Memorization in a literate culture…

Standard

Colossians 4:Tychicus will tell you all the news about me; he is a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts; he is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here. 

As I read this passage this morning I’m reminded that the ancient world was primarily an oral culture. Not many people learned to read and write, mostly people like “scribes” who performed that function as a profession. It seems that Paul’s colleague Tychicus carried this letter with him as he visited the church in Colossae. I can imagine him reading Paul’s letter aloud to the people and then telling them all the news about Paul (v.7) and the work of the Lord in their ministry.

These days we don’t have to commit much to memory as the ancients did, mostly because most people are literate and books are widely and cheaply available. No need to remember when you can read. That said, there is something powerful about committing things to memory – things like scripture. I’m not big on memorization as a rule, but as I’ve read through the bible many times the repetition has served to help me remember the word of God. And in critical moments, when I need to hear from the Lord, the Lord will prompt scripture out of my memory – sort of like from a hard drive. And in those moments the word of God becomes the living word of God.

Lord ours is not an oral culture, but there is power in reading and hearing and speaking your word over and over. It drives you word deep into our hearts, our minds, our souls. Help us to invest time and energy into reading and studying and even memorizing scripture. For we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from your mouth. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Satisfy us in the morning…

Standard

Psalm 90: 13 Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! 14 Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. 

This psalm was written by Moses at a time when God seemed far from Israel. V.14 particularly got my attention today. It’s a request to “satisfy us in the morning” – to fulfill a need or want. We know from the book of Exodus that people regularly complained to Moses and to God when they were hungry or thirsty. After all, they wandered in a desert wilderness for 40 years. But that’s not the sort of deprivation Moses indicates here.

“Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love”…

More than food. More than water. What the people need is the love of God so they “may rejoice and be glad” – so they may be “satisfied”. I’ve mentioned in this space before those of us living in Western culture have a hard time being satisfied, in no small part due to the effectiveness of marketing that teaches us to NEVER be satisfied – with our possessions, our appearance, our careers, our relationships, whatever. I suppose it’s one reason so many of us can (from a global perspective) be relatively wealthy and yet feel a sense of lack. That we aren’t enough. That we don’t have enough.

I took this picture in the country of Togo in western Africa. As I was walking in their village these two young boys followed me around, very curious about me and those with me. I don’t think they’d every seen non-Africans before. I’m sure many of you have been to parts of the world where the level of poverty is almost unimaginable. No running water. No electricity. People mostly just trying to survive. I was deeply moved by the level of need among the people, particularly in the rural villages. And yet, I was also struck by the level of genuine joy among the Christians worshipping the Lord there.

In parts of the world where material resources are extremely limited it would be foolish to want “more” because it’s simply non-existent. But what so many people have is what we so often lack in the Western world – a sense of being satisfied with what we have, with who we are, with our circumstances. African Christians showed me what it means to live out the words “the joy of the Lord is my strength, I shall not want”. They have so little, yet they have everything because they have the Lord Jesus.

Jesus teach us to be satisfied, to be at peace, to be filled with You. Amen.

Effective or popular, but rarely both

Standard

Psalm 89: 49 Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David? 50 Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted; how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples,51 with which your enemies taunt, O Lord, with which they taunted the footsteps of your anointed. 52 Blessed be the Lord forever. Amen and Amen. 

God’s people are having a hard time. They are attacked by other nations – and losing ground. The writer of this psalm has heard of the stories of old, how God led the Hebrews from Egypt to the Promised Land. But at the time of the writing it is many years later and there appears to be no sign of God. This morning I’m particularly drawn to v.50:

 “50 Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted; how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples…”

I find two things interesting here. First, the psalmist laments having to “bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples”. To which people do you believe he’s referring? Immediately my mind goes to the people from other nations who are attacking, but I realize this is not necessarily the case. He refers to “your anointed” in v.51 which connects to David in v.49. King David was indeed God’s anointed who did have to bear burdens from without Israel and within. His own sons tried to usurp his throne for goodness sake! If David is the point of reference, the writer might easily be referring to fellow Israelites bringing pressure and accusation against their leaders in a time of distress.

If you’re a leader in any capacity during Covid time you can probably relate. Challenge doesn’t just come from outside, but from within as well – within your own family, your own business, your own school, your own workplace, and so on. As leaders you are regularly having to make decisions that may be unpopular, even if it’s the right thing to do. There’s a saying that as a leader you can either choose to be effective or popular – but rarely both.

God had been leading Israel through a time of repentance and returning to the Lord. It was a time of genuine pain and struggle for the Israelites. Yet out of this season came an entirely new kind of Messiah who would be for all people, not just Israel. His name is Jesus and he gave his life for you and me. Not only that, he sent the Holy Spirit to accompany us in times like this – times of hardship and pain and grief. I honestly believe these are birthing pains of something wonderful emerging for our future. Hold on brothers and sisters! Lean on the Lord who is faithful and merciful and full of love for you. Lord let it be so. Amen.

God’s timing…

Standard

Isaiah 51:1 Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. 2 Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. 

In this passage from Isaiah, God is encouraging the people of Israel who were in exile in Babylon and other places – a long way from home. God had promised to restore Israel, but years and years were passing by with no discernible change. It appeared to the people that God had forgotten them, had failed to honor the promise of restoration. And so God hearkened back to Abraham and Sarah. You will recall they were childless when God approached them late in their lives. God promised that if they would follow where God led, God would make of them an entire nation of people. Millions of descendants. From an elderly couple with no children. It didn’t all come to pass in their lifetimes, but God answered the prayers of Abraham and Sarah. Their children would become the nation of Israel over many generations.

God’s timing is not always our preferred timing.

If there’s one difficult lesson I’ve learned over the years it’s that God acts in God’s time, not mine. I’ve seen this in my own life and in the lives of many close friends and family. People wait for a sense of calling, wait for healing, wait for love to come along, wait for financial relief, wait to start a family, and much more. Many times prayers are answered but take much longer than expected. Sometimes prayers are answered in the negative. All of these are hard to bear for mere mortals like us for whom life is short.

Some of you have been praying for a very long time and are yet to discern a positive answer. My encouragement to you brothers and sisters is to persist in praying. God definitely answers prayers, sometimes fairly quickly. Other times it takes longer. But trust the Lord. Though you wait, know that God has not left you nor forsaken you. Lord let it be so. Amen.

Head people and heart people…

Standard

Colossians 1:3–10 (NRSV): 3 In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, 5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel 6 that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. 7 This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, 8 and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit. 9 For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.

Paul is writing to the Colossians Christians encouraging them and thanking God for the work of the gospel led by Paul’s protege Epaphras (v.7). What I find interesting in this passage is v.9 which I highlighted in bold.

If you read Paul’s letters it becomes pretty clear that he is a systematic thinker. Paul builds his arguments with layers of logic to support his main teaching points. If there are “head” people and “heart” people Paul is clearly the former. Look at his description in v.9 of that which he hopes will grow among the Colossians: “knowledge”, “wisdom”, “understanding”. This is head stuff.

By contrast, when reading the gospel of John he describes himself as “the one whom Jesus loved”, and the “beloved”. Or reading the psalms written by King David in the Old Testament it is his love for God that really shines through, which is why he was known as one “after God’s own heart”.

Most of us have both head and heart dimensions to our personalities, but will often lean more toward one than the other. I would say I’m by nature more of a heart person, though I have great respect for the more heady dimensions of faith. I’m grateful to find both kinds throughout scripture. In this way no one is left out.

How would you describe yourself? Assuming you too have both head and heart dimensions to your personality, which do you lean more toward? Heavenly Father I thank for the diversity of persons you have created. And thank you for being a God who speaks to all kinds, especially within the pages of scripture. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Contentment: a rare thing in our world

Standard

Philippians 4:10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. 11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress. 

Paul had apparently been in a difficult situation (exactly what we are not told) and was grateful for the support provided by the Christians in Philippi. Then, as Paul often did, he took the opportunity to teach. I am particularly drawn to the second half of v.11, “…for I have learned to be content with whatever I have”.

Contentment is a rare thing in our world. We are conditioned by a consumer culture to always need something more/bigger/better. I wish, as a committed Christian, I were immune to this influence but I am not. As was probably the case with many of you reading this, my family of origin often had a sense of lack. It’s not that I was brought up in the context of deep poverty, but we were a family of very modest means. We never went hungry, but there were times when there wasn’t much variety in what we ate. Lots of eggs and white bread. We had clothes, but wore the same things over and over in the same week. We had a roof over our heads, but often in a state of disrepair. It was a bit embarrassing to bring a friend to our house, so we rarely did. I suppose one of the motivators for me and my brothers to get an education and find a career was the promise we made to ourselves things would be different for our families. And so it has been. I’m glad my children, and by brother’s children, have had a different experience than we did. I thank the Lord for that every day.

But I’ve also learned there are limits to the benefits of more/bigger/better. One can appear to have everything and yet be filled with discontent. Genuine contentment is a state of being on the inside that is a gift from God. It’s a sense of peace no matter what one’s external circumstances. I’ll admit some days I am content and some days I’m not. Like Paul I have learned the secret of being content, but unlike Paul there are days when I fail to apply what I know.

Lord thank you for the gift of contentment. It’s such a precious thing. Give me grace to find my contentment in you alone. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Retirement?

Standard

Philippians 3: 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 

By the time the apostle Paul wrote this letter he had already accomplished so much in his life and ministry for the sake of the gospel. He had started many churches, raised up many leaders, traveled the known world preaching and teaching in Jesus’ name. One might think Paul had done enough. He could take a break. Put up his feet and rest. Retire. But it was not to be.

“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Paul would one day be called to his heavenly home with Jesus, but not yet. So long as there was breath in his body, there was more to do. Since turning 55 earlier this month I’ve thought a bit about retirement. It’s still a number of years off for me, at least 15 years in my estimation. What will I do in retirement? I honestly don’t know because I love what I do. So long as my health holds out I believe I will continue to serve as a pastor, at least part-time, until I die. Literally. That may sound strange, but it’s what I’m thinking today.

Lord the day will come when you call me home. And in some ways I look forward to that day when the struggles and pain of this life finally cease. In the meantime please continue to use me for your purposes. Give me a heart like Paul’s, a heart that wants nothing more than to serve you forever. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

God is not done with you…

Standard

Philippians 1:I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

The apostle Paul was writing this letter to Christians in the city of Philippi. It is such a rich letter, full of promise. This morning it is v.6 that speaks most to me. There are three key elements in this verse.

First, it is God the Father who had begun a work in this Christian community through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Second, the work of God was ongoing. Though people were being transformed more and more into the likeness of Jesus, there was more work to do.

Third, that work of transformation would be complete “by the day of Jesus Christ”, which refers to the day of Jesus’ return.

If you’re like me, there are times when it seems your faith stalls. When there is little progress. When it seems like one step forward two steps back. Our passage for today affirms we can trust the Lord to carry us forward to completion. Lord let it be so. Amen.

Real strength…

Standard

Ephesians 6:10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 

This is such a simple idea with profound implications. The strength, the resilience, the vitality we need to do the will of God is not a manifestation of our personal strength and ability. Paul does not say to us, “Give it everything you’ve got and, if you need a little extra help, the Lord will provide it.” Nope. From beginning to end, we are to depend on the Lord for the strength to serve him. Reminds me of a verse from Isaiah:

“He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.” – Isaiah 40:29

God doesn’t give strength to the powerful, but to the powerless. This is what the Lord means when he said to the apostle Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness”. I don’t like being weak. Never have. Resist it every time. Yet it is the key to living in the strength of the living God.

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.”

Lord, let it be so. Amen.

Paul and slavery…

Standard

Ephesians 6:Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality. 

Interesting that the apostle Paul does not call for the abolition of slavery and other unjust social structures, but offers counsel on how Christians should live within those structures. Has me wondering why that is.

Was talking with a colleague about this recently and, while we can’t know for sure, we agreed it may have to do with Paul’s expectation of Jesus’ imminent return. I also believe Paul took his cues from Jesus himself who said the following before his death and resurrection:

28 “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28)

It’s hard not to understand this verse as meaning Jesus would return within the hearer’s lifetime. That has not proven to be the case, but given the expectation, I get why Paul and others would pick up on that theme and teach accordingly. Had Paul known it would be many centuries before Jesus returned, he may have taken a different posture in regards to slavery or patriarchy or any number of things. But he didn’t, which is one reason why it took so long for slavery to be abolished in the US and other parts of the world.

Lord Jesus you teach that we should always be ready for your return, which could be any day. In the meantime, give us grace to reflect your love for the poor and marginalized. We pray this in your most holy name. Amen.