Friday, May 30, 2008

1 Timothy 5: 17-25

I remember how the Boyntons and their squeaky station wagon helped me through my high school years. In the 1970’s in northern California, Mr. and Mrs. Boynton were our youth group leaders. They had a big old station wagon with squeaky brakes which carried us (probably a lot of us at one time, without seat belts, given the times). I thankfully look back on their faithfulness. I remember Raymond, a seminary student and his wife. I remember Doug, who owned a construction company, and his wife. Each one gave something so valuable, their time. I wish I could ask them what made them give of their time but I believe that God Himself gave them a burden for teenagers.

I remember how “Grandma Bennett” helped me through my childhood. She taught our church kids’ class on Wednesday nights. Sometimes she simply read aloud to us as we colored Bible pictures. I remember how peaceful that felt to me.

In today’s Scripture Paul gives instructions about choosing Spiritual leaders. Helping others along the way takes some effort but may make bright threads for others to weave into the tapestry of their faith. I wonder why what I remember is laughter. I think because we felt like we were home. Sometimes it was better than home. It was a spiritual home and a little taste of what our heavenly home will be like.

I thank God for leaders who lead us home. Let us pray today for our leaders.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

1 Timothy 4:1-16

If I was serious about running a marathon, I’d have to train for it. I couldn’t just wake up one day and say, “I think I’ll try and run a marathon today.”

If I wanted to bench press 300 pounds, I’d have to train for it. I couldn’t just load six 45 pound plates on a barbell and say, “I’m going to try and lift this now.”

If my dream was to be a pro golfer, I’d have to train towards making that dream a reality. I couldn’t just show up on a golf course and say, “I’m going to try and play like Tiger Woods today.”

In this passage, Paul tells us the same principle applies to our Christianity. If we want to be a good Christian, we can’t just say, “I’m trying to be a good Christian. Really I am!” No, if we are serious about being a good Christian, then we will have to diligently train for it. Our lives do not come to be marked by godliness by simply trying to be godly; they come to be marked by godliness by training ourselves for it.

Like all training, note that Paul writes that this entails “toil and struggle.” At almost 50 years of age, I have come to that point where having a strong, healthy heart is more important than having a six pack or bulging biceps. That means doing cardiovascular training, logging time on the elliptical trainers, stairmasters, stationary bikes.

It’s grueling, but it must be done. And so it is with godliness; the disciplines we embrace as we train our hearts not just for cardiovascular fitness but for “heavenly” fitness can be difficult and demanding. That is the hard word that some folks today have forgot to speak, but it is true none the less.

How do we train for godliness? We devote our selves to “God’s word and prayer”, to “instruction” and “sound teaching”. Yes, that includes church every Sunday unless good reason prevents. But like all serious training, it has to be more regular than that. So our spiritual training will also include being involved in some kind of prayer and Bible study with others, such as the WatCH program we offer at St. Matthews. It will involve regular personal prayer and Bible study as well.

Other practices found in this passage include, practicing “hope” (I hope you will reflect further on this), serving by using the gifts God has given us, and setting “an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”

Beyond this passage, other forms of training have included practicing gratitude, forgiveness, generosity, simplicity, fasting, fellowship, sharing our faith verbally, and so on.

When practices such as these absent in our lives, our training is destined to fail like sporadic or inadequate training would fail to allow me to run a marathon, bench press 300 pounds, or play pro golf. But the good news is that when they are present, we can be assure that God will indeed complete the good work in us that He has begun, and that we will be fit not to walk with pride on the beach because of our buff bodies, but to walk with Christ in Heaven for all eternity because of our godly hearts.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

1 Timothy 3:1-16

In this part of his letter to Timothy, Paul outlines for us the standards for church leadership. Paul gives standards for a church overseer (the pastor, the senior warden, and perhaps all vestry members) and deacons (others that serve in the church). The standards for leadership are high, as one might expect, "... above reproach, ... temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, ... not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome..."

These are all fine qualifications for church leadership, or for any leadership for that matter, but these are not what stood out to me in this passage. Verses 4 and 5 are the key passages in my opinion. "He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?)" These verses apply to leadership in a church or business. Our first, or at least an equal, obligation is to our family.

If one is a volunteer, these verses tell us not to allow the volunteer activity to detract or distract from your family responsibilities. Sometimes Christian volunteers can make the mistake of thinking working for God at the church is so important it is all right to ignore their family. The same can be said of careers, one can make excuses as to why they need to work hours that cause them to neglect their family (e.g., to provide a certain life style for my family), but Paul reminds us that a primary obligation is to our family.

Using one's God given talents and abilities is extremely important to advance the Kingdom on this earth. Paul's message was not meant to be an excuse to get out of helping to advance the Kingdom. However, Paul's message was meant to remind us that we must maintain balance in our live. Balance between volunteer service in the church and a good and health family life.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

1 Timothy 1:18-2:8

This past week I visited a friend of mine in the hospital. She had just gone undergone back surgery to correct her scoliosis (a curve in her spine) and was still recovering; she was still in intense pain. I visited her with her family, and they had tears in their eyes as they watched her struggle to whisper out a conversation. It was her birthday that day.

I ended up sitting by her side as she slept. Her family had gone down to the cafeteria to eat dinner; they had invited me along, but I declined. I figured they needed their family time, and I wanted to be able to help my friend and give her water when she needed it. She was tired, and fell asleep quickly. I sat by her side for almost an hour in the perfect, sterile silence of the hospital room, the lights dim and the sunlight fading as she stirred painfully in her shallow sleep.

I tried to fill my time as I watched over her by reading the newspaper, but that soon bored me. I looked around the room for other things to do, but found nothing. I paced a bit, and tried to call a friend of mine on my cell phone. She didn’t answer. I returned to my sleeping friend’s bedside.

Somehow I found myself praying. I don’t remember exactly how, but I do know that I needed the comfort. When I really and truly pray—not the detached, emotionless prayers borne from a sense of Christian “duty”, but real prayers that spill from me so honestly and so completely unchecked that they are nigh nonsensical-- the experience is immensely cathartic. I feel drained, emptied; it is not that my problems have disappeared, but the suffocating burden of my own thoughts is no longer mine alone to bear.

This is why Paul urges us to make supplications, prayers, and intercessions. The problems of the world do not have to be shouldered by us alone. No one is so strong that they do not prayer, even the “kings and all who are in high positions” of whom Paul speaks; if these powerful men still need prayer in order to have quiet and peace, how much more do we frail, weak, ordinary humans beings need the same intercession? Through this act of prayer Jesus Christ does take on the act of mediator between God and humankind, and there is a release in knowing that our problems and worries are heeded and listened to.

It is not that the burden no longer is ours to bear. It is that the burden becomes no longer ours to bear alone, and sometimes that makes all the difference in the world.

Monday, May 26, 2008

1 Timothy 1:1-17

Have you ever had one of “those” times? The ones where you try to tell someone something and they just will not listen; the times when you want to grab someone, look them in the eye, and impress upon them the importance and truth of what you are saying— but can’t do it. I know that I have. Just today I was visiting with someone who considers themselves quite the intellectual and who tries to seem very “deep” at all times (although no one knows what is truly meant by deep); they were asking me about my political views and my religious views— all of which I am happy to talk about— but asking only for superficial reasons, still, I felt compelled to show how “deep” I was compared to him.

Having just read today’s reading, I reflected on why I felt the need to give so-called deep answers. What I came up with did not look too pretty. I realized I wanted to show off how much I thought about these deep things, I wanted to impart on them my “wisdom.” But Paul tells us that this is not what the motivation of teaching should be; he admonishes us to teach with the aim of instruction should be love. I know that, especially when it comes to something I care about, and when people aren’t listening to me explain those things, that I am not very loving. Luckily Paul tells us how we may achieve the desire: a pure conscience, a clean heart, and sincere faith.

I suggest that all three of these things may be gotten in a variety of ways such as going to church and communing with other Christians; but one of the most important ways very well may be doing exactly what you are doing now: that is having a quite time, a time of your own to reflect on something within the Bible about God. It only makes sense that a personal time with God is required to develop a personal relationship with Him.

So, may such times as these develop within us a pure conscience, a clean heart, and sincere faith.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

3 John 1-15

Like the elder whose brief letter with its many personal references is the reading today, I would reach out to many that I will not be seeing for a time yet. I am embarking on a journey more challenging than I have ever done. I have packed my bag with the expectation of dealing with the cold and the wet--the very wet. Lord willing I will not take an involuntary swim in the Dolores River, but if that should happen I have my wetsuit, layers of Under Armour to bolster the neoprene, life jacket for flotation. And of course, the other paddlers, all more experienced than I, to fish me out. My brother John instigated my participation in this trip and I don't want him to regret having invited me. So I have also prepared my body for the rigors of the river, with several training outings on the Potomac in my kayak, daily sessions in the gym, even weight training--usually anathema to me. I'm as fit as I've been in some time. But while I am joining an expedition I'm also leaving albeit temporarily the responsibilities of husband, father, employee, and lay minister. I am alreadymissing my family, NOT missing my job, but yes, missing many brothers and sisters. So I hope to say, when I return to your midst, it was great to get away, but great to see you again. I know, as John knew, that letters (and e-mails) are but a placeholder for the face-to-face community in the spirit.
Peace be with you all.

Friday, May 23, 2008

2 John 1-13

Today’s reading at first read was a conundrum to me. It seemed to say that believers should shun non-believers. This seemed, frankly, shocking to me. It didn’t sound like something John would say, since his writings are known for his themes of love and truth. So, I had to do some digging and some thinking to get through the simple and short verses of 2 John.

As with so many of the epistles, the place to start when working through the meaning of the text is with history and context. It is easy to forget the differences between our world today and the relevancy of the epistles with the world of the early church. Although both worlds are full of danger and evil, there are, of course, substantial and obvious differences as well as similarities.

In the decades following Jesus’ death, a new type of “religious” teacher was born – the itinerant preacher. While many of these were “officially” in the service of the apostles, or the next generation of the original apostles, many of these itinerant preachers were fakes and phonies. There was literally no way to check them out since there was no phones, no internet to check their credentials. The phony preachers would come into a new Christian community and profess all kinds of inaccurate truths and blasphemies. These are the people that John is warning the new Christians about. It was too easy to fall for these 1st century scam-artists.

We certainly have modern-day scam artists and blasphemers who know how to take advantage of our time and hard earned dollars. And we are admonished to steer clear of them. But, these people are different from the lost who say things out of ignorance. The truly lost souls are not trying to manipulate you, they just don’t know any better. To these folks, I believe we are commanded to give them our love and attention. We are called to emulate Christ, to walk in truth and love.

How do we tell the difference between a genuinely lost soul and a scam artist (and, by the way, they may be one in the same person)? With prayer. God will be your guide.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

1 John 5: 13-21

What is a “mortal sin”?

John seems to assume that his readers will know what he means by a “mortal sin”, but there also seems to be considerable confusion and debate on the matter today. What is a “fatal sin”; one that so surely leads to death that it is not even worth praying for?

Probably the most common interpretation is that this refers to a sin in which we persist even though we know it is wrong. Over time, the argument goes, we cease to be sorry for it and therefore are no longer able to repent.But that surely won’t do—and if it does, I expect a great many of us are in serious trouble.

Take gluttony (i.e., over consumption, out of control eating, perhaps even idolatry in using food to fill the spaces inside that only God was designed to fill). Just yesterday I ate a whole barbecue pizza at Macaroni Grill. I was comfortably full about half way through. But you know what? I kept going, and boy was it good!

Gluttony, you will remember, is one of the seven deadly sins. But the honest, ugly truth is that doesn’t stop me. And if the number of overweight Christians out there is any indication (a study was done by Purdue, I believe, that showed Christians were more likely to be over weight than the population in general), I’m not alone.

So what are we to make of this text? Well, as is so often the case in Scripture, if we go with what do understand, it may not be quite as tough as sometimes people make it out to be. And so what we need to do is:

*Believe in the Son of God, Jesus Christ, for the sure knowledge of eternal life.

*Pray boldly for one another, confident that God will bring his power and provision to bear in enabling us to accomplish his will.

*Allow Christ to draw near to us and walk with us in such a way that His presence protects us from the evil of the world and helps us to better understand (and embrace)His ways.

In doing this, we can be confident that we have not committed a “mortal sin”; that sinful though we may be, by sticking close to Jesus Christ we cannot help but continue to be radically transformed by His grace and love.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

1 John 5:1-12

In today's reading is one of the most direct statements that Jesus is the one and only way to eternal life. It is reassuring to hear these words. It is difficult to do sometimes in today's hectic, chocker block full, life, but these words should bring peace unto us and thus help us navigate our lives.

"He who has the Son has life;" Whoever believes in Jesus has eternal life. Please note the tense of the verb. It is present tense. It is not will have eternal life, it is has eternal life. You do not need to wait for eternal life because it begins the moment you believe. It is continuous. There is not an ending to one life (i.e., biological death) and a beginning of another. Sure you might lose your human body, but the eternal life promised by God will endure.

We do not even have to work for eternal life, because it is already ours if we believe in Jesus. We do not have to worry about it because we have been given this gift by God - and God has guaranteed it.

Yes, today's reading should be seen as extremely reassuring. "Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God." (1 John 5:5) Today's reading should help us keep things in the proper place. God promises that all who believe in His son, Jesus, will have eternal life with Him. What a glorious, generous, and loving God we serve.

Friday, May 16, 2008

I John 3:1-10

If it’s been a long week, and you are tired; here are words of comfort; God lavishes love on us; (what a great word of excess); so much so that we are called children of God. In Scripture, we are called servants of God, worshippers and followers. But children! John invites us to wonder at this. The word lavish prompts me to think of a celebration where everything is made of gold. But how much more has God’s love been lavished on us, to include us in His family.

As a parent, at best I try to do what is right for my children. How much more does God love and protect and provide for me! As a child, I trust in my parents. How much more, as a child of God, can I trust in God and trust that He is working in my life. Just trust. God is your father. Think of the glory and grandeur of God. Then think of how He reached down, in the cross, to make us His children.

Now that we have realized this love of God, lavished on us, we are to use this knowledge to live in purity. In our dealings with others, we can see them as Christ sees them and treat them as Christ would treat them. Let us continually draw on the knowledge that God is our loving Father as we depend on Him for strength to purify ourselves.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

1 John 2:18-29

Today’s reading begins by talking about “antichrists”. This is a term found only in the letters of John, and here refers to false teachers marked by at least three characteristics. First, “they went out from us”. That is, they pursued their own ends and purposes (ie, making a name for themselves, getting rich, inflaming people to serve a personal cause or agenda)instead of staying faithful to the mission of the local church.

Second, they deny the faith. They deny that Jesus is the Christ, teaching instead that he is merely a good man, a great teacher, a wonderful example for us all. That Jesus is the Christ can be denied in deeds as well as words, of course, when we fail to live in humble obedience to him.

And finally, they seek to deceive the faithful. It is a sobering thing to think that there are those who, consciously or unconsciously, are seeking to deceive us. To think, for instance, that we can be faithful to Jesus but not live sacrificially for the sake of those in need is to be deceived. It is to be deceived by those who have made the standard of living we enjoy in America today their standard, and not the Gospel of Christ. There are many ways to be deceived, and we all face them on a regular basis.

So what do we do?

We abide in Christ by living in harmony with his teachings as they are found in Scripture. We abide in Christ by loving others as he has loved us, and allowing them to love us as well. So to abide in Christ means we can’t go it on our own; we must stay in fellowship with a local church.

We look to Christ’s appearing, and remember that in a world of people seeking to do their own thing, we are those who are called to do God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

We live in faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in such a way that we will not be ashamed on the day of his appearing.

Perhaps we can sum all of this up by saying that a person who claims to be a Christian but who does not live in obedience, love, and truth, is either deceived or a deceiver. It’s probably worth our asking ourselves, “Could that be me?”

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

1 John 2:12-17

At first glance 1 John 2:15 may seem like a contradiction. As we all know, Jesus tells us that the two great commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor. Now here in 1 John 2:15 we see, "Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him." But how can we love God and our neighbors and not the world? Aren't our neighbors in the world?

The Greek word for world, in this case, is kosmos, which refers to the attitudes and values that disregard God or are blatantly against God. It does not mean, or refer to, God's natural creation or humanity. In other words, this message is consistent with Jesus' teachings - we are to love the people of the world but not the sinful attitudes and values those same people may embrace.

The last verse of today's reading is extremely powerful. If any of us truly believes that there is an opportunity to live forever, for all eternity, in the presence of God, in a place with a peace beyond our understanding, then all of us would do anything to fulfill verse 17, "The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever."

I saw a documentary on Jim Elliot and the movie about his missionary work call, "End of The Spear", perhaps you saw it too. A quote of Jim Elliot's sticks with me and I feel is appropriate to today's reading. "He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to get what he cannot lose."

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Ephesians 5:1-20

Why is it so hard to be human? Actually, it’s pretty easy to be a human. What’s hard is following the instructions we are given in today’s reading. But, why is that so hard? In a nutshell, we are called to:

  • Live a life of love

  • No sexual immorality

  • No impurity

  • No greed

  • No obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking

  • Live wisely

  • Do not get drunk on wine

Which one of these is hardest for you? Frankly, I think if you do the first, everything else follows. So, let’s start with the first: Live a life of love. Paul goes on to say “just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”. Stop there. It is because of our very human nature that the very first thing on the above list, to me at least, is the hardest. It’s not good enough just to love mankind and treat others with love, but we are called to love as Christ loved.

In my mind, the only way to do this is to read the Gospels and hear what Jesus had to say. Then, pray, pray, pray. There needs to be a constant, intimate connection between each of us and Jesus. It is only through that connection that we can begin to live the life we are asked to live. Even then, there will be failings. The important thing is not to give yourself excuses for those failings. How many of us have said “I’m only human”? Don’t you think God knew that when he brought Jesus down to earth? God knows our failings better than anyone because he created us. Yet he still expects us to follow the example of his Son.

So, no more excuses. Just get out there and love your neighbor with all your heart, soul and mind. And while you are at it, love your Lord the same way.

Ephesians 4:17-32

Are you faithful to Jesus Christ? Am I?

Only you and I know. And we do know, don’t we? In the privacy of our own hearts, there is no kidding ourselves about the honest answer to this question.

If you are faithful to Jesus, you will value different things than someone who does not share that commitment. You will spend your time differently. Quite understandably, you will make very different decisions.

And so, for the Christian who is serious about their relationship with Christ, there is no “going along with the crowd.” It only makes sense that our lives would look very different from the lives of the world around us. If they don’t, something is wrong.I love how Eugene Peterson translates verses 20-24:

But that [following the crowd] is no life for you. You learned Christ! My assumption is that you have paid careful attention to him, been well instructed in the truth precisely as we have it in Jesus. Since, then, we do not have the excuse of ignorance, everything—and I do mean everything—connected with that old way of life has to go. It's rotten through and through. Get rid of it! And then take on an entirely new way of life—a God-fashioned life, a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God accurately reproduces his character in you.

The following verses give very practical ways we are to put on this new life in Christ. Speak only the truth. Care enough to be angry, but without sin (I think this probably has a lot to do with how attached our anger is to our ego.) Have integrity. Work in order to share, not just for personal gain. Speak only gracious words that build others up. Don’t break God’s heart. Be kind, tender-hearted, forgiving.Any one of these is potentially revolutionary.

Any one of these can change a life and cause it to stand out in bold relief from the world around us. These are the kind of things that happen when a person really does pay attention to Jesus Christ.

Are you faithful to Jesus Christ? Am I?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Ephesians 4:1-16

Boy, we have another great passage from one of Paul's letters as our reading today. Come to think of it, they all are great passages.

For today, let's focus on the first part of the reading. In verse 1 Paul urges all of us to live a life worthy of God's calling. With God's help we are His representatives on earth. As His representatives, as outlined in verse 2, we are to be humble, gentle, patient, understanding, and peaceful. People watch the way we live our lives. When they watch can they see Christ in you? Can they see Christ in me? Do we demonstrate the characteristics of a representative of Christ? Do others see in us a life that they want to lead? This is an awesome responsibility but one we should undertake with our whole heart.

Paul goes on to say, "there is one body". Of course Paul is talking about unity among Christians. Unity does not just happen, we have to work at it. Differences among people can lead to division, but this should not happen in the church. Instead of focusing on our differences, we should focus on what unites us - one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God. This is extremely hard to do, but we are called to learn to appreciate people who are different. We are called to see their different gifts, talents, and abilities, and encourage them to use their attributes to strengthen God's church. It is very easy to hang out with people who are like you. If we learn to appreciate people who are different, we will find hanging out with them is rewarding too, and as we all know, it is difficult to encourage someone you don't hang out with.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Ephesians 2:1-10

Paul turns in this second chapter of Ephesians from the “big picture” to the “smaller picture.” That is, in the first chapter of Ephesians Paul wrote about the great purpose of God, which culminates in Christ being head of all. Now, in Chapter 2 Paul turns to address us; “As for you…”.

Paul discusses what God has done for us. We are to imitate God, and the phrases which stand out for me in this passage are ways in which I would love to be able to imitate God. God is “rich in mercy,” (v. 4) so He made us alive even though we were dead in sin, Paul says. God is rich is grace (v. 7) and that grace is expressed in God’s kindness to us in Jesus.

Of all the things I want more of, how can I be rich in mercy, rich in kindness? Paul says that God will in the coming ages show us “the incomparable riches of His grace” (v. 7). Wow, that’s a lot of grace and kindness. It’s a mystery to me why God would desire to shower us so with these blessings. But of course, it is not because of what we’ve done, but because of who God is. May we humbly thank God and imitate Him today.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Ascension Day

Today is Ascension Day. It’s a day that doesn’t get as much attention as some of the bigger holy days like, say, Christmas or Easter. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Here’s why: “To embrace the ascension is to heave a sigh of relief, to give up the struggle to be God (and with it the inevitable despair at our constant failure), and to enjoy our status as creatures: image-bearing creatures, but creatures nonetheless" (NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 114).

For some, the Ascension is just a clever way of saying that after Jesus’ death he became “spiritually present” with his followers much like I might say that my grandfather, for instance, continues to be present in the world even after his death as he lives on in me. When my family gets together and enjoys big servings of ice cream, we might even say his spirit is present with us. But the truth we all know is that no one literally lives on in this sense of the word, and neither is their “spirit” really present in the world.

And sadly, this is what some people, even in the church, believe as well. Jesus the man who lived 2000 years ago is dead and buried. He longer exists except in so far as we live in the spirit of his teachings and continue on in his mission and vision for the world.

What does exist, however, is the church, which in this view then becomes synonymous with Jesus. To quote Wright once again, “If Jesus is more or less identical with the church—if, that is, talk about Jesus can be reduced to talk about his presence within his people rather than his standing over them and addressing them from elsewhere as their Lord… then the church effectively presents itself…instead of presenting Jesus…”

This has resulted in what many have called the “Social Gospel”; or the idea that Christianity is all about good works. The problem is that far too much of what the church says and does and even is is NOT good. It hardly serves as an adequate or satisfying substitute for Jesus.

Of course good works will inevitably and dramatically flow from a life devoted to Jesus. And yes, those good works are vitally important. But the heart of our faith as Christians isn’t about the good things we do; it’s about our relationship with Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who has ascended into Heaven and is still very much alive in the fullest and realest sense of the word possible. That is the starting point, the foundation upon which everything else is built. And this is the truth that the Ascension affirms.

Jesus is alive. Have you talked with him today? Have you listened for his voice? Have you followed his leading? Have I?