The Thanksgiving Transformation

29 Oct
Fall in Colorado

Fall in Colorado

Thanksgiving makes my mouth water! It’s no secret – I love to eat. Turkey (I’ll have a thigh please), mashed potatoes (with garlic!), stuffing (an appropriate suggestion), a spoonful of cranberry salad (as a garnish) and the appropriate slices of pie (pumpkin, apple, and pecan) make this a great holiday. But even better still are the faces of those around the table. Uncle Gary pushes back and launches into one of his great stories that will make milk come out your nose. The kids anoint themselves with gravy and green beans. Meemaw is there looking like an ancient angel. We also shed a tear for those who aren’t in their places this year.

Yes, thanksgiving is a great holiday, but these days it seems to be falling on hard times. Retailers are pushing Thanksgiving out of the way to make room for more profitable holidays like Halloween and Christmas. Families aren’t what they once were and those that are seem scattered across the country and around the world. From my cynical seat I might remark people who are focused on their rights and entitlements have little room in their hearts for an attitude of gratitude.

That’s one of the reasons worship is so important because worship, by its very definition, is focused on someone else, someone greater than ourselves. We kneel in the shadow of the cross and gratefully express our thanksgiving for someone who wasn’t selfish. We lift our hands in praise of our Father who loves us so much in spite of ourselves. We are filled with the Spirit as we make a joyful noise.

This is going to be a month of transformation. Paul told the Romans:

Romans 12:1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

We are transformed by worship, the renewing of our minds – and here is the special blessing brought on by the attitude of gratitude. Our life becomes more positive, more hopeful, more fun!

The old hymn writer Johnson Oatman caught it in his song:

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

So, amid the conflict, whether great or small,
Do not be discouraged, God is over all;
Count your many blessings, angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.



The Four Children

26 Oct

In the Old Testament, children either ask or are told about the Exodus from Egypt in four places: Deut. 6:20; Exodus 12:26, 13:8, 14. Based on this, the Rabbis created a method of teaching the story of the Exodus that was individualized:

The haggadah speaks of four children: wise, wicked, simple, and one who does not know how to ask. It stresses that by paying close attention to the manner way in which a person asks a question, one can gain an insight into the individual’s character and prepare a suitable reply. (Of course, this mandate to teach one’s children according to their ability applies equally to girls.)[1]

The Wise Child asks insightful questions and should be answered with precise and explicit information that satisfies his quest for knowledge. On the other hand, the Wicked Child requires a sharp answer to “set his teeth on edge.” “We celebrate the Passover because of what God for us when we went out of Egypt.” In other words, if you would have been there, you would have been left behind to labor as a slave making mud bricks because you do not consider yourself one of us.

There is some debate about the character of the Simple Child. The Hebrew word “tam,” is “usually translated as the slightly derogatory ‘simple,’ it more probably is meant as a praiseworthy characteristic, as in the verse commanding the Jew to be tam (wholehearted) with the Lord your God (Deut. 18:13).”[2] Jesus said nearly the same thing: “22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, 23 but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22, 23) The word “healthy” literally means “being motivated by singleness of purpose so as to be open and aboveboard, single, without guile, sincere, straightforward.”[3]

The final child, the one who does not even know how to ask because he doesn’t even realize there are questions he should ask, is taught with care. “The haggadah begins its discussion of this child with the words ‘at p’tach lo’ (you should begin for him). … This suggests that this child should be approached with the gentle understanding and warmth generally associated with the mother. It is necessary to patiently encourage the child to formulate questions and then provide answers at a level that the child can comprehend.”

Shlomo Riskin cites a profound interpretation ascribed to Joseph Isaac Schneerson, a former Lubavitcher rebbe:

The Four Children represent the four generations of the American experience. The Wise Child represents the European roots, the generation of the grandparents who came to America with beard and earlocks, dressed in shtreimel and kapote, steeped in piety, with a love for learning and profound knowledge of the Jewish tradition. Their progeny (the Wicked Child), brought up within the American “melting pot,” rejected his parent’s customs and ways of thought … Turning his back on the glories of the Jewish tradition, this child often became successful in business but was cynical in his outlook. The third generation, the Simple Child, is confused. He watched his grandfather making Kiddush on Friday night and his father standing by silently, perhaps resentfully, impatient to prepare for business on Saturday morning … The fourth generation, the Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask, offspring of the Simple Child, is the greatest tragedy of all. He was born after his great-grandparents had died. He knows only his totally assimilated grandfather (Wicked Child) and his religiously confused father … This is our mute American generation, the generation who thought it was someone’s birthday when she saw her great-grandmother lighting the festival candles.

Riskin adds that there is also a fifth generation, so far removed from Judaism that it is unaware that it is Passover. At least the wicked child is attending the seder, though he cannot fathom how it relates to his life, as is the one who does not know how to ask, despite the fact that he finds it beyond his understanding. Tragically, an increasing number of American Jews are not even present at the seder. When opening the door for Elijah the Prophet, we should also keep it open for those masses of assimilated Jews who have not yet entered. In this way, Elijah can fulfill the promise “to reconcile parents with children and children with their parents” (Mal. 3:24). These fifth-generation children must be made aware of their lost heritage before we can dare expect the redemption of the Messianic Age.[4]


Perhaps the same can be said of the Restoration Movement. Those of the first generation were excited about their faith. They searched the Bible diligently and practiced their faith radically. The second generation understood the faith of their fathers, but they began codifying their parents discoveries rather than searching on their own. The third generation was steeped in tradition and nostalgia, while to the fourth generation it all seemed rather old-fashioned and hardly relevant. Is it no wonder the fifth generation seems confused and seeks something their great-great-grandparents knew?

[1] Eisenberg, R. L. (2004). The JPS guide to Jewish traditions (1st ed., p. 279). Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 104). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[4] Eisenberg.

Jesus Loves Me This I Know

19 Oct

warner_abWhen John F. Kennedy and the men of PT 109 were rescued in the Solomon Islands, one of the crewmembers, Motor Machinist Mate William Johnston, went topside and gratefully sat beside his island rescuers.

He smiled. They smiled. He tried to talk, but what do you say? The islanders had been educated in a Christian mission. Johnston had gone to Bible school. Then they all grinned and began to sing: “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so” and they sang it all the way back to the American Navy base.

Ana B. Warner’s children’s song is engraved on our hearts, but few people know her story. Ana’s father nearly lost everything in the “Panic of 1837.” They were forced to move from their beautiful townhouse in New York and the family retired to a little Revolutionary War house on Constitution Island. It was just across the river from the Military Academy at West Point where her uncle had been the chaplain.

Ana’s older sister, Susan, continued to hold Bible classes for the cadets. Ana would pick wild flowers and give them to the soldiers to decorate their rooms. When the cadets graduated, the sisters kept up a lively correspondence with them. As the soldiers advanced in rank, they still remembered the two sisters who would row across the river and bring them back to their little home to study the Bible on Sundays. Today, the sisters are still honored at West Point. They are the only two civilians buried in the military cemetery there and their little home is maintained as a museum just the way it was in the mid-1800s.

The words to the song come from one of the many stories the girls wrote to help support their struggling family. In their book, Say and Seal, a beloved schoolteacher sang, “Jesus Loves Me” to a little boy who was very ill. Later, some of the stanzas were re-written by David Rutherford McGuire, and the chorus was written by the man who wrote the music, William Bradbury who wrote the tunes for ‘Tis Midnight and on Olive’s Brow, Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us, He Leadeth Me, My Hope is Built on Nothing Less, and many more.

Here are Ana’s original words:

Jesus loves me! this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong; they are weak but He is strong.
Jesus loves me! loves me still, tho I’m very weak and ill, that I might from sin be free, bled and died upon the tree.
Jesus loves me! He who died heaven’s gate to open wide; He will wash away my sin, let His little child come in.
Jesus loves me! He will stay close beside me all the way. Thou hast bled and died for me; I will henceforth live for Thee.

Chorus: Yes, Jesus loves me! The Bible tells me so.


The Sunathalon

1 Oct

three-legged-race_3344169aIt’s almost time again for the Olympic Games. They are scheduled for summer 2016 in Brazil and I’m excited. Most Christians know Paul describes the Christian life as a “race” (2 Timothy 4:7), but they may not know Paul has given this race a name: the sunathalon (pronounced “soon-ath-a-lon”).

We are familiar with the decathlon, a race of ten (deca‐) events; and the pentathlon, a contest with five (pente‐) events, but the sunathalon is a race of cooperation. Sun‐ means “with” and athalon means competition. It’s a “together race!”

In his letter to the Philippians (4:2, 3), Paul tells Euodia and Syntyche to cooperate as “yoke‐fellows” because they are running a sunathalon with Clement and Paul’s fellow‐workers. (The Greek word sunathalon is translated by the phrase “labored side by side” in many English Bibles.)

Now can you picture the poor farmer harnessing two rebel oxen to a yoke with each beast trying to pull the plow in a different direction? On the other hand, when two powerful beasts pull in unison and work in harmony, there is no limit to what can be accomplished!

One of our biggest faults as Christians has been to forget our brothers and sisters in our personal race for life – an idea completely foreign to the New Testament. Rather, we should think of our life more like a three-legged race.

Don’t you remember tying your legs together with dad’s old neckties and trying to stay in step? We all ran down the grassy field arm in arm, chanting cadence – “left, right, left, right!” We might fall down in a big tangle, but we laughed and got back up again and raced together.

Now imagine the fun as 50 – 100 – 300 Christians, arm in arm, laughing and singing cross the finish line! It’s a beautiful thing when we work together in harmony. Remember: no one crosses the heavenly finish line alone!

The Blood Moon

27 Sep

66796main_overcash1_medTonight after evening services, we stood out on the church lawn and watched the “Blood Moon.” There was a total eclipse and it was awesome to watch. The prophet Jeremiah (who was quoted by the Apostle Peter in the very first sermon on the day of Pentecost) said, “The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon to blood before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day,” (Acts 2:20).

We had some interesting discussions tonight about the end of the world. People are fascinated talking about the end times and that fascination doesn’t just belong in the world of religion. Many “scientists” have erred just as poorly as the myriad of “gloom and doom prophets” who have plagued Christianity.

The appearance of a comet in the sky has repeatedly heralded the end of the world. For example, in April 1910 Halley’s comet reappeared. This was the first time scientists were able to perform a spectroscopic analysis on a comet and one of the substances discovered in the its tail was cyanogen, a toxic gas. French astronomer Camille Flammarion claimed that when the Earth passed through the comet’s tail on May 19th, the gas “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”[1] You can imagine the panic than ensued! People bought up gas masks and “anti-comet” umbrellas and swallowed “anti-comet” pills!

Nine years later Albert Porta warned that the combined effects of a planetary conjunction on December 17, 1919 would destroy the world. History has a strange way of repeating itself. In 1974 two astrophysicists, John Gribben and Stephen Plagemann published a best seller, The Jupiter Effect, which warned about the effects of a similar nine-planet alignment on March 10, 1982.

Likewise San Diegans remember the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide here in March 1997. They believed a giant spaceship was hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet and would take them home if they freed themselves from their mortal shells.

So why are people so interested in the end of the world? It might be because the world seems so overwhelming that a little bit of knowledge feels like power – even if that knowledge means the end of everything. Alex Newton, author of Plan and Prep: Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse, wonders if those who hope the world will end need a little excitement in their lives or secretly want society to start over.

Christians believe the world will come to an end and we look forward to a new heaven and a new earth, but Jesus himself taught us not to obsess or worry or even try to predict the end. “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only Father,” (Matthew 24:36).

[1] downloaded September 4, 2013.

Try a Month of Prayer

22 Sep

IMG_0182Traditionally at my congregation, Canyon View, October is our “Month of Prayer.” That’s not to say we don’t pray during the other months, but every fall, during October, we focus on the power of prayer. We actually print out a list of 31 prayer requests for our members to focus their prayers on each and every day. Our month will culminate on Sunday, October 25th as we spend the whole worship service in prayer led by our elders. It is a very special time.

As the month begins, we need to understand prayer is a spiritual battle. You will be challenged not to pray. All kinds of distractions will appear to hinder your prayer life. If you normally begin your prayers with the dawn of each new day, you will be tempted to sleep “just a little longer.” If bedtime is your prayer time, a thousand things will crop up to keep you up past your appointment and if you normally stop in the middle of the day to commune with God, you might be surprised at the number of invitations you receive for lunch.

Satan will be doing his very best to keep you from your appointment with God. Two of his favorite tricks are convincing us, “God doesn’t really listen” or he tells us, “You’re not worthy.” Yes, it’s true, sometimes it feels like our prayers don’t go any higher than the ceiling of the room we’re praying in, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t listening. At times like that I believe the communication is simply too deep for words. Paul told the Romans, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express,” (Romans 8:26). Or, think about your friends. With some friends silence is awkward. Someone must always be saying something to fill the void, but when you are with a true friend, the relationship is much deeper than that. When you are with a true friend, you don’t have to say anything. Just spending time together is enough. There are times when silence speaks volumes and so it is with God. Prayers don’t always involve words.

Satan’s second trick is the most sinister one. Satan will try to convince us we’re not worthy of God’s time. “The Creator has better things to do than listen to your petty problems. Besides, you’re not worthy.” That is not true! God loves us so much, he sent his son to save us. You believed that when you became a Christian and you are dearer to him now than ever before. Keep that appointment with God and join us in prayer!

Bible Questions: Speaking in Tongues

2 Jul


“Some friends of mine at work were very excited when I told them I was a Christian, but they were very disappointed when I told them I don’t ‘speak in tongues.’ They said speaking in tongues is a sign that we possess the Holy Spirit. Am I missing something?”   — Tongue Tied

Dear Tongue Tied,

Many Christian groups still believe we live in the age of miracles and practice faith healing, handle poisonous snakes and speak “in tongues.” However, I believe the age of miracles has passed. The miracles were signs to show that the Christian message was from God. Yes, it would be nice if we could heal the blind and raise the dead, but now we live in the age of faith. God confirmed the Gospel with miracles, but to demand miracles today seems to me to be the same as saying, “Lord I don’t believe. Show me a miracle now.” The miracles were like the scaffolding that surrounds a building as it is being constructed. After the building is complete, the scaffolding is removed. Let’s take a closer look at the phenomena of speaking in “tongues.”

Open your Bible to Acts chapter two where we first find people miraculously speaking in a language they had never learned before. Dr. Luke, the author of the book of Acts, is writing to Theophilus, a Roman who is unfamiliar with these things. When Luke mentions something Theophilus might not understand, Luke is very careful to describe it. Thus, when the apostles speak in “tongues” for the first time, Luke carefully explains what that means by having the crowd ask, “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?” (Acts 2:7, 8). Notice Luke uses the two words: “tongues” (v. 4) and “language” (v. 8) interchangeably.

The word “tongue” (glossa in Greek) is used three ways in the Bible (just as it is in English):

  1. It describes a physical tongue (Mark 7:33).
  2. It describes a tongue-shaped object (Acts 2:3)
  3. It describes what we do with our tongues, that is “language.” For example, in a bad cowboy movie, the Indian Chief might say, “White man speaks with a forked tongue.” In other words, he believes John Wayne is lying.

If you would like to learn more, let me recommend a book written by one of my mentors, Jimmy Jividen. It’s entitled, Glossolalia: From God or Man? and is available from


Looking for Loopholes

15 Jun

asa_johnThe story is told that W.C. Fields was near death and lying in a hospital. His wife came in and found him reading the Bible. “W.C.” she exclaimed, “I thought you didn’t believe in any of that stuff! What are you doing reading the Bible?”

“Looking for loopholes, my dear. Looking for loopholes!”

Many people have the idea that the Judgment Day is going to be just that: a cosmic courtroom. God will be the judge and Satan and Jesus will square off as opposing attorneys. These same people view the Bible as some kind of legal code and would be happy extracting the commandments to make obedience somewhat simpler. I can just see an angel pulling us over and giving us a ticket.

“What did I do Gabriel?”

“You just broke ordinance 10-A, ‘Skipping Bible School without a valid excuse.’”

This view of the Christian system is similar to that of people who believe God is some kind of “Great Accountant in the Sky.” On the Day of Judgment the books are balanced and if you have a surplus of good deeds you can enter the Pearly Gates but if there is a deficit, it’s the fast track to hotter climes.

So, just how good is “Good Enough”? Jesus raised the bar so high, no one can be good enough! Listen to what he said in the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 5:21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.


Matthew 5:27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

You see what makes Christianity different is, it isn’t about being “Good Enough.” It’s about being forgiven. When Jesus was crucified, there was a violent criminal being crucified along side him. Here was a man who admitted he was getting just what his crimes deserved, but he asked Jesus to remember him, and Christ promised, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” (Luke 23:43).

It’s not about being good enough – Christianity is about being forgiven.


Feel a Thought

14 May

Papa & Grands

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

― Paul, Colossians 3:16, 17

“Where words leave off, music begins.”

― Heinrich Heine

Why does God want us to sing? If all we are supposed to do is “teach and admonish one another,” then it would seem a good sermon or Bible class would be far more appropriate than singing.

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”

― Victor Hugo

While a lesson appeals to our intellect, music is played with our hearts (Ephesians 5:19) and the heart is a powerful thing. You can reason with an intellect, but not so much with the seat of feelings. Perhaps that explains why we feel so strongly about our tastes in music.

My Orthodox friends love the ancient monophonic chants. And because they feel so strongly about their style of music, they believe four-part harmony distracts from the sacred texts with its unnatural ornamentation. So should we only chant?

On the other hand, my young Millennial friends long for a total immersion in the worship experience. Their ears are delighted with overwhelming explosions of sound. Their eyes watch colorful backdrops of pictures moving with the beat of the music and their whole body shakes with the tactile experience of rhythmic movement, clapping and lifting holy hands. For them, worship in song involves as many different senses as possible. Simple song is drab in comparison.

My southern Sacred Harp friends delight in camp meeting choruses and shape notes, while my sophisticated choral friends believe in offering only the best music to God. Perfect pitch, spot on timing and virtuosity are the keys to a successful performance before God. Nothing else will do.

So what kind of music does God enjoy? Chants? Stately hymns or rambunctious praise? Perhaps the answer can be found in Who God is: our Father. And I know Fathers love the music of their children especially when that music comes from their loving hearts.

Be filled with the Spirit, making melody to the Lord with your heart,

― Paul, Ephesians 5:18, 19

“Words make you think. Music makes you feel. A song makes you feel a thought.”

― E.Y. Harburg



Hades and Purgatory

28 Apr

SpreadersQuestions and Answers

Dear John,

Last week you convinced me Hades and hell are two different things. After all, they are two different words. (See the bulletin for April 26th.) But my cousin says Hades and Purgatory are the same thing. What do you think?
Listening N. Backrow


Dear Listening,

I think Purgatory is a ski resort in Colorado. The word “Purgatory” isn’t found in the Bible at all. Roman Catholics believe:

Purgatory (Lat., “purgare”, to make clean, to purify) in accordance with Catholic teaching is a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.

From the Catholic Encyclopedia


This is wrong on so many different levels. The Catholic Church teaches that even though your sins have been forgiven by the sacrifice of Christ, you still may have some unforgiven sins that must be punished. They believe even Christians must suffer an appropriate amount of time to account for those sins. Now the good news for Catholics is, they believe some people – the “saints” – were so good they had more than enough good credits to go to heaven. As a result there are some extra credits that the saints are willing to share. Therefore, for the appropriate contribution, the priests will ask the saints to give your loved ones some of that extra goodness so your loved one won’t have to suffer so long in Purgatory. Convenient (and profitable), but absolutely not taught in Scripture.

Their justification for their belief in Purgatory is Hades – the unseen waiting place of departed souls. Since there is an “unseen world,” Roman Catholics claim that place must be Purgatory.

The foundation of this belief is common enough. Many people – perhaps most people – believe we get what we deserve. Good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. The corollary of this belief is, if you do something bad you must do something good to atone for your sin. This is known as “salvation by works” and it is totally contradicted by the Bible.

While Christians believe we need to strive to be good, we are not saved because we are good. We are saved by grace. Grace is the free gift of God (Romans 3:24). It has to be that way because there is no way we can be good enough on our own. Once we sin (and we all sin, Romans 3:23), we become a sinner and sin separates us from God.

Now consider the practical implications of this belief. Salvation by works results in a paranoid lifestyle. We are always “balancing the books” – counting up our good deeds and our bad deeds. We always worry which way the scales are tipping.

On the other hand, Christians believe since we are saved by grace, we constantly try to be good, not because we have to, but because we are grateful. Our life becomes an “attitude of gratitude.” Now let’s grab our skis and visit the only Purgatory worth talking about!