes to the young cast.  If it were constructive criticism, he would call them by their character name.  If it were a positive acknowledgment for doing a performance specifically well, he would call them by their real name.  For me to be more stoic, less emotional, when making decisions on how to handle mother’s daily medical needs, it got so that I called her by her first name or by her initials (from a time  during the feminist movement we as kids  would refer to her that way) when discussing these things with the attending  nurses, doctors and social worker.  It was the degree of separation I needed to try and stay logical.  Of course, when I was with her personally, I always called Mom.  Closer to her death, I had gotten myself into such a state of isolation of care for her that I consciously prepared myself for the possibility of facing Mom’s sendoff by myself. I shored myself up for whatever experience of sorrow that could come my way.  I imagined the worst of scenarios. I did not have the financial resources to have children attend her memorial.  I instead needed the resources to pay for Mom’s end of life wishes.

Then an unexpected thing happened when mother died.  In retrospect, I can honestly say I ended up having the most beautiful closing memories from this period of my life.

Mother was put in hospice care and died fourteen days later in a nursing home.  I was present when she died as was my youngest who surprisingly came into town a couple of weeks earlier to support me.  We were cleaning out mother’s closet in her the day of her demise.  She laid in bed weak and incoherent.  While packing up the three small suitcases she had brought with her six years earlier, we got to the last suitcase to pack. It felt full when we lifted it with us groaning in dismay thinking about clothing still left to pack.  Upon opening it, the contents revealed a baby afghan woven in mint teal.  It was the exact color picked for the nursery being decorated and prepared by the visiting daughter for her upcoming first child.

I had never seen this baby afghan before when straightening up mother’s side of the room on previous visits.  I do not remember her crocheting it in these past six years while I was her sole advocate for care.  I had a few preciously held baby afghans I managed to sequestered over time, thinking they were the last of this legacy.  I do not remember this one when she came to live with me before entering the nursing home.  But here the blanket was an unexpected gift for the future grandchild of whom my mom was barely aware.  I had told her about the upcoming expectancy, hoping maybe this would give her something to look forward to, to hold on to, but she never asked or spoke of the pregnancy afterward. Mom pretty much lived in a world of her mind the last year of her life.

Also, Mom tried to crochet while in the nursing home, but her hands no longer could handle the intricate delicate task, and she would, in frustration, rip out sections to redo but then never finished them.   To me, those unfinished afghans with the holes left when she ripped out some imperfection she was unsatisfied with represented unresolved issues she had in life.  To say the least, my daughter and I were overwhelmed with the emotion of thanksgiving at the find and saw it as a gift from God, placed there by angels, through and by Mom’s hands.

The other kids rallied and came for Mother’s memorial.  It was an intimate service with most of the others attending not knowing mom except through me. Each child played a part in the service by reading of the eulogy, a separate poem and singing His Eyes Are on the Sparrow and Blessed Assurance.  Two extended female family members (from one of my children’s marriages) solidified my joy of the new relationships  God was creating around me.  The love I have for these bonus sisters magnified the day.  I had a distinct impression these two ladies present were filling the sad void in my heart from the absence of my birth sisters due to estrangement.

My other granddaughter, age eight at the time, stayed behind at home with her dad and brother. She helped her mother pack her suitcase for the out of state trip for the memorial.  She asked her mom what she would be wearing to the “coronation” for great-granny.  My daughter smiled and helped her understand the correct word was memorial.  When told the story, I thought of the verses of the five crowns (the everlasting, the rejoicing, the righteousness, the one of glory and of  eternal life) mentioned in the NT given to believers in heaven (cf. 1Cor. 9:24-25, 1Thes. 2:192Tim. 4:8, 1Pet. 5:4, Rev. 2:10).

Mother did not give me much input about her end of life wishes when she was cognizant much less what kind of service.   I recalled her wishes to be cremated.  I, later in the year she died, made an out of state trip to Texas to my brother’s and father’s burial sites to scatter some of her cremains.  Mom’s relationship with “the Lord” (she never referred to Him as God or Jesus as I did, correcting me on the proper use of His title) was from a different era of faith worship.  During her life, she stopped attending church.  I occasionally thought she had abandoned God.  I think we all walk away from God at times when life becomes too unbearable, unspeakable or confusing. However, God never abandons us.  An 1882 hymn read as a poem by my son at Mother’s memorial service was O Love that Wilt Not Let Me Go by George Matheson (the kind of love mentioned in the chapter on Hosea).

“O Love that wilt not let me go,

I rest my weary soul in thee;

I give thee back the life I owe,

That in thine ocean depths its flow

May richer, fuller be.

O Light that followest all my way,

I yield my flickering torch to thee;

My heart restores its borrowed ray,

That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day

May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,

I cannot close my heart to thee;

I trace the rainbow through the rain,

And feel the promise is not vain,

That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,

I dare not ask to fly from thee;

I lay in dust life’s glory dead,

And from the ground their blossoms red

Life that shall endless be.”

Many allude to the symmetry of the end of life and the beginning.  Sometimes leaving becomes arriving.  My prayer, based on the mentioned 1Thessalonian verse, is that Mom is reunited with Dad and her youngest son. My oldest sister joined her ten months later.

I am not lost on the fact that one of my favorite memories I have of Mom was during her death.   Somehow the things that transpired around her death filled my emotional cup.  A family is more than lineage or blood; it is also shared lived experiences that cannot be forsaken or forgotten.

Chapter 44 in a Series

12thessThe Thessalonian letters give more biblical messages and passages to recycle, reuse and repurpose for times such as these today. From the 136 verses out of these two letters,  comes more similar to those expressly used from the last chapter to add to my notes.  Specifically the following one, Paul wrote in 2Thessalonians 2:16-17, “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and God our Father, who has loved us and by His grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.”

The meaning of hope in English is easily misinterpreted as wishful thinking such as hoping it doesn’t rain tomorrow.  Biblical hope is not wishful thinking. It is part of the package of future assurance because of who God is.

The Thessalonians and Galatian epistles are the earliest letters Paul wrote to the first churches that were forming.  The Thessalonian church was located in a major commuting hub.  It was a great port city in Ancient times plus the Romans at the time had built an impressive road system (some of which can still be used today).  The highway traveled east to west and a few centuries later was called Via Egnatia.  Thanks to God for his perfect timing of all things, access to these traveling accommodations helped the Christian missionaries to spread the Word.

These early churches were patrons of support for other church plantings.   Paul was a bi-vocational minister as so many small church pastors are today are.  It is suggested he resourced himself by his tent making endeavors, using the donations from the churches for the startup of other churches.

A few months after he left, Paul writes to this young church to inspire them to continue, despite their persecution, emphasizing to them their faith, hope, and love that lie in their belief in Jesus and His second coming.

Paul’s had a ministry routine when he went into cities. He would first go to the synagogues to share the Gospel with the local Jews.  This usually would get him into trouble within a few weeks (twice back to back in two different cities) with riotous Jews running him out of town.

These letters are the most explicit of all the books and letters in the NT about teachings of the second coming of Jesus and warnings about the appearance of the antichrist.  The churches at the time were besieged in confusion by various interpretations being taught on whether Jesus had returned after His resurrection and if that was the second coming.  And because He did not appear to them, did they miss it?  Or is it still to happen in the future?  And what about those who have died before He comes back?  The Pauline letter helps to reconcile and acknowledges their struggle about an imminent return of Christ.  Paul points the new believers to Jesus’s second coming and what is the end reward for them. He doesn’t go into the apocalypse, but he begins the discussion.  It also helps with references that can be found in the book of Revelation. The thing about apocalypses of biblical proportions is they have happy endings…spoiler alert:  God wins in the end.

It has been said it is not the destination but the journey (either physically, mentally or spiritually) that is important.  I would add anticipation during the advent in getting to the destination is also motivating.  A scripture passage, 2Thess. 5:16-24, is often read during the beginning of the church yea’s Advent season which begins in late November or early December.  If the trip is long, with the opposition, it can get wearisome.

“Do as I say and not as I do” was an unfortunate expression used by a family member.  It’s not a recommended success statement to be repeated out loud. There could be another implied meaning though.  The “not as I do” can mean I chose not to do the right thing, or did the wrong thing and am having to live out the consequences, I know the outcome, so now do as I say and not as I do.  But there is no disguising when the action is done, yet you say not to do it.  The conflicting message is confusing and bewildering.

Gandhi said, “I like your Christ.  I don’t like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”  That probably can be said about someone in most religions.  I cannot help but see the spiritual disciplines of other people in their religions by how they carry themselves (like going to pray five times a day, postponing a career to do mission work for a couple of years or honoring food restrictions). These actions in and unto themselves do not make them more elite believers, but it does show a level of conviction.

A senior pastor’s wife shared a story about a conscious effort her husband makes to draw a line in the spiritual sand of just how far he would go to live out his conviction while in this world.

He doesn’t force this conviction on anyone he just quietly goes about it, letting it be a witness to Christ in his life.  Years ago, when the PG (Parental Guidance) rated movie ET, The Extra-Terrestrial came out, his children had gone to see it.  The movie is a feel-good, and his kids wanted to share their enjoyment of it with their parents.  But the kids knew their father didn’t attend movies that included profanity.  One word is used once at the beginning of this film.  His kids figured out the approximate time when the word was used and intentionally scheduled the youngest daughter to ask Daddy to escort her to the bathroom right before the profanity.  His wife stayed in the theater and quickly figured out what the kids were doing.  Dad returned, and without violating his conviction and the children respecting his principle, he sat through and enjoyed the rest of the movie.  A conviction can be that simple and that impressionable.

Paul follows up with the second part of his letter to the Thessalonians written around AD 53. The church’s misunderstanding was that it was so imminent (as in the context of forthtelling) that Christians were quitting their occupations in expectation of the Lord’s return.  Also, people were slacking off on their behavior and not continuing to live godly lives while in anticipation of an imminent return.  There is one thing to look for, and another thing to be looking over your shoulder for Jesus’s second coming.  The difference between the two “outlooks” is like a comparison between anticipation versus evading.

Paul uses Old Testament imagery to help explain this second coming.  The book of Revelation, and elsewhere in the Bible, talk about events that would lead up to it.  As believers, we can’t help being curious about it, what with checking on the signs of end time predictions, the guesstimating of the date or reading popular fiction book series on the topic.

No one knows the future advent of Jesus’s return.  “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mk. 13:32-33).

I once figured out what the personality and temperament of each of my children, to their chagrin.  I discovered each represented one of the four temperaments with none of the four kids being the same.  That made for dynamic parenting.  I still watch in awe how their personalities manifest themselves in their individual lives and occupations.

One child took a route I would not have predicted, and that is the required ongoing perseverance to still compete athletically.  My son’s car accident was described earlier in the chapter on Exodus.  The accident should have halted or limited any further thoughts of continuing to compete athletically. I watched with admiration as he pushed past his pain, his physical limits to be better and stronger than before the accident.  I watched with awe and respect how he developed his own successful running gait in order to adapt.   Runners do not have the option of avoiding physical discomfort or suffering on their menu. We all have our strengths, but the one just mentioned is not one of mine. When it comes to sports, I am usually the cheerleader.  Distance running is one of my favorites events to watch live.  To see the runners, push and set a PR (personal record) is inspiring even when it looks like the team isn’t going to be ranked high. I enjoy watching the sport of running because on the one hand; it is a team sport, but on the other, it is a solo one.  Of course, it’s nice when my team wins, and, if not, then goal transcends to more about the individual win in exceeding their previous effort.

Both of these letters are about challenges that inevitably come up in church.  A worshipping community is not perfect but has more right about it than wrong.  Paul points to the hope of the Church to remind us to run this race of faith.  The course of life is to run this race not as a sprint but more like a marathon with the ups (hills) and downs (winding roads).  Hebrews 12:1-2 says “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the writer, and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Struggle tends to strengthen our faith  if we turn to God for endurance and our resilience if we channel them correctly.  Contemporary musician, Laura Story sings in her song Blessings:

We pray for blessings.
We pray for peace,
comfort for family, protection while we sleep.
We pray for healing, for prosperity.
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering.
All the while, You hear each spoken need.
Yet love is way too much to give us lesser things.

‘Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?

We pray for wisdom.
Your voice to hear.
We cry in anger when we cannot feel You near.
We doubt your goodness, we doubt your love.
As if every promise from Your Word is not enough.
All the while, You hear each desperate plea
and long that we’d have faith to believe.”

In everything give thanks (1Thess. 5:18).

 

Chapter 43 in a Series

download  “..Being confident of this that he who begins a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:6)  I have stolen this line (with the footnote) more than any other when ending volunteer thank you notes.  What’s amazing is Paul writes this after suffering severe beatings, and yet he has this spirit of personal gratitude and selflessness, thinking about and in thanksgiving for his co-workers in Christ, encouraging and holding them up in prayer. The word rejoice is used fifteen times in four chapters. At the time, Paul also had the joy of midwiving a Philippian jailer (Acts 16:22-34) to Christ.  To pray for “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding…” (Phil. 4:7) at the onset of this letter while he is in such a dire situation is a testimony and example of his faith.  Philippians 3:20 points to eagerly waiting for the return of Jesus.

Paul’s joy cannot not be worthy of more comment.  He talks about the joy of faith and the joy of the Lord (Phil. 1:25).  As mentioned before in the chapter of Psalms, we get ourselves so off course on life goals when striving or desiring a happy situation. Happiness is fleeting, almost superficial based on its shelf life.  Paul’s example in his attitude adopted is a decision available for everyone’s grasp.   Joy is not negated by struggles or unknown future destiny.  Particularly when it’s a biblical kind of joy.  Joy: a feeling with a long shelf life because it never expires.

My first misrepresentations of Paul being too blunt and direct is further emphasized through his illustrations of humility in his various letters.  You can see how spiritually he grows in the fruit of the Holy Spirit.  Paul writes to the Philippians in affectionate appreciation to them at their church in Philippi.  He had only visited there briefly but this congregation offered much support financially for Paul throughout his ministry.

I appreciate the outlook of foretelling of completed good works. These are prayerful words to me, thanking God for the future consummation of His promises.

At least once a week, while sitting at my dressing table in the morning, I thank God in advance for the future relationships for me and the g-kids when looking at my family photos in front of me as I had done previously for my children before they found friends and partners in marriage.

For Paul to state that he shares in Christ’s sufferings also means to share in God’s comfort through that suffering.    The greater the pain, the greater the comfort of Christ. In turn, the greater our ability to show empathy and consolation with others by  His example.

Paul had a colleague and fellow worker: Barnabas.  There is no mention of Barnabas in this letter (he is found in Acts), yet he is an influence on Paul.  Barnabas, the cousin of Mark, is known as the “son of encouragement.” He was a landowner who donated the proceeds of his land sales to the ministry of the apostles’ work.  He was a person of influence and responsibility extending hospitality in his home to Paul. When Paul’s prominence grew, Barnabas quietly volunteered to fall back to a supporting role yet still spread the Gospel to Jerusalem and Cyprus.  He and Paul had a bit of a falling out over Mark, but in later years their relationship reconciled (1Cor. 9:62Tim. 4:11).

There can be a Barnabas-like people in everyone’s life.  My two “sons of encouragement” were two godly elder men during different periods.  One was a bubbly optimistic man who was generous almost to a fault to many people, and the other was a joyful crusader/advocate for a parish school that barely kept their doors open financially.

Whenever being personally persecuted, my first instinct is not to comfort others but instead, my go to was a self-pity party.  When I can discern this self-pity party invitation dangling in front of me, I ignore it.  I send my regrets to the invite and instead go on to gratitude.

As a young wife feeling overwhelmed, I discovered I could go to my mother-in-law with good news, and she oozed and squealed encouragement and congratulations, rather thickly.  Conversely, I found if I went to my mom when the news wasn’t so good, she was more stoic, would not react emotionally in a negative reaction consequently curbing my fears.  She told me later she doggedly remained calm over whatever situation I brought to her, but, inside her stomach was churning with worry.  Mom’s attitude resembled a duck on water, appearing calm as she is floating serenely but beneath the surface, her feet were moving as fast as they could.  It was not a perfect formula yet it still gave me a sense of encouragement and validation that boded me well until I discovered that true validation comes from God. In reflection after writing that, I confess I still do something similar now with my adult children,  going to each one because I know their particular response is what I need to hear (“do it! just-live-your-life”, “no mother you shouldn’t”,  “meh?”, “you should consider [this or that]…).  It’s not the only opinion however that I recognize it’s probably just the want for that human element in my life.

Paul cites in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Is that Paul in denial of his situation? Is he living out the thesis of thinking positive thoughts to yield positive circumstances and negative thoughts negative ones? I don’t think so.  Paul shows the root of his character in his humility and his solid footing of faith.  There is always something to appreciate. Parker Palmer wrote to take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself.  “Let your altruism meet your egotism, let your generosity meet your greed, let your joy meet your grief…But when you are able to say, ‘I am all of the above, my shadow as well as my light,’ the shadow’s power is put in service of the good.  For an encore quote, Palmer says it another way when he is voicing  dismay over world events and considers the other side of life, of beautiful things, “This too is happening in the world.”  In one of his essays, he writes how disillusion is more of a blessing than a curse, depending on how we confront it. (Rom. 8:28).

This is along the lines of how St. Augustine explains evil (or a bad thing) as a privation on good, not a substance in and of itself but rather something attaching itself to good.  Like a parasite.  God takes what bad thing tries to attach itself to anything good in order to distort it (like Jesus’s  death) and God turns it into a greater good (like our salvation through the resurrection).

There is an account reflecting what Paul says in Philippians 1:6 from Fred Rogers’ mother, who would say to Fred as a little boy afraid when disaster struck.  She soothed him by saying, “Look for the helpers.  You’ll always find people who are helping”.

If not careful, the pace and the pressure of life can squeeze the joy out of life or inhibits us from finding it during a difficult circumstance. I remember once shortly after dad died, sitting cross-legged on the floor, right in front of the B&W tv (just dated myself didn’t I?) watching a half-hour comedy show.  I remember it was funny and laughed, then remembered and looked over my shoulder at mom with guilt because the mourning was still too fresh.  She smiled at me and said it’s still okay to smile and laugh.

Chapter 42 in a Series

Ephesians-and-Colossians-SC-500There are four letters from prison postmarked  with the cities between AD 61-63 to Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon  Paul wrote them when either under house arrest or in a Roman prison. These particular two letters complement each other. Ephesians emphasizes the church as the body of Christ while Colossians describes Jesus as the head of all things.

Ephesians can be compared to the book of John due to the same higher spiritual theme. Paul encourages changing the spiritual center of gravity from being in the world to being of the world, as acting as a citizen of the heaven while being in the world.  I had a prof once say, “The world around us is at enmity with God and is the tide in which we swim.”  The letter’s intended recipients were of the Ephesus Church started by Priscilla and Aquila and pastored first by Paul then Timothy.

We have all known of people who are so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good.  Ephesians takes that on showing that, in obedience (chapters 4-6), we can become more earthly good.  To that extreme, many ignore “theology” and instead want only to discuss things that are “practical.” Studying theology can at times take the religion out of you, yet it’s important to know our history and the many layers to it. In Ephesians, Paul argues theology is practical to learn.  To live life, in an applied way for God’s will, we must first, however, understand who we are in Christ doctrinally.

Take for example Paul’s message to the unbelieving crowds that prompted voluntary book burning on the topics like magic, resulting in loss of sales of idols when people replaced their former beliefs with Jesus.  In his message to them, he redirects them to visualize a soldier’s armor as an alternative for examples in equipping.  Each piece of armor provides for us spiritually: prayer, righteousness, salvation, truth, faith, God’s Word, and the Gospel of peace.  This armor combats spiritual warfare, the invisible (and visible) war that rages around us.  Prayer and petition is the key to unlock the power of this armor (Eph. 6:18).    The area of warfare to attack includes the heart, mind, relationships,  around the undermining of family values, and pursuing life’s callings.  When the conflict arises, metaphorically be reminded to put on this armament to defer the slings and arrows.  It is not lost on me that some may say, well magic and praying to idols isn’t any different than this armament.  It is if you note the other is temporal and the seven components of armor listed are everlasting.  This armor, however, is not one that our personality hides behind, it is one to be used, in our vulnerability.

In this letter, Paul gives specific teachings on how to live in the local church, in the world, and the home.  The chapter and verse (Eph. 3:14-19) show Paul’s thesis, presenting itself differently in this letter compared to his others:

“For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven  and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith ; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love  of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.”

The poem When I Say I am a Christian by civil rights activist and poet Maya Angelou  is a good definition:

 “When I say I am a Christian I’m not shouting I’m clean livin’. I’m whispering I was lost; Now I’m found and forgiven.

When I say I am a Christian, I do not speak of this with pride. I’m confessing

that I stumble and need Christ to be my guide.

When I say I am a Christian, I’m not trying to be strong. I’m professing that I’m weak and need His strength to carry on.

When I say I am a Christian, I’m not braggin’ of success. I’m admitting I have failed and need God to clean my mess.

When I say I am a Christian, I’m not claiming to be perfect, my flaws are far too visible but, God believes I am worth it.’

When I say I am a Christian, I still feel the sting of pain. I have my share of heartaches, so I call upon His name.

When I say I am a Christian, I’m not holier than thou; I’m just a simple sinner who received God’s good grace, somehow!”

Ephesians defines Jesus as the head of the body (another name for the church) and the Holy Spirit as its lifeblood.  Spiritual gifts are also brought up in Ephesians. Paul speaks of the mystery of the church as the “Bride of Christ” with Him being the groom.

He includes a lot of pronouncements: “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling”, “Be imitators of God”, or when referring to marriage as the relationship  In marriage, he says a husband should love his wife…just as Christ did and gave himself up for her (Eph. 5:25) or a husband is to love their wife “as their body even as himself” (verses 28, 33).    If couples took these verses to heart, I imagine they would enter into marriage altogether differently.

Paul writes to the Colossians at a more intimate level, going deeper to strengthen their maturity in Christ in their faith and hope (Col. 1:28). The Ephesians analogy to the body is completed in the letter to the Colossians.

This letter’s overall theme is the sufficiency of Christ. Paul mentions their minister Epaphras’s concern for his friends in Colossae (located then in the region of Turkey) in the verse, “He (Epaphras) is always wrestling in prayer  for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” (Col. 4:12). This letter’s relevance for today gives witness to the completeness, finality, and adequacy of Jesus and His divine nature incarnate.

Truth:   It never goes out of date.  Yet we hear the argument that there is no absolute truth.  When someone says that, one of my professor’s standard responses  is “Oh and is that a truth?”  God reveals the truth.  It is not constructed or invented or reshaped by individuals or communities.    Postmodern theologians who fully embrace contradictory paradox do so at the expense of the law of non-contradiction.   The law of noncontradiction says a thing cannot at the same time both be and not be of a something. Paradoxes are interesting to think until they morph in “antinomies” (being against the law) then they get scared and it’s a slippery slope to something false.   God is omniscient and unchanging. He is never wrong. He cannot be cruel, lie or break his promises.  He is sovereign, in control even if we don’t understand. God’s ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9),  defying human comprehension.  If there is no absolute truth then what is mankind’s standard of measure, where does it come from?  Douglas Groothuis says, “There is no partial truth (yet) the gradualism in mingling the world’s ideas of today (i.e., the sanctity of life or marriage defined by God) gets negotiated.  I shudder to think when I have repeated trite language and phrases uttered today that undermines what is the truth (i.e., ‘It’s all relative.’).”  The Apostle Paul knows that when we do not understand our faith, the Gospel is watered down into a thin soup accommodating all the current cultural norms.

Who Jesus is, reveals a radical concept of salvation by grace apart from works.  To help them with the transition of faith, the then Jewish Christian held onto practices of orthopraxy adding requirements to this new faith.  Unfortunately, these added things were worldly. The examples of good deeds, occultism, and horoscopes do not show us God’s ways. Paul emphasizes that Jesus paves the way for absolute standards.  It is sad we cannot look at Christianity as a family, a way of life, and a relationship.  The latest research shows thirty-three thousand denominations in 238 countries, and that’s just Christianity.  This reflects the soul-searching of humanity to fill their spiritual yearnings.  God wants this relationship with us.  Relationships cannot happen when we go off by ourselves, doing our spiritual thing while on a hike or seeing a sunset. This relationship with God also involves the relationships with others.  It’s not a solo trip.

Often, we don’t approach truth objectively without first wanting to know what’s in it for me.  A consumerist mentality allows each person to choose his or her brand of truth just as he or she might choose a particular make of car or toothpaste, according to preferences and perceived needs. Each person then acts by that standard.   The world tells us one religion is as good as another. If seeking out spirituality leads into the wilderness (of our mind) to face dangers most would rather avoid then it isn’t a route many would volunteer to take.

The late comedian Bob Hope joked, “I do (charity/entertainment) benefits for all religions—I’d hate to blow the hereafter on a technicality.”   Is that what we are doing spiritually?

Those who compare the different faiths to be represented by a rainbow; all have love in common with each other, a quaint sentiment not true particularly when violence is evoked in the name of religion.   All religions do have one thing in common when it comes down to it; they are manmade with only one based on the worship of the true God. There are many inspirational spiritualists (many of whom are quoted in this book); but there is only one faith that claims God, who is eternal, creator of all things, lives outside the cosmos, transcendent yet immanent in His relationship with believers proving He is not some myth. Mythical gods do not continually communicate throughout time with those in creation.  Ironically, paradoxical writer G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) points out if there were no God, there would be no atheists ( in essence, they recognized the God that they ignore, to undergird what their belief). I interpret that as atheists acknowledging God, they just don’t do God.

Biblically speaking, religion and spirituality should be united, with the results leading to prayer and works for the glory of God.  True religion is godly; empty religion only has “a form of godliness but denying its power.” (2Tim. 3:5).  A definition of spirituality can be sorted out in Scripture.   In Romans 12:1-2, Paul writes, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, given God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Build a log fire, and inevitably one of the log’s embers rolls away from the source of the flame.  When isolated, the ember loses its flame and dies out.  Put the ember back into the fire, and it is reignited.

Similarly, this happens when not in fellowship with a church.  We are not called to be a lone-ranger believer, a DIY (do-it-yourself) Christian machine.  Self-prescribed spirituality has been around whenever people have sought out ways to be self-evolved and independent.  I had an encounter on this topic when a teenage friend of my son’s asked why we should attend church.  I shared the analogy above in a little more detail, but I am afraid it fell on deaf ears.  I think he felt he was his own source of combustion to get things done and his spiritual pilgrimage did not include fellowshipping with like-minded individuals or someone who might be able to teach him more about God.

Frederick Buechner says, “You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own, but you cannot become human on your own.”

I see being privately spiritual but not involved in a religious setting as a slippery slope. Without realizing it, we could comfortably slip into the self-centered American cultural norm, smack dab in the bland of people who find ancient religions dull meanwhile finding themselves utterly fascinating.  The slope gets slippier when there is no accountability (found in a worship community) to God’s truth. There are limits to a self-made religion.

I’m partial to religious tradition.  It seems to follow along with my pleasure for antiques, particularly when they stand the test of time.  The newest appliance or technology intrigues me, but in the end, it is antiques, second-hand furniture, physical books that give me comfort and I give a fair share of to my physical space.  When singing from hymnals, I look at the credits at the bottom of the page to discover when the music and lyrics were written.  It encourages me that this song has been sung throughout the ages.  I love the beauty in taking communion (that mystical symbolism of Jesus) of the wafer and common cup with the thought I am drinking from the same common cup as the saints gone by and in hopes am sharing this cup with my children, transcendently when we are not together.

Pastor and author Paul David Tripp reminds us that community worship is designed to jog your memory that there are more important matters in life than your plan, pain, or pleasure: it is instead for the glory of God.   Corporate worship is designed to take our eyes off our self by filling them with the beauty of the grace and glory of God (through the ages).  I have had dry spells, not attending church or Bible study group.  I have found when left to my own devices; there is a limit to my spiritual judgment and discernment that seeks to meet my needs first.  Meanwhile, I avoid the greater thing of hearing alternate views that may not conform to what I want to hear when devoid of the challenge or dialogue.  Going solo leads to spiritual self-deception. It leads to pride and self-righteousness.  It is not holy when so self-absorbed gazing into your belly button.  God engaged in and was with the community.

The church community is not perfect because people are not perfect, but there is more right than wrong when approached with grace and mercy.