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!

Hades and Hell

22 Apr
View from Santa Teresa

View from Santa Teresa

Dear John,

I always thought Hades and hell were the same thing, but in a recent sermon you said we all go to Hades – unless Jesus comes first. Can you explain?
Listening N. Backrow


Dear Listening,

“Hades” is just a Greek word that means “unseen.” It is not the same as hell (Gehenna, Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28, and elsewhere). The word Hades describes either the place or the state where we will wait for the end of the world when Jesus comes again. Of course our bodies return to the earth while we wait for the resurrection, but what happens to our souls in the meantime? We wait in the unseen world: Hades.

Does Hades describe a state or a place? Many Christians think the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 6:19 ff.) refers to this unseen world, Hades. They point out that because the brothers of the Rich Man are still alive, the end of the world hasn’t come yet. That means the final judgment hasn’t happened either. Lazarus and the Rich Man are in the unseen waiting place, Hades, but they are in two very different parts. Lazarus is in the bosom of Abraham while the Rich Man is in torment.

People who believe Hades is a location even have a name for both parts of this place. Jesus promised the penitent thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” (Luke 22:43). He didn’t say “Today you will be with me in heaven.” The final judgment hasn’t happened yet, so paradise must refer to the place where Lazarus is being comforted. It’s a good place! On the other hand, Peter talks about a place where the rebellious angels are waiting for judgment (2 Peter 2:4). Some English Bibles say this place is “hell,” but notice the footnotes. The Greek word isn’t the usual one for hell (Gehenna). It’s called Tartarus. Could this be the name for the place in Hades where the soul of the Rich Man is being punished?

On the other hand, some Christians believe Hades describes a state or a condition where the soul is apart from the body. The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians: “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed,” that is, our body, “we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens,” that is, our future resurrection body. Paul continues, “For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked,” (2 Corinthians 5:1-3). In other words, to be a soul apart from a body is similar to being naked. So where does a righteous soul wait for the Day of Judgment? According to the Revelation, perhaps under the altar in heaven (Revelation 6:9 ff.).

While I believe the Bible teaches unless Jesus comes first, we will all die, I don’t believe we have enough evidence to be certain if Hades is an unseen waiting place or an unseen state. But which would you choose? To wait in the beautiful Paradise of God or to wait with the martyrs in heaven? Either way, it sounds like we can’t loose!

The Blessing of Words

8 Apr

DSC_0086“Ahhh chooo!” he sneezed and someone piped up, “Bless you!”

That’s an old custom left over from when people believed sneezes were caused by demons and we needed God’s help to overcome the sniffles. Perhaps times have changed. We no longer believe colds are caused by demons, but we also rarely think about blessings either.

The Apostle Paul begins his letter to the Ephesians by declaring, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” (Ephesians 1:3, ESV), but what does that mean? The New Century Bible changes the wording a little bit to have Paul say, “Praise be to the God.” (See the Contemporary English Version and others.) This recognizes that there are two Greek words in the New Testament translated “bless.”

We know the first one from Jesus’ Beatitudes (Matthew 5:2 ff.), where each phrase begins, “Blessed are ….” That word, makarios, has the sense “congratulations,” “fortunate,” or “happy.” In other words, if you practice this quality, you will be happy.

The second word translated “blessed” is eulogetos. It is an adjective, a description, which portrays something as “worthy of praise.” This is the interesting part: this word is only used of God the Father or Jesus. They are so fantastic that only they are truly praiseworthy. Everything and everyone else pales in comparison.

Now let’s take our new found knowledge and use it to help us understand what Paul was telling the Ephesians: God is blessed – he is worthy of praise! (Spend some time thinking about why God is worthy of praise.) God is blessed! But that isn’t all Paul tells us. Out of his bounty of blessings, God gives some of that quality to us. His blessings rub off on us through our relationship with Jesus. To the extent Jesus is Lord of our lives, we receive the blessings of God!

Still there is more. We might think about earthly blessings: a new car, a shiny new gadget – my wish list goes on and on – but the problem with earthly blessings is new cars become old, gadgets new to be replaced, and none of the possessions I might desire will ever really satisfy me. That’s why the blessings that come from God are “spiritual blessings.” They make me a better person. God’s blessings just get better and better with time. But that’s not all. These blessings aren’t earthbound. They are “in the heavenly places.” That means unlike anything else in my life, the blessings of God will travel with me into eternity! Now that’s something worth getting excited about.

Just a Day Sail

23 Mar

SpreadersSpring is officially here and to celebrate we took a lovely day-sail on Santa Teresa. Yes, the rails need to be sanded and varnished. Yes, the brightwork needs to be sanded and varnished. Yes, there are a thousand and one things to fix, replace, and adjust, but sometimes you just have to put down the brushes and tools and go sailing.

On Friday Jan and I unmoored and sailed up the bay to the docks on Shelter Island to wash Santa Teresa down, top off her batteries, water and fuel. I spent the night aboard and four friends — and a puppy — joined me for a delightfully relaxing day on the water. I don’t believe we topped 4 knots, even with all the sails set, but the sun was warm, the air fresh and the water was clear.

Davey, Tom, Brett & Rob

Davey, Tom, Brett & Rob

Coco & Tom

Coco & Tom

No, there aren’t any good sea stories to report. Nothing broke or caught fire. No sign of pirates or vicious marine life to report, just a lazy spring day with good friends and an unhurried afternoon. Life is good!

Santa Teresa's Bow

Santa Teresa’s Bow