Memory Boxes

This past week my son and his family passed through town on their way to their new duty station. It was great to see the grands, and we pulled out some boxes of old family memories. Scrapbooks and memory boxes can be beautiful reminders of our past. Sometimes they make us laugh, and sometimes they make us cry, but they connect us with our story. So it is with our text today, 2 Timothy 1:6, 7.

For this reason, I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

The Apostle Paul reminds Timothy to think about his past, the love of Timothy’s mother and grandmother, and the apostle’s tears. The reason wasn’t nostalgic. It’s motivational. Just like a campfire needs constant attention, we need to fan our faith into a flame.

We have all received gifts from our heavenly Father. They are different from the gift Timothy received, but they are just as precious. Our gifts, like Timothy’s, require diligence: “For God did not give us a Spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). Notice there four qualities,

First, God didn’t give us a Spirit of timidity. We have received the Spirit of Power! Do you remember when the Sanhedrin – the most powerful government body in Israel – called the apostles before them? Peter boldly proclaimed:

“This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

Now notice the council’s reaction:

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished (Acts 4:11 – 13).

You have been born again! You are a child of the King! It’s time to speak up!

Second, not only have we received the Spirit of power, we have received the Spirit of love. The opposite of love isn’t hate – it’s selfishness. The use of our God-given talents without love leads only to pride, but if we use our gifts with love, they will be tempered with gratitude, and others will be encouraged to use their gifts as well.

Finally, we have received the Spirit of self-discipline. (The King James Version says we have received a “sound mind.”) Self-discipline means we don’t think too highly of ourselves, and we don’t think too lowly of ourselves. We consider ourselves with sober judgment. That’s a beautiful thing. Some people look in the mirror, and it makes them sad. They don’t see themselves through God’s eyes. Jesus was willing to die for that person, you see. God was willing to let Jesus do that! You are special.

Other people can’t walk past a department store widow without checking out their reflection – and grinning. They walk on air and feel like the rest of us should be pleased just to be in their presence. We need to recognize the difference between pride and a healthy self-esteem!

“Power, love, and self-control.” Three great gifts of the Spirit! Consider these three questions in your time with God today:

  1. How does the presence of God’s Spirit empower us?
  2. How does the presence of God’s Spirit teach us to love?
  3. How does the presence of God’s Spirit teach us self-discipline?

Where Is He?

The funeral was over. Everyone was walking back to the cars. I had done a good job. Dad would have been proud. Now it was my turn to say “good-bye.” I reached out and touched his coffin and wept uncontrollably.

Dad was a good man, and I was going to miss him. He loved my mom as few men ever loved their wives. He worked hard and often muddled his way through fatherhood, but we knew he loved us. Where was he now?

The world of departed souls is called hades, a Greek word that simply means “unseen.” It is equivalent to the Hebrew word Sheol in the Old Testament. In the earliest days of the church, Christians believed hades referred to a transitory abode of the departed.

However, in the Roman Catholic Church, from the days of Gregory I, hades was transformed into purgatory, a place of torment where sins were purged until the soul was pure enough to enter heaven. However, Jesus never mentioned purgatory. The apostles hadn’t heard of such a thing. It has no place in the Bible and thus has no place in the teachings of the church. It’s a Catholic thing, not a Christian belief.

On the other hand, in reaction, Protestants went too far. In their minds, they linked the Catholic doctrine of purgatory with the Greek word hades that is found ten times in the New Testament. To make sure no one used the word hades to support belief in purgatory, they translated both hades and the normal Greek word for hell, gehenna (found 12 times in the New Testament), as “hell.” Compare these three English translations of Acts 2:31 where Peter is commenting on Psalm 116:

According to the King James translation, Jesus was in hell!

KJV [David] seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.

The new translation, the English Standard Version, doesn’t translate the Greek word at all.

ESV [David] foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.

However, the New International Version gets at the sense of the Greek word hades:

NIV Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay.

In other words, the Bible teaches there is a great day coming: the Judgment Day. Between life and the judgment is hades, the grave – not hell or purgatory.

So what is hades like? The New Testament gives us several metaphors, but the most common comfort is, for Christians, death is like sleep.[1] Listen to Paul’s description of the great day:

The Coming of the Lord

Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

My uncle came back from the car, put his arm around my shoulder to comfort me, and said, “Your father was a Christian John, and so are you.” Rest well, Dad. I’ll see you again on that Great Day.

  [1] The doctrine of “soul-sleeping” (technically called psychopannychism)is different altogether. People who believe in soul-sleeping believe the body and the soul are destroyed in death. They think at the resurrection God re-creates the souls of the righteous!

Why Worship?

There are two purposes in biblical worship: to glorify God (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14; Revelation 4:8-11; 5:9-12) and to satisfy our most basic need: to be transformed (Romans 12:1, 2). Just as Jesus was transformed on the mount (Luke 9:28 ff.), so we are transformed from the inside out.

Worship Failures

Unfortunately, all too often, we fail in worship. It could be we were looking for an experience rather than an encounter. It’s easy to mistake feelings for substance. We may depend on worship being sensual: filled with sights, sounds, and smells rather than being filled with the Spirit. Old Testament worship in the Temple was a very sensual experience. The Temple itself was a feast for the eyes. The sounds of the choirs and instruments capture their attention. Even the scents of incense and the burning sacrifices enwrapped the experience. Today we may depend on multimedia and performance to carry us away in worship.

Failure to focus also derails our worship. It can be hard to shift from loading the family in the car, dealing with abusive drivers, and a thousand distractions. Mrs. Peabody’s perfume may cause us to long for burnt offerings. Mr. Abercromby’s snoring is certainly a distraction. Worries about work, relationships, and the big game conspire to blunt our devotion.

Finally, depending on others also dulls our worship. Sometimes we forget God is the audience, and we are the worshippers. Perhaps it seems like worship is becoming a spectator sport! We judge the success of our worship by how we were entertained.

Worship Success

Here are my suggestions.

1.         Recapture a sense of wonder. Alfred North Whitehead observed: “Philosophy begins with wonder.” Emerson added, “Wonder is the seed of science,” but Thomas Carlyle wrote, “Wonder is the basis of worship.”

2.         Sense the presence of God. Warren Weirsbee says, “[Worship] is an encounter with reality – with God – that brings awe to your heart. You are overwhelmed with an emotion that is a mixture of gratitude, adoration, reverence, fear – and love.”

3.         Cultivate a sense of gratitude. This requires honesty. Strip off all hypocrisy and our airs. True confession requires an honest examination of our progress in Christ and a profession of our faith and gratitude.

The Attitude of Gratitude

Talking about sin seems so irrelevant. If I mention “sin,” what do you think of? Eating an extra slice of chocolate cake? Sin should make us feel guilty, but we have become very good at avoiding the pain of guilt. Let’s look at some of the ways we do that:

  1. Passing the buck. When God accused Adam of sin, he blamed Eve. When God confronted Eve, she blamed the snake. We still pass the responsibility for sin on to others. “It’s not my fault.”
  2. Calluses. When we repeatedly hurt ourselves, our bodies develop calluses. Our spirits can do the same thing in response to the pain of sin.
  3. Giving it a new name. We don’t talk about “perversions.” We talk about “preferences” as if a new name will make a difference.
  4. Anesthesia. Pain can be masked.
  5. Paint over rust. Rather than address the problem, cover it up!
  6. Propitiate the pain. “I’m not good with kids. Here’s ten bucks.”

Sadly, there comes a time when we can’t escape the pain any longer. In the eight century B.C., in Jerusalem, there lived a good man named Isaiah. I suspect if you had asked anyone in the city to name a good man, Isaiah’s name would have been prominent, but then Isaiah encountered God:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

                  “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;

                  the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Even though we think of Isaiah as a good man, no one is good in the presence of the Lord. We can’t hide or ignore our sins any longer. What was the solution for sin? It wasn’t soap. It wasn’t paint.

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

Isaiah’s response is what intrigues me. He didn’t cry out in pain or ask for ointment. The prophet was filled with gratitude. In our age of entitlement, gratitude may have fallen on hard times, but the attitude of gratitude is the essence of worship. Perhaps our lack of gratitude may explain why worship has fallen on such hard times.

Honor

The Boy Scout oath begins, “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country,” but honor is a word that has fallen on hard times. People seem to have forgotten what honor means and why it should be valued, so let’s begin by asking, “What is honor?” 

Honor is a social value rather than a psychological value. It’s more than a personal standard like integrity. K.C. Hanson says, “Honor is not simple self-esteem or pride; it is a status-claim which is affirmed by the community.”[1] For example, Gamaliel was “a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people” (Acts 5:34). In other words, honor refers to value.

In a selfish world, you determine your own value. “I don’t care what anyone else thinks; I’m watching out for number one!” That makes for an interesting equation. Honor is inversely related to selfishness. The more I care about my own needs and desires, the less valuable I become to the world around me, including my friends and loved ones. The more I care about others, the more valuable I become, the greater honor I receive. To be an honorable person, means I must put others first, and isn’t that the basis of love?

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:9, 10).

Consider these Scriptures:

“The fear of the LORD is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor,” Proverbs 15:33, see also 18:12).

“Whoever pursues righteousness and kindness will find life, righteousness, and honor” (Proverbs 21:21).

“Like snow in summer or rain in harvest, so honor is not fitting for a fool” (Proverbs 26:1).

“One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor” (Proverbs 29:23).

 “We aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man” (2 Corinthians 8:21).

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things,” (Philippians 4:8).

  [1] Hanson, K. C. (1995). How Honorable! How Shameful! a Cultural Analysis of Matthew’s Makarisms and Reproaches. Semeia, 68, 83.

Trying to Trick God

“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7, ESV).

This year, we were all required to file our taxes on July 15th instead of April 15th. This is never pleasant, but it often leads to a great game called “Can you deduct that?” Here are a couple of deductions that I found very creative:

In 1962, the IRS added a provision that allowed a tax deduction for clarinet lessons based on an orthodontist’s recommendation that the woodwind instrument could help correct a child’s overbite.

The owners of a junkyard put cat food out to attract feral cats. They deducted the expense claiming the cats kept out rats and snakes. The IRS allowed the expense.[1]

In Galatians 6:7, Paul uses an unusual word most often translated “God is not mocked.” In Greek, it means, “You can’t turn your nose up at God.” In English, we would say, “You can never make a fool out of God” (God’s Word translation), or “God is not to be ridiculed” (International Standard Version), or “You can’t outsmart God” (New International Reader’s Version). But people try to trick God all the time.

Once a man came home drop-dead drunk. His patient wife ushered him to bed, pulled up the covers, and asked, “Harold, would you like me to say a prayer for you?”

The man mumbled something, so she began, “Lord, please forgive my drunken husband …” Harold interrupted and said, “Don’t tell Him I’m drunk, say I’m sick.”

How can we act pious on Sunday and disgrace the family of God for the rest of the week?

You can’t make a fool of God. That statement seems so self-evident, but people try to trick the Lord all the time. It often reminds me of the small child with his eyes tightly shut, who declares, “You can’t see me!”

Once W.C. Fields was killing time in his wife’s hospital room. He picked up the Bible and began reading. She looked at him and said, “I didn’t think you believed in that stuff. What are you doing?”

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

Are you looking for a loophole? Which way is your nose pointing today?


[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2019/03/07/5-weird-tax-deductions-the-irs-has-allowed.html

I Can Face the Future Because of the Past

My brother and I were lying in our tent, deep in the mountains of Washington. The sun had gone down, and we were all alone in our sleeping bags listening to the unfamiliar sounds of the night. We heard a monstrous sound just outside our tent, and then something ran across my face. I shouted and sat bolt upright while my brother searched for the missing flashlight. The beast raced across Mike’s sleeping bag too! A terrifying weasel, no doubt! A blood-thirsty badger! But when the light came on, it was a tiny little deer mouse. His heart was pounding faster than a hummingbird flaps its wings. Mike tore open the door, and I launched him into the night with my hat.

Fear of the unknown goes away – mostly – with the light. (Of course, sometimes it is a monster or a poltergeist, so you have to be ready.) Light drives away doubt and despair. It is easier to face the known rather than the unknown.

There is a parallel passage in Mark’s Gospel, describing the Temptation of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. Matthew and Luke give the details, while Mark simply confirms it happened. In Matthew’s account, the devil is quoting Scripture as he tempts Jesus to prove he is the Christ by stepping off the pinnacle of the Temple:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the Temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, 

                  “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ 

and 

                  “‘On their hands they will bear you up, 

      lest you strike your foot against a stone’” (Matthew 4:5 – 6).

Satan is quoting from Psalm 91:13. Mark adds this one detail not mentioned in Matthew or Luke:

The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him (Mark 1:12 – 13).

Satan didn’t quote the next verse, Psalm 91:14: “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot,” but Jesus knew it. Christ didn’t need to step off the Temple’s pinnacle to prove God’s love and protection (Psalm 91:13), because Christ was already experiencing God’s love and protection daily in the wilderness.

Why do we ask for more (“Lord, just give me a sign!”), when God has already confirmed his love and presence in the night sky, the beauty of a wildflower, and the transforming power of the new birth?

Falling Down on the Job

During a very violent overnight storm this week, a branch as big as my pickup truck broke off the pecan tree and crashed to the ground. Fortunately, it missed the truck but blocked it in. Being a guy, I figured I could just grab onto the branch and pull it out of the way. 

Coiled like a spring (a very old and rusty spring) I grabbed hold and put all of my weight into moving that branch. Suddenly, without warning, the rotten branch exploded and I flew into the air like an Olympic swimmer racing the backstroke. The lights went out as I crashed onto the driveway slamming the back of my head in the dirt.

When the stars cleared away, I laid there contemplating my sins and taking stock of the damage all the while muttering “eepph.” I knew better than to get up until I had finished the roll call of body parts: legs? “Fine.” Hips? “Bruised.” Back? “Too early to tell. Call me back in an hour.” Arms? Left, “fine.” Right? “No so good.” Head? Head? “Eepph…” Someone will come to my rescue!

It was early in the morning. I had just finished my routine: a cup of coffee on the porch with a good devotional book. No one but the rabbits and squirrels was up. This was going to take a bit, so I lay there thinking about how fragile life is. It’s a wonder we survived childhood (“Of course this bedsheet parachute is going to work!”), learning to drive, dating, and the military. There are so many new diseases. In the news, I hear about shootings and lootings, madmen, and politicians. 

I have come to the realization, none of us are going to get out of this life alive. Isn’t it wonderful to know there is something – something better – waiting for us on the other side? 

Before the angels came to take me home, my loveable border collie, Sadie, started licking my face. Slowly I got to my feet. Smiling, she looked at me as if to say, “Don’t check out just yet. Let’s play ball. The branch can wait until after breakfast!”

Taking the Easy Way Out

“What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”

 Jesus, Mark 8:36, 37

To understand his question, we need to go back to the beginning of the ministry of Jesus before he called his apostles before he gave the Sermon on the Mount before he even performed a miracle. The setting is the terrible wilderness south of the Jordan. Jesus hasn’t had anything to eat in over a month. There he meets the Tempter. Have you ever thought about Satan’s third temptation, according to Matthew?

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8 – 9)

First, we need to think about what this temptation is about. It’s pretty easy for me to resist heroin (I hate needles!), but chocolate is a very different matter. This temptation appears to appeal to human greed or the thirst for power, but were those temptations that appealed to Jesus? I think not, so let’s examine this temptation again.

The message of both Jesus and John the Baptist was “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” How daunting and difficult it must have been to get that message out to the whole world! Satan often tempts us with short-cuts. Taking the easy way still is a powerful temptation just browse the book titles in the self-help section of Barnes and Noble: “Ten Easy Steps to Fame and Fortune.” “Marital Bliss Made Simple.” “Understanding Women for Dummies.” How easy would it have been to spread the Gospel if Jesus was in charge of all the kingdoms of the earth? “Move over, Nero!” “Step aside, Herod!”

Satan is still tempting us to take short-cuts – to find the easy way out. We are saved by grace. That means God freely forgives us because of the sacrifice of Jesus. We don’t have to do anything. Our salvation is not contingent on completing a dangerous pilgrimage or living the life of a saint. Grace. Simple. But beware Satan’s temptation: “After you dry off after baptism, you don’t need to do anything else.”

We are not called to merit salvation. We are called to reflect salvation. God’s love changes us. The power of the Holy Spirit causes us to grow in holiness. How has the Lord changed you?

A Misplaced Plank

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” – Jesus, Matthew 7:3 – 5

Laughter can make bitter lessons easier to swallow. Jesus was a carpenter for most of his adult life. He knew a great deal about sawdust and planks! Now imagine you are there listening to this story. It makes a serious point: stop being so critical of others, but it does so in a way that makes you smile. The disciples must have grinned at the picture of the “helpful” man with a hankie trying to take a speck of sawdust out of a man’s eye while they have a two-by-four in their own eye!

Christians are often pictured with grim faces and sour dispositions. That wasn’t the case with Christ, and it shouldn’t be a valid description of us either!

Before we go much farther, we also need to note Jesus isn’t telling us not to judge other people. Just look at the very next verse: “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs” (Matthew 7:6). You must make a judgment about a person before you can decide if they are a dog or a pig! No, what the words of Jesus are warning us against is fault-finding – looking for the worst instead of the best in people and situations.

Why are we so ready to find fault with other people? Why do we see the specks in their eyes? It’s not because the speck is so large and glaring it can’t be overlooked. (In that case, it’s a plank and that would be obvious to everyone!) It’s because we are looking for them! Some people are like that. They search out things to become upset about. They aren’t happy unless they are unhappy! (How sick is that?) 

Where does this tendency come from? Do you remember the story of Job? The Lord was pleased with his servant Job. Job was very careful to live an exemplary life, and it made Satan mad because Satan means “the fault finder.” Whose image are we created in when we go around searching for something to be upset about?

In my experience, fault finders share some common traits. They often feel guilty, and so it makes them feel better when other people are guilty too. 

Have you noticed there is a world of difference between constructive criticism and finding fault? Fault finders have trouble with their self-image. They mistakenly believe if they can tear someone else down, it will build themselves up!

Sadly, criticism not only wounds other people, it deeply hurts the critic at the same time. To look for the worst blinds us to the best! Someone once said, “The keener our eye become to the faults of others, the blinder they become to what is wrong with ourselves.”

Finally, the faultfinder is often friendless. Who wants to be around someone who is always finding the worst in people and situations? So what can be done? If you see people staring at you, it might not be because you are the smartest man in the room. Look in the mirror. There might just be a telephone pole where it doesn’t belong!