A Staggering Joy

Where the rubber meets the road the truth is: The calendar that matters the most isn’t the one that starts with January. It starts when school begins.

Grandkid update. All seven are in school now from pre-school to high school in six schools. One daughter has four kids and each is in a different school. If alarms don’t go off in the morning in their household the entire county school system goes on system-wide alert. Smile.

School days and calendars present us with staggering opportunities for joy and…worship. Surprised?

I have recently written about worship. It is the most important thing we do as gathered communities of faith in Christ (Colossians 3:15-17; Hebrews 10:23-25). Consider, also, the importance of personal worship in regular, secret offerings to God (Matthew 5:6). The former could be considered the ultimate joy; the latter our personal joy. Today, will you give thought to the staggering joy that is ours to go from our solitary place and gathered worship to a yet another arena of worship? The Apostle Paul wrote: “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” (Romans 12:1).

Following the towering benediction at the end of eleven chapters on salvation, Romans 12 presses us to deeply consider what our salvation truly means to us (“Therefore”), and to put definite rubber on the road. Verse one continues the imagery and language of worship (11:33-36) and encourages us: What you do with your life in your actual body is an offering to God. Ouch.

There is no arena untouched. In an old timey way William Barclay offers, “A man may say, ‘I am going to church to worship God,’ but he should also be able to say, ‘I am going to the factory, the shop, the office, the school, the garage, the locomotive shed, the mine, the shipyard, the field, the byre [house or barn], the garden, to worship God.’”

The consistency of Scripture in this is stunning. 2 Corinthians 5:10 says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” Yes, rewards for faithful service. Yes, “Well done good and faithful servant.” Yes, beyond mere intentions, there is an evaluation for what we have actually done in and with our bodies as an act of worship. This is especially good news for those who live, love, and labor without fanfare.

Back to my grandkids. Three of my grands live nearby. I literally drive past their two schools often on the way to doctors and business. I am not perfect in this, but I usually pray for my kids, the administrators, and teachers—that right there and then they would offer to God their hearts, souls, minds, and strength.

When you drive by my house, would you do the same for me?

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Flame

Cheryl and I are back from Alaska. Yes, Alaska! Have you seen it or imagined what that would be like?

Our souls still leap when we remember the beauty of what we saw and experienced. May that sense of awe never be cheapened or go away.

The glory of God in Creation, of course, shines all around us. It’s hard to beat where we live right here in East Tennessee. But oh how I love the Pacific Northwest, Puget Sound, and the Inland Passage of Alaska.

Language is a feeble friend to describe the immensity of brooding mountains, deep blue waters, the majesty of powerful whales, graceful eagles, and the delicate blues of glacier chunks.

I am using enormous words to attempt to paint a picture of Creation’s splendor: glory, awe, and majesty. Glory is the essence of God. Creation’s portrayal in Alaska and everywhere is but a small glimpse of His glory—His light, majesty, beauty, weightiness. Awe, our response to the glory of God, is what we are captured by. What startles your spirit—what grips you, amazes you, or seizes your heart and senses when you see our nearby fog-shrouded mountain, the rays and colors of sunrises or sunsets, the flight of an osprey, the dance of a deer, the never-ending variety of green colors in our trees, or the limitless shapes of leaves?

Psalm 29:1-4 and 9, note they all cry glory.

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over many waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth
and strips the forests bare,
and in his temple all cry, “Glory!”

Some see the “temple” and “cry” as the language of worship, and Creation’s particulars as motivation for worship. Certainly! Creation is a start, calling us to bow before its Maker and to see—really see—some of who God is. I also note Scripture’s continual portrayal of God’s glory in creation’s elements themselves. Praying through Job 36-39; Romans 1; and Psalms 19, 33, 104, 148 bring together the sovereign act of Creation and the glory of God in and through its particulars, and will bow our hearts in reverence and joy all at once. Awe won’t be enough.

One such experience on our trip came to me through Flame. She is a humpback whale who spends summers around Juneau, Alaska. Identified by the unique identifying underside of her tail, she performed one dance after another as we shadowed her around area waters by boat—while she consumed some of her one ton of food a day. Power, beauty, grace, majesty—glory—abounded.

In the small and great things we see may we continually shout out to God, “Glory!”

-john

Rhea Herald News, July 25, 2018

 

Drifting in the Mangroves

It is so easy to do.

My hobby in my teens and twenties was the sawgrass wetlands, cypress forests, and the mangrove islands of the Everglades. There, beauty, danger, and intrigue await all who will linger.

The thousands of mangrove islands on the lower west coast of Florida are my favorite. Tidally influenced by the Gulf of Mexico, the water can vary in depth and can change quickly. Oyster beds rise faster on a receding tide than a spring flood.

I will never forget the moment we rounded a corner between two islands and there before us was a good-sized boat, high and dry on an oyster bed—with a lady casually reading a book. I have no idea what happened to her companion. She had a long wait until the tide came back in.

I have been studying the book of Galatians and it presents a similar situation. The Galatians had wonderfully embraced the gospel—the good news of salvation by the grace of God, through Christ alone, by faith alone. But now, the Apostle Paul found them drifting backward to religious activity to somehow please God. False teachers had convinced some that salvation came with a price.

Of course, in a sense salvation does come with a hefty price—our lives. But “we love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Our cheerful reception of the good news that “Christ died for our sins…and was raised on the third day” is a living faith that serves. In fact, we were designed for good works (Ephesians 2:10).

Grace is scandalous because it takes away the false security that my works turn the head and heart of God in our direction.

In chapter four Paul is both affectionate and deeply concerned. “I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain,” he says. He asks, “How can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” He’s talking about a law-based, rules-based, performance-based life characterized by the insecurity of never knowing if we have done enough to satisfy God. Religion does that; a relationship with God does not.

We are reminded of the joy of a grace- life at the end of chapter three. Paul, with passion (I hear his voice rising to a high pitch), notes our sonship and startles us with God’s intimacy—urging us to the Father’s summon: call me “Abba.” Abba means Daddy. We are, in the idea of Galatians, no longer slaves but exalted, loved, accepted, embraced children of God. Follower of Christ, this is our blessed status (4:15).

Unbeliever, I plead with you to see how deep is your estrangement in sin and how great the sacrifice of Christ to open the Father’s arms to you. God wants to be your Abba.

Christ-follower, let us not drift from the grace-given salvation offered by Christ and, with delight—not duty—love God and our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39) since we have been first loved by God.

The Song

The world loves young love. You know…the innocence, endless glances, constant touches, mushy words, and how they can’t stand to be apart.

Not long ago my fourteen year old granddaughter caught Cheryl and me holding hands and, with an extended sweet voice, said “Ah.” I think she knew something was right about what she saw.

This is the season for weddings. Those of us who have been married for centuries like to sit back and snicker, “And they think they know something about love—wait until they’ve been married as long as we have.” In a strange bundle of cynicism, wisdom, and maybe envy we watch young love unfold and sometimes secretly wish we could start again. Start again and keep the passion; start again and avoid the mistakes; start again and keep love vigorous and glowing.

Our seniority has helped us weather the storms, we note. Maybe. If we’re honest, we still feel the battering against the rocks. Or, forgetting the troubled waters, we have difficulty admitting young lovers may have something we need to cling to again.

Time in service doesn’t guarantee wisdom. Avoiding the storms doesn’t ensure a safe passage. It’s not how long we’ve sailed the ocean that helps us find the shore. It’s the map that guides us.

Young lovers have a PR problem. They are like young Pastor Timothy in the New Testament. Churches then and now don’t easily accept a leader who is young; we look askance at young love. Do we rate experience too highly? “What could they know,” we say. The Apostle Paul had to encourage Timothy, “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe”(1 Timothy 4:12, NAS).

Here is the map: the Scripture and its most well-known love story. It paints an inspired portrait of irrepressible young love in mushy, gushy words underscored by foundational colors—principles—that provide encouragement and guidance for love to continually flourish. I recommend frequent immersion in the Song of Songs. Young people, start here; those seasoned in love, discover its riches.

Some see The Song as an allegory about Christ and His love for the Church, blushing at the explicit imagery. Scripture does affirm the relationship followers of Christ have with Him in the language of marriage (Ephesians 5:32; Revelation 21:9). The Bridegroom’s (Christ’s) love for His bride (Church/believers) is an indescribable treasure chest filled to overflowing. Here there is the reward for those unattached to someone. I think, though, that the natural way a reader would receive the words of The Song is as a love story—love that is unstoppable, ardent, exhilarating, and overwhelming.

Why should our marriages drift from such an inspired beginning?

Young and old lovers, I invite you to take the plunge into The Song. Wade into its jewels and refresh your love through the words of compliment and principles of surrender, joy, respect, friendship, adoration, and pursuit.

And remember, my granddaughter is watching.

Abba

What has struck you about Father’s Day this year? May I share a few thoughts of mine?

First, we have the unending love of our heavenly Father. May I gently urge you to not let our culture or your pain define or limit the infinite, amazing “steadfast love” of God toward you—nor the call to imitate Him in our relationships? “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1).

Second, not everyone knows their earthly, biological father. I’m in that camp. Some know but deeply resent their father. When I was a prison chaplain I once delivered a message to a prisoner that his father had died. The inmate laughed and walked out. At the prison, we gave away hundreds of donated Mother’s Day cards each year but very few Father’s Day cards. Doesn’t the difference tell a story?

Third, we must have both wisdom and compassion, leaving room in our hearts for fathers who regret the past, have repented of their sins, and would give anything to have a relationship with their children again. The loss of a father can be nearly insurmountable for children. Revenge, bitterness, and anger only hurt the children and us. Allow me to say some more about the challenge of compassion.

Cheryl and I attended a Father’s Day program at the prison where I volunteer. A prisoner I spend one-on-one time with signed up to go. He usually doesn’t go because it is painful. He has demonstrated himself to be a changed man because of Jesus Christ, demonstrating no one is outside the power of the gospel to make a person into a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Yet his grief is real. A quiet man, he cried softly during much of the program.

Fourth, it isn’t always biology that provides the emotional, practical, and disciple-making heart of a father for us. I thank God for several Dad-like figures in my youth through church and school. One met me at the altar, knelt with me, and led me to the Savior—and helped me to get my first bike and car. A high school teacher came alongside me, made me his under-study, and taught me skills to lead an award winning orchestra. As a teen, a pastor took me on visits to homes, hospitals, and funeral homes so that for over forty years of ministry I have been at ease with these opportunities for service.

The ultimate “Dad” for me is my father-in-law. Dad is ninety now, and has been a great Dad from nearly day one. Well…after those early days of dating his beautiful firstborn daughter…

Five, there is always a young person that needs a parent/father-like influence. Who is this for you?

Back to where we started. There is a wonderful New Testament term of endearment to describe the connection we can have with our heavenly Father—“Abba.” To His children, our heavenly Father is always Daddy—strong, tender, available.

May the Father be immeasurably Abba to you, His child, all your days!

Just Get Home

It was a casual remark, but it loudly illustrates a biblical perspective on earth life. This column is dedicated to my brother-in-law, Barry, who is out there, somewhere.

My wife’s mother had surgery last week and Barry, her son, flew in from Denver, Colorado, via Florida after moving his son from New York to Orlando. Whew! His daughter works for an airline and he gets to fly on passes.

While passes sound wonderful, there are numerous expenses and hazards that come with it and it isn’t a piece of cake sometimes. For instance, on this trip he spent over ten hours in Knoxville trying to get to Chicago so he could get home to Denver. He never was able to get on a flight. So, we picked him up in Knoxville and brought him to our home. The next day he seemed assured he could fly out of Chattanooga to a connecting flight in a major hub. He was able to board the plane and then was pulled off for a paying passenger. He finally bought a ticket to Atlanta and, as I write, is currently playing Russian Roulette with schedules, passenger statistics, weather, and airports. In his calculations he is even considering renting a car and driving to Colorado—which he has had to do before.

He is a pro at traveling but it gets wearisome and he misses his wife. He said late last night, “You get to the point where you’ll do anything to just get home.”

Home is the place for rest and, often, relationships that encourage, protect, and love on us. I think God has placed in us the desire for our eternal home in His presence while we travel for a while on earth. We are desperate for home. The Apostle Paul said,

“For we know that when this tent we live in now is taken down—when we die and leave these
bodies—we will have wonderful new bodies in heaven, homes that will be ours forevermore,
made for us by God himself, and not by human hands. How weary we grow of our present
bodies. That is why we look forward eagerly to the day when we shall have heavenly bodies
which we shall put on like new clothes” (2 Corinthians 5:1-3, The Living Bible).

The Bible describes us as sojourners—pilgrims on our way to somewhere else, strangers, and aliens. Follower of Christ: Have you ever wondered if we become too satisfied with our corner of the world and lose sight of our ultimate destiny?

Psalm 16:11 is a universal favorite and sings our song, “You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

In the movie “Airport,” Tom Hanks wanders around in an airport for weeks, waiting to be released into the city and ultimately, after accomplishing his mission, go home. He is ingenious and adapts wonderfully. But it is still just an airport.

Somedays, don’t you just want to “get home” to Jesus?

Bullseye

I have two Godly, wonderful daughters and seven indescribably amazing grandkids (with fathers that are pretty terrific, too). One family lives nearby and the other resides in the flat lands of south Georgia. At one point last week, the whole gang was at my small house. We had thirteen for dinner that night, and my house is still leaning sideways. Five of the thirteen stayed at our house for a week.

My wife has recovered but I am still in process.

My nearby daughter and I work at spending time together. Our ongoing talks, like the recent day centered around going for strawberries at the strawberry farm for her world-wide heralded jam, are energetic and delightful. Talks with my daughter from the peach state with four kids are a little more difficult to come by. So, we went to breakfast one morning last week before all the kids woke up. We talked about the kids, her husband, and circles—concentric circles to be more accurate.

Parents of adult children: Do whatever you have to do to still encourage your “kids” in their walk with Christ.

Joy mentioned she had been reading a book which urged her to make Jesus the center-piece of life—the bullseye. Everything else belongs in the circles that run outside and around that center. They are important, but secondary. From the center flows life and instruction and riches and joy. Chapter one of Philippians came up. In context, the Apostle Paul acknowledges there are competing teachers in the church of Philippi. Some were self-motivated, yet the higher value/purpose/priority of proclaiming Christ overrides their personal agendas. Listen in:

   Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of
   Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope
   that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be
   honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is
   gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I
   cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with
   Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.
(Philippians 1:18b-24)

“Life is Christ,” testifies the Apostle. Even more, “to die is gain.” Ouch. Do I think that way?

This passage cocks the rifle and fires the bullets of our longings, pursuits, life investments, and heart. It brings into focus our time, treasures, and talents given to us by Christ. Later, Paul will describe the prized center—bullseye—as “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (3:8). Such all-consuming, all-pursuing intimacy centers him so that he lives with the tension of “ready to go but willing to stay.”

So, how are you improving your shot toward the bullseye?

what do I have?

A favorite passage in Scripture accompanied by a warm heart. Thanks Rachael.

Rachael Restrick

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My son has no idea how to look for things.

I used to wonder if this was just a “kid” thing – and then Olivia happened. If I tell her to find her cup, she’s got it in 15 seconds. I think all kids can be a little spacey when it comes to locking their eyes on whatever they’re supposed to be looking for – but Brady takes it to a whole new level. I’ve basically given up on asking him to go get me anything. It can literally be at his feet and he’s looking up on the ceiling for it. Sometimes it’s funny, and sometimes I want to pull my hair out. IT’S RIGHT THERE, MAN.

I have heard the love of God related to how we love our kids here on earth. I totally get that this is our closest representation of love. My children grew in…

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Bypass To Nowhere

A hundred years ago Cheryl and I lived in Portland, Oregon for six of the best years of our life. While there, Cheryl’s brother and his wife lived in Seattle, Washington. It was our joy to visit them as often as we could. Seattle is big—really big—with massive freeways.

I saw the most startling sight while driving into Seattle one day. While surviving a fast moving freeway, I saw an exit ramp for a bypass that stopped in the middle of the sky. There were no indications that it was still under construction and it just stopped in mid-air. It was the bypass to nowhere.

A lot of ink has been poured into books about the will of God for our lives. Often there is great angst about living purposeful lives in the center of God’s will. God, it is assumed, has a specific, intentional plan for each person. In our culture, He doesn’t, it is implied, want us to be disabled or sick or poor or anything but successful or prosperous or happy.

Or does He? What I see is the usual call upon our lives is to walk—live—as faithful stewards (managers) of whatever He has already given, including gifts, abilities, opportunities, time, relationships (including singleness), and circumstances. Colossians 3:23 is penetrating: “Whatever you do…do…heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.” (Matthew 25:21-23 does note faithfulness in the “whatevers”—the little things—can lead to greater kingdom service.) Here is the ultimate promise: Everything done for Christ matters now and soon at the time of our rewards at the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:9-10).

I read the following story recently and it deeply touched me.

In a home for disabled children, Catherine was cared for for twenty years. Mentally disabled, she had never spoken a word. She only gazed quietly at the walls or made awkward movements. She did not respond to anything happening around her. She had serious medical problems, including one leg that had to be amputated. The staff were caring but quietly stated they wished God would take her home.

One day the doctor called the director to come quickly. Catherine was dying. When they entered her room, they could not believe their ears. Catherine was singing Christian hymns! Toward the end and with a transfigured face, for half an hour she repeated the German song, “Where does the soul find its fatherland, its rest?” She sang with a transfigured face, then she quietly passed away.

Who sang those songs in her presence?

And so, a gentle hug and simple prayer to Jesus matters for someone who has received bad news. Finding room in our life to talk about Jesus with a child is gold in heaven. Prized, hard-to-give-up time spent with God in the Scriptures and prayer feeds our soul or is, often, an offering only for the ears and heart of the Father and Son.

There are no bypasses to nowhere in God’s daily will for us.

Convince Me: I Should Study History

I once had a history teacher in college who challenged the common idea that history, if not studied, would repeat itself. His rebuttal was that to say so is to say emperors, kings, and presidents did know their history and still chose to repeat its mistakes. Wars, he submitted, told the story. I have wondered many times: Why in the world, then, did he teach history? His class didn’t provide any answers.

His statement may be half right. After studying Scripture, human nature, and history for decades, I think he has correctly observed human nature, and how it gets in the way when moral choices need to be made. Given a choice, we often take the easy road or the self-centered highway. Self-preservation usually wins. That’s why theologians call it the sin nature.

It is wonderful that so some respond wisely and as noble citizens (Cf. 1 Corinthians 1:26). Christians indwelt by the Holy Spirit, considering what Scripture has to say, and focused on reflecting Christ and growing in personal holiness have the best opportunity to do what is right.

I am thinking about these things in my preparations to teach a class on the history of the Reformation. “Boring,” I hear some muttering. But the more I study history the more its importance meets me eye to eye. There are some healthy and helpful reasons for studying history. Here are some initial thoughts.

1. We all have roots. Understanding our past doesn’t have to control us, but it does influence us.

2. The Bible itself is largely history, with good and bad examples and principles in the context of real people living real lives. It doesn’t whitewash their mistakes; it shows them to be very human. However, the grace and mercy of God woos us to God and their lives while they make no allowances for sin. It is imbalanced to only say “To err is human” without recognizing we are no longer bound to sin (Romans 6) and we are empowered to live righteously once we are born again.

3. Akin to number one (above), church history, and in particular the Reformation, has started and/or shaped the particular church we part of. Somewhere in the stories of rebels and reformers—“protestors”—we have our beginning. Vital to our spiritual life and growth, our “protestant” churches have a beginning in the Reformation and their voice (or ghosts). At a minimum, they are our ancestors and helped us be who we are today. Their spiritual DNA is in us. Even the Catholic Church was and is untouched by the events and people of the Reformation.

4. We need heroes. Though intriguing and entertaining, we have made-up heroes with improbable superpowers and silly outfits that pull and squeeze on body parts in every direction. We don’t need placebos. We greatly benefit by the examples in history of men and women of real and realistic faith in the midst of life in a fallen world. Yes, the Bible provides us with many real heroes. But in history we find Scriptural models coming alive again. The focus and sacrifice of Hus and Wycliffe, the devotion to family and boldness of Luther against man-made religion, and the intellectual courage of Calvin all model living out the call to follow Christ with intentionality and faith. History can give us courage to do these things.

5. Doctrine. The word repels many, but truth had been lost and the Reformation found it again. Religion (as opposed to biblical truth), is distracting at the least, disastrous for needy souls for sure, and, sometimes, deadly in regard to eternal destiny and persecution (even false religions suffer persecution).

6. Understanding. Each part of the Bible has a historical context. A faithful interpretation includes knowing the setting each text was written in, to, about, or because of.

7. God uses imperfect people. The Reformation is jam-packed with them and they look like us. History humbles us.

I like J.I. Packers summary. He said, “When Henry Ford declared that history is bunk, he no doubt thought he was uttering wisdom. But his dictum is a classic instance of—well, bunk, and bunk in its purest form. Both the processes and the characters of history have a vast amount to teach us; studying them matures our judgment and frees us from blind submission to present-day prejudices. It has often been said, if we will not learn from history, we sentence ourselves to repeat its mistakes. This is supremely true of Christian history, which shows us the conflict of God’s Word with the world, in and through the lives of his servants, and sets before us the possibilities of living for God that had never before entered our minds.”

So, I am convinced history is an important exploration and, often, exhilarating to seekers of God’s heart.


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