The 73rd Annual Pepperdine Bible Lectureship

2 May
John guiding in Bavaria 1975

John guiding in Bavaria 1975

This Friday, May 6th, I will be teaching a class, “Five Minutes on the Back of a Napkin: A Visual Approach to Sharing the Gospel,” at the 73rd Annual Pepperdine Bible Lectureship in Malibu, California. Sharing the Good News shouldn’t be a program. We don’t need to learn a “sales pitch” or use some kind of gimmick to share the Gospel. When my daughter was born, I had to tell someone the good news. It was 3:00 in the morning! So I went to Denny’s and burst through the doors shouting, “It’s a girl!” Everyone shared my joy and someone bought my breakfast!

Do you remember the story of the Triumphal Entry (Luke 19:28-43)? When the religious leaders tried to tell Jesus to quiet the Master’s joyous celebration,  “He answered, ‘ I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

Likewise, Jesus used this principle with the Gerasene Demoniac (Mark 5:1-20). When the man was cured, he asked to go with Jesus, but the Lord said, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.”

The apostles used this principle with the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1-22). When the politicians told the apostles not to talk about Jesus anymore, they replied they couldn’t help but speak.

You know your own story of how God saved you, but what many people struggle with is a framework. Where do I begin? What do I need to say? That’s what this class is all about. If you happen to be at the lectureship, I hope you’ll join me. Meanwhile, several people have asked me to share more about sharing the gospel on the back of a napkin. Stay tuned!

The Apostle Paul and the Snake

18 Apr

The life of Paul was full of hardships. In 2 Corinthians chapter 11, he recounts some of his story:

2 Corinthians 11:24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.

And all this was before his shipwreck in Acts chapter 27! One of the trials that we often forget to list was after the shipwreck on Malta, dripping wet, Paul made his way onto the beach. There, in the rain and in the cold, the apostle along with some very sympathetic islanders, Paul made a fire to warm the survivors. In the process of gathering wood for the fire, a deadly viper latched on to his hand. In horror, the islanders expected Paul to instantly swell up and die (Acts 28:1-6).

The trouble for biblical interpreters today is, there are no poisonous snakes on Malta. So where did this snake come from and how did the Maltese know the viper was deadly? According to The Times of Malta (February 19, 2014) the islanders have several explanations.

One is that the preaching of Paul caused all the venomous creatures on the island to loose their venom. In fact, the enterprising islanders began selling powdered limestone from the island as a medicinal cure for poisonous bites! The Times wrote this is “proof of Maltese ingenuity rather than the efficacy of the medicines.”

Another theory is the snake was the Leopard snake, Zamenis situla, which is venomous in southern Europe but not on Malta. Of course the islanders would have known that so let’s look at another possibility for Paul’s viper.

Perhaps it was a snake that has since become extinct. That’s certainly a possibility, but there is no evidence that such a serpent ever existed on Malta either in the written record or in the artifacts.

A more likely culprit was the notorious horned viper, Vipera ammodytes. The snake is deadly and inhabits southern Europe and Turkey. It has been known to hitch a ride on ships and is an excellent swimmer or it could have ridden one of the planks from Paul’s ship to shore. The islanders, who often traded with the mainland, would have instantly recognized the viper by its horns (see picture) and reacted as Luke recorded in Acts.

The miracle of Paul’s survival may simply be the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy, “they will pick up serpents with their hands; and … it will not hurt them,” (Mark 16:18).

The Horned Viper, V. ammodytes

The Horned Viper, V. ammodytes

Preparing for Worship

10 Apr

“We have met the enemy and he is us!”

Pogo, Walt Kelly’s cartoon character

Driving home after services I had to admit, “I just didn’t connect with the worship this morning.” We pulled up to a light and I continued. “The prayers seemed more like performances and the songs were so disjointed! On top of that, the sermon just didn’t seem relevant. I wonder why I even bothered to get up this morning.”

My sweet wife smiled that knowing-wife smile and chided me. “Maybe you were the problem. Did you take time to prepare for worship?” I sulked as I pulled away from the light and then had to admit, “You’re probably right. I hadn’t thought about that.”

So how do we prepare for the most important meeting of the week? Here are some suggestions that I have found helpful:

  1. Shift Gears. Early on in driver’s training, you learn to shift into a different gear when you start to climb a hill. Before we can truly worship God, we must take a moment to “shift gears” and center our thoughts on Him.
  2. Discover the Power of Gratitude. “Christians aren’t perfect – just forgiven.” As you are preparing for worship, take a moment to appreciate the gift of grace.
  3. Drop Your Inhibitions. A lot of people are afraid of their own voice. They are too self-conscious to sing. We have so many wonderful singers at Canyon View it can be tempting just to sit back and listen but the Lord loves a “joyful noise” and who are you to argue with God?
  4. Tap into the Fellowship. There is an energy in corporate worship. Have you felt it? It’s always there but sometimes our “receptors” are out of order. Reach out and tap into the power!
  5. Confession is Good for the Soul. Sin and guilt make it hard to worship. Confess your sins by name and feel the power of forgiveness.
  6. Be Filled with the Spirit. Paul told the Ephesians (and us) not to get drunk on wine “be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Ephesians 5:19, 20).
  7. Finally, expect great things! What you receive from worship is equal to what you put into worship. If you expect the singing to be bad and the lesson to be boring, I suspect that’s what you’ll receive but if you come expecting great things I promise you’ll receive even more blessings that you anticipated.

DSC_0086

Sour Wine

21 Mar

66796main_overcash1_medAfter a night without sleep, countless beatings, a Roman flogging and now hanging from nails on a cross, Jesus was nearly dead. What we don’t think of though were the little pains: the hurt of the taunts, the sweat in his eyes, the raging thirst. The fifth of the Seven Last Sayings of Jesus is but a single word in Greek: “I thirst,” (John 19:28).

By this point, Jesus was approaching the end. The soldiers at the foot of the cross heard and saw it all. Jesus didn’t die like other men. The first thing he said from the cross was “Father forgive them,” and the second was a promise to the penitent thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Even the battle-hardened centurion would have been touched as Jesus entrusts his mother’s care to Jesus’ best friend. The cry of desperation in the language of his childhood, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” would have haunted them. Thus when Jesus said in a dry, course whisper, “I thirst,” one of the soldiers rushes to wet his lips with their own “sour wine.”

Why is this saying – actually only one word in Greek – recorded for us to meditate on? Jesus wasn’t play-acting on the cross. He didn’t just say this to fulfill prophecy and he wasn’t asking for pity. It reveals his humanity.

This word was a prayer, but not to God. It was addressed to his executioners. There is a kind of pride that says, “I will never ask you for anything!” But Jesus still had faith in humanity – even as they were taking his life. So what possessed an unnamed soldier to run to the aid of Jesus? Touched by Christ, the soldier shared what he had.

So what is “sour wine”? Were they sadistically giving a dying man vinegar? A quick search of the different English translations is revealing. Moffatt’s version and the Jerusalem Bible read “vinegar,” while Goodspeed, Phillips, and the New English Bible translate the word as “sour wine,” but I like the Today’s English Version and the New American Bible’s translation “common wine.”

Baker’s Encyclopedia of the Bible explains: “there were three pressings. The first was extracted by stomping on the grapes. This made the best wine. The second took the must, put it in a bag and squeezed out the juice. The last took the leavings and boiled them to extract the very last. This was ‘common wine.’” The United Bible Society’s Handbook on the Gospel of John, a help for translators, explains: “The Greek word refers to a diluted, vinegary wine. Since it was cheaper than regular wine, it was a favorite drink of laborers, soldiers, and other persons in moderate circumstances. The translations ‘sour wine,’ ‘bitter wine,’ and ‘vinegar’ suggest that offering this drink to Jesus was an act of cruelty, whereas in fact it had the humanitarian purpose of relieving his thirst.”

Even in his death, Jesus won followers! “And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’” (Mark 15:35).

 

 

The Freedom of Simplicity

14 Mar

Arizona River1“When did things get to be so crazy?” she asked balancing a baby on her hip while she was chasing a two-year old. I raised an eyebrow and she laughed. “No, it’s not the kids,” she objected. “I’m talking about life in general. Everything seems to be getting more and more complicated.”

The Jerusalem Bible says, “God made man simple; man’s complex problems are of his own devising,” (Ecclesiastes 7:39).

Ben Huey, one of my former elders, told me, “Our lives are made complex by trying to hold on to two competing values.” It’s like Lot’s wife who wanted to be saved, but she wanted to live in Sodom at the same time. Many of us can’t decide what we want to be or what we want to get out of life. I think that’s reflected in our desire to collect possessions. Arthur Gish said, “We buy things we do not want to impress people we do not like.” We buy things because everyone else is buying it. Richard Foster added, “It’s time we awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick.”

So what happens when we try to live with duplicity? Worry! One of my favorite authors, Tim Hansel, wrote: “It is interesting to note that the word worry comes from the Greek word merimnao, which is a combination of the two words merizo, meaning ‘to divide,’ and nous, meaning ‘mind.’ Hence, worry means to ‘divide the mind,’ or to be ‘double minded.”

Another result of trying to live in two worlds is confusion. We have more and more difficulty saying, “No!” E. Stanley Jones reminds us, “Your capacity to say ‘No’ determines your capacity to say ‘Yes’ to greater things,” and of course the Apostle Paul told young Timothy, “No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs – he wants to please his commanding officer,” (1 Timothy 2:4). So who is your commanding officer?

Do you feel helpless? Again that might be a sign you are trying to live in two (or more) worlds. Like unfocused light, lives without a clearly defined purpose are powerless.

So how can I find the simple life? First, be careful no to reduce simplicity to a set of outward actions. Again Richard Foster reminds us, “The Christian Discipline of simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle.” James, the brother of Jesus, coined the word dipsuche, “double-minded” in James 1:2-8, but he also gives us the cure for that condition later in 4:8, “purify your hearts you double-minded!”

Jesus said we find the virtue of simplicity by becoming single-minded (Matthew 6:25-33):

25 “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? 26 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? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 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? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

Here are some simple suggestions for living a simple life:

  • Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status
  • Reject anything that is producing an addiction (including Smartphones)
  • Develop the habit of giving things away
  • Learn to enjoy things without owning them (visit a museum)
  • Develop a deeper appreciation of the creation (go for a walk)
  • Beware of “buy now, pay later” (credit enslaves)
  • Cultivate simplicity of dress and speech
  • Strive to live in the present

The simple life begins when we find our center, our focal point. Have you decided what your center is?

Would Jesus Use a Smartphone?

23 Feb

 

John and Jan“Bing.” It’s the middle of the night, but my Smartphone dings and the little blue-white screen lights up the bedroom… again. Do I check my messages or roll over and try to get back to sleep?

I’m at a restaurant enjoying a quiet dinner with my sweet wife. We’re in the middle of a wonderful conversation and the phone in my pocket begins to vibrate. It might be important, but what is more important than sharing time with my love?

The preacher makes a great point I hadn’t thought about. The Apostle Paul was in Troas and the preacher says Troas was once in the running against Constantinople to be the capital of the Roman Empire. Instinctively I reach for my Smartphone and Google …

Smartphones were invented to make our lives more efficient, but now it seems like they are sucking up more and more of our attention and time. I read an interesting study by a social scientist this week that warns – hold on a second, my iPhone just delivered a text message and my wife called at the same time. (I’m not making this up!) Any way, he warns of three specific dangers: Smartphones hurt relationships, keep us from focusing and being productive at work, and keep us from being fully present in life.[1]

All of this relates to their being a constant distraction. We become Information Junkies. The next time you are in a restaurant or coffee shop, notice how many people are texting or checking their phones instead of paying attention to the people they are with.

Now think about Jesus. Although he was the Son of God and had access to all of the knowledge in the universe, I believe when he was with people, he was wholly with them. He was moved by the widow’s tears, touched by the pain of the sick, focused on the lost.

So how can we find balance between our need for information and our need to truly be present in our surroundings and with the people we love? Recently I’ve started taking a regular “Techno-Sabbath.” That means turning off all my devices – computer, laptop, TV, Smartphone, iPad, DVD player – anything with buttons or batteries – for the day. Somehow the world continues to spin on without my input and I’m feeling much better. My stress levels go down. I’m more focused and my relationships are more meaningful without the constant interruptions and temptations to look something up. Try it! Instead of being mastered by technology, master life. Turn it off!

[1] http://www.artofmanliness.com/2016/02/22/break-smartphone-habit/

Let Loose the Lions

2 Feb

EpaphrasI hadn’t seen my old friend Epiphras in a long time. It could be because he is two thousand years old and doesn’t move as quickly as he used to, but still, I thought he looked pretty good for someone with that many miles on him.

“So how are things going John?” he asked.

“Pretty well Ep,” I replied. He was looking for a place to graze his donkey and I pointed out, “We’ve had a pretty bad drought this past year so we took out all the grass and we’re putting in a playground for the children.” He nodded his head as we led Eutychius, his old burro, over to the cell phone tower to munch on some weeds.

“That sounds like a good idea John. So where are all the people?” he asked looking around on a Sunday morning. “I thought there were more Christians at Canyon View than this.”

“Well today is the Super Bowl,” I explained. “A lot of people stayed home to watch the game.”

“Hmm,” he muttered stroking his beard. “When I was younger Christians generally tried to stay away from the games. It seemed like we were the main attraction – at least for the lions.”

“Oh, it’s not like that any more Ep,” I said.

“The contestants don’t wear armor and try to beat each other up?” he asked.

“Well, now we serve hot wings and have tailgate parties and watch commercials,” I explained.

“And people like that?” he asked cocking his eye at me.

“Oh yes! It’s a huge attraction.”

“Then perhaps you should try serving wings and running commercials during your sermon,” he suggested with a twinkle in his eye.

 

“Nice talking to you Epiphras. Let me know the next time you are coming for a visit so I can make sure the lions are hungry.”

What are you worried about?

23 Dec

Kaity“The 2002 World Mental Health Survey found that Americans were nearly five times more likely than Nigerians to experience clinically significant levels of anxiety in any given year.”[1] According to the National Institute of Mental Health, America is now officially the most anxious nation on the planet. More than 18% of adults suffer from a full-blown anxiety disorder in any given year.

So what’s wrong with us? One writer called it “flurry and worry.” We are just too busy. Somewhere along the way we began believing “busyness is next to godliness,” but just because our calendars are full doesn’t mean we are living a full life!

On the other hand, Jesus too seemed to be overwhelmed at times. Mark described an occasion when Jesus “went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’” (Mark 3:20, 21) Of course he wasn’t either out of his mind or worried. Jesus was busy without being anxious. He often talked about this:

“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.

So what was Jesus’ secret for dealing with stress and anxiety? First, Jesus reminds us that God knows what we need (v.32). Don’t doubt your Father’s love! Second, make sure your priorities are in order (v. 33). Think about it: when chaos is swirling around us prompting fear, anxiety, and stress, your moral compass – putting God first – will guide you through the maelstrom. Finally, don’t make it worse than it is by allowing the “if only” or the “what if” cloud your calm. Remember, Jesus said:

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble (v. 34).

 

 

 

 

[1] Taylor Clark, Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool (2011)

 

Is December 25th actually Jesus’ birthday?

3 Dec

Bible Questions

“Was Jesus really born on December 25th?” — Ebenezer Scrooge

 

Although both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke both describe the birth of Jesus, the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly when Jesus was born. In fact, for the first three hundred years, Christians didn’t celebrate his birth so how did people settle on December 25th as the date? There are two theories, one well known and the other not so known.

First, many people believe Christians simply adopted the Winter Solstice for the date of the holiday. This popular theory suggests that since the pagans already celebrated this holiday, the Christians simply took it over. “The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25th. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals …” (Biblical Archaeology Society, August 12, 2014, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org).

The trouble with that theory is, it isn’t found in any ancient Christian writings. It wasn’t until the 12th century that anyone suggested that connection! A more interesting, but lesser known, solution involves the better-established date of Jesus’ death at the Passover (Easter).

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25th in the Roman (Solar) calendar. March 25th is, of course, nine months before December 25th; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation – the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born on December 25th. (Biblical Archaeology Society, August 12, 2014).

So when was Jesus born? We really don’t know. What we do know is that he was born – the Son of God Incarnate – who “will save his people from their sins.” That’s something worth celebrating! Merry Christmas indeed!

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.