photo by Nicole Michalou

I am looking for a new congregation to work with. In the process, I am almost always given a list of questions asking for my understanding of different issues. I know this is important for the sake of unity, and I don’t mind sharing my interpretations of the Scriptures. Still, some of the questions focus on matters that should be matters of opinion rather than doctrine. For example, one committee asked me, “What is your view on eating in the building?” I started to give them a smart Alec answer about how much I enjoy eating with anyone anywhere, but they were serious. They took two verses from 1 Corinthians 11: “Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (v. 22), and “If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together, it may not result in judgment” (v. 34). From that, they created the Anti-kitchen doctrine. (If it was just an opinion, then you have a choice: to eat or not to eat. However, if this is a doctrine, then it becomes a matter of salvation: if you eat, you are disobeying the Lord!)

In context (and remember, “a text out of context is a pretext”), the apostle is talking about abuses of the Lord’s Supper. One of the Restoration Movement principles is to try and do “Bible things in Bible ways.” Thus, we use unleavened bread in the communion because we want to model our celebration on the original celebration. Likewise, the first Christians knew the first Lord’s Supper occurred during a meal, so they had communion following a meal they called the Agape or a “Love feast” (Jude 12). But in Corinth, the Love Feast was so badly abused (read chapter 11) that Paul told them to abandon the meal altogether. Does this mean potlucks are sinful? They can be.

One church I worked with had a terrible problem. One family had so many children that they couldn’t supervise them all properly as they went through the lunch line. The kids piled their plates high with all the fried chicken and deviled eggs. Then they would take two bites and throw the rest of the food into the trash before running outside to play. The other children began following their bad example. Those of us in the back of the line had to settle on a lunch of a few pretzels and celery stalks! I know it sounds silly. It wouldn’t have been an issue if the children were hungry, but they were rude and wasteful. Members began to grumble and resent the presence of the children. It became a problem. Then one wise old elder announced, “every child must go through the line with an adult.” Peace was restored, and everyone was happy. (The fried chicken was still gone by the time I went through the line, but at least it wasn’t in the trash.)

We’ll continue thinking about these things tomorrow. Please share your opinions with me, and if you are not going to stay for the potluck, can I have your deviled eggs?

Another Look at Patience

photo courtesy of Ekaterina Bolovtsova

“Lord, give me patience – and give it to me NOW.” The last of the Five Virtues that Paul encourages the Colossians to put on is patience:

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).

I think the apostle knew how much we struggle with this virtue, so he explains in the next verse that patience means: “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13).

Paul could have chosen from several Greek words for patience. My favorite is hypomone which describes “patience that endures.” In the Apocalypse, the Philadelphian Christians were commended for displaying this virtue: “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth” (Revelation 3:10).

Paul told the Romans: “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:3 – 5).

The author of Hebrews encourages us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1 – 3)

James wrote: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2 – 4).

However, this form of patience, hypomone, is never attributed to God. The Lord doesn’t need to endure because He is not tested, as are we. God’s patience is called makrothumia. The old translations call this virtue “long-suffering.” God bears with us. For example, when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, the Lord could have struck them down immediately (think poisoned apples). Instead, he patiently waited. He gave them another chance. Makrothumia is the type of patience Paul told the Colossians to put on in the Five Virtues.

Once in a sermon, I declared our God is a God of “second chances.” After services, a white-haired sister took me aside and told me I was wrong! But before I could defend myself, she explained. “Our God is a God of second, and third, and fourth, and fifth chances.” She was right, and if our Lord is like that, so should we be!

Marvin Milquetoast Misses the Mark

Caspar Milquetoast, a weak man for every season. H.T. WEBSTER/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5), but we still have problems thinking of meekness as a virtue. In the Atlantic, Rhoda Feng says, “If you overhear people discussing your meek temperament, you’re likely to infer that they don’t think too highly of you (‘spineless’ and ‘lacking in self-respect’ have become near-synonyms for the word).” [1]

The Christian viewpoint is very different. Moses was the “meekest man who ever lived” (Numbers 12:3), yet he confronted Pharaoh! Jesus was meek (2 Corinthians 10:1), but no more powerful man ever lived! The Biblical definition of meekness is “strength under control.” Alexander the Great’s horse, Bucephalus, a powerful warhorse, was described this way. He could carry Alexander into the heat of battle and yet was so “meek” a small child could safely sit on his back.

There is another quality of meekness to focus on today. The lexicon says meekness is “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance, gentleness, humility, courtesy, considerateness, meekness.” [2]

On his way to Rome to face martyrdom, Ignatius of Antioch said of the bishop of Philadelphia: “I am impressed by his forbearance; he accomplishes more through silence than others do by talking.” [3] The bishop didn’t need to command obedience or impress people with his authority. Instead, he understood the value of meekness.

Have you been in a room full of “stuffed shirts”? (Men parading about trying to impress one another.) It’s no wonder this is the fourth of Paul’s Five Virtues that he encourages the Colossians to “put on.” Apostle Paul tells them to “put on the new self” (3:10). That includes: “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (3:12).

Feng summarizes an article by Glen Pettigrove, a lecturer of philosophy at the University of Auckland, entitled “Meekness and Moral Anger.” Pettigrove observes:

Self-control, however, is a necessary but insufficient condition for meekness. Philosophers have distinguished between 1) meekness and servility and 2) meekness and resignation. Those who are truly meek act out of both self-control and benevolence (attentiveness to the wellbeing of others), while those who are servile act out of fear of incurring punishment. We wouldn’t praise someone for merely acting meek when the true cause of his action is despair (e.g. indifference to the welfare of oneself or others). So we arrive at one definition of meekness: “Agent M manifests the virtue of meekness when he or she characteristically responds in a calm and kindly fashion to aggravating treatment.”

If we are going to be genuinely meek, that should describe our Christian behavior this week!

  [1] Rhoda Feng, The Atlantic, November 9, 2012

[2] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). In A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 861). University of Chicago Press.

[3] Ignatius to the Philadelphians. Holmes, M. W. (1999). The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English translations (Updated ed., p. 177). Baker Books.

Humility

photo by Freddy Maddie

 
Humility isn’t always considered a virtue, but this is the third virtue the Apostle Paul tells the Colossian Christians to “put on.”
 
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Colossians 3:12).
 
Even moderns fail to think about humility as a virtue. “To get ahead,” the advice goes, “you have to blow your own horn.” In the year Emperor Nero died, there was a scramble among his generals to become the next emperor. Galba was the first but was quickly put to death. Josephus says Galba “was accused by the soldiers as a pusillanimous person.”[1] Paul’s Greek word translated “humility” is used by Josephus to declare Galba “pusillanimous,” that is, “timid, lacking courage or determination.” [2]
 
The New Testament never uses humility in this derogatory sense. It is always a virtue. Paul told the Philippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).
 
Peter echoes Paul’s instructions: “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” (1 Peter 5:5)
 
The opposite of humility is pride which Christians consider the first of the Seven Deadly Sins (Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Lust, Avarice, and Gluttony). Pride is the “inordinate assertion of self.” Pride is always aiming high – which isn’t always a sin. “Excellence” aims high, but the sin of pride is arrogant. It belittles others and inflates self. There is a falseness to pride. Of course, nothing stinks worse than false humility. The early Christian, Clement of Rome, warned: “The humble person should not testify to his own humility, but leave it to someone else to testify about him,” Clement (1 Clement 38:2). [3]
 
James Stalker gives this advice to anyone who wrestles with pride: “Anything that makes us think more of God or our neighbor is a remedy because, as I have said, the essence of pride is selfishness.” [4]
 
Finally, let’s close by considering the example of Jesus:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
     Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
     but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
     And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
     Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
     that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
     and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 1:6 – 11).

Kindness

photo by Nick Fewings

I started to write, “I like a good pun,” but many people would argue, “There is no such thing as a good pun.” However, here are three of my favorites:

  • What did the grape say when it got crushed? Nothing, it just let out a little wine.
  • I want to be cremated as it is my last hope for a smoking hot body.
  • Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

 Bad, aren’t they? Preachers seem to be especially fond of alliteration. Do you remember “God’s Garden”? The minister asks, “What do we find in God’s Garden? Lettuce. Let us pray. Let us sing. Let us … the list goes painfully on.”
 
Yesterday, we began looking at the Five Virtues the Apostle Paul told the Colossian Christians to “put on.” “Compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (3:12). Today, Tuesday, we’re going to focus on the second virtue: kindness. The ancient Greek preachers loved to preach about “Christos Chestos,” the “kindness of Christ.” Did you notice the one-letter difference between Christ and kindness? That makes this sermon a memorable pun.
 
The first definition of chestos, kindness, is “easy — that which causes no discomfort.” [1] For example, Jesus says, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). The Lord was a carpenter, and if he made yokes for the oxen, I’m sure they weren’t mass-produced. I can see. Him lovingly crafting each one to custom fit each ox. The yokes were easy.
 
Serving Jesus is not a burden, and Paul says we shouldn’t be a burden to others either! Debbie Downer needs to learn this lesson. When Christians come into the room, they should come with a light. We don’t have time today to talk about the virtue of edification, but perhaps you’ll pull out your concordance and scan a few passages about it. We build people up!
 
The Greeks and the Jews also held up this virtue as an ideal. For them, it meant “being morally good and benevolent.” This person is “reputable” (1 Corinthians 15:33). They are “kind, loving, benevolent” (Ephesians 4:32; Luke 6:35).
 
So, today, “Lettuce be kind.”

Be a Blessing,



[1] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). In A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 1090). University of Chicago Press.

Dressing Your Heart

Photo courtesy of Mockup Graphics

  
I don’t know how you get dressed in the morning, but I start with a clean pair of socks. I like to get up before everyone else in the house, so I typically tiptoe over to the sock drawer in the dark and pull out a matched pair. (That’s easy! All my socks are the same brand, black, and matching.) Then the challenge is finding something to go with them: the jeans on the back of the chair and a clean shirt from the closet. The surprise comes when I turn on the hall light and discover what I’m wearing to the study today!
 
After telling the Colossian Christians to “strip off” (3: 9) “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth” (3:8), the Apostle Paul tells them to “put on the new self” (3:10). That includes: “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (3:12). There are five virtues there – one for every day of the week. Since today is Monday, let’s start with “compassionate hearts” (σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμοῦ).
 
John Wycliffe translated the first English Bible. He called our first virtue: “entrailis of merci.” The King James Version altered that a little to “bowels of mercy.” This was in keeping with the belief that attached emotions to the various organs in our bodies. Moderns do the same thing when talking about the heart being the “seat and center of love.” The New Testament talks about various “heart” conditions.
 
Let’s begin by looking at “calloused hearts” (Matthew 13:15; 19:8; Acts 28:27; Hebrews 3:8; 4:7). Hard hearts will keep us from understanding the Gospel (Mark 8:17; 2 Corinthians 3:15; Ephesians 4:18). How do you know if your heart is in trouble? Jesus warns, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap” (Luke 21:34). 
 
Here are two simple, biblical tests for spiritual heart problems. First, pay attention to what is coming out of your mouth, for “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Your tongue will betray you if your heart is full of bitterness and anger!
 
 Second, monitor your thoughts. Beware of “stinking’ thinking’.” Jesus explained, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19). When I was teaching rock climbing, I encouraged my students to visualize themselves moving from one hold to the next before trying it. It’s always easier to do something the second time around. Likewise, if we fantasize about sin or daydream about things we shouldn’t, it shouldn’t surprise us if we fall into those sins! So pay attention to your thoughts!
 
Paul told young Timothy, “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). 
 
Don’t be surprised by what you’re wearing today. Turn on the light while you’re getting dressed!

A PowerPoint Crisis

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya

It was a crisis. As services began, the costly bulb in the overhead projector burned out. The screen went blank, and the poor song leader was lost. So how could we sing without the words and the music projected behind him? There was chaos as the soundboard deacon tried to find another bulb or a new projector. Everyone panicked until the obvious solution appeared. “Everyone take a songbook out of the rack on the pew in front of you, and let’s sing as our grandparents did!” The service was saved.

We’ve become overly reliant on technology. In some tiny mission churches I’ve worked with in Asia, the members don’t feel it is a real church unless they have a big pulpit, microphone, and a dozen speakers – all for less than twenty people!

Technology (and I confess I’m a geek) should enhance worship and classes, not become the focus. Cute YouTube videos, animated words, and flashy graphics can have their place, but they should always improve the experience and not be the experience. It seems like it is not enough to know Greek and Hebrew. Now we need to be master graphic artists. Rather than joining Brother Curmudgeon, I’d like to offer a few simple suggestions.

First, finish your lesson before you open PowerPoint. Have a clear outline of your text and its application before you start generating graphics.

Second, choose themes and graphics that are easy on the eyes. Florescent colors, flashy fonts, and special effects may reach a younger audience (which is a huge assumption) but most often detract from your message.

Third, please, no more than eight lines per slide (and it is better to use no more than six). Consider the spacing between the lines and use a clean, preferably non-serif, font.

Fourth, yes! Project the Scriptures you are talking about onto the screen. In a world where you are unsure which version the audience is using (KJV, NIV, ESV, The Message), projecting one translation will help them focus on your message. Try to avoid “proof-texting” (using a dozen passages from a dozen places to support your point). Encourage people to study whole passages by demonstrating it as you preach.

Finally, images can enhance your lesson. After all, PowerPoint is a visual aid, so be visual, but beware of copyrights! Don’t look for pictures using Google! Believe me, some companies are in the business of bounty-hunting. They search YouTube, Facebook, and the web for copyrighted images that are being used without the artist’s permission. You don’t want to get in a legal fight, and the fines are costly – even for a little church in the middle of nowhere. So, where can you find images to use? Consider building a library of pictures you have taken (Some excellent cataloging programs can help you keep track of your photographs. I love Adobe Lightroom.) See a picture on Facebook? Ask if you can use it. Invite members to share the snaps from their phones. Of course, finding and editing those amateur pictures can be extra work. Thankfully, there are some great sources of free images on the Internet. Three of my favorites are Pexels.com, Unsplash.com, and especially FreeBibleImages.org. Although these images are free for you to use (non-commercially), it is always good to credit the artist.

Jesus used visual aids – writing in the dirt, holding up a coin, pointing out the flowers and the birds, and more. Just remember, a visual aid is just that: an aid.

The Pursuit of Faith

Paul told Timothy to “pursue faith” but how is that possible?

Preaching
Gordon Gower preaching in the wilderness

I can understand pursuing righteousness and godliness, but how do we pursue faith, Paul’s third virtue in 1 Timothy 6:11? Long ago, Secundus was asked, “What is faith?” He answered, “a marvelous certainty about something otherwise unknown.” [1] The Hebrew writer says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

“The assurance of things hoped for ….” The lexicon says the word “assurance” (hypostasis, ὑπόστασις) means “the essential or basic structure/nature of an entity, substantial nature, essence, actual being, reality” [2] So faith is the basis of hope. It might also be translated as “hope realized” (see HCSB “Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for.” Cf. NLT) But how do we obtain that certainty? Gideon asked for a sign. Then Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said” (Judges 6:36 – 37). Although the Lord accepted Gideon’s challenge, that hardly seems like an act of faith.

Faith and belief translate the same Greek word (pisteuo, πιστεύω). The father of a demon-possessed boy cried, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Perfect faith is a rare gem! “Doubting” Thomas demanded to touch the resurrected Lord (John 20:25). Nathanael refused to believe Philip’s conclusion that Jesus was the promised one (John 1:46) until Nathanael invited him to come to see for himself.

The key to the pursuit of faith is to see faith in action. I mean that the way to pursue faith is to act on that belief. The Hebrew writer concludes, “And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (Hebrews 11:32 – 34). Notice the key phrase: “who through faith.” Just ask Peter. Sometimes you gotta get out of the boat.

How can we pursue faith today? Think of something that is worrying you. Write it down. Now lay it before the Lord. Give it to God and wait. Our Lord is mighty and full of surprises!

Remember: “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

  [1] Fragmenta Philosophorum Graecorum—List 5, I 516 cited in Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed.). University of Chicago Press.

[2] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000).

Waiting

Photo by Serkan Göktay

Waiting is hard! God called Moses up onto Mt. Sinai to receive the stone tablets with the 10 Commandments.

“Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (Exodus 24;15 – 18).

How frightening it must have been to enter the cloud of fire! Step by step, Moses and Joshua climbed until they reached the top. Their senses, especially their sense of hearing, must have been heightened as they strained to find the presence of the Lord, but did you notice? They waited six days before the Lord called to Moses on the seventh day. What was the waiting like? Six days! Six nights! I doubt Moses and Joshua talked. Sleep must have been fitful in the open on the rocks waiting for the Lord.

I wonder if we don’t miss the blessing of waiting for the Lord? We are like children in the back of the car on a road trip: “Are we there yet?” Hurry and flurry are our twin companions. Children want to be teens. Teens want to be adults. Adults want to find success, and those of us with silver hair look back and wonder about all the things we missed.

What did Moses think about during those six days? Did he wonder, “When is he going to get here?” I doubt it. A cloud of fire surrounded Moses. Surely, he recognized the presence of the Lord while he waited! Perhaps he remembered. Could he recall his righteous mother? Did he think about being a prince in the courts of Pharaoh? Did he think about the man he killed when he was 40 or wandering in the wilderness herding sheep for the next 40 years? I can’t help but think that Moses marveled at the providence of God leading him to this point. I suspect he also wondered about what came next – the Promised Land and the people of God.

Today, let’s not be in a hurry. Consider the blessing of waiting. Isaiah promised:

  they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
  they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
              they shall run and not be weary;
  they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:31).

The Pursuit of Godliness

The ancient church in Tagbah, Galilee

The Apostle Paul told young Timothy to flee from evil and pursue six virtues: “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11). In a previous devotional, we focused on righteousness. Righteousness is the opposite of emptiness which is a kind of evil (kakia) leads to a dead end.

The second virtue, godliness, can be described as the opposite of another kind of evil: poneros (πονηρός). The English word pornography is based on this kind of evil. (Pornography comes from the Greek words porn-, evil, and graphe, writing). The basic definition of poneros is worthless, and so poneros becomes wicked, evil, bad, even vicious, and degenerate. The devil himself is called poneros personified (Mt 13:19; J 17:15; Eph 6:16; 1J 2:13f; 5:18, 19)!

Thus, godliness is focused on living a fulfilling life, but it is deeper than just appearances. Paul warned Timothy about people who have “the appearance of godliness but deny its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). This is another example of hypocrisy. For the Greeks, a hypocrite is someone who is wearing a mask like the actors on an ancient stage. So many people pretend to be godly – they go through the motions of religion – but the critical element is missing.

So, what is the power of true godliness? First, godliness means depending on God’s strength and the power of the Holy Spirit. The Lord told Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9), and he observed, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “Let go and let God”? Sometimes our trying to fix things only makes it worse! A godly person has learned to relax and trust the Lord will make things right.

Second, the power of godliness comes from observation and discernment. In Christ, our senses are trained to focus on the end of things. Where will this lead us? What are the consequences of the choices we are making? Rick Warren wrote:

You are free to choose what you surrender to, but you are not free from the consequences of that choice. E. Stanley Jones said, “If you don’t surrender to Christ, you surrender to chaos.” [1]

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes.”

Chose to be godly!

  [1] Warren, Rick. The Purpose Driven Life (p. 100). Zondervan.