From Bitter to Better

7 Jan
In front of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

In front of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

Things hadn’t worked out the way Naomi had planned. She, her husband, and three sons made a move they believed would provide them with a new life. Things had started well, but then one disaster after another befell her. Life had become so hard she wanted to change her name from “Naomi” (which means “pleasant”) to “Mara” (which means, “bitter.” See Ruth 1:20.)

Life is hard. The world is full of injustice. Bad things happen to good people, but is it inevitable that age sours us? How can we become better instead of bitter?

Cut bitterness off at the roots.

Some people feed their bitter roots, but the Bible teaches us to get rid of bitterness as soon as possible (Hebrews 12:15; Ephesians 4:31).

‘Fess up!

Of course that’s not always possible. Circumstances often blindside us, but Helen G. Lescheid wrote, “Coming to terms with bitterness seems to be the first step toward getting rid of it.” That’s a two-part process: (1) admit your pain, and (2) stop making excuses for what happened. How many times have you heard someone you love say through clenched teeth, “I’m not angry!” Come on! Admit it before bitterness bites you.

Become a forgiver

Here is the Christian key: Don’t let anyone tie you to the past. Stephen forgave his killers even before they threw the first stone! (Acts chapter 7) Forgiveness is liberating! But if that’s true, why don’t we forgive people? A simple answer can be, “They hurt me. I want to hurt them” or “I forgave them once and they didn’t change. Why should I let them continue to hurt me?” We forget that we have been forgiven!

So what’s included in forgiving? Forgetting for one. Let it go, but there is a time for confrontation. God doesn’t expect his children to be doormats. Sometimes we hurt the ones we love and we don’t even realize it. Confrontation doesn’t have to be hostile. In fact confrontation always has the goal of restoration. We value the relationship. Love can conquer.

Finally, forgiveness is empowering. Refuse to allow anyone to crush your spirit. Forgive and prove you are indeed a child of God!


18 Dec

asa_johnOne of the first temptations I experienced was being asked, “Hold my Popsicle – but don’t lick it!” Do you remember that situation? There it was: in your hands! It was probably dripping down over your fingers and you were struggling. You gave your solemn word you wouldn’t lick it. The excuses come pouring in: “It’s dripping!” “She won’t notice one little lick.” “She wouldn’t mind.” “She owes me.” And so you struggle. What are you going to do?

  • You can do as you’re told and live with your frustration – the first of many.
  • You might just go ahead and eat it anyway. After all, it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.
  • You could refuse to hold the Popsicle, but that might cost you a friend.
  • You can try to convince yourself that you don’t really like Popsicles.

It’s tough. Maybe there is another way to deal with temptations. First, we need to understand everyone is subject to temptations — everyone. We’re not all subject to the same temptations (Since I have a childhood fear of needles, I’ve never been tempted to shoot up drugs), but we are all subject to temptation. (It’s very personal.) Armed with that knowledge, like a good Boy Scout, we can be prepared. We can avoid those situations and people that tempt us, and we can prepare our responses in advance.

Second, Remember: “Nature abhors a vacuum.” If I told you not to think about deadly, black vipers sitting under your chair, you probably won’t be able to think about anything else until you look to make sure I’m joking. On the other hand, if I told you to think about the most delicious hot fudge sundae, complete with whipped cream and a bright red cherry, you probably wouldn’t be thinking about that black snake.

Jesus told a parable about an unclean spirit: “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.” (Matthew 12:43-45 English Standard Version)

If you want to escape temptation, you need to fill your mind and your life with good things.

Finally, when I was a little boy, my family lived on the edge of a soybean field in Kansas. My mom hated mice, but try as she might; there was no way to keep them out of the house. Of course my mom learned to swing a broom faster than any woman alive too! WACK: flat rat. Now imagine you are a tiny mouse nibbling on a crumb of bread in my mom’s kitchen one night. Suddenly you hear the door open behind you and the light falls across the floor. Your life is about to be measured in milliseconds! What can you do?

You might, John Wayne fashion, turn and face your nemesis. Shake your little defiant mouse fist and WACK: flat rat. A better choice is to run with all of your strength towards the safety of the mouse hole. After all, mice are incredibly fast. However, you hear mom’s footsteps following you. You might be tempted to divide your attention between the mouse hole and looking over your shoulder: mouse hole – mom, mouse hole – mom, mouse hole WACK: flat rat.

No, the only hope you have is to focus all of your attention on the mouse hole and run with all the strength God gave you towards safety. No looking back!

Paul told the Corinthians, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13 English Standard Version)

The 14 Pointed Star Revisited

10 Dec

It may be one of the two ugliest churches in the world, but the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a special place. It is a UN World Heritage Site – the first in Palestine and Israel. Constantine the Great’s mother, Helen, was responsible for building it in 339 A.D. Since then it has been rebuilt, survived destruction by the Persians (614), a mad caliph (1009), earthquake (1834) fire (1869) and an Israeli army siege against suspected Palestinian militants who had taken refuge there (2002). The Church of the Nativity was constructed over the traditional site of the birthplace of Jesus, a cave below the church.

If we were to climb down into the cave by the circular staircases on either side of the altar, we wouldn’t recognize the grotto below the church as a cave. Today it is hung with tapestries and lit with lamps. There is a simple altar and there on the floor, supposedly over the very spot of his birth, is a fourteen pointed Silver Star. While it is likely that Jesus was born in a cave (they were used as stables in those days), it is highly unlikely anyone would remember exactly which cave much less exactly which place in the cave was the exact location of the birth of a carpenter’s son almost 400 years earlier!

The 14 Pointed Star in Bethlehem

The 14 Pointed Star in Bethlehem

That Silver Star itself became one of the reasons for the Crimean War (1853-1856, famous for the charge of the light brigade and Florence Nightingale). There have been hostilities between the Roman Catholic Church (West) and Greek Orthodox Church (East) for centuries. Different churches control various parts of the shrines of Christendom in Israel. For example, the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopic churches control the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. These groups have often fought with each other (literally – imagine a brawl of monks using crucifixes and candlesticks as bludgeons). In fact today the keeper of the keys to that church is a Moslem!

In 1845 the Roman Catholic Silver Star, which supposedly marks the very place where Mary gave birth to Jesus, was stolen. Napoleon III of France proclaimed himself protector of Catholics and insisted that he was the protector of the holy sites in Israel as well. The Russians had already claimed to be the protector of the holy sites in Israel and of the Orthodox Church through the Turks. Napoleon demanded the keys to the front door of the Church of the Nativity be given to the Romans who were having to use a side door to get in and he also demanded the silver star be returned. This became one of the causes for the Crimean War. The irony breaks my heart: people fighting over the right to protect the birthplace of the Prince of Peace!

Perhaps now, more than ever, we need the “peace that passes all understanding” to take control! With thousands of warring factions each claiming to be the true church, I want nothing to do with “religiosity.” I am neither Protestant, nor Catholic, nor Jew. I am just a Christian. Want to know more? Drop me a line:


(For more information about the Star, please see my previous article: Jan. 6, 2014.)

Peanut Butter and the Bible

24 Nov

 wax tablet

Our English Bible is a translation of Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) originals and it is impossible to completely convey all of the meaning of one language into another. That’s why a computer will never replace a human interpreter.


There is a very funny example of what happens when once scholars tried to use a computer to translate the phrase, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” from Matthew 26:41. The scholars fed the Greek original into the computer and the computer printed out its translation: “the wine is good, but the meat is lousy.”


Preachers – myself especially – often try to explain the meaning of the original languages. How often have you heard me say, “The Greek word means …”? My grandfather hated it when preachers did that. Papa would shake his head and say, “It could mean peanut butter for all I know.” He felt the minister was just showing off; then he’d add with a twinkle in his eye, “I know a little Greek – he owns a restaurant down on the corner.” Later, when his grandson became a Greek major, he changed his mind and was very proud of me. I miss Papa.


There are some great word pictures in the Greek Bible though and I’d like to share another one with you. The word for today is hypogrammos and is only found in one place in the New Testament:


For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. – 1 Peter 2:21

Here it is translated “example,” but it literally describes a model or pattern to be copied. In Peter’s day, they didn’t have paper and papyrus was far too expensive to let a child scribble on, so they would fill a small wooden frame with colored wax. The teacher would use a stylus to scribe the alphabet into the wax. Then the student would put his pen in the grooves and trace the letters until his hand remembered their shapes. That line of letters – the perfect example – was called the hypogrammos, the “above writing.” Then the student would try to write the sentence on his own on the line beneath.


Jesus is our example. We practice following in his footsteps and then launch out into our lives looking at the line above ours asking, “What would Jesus do?” Are we following the perfect pattern?


By the way Papa, the Greek word for “peanut butter” is fystikovoútyro, but I promise I won’t use it in a sermon!

From the Mailbag

17 Nov

Occasionally I am asked questions about what the Bible teaches. Here is one from my inbox.

“I would like to put up a Christmas tree, but my boss says it’s not a Christian symbol. In fact, he says the Bible teaches against it. I think he’s just cheap.” – R. Cratchit.

Bob, you’re really asking two questions. The first one asks, “Is it wrong to celebrate Christmas?” Let’s deal with that question before we look at your second question, “Are Christmas trees sinful?”

First, there are no commands or examples of Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus in the New Testament. The Christmas holiday probably didn’t exist. On the other hand, we can reason, Jesus had a birthday and the story of his birth is an amazing part of the Bible. (See the first three chapters of Matthew and Luke for more details.) Why not set aside a day to re-tell the story and celebrate this incredible event?

Historically, Christmas was an early Christian attempt to re-frame a popular pagan holiday (the winter solstice) in Christian clothes. This practice of taking something from the culture and giving it a new meaning is called “co-opting.” It’s very common. For example, the popular hymn, “He’s the Lilly of the Valley” was actually taken from Jack Thorpe’s 1908 song, “Little Joe the Wrangler” (from the first published collection of cowboy songs). We just changed the lyrics. This has been a common practice for millennia and if it is acceptable to co-opt music, why isn’t acceptable to do the same thing with a holiday too?

Second, it is also important to note the distinction between a “holy day” and a “holiday.” Holy days serve an efficacious purpose: if you observe it properly, you will receive a blessing. Yom Kippur and the other Jewish holy days are examples of just that.

As far as I can see, we have no commands or clear examples of the early Christians observing holy days, although the Apostle Paul told the Romans: “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord,” (Romans 14:5, 6). The closest thing we have in Christianity to a holy day would be Sunday – the Lord’s Day, which is celebrated in worship every week.

Third, Bob, perhaps your boss is thinking about Ezekiel’s condemnation of the Israelites: “they put the branch to their nose,” to object to Christmas trees (Ezekiel 8:17). In Ezekiel’s day, people falsely worshiped trees by breaking off aromatic branches and sniffing them, but I fail to see how that is relevant in rejecting Christmas trees, unless people are worshiping their holiday decorations!

Likewise some people say the Christmas tree traces its roots to dendrolatry (the worship of trees). These people claim the old, pagan, Germans worshiped trees and this story claims when the Germans became Christians, they continued dendrolatry by dressing up evergreen trees in Christian garb. This, they claim, is the origin of Christmas trees. Yes, the Germanic people worshiped trees (see “Donar’s Oak” in Wikipedia), but they worshiped oak trees not evergreens.

So let’s come back and look at symbols again. What does a Christmas tree represent in modern times? Hold up a picture of a Christmas tree and ask 100 people what it represents. How many people would answer: “Christmas!” Even if the evergreen tree was a pagan symbol a thousand years ago, it’s not now. That is crucial. What does it represent today? “It’s a Christmas decoration!” is the overwhelming answer.

Finally, let’s look at another symbol: the heart. Hearts represent love and romance, but the heart symbol looks about as much like the human organ as Teddy Roosevelt looks like the MGM lion. So where did this symbol come from? The answer is, it came from the giant fennel seed. You’ve probably never seen giant fennel since Nero ate the last one at one of his famous suppers in the First Century. So how did the “heart-shaped” giant fennel seed come to represent love? Because it was used as a birth control drug in Nero’s day! It represented love, but it represented a very erotic form of love.

Does that mean when someone gives you a heart-shaped valentine, they are suggesting something illicit? No more than erecting a Christmas tree means you want to worship an ancient fertility goddess. Bah humbug!

Five Loaves and Two Fishes

4 Nov

Today’s post is from Philip Clarke Brewer.

Fall in Colorado

Fall in Colorado

God uses
what you have
what you have
to fill a need which
you never could have filled.

God uses
where you are
to take you where
you never could have gone.

God uses
what you can do
to accomplish what
you never could have done.

God uses
who you are
to let you become who
you never could have been.

Another Conversation with Epaphras

27 Oct

Epaphras1This past week my old friend Epaphras stopped by the office for a chat. (And I mean old friend. He’s the 2,000-year-old founder of the church at Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis.)

“Say, isn’t that a new donkey Ep?” I asked watching his burro nibbling on the grass in the courtyard.

He smiled, “Why yes it is. Customs wouldn’t let me bring the old one across the border.” Epaphras offered me a falafel as we sat in the shade. “So how are things going at Canyon View John?”

“Great! We had nearly 500 people here last Sunday night for Trunk or Treat*.”

“That’s wonderful. I would have stopped by but my burro doesn’t have a trunk,” he replied with a twinkle in his eye. “Now if I rode an elephant like Thomas, that would be a different story.”

I had to think about that for a minute and then I laughed. “Seriously Ep, it’s great to see all the kids coming to Canyon View, but I worry. So many of them leave the church when they go off to college. I don’t know what to do or say.”

He thought for a moment, then leaned forward and answered. “That’s the challenge John. There is a critical moment when children must decide whether they truly believe or not. They need to discover if their faith is honestly theirs or if it is just something they inherited from their parents.”

“But think about all the things we are doing as a congregation! We have a children’s minister and a youth minister and Children’s Bible Hour, Bible Classes, Bible Bowl and all kinds of activities too.” I objected wiping the crumbs off my shirt. “Isn’t there something we can do?”

The old man raised his eyebrows. “Those are all fine programs I’m sure. I wish we could have done some of those things twenty centuries ago, but it would be hard to have Children’s Bible Hour in a catacomb.” He thought for a minute and then continued. “But John some things – the most important things – don’t change. If you want your children to have faith, you have to have faith. If the church isn’t important to you, don’t be surprised if it’s not important to your children.”

Then, as usual, he got on his donkey and rode away leaving me with something to think about.


* Trunk or Treat is a wonderful program for all the children in the neighborhood. Members (and neighbors) decorate their cars and trucks and provide a safe activity for kids. We have games and prizes and dinner and a costume parade the last Sunday of every October.

Quiet Time

21 Oct
View from Santa Teresa

View from Santa Teresa

It had been a tough week. It was one of those weeks when I dreaded getting the mail or answering the phone. It seemed like all of the news was just bad. Jan looked at me, ran her fingers through my hair and packed me off to the boat. “Somebody needs some quiet time,” she said. “Why don’t you go out to the boat and unwind?” Jan packed me some snacks and pulled my wool watch cap down around my ears.

A short time later, I dragged the dinghy down the beach and waded out into the bay. Soon the water was doing it’s magic. With each stroke of the oars, I could feel my body and, more importantly, my soul beginning to relax. The sun was setting behind Coronado: a ball of red fire. As I climbed up the side of our old wooden boat, the stars were beginning to “pop.” Sirius, the “dog star,” appeared above the Coronado bridge quickly followed by Jupiter and Orion. There was an unusual chill in the air and the heat from the oil lamps felt good. Wrapped in my sleeping bag, sipping a mug of steaming tomato soup, I started reading the Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble,” (Jesus, Matthew 6:25-34).

Those were the words I needed to hear. Do you? Isn’t our Father wonderful?



Honest to God

14 Oct

Gordon Gower telling the truth on a Colorado Climb

Have you ever lied to God? People are often dishonest in prayer: “Lord, thank you for the wonderful day” but inside it doesn’t feel all that wonderful.

How can we be dishonest in prayer? It’s human nature to think some matters are too trivial to pray about. “The Creator of the Universe isn’t interested in my frustrations with the phone company.” That’s not true. God has invited us to share our whole life with Him. He is interested in our growth and that requires transparency on our part.

Likewise there are some things we’d rather not talk about. That’s true in marriage (or any relationship for that matter) and it’s true in prayer. A man came home drunk one night. He staggered into the house and his sweet wife helped him into bed. As she pulled the covers up and kissed his head she asked, “Charles, would you like me to say a prayer?”

In his drunken stupor he mumbled something she took to be a “Yes” and so she began, “Heavenly Father, please forgive my drunken husband…” The startled man opened his eyes and objected, “Don’t tell him I’m drunk! Tell him I’m sick!”

There are also times when we are angry with God but we are afraid to admit it. “Why did this have to happen to me?” Still we say our prayers and pretend everything is fine. Job had the courage (or the maturity) to ask the tough questions. He was honest with God and we call Job blessed.

The point of all this is growth. Before we can be honest with God, we must be honest with ourselves and so the discipline of prayer calls us into a totally transparent relationship with God. It calls us to be honest to God.

I’m Positive! I’m a Christian

16 Sep

John on Rainier


“The average pencil is seven inches long, with just a half-inch eraser – in case you thought optimism was dead.”
― Robert Brault


Somewhere along the way, Christians got a reputation for being negative people. Perhaps we inherited that label from our Jewish forefathers. The rabiis studied the first five books of the Bible and identified 613 commandments that cover nearly every aspect of life. It seems that 365 of them are negative (“Thou shalt not …”) and 248 of them are positive (“Thou shalt …”).

We do it to ourselves too of course. I once knew a preacher who always seemed so angry in his sermons. I asked him why and he announced, “The Apostle Paul told Timothy to ‘reprove, rebuke, and exhort’ (2 Timothy 4:2) and so I believe two out of three sermons ought to be angry!” I’m sad to say, I think he was serious, but I don’t think that’s right. Christians ought to be the most positive people on the planet. Why we have so much to live for we even have something to die for! We’ve read the book and we know how the story ends.

I suppose I’ve always been an optimistic Christian. Along the way, I’ve collected some tidbits that reinforce that view:

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” — Winston Churchill

“What day is it?”
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favorite day,” said Pooh. — A. A. Milne

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“You’ll never find a rainbow if you’re looking down.” — Charlie Chaplin

“Only those who attempt the absurd can achieve the impossible.” — Albert Einstein

Life isn’t a weary cycle that repeats itself over and over and over again. Jesus plainly told us, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10). So, I’m positive – I’m a Christian!