Longing for Leadership

 

What's-NextOur theme for this blog and our church this year is, “What’s next?”. Our theme for  Advent season 2016 is, “Longing for What’s Next.” Most of us, when we think of longing for a word from God, think of longing for some message in human speech or language. While it’s true that we often need a verbal message from God, more often we want a relationship with God. The “Word” we want is the Word Made Flesh, Jesus. We need a person not just words. The longing we have is not just for information but for a personal relationship with a person (God) who can bring us to the next stage of life.

Because this year was an election year, most of us have thought about the subject of leadership. We long for a world in which we have better, more ethical, godlier, and more caring leadership. Of course, in the end our longing for better leaders cannot be fulfilled except by Christ. All human leaders fail. All human leaders fall short of our expectations. Only God can give us leadership we desire in the depths of our hearts. The frailty of our human leaders does not, however, mean we don’t need good and godly ones.

This blog is about the longing we all have to be led by leaders who truly care for us and lead is wisely. This longing is part of our human condition. Human beings have always longed for better leaders. This longing especially comes to the surface during election years or other times like the one our church is experiencing: times when we are thinking and looking for new leadership. It may help us to know that people have always longed for new leadership in times of transition and in troubled times.

A Prophetic Longing.

images-2Our text for this blog is from the prophet Isaiah. The early church valued Isaiah more than any book of prophecy. They saw in Isaiah a foreshadowing of the birth, character, ministry, and sacrificial death of Jesus. As they read Isaiah, the first Christians saw revealed and understood in a deep way the life and ministry of Jesus. Isaiah foresaw that a virgin would conceive (7:14), that the Messiah would be hidden and not attractive to the wealthy and famous (53:2), and that he would sacrifice himself for the sins of his people (53:6-8). They also saw in Jesus fulfillment of the promise God had made to David that he would never fail to have a family on the throne of Israel (9:7; 11:10). Here is a part of what Isaiah prophesies on the subject of leadership:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them (Isaiah 11:1-6).

Let us Pray: Eternal God, King of Heaven, Lord of Hosts: Come to us by the power of your Holy Spirit so that we may understand the kind of leadership that pleases you and become such leaders in our families, businesses, schools, clubs, friendships, and other places we minister your grace. In Jesus Name, Amen.

images-2The Leaders We Too Often Have.

We often complain about poor leadership in our culture—and for good reason. Recently, I went on the internet to look for a few examples of bad leadership. I found many, many examples from 2016 alone. Here are just a few examples of bad leadership from 2016:

  • The CEO of a large internet company who was hired to turn the business around, became a celebrity, and proceeded to lose even more money than her predecessor.
  • The leader of an emerging economic power who ran for office on an anti-corruption ticket and then proceeded to act in a corrupt manner.
  • The CEO of a growing software company used dubious and illegal business practices to grow a company and his leadership style included highly inappropriate conduct by himself and his employees.
  • The CEO of a drug company that bought a generic drug and then upped the price, hurting seriously ill people.
  • Another CEO of a drug company who misstated the results of tests on a new company drug.
  • The CEO of a car company ignored signs that certain tests required by the federal government were not accurately reported.
  • The mayor of a major American city afflicted with crime flip flopped on an alleged act of police violence, losing the respect of voters, police and social activists alike.
  • The governor of a state claimed not to know of a blatantly illegal and politically motivated action of two of his subordinates. [1]

Frankly, too often we settle for bad or incompetent or immoral or dishonest leadership not just in our government, but also in private industry and charitable organizations. If we do not think and work carefully to develop good leaders, we must live with the leaders we get. Therefore, it is a good idea to think about the kind of leadership we desire for the institutions of our society.

The Leadership We Deimages-1sire.

The Prophet Isaiah lived in the times of two of the best kings of Israel and two of the worst. The prophesy of the historical Isaiah covers the period from the reign of King Uzziah (791-740 B.C.), the reign of King Jotham (750-732 B.C.), King Ahaz (736-716 B.C.), and King Hezekiah (725-687 B.C.). Uzziah and Hezekiah were good kings, but Ahaz and Jotham were not. Isaiah 11, quoted above, was probably written sometime during the disappointing reign of Ahaz. [2] The prophet was understandably concerned about the future of his nation. The vision of granted Isaiah is a response of God to his longing and praying for a better kind of leader. He needed a word from God on the subject of leadership, and he received that word he needed.

As Isaiah prayed and thought about the situation, he recognized that what was needed was a new and different kind of leadership. Such leadership would be Spirit-filled, loving and caring for people, wise, knowledgeable about the world and about the ways of God, insightful about the motives of people and the potential of situations, just, and righteous.

From the time of Isaiah forward, the people of Israel longed for that kind of leadership. Over time, the visions of Isaiah and other prophets resulted in a hope for a Spirit-filled leader the prophets called, the “Messiah,” or “The Anointed One.” [3] In other words, what Israel hoped for was a leader filled with the Spirit of God, and so empowered to rule in a godly manner. By the time of Jesus, this hope was fully worked out in the minds of most Jews. Unfortunately, the way God’s people had worked it out was not accurate. The Jews made of the Messiah just another King David, only more moral and without some of David’s most serious shortcomings.

God had a different idea. In God’s mind, the Messiah was to be a totally different kind of leader. I have a doctorate, and my doctorate happens to be in leadership. In the beginning of my research for my degree, I was attracted to the study of some of the most successful and most popular leaders of the church of the 1990’s. By the time of my dissertation, I had come to realize that too often pastors, church professionals, sessions, and church members want church leaders who model the same leadership styles as their favorite leaders in business, government, the military, and other areas. The problem is that secular leaders almost always disappoint, and our search for church leaders who are just like secular leaders but nicer is also bound to disappoint. If we want the kind of leaders for which we long, then we need to pray for Spirit-filled leadership. Truly Christian leadership is leadership that emulates Christ before everything else.

All human leaders human institutions must in some way adapt their style to the culture in which they lead. All leaders must adapt their leadership to the realities of the challenges they face and to human nature. However, we cannot make progress, real progress in leadership unless and until the transcendent example of Christ forms in our hearts an ideal for which we strive.

Getting There from Here.

This blog has been scheduled for almost all this year. When it was scheduled, I had no idea that the election would be so divisive or that there would be so much ill-feelings about the candidates. A few days ago, I wrote the meditation for last week. It was as follows:

This year has been an election year. Therefore, most of us have thought about leadership at least once or twice. One thing most of us long for is a world in which we have better, wiser, more ethical, godlier, and more caring leadership. This longing for better leaders cannot be completely fulfilled except by Christ. All human leaders fail. All human leaders fall short of our expectations. All human leaders are like us: they are flawed, finite human beings. Therefore, we can come to expect too much from them. Only God can give us the leadership we desire in the depths of our hearts. Only Christ can give us the self-giving, servant leadership for which our spirits made in the image of God long. Only the Spirit can help us come closer to being such leaders.

Christians can and should be in the forefront of demanding and seeking good leadership from ourselves and from those who lead us. One of the strengths of our faith is that it gives us an eternal and humanly unreachable spiritual and moral ideal to guide us in all our striving, including our striving to be good leaders.

Our culture is chronically disappointed in its leaders because we do not have a clear and realistic moral ideal of the kind of leader we want. As we have become a secular culture, the ideal of a servant leadership has been cut off from its roots in Christ, the revelation of the Word Made Flesh. The Bible, however, reveals such a vision and ideal—a vision and ideal first set out in Isaiah and fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.

During the most recent election, I had an experience I want to share. For whatever reason, beginning I did not initially feel called to pray for the victory of any candidate. I did feel called to pray for the character of the candidates. I felt called to pray that one particular candidate, win or lose, would become a better person. Interestingly, I feel my prayers were answered! As Christians, we know that we will never fully achieve the kingdom of God on this earth. We know that our leaders will to some degree fail us. In fact, the attempt to seek a merely human messiah always ends in failure, as Hitler, Lenin, and Mao among others abundantly proved. We cannot have perfect politicians. We can and must, however, pray and work for better political climate and better politicians.

What would better leadership look like? Our passage from Isaiah gives us some clues of what we should pray for:

  • First, we should pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon us and upon our leaders. The book of Isaiah speaks of King Cyrus of Persia (see, Isaiah 41:2-4). Cyrus, was not a Jew, was not a Christian (of course), and in so far as we know, died a pagan. Nevertheless, Isaiah speaks of Cyrus as anointed with the Holy Spirit in the decisions he made, giving religious freedom to the Jews.
  • Second, we can pray for our leaders, whether or not they are Christians, in such a way that we can live quiet and peaceful lives. Paul in his Second Letter to Timothy urges us to do exactly that when he says, “I urge, then, first, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (2 Timothy 2:1-2). Many Christians only pray for those leaders they like or voted for. This is a mistake. We must pray for all those in authority.
  • Third, we can pray that our leaders will make good decisions inspired by the Holy Spirit. Isaiah envisions a king who will decide wisely and with true understanding of people, situations, and the options available (11:2). Such a leader will have a kind of wisdom that begins with deep respect for God and humility, a quality that is necessary for true godliness (Proverbs 1:7; 10:9; and 15:33; Isaiah 112-3). One characteristic of such leaders is that they do not merely judge on the exterior, but look deep into reality with a mind attuned to invisible moral and spiritual realities of a situation (Isaiah 11:3). Such leaders will especially care for the poor, the oppressed, and the forgotten (v. 4).
  • Finally, we can pray that our leaders, Christian or not, be filled with the love of God, and will be selfless, servant leaders. Cyrus, as mentioned earlier, was not a Jew nor did he necessarily believe in the God of Israel. He supported all possible god’s and let people worship as they pleased. Nevertheless, Isaiah sensed that Cyrus was, in many ways, a godly leader and a servant of God’s people and God’s intentions in history (Isaiah 44:24-28; 54:1-13).

As Christians, we can and should pray that our leaders will have that hidden wisdom of which the apostle Paul speaks (1 Corinthians 2:6-8). We can pray that they will be wise in such a way that they can see beneath the surface to the true, hidden causes of things (Isaiah 3-4). Finally, we can pray that they will be righteous and do justice, especially toward the poor and the oppressed (vv. 4).images We can pray that our leaders will serve us with a humble spirit of service, and not simply with a desire for more and more power. We cannot achieve a kind of leadership that promotes the healing of the world by our own powers. If lions are to ly down with lambs, we need the power of God, the power shown on the Cross, to allow that to happen.

Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Fortune Editors, “The World’s 19 Most Disappointing Leaders” Fortune Magazine (March 30, 2016) downloaded November 16, 2016. I could go on and on with examples. Originally, I was going to use Enron as an example, but it seemed outdated. When I went on the internet I found so many contemporary examples I could not believe it.

[2] See, Gary V. Smith, “Isaiah 1-39” in The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2007), 233ff. Most likely this section is related to the time period of Isaiah 7:14 (“A virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son”). The reign of Ahaz had been disappointing to the prophet and many other religious Jews. In such times, there is a longing for wholesome, renewing leadership.

[3] The Hebrew term “Messiah” is “Christ” in Greek. In English, the translation for Christ is “Anointed One.”

The Gift of Thankfulness

This week I had the opportunity to read an article from the November issue of Christianity Today. It was about the Christian author Ann Voskamp. [1]. Ann Voskamp lives on a farm in Canada. Her husband, is “The Farmer.” Her book, One Thousand Gifts, has become a national best seller. Ann Voskamp’s the story is important and touching. She grew up in Canada as the daughter of a farmer. When she was quite young, her younger sister wandered into a farm lane, where she was hit by a truck and killed. Their family entered decades of trauma. Both of her parents were emotionally and spiritually wounded. Her father stopped going to church. Ann was also emotionally wounded and had difficulty trusting God or feeling any joy in Christian faith.

After years of suffering, she had a revelation about the importance of thankfulness. As she was studying her Bible she recognized how many times Jesus gave thanks in difficult circumstances. She then discovered how often the apostles gave thanks in difficult circumstances. She learned that the word for thanks in Greek comes from the same root word, “charis,” as “”grace” and “gift.” She began to find things to be thankful for in the midst of suffering and hard times. She became thankful for fresh jam, for a baby’s breath, for the harvest, for all the simple things of life. One day, one of her friends noticed the change in her, and she recognized that her practice of giving thanks for the little blessings of life had begun to overcome the darkness and the bitterness that pervaded her life. Even her friends noticed that she was a changed person.

imgres-2Thanksgiving is an important holiday. At Thanksgiving, we celebrate and remember the gifts of God. In modern society it is harder to remember to be thankful for the harvest because we no longer live close to the soil. That’s too bad. The fact that we are here this morning, that we have enough to eat, that we have family and friends, – all of these are gifts of God.

Thanks at the End of an Era.

Last week we studied Second Chronicles. The book covers the period from the ascension of Solomon to the throne of Israel to the Babylonian exile, a period of about 400 years. Today’s text is from the end of the reign of King David, or around 970 B.C. [2] It was written hundreds of years after David’s death. By the time First Chronicles, was written, David was a distant historical figure, somewhat like George Washington is for people today. Let’s listen to David’ final prayer:

 imagesDavid praised the Lord in the presence of the whole assembly, saying, “Praise be to you, Lord, is what the God of our father Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power  to exalt and give strength to all. Now, our God, we give you thanks,  and praise your glorious name. “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope. Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you. I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things I have given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you. Lord, the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep these desires and thoughts in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you. And give my son Solomon the wholehearted devotion to keep your commands, statutes and decrees and to do everything to build the palatial structure for which I have provided.”  Then David said to the whole assembly, “Praise the Lord your God.” So they all praised the Lord, the God of their fathers; they bowed down, prostrating themselves before the Lord and the king (I Chronicles 29:10-20).

Prayer: Eternal God: Give us thankful hearts this morning. Fill our hearts with thankfulness for the simple things of life and for the nation we are privileged to live in. Give us thanks for those who sacrificed for our freedom—and for those who are sacrificing for us this very day. In Jesus Name we pray. Amen.

The Life of David.

Oh I wish I had time to preach a sermon series on the life of David!  Years ago, a Presbyterian pastor I know preached an ingenious series of sermons called: “The Life of David: God’s Soap Opera.” David’s life often reads just like a soap opera. Most of us know the outline of the story. David was the youngest son of Jesse. His great-grandmother was Ruth the Moabitess. He was the youngest son of his father Jesse. Through God’s miraculous intervention in his life, he was anointed king of Israel to succeed Saul. As a young boy, he fought the giant Goliath armed only with a sling. He won a great victory.

imgresAs a result of the victory, he was brought into the court of King Saul. Because of his talent as a musician he was called upon to sing for Saul when Saul was depressed or in a dark mood. He became a great soldier, eventually the greatest soldier in Saul’s army. Saul became jealous of him and for many years David was an outlaw wandering in the wilderness of Judah trying to stay one step ahead of his kingdom. All along David remained faithful to God and trusted God even in his desperation.

After many years, Saul was killed in battle, and David became king of Israel, first in Judah and then in Jerusalem. As king, he continued to provide security for his people. Then, he had a notorious affair with the beautiful Bathsheba. In the process of trying to cover up his affair with Bathsheba, David committed murder. The son conceived as a result of the affair died shortly after childbirth. As a result of these events, God brought a terrible judgment upon David. From that time forward he faced revolt and revolution from within his own family. He saw two of his children die violent deaths. He had a grand daughter who was molested by one of his own sons. One of his children led a rebellion against him. As an old man who could barely lift the sword he had to return to the battlefield. He was victorious in that battle.

After these events David entered a season of peace. He had a son by Bathsheba whose name was “Solomon.” Solomon turned out to be the most brilliant and capable of his children. Therefore, he determined that Solomon would replace him as king. At the end of his life, for a period of time, he and Solomon ruled together. David wanted to build the temple in Jerusalem. God did not permit him to do so because he was a man of violence and had shed blood. In today’s text David looks back upon his life and realizes that every good gift he has received: his positions came, his wealth, his power, his family, – all these things – came from God.

Grace and Thankfulness.

As part of preparing for this blog I wrote this week’s meditation posted on Facebook:

Thankfulness and grace go together. If we think we are entitled to the gift of life and to the things we want and need, we will never be thankful. It is only when we realize that everything we have as individuals, as a church, and as a nation are gifts of God’s grace that we can be truly thankful—and thank the One who bestowed them upon us.

 This is the last week of our series on many ways of giving. As we have every week, we are returning to the subject of God’s grace. As I mentioned a moment ago, one of the interesting parts of Ann Voskamp’s spiritual healing was recognizing that grace and joy and thanksgiving go together. The Greek word “charis” is at the root of our word for grace, thanksgiving, gift, and joy. If we do not develop a gift of thankfulness, we will never experience the joy that God desires us to have as Christians. It’s only when we recognize that all of life is a gift that we can truly experience the healing power of God and the joy of God in our lives.

One thing I hope we have all gotten out this series of blogs is the importance of recognizing how dependent we are on God and on the love and mercy of God not just for our salvation but for all of the blessings of life. We cannot be thankful until and unless we put our own wisdom, our own work, and our own striving into perspective: No matter what I have done or accomplished, it is still because of God’s grace that I have accomplished it. When I have this realization, I am released to be be humble, open, wise, loving, and thankful.

The First Thanksgiving.

images-2Last week I mentioned how important it is for our country to remember something of our history and traditions.  The Pilgrims left England for America because they did not have freedom of religion in England. People who belonged to the free church movement, the Puritans, who took their faith very seriously, were unable to practice their religion with freedom. They were persecuted not just by the government but by the people of their day. They left England and went to Holland for a short period of time. They did not find Holland a good place to live because their children were developing Dutch customs and speaking Dutch at the expense of English. They learned that they could move to America, have religious freedom, and remain British citizens. So, they embarked on a voyage to the New World in a sailing ship that would fit into the sanctuary of our church. Many of the pilgrims died on the voyage. They landed late in the year and many died during that first cold, dark, dangerous first winter.

The following spring, the survivors began building their colony and planted a crop. They were aided by members of a local Native American tribe. Their first harvest was successful; and in November the group’s leader called for a feast to celebrate. Hunters were sent into the wilderness to hunt game for the event. Members of the local Native American tribes were invited and brought deer meat to add to the menu. The celebration lasted for three days.

We can learn some lessons from that first Thanksgiving. The survivors of that first time in the New World were not wealthy. They had not been terribly successful. They had barely enough food to make it through the next winter. Nevertheless, they were thankful. We don’t have to have everything that we desire to be thankful. To be thankful is to recognize that everything we have is a gift. In a society in which we feel entitled to happiness and success, it is hard to realize that even our failures involve God’s grace and we should be thankful for what we’ve been given.

Our Thanksgiving.

images-4In a little less than two weeks, we will celebrate Thanksgiving. I hope that all of us will take some time to think about what we are thankful for before that day. Perhaps we can develop the habit of Ann Voskamp of taking time every day to think about what we are thankful for, even amidst the problems and difficulties and stresses of that day.

Some years ago, I was witness to a very touching moment. An elderly gentleman was near the end of his life. He managed to take care of his family, raise his children, and put away little money for retirement. He knew that he had very little time to live. There was a meeting in which he made some final arrangements for his wife, who would be left behind, his children, and his grandchildren. When the meeting was over, he looked up and said, “Oh God thank you that I was able to do this.” This man, like many members of his generation, have lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War. He had had medical problems and business problems and all the problems that we have. Now, he was dying. Yet, he was thankful.

In many ways, David had a hard life. As the youngest son, he had been relegated to the most menial tasks on his father’s farm. As a young man, he had to fight wars for a mentally unbalanced king.  That king had ultimately feared,  persecuted, and tried to kill him. He spent many years in danger, fleeing from place to place trying to save his life. Even after he became king, he was in constant danger for a long time. When he managed to defeat most of his enemies, he made a mistake that followed him every day for the rest of his life. As an old man he saw two of his sons die. He might have been bitter. Instead, he made arrangements for his son Solomon to replace him, to build the temple in Jerusalem, and to be successful as a king. Then, he thanked God for the blessings of his life.

This week, and between now and Thanksgiving, perhaps we all could focus on three questions:

  • What should I be thankful for?
  • What have I forgotten to be thankful for?
  • What are my hopes and dreams for my family, for my children and grandchildren, my church, for my city, and for my nation? And, what arrangements should I be making so that these dreams can come true?

I am not by nature a thankful person. When I read the article in Christianity Today about Ann Voskamp, and when I read her book on gratitude, I realized that this is a great spiritual weakness. She’s very right: we will never grow into the people God wants us to be until we learn to be thankful for the little things of life. And, we will never learn to be thankful until we learn to be thankful like Jesus even in the midst of the difficult circumstances of life.

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Katelyn Beaty, “Contemplative Activist” in Christianity Today (November, 2016), 50-52. Ann Voskamp’s first book from which I quote below is, One Thousand Gifts (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010).

[2] See, The Interpreter’s Bible Vol. 3.  “Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job” Vol. 3 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1954. This is a Methodist commentary with a fairly progressive Biblical studies background and tilt. This commentary would place the work at around 350-250 B.C. or much later than the time of Ezra. By the time the book was written Israel had been conquered by the Babylonians, the Persians had captured Babylon. Cyrus of Persia had released the Jews, and some of them had returned home.

Praying for our Nation

This post is inspired by 2 Chronicles 7:14. I am posting it a bit early because of the election. It is much longer than the related sermon. I am publishing the blog early this week so that people can ponder it as they consider the choices they will be making next Tuesday and pray for our national day of decision. You may share this as you feel called.

My theme in this blog is praying for our nation. imgres-1This weekend, our church had a twenty-four-hour prayer vigil for our nation as we vote this coming Tuesday. As I begin, I want my readers to clearly understand that it is not my purpose to influence readers to vote in a particular way or for a particular person. Instead, I want to encourage all of us to pray for our nation, for those in authority, and for decisions we must make about the future of our nation. This week, we will vote for the next President of the United States and other public officials. At such a time, it is appropriate to think about prayer, its power, and its impact upon our nation and our own lives as citizens. It is also appropriate to consider the factors that might guide our prayers.

Normally, there is a great similarity between my blog and the sermon of the week. This week, there is a larger than normal difference. Because of the importance of this election, and the limited time I have on a Communion Sunday, this blog contains reflections not found in the sermon. I hope that the blog can help Christians ponder how to pray for our nation more effectively and to vote wisely.

Early this past week, a group of us went on a silent retreat to a Catholic retreat center in Cullman, Alabama. It is Benedictine retreat center, and so there is a copy of the Rule of St. Benedict in each room. I began my retreat by reading the prologue to the Rule. Here is what I first read:

We should begin every good work praying that the Lord God will bring our good work to completion. Since God is good, has called us his children, and wants good things for us, we shouldn’t grieve God by doing wrong or asking for wrong things. To the contrary, Christians should listen for the voice of God so that we may receive the good gifts God desires to give us. In this manner, Christians will not experience God as an “angry father,” “harsh task-master,” or “rigid judge” who punishes, but as a wise and loving parent who gives to his children every good and perfect gift. [1]

This part of the Rule of St. Benedict reminds us that, for Christians, every good work should begin in prayer. This reading was particularly important to me during our retreat, because I went on the retreat partially to pray about the next stage of life. Renewing our lives and families begins with prayer. Renewing our neighborhoods and churches begins with prayer. Renewing our nation begins with prayer. For Christians, every good work, of whatever type or nature, begins with prayer.

We live in difficult times. Our nation is divided. This election has highlighted that division. When a nation is divided, it is easy for harsh language, bitter personal attacks, emotionalism, and violence to rule the day. Unfortunately, good decisions are almost never made in anger, in bitterness, with harsh language, with deceit, or with violence. The experiences of the 20th century, and the horrible dictatorships founded on class warfare, bitterness, and deceit in Germany, Russia, China,Venezuela, and other places around the world  should remind all of us that our nation is on a dangerous path.

If my People…

images-2Our text for this meditation comes from Second Chronicles. This is not a book we study often in Protestant churches, so let me briefly introduce it. There are six books in our Bible that tell the story of Israel and Judah from the time of the Judges until the fall of the Southern Kingdom (Judah): I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, and I & II Chronicles. Of these, Chronicles is the least readable and the driest of the three sets of histories. Therefore, it is the least read. Nevertheless, a portion of todays text (II Chronicles 7:14) is among the most famous passages in Scripture.

The reign of Solomon is reported in both I Kings and II Chronicles. Today’s text is from the period when Solomon finished and dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem. As you read, listen to the Word of God as it comes to us by the Chronicler:

When Solomon had finished the temple of the Lord and the royal palace, and had succeeded in carrying out all he had in mind to do in the temple of the Lord and in his own palace, the Lord appeared to him at night and said:

I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there. As for you, if you walk before me faithfully as David your father did, and do all I command, and observe my decrees and laws, I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father when I said, ‘You shall never fail to have a successor to rule over Israel. But if you turn away and forsake the decrees and commands I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will uproot Israel from my land, which I have given them, and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. I will make it a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples. This temple will become a heap of rubble. All who pass by will be appalled and say, “Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and to this temple?” People will answer, “Because they have forsaken the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who brought them out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshiping and serving them—that is why he brought all this disaster on them” (2 Chronicles 7:11-22).

Let us pray: God of History, we stand at one of those moments when we wonder what you are doing in the history of our nation and of our civilization. Help us to hear these words  as if they were written to us, as your very word to each of us. We pray for our nation and for the election to be held next Tuesday. We pray for the candidates and for their safety. We pray for the integrity of the election process. We pray for wisdom and discretion as we and our fellow citizens cast our votes. Finally, we pray that your will would be done and that we would come together as a nation after the election. In Jesus Name, the Name of the King of All Kings and Lord of All Lords,  Amen.

The Vision of Solomon.

As mentioned a moment ago, the historical books of the Old Testament tell the story of Judah, the tribe of King David, and how Israel was founded as a nation with a king and ultimately disintegrated and was destroyed by outside conquest. I & II Chronicles tells the story from the time of Adam until the fall of Judah, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. The story ends with Israel and the House of David having disobeyed God, drifted from faith in the God who led them out of captivity in Egypt and into a “land flowing with milk and honey,” and taken once again into captivity, this time in Babylon.

There are two shining figures in the national story of Israel: King David and King Solomon. There were, of course, other good kings, Josiah and Hezekiah among them. In Chronicles, both Solomon and David are portrayed as heroes. In Samuel and Kings, their failures and weaknesses are revealed. David, the founder of the dynasty of the House of David, is portrayed as its greatest king and loyal to God, but emotionally and morally flawed. Solomon is portrayed a bit differently. In I Kings, Solomon is portrayed as a man who begins well, but is not fully faithful to God at the end of his life, and who, at the end of his life, sows the seeds of the decline and fall of the House of David (I Kings 11). [2]

Second Chronicles was written after the fall of Jerusalem, probably near or after the time of the return of Ezra and Nehemiah. [3] By the time the book was written it had become obvious that neither Solomon nor the people of Israel had been faithful to God. They had forsaken the love of God, the laws of God, and the ways of God. The result was the fall of Judah and the enslavement of the people of God. The Chronicler set out to tell the story of God’s people as reflecting certain great truths: There is a God, who is the maker of Heaven and Earth, who is to be worshiped by all who call on his Name. God has instituted a moral law, and we human beings violate that moral law at our own risk. Finally, if we violate the laws of God, we can expect suffering. These are truths that remain important to us today.

This blog begins with a serious and important point. God is love (I John 4:8), and as we discussed last week love is at the center of the Christian life—not just any love but the self-giving, self-sacrificing love of God shown by Christ on the Cross. God’s love is, however, a special kind of love. It is Self-giving Love indissolubly united with Truth, the Divine Light of God. It is absolute love  revealed to us in the laws of God, laws God has written not in human words, but into the fabric of the universe and on the human heart. [4] When we follow God’s ways, we experience that love as blessing. When we ignore God’s ways, we experience that love as judgement. God is always Divine Love, but the way in which we experience that love depends on our thoughts, emotions, and behavior.

Prayer that Changes Things.

Since we are all sinners, and none of us can fully live out the love and laws of God, if it were not for God’s grace this blog and the Bible would end on a hopeless note. Our nation would be doomed, just as Judah was doomed. Fortunately, verse 14 of today’s text shows us that the mercy and grace of God is available even when we have sinned and fallen short. God promises Solomon that, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14). God makes the same promise to his people today.

A couple of weeks ago, as I was thinking about this message, I wrote these words out in my journal as a formula. The formula is simple. The first word is “if.” In other words, everything that follows is conditional upon some action by God’s people (those called by has Name). There are four actions that God asks of us:

  • First, we have to humble ourselves.
  • Second, we have to pray.
  • Third, we have to repent.
  • Finally, we have to turn around our thoughts, our desires and our actions. We have to stop sinning, confess our sins, and move forward in the will of God.

If we do these things, then, and only then, God makes certain promises to us:

  • He will hear our prayers from heaven.
  • He will forgive our sins.
  • And finally, he will restore our land. [5]

images-3The formula God gives to Solomon may be simple, but it’s hard to live out in real life. It is hard to give up our human pride and recognize that we are fragile, fallen, and weak creatures. It is hard to pray with broken hearts about our own sin and about the sin of our people. It is hard to repent of our sin (especially sins that we love). It is hard to turn our lives around and begin to act and live differently. Unfortunately, if, and only if, we do this, will God restore our lives, the lives of our families and loved ones, the lives of our churches and our neighborhoods, the life of our nation, and the lives of all the nations of the world.

Our Election and the Decisions We Face.

At this point, it would be easy for me to make a long laundry list of our national sins and shortcomings. At least one person I talked to while writing this blog suggested that I do exactly that. (I think this person believes that I’m a coward for not doing so!) Instead of making a long laundry list, however, I’d like to focus on some general reflections about which I think most of us can agree, things that we need to consider as we pray for the election and as we cast our own votes:

  • First of all, if anything has been made clear during this election, it is  that our nation is troubled and deeply divided. It is clear that the dysfunction of our society is slowly creating generations of people who are angry and have difficulty differing with others without crude language, devious behavior, over-emotionalism, and sometimes violence. We need to pray for more rational and more peaceful elections.
  • Second, the politics of negative sensationalism, often focusing on sex, prevents us from having a conversation about serious national problems. It is easy to win office by trying to prove that the other person is a worse person than you are. It is a bit harder to prove that you can actually solve the problem with our healthcare system or the budget. We need to pray that we and all voters will focus on what matters and not primarily on sensational disclosures.
  • Third, there is a massive lack of understanding of the fundamental principles upon which our nation and our way of life is based. A people who do not know and cannot remember their national history, the sacrifices made for their freedoms, their Constitution, and who do not possess a fundamental level of political and economic knowledge, simply cannot make good decisions about the problems we face. This makes it even easier for the media and elites to manipulate voters. We must take time to be educated and we must see that our children and grandchildren are properly educated. This is the only way democracy can work effectively.
  • Fourth, there is a lack of discrimination about what is possible and what is not possible. We cannot find or elect a perfect person as President. Only Jesus fills that bill. We all have character flaws, but some flaws are deadly in a democratic leader. A lack of respect for people, for the moral law, for the laws of our nation, and for the fundamental rules and responsibilities of public office are central character flaws. Good people make mistakes and have character flaws. Bad people and bad politicians could care less about the constitution, the laws of our nation, the  moral law, or character. Persistent criminal behavior is different from moral lapses. David, Solomon, and other rulers in the Bible, were flawed, but they were trying to be faithful to God.  Ahab and Jezebel were evil and were not trying to be faithful. Because there are no perfect people, voters in a democracy must always weigh the character and the character  flaws of each candidate, recognizing that no candidate is perfect. We will have to wait until Jesus returns for that to be the case. Nevertheless, it remains true that “When the righteous triumph, there is great elation; but when the wicked rule, wise people go into hiding” (Proverbs 28:12). To elect a person of bad moral character as president is to risk terrible consequences, as those of us who lived through Watergate can remember,
  • Fifth, where a people no longer believe in the existence of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, politics descends to the simple search for power. This election has clearly revealed a kind of “anything goes” mentality. The media seems no longer to believe that their role is to assist the voters in understanding and casting a wise vote. Instead, they see their role as manipulating public opinion one way or the other depending on their political beliefs. Where a people lose faith in the existence of truth, justice, the good and the like, a kind of tyranny is never far away. This is perhaps the most serious problem we face, because the loss of belief in truth is a big part of what is sometimes called “postmodernism” and is rampant in our colleges, universities, governmental agencies, courts, and other elite institutions. People who no longer believe in the Good, the True, the Just, and the Beautiful capable of anything. [6]
  • Sixth, we have to be realistic about what can be achieved and what will and will not be achieved by the candidates. It is true that we elect a President and the character and ability of the President is of great importance. But, a President also appoints judges, works with the leaders of Congress, appoints members of his or her own administration, and makes many decisions based upon the advice of others. If those the President appoints are unskilled, incompetent, immoral, and the like, then the President will not make good decisions and the nation will suffer. No President can or will accomplish all the things they promise during an election. A President, however powerful, must work with Congress, the Courts, other state and local governments, the media, business interests and others. Wise voters remember this.
  • Finally, we voters have to be willing to make sacrifices. Both of our candidates have made many promises that imply that there is an easy way out of our national problems—a way that involves no sacrifice on our part, or on the part of our social class, or our business, etc. This is unrealistic. Solving hard problems always involves sacrifice. We cannot balance an already unbalanced budget without impacting someone’s taxes or social services. We cannot the reign in the cost of medical care without restricting some procedures, either by regulation or by the free market. In the real world,  problems created by pushing back a day of reckoning cannot be solved without experiencing at least a part of the day of reckoning. The question is what is the best and fairest means of solving the problem with the least amount of suffering, particularly among those without the resources to avoid the full impact of the sacrifice to be made.

If our nation is going to be renewed and restored, we all must be willing to do a lot of hard work to change some of the negative aspects of our society. We all have to pray. We all have to work. We all have to repent. We all have to change the way we live and conduct our public business, not just those with whom we disagree.

The People Who Need to Do the Praying: Us.

I was preparing this blog, I read a sermon that was critical of most sermons preached on this text. The point the pastor was trying to make is simple: we Christians often read this text and preach this text as if all Americans needed to pay attention, humble themselves, pray, repent and change their behavior. We don’t need to change, everyone else does. This ignores the very beginning of the conditional statement. The Chronicler begins, “if my people who are called by my Name.” In other words, God did not believe that the Babylonians, or the Persians, or the Greeks, or any other nation  except the Jews  needed to humble themselves, pray, repent and behave differently. God’s people needed to change.

imagesThis applies to us. We cannot expect people who do not believe in God, do not believe in the loving Word of God, do not believe in the revelation of Scripture, do not believe in God’s power in history, and/or do not believe in the moral law, to humble themselves,  pray, repent, and change their behavior. We are the ones who must humble ourselves, pray, repent, and turn from our wicked ways. When we do this, slowly but surely, the world and our nation will change. It will change because we have changed. As we become more like Christ, as we become more filled with God’s love, as we are filled with the Spirit of God, and as we live God’s Spirit of Love and Wisdom out in our day-to-day lives, America will change because we’ve changed and the people whose lives we touch are changed.

I suppose everyone who goes on a retreat as a favorite moment. It so happens that my favorite moment during this week’s silent retreat was a moment in which everyone was talking. At some point during one of the classes our teacher said something that provoked a conversation. Several ladies, including my wife Kathy, began to discuss what was said. The discussion was about what to do if a child comes home wanting to share a bedroom with their boy or girl friend. The point was made that the parent should say, “I love you and I will always love you. Nothing you can do can change how I feel about you. But, I don’t agree with what you are doing, and I don’t feel comfortable with you doing it in my home. That does not mean I don’t love and respect you.”

The conversation then turned to the way in which Christians, about a number of moral and political issues, need to be so filled with the love of God that our families, friends,  neighbors, and fellow-citizens will recognize that we love them, will always love them, and will always serve them. We do not need to change what we believe is right and wrong. We do not need to compromise what Christ and the Bible clearly teach.  We do not need to change the way we live or our values. In fact, we need to be sure we do not change our core beliefs and core values as Christians. However, we need to communicate and act on our beliefs with such unselfish love that others can see and know that Christian faith makes a difference and that the key to their own happy future is to become a part of the loving Kingdom of God.

Self-giving love changes the world. We know this because God became one of us in Jesus Christ. He embodied the love through which God created the heavens and the earth. In his life and in his sacrificial death, he showed us a way to return to fellowship with God, be filled with God’s love, and slowly but ever so slowly bring the Kingdom of God upon the Earth. With this in mind, we might rephrase today’s text like this, “If my people who are called by my Name will only remain faithful to me and be humble and meek as I was humble and meek on the in my own life with them and on the Cross, if they will pray to the Father as I prayed to the Father on behalf of the whole world, if they will turn from their selfish self-centeredness and serve the needs of others as I did, then God’s  Kingdom will come into the world and their lives will be changed and sold the lives of everyone they touch to the ends of the earth.”

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue in contemporary language and as paraphrased by the author. For a strict translation. see, Timothy Fry, ed, The Rule of St. Benedict (Collegeville, MN, 1982).

[2] The reign of Solomon is portrayed in I Kings 1-11 and in I Chronicles 28-II Chronicles 9). In preparing this blog I have been guided by J. A. Thompson, “1, 2 Chronicles” in The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1994), Robert C. Denton, “The First and Second Books of Kings and the First and Second Book of Chronicles” in The Layman’s Bible Commentary (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1964).

[3] As in so many areas liberal and conservative scholars differ on the dating of the book. Traditionally, most people held that Ezra, the author of Ezra and Nehemiah, was the author of Chronicles. Modern scholars have sometimes disagreed. As in so many other areas, there is no way to absolutely prove one way or the other who wrote Chronicles and in what time period. I tend to accept the tradition under these circumstances.

[4] I have written on this in two books, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love rev. Ed. (Booksurge, 2016) and Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

[5] The formula is this: If and only if (≡) my people humble themselves (H1), pray (P), and turn from their wicked ways (T), then (→) I will hear from heaven (H2), forgive their sins (F), and heal their land (H2) or” ≡ (H1+P+T) → (H2+F+ H2).”

[6] I have dealt with this at length in my book, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers previously cited. I am always dependent upon the work of the philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi, and his version of “critical realism” for the insights of my book and for the insight that we must believe in the reality of truth before we have any hope of finding it. See, Michael Polanyi, Science Faith and Society (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1946 and The Logic of Liberty (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1951).

Many Gifts: Live the LOGO

Today’s post is on I Corinthians 13.

One sign that you are getting old is when movies you saw as new releases can only be watched on Turner Classic Movies! Our church’s confirmation class sometimes watches portions of a movie from the 1980’s called, “The Mission.” [1] images-2The Mission portrays the struggle of the Jesuit Order to bring Christian faith and Christian values to the Indians of South America. Early on, the audience is introduced to two characters: Father Gilbert and Mendoza. Father Gilbert is a courageous and loving priest who conquers natural obstacles and life-threatening situations to win the respect of the natives. Then, he wins their hearts with music, symbolizing the harmony of man and nature to be found in faith. Father Gilbert is a man of peace and at peace with God, nature, and others. His personality exudes Divine Love. In the movie, Father Gilbert is a Christ-figure.

Mendoza is a different sort of person. He is wild, moody, and impetuous. He murders his brother in a jealous rage and ends up in a monastery founded by Father Gilbert. Mendoza is a person of profoundly disordered loves. [2] Driven by guilt and shame (not love) Mendoza is converted while reading First Corinthians 13 and watching divine love in action as reflected in Father Gilbert’s life and ministry. Mendoza is driven by human desire. In other words, Mendoza is one of us. Mendoza is not a natural Christian, he does not naturally love others; he is naturally violent and self-centered.

The Christian life is a journey from self-centeredness to other centeredness from love of self to others, from Eros to Agape. Divine love, the grace of God, is the beginning and the end of our journey of faith. We human beings, like Mendoza, are people of disordered love, prone to love things we ought not love and fail to love things we ought to love.

The Priority of Love.

Our text today is from First Corinthians. I Corinthians 13 is so familiar to contemporary Christians that we have difficulty understanding it. First, the passage is so poetic and lyrical that it is easy listen to the beauty of the words and miss the underlying message. Second, the passage is so frequently read at wedding services and other celebrations of human love that it is easy to miss the actual point being made. The passage is about how self-giving love, that can only come from God, is the goal of the spiritual life and the only way to avoid spiritual gifts creating chaos.

images-1This is the word of God as it comes to us from the Apostle Paul:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now, we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (I Cor. 13:1-13).

Prayer: God of Love, who in love created the world and us, please come and be with us this morning so that we may understand your word, be filled with your spirit, and be changed into your image. We asked this in the name of the one who was the Word made flesh even Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

From Giftedness to Agape.

Over the past several weeks, we have been studying the Gifts of the Spirit using First and Second Corinthians as our primary source. The Corinthian church was a prosperous and gifted church. The problem with the Corinthian church was that the Body of Christ was not healthy because the gifts were neither used in love or producing love. The faith of the Corinthians was producing strife. In some ways, the problems of the Corinthian church were the problems of every church in trouble:

  • The leadership was divided (1:10-2-3:23);
  • There was immorality in the church (5:1-5);
  • Worship services were chaotic (11:1-34);
  • People were using their spiritual gifts in chaotic ways instead of for the good of the whole church (12-14); and
  • People were teaching false or inadequate doctrine (15:1-38).

The Corinthians, very much like modern Americans, had difficulty understanding the deepest truths of Christian faith. Their problem was partially religious. The patron goddess of Corinth was Aphrodite (Venus in the Latin), the goddess of human love. Of course, the worship of Aphrodite was inevitably erotic. Many Corinthian church members had participated in the erotic rituals of Aphrodite worship. As a result, there was a tendency to mistake ecstatic, emotional, mystical experiences, such as speaking in tongues, with life changing faith.

In English, we have one word for love. The Greek language has several words for love. It has the word “Philios” for brotherly or sisterly love. It has the word “Eros” for romantic love. It has the word “Stergo” for affection among family members. Finally, in Greek there was a word “Agape” that was the least used word for love. In classical Greek, the word “Agape” originally meant “to honor, or welcome.” It was most closely-related to the word “Philios,” which may explain the common reference among Christians as being “Brothers” or “Sisters.” Among Christians, the word came to be strictly identified with the love of God shown by Christ on the cross. [3] Agape love is God’s unique, self-giving, sacrificial love.

Although America is different than ancient Corinth, we are also tempted to mistake emotional or other experiences with the goal of the Christian life. Like the Corinthians, we need to remember what kind of love we are talking about when we talk about the love Christians are to embody. We need to remember that to be spiritual is to reflect the love of Christ shown on the cross. The love of God is a gracious, self-giving, sacrificial, steadfast love.

From Faith and Works to Love.

If we are to understand the importance of Agape Love, we must begin with Grace. Grace is the unmerited Agape Love of God freely given by Christ on the Cross to save the world that becomes available to us through faith (Ephesians 2:9). We are saved by grace. Faith is how we receive that grace. All of our spiritual giftedness, all of our spiritual growth, all of our becoming more like Christ, is founded on the gracious, unmerited love of God.

Paul begins his teaching about love by telling us that love is more important than our spiritual gifts (I Cor. 13:1). No matter how dramatic our spiritual gift of speaking may be, if we don’t have love ur words are empty. He reminds us that love is more important than knowledge (v. 2). A person who understands all the mysteries of the Christian faith and can see how to apply them into the distant future is nothing without love. Love is more important than what we are able to accomplish as a result of our faith (v. 3). Paul tells us that if my faith is so huge that I can move mountains or give up my body to be martyred, or give all my positions to the poor, it still isn’t important if I don’t act in love. In other words, those who think faith is a feeling or an ecstatic experience all wrong. Those people  who believe faith is a special kind of knowledge that gives us the special understanding of the future are wrong. Those people who believe faith is something that enables a person to do mighty works are wrong. What matters is whether faith produces love.

As Protestants, we have always emphasized faith. We believe in salvation by faith alone, but that does not mean salvation without grace. In the Reformation, Christians emphasized the role of Christ on the Cross (Christ Alone), Grace (Grace Alone), and Faith (Faith Alone). [4] Everything we believe and becomes begins with Christ as the full revelation of God, who is love. God’s love was before our faith and is more important than our faith. Faith is how we begin the Christian life. It is important. But, faith is finally the way we receive God’s grace and are able to grow in the love of God. In order for us to become the people we are called to be, we have to grow in grace, being filled with the love of God.

The Reality and Power of Diving Love.

Earlier this week, Don Kerns and I were speaking about our passage today. Recently, Don used the passage as part of the wedding ceremony. His meditation began by noting that most of us find the words of this passage beautiful to hear but impossible to live out in our lives!images I noted that, when Kathy and I go to weddings and I hear these words, I seldom feel encouraged. They forced me to consider how far short I fall in the Christian life. First Corinthians 13 can often be like an exotic diet or a very strict exercise scheme that we learn about while reading a magazine. It all sounds very good, but in the end, we don’t have any intention of living on soybeans or exercising ten hours a day. Many times, the diets and exercise regimes that we read about finally strike us as impossible.

Interestingly enough, I do not think an impossible goal was the intention of Paul in writing these words. Paul knew that the kind of love that Christ demonstrated on the cross is impossible on a merely human scale. But, where grace is present, Paul not only believes we can live out the words of First Corinthians 13, he expects us to be able to live out these words.

There is so much in this passage that it’s impossible to completely and fully teach the passage in one lesson. The love of God is not like any human love. It is not jealous, or boastful, or proud (v. 4). It does not seek its own pleasure or its own desires (v. 5). It is not angry when it does not get what it wants (v. 5). It does not scheme to get what it wants (v. 6). It is content with the truth. The love of God transforms the human character as we become more patient, kind, humble, giving, truthful, trusting, hopeful, and patiently enduring (vv. 4-6). When we are transformed by God’s love, we stop being the people we would have become by nature, and we become the people we can only become by God’s grace.

We have a lot of gifted people at Advent and in all the churches in America. We also have a lot of active people. We have great Sunday school teachers. Every one of them is important. Nevertheless, what is most important is whether or not our faith is producing the kind of love inside of us that allowed Christ to go to the cross on behalf of the world.

Live the Logo.

imgresAt the end of The Mission all of the good works of Father Gilbert are destroyed as Spain, Portugal, and the Catholic Church conspire to get something that they want at the expense of the Indians and the little mission Father Gilbert has created. Father Gilbert, however, is faithful to the end. He dies as a man of peace acting in love, refusing to fight. Mendoza ultimately deserts the way of love and goes back to being a soldier. He dies in a final battle. The movie ends with the question of which way, the way of love or the way of violence, is best. What the movie fails to understand is that love is not a means to an end. We cannot love our enemies as a means to victory over them. Love is not a means to any end. Love is the end. Love is the Goal. Love is the victory.

Our Scripture reminds us that all of our human achievements will pass away. In the end, our Bible knowledge and our ability to apply that knowledge to life will be unnecessary, because we will see God face to face (v. 8). Our ability to persevere and endure suffering through hope will pass away, because we will have received our reward in heaven. In the end, faith hope and love are the greatest of Christian virtues but love is supreme, because love will last forever (v. 13).

heartLast week, Kathy and I were able to entertain a friend for most of a week. She loved our church and its programs. One morning I went out to run wearing my Advent T-shirt. My friend saw the T-shirt and asked if she could have one. I happen to know that we had a T-shirt very much like mine in the proper size for a woman.  On the last day she was here, just before she left, we gave her one of those T-shirts. When I gave her a hug and handed her the T-shirt, I said “All you have to do is live the logo.” Well, that was the moment I got the idea for today’s sermon.

In truth, our church is lucky to have our logo, because each time we look at it we look at the central truth of the Christian faith. We remember that God is love, that he died for us, that he saved us in his grace, that he gave us one another, that he wants us to share our spiritual gifts with others, and that he desires for us to become filled with his love until we are like him, sharing that love of God we have already seen and experienced in Jesus Christ.

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] The Mission, dir,. Roland Joffe & Robert Bold (Kingsmore Productions, 1886, 125 minutes).

[2] St. Augustine diagnosed the human condition as characterized by disordered loves. We love things that are secondary instead of things that are primary, especially God. For Augustine, the life of faith is a life of re-ordering our loves to mirror the intentions of God. In his work, On Christian Doctrine, Augustine puts it this way: “He is a just and holy person who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love nor fails to love what he ought to love….” (1.27.28).

[3] In passages like John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gives his Only Begotten Son…,” love is now being used to specifically mean the love of Christ on the cross “Agape” was the least used and specifically defined word for love in classical Greek. Christians took this word and gave it a very specific meaning. Christians altered the meaning in ancient classical Greek so that the word specifically refers in Christian thought to the self-giving, sacrificial love shown by Christ on the Cross, an action that revealed the very nature of God to be this Agape love. Paul emphasizes the qualities of agape love as part of redefining this term as a Christian world referring to God’s love.

[4] The Five Sola’s of Reformation faith are: (i) Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone, (ii) Sola Fide (“faith alone, (iii) Sola Gratia (“grace alone”), (iv) Sola Christus (“Christ alone), and (v) ‘Sola Deo Gloria (“God’s glory alone”).

The Gracious Giving of a Gracious Giver

 

iconLast week we talked about the various spiritual gifts that God gives us. This week, we are talking about the virtue of generosity—and about the way in which generosity flows from an experience of God’s grace. God not only wants us to use our spiritual gifts, God wants us to use our spiritual gifts generously. He wants us to be so filled with his grace and his Holy Spirit that we can’t help but allow that love to overflow into the lives of others. Last Sunday night in our Salt & Light study, we heard two wonderful testimonies about God’s grace. Interestingly, both people indicated a desire to share the grace that they had received because of the impact God’s love has had on their lives.

When we speak of generosity, most of the time we think of money. In this blog, I will mention money, but the focus is on the way the Holy Spirit empowers us to be generous people, inside and out, in all areas of life. As I begin, I want to make a confession: I am not by nature a generous person. Kathy is by nature a generous person (although she does not like to share food with me when I try eating off her plate!). I have friends that are naturally generous. They love to throw parties. They enjoy giving away money. They gladly attend fundraisers. They never hesitate to give to a needy cause. They love to go to soup kitchens and feed people. Perhaps it’s my Scottish blood, but I don’t work that way. I have to work on being generous.

My father-in-law was a naturally generous person. He was in the food business, and it was virtually impossible to be around him for any length of time without receiving and eating a whole bunch of food. He was the kind of person that thinks four people need twelve eggs for breakfast! He loved to feed people! When he retired, he would get up and drive his Buick station wagon to a local bakery and then deliver bread to a local charity. He just loved giving people food to eat. Perhaps it was because he grew up during the depression.

The Excellence of Grace.

36618_all_062_01Today, we are going to spend one blog in the book of Second Corinthians before returning to First Corinthians next week as we finish this series.. [1] I don’t have time to tell you the entire story of First and Second Corinthians; however, the two letters are related. This morning we’re going to be looking at selections from chapters 8 and 9 of Second Corinthians. Here is the background in brief: Near the middle of the First Century, there was a terrible famine in the Holy Land. Paul wanted to take up a collection to relieve the suffering of the church in Jerusalem. His strategy was to get the churches in Greece, and probably in Asia Minor, to give generously for this effort. The Macedonian church, which was poor, made a very generous gift. (Macedonia is a poor region even today.) After the Macedonian church make their gift, Paul worked on other churches in the region. Corinth was a wealthy city. Therefore, he hoped they would give a substantial gift. This portion of Second Corinthians is all about that gift.

Hear the Word of God as it comes to us from the voice of the Apostle Paul:

And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.  For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving. I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have. Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” (2 Corinthians 8:1-15).

Prayer: Lord God, the giver of every good and perfect gift: please come by the power of your spirit that we may overflow with your grace and be filled with your love. In Jesus Name, Amen.

The Eternal Giver.

night-sky-hugOver the past few weeks, I have tried to begin each blog with a return to the basis of our life in Christ and our Spiritual Gifts. Everything we have is a result of God’s grace. God, in an act of sheer love, created the heavens and the earth. God in his eternal wisdom, created the human race and each one of us. We are each unique, made in the image of God, and able to both appreciate the wonder of God’s creation and to participate with God in showing forth his wisdom and love in creation.

This week, I read Psalm 139 where the psalmist said:

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful; I know that full well (Psalm 139:14).

We cannot talk about generosity unless and until we recognize the generosity of our God. God is generous. He created the majesty of a universe that so vast, so beautiful, and so intricate that we can only look at it in wonder. When we look at this earth, so lovely, so filled with beauty, we can only wonder at the God who created it. When we look at the human race, with all of our capacities, we can only wonder that we were given this ability to see the wonder of God and experience the beauty and elegance of his creation (Psalm 8).

We ended last week’s blog with this observation: Not only is the universe beautiful—not only is the earth beautiful—you are beautiful. Each person in this world, each human being is fearfully, wonderfully, and beautifully made. Each person has natural and spiritual gifts. When we have faith in Christ, we receive a special, new capacity to share the love and grace of God with others in unique and irreplaceable ways.

Giving is About More than Money.

To understand what it means to be generous, we have to recognize that generosity involves more than money, and the root of generosity is much deeper than simply managing our money wisely. Our text today was from Second Corinthians chapter 8. Paul’s thought, however, stretches through chapters 8 and 9. Here is how Paul ends his message:

This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (2 Cor. 9:12-14).

 images-1We can easily miss what Paul is saying here. He is thanking the Corinthians in advance for supporting this offering for the hurting church in Jerusalem. However, he is also reminding the Corinthians that their generosity is going to overflow in many, many expressions of thanks to God, all flowing from the gospel of Christ and a willingness to share what God is done for us with others.

I am in the process of slowly cleaning out my office and going through things. This week, I came across an illustration so old that I can’t remember who exactly I was talking about. The story, however, goes like this: Years ago, I knew a person who was fairly successful in his business. He became aware of a charity and gave a little money to that charity. Then, he got interested in the charity. He volunteered. He began to help them in many ways. In the end, his life was changed. He spent the last years of his life working with this charity.

Some years ago, Andy Jordan and I were in Ghana together. We were able to meet with a gentleman from the United States. He was a Christian businessperson who had become interested in economic development in Third World countries. He was in the real estate business, and so he began to do a little work with ministries involved in Africa. Eventually, his daughter moved to Africa to work on micro-business investing. When we met him, he was making arrangements to take a sabbatical from his business in order to donate more of his time to the development of Ghana in West Africa. I don’t know what became of this man but he made a deep impression on us. What began as a small financial gift ended as a transformed life. The generosity he experienced was not just a generosity of money but of time, talents, and energy. Most of you do not know this, but Andy has been exceedingly generous in giving of his time, talent, energy, and money to support the people of Ghana.

The Grace of a Cheerful Giver.

Some years ago, I saw Nicholas Cage movie entitled, It Could Happen to You. [2] In the movie, Cage plays a New York policeman who purchases a lottery ticket. In order to get a cup of coffee, he promises the waitress half of it. A short time later he finds out he won $6 million. The first thing Cage has to do is decide whether or not he’s going to tell the waitress about his winning and share the winning with her. Against the advice of his wife, he gives away half. That gift begins a change in his life. He begins to give away more and more of the gift. Finally, the gift means nothing. In the end, Cage does not become wealthy, but he does find love.

This movie could be a metaphor for the spiritual life. When we begin to use our spiritual gifts, when we begin to be generous with our possessions, when we begin to allow God to change the world through us, we do not necessarily become rich (as some cults promise). Instead, we find love. We do not necessarily find human love; we find the love of God welling up in our hearts. When that happens, our lives are changed forever.

I talked about Ghana a few moments ago. In our own congregation, we have a person who began to go on trips to Honduras. This person fell in love with the people of Honduras. Currently this person is building a house in Honduras so that he can spend a part of the year there helping others in the name of Jesus Christ. What began as a small gift, some money, a few days away from work, has ended up in a completely changed life. The grace of God is being show in a life transforming way.

A Time to Think.

Our text tells us that God loves a cheerful giver. The reason why God loves a cheerful is  simple: God is a cheerful giver. God gave himself so that we might be saved. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t fun. There was suffering. But the love of God overflowed in what Christ did on the cross. Hebrews tells us that it was because of the joy set before him that Christ endured the cross (Hebrews 12:2). That’s why in Second Corinthians  we hear that, though Jesus had everything in unbroken fellowship with the Father, he was willing to become nothing for us. Jesus didn’t do that reluctantly. He did it because of the overflowing Love of God.

images-2For the last twenty-five years I’ve always preached the stewardship sermon on stewardship Sunday. This year, I decided to do it a bit differently. Next week, the sermon is going to be from I Corinthians 13 on love. If our salvation is the first gift of God, and if each other is the second gift of God, and if our spiritual gifts to be used in the body of Christ for the third gift of God, and if an overflowing of generosity in our hearts is the fourth gift of God, all these gifts have a goal: love.

What I hope all my readers will do this week is take some time to pray, meditate, and think about the generosity of God. We need to think about the grace we were shown in our own creation. We need to think about the grace that Christ showed us on the cross. We need to think about the relationships we have with one another, here and in attending other Christian groups to which we belong. We need to think about our spiritual gifts and the opportunities we have to use them here at Advent and beyond. Then, each person needs to think about what it is they want to do to supply the physical needs of their own local church.

Our physical needs are not our only needs. The need we have to undergird the finances of our churches is only one of our needs. It may not even be the most important need. Our greatest need is to see the love of God poured forth day by day in the ministries and lives of our members. Many of you give generously of your time, talent, and energies more than one time a week, and I thank you. As you consider your generosity, think about how you might use your time, your talent and your energy in ways that will give glory to God. There a lot of important things in this world, but the most important is love.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The sources for this are the Bible, the New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Barclay’s Commentary on I and II Corinthians, The New American Commentary Vol. 29, 2 Corinthians, and The Interpreter’s Bible Vol. 10 Corinthians.

[2] Jane Anderson, wr. It Could Happen to You dir. Andrew Bergman. Starring Nicolas Cage, Bridget Fonda, Rosie Perez (!994).

The Gifts that Keep On Giving

iconThis is the third in a series of blogs on Spiritual Gifts. The first installment had to do with the first gift of the Spirit: our salvation. The second installment had to do with the second gift of the Spirit: each other. In this blog, we are going to talk about the gifts of the Spirit God gives to build up the Body of Christ.

I am not a talented gift giver. I never know what to give Kathy or any of the children for Christmas. Most of the time, I don’t buy the right thing. Over the years, I’ve actually become kind of scared to buy gifts. I have gift induced anxiety.  I’m always afraid my gifts will be no good. God, however, is a perfect gift-giver. The Bible tells us that God is the “giver of every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17). As a perfect giver, God never chooses a gift for us that we will not enjoy or that others will not appreciate. We may not know exactly why God gave us the gift, at least in the beginning, but eventually we will see that the gift was perfect for us and for those around us.

There is more than one kind of gift. Some gifts are for pure personal enjoyment. Other gifts have a purpose. For example, if I give my wife flowers it might be just to make her happy. On the other hand, if we are going to a party and I buy her a new dress, there is a reason for the gift: I want her to look nice for our friends. There are also gifts that were meant to be shared with others. For example, if I give my wife a box of chocolates, I expect that she will not eat all the chocolates. She will share them with me! The gift was meant to be shared.

Spiritual gifts are the third kind of gift: they were meant to be shared. God gives us spiritual gifts with the expectation that we will use them to build up the body of Christ. In this blog, we are talking in a general way about the gifts of the Holy Spirit that God gives to every believer. There is no way I can possibly cover all of the gifts in depth in one blog. What I want to accomplish is to introduce the subject and get all readers interested to learn more. [1]

Paul’s Teaching About the Gifts.

Our text for this blog is from First Corinthians. Last week, we studied  the middle of Chapter 12 where Paul talks about the Body of Christ and how important each person is for the Body of Christ as a whole. This week, we are talking about the gifts of the Holy Spirit that Paul mentions at the beginning and end of the chapter. Hear the word of God as it comes to us from the Apostle Paul:

Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines (I Cor 12:1, 4-11).

Later on in the chapter, Paul gives an additional list:

 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts (I Corinthians 12:27-31).

Let us pray: O God who is the giver of every good and perfect gift, please come in our time of worship so that we may more clearly know you and the love you have for us. Come by your Holy Spirit to enlighten, inspire, and empower us. In Jesus Name we ask it. Amen.

 Gifts are …. Gifts!

imgres-2I have a box I sometimes use to illustrate God’s Grace, especially at Great Banquet Weekends. It used to be wrapped as a Christmas present, and now it is wrapped as a birthday present. Why do I use my box? Because the word for grace in Greek is also the word for a “gift.” This word is also the word at the root of the idea of Spiritual Gifts, which are gifts of grace. [2]

The idea of our spiritual abilities as gifts is an important one to grasp. Once again, there is more than one kind of gift. Some gifts, like business gifts, we give with the expectation because of what another person has already done for us. I always used to enjoy getting Christmas gifts from clients but they were business gifts. I did something for them they did something for me. Some gifts are like business gifts: They are  given with the expectation of  something in return. Once again, these  kinds of gifts are earned.

We don’t earn the best kind of gifts. Gifts that are given to us by someone who loves us and cares about us, and who gives us a gift which we haven’t earned, are the best gifts of all. This is the kind of giver God is. God knows our weaknesses. He knows that we cannot earn our salvation. He knows that we cannot earn the fellowship of the Body of Christ. God he knows we cannot earn the gifts of the Spirit. He gives them to us anyway.

Although God expects us to use our gifts, just as a parent would expect a child to use a bicycle he or she that was given for Christmas, God isn’t giving us gifts of grace expecting something in return. However, like all givers, God hopes we will use the gift the way it was intended to be used. This does not mean that we earn our gifts of the Spirit. It means we appreciate our gifts and use them the way the giver intended.

Gifts are Meant to Be Enjoyed.

imagesIn just a few minutes, I’m going to talk about sharing our spiritual gifts. However, before I talk about sharing our spiritual gifts I want to talk about enjoying our gifts. People often ask how they can know what their spiritual gift is. Of course, there are spiritual gift inventories. There is one available in the lobby for those of you would like to take the test. However, these are relatively recent inventions. We don’t need them.

There are a number of signs that I have a spiritual gift. One sign we don’t talk about a lot is simply to ask, “What it is that God has me doing already?” Long before I was a preacher, I was asked to preach from time to time at the Star of Hope Mission in Houston Texas. It’s not surprising that preaching was a spiritual gift since I was already preaching the gospel before I knew what a spiritual gift was!

If you are already teaching a Sunday school class, and you enjoy it, it’s probable you have the gift of teaching. If people are constantly coming to you for advice, it’s likely that you have the gift of wisdom. If you already help people whenever you get the chance, it’s probable you have the gift of helps. If every group you are and asks you to be the administrator, you probably have the gift of administration. If you share your faith regularly with other people, it’s probable that you have the gift of evangelism. You get the idea: the first thing to think about is, “What am I already doing?”

A second a sign that you have a spiritual gift is whether or not you get joy from exercising that gift. [3] For example, I have always loved teaching. I’m always happy when I’m teaching a Bible study. It’s not surprising that I regularly test very high for the spiritual gift of teaching. Teaching gives me joy! If you really enjoy helping other people, then you might have the gift of mercy. If you really enjoy helping other people financially, you might have the gift of giving. If you really enjoy counseling other people, you might have the gift of discernment. You get the idea: We should and do enjoy what we’re doing when we are exercising our spiritual gifts. God gives us our gifts so that we can enjoy the use of our talents.

This does not mean that it will always be easy or fun. Some sermons are easy to prepare, and I’m full of ideas all week long. Some weeks, I’m tired, sermon doesn’t work out as planned, or it is sheer drudgery to get ready to preach. Yet, in the end, I do feel a certain satisfaction. That’s the joy of exercising a spiritual gift.

Perhaps my readers remember the movie, Chariots of Fire. [4] In the movie, the Scottish runner Eric Liddell is talking with his sister who thinks he should stop running and concentrate on becoming a missionary. Liddell wants to be a missionary; however, he also wants to run. In response to his sister he tells her, “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” There is a tremendous truth in that scene of the movie. When we use our spiritual gifts, not only do we experience joy but we experience the joy that God feels in the use of our gifts.

Spiritual Gifts Are Meant to Be Shared.

images-1We have a member who each year around this time of year brings our staff Pumpkin Donuts from a place in the Frazier neighborhood that makes the best pumpkin doughnuts in Memphis. Normally, he delivers them to me. However, it is his expectation that I won’t eat twenty-four doughnuts. He expects that I will share them with the staff. In the same way God gives us spiritual gifts intending that we will share them. This is not a form of works righteousness. It’s the natural result of having received a gift meant to be shared with others. Once again, I enjoy teaching. It’s not hard for me to teach. I enjoy sharing new information with people. It may be work, but it’s fun. If I didn’t teach, I wouldn’t be sharing my spiritual gift, and would miss out on all the fun.

With as background, I want to talk a little bit about individual gifts of the Spirit. Each Christian has a gift given by God for the glory of his kingdom and to build up the Body of Christ. These gifts were not given for our own self-glorification but to glorify God and to build up the Kingdom of God in the world. In the middle of chapter 12 of First Corinthians, which we studied last week, Paul teaches us that all Christians were meant to use all of their gifts in unison and concert to build up the body of Christ and to show God’s love to the world.

In the letters of Paul, and in one of the letters of Peter, there are various lists of the gifts of the spirit. Here is a kind of graphic rendition of the lists:

Table 1: Gifts of the Spirit

Romans 12:3-8 I Corinthians 12 Ephesians 4:11-12 I Peter 4:10-11
Wisdom
Knowledge
Faith Faith
Healing
Miracles
Prophecy Prophecy Prophecy
Discernment
Speaking in Tongues
Interpretation of Tongues
Service Helping Others Service
Teaching Teaching Teaching Speaking
Encouragement
Generosity
Leadership
Mercy Helping Others
Apostles Apostleship
Pastors

The lists are not identical. This is important. It means that the list of spiritual gifts we find in the Bible are not exhaustive of all the gifts that God gives by the power of the Holy Spirit. The lists are simply some of the manifestations Paul saw in his own churches. He lists the gifts of faith, wisdom, knowledge, apostleship, prophecy, service, helps, teaching, pastoring, encouragement, discernment, generosity, leadership, mercy, healing, generosity, evangelism, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, and leadership. Any attempt to group the gifts is artificial; however, it might be useful for me fit in a few categories so we can think more clearly about how we can use our gifts:

  • Gifts that create and build up the church, such as apostleship, evangelism, prophesy, teaching, leadership, and the like.
  • Gifts that share God’s love in powerful personal ways, such as healing, miracles, service, generosity, and the like.
  • Gifts of wisdom and counsel, such as discernment, wisdom, knowledge and the like.
  • Gifts of worship, such as prophesy, preaching, the ability to make music, and speaking in tongues.

None of these gifts were meant to be used for our own personal benefit. They were meant to be used for the benefit of one another and the body of Christ.

Go for It.

People sometimes ask whether or not you can lose a spiritual gift. I don’t know whether or not I can give you a definitive answer to that question; however, the following would seem to be true: Our spiritual gifts are just like any other gift. If we don’t use them eventually we do lose them. I may have a tremendous gift for music, but if I never practice and never play I won’t be any good. The same thing is true of our spiritual gifts: If we never use our spiritual gifts we get rusty and we eventually lose them.

It’s important for us to remember that God intends for  us to experience the joy of using our spiritual gifts and for us to use them in a way that enhances the Body of Christ. If we don’t use the gift, we don’t need a gift. There is also a reverse truth: If we set out to serve God and if we need a gift to complete that service, God will give it to us. Just his week, in order to help someone, I had to use a gift I rarely have to use these days. God, whoever, was with me when the time came and gave me the ability to share God’s mercy in a helpful way.

The second thing that I was asked to mention is the following truth: our spiritual gifts involve a power of God. They build upon our natural gifts and enhance them. Like any other power, spiritual gifts can be misused. A parent can give a child a gun so the child can go hunting, but that same gun could be used in a destructive way. There is a constant temptation to misuse our gifts, especially those of us who have leadership and related gifts. The apostle Paul wrote a good part of First Corinthians because the Corinthians were misusing the gifts that God had given them. The Corinthians had power, but they were not using that power to build God’s kingdom of love.

The third and final  caution I want to give has to do with pride and Spiritual Gifts. If we become proud of our gifts, we will almost certainly misuse them. Pride and love are contrary to one another, When our pride gets out of control we may think we have gifts and abilities we do not have. We may ignore the gifts of others. We may tend to take on responsibilities God never intended us to have. When that happens the peace and shalom God intends our Spiritual Gifts to produce becomes impossible. The result is the kind of chaos the Corinthians experienced.

We live in a time in which the world needs Christians to use their spiritual gifts. The world needs people who are sharing God’s wisdom in God’s love in life transforming ways. We need to go out into the world and use our gifts, whether our gift is evangelism, or mercy, or teaching, or sharing, or praying for the lost, or whatever. When we use our spiritual gifts properly and wisely, the light and love of Christ come into the world.

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  There are many good resources on the Spiritual Gifts. One book I like is Erik Rees, Shape: Finding and Fulfilling Your Unique Purpose in Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006). If any one reading this blog goes online, they will find multiple resources, spiritual gift inventories, and the like, available from many resources. As mentioned, this particular blog is not intended as a substitute for personal study, talking with pastors and others, and other ways in which we discern and begin to use our gifts.

[2] The root word in Greek is “Charis,” which means something that delights causes joy. Such delight is the result of a disposition of the giver. In the case of Spiritual Gifts, God’s love causes joy and new life. The word for gift, “Charismata” comes from this root and implies that gifts are a result of God’s grace, which cause delight in us and in others who experience our gifts. They are also a sign of God’s favor upon his people. See, Gerhard Kittel & Gerhard Friedrich, eds, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament G. Bromily, Abridged Edition Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1983), 1301-1307.

[3] See note 2 above.

[4] Chariots of Fire, dir.Hugh Hudson, wr. Colin Wieland, starring ben Cross, Ian Charelson, Nicholas Farrel (Warner Brothers, 1981).

The Gift of One Another

This week our text is I Corinthians 12:12-28 and the subject is our need to recognize that the Church, God’s people and the relationships we have is a gift of God. There can be no wise living without living in community with a group of people one loves unconditionally.

Somewhere around 1960 a group of young couples in their 30’s formed a Sunday school class at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Missouri. The last Sunday my mother attended church, that class was still meeting although it grown quite small and very old. Throughout fifty years, this group of people had met together, studied the Bible together, prayed together, had fellowship together, raised children together, developing deep lasting relationships. I can remember Sunday school picnics that occurred over fifty years ago.

Last week, while we were in Houston, we were talking about a Sunday school class at First Presbyterian Church of Houston. My in-laws were members of this class. This particular class began in another form during and after the Second World War and still exists as the Fellowship Class today. Once again, while the members are old today, the class began as a group of young couples who were getting married, forming families, having children, raising families, putting children through college, and then losing spouses to old age and death.

dscn0310When Kathy and I got married, the first Sunday after we returned from our honeymoon we joined a Sunday school class known as the “Carpenter’s Class.” The Carpenter’s Class was formed by couples in their late 20’s and early 30’s. Once again, we enjoyed our young married lives together, had children together, went through the problems of middle life together, until that class disbanded during a church conflict. Nevertheless, to this very day, if we returned to Houston, we have dinner with members of that class. We remain close to this very day.

This blog is about the gift of one another we receive from God by the Holy Spirit. If the first gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of our salvation, the second gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of Christian community. There is nothing so important in the Christian life than a deep, personal relationships with other Christians. The church is not an organization. The church exists as an organism as people live together in what Paul calls, “the Body of Christ.” The church is a living thing made up of relationships among real, living people.

The Body of Christ.

In First Corinthians, the apostle Paul uses one of the most famous metaphors for the church. He calls the church the “Body of Christ.”  body-of-christ-4If the phrase, “Kingdom of God” emphasizes the church as the place where Christ rules, and the phrase “Family of God” emphasizes the church as a family, a phrase “Body of Christ” emphasizes deep peaceful, relationships that should constitute the church. Paul wrote First Corinthians to a church that was in danger of falling apart. Therefore, he emphasized for them the deep personal relationships that ought to characterize the church.

Listen for the Word of God as it comes to us from the voice of the Apostle Paul:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?  But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.  If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (I Corinthians 12:12-27).

Prayer: God of Community, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who has called us into community with one another, come by the power of your Holy Spirit this morning that we might be bound together in a community of love with other Christians.

The Gift of One Another.

It is sometimes hard for contemporary Christians to think of a church of 1,000 as a “Body of Christ.” It is much easier to realize that my Sunday school class or small group is a body of Christ. I know who the heads, hands, and heart of my small group are. I know how much I care for people I know intimately. I can feel that I’m a part of them and they are part of me. body-of-christ-5This is why we urge every member of our church to be part of a small group. It is in these kinds of groups that we first and most powerfully experience the power and privilege of Christian fellowship.

At a couple of meetings recently I asked people to think about the time they grew the most in their spiritual life. Interestingly, it was almost always in a relatively small and intimate group of Christians on a military base, in college or high school, in a small group Bible study, or a prayer and support group. This week, one of our staff members wrote me the following email: “I was intrigued by your question at staff mtg. “what group of Christians made the biggest single difference in my life”. After thinking a lot, I think it was my youth group experience growing up. We were a tight knit group that sang together, did mission trips together and had Bible classes in age groups. We laughed, played, studied, experienced new places TOGETHER. . .all in the name of Jesus. Even though I drifted away from my faith foundation for a while (although I still attended church!) these experiences were so impressive that it made me want to return to a lifestyle where community in Christ.”

In America we often speak of “joining the Church.” At Advent before most people “join the church” we have a new members class that they attend. When we talk like this, we open ourselves to two mistakes:

  • We begin to think of the Church as a volunteer organization, like any other that I choose to join or not join.
  • We eliminate any hope of understanding that the Church is a gift from God.

Often, when our young people go away to college, they stop attending church. I think most of them stop because they either (1) never understood that the church was a gift, that their Sunday school class is a gift, that their Christian friends are a gift, that their small group is a gift, and so they treat the church is something they can give up or (2) they forget that great truth. Unfortunately, I think we give the impression that the church is like the Kiwanis Club: I enjoyed being a member for a while but now I don’t. We can never be the people God intends us to be or experience the life God wants us to experience without the Body of Christ. Part of living wisely and lovingly is belonging to the Body of Christ.

God never intended for any of us to think of the church as optional or as a club to which we belong so long as we get something out of it. When Paul says, “You are the body of Christ,” he is saying that, at the moment of our salvation, we have become part of Christ’s mystical body, which is also really and physically present in the persons who surround us and make up our little church. We are meant to remain a part of that body, as it exists on this earth, as long as we live.

Last week, we had a Men’s Great Banquet weekend. This week, we are having a Women’s Great Banquet Weekend. I have been on the women’s team this year, but we meet together with the men’s team to prepare for the weekend. On the men’s team, there was a man, Robert Rooks, with whom I have been friends and in ministry since the first day I came to West Tennessee in 1994. For a time, we met every week in Brownsville on Sunday mornings. Although it’s been almost eighteen years since I left Brownsville, Robert and I are still bound together in the Body of Christ in a real, important, and life-transforming way. The people God brings around us are not incidental or an accidental parts of our Christian walk. They are the very body of Christ of which we are a part.

Different Folks, One Body.

A large part of First Corinthians 12 deals with  problems that can occur in the Body of Christ if people do not exercise their gifts and/or if people do not respect the gifts of others. If every Christian does not use his or her spiritual gift, then the body of Christ cannot function in the best possible way. It is like a human body that is missing one or more of its members. This is the problem most preachers spend most of their time talking about. However, there is an equally dangerous problem. This is the problem of a lack of mutual respect. This is like a body that has lost its ability to coordinate action and function in a healthy way.

In the church in Corinth, there were a lot of spiritually gifted people. People were speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, prophesying, leading, teaching, and the like. The problem that concerned Paul most was that there was no coordination or mutual respect. For example, those who spoke in tongues were speaking in tongues in an uncontrolled way. They were disturbing the worship of others. Those who were gifted in teaching were fighting among themselves as to who was the better teacher. Those with the gift of leadership were dividing the church into cliques, each following their chosen leader. The result was chaos.

Therefore,  Paul goes out of his way to make two important points:

  • First, whatever my gift might be it must be coordinated with all other gifts.
  • Second, whether my gift is large or small, is important and deserves respect. In fact, the least important gifts are to be given a greater respect.

Giving respect to all gifts is an essential element of servant leadership. Whatever my gift is, I didn’t get it for my own benefit. My gift is for the common good. If I’m truly serving the interests of others, then in humility I consider their gifts to be just as important as my gift. In fact, the Gospel teaches us that they are as important as my gift. Why? Because all of the spiritual gifts were given to bring glory to Christ in the body of Christ not to give glory to any individual person. The gifts were given to us to use for the common good, not for our own good or our own advancement.

The Great Need for Caring for One Another.

One of the greatest needs in our culture is for caring community. Every week at Advent we have the opportunity to help someone enter by modeling caring community. This week was no exception. Our members were visiting people in the hospital. Some members were helping people financially. Other members were counseling people that needed help with budgets and other items. Still others were running carpools to help families in trouble get their children to school and attended church events.

imgres-1One of the most powerful witnesses we make as Christians in our culture is when we love one another. People today often live a great distance from family members. Young couples often have to raise children and navigate the early years of their marriage without the kind of social support that was available in prior generations. Single parents, in particular, have to juggle multiple responsibilities, making parenting very difficult. Children grow up with less social support than in prior generations. All of this creates a need for caring mission in the church.

It has been eight years since the financial crisis. Although the economy has grown, many people are still without savings, without equity in their homes, and without the financial resources to withstand a crisis. Because of the materialism of our culture many families are economically stretched. At Advent, we have sponsored Financial Peace and other programs to help people learn to deal with their finances. We even have a few people who sit down privately and help people who need one-on-one attention. This is an important carrying ministry in our church and in every congregation.

America has experienced a loss of community over the last fifty years or so. The growth of extremely large metropolitan areas, and the migration of many people into large cities, has caused a loss of real community. It’s important for people to have friends who’ve known them over a period of years, who understand their problems, who accept their failings, and to support them in times of need. Small towns and small churches used it to supply this caring ministry. Today, many people live lives of quiet loneliness. They need a caring community. In most cities, the church is the only body that can possibly meet this need.

Caring within the Body of Christ.

Jesus commanded us to love one another (John 13:34). Jesus also told us that he wanted us to have a special kind of love for one another—self-giving love—what the Bible calls “Agape Love.” On his last night on earth Jesus reminded his disciples that the greatest kind of love is the kind of love in which we die to ourselves so that others may live a more abundant life (John 15:13). For Jesus, this meant physically dying. For us, it’s physically easier, but perhaps morally more difficult. We have to learn to die to our own selfish egos so that we can build the kind of community that will shine like light in our world and draw people to Christ.

Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

The First Gift of Love: Gift of Salvation

 

iconToday we  begin a series on the Holy Spirit, which I am calling, “Many Ways of Giving.”  Jesus promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to be with believers (Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:49; John 15:26-27; Acts 1:8) . His death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven marked a new chapter in history. Through Jesus, God promised to be with his people in a new way. Today, we are talking about the first gift we receive and share with ohters  by the power of the Spirit: Salvation.

Of course, God has always been present by the power of the Holy Spirit. In Genesis we learn that the Spirit of God was brooding upon the waters of chaos even before creation itself (Genesis 1:2). Throughout the Old Testament, the Spirit of God came upon prophets, spiritual leaders like Moses, and even kings like David. In the New Testament, John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit to be a prophet of God (Luke 1:14). Jesus, of course, was endowed with the Spirit in a special and unique way (Luke 1:35; 3:22). Nevertheless, at Pentecost, the Spirit became present to ordinary people in a new and powerful way (Acts 2:1-42).

There had been prophecies that this would be so. In Joel, in a passage quoted by Peter on Pentecost, God promises to pour out his Spirit upon the people in a new way in the last days:

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.

Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved;…
(Joel 2:28-32).

In this blog,  we are talking about the gift of the Holy Spirit as God comes by the Spirit with his saving power.

The Spirit Comes.

As Acts tells the story, the disciples went back into the city of Jerusalem, to the Upper Room, where they had celebrated the Last Supper. For many days they waited and prayed that the Spirit would come upon them. imgresThen, on Pentecost, the Spirit came like a violent rushing wind and with the power reflected in flames of fire (Acts 2:1-3). They were filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Church of Jesus Christ was born.

For a while after Pentecost, the disciples ministered in Jerusalem using the Upper Room as their headquarters. After Stephen was stoned (7:54-60), however, a persecution broke out. Like all persecutions, the intent was to destroy the church, however, like all persecutions, the result was to strengthen and expand the church. [1] Two things wonderful things happened as a result of this first persecution of Christians:

  • The greatest persecutor of the church, Saul of Tarsus, became a Christian (Acts 9)
  • The gospel was first preached to Gentile believers (Acts 10).

Acts 9-11 are three of the most important chapters in the New Testament. In these chapters, we learn of the spreading of the Gospel from Jerusalem and the reaction of the church and its leaders to this new development. Of these chapters, Acts 10 is, perhaps, the most important. [2] I’m only going to set out in this blog a short portion of it; however, I recommend that every reader of this blog read it for yourself. In this chapter of Acts, Peter is called to witness to a Roman soldier, Cornelius. Here is what happens at the end of the passage:

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days (Acts 10:44-48).

Savior God: We come to you this morning with a desire to sense your saving and empowering Spirit in our lives. Come to enlighten our darkened minds, warm our cold hearts, and change us until we are more and more like Jesus. Amen.

Receiving and Sharing the Gospel.

As we all know, a distinctive feature of Jesus’s ministry was that he was not a part of the religious elite. He was not a Pharisee, a Sadducee, a Scribe, or professional teacher of the law. He was a carpenter and itinerate rabbi. The people he drew around him were also not religious professionals. Jesus took a group of ordinary people and made them into disciples who would change the world. He wants us to be and do the same. He wants people who are filled with the Holy Spirit and have the power of God, not the power of human wisdom, as the source of their teaching (I Corinthians 2:1-5).

Because of the persecution the church experienced after the stoning of Stephen, many believers had to leave Jerusalem, which meant that outlying areas began to be evangelized. Philip, for example, evangelized in Samaria, where he converted Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:9-13). Peter and John went to Samaria and prayed for the new converts, who like the disciples at Pentecost, received the Holy Spirit (8:14-17). Philip then went south and met an Ethiopian Eunuch on the Road to Gaza (8:26-40).

Peter went from Samaria south where he ministered in in Joppa and stayed at the home of Simon the Tanner (9:32-43). images-1About forty miles to the north of Joppa, in the beautiful port city of Caesarea, there was a Roman Centurion named “Cornelius.” In the ancient world, there were Gentiles who admired the Jewish faith. They admired the lifestyle, morals, and reasonableness of the Jews. They also admired their orderly God. In a world in which there were many pagan gods, most of whom behaved in an immoral manner, thinking people truly admired the Jewish faith. Some of them actually began to believe in the God of the Jews and tried to emulate Jewish morals. These people were called “God Fearers.” Cornelius was one of these (v. 2).

We also live in a pagan world. If we keep our eyes open, we will see people who are seeking to know more about God and who admire Christian morals. They will especially admire us when we are willing to live differently in the way we raise our families, conduct our business, and go about our daily lives. These people are our version of God Fearers—or as Jesus called them, “People of Peace.”

In Caesarea, one afternoon, Cornelius had a vision (v 3). In his vision, an angel of God told him to send his servants to Joppa, to the home of Simon the Tanner, and bring Simon Peter to him. The servants set off on their journey (vv. 4-8). Around noon the next day, Simon Peter was on the roof praying when he had a vision (v. 9).  He was hungry, and in his vision he saw a sheet coming down from heaven and on the sheet were many animals the Jews regarded as unclean and inedible. God asked him to eat, but he refused (vv. 13-15).

Three times the dream was repeated. and three times Peter refused to eat any unclean food (v. 16). When the visions ceased, Peter was still unclear about the meaning of what he had seen and heard. At the very time Peter was pondering the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius arrived (vv. 17-18). After hearing them, Peter invited them into the home of Simon the Tanner– something he would never have done only a few weeks earlier (vv. 22-23). Already, the old prohibitions of Jewish custom, in this case allowing  a Gentile into your home, were beginning to go away in the lives of the disciples.

The next day, Peter and the servants of Cornelius set out for Caesarea. They arrived the following day (vv. 23-24). As Peter was welcomed into the home of Cornelius, he finally realized that God was doing a new thing (v. 28). Before, as a Jew, he could have nothing to do with Gentiles. In particular, he was not supposed to welcome a Gentile into his house nor was he supposed to enter the house of a Gentile. Now, Peter understood that his vision was a  declaration by God that the Gentiles were not to be deprived of the gospel (vv. 27-29). We need to hear that same message: God wants all people to hear the Gospel of Christ, and we cannot restrict to whom we are willing to witness. We need to be on the lookout for People of Peace and be willing to share with them.

As Peter and Cornelius began to talk, Peter learned of Cornelius’ vision (vv. 30-33). Then, Peter shared the Gospel with Cornelius and his family and friends. I want to share this with you because it is a simple, accurate, easy way to share the Gospel with others. It is as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago. Here is what Peter said:

I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.  We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10: 35-43).

When Peter finished giving his testimony and sharing the Good News, Cornelius and his household received the Holy Spirit and the gift of salvation from God.

A Vision for What God is Doing.

imgresYears ago, our congregation studied a wonderful Bible study by Henry Blackaby entitled Experiencing God. [3] One of Henry Blackaby’s most famous pieces of advice in the study was to find out what God is doing in the world and join God in doing it. That is exactly Peter’s experience! As a Jew, Peter was to have no contact with Gentiles. As a Jew, Peter thought that the Good News of the Gospel was for Jews—after all, Jesus was a Jew and the Messiah was for Jews!

Then, Peter had his vision from God and his invitation from Cornelius. He realized that the Gospel was not just for Jews, but for everyone (vv. 14-15). Peter didn’t know exactly what that meant at the time he received the vision. In fact, he struggled to understand what God was doing for many years, but Peter follow God in what God was doing in the life of Cornelius. [4] This is a reminder to us that we may not always understand what God is doing. We may not always agree with what God is doing. However, if we join God and what God is doing, we receive a blessing.

This week I was at a mission meeting and conference. As a part of this mission conference, we heard the testimony of three Christians who had converted to Christianity from Islam, one from Iran, one from Iraq, and one from Africa. In the Muslim world today, it is common for Muslims to have visions of “Issa,” which is their name for Jesus. During the conference, when asked about these visions, each one of our panelists was able to describe a specific instance in which a person converted to Christianity as a result of a vision.

To me, the most touching story concerned a young man in Iraq. He had a dream in which he was asked to go and see another person who sent him to a Presbyterian pastor in Iraq. Because of the danger involved, the pastor did not immediately baptize him. Instead, he checked out his story and discipled the young man. Eventually, it became obvious that his conversion was real. He was not a spy. The young man was baptized. He then went into southern Iraq where he spoke against Islam. He was killed and became a martyr.

Our panelists encouraged us not to be discouraged by the evening news. We see pictures of wars and demonstrations against the United States. Some of these demonstrators are paid to demonstrate. Our panelists told us that in little house churches all over the Middle East people are coming to Christ, and we should not be discouraged. God often works most powerfully where the church is in persecution. We just need a vision of what God is doing in the world and be willing to join God in what God is doing. It is not nearly as hard for us to witness to Christ in our culture as it was for Peter or is for Christians in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, and a lot of other places.

God’s First Gift.

Acts 10 ends with Cornelius and all those gathered in his household becoming Christians and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit (v. 44-45). The Jewish believers who had traveled with Peter to Caesarea were astonished! (vv. 45). They could not believe their eyes! It never occurred to them that the Spirit of the God of Israel would come upon the Gentiles. Sometimes God will surprise us as well.

imagesThis is a series about the gifts of the Spirit of God. We don’t think about it very often, but the first gift each of us receives is the gift of salvation. The joy that filled Cornelius and his family on that day is a joy that every Christian should feel and remember. It has been many years since I became a Christian; however, I can still remember the joy of that first day. In addition, we need to remember that there is no joy greater for those of us who have already received the gift of salvation then sharing that gift with others as we are able.

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] I do not have time to record all the instances of this truth. In the 20th Century the Chinese and others have tried to wipe out or suppress the church with the opposite result. As a result of the Chinese Communist oppression, for example, millions of people came to Christ in the underground, house church movement.

[2] William Barclay, “The Acts of the Apostles” in The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1976). I have relied upon Barclay’s analysis of the chapters and their importance. See also, Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation Vol. 2 (Minneapolis, MN: Augsberg Fortress Press 1990).

[3] Henry Blackaby, Experiencing God (Nashville, TN, 2008).

[4] We know from Galatians that, even after his defense of Gentile Conversion in Acts 11:1-18, Peter vacillated between his support of Gentile conversions and his uncertainty as to whether Gentile Christians should have to obey the law and otherwise follow Jewish customs after conversion (Galatians 2:11-21). This continued to be true at least until the Jerusalem conference recorded in Acts 15:1-29.

A More Centered Life

This week, I am taking a break from the normal blog to write something different. When I did my Doctor of Ministry degree, I began with an interest in Spiritual Formation. However, just as I began my studies, I moved to Advent Presbyterian Church, where administrative and leadership skills were needed. Therefore, I entered a program known as, “The Beeson Leadership Program” at Asbury Theological Seminary and did a more generalized doctorate  on leadership. As a part of this program, our group was exposed to some of the finest and most successful pastors in America. I have never regretted being a part of the Beeson program.

Over the next several years, I was able to study some of the most successful pastors in America and in our local area. When it came time to write a dissertation, however, I returned to my earlier interest and wrote on the Spirituality of Christian Leadership. I used to joke that one could summarize my dissertation with the advice, “Just be like Jesus.” Actually, I think that this is pretty good advice for pastors and other leaders. Leadership is not necessarily about success (thought that helps!). it is about doing the right things for those one leads.

A couple of years after I completed my work, a denominational group with which our church was associated entered a period of crisis. I was a leader of one of the groups. One day,, after a bitter meeting, I went to a hidden bookshelf in my office to look for a book. I did not find that book. Instead, a copy of the Tao Te Ching, a book of ancient Chinese wisdom, fell at my feet. I began to read the book and found it helpful. I was reminded of the similarity between Christian and Taoist ethics. The Tao warned me that who I was and  who I was becoming was much more important than whatever success we had in the dispute at hand.

Centered Living imageI liked the Tao so much that, in my quiet time each morning, I began to paraphrase the book for Orthodox, Trinitarian Christians. It took a long time, but eventually I completed what I published under the title, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love.

This work was a  labor of love. I wrote another book on wisdom after Centered Living/Centered Leading, a book on wisdom literature called Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers. Although I like and am proud of Path of Life, I continue to use Centered Living/Centered Leading in my daily quiet times, and especially during times of crisis, confusion, and conflict. It never ceases to caution, warn, and calm me in the midst of doubt, pressure, and indecision.

The underlying idea of the book is quite simple: We do not have the luxury as Christians of being one person at home, another at work, another in the church, etc. This leads to the fractured personality of the post-modern person. God wants us to be whole, to have integrity, to be wise, loving, and filled with the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of Christ. In our hearts, we long for spiritual, mental, and moral wholeness. Therefore, we need to embody the wisdom and love of God both in our private and public lives. Put simply, we need to become more like Jesus.

This has implications for leaders: We cannot be one person when we are off-duty and another person when we are leading others without ending up spiritually wounded and sick.  Centered Living/Centered Living can help a reader acquire spiritual wholeness and health. It has helped me in that quest. (The search for spirtual wholeness is never quite over on earth. We have to just keep making progress.) One fundamental principle I find in the Tao and in the Christian tradition is the importance of meditation and prayer before making difficult decisions, especially when under pressure. It is a struggle for most people to take them to meditate and pray, but it is worth the effort.

coverThis year in my spare time I have been preparing a new edition of Centered Living/Centered Leading. I have tried to clarify a few things and eliminate some irritating typographical errors I am ashamed to find. It is my hope that Centered Living/Centered Leading can help others besides me. The other day I got an email  from a London cab driver who had managed to get a copy of the book and loved it. I cannot tell you how much that email meant to me!

It takes a little work to get into a more mystical, proverbial style of writing. It took me some time in the beginning as well. Nevertheless,  the time and effort are worth it. I hope some of the readers of this blog will take time to enjoy the quest for wholeness and wisdom through Centered Living/Centered Leading as well. Many of my friends wish that I had written a more didactic, teaching, Western-mind oriented book. Unfortunately, true wisdom cannot be learned with the mind alone. It is a matter of the heart. This is one reason for the mystic and sometimes indirect way in which wisdom literature works. One has to find the truth for oneself in one’s own heart under the leadership of the Spirit of God. A book can only act as a way of stimulating a relationship with God and deep spiritual change.

If you like this blog and especially if you purchase the book (It is available on Amazon), please recommend it to a friend or family member. I would love of people to forward this blog to friends.

Next week, I am returning to the general pattern of the blog and to the subject of the Holy Spirit!

Yours in Christ,

Chris

Walking in the Way of Christ

This year our theme has been, “What is Next?” Some people live in the present, and I think that these are, in many ways, the happiest people. Most people, however, wonder about the future. We wonder about the future of our world, of our nation, of our communities, of our families—we wonder most of all about our future. It is natural to ask the question, “What is Next?”

imgresKathy and I have never been fans of long driving trips. My Dad and Mom were of another generation. I have vivid memories of two week trips from Kansas City to San Francisco and back in a car without air-conditioning! We would go zipping down Route 66, stopping at tourist attraction after tourist attraction: Old Albuquerque, to Sante Fe, to Taos, to the Grand Canyon. (Until one is a parent, it is impossible to understand how irritating it is to be with two constantly fighting little boys in a Chevy station wagon for twelve hours a day!).

Of course, as kids as we got back into the car after each stop, we had two questions, “Where are we going next?” and “How long until we get there?” (All parents get these questions.) Life is a little bit like being on a driving trip. The two questions we most want to have answered are:

  1. Where are we going?
  2. How long will it take to get there?

Interestingly, for most of our lives most of us will not always understand the answer to those two questions! From time to time, we have no idea where we are going or how long it’s going to take to get there.

The Bible often uses the metaphor of a journey for life. In the Old Testament, and especially in wisdom literature, the Bible often describes human beings as on one of two paths:

  1. The Path of Wisdom or Life, which leads to blessings; and
  2. The Path of Foolishness or Evil, which leads to death.

The Caller who is Jesus Christ.

In the Gospels, the first major activity of Jesus is to call people to go on a journey with him. This morning, we’re  reading from the first chapter of Mark, the portion where Jesus calls his first disciples. Listen in this blog to the Word of God as it comes to us through the writing of John Mark:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him (Mark 1:14-18).

Prayer: Heavenly Father, Lord of Life: Come now to call us into your presence. Allow us to hear in the depths of our hearts your voice saying: Come Follow Me. In Jesus Name, Amen.

imgres-1Almost everyone who reads this passage is struck by a singular fact: the disciples are going about their daily business, trying to make a living when they meet Jesus and immediately go with him. Peter, Andrew, James and John, were fishermen. In Jesus’s day, being a fisherman was a good profession. They made good money fishing.

In addition, James and John were from a prominent family. It’s possible that John’s father had a commission to sell fish to the priests in Jerusalem. [1] From the passage, we see that John’s father was at least wealthy enough to employ hired men in the family business. As they were fishing and preparing to fish, Jesus walked by. Perhaps he stopped and had a short conversation. We don’t know. What we do know is that Jesus said to them, “Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men” and they followed him. The same Jesus who called them calls us to follow him.

The Character of the Caller.

Why were Peter, Andrew James, and John willing to follow Jesus? There must have been something about Jesus that overcame their natural reluctance to leave their business, their family, their responsibilities, and follow Jesus. They must have seen something in Jesus that they desired.

We know from the Bible that not everyone followed Jesus. The Scribes saw nothing special in Jesus. The Pharisees saw nothing special in Jesus. The Sadducees saw nothing special in Jesus. The Priests saw nothing special in Jesus. In fact, most people saw nothing special in Jesus. What did the disciples see?

In the Old Testament, wisdom is often pictured as a woman urging the human race to leave the path of foolishness and follow the path of life. In the New Testament, John begins his Gospel with these words:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:1-13).

In other words, what Peter, Andrew, James, and John saw in Jesus was the very wisdom and power of God in human form.

John wrote his gospel as an old man. I don’t think that these words from the beginning of his Gospel sprang into John’s mind the first time he saw Jesus. However, I think he did see that there was something special about this man. In Matthew, Jesus compares himself to Solomon, saying that “one greater than Solomon” is present in Jesus (Matthew 12:42; Luke 11:31). Paul says in First Corinthians that Jesus is the very wisdom of God (I Cor. 1:24).

imgres-2I think Peter, Andrew James, and John saw some glimmer of the majesty and wisdom of God in Jesus. They saw something of the love of God in Jesus. This is important for us. We will not follow Jesus unless we see something different in Jesus, something that we long for in the depths of our hearts. We will not follow Jesus unless we sense that we cannot find what we are looking for, we cannot arrive at the destination in life we are seeking, unless we follow him.

The Way of the Caller.

Jesus does not come to Peter, Andrew, James, and John asking them to come to his seminary, attended Sunday school class, participating his Bible study, or be in his school for living. He says, “Come and follow me.” There is nothing more important in the Christian life than hearing Jesus say to us, “Come and follow me.” More than anything else, Jesus was calling the disciples (and us) into a personal, one-on-one, three-on-one, twelve-on-one relationship.

As I mentioned a moment ago, in the Old Testament the way of wisdom was often called the “Path of Life.” Interestingly, one of the first names for Christians was “the People of the Way” (Acts 9:2). In Hebrews, the author writes to Jewish Christians that, “We enter through a new way that Jesus opened for us. It’s a living way that leads through the curtain—Jesus’ body” (Hebrews 10:20, Easy to Read English Version [emphasis added]).

There is a lot packed in to that single sentence! A path is something we follow to get somewhere. In Jesus, we have a new path to God and to abundant, eternal, life.  We have a new way to fellowship with God and a new way of living. This new way is not about forcing ourselves to obey the law. It’s not about a kind of works righteousness. That was the old way.

The way of Jesus, the new way, is a living way. It is a new path to wholeness and fellowship with God. Because of what Jesus did on the cross, and the sacrifice he made for us, we can have a close, personal, daily relationship with God and walk on the Path of Life with God in Christ.

So often, we contemporary American Christians think of discipleship as attending a Bible study, memorizing some Bible verses, being involved in some church program, or some other activity. Jesus wants us to be involved in some of these things; however, the call is to be in a personal one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three (you get the idea!) relationship with Jesus as we walk together with Jesus and our fellow disciples day by day.

The Power of the Caller.

images-2Our power for living and walking with Jesus will not come from ourselves, but from Jesus. The call to follow Jesus is a call to follow Jesus into a completely new way of life. When Peter, Andrew, James, and John heard Jesus say, “Follow me,” they probably thought they were going to follow Jesus in accordance with the laws and the prophets. Jesus went out of his way to tell them (and us) that his way is externally no different than the way of the law and the prophets. He did not come to change the law and the prophets (Matt. 5:17). His way is a New Way because it is a way of living from a center inside of God’s presence and power and of being gradually changed by the power of God’s love. In fact, when the disciples tried to walk with Jesus on their own power, they failed. For example, when Peter try to walk on water without Jesus, on his own power, he sank (Matthew 14:28-29).

Perhaps my favorite Bible verse is Second Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. Behold: The old has gone. The new has come.” In this verse, Paul, filled with excitement about the Gospel and in its power tells us that, if we are in Christ, the power of God will make of us a new creation. The old person with all of its failures, weaknesses, false selves, and sinfulness will go away. Instead of the old person, a new person will grow up in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Most of us (all of us) have hopes and dreams. If we are honest, we know in the depths of our hearts that we desire to be something that we are not. We hope to achieve a better character than the character we have. We hope to be more humble, more loving, more peaceful, more merciful, more courageous, than we are. Yet, most of us understand that, in reality, we are not going to change—we are not going to become better people—we are not going to arrive at the place we hoped to arrive—on our own power. We need the power of God.

As I mentioned earlier, I have lots of memories of cross-country car trips through the Great American Desert without air conditioning. If we had tried to walk those trips on our own power our family would never have made it. We would have died of thirst in the Great American Desert, as many pioneers did in the 19th Century.  It is only because we were driving a car, and the car was powered with gasoline, that we made it to our destination. In just the very same way, we cannot reach the kingdom of God our own power. We need the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of Christ, the power of God to reach our destination.

The Gifts of the Caller.

For the next several weeks, we are going to be talking about various gifts that we receive from the Holy Spirit. We are going to learn more about who the Holy Spirit is, what the Holy Spirit does, how the Holy Spirit operates, and how we can receive the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit. These gifts of the Spirit are the presence of the wisdom and love of God working in our lives in a new and powerful way.

A few weeks ago, we talked about prayers of thanksgiving. I mentioned that, for the next several weeks, we are going to spend a lot of time in First Corinthians. In First Corinthians, Paul gives the following teaching:

For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore, you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor. 1:5-7).

In this passage, Paul praises the Corinthians for all the gifts they have received from God, and for the next few weeks we are going to talking about the gifts we receive by the power of the Holy Spirit.

iconKathy loves to travel. I’m not as big a traveler, but I like to travel too. One of the things that we enjoy about traveling is the change it makes in your life. When you visit new places and see new things, you become a new person. As we travel, Kathy normally purchases gifts for our children, so that they can also be enriched by the journey we’ve taken. Sometimes, we buy gifts for friends, family members, coworkers, and others. Why? So that they can enjoy the journey as much as we did.

Jesus is here this morning asking each one of us to follow him. He’s not telling us exactly what we going to be doing or where were going to be going. He didn’t tell the disciples that, either. We can hear his call and, like many of his contemporaries, go about our business, rejecting him. Or, like disciples, we can look at his eyes and into the soul of the one revealed to us in the Gospels, see the very wisdom and power of God, and follow him. If we do, he promises we will not lack anything, for we will be filled with the presence of his Spirit and the power of love and wisdom the Spirit brings.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  See, John 18:15-16. In the Gospel of John, it appears that John was familiar with the household of the High Priest, as if he and his family had some familiarity with the home and its inhabitants. Some scholars speculate that John was from a prominent family and had delivered fish to the High Priest’s home. We cannot know for sure.

 

Lord, Teach Me to Pray: Prayers for Protection

 

imgres-3This blog is being published on the fifteen anniversary of that attacks of September 11 2001. At such a time, it is important to think about prayers of protection.

On September 11, 2001, fifteen years ago today, our nation was attacked by a group of terrorists. Several airplanes were hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania. The plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was apparently trying to reach a target in Washington. Since that time, our nation has been engaged in the so-called “War on Terror.” At fifteen years and counting, this war is the longest war in our nation’s history. Kathy and I had the opportunity to visit the 9-11 Museum in New York City just as it opened. It was a sobering experience, especially to read the names of those killed when the Twin Towers collapsed.

This week I had lunch with a fellow pastor who served in the United States Navy into the Second Gulf War. He reminded me that history is filled with wars that lasted fifteen, twenty, thirty, 100 years, and longer. Such wars, like the War on Terror, are more than just conflicts over economics political power, or national borders. They are conflicts over different ways of life. The Second World War only lasted four years for we Americans, but it lasted much longer in Europe. It was a war to determine whether freedom would endure in Europe. World War II was what we might call an “existential war.”

Long wars are  clashes of civilizations. By their very nature, they involve periods of danger, periods of quiet, and many casualties. In wars that are clashes of civilizations, the result is less determined by initial military power and more determined by who has the deepest faith in their way of life. This kind of faith requires confidence in the future and in God’s protection during a long period of uncertainty.

We in the West are at the end of what we call the “Modern World” and at the beginning of what we currently call the “Post-Modern World.” [1] At such times in history there are often long, dangerous conflicts and economic and political dislocation. Such was the case when the ancient pre-Roman civilizations disintegrated, when the Greco-Roman civilization decayed, and at the end of the Middle Ages when the modern world began. We are now at another break in human history. It is very likely that the current period of danger and uncertainty will last for the rest of the lives of everyone now alive. We will need to pray a great deal over the next few years.

David Looks Back.

Our text for this meditation is from Psalms 18. [2] Psalm 18 is perhaps the most interesting Psalm. It appears verbatim in Second Samuel chapter 22. In Second Samuel, the song appears at the end of David’s life, inserted into the story as a kind of spiritual commentary on the meaning of his life and God’s blessing upon him. Here are selections from the first eighteen verses of the Psalm:

I love you, Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and I have been saved from my enemies. The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears (18:1-6).


The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded. He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy, with great bolts of lightning he routed them. The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, Lord, at the blast of breath from your nostrils. 
He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place;  he rescued me because he delighted in me (18: 13-19).

Today, O God, we come thanking you for the protection you have given our nation and for the special protection you have given us during the so-called “War on Terror.” Please give us faith in you and in your protection and a willingness to await your deliverance from this time of danger and distress. In Jesus Name, Amen.

 David: A Man In Need of Protection.

There was a time when every schoolboy knew the story of David by heart. David was the youngest son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, who was married to Ruth the Moabitess (Ruth 4:21-22). As the youngest son, he had been given the lowliest of jobs: he was a shepherd of sheep. In his day, his oldest brother would have inherited most of the family wealth. His future was as a working man. He was also a musician and psalm writer, and he was quite good at using a slingshot (I Samuel 16).

Saul, the king of Israel, had not been obedient to the Lord (I Sam. 15). Therefore, Samuel, the prophet of God, was commissioned to go to the land of Judah, to the home of Jesse, and anoint one of his children as king. One by one, God rejected each of his older brothers. Finally, Samuel asked if there was anyone else at home. Jesse answered “Only my youngest son (1 Sam. 16:11). When David was brought before Samuel, God spoke to him and David was anointed to be the next king of Israel (see, I Sam.l 16:13).

In those days, Saul was fighting a battle against the Philistines. In the land of the Philistines there lived a group of giants, one of which was so large that he was called “Goliath.” One day, David was sent with some food for his brothers. He went to the battlefield and heard Goliath taunting the Jews. No one would go out and fight this huge monster. Not even Saul, who was a large man, was willing to do that. David, filled with the Holy Spirit, fought Goliath and won (I Sam. 17).

imgres-2David became one of the greatest Saul’s warriors. Unfortunately, as be became famous David became a threat to Saul, who constantly tried to have him killed (I Samuel 18). For many, many years, David’s life was in constant danger. Even after he became king, his life was often in danger from his enemies, and even from his own family. His own son, Absalom, rebelled against him. In those days, David often wrote prayers for protection, many of which we have recorded in Psalms (see for example, Psalms 3:1-2; 9:2; 6:4; 7:1-2;17:1-2). David knew what it was to cry out to God for protection.

Jesus: A Model of Hope.

As David looked back on his life, he could praise God for the protection God had given him over the years in times of danger. Jesus gives us another role model—a role model for what we might be like when we face danger and threats which do in fact occur and from which we are not delivered as we would wish.luke22v42-not-my-will-1280x960 Jesus prayed two prayers during the last hours of his life that are important. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed to God that the cup he was about to drink might be taken from him (Mark 14:36). At the very end of his life, he prayed, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). His first prayer for protection was not answered in the affirmative, but his faith in the goodness of the Father remained intact.

In the beginning of our prayer life, it is common for us to assume that all of our prayers in accordance with God’s perfect will be answered, “Yes.” As we grow older, and as our faith deepens, we learn that life and faith are more complex. Every soldier on the battlefield prays to be delivered. Unfortunately, some are and some are not. Our world is not a perfect world, and bad things do happen.

Jesus came to reveal to us a deep mystery: Sometimes the depth of human brokenness, evil, sin, violence, and pain require a sacrifice. It would be nice if every serious problem could be resolved without conflict. That is not always the case. It would be nice if our enemies in the War on Terror, who are clearly in the wrong, would see the error of their ways and peacefully stop. Unfortunately, that is not likely to be the case.

There are times when we will legitimately pray for protection and not receive the protection for which we prayed. This does not mean that God does not hear our prayers. God hears our prayers, just as God heard the prayer of Jesus in the Garden. Sometimes, our prayers simply cannot be answered as we might desire. It is then that a deeper faith is required. Faith continues to believe and hope even when a prayer is not answered as we would wish (see, Hebrews 11:1-2). The faith of Jesus “commends our spirits unto God” at such times.

A Story from the Greatest Generation.

I am dedicating this blog to one of my professors: Dr. James Luther Mays. Jim Mays was a well-known professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond Virginia. Just before I graduated, Dr. Mays published a commentary on Psalms. [3] Obviously, a professor in his last years of full-time teaching and a masters’ level student do not become best friends; however, we had a kind of mutual friendship and understanding based upon an incident that occurred one day in class.

imagesI was in the last Psalms seminar that Dr. Mays offered at Union Theological Seminary in 1994, just before his commentary was published. One afternoon, we were looking at some of the many psalms in which David prays to God for protection and victory over his enemies. Often, Psalms records these prayers in violent terms. Some of the younger students were complaining about David, the Psalms, and the God of the Old Testament in general.

After listening for a while, I made a comment. Basically, I observed that, until your life has been in physical danger because of a relentless enemy bent on destroying you, you can’t fully appreciate or understand these prayers. “In battle,” I observed, “men have always prayed such prayers and there’s nothing wrong with it.” The debate went on for a while, then Dr. Mays looked down the table at me and said in a quiet voice, “I think Chris is right.” We looked at each other straight in the eye, and in just an instant, we had a moment of deep mutual understanding.

Jim Mays was a birdwatcher, a gentle person, a fisherman, the author of commentaries on various Old Testament books, and regarded as one of the finest professors at the seminary.  No one could possibly have considered Jim Mays a man-of-war. Unlike some professors, he never raised his voice in class no matter how ill-prepared a student was or how off base his or her answer to a question might be. Jim Mays was a quiet, peaceful man.

imgres-1Years later, I picked up a book and looked at a picture. It was taken during the Second World War, and it looked exactly like Dr. Mays and the inscription “J. L. Mays” was on the picture. This week, I attempted to find that picture but could not. I did, however, read his obituary in the Richmond Times Dispatch. [4] It turns out that Dr. Mays served in the Second World War. He was one of the  unlucky individuals that served in both Europe and in the Pacific Theaters of that conflict. I always thought he must have fought in the war, because in the moment we shared looking into each other’s eyes I saw the eyes of a man who remembered what it had been like to be very young, very much in danger, and very, very scared. Such men know what it is like to be scared and to pray for protection.

Lessons for Us.

The deepest human instinct is to cry out to God, the supreme power of the universe, to protect us when no one else can. There is nothing wrong with such prayers. They represent our deepest instinct that the universe has a moral order, that God cares for us personally, that he hears our deepest needs, and desires to protect us from danger. This is a deep truth we all need to remember.

It is also true that God answers all of these prayers. I believe that he answers all of the prayers in the affirmative, despite the fact that some of these prayers will be answered in heaven and not on earth. The life of faith is largely a life of growth in trusting the Lord of the Universe, his goodness, his kindness, his power, and his love. This trust grows both when we receive that for which we ask as we have asked for it and when God gives an unexpected or unwelcome answer. The cross and resurrection are not what Jesus asked for in the Garden. They were better. They were more important. They changed the world.

In Christ, we see the fullness of God’s wisdom and the depths of his answers to our prayers for protection. His providence and his love extended beyond our imagination into eternity. This is a truth we need to remember, and we need to remember it as we pray for protection now and in the future.

Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] It is not a part of this blog to talk about what constitutes the “Modern” and “Post Modern” world. The Modern World began with the development of modern science, technology, and critical thinking, roughly 300 years ago. Sometime in the middle of the 19th Century, or about 150 years ago, this era began to end. Confidence that human reason can create a perfect, harmonious world and solve all human problems began to dissipate. By the end of World War I clearly we had entered a new era. It remains unclear whether our current era is a new era or simply the decadent form of the modern era. I lean towards the view that we are currently in a decadent phase. Certainly in the West there has been a great loss of faith and confidence in human reason and its capacities to harmonize human life. At this point, one can only guess at the world that will emerge from our current period. My guess is that it will be less confident of human reason and goodness, more humble in the face of problems, more realistic about our human capacity to create a perfect world, and less materialistic than the Modern World has been.

[2] I have consulted many sources for this sermon, Dr. Mays commentary  “Psalms” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994) and Arthur Weisner, The Psalms tr. Herbert Hartwell (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1962). Some commentators doubt that David wrote the Psalm, a conclusion with which I disagree, and in any case think unimportant to understanding. It was meant to be read in the context of David’s life.

[3] This is Dr. Mays, “Psalms” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994) noted above. I have an autographed copy of the commentary given to those who participated in the seminars leading up to its publication. It is and always will be a treasured possession.

[4] James L. Mays, 1921-2015 in Richmond Times Dispatch, November 8, 2015 (downloaded September 7, 2016).

Teach Me to Pray: Thanksgiving

imgresThis is Labor Day weekend, a time when we remember and thank God for those who labor so that we might enjoy the blessings of life. It is appropriate, therefore, that this week’s blog is about Prayers of Thanksgiving.

We are nearing the end of our series on prayer. Our theme this week is on  Prayers of Thanksgiving. Thankfulness is a Christian virtue. Prayer involves thankfulness. As I mentioned this week in the meditation, “There can be no vital prayer life without thanksgiving. Eventually, a thankless prayer life will become no prayer life at all. To thank God is to remember his blessings, accept his judgments, and know that “in all things God is working together for the good for those who love him” (Romans 8:26), Jesus went to the cross after giving thanks. In the same way, we must learn to give thanks in all circumstances.” This is not always easy.

This week at our staff meetings, we read our text for the day and then we went around the room and everyone mentioned things they were thankful for. Interestingly enough, just as happens in my own personal prayer life, things began kind of slowly. The first person had to think for a moment and then gave an answer. After a while, all of us began to have an easy time thinking about all the things that we take for granted for which we should be thankful. We were thankful for spouses. We were thankful for our children. We were thankful for church. We were thankful for coworkers. We were thankful for the fall that is coming. We were thankful for a lot of things. When our time of prayer was over, we had a happy staff meeting. Why? Because we were now approaching the week’s work with thankful hearts.

Some people are naturally thankful. My wife is naturally thankful. Being Scottish, and a bit of a pessimist, thankfulness does not come as easy to me. It is like any other Christian virtue: some people find it easy, and some people find it hard. Nevertheless, as mentioned above, a thankless prayer life eventually becomes no prayer life at all. It is human nature to forget what God or other people have done for us in the past, and focus on today’s problems. When we do this, we stop praying because we forget that God really does answer our prayers!

Prayers of a Thankful Christian.

36618_all_062_01The apostle Paul was a thankful Christian. In his earliest letter to the Thessalonians, Paul expresses his thankfulness for the Thessalonian church (I Thess. 1:2). In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul is equally thankful (2 Thess. 3). When Paul was in prison and writing to the Philippians, he tells us he thanks God every time he remembers that church! (Phil. 1:3). In Paul’s last letter, Second Timothy, he thanks God for Timothy, his beloved son in the Lord, who he remembers day and night (2. Tim. 3).  Over many years of discipleship, Paul learned to be a thankful Christian.

Our text comes from one of his earlier letters, his First letter to the Corinthians. Here is how Paul begins:

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you (1 Cor. 1:1-6).

Let us pray: eternal God, who is given us everything, even life itself, come into our hearts this morning and allow us the gift of thankfulness. Help us to remember to thank you daily for all the blessings you have given to us. In Jesus Name Amen

 Paul: Thankfulness in Hard Times.

This morning, we are talking about learning to pray (and praying !) prayers of thanksgiving. If you are like me, it is easy to forget to thank God for answered prayers during good times. And, in bad times, it is easy to not thank God, because we don’t think we have anything to thank God for. Thankfulness, is not an easy virtue to develop or express.

Next month, we’re going to spend some time in the book of First Corinthians as we think about Spiritual Gifts. Today, we’re going to look at the first six verses of the letter, and especially the story that surrounds those verses, because Paul’s thankfulness towards the Corinthians, shows us a lot about how we ought to be thankful people.

Paul founded the Corinthian church around the year 50 A. D. When Paul arrived in Corinth, he had just experienced a difficult missionary experience in Athens. He might even have been a bit depressed about his ministry. images-2 Then, he met Priscilla and Aquila, two Jewish converts to Christianity who had been exiled from Rome. They were tentmakers just like Paul! Paul went into business with them, and began to disciple them and others (Acts 18:1-4). [1]

As was often the case, Paul began preaching in the synagogue. Pretty soon, however, there was trouble. Paul had to leave the synagogue. Nevertheless, his ministry in Corinth was successful. He stayed there eighteen months (18:5-11). After Paul left Corinth, other apostles and other Christians visited the church. Eventually, the church turned on Paul and turned on one another. They began to fight and argue with each other. They began to reject Paul’s teaching. They divided into camps (I Cor. 1:10-12).

When this happened, Paul was way across the Mediterranean Sea in Ephesus. Although we only have two letters to the Corinthians, scholars believe there were actually four letters from Paul about the problems of this church. In addition, there were almost certainly several lost letters from the Church; and probably, because of the active trade between Ephesus and Corinth, visits from people from Corinth informing Paul about the problems. In all of this, Paul was saddened and even driven to distraction by what was happening in Corinth.  If ever there were a situation in which Paul could not be blamed for forgetting to be thankful, the Corinthian church is that situation! Nevertheless, Paul continued to be thankful.

What can we learn from this? We can learn to be thankful. We can learn that our lives do not have to be blessed for us to be thankful. We do not have to be successful to be thankful. We do not have to be appreciated to be thankful. The only thing we need to be thankful is to realize that God is at work in the good and bad of life. So often we think that God is absent in the bad parts of life. He’s punishing us. He’s deserted us. He doesn’t love anymore. None of this is true. God is with us and discipling us in the good and in the bad times of life. Paul was able to be thankful even in very stressful circumstances, and we can also learn to be thankful in stressful times.

Contentment and Thankfulness.

imgres-1One reason all was able to be thankful in all circumstances is that Paul had learned to be content in all circumstances. In Philippians, Paul tells the church to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving make your requests known to God” (Phil. 4:6). Later, in chapter 4, Paul says the following:

I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength (Phil. 4:10-13).

There is a lot in these verses. Paul was able to be thankful because Paul had learned to be content. There’s probably no Christian virtue we preach about less in our culture, or need more, then the virtue of contentment. Contentment requires that we live simply, and not be constantly desiring to have more things, to be better looking, to be heavier or thinner, to have a bigger house or smaller house, to have a better car, or even to have the latest iPhone (to be released next week!). When we are able to be content with what we have, we don’t worry as much because we have all we need already.

images-3If we are content with what we have, we may still desire certain things. We might be sick and desire to be healthy. We might be overweight and want to be skinnier. We might be slender and want to have more muscle. We might be having children want a better job. Being content does not mean that we do not legitimately want things we don’t have. It means we are content with what we do have even as we ask God for what it is we desire. If we trust our Heavenly Father to give us what we need, then we don’t have to be anxious about anything even though we are praying and asking God for things we don’t have. Being thankful means that, even as we ask God for what we don’t have, we are thankful for what we do have.

This may seem really difficult. I find it difficult. It is really hard when you feel that you deserve something or need something to be thankful for what you already have. However, I have noticed in my own life that, if I’m not thankful, my prayer life suffers. You might think the pastors are so spiritually mature that they never burn out. That’s not true. You might think the pastors are so close to God that they don’t become depressed when prayers that they believe are legitimate are not answered or when the answer is, “No”. That’s not true. You might think the pastors are so mature that they only pray for the things God wants to give them. That’s not true.

Simple Steps to Thankful Living.

Here’s some simple ways we can thank God for the simple pleasures of life:

  1. Prayers at Meals. First, we can say prayers and meals. I’m glad that I grew up in a family where Mom and Dad forced us to be together most of the time and say grace before meals. When I became a Christian, I started extending that grace to meals out. We can be thankful and teach our children to be thankful but remembering to say grace and meals.
  2. Regular Thanksgiving. Second, we can develop the habit of saying a Prayer of Thanksgiving to God at least once a day. One good habit is to say a prayer of Thanksgiving for the blessings of the day before you go to bed. I’ve been trying to do that recently. No matter how hard the day has been, thanking God forces us to think about the blessings we have received even in a bad day. Believe me, it doesn’t always work very well. But it’s worth trying.
  3. Special Thanksgiving. Have you ever prayed for something, received an answer to your prayer, and then sometimes later realize that you never thanked God for it? I have. When we have a special prayer, and our prayers are answered, we should immediately stop and thank God for the answer. I could be praying for a parking place at the hospital on a busy day. If God gives me a parking place, I should be thankful.
  4. Reflective Thanksgiving. Every so often, and perhaps especially on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day, we should take time out to reflect on the last year and take time to remember things for which we really should be thankful. I keep a prayer journal. Often, I don’t even notice when a prayers is answered. Every so often I go back and read my journal. It’s surprising how often my prayers are answered, perhaps a long time after I prayed them, perhaps in a different way than I prayed for; but they have been answered. Taking time to reflect on the blessings God has given us is important.

Thankfulness and the Cross.

imgresWe are told that, on the night Jesus was betrayed, right before he went out to be arrested, tried, flogged, and crucified, he had a meal with his friends. When he picked up the bread, he said a Prayer of Thanksgiving. Jesus was thankful to God even though the cup that he prayed be removed from him was not removed. Jesus was thankful even though his prayers are not answered as he would have wished. Jesus was thankful even though times were tough and going to get a lot tougher.

There are times in our lives when we have to bear a cross of one kind or another. When hard times come, and when we are tempted not to be thankful, it is helpful to remember that Jesus was thankful even on his way to a cross.

Part of learning to live wisely and well is learning to develop the habit of thankfulness and of thanking God. It is one of those Holy Habits that make us wise in the things of God.

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  The historical narrative is based on William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press. 1975) and Clarence t. Craig, “Introduction and Exegesis” The Interpreters Bible Vol. 10 “Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians” (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1953).

Lord Teach Me To Pray: Heal Me

One of the most misunderstood, and in mainline churches often ignored, aspects of Christian faith has to do with the power of prayer as regards healing. Some churches placed too much emphasis on healing prayer and have an almost magical approach to the subject. Other churches disbelieve that healing occurs in response to prayer. Still other churches ignore the subject entirely. At Advent, we try to have a middle of the road approach to healing prayer:  We believe God heals, but we don’t expect a miracle every time we pray.

images-7The healing ministry of the church is important. Those churches which do not believe that God continues to heal are, in my mind, missing an important aspect of Christian faith. All Christians, including those who aren’t particularly interested in healing, pray for healing. Almost instinctively, when we are sick we pray for God to heal us. When someone we love is sick, we pray for God to heal them—even if we doubt that such a healing as possible.

This week one of our young people had to go into the hospital. Gretchen posted a prayer request on Facebook without naming the child. Many of our members “liked” that post and indicated they were praying. In addition, one of the prayer groups that meets regularly prayed for this young person. We don’t know yet whether God is going to heal that person as we are asking, but we’re asking.

This summer, I spent some time with friends I’ve known since we were younger. We had our first children at about the same time. This couple had a child born prematurely with serious health issues. Our friendship became closer one night when the husband and I went together to St. Luke’s Hospital in Houston Texas to see his child. My friend wasn’t used to being around sick people. He wasn’t used to being in an intensive care unit. Neither was I at that point in time! Nevertheless, we went and prayed together, and we’ve been friends ever since.  Our time together and our prayer together is a part of the bond of friendship and faith we share.

Jesus Heals the Blind and Afflicted.

Our text for this blog  involves two healings of Jesus taken from the Gospel according to Matthew:

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you;” and their sight was restored. Jesus warned them sternly, “See that no one knows about this.” But they went out and spread the news about him all over that region. While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.” Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness (Matthew 9:27-35)

Prayer: God of Healing: We ask that you would come and show us how we can pray for one another, for friends, even for non-Christians, as we seek the healing of people, situations, and even of our culture and world. We ask this in Jesus Name, who was and is the Great Physician, Amen.

The Healing Ministry of Christ.

imgresThere is no question but that healing was an important part of Jesus’s ministry. Jesus performed over thirty healings in the New Testament. One reason I chose today’s text has to do with the fact that it is “ordinary.” Jesus was either in Capernaum or a nearby town. He had already healed a paralytic (Matt. 9:1-9). He had healed Matthew from greed, commenting that it is not the healthy that need a healer but the sick (vv. 9-13). He had healed the dead daughter of a “ruler” of the people; and along the way, he healed a woman with the flow of blood (vv. 16-26).

As Jesus returned home from healing the ruler’s daughter, he was met by two blind men. They cried out, “Son of David, have mercy upon us (v. 27). Apparently, they followed him into his house or wherever he was staying. They had already called him, the “Son of David,” indicating that they believed him to be the Messiah. Jesus asked them if they believed (had faith) that he could heal them. They respond, “Yes” and were healed (v. 29). Immediately thereafter, Jesus healed a demoniac.

If you take chapters 8-9 of Matthew together, Jesus convincingly shows his power over physical disease, genetic problems, death, and spiritual evil. In Chapter 10, Jesus called his disciples together and commissioned them to drive out evil spirits and heal diseases (10:1). Not only do his disciples heal people and cast out demons in the Gospels, but in the book of Acts in the letters of Paul we also see evidence that the healing power of God in response to prayer continued to characterize the ministries of Peter, James, John, Paul, and the other apostles. Early in Acts Peter and John heal a person who had been a cripple from birth (Acts 3). Later on, we learned that the apostles, all of them, performed many signs and wonders (5:12).

The apostles were not the only members of the early church gifted with the power to pray for and receive healings. In his letters, Paul mentions the gift of healing and intercessory prayer as spiritual gifts (See, I Corinthians 12:9-10). Apparently, some people when they prayed, experienced dramatic responses to those prayers. People were healed.

During the first few centuries of the church, followers of Jesus were known for the power of healing prayer. [1] Healing ministry was a normal part of early Christianity. Justin Martyr (150 A.D.) writes of how the early Christians healed and cast out demons in the name of Jesus. Irenaus who lived around the same time as Justin, attested to similar healings as those found in the Gospels and Acts. [2] One of the main ways the Rome Empire was converted to Christianity involves healings and exorcisms—signs and wonders.

The reality that God does sometimes answer prayer for healing continues to reveal itself today in the church. More than once, in my ministry and in the ministries of others, I and others have seen and see answers to prayers for healing. Therefore, the praying and healing ministry of the church continues to be important today.[3]

The Kinds of Healings God Provides.

Often, in discussing healing, we focus on physical healing. Physical healing is important; however, it is not the only kind of healing in which Christians are interested. Paul was never healed physically; however, Paul was healed from his spiritual anger and violent nature (Galatians 1:11-23). Peter, so far as we know, was not healed of a physical ailment (though his mother was). Instead, Peter was healed from a character defect.

In other words, there are many different kinds of healings. We may be healed physically. We may be feet healed emotionally. We may be healed spiritually. Our character may be healed. We may experience healing in our relationships with other people. Finally, we may experience social healings.

For example, this summer we have experienced increased racial tensions in Memphis and other cities. I think we have seen the results of pastors, congregational members, and others praying for peace in our city. We have been delivered from some of the worst things that have happened elsewhere. Our Christian response to any form of illness: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, marital, family, or social should be to pray.

Healing Ministry of Advent.

cordova-church-315-x-475When I came to Advent, one of the first things we did was to begin putting a prayer list in the bulletin. Over the years, we have prayed for hundreds of our members. In the vast majority of cases, the person was healed to a greater or lesser degree. Now, in many cases, that person was also being treated by a doctor, nurse, or other professional. This is an important point to make: Christian healing, and our prayers for healing, are not intended to replace the work of doctors, nurses, counselors, and other healing professionals. We believe that God is working through a variety of means to achieve healings. Our prayers may only be a part (the spiritual part) of the healing process. [4]

Many years ago, a member of our church came to us asking that we have a healing service for their son, who was having a serious physical problem. We had our first Advent healing service in the Upper Room, which our members know as the “Barnabas Classroom.” Dave and I did not expect many people to come, but there were about twenty people in attendance. Since then, from time to time we’ve had healing services. During the time when we were joining the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), we had another request. It so happened that we honored that request at the same time we held a prayer vigil for the decision we were about to make to join the EPC. Since that time, we have had a healing service, and prayers for healing, at 6 o’clock in the evening on the first Friday of every month, almost without exception. On an average First Friday, we have perhaps six people in attendance. We’ve had as many as thirty in the past. Many of our prayers have been answered.

During our First Friday Prayer Vigils, we pray for every member of Advent who is on the prayer list, more than once. In addition, during some of the special times of prayer, we open the floor for other prayers. There are almost always prayers for healing that are not contained in the prayer list for that week with that prayer vigil.

Our church has a Stephen ministry program and the Care Team program. We also have more than one prayer group and prayer chain. All of these groups involve praying for the healing of our members. Finally, many of our members pray for the healing of our community, nation, and world. These prayers may be about a physical disease in the news, like the “Zika Virus,” or for healing of emotional, spiritual, or other problems of our society. Hardly a week goes by when one of the pastors is not asked to pray for the healing of some person or situation.

Experiencing the Healing Power of God.

images-6This afternoon at our church, we are sponsoring a special time of teaching about prayer. Many people do not understand how to pray, and especially how to pray for healing. One of our seminars this afternoon has to do with intercessory prayer, which includes prayers for healing. For just the next few moments, I would like to set out a few ideas that may help us as we pray for healing:

  • First, we can pray for healing alone or in a group. Sometimes, there is both power and comfort in praying as a part of a larger group. Sometimes, the matter is private, and it is best to pray in private.
  • Second, although all prayers should be from the heart, sometimes we may feel better if we pray the words of another person. During our healing services, we pray both prayers from the heart that are spontaneous and written prayers from a bulletin. In just a few moments, any of us can research healing prayer on the Internet and find examples of many great prayers from the history of the church.
  • Third, we can use Holy Scripture to pray for healing. One common feature of our monthly healing service is a time when we pray through a story from the Bible where Jesus heals another human being. Using the prayers and example of Jesus can be a great encouragement.
  • Finally, we should pray with faith. Confident that God will answer our prayers, we learn to pray without ceasing for the healings we desire. Some prayers are not immediately answered. This should not stop us from praying for those we love and whom God has placed upon our hearts.

Last January, I had to have an operation. We had been praying for a health issue for some time, and then finally God allowed our doctor to figure out what was wrong. It was not a serious operation. I went into the surgery center after noon and was home before dinner. Naturally, Kathy prayed for the operation before I went in and we both prayed just before they took me in to surgery. As I was coming out of the anesthesia, the nurse, who I think understood we were Christians, revealed a spiritual or emotional need she and her family were having. It so happens that her problem was similar to a problem we had experienced. We prayed for her right then and there. None of these prayers involved anything dramatic, but we do believe that God was working in and through the prayers, the doctors, the nurses, and others to not just heal me, but to witness to that healing power in the life of others. Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Fr. George Morelli, “The Ethos of Orthodox Christian Healing” at http://www.antiochian.org/morelli/the-ethos-of-orthodox-christian-healing (downloaded August 18, 2016). This is a fine article that deals mostly with the role of healing in the contemporary orthodox churches, but also with the historical roots of healing in the history of the church.

[2] See, “History of Christian healing” at www.centerforinnerpeace.com (Downloaded August 18, 2016). See also, Mark A. Pearson, Christian Healing: A Practical and Comprehensive Guide (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 1995) and Bishop of Naupactus Hearths, Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers tr. Esther Williams, (Levandia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1994).

[3] Our members know that Kathy and I have been developing a Bible Study, “Salt & Light. ” One of the lessons has to do with prayers for healing. Around the world, wherever the church is growing, there are signs and wonders, including healings. See for example, Steve Smith & Ying Kai, T4T: A Discipleship ReRevolution, Monument CO: Wigtake Resources, 2011). There is an urgent need for the Church in Europe and North America to recover the ministry of healing as a part of the outreach of the church in society. This is hard in a secular, and even pagan, culture. However, it is important.

[4] The church has always believed that God works both through prayers and through the skill of physicians and others. In fact, early Christians promoted hospitals, homes for the elderly and trained doctors and nurses. Technically, this aspect of the healing ministry of the church is called “synergy.” God works with, under, through, and above human healers in response to prayer.

Know Me

imgres-2This week, the blog involves selections from Psalm 139 and focuses on the importance of our resting in God’s prior understanding of us.

Almost anyone who has had children understands that parents and children have a special kind of relationship. Often children do not understand or appreciate the relationship, but it is there.  Our children carry within them our genetics, our family history, the way we were raised, and the way they were raised—and that means that we know our them in a special and unique way.

Often step parents have difficulty understanding step children, and step children have difficulty understanding step parents. One piece of pastoral advice I have often given is to assure the step parent that no step parent can have precisely the same understanding and native empathy for a child that does not share their genetics. One can be a good and even great step parent, but no step parent can actually become the biological parent of a child.

Kathy and I have an understanding of our children—and you have an understanding of your biological children–that is based upon more than time together. It is based on family history, genetics, etc. Sometimes, for better or for worse, I can actually feel what one of our children must be feeling as if I was standing before myself. I have never had that feeling for another person’s child.

Why have I spent so much time on this? Here is why: We are all children of God. Even those who do not know God and have not received Christ and become children of God in a special way are children of God in the sense: that God created the human race. God is eternally present in all of his creation, including our bodies and hearts and minds even before we know or are aware of his presence. We carry the image of God inside of our hearts. There is nothing we can be or do that God does not know and understand completely. God is the ultimate parent. God knows us as a parent, but better than any human parent.

A Plea from the Heart.

Our text is from Psalm 139. Hear the Word of God as it comes to us this morning from the voice of the Psalmist:

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.
 You know when I sit and when I rise;  you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;  you are familiar with all my ways.
 Before a word is on my tongue, you, Lord, know it completely.
 You hem me in behind and before,  and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,”even the darkness will not be dark to you;the night will shine like the day,For darkness is as light to you.

For you created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb.I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful: I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

How precious to me are your thoughts, God!  How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—  When I awake, I am still with you. (vv. 1-18)

 Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (vv. 23-24).

The Importance of Relationships.

images-2This blog begins where many sermons either begin or end: by noting that relationships are essential for human life. it bears repeating that people with healthy relationships live longer, deal with stress better, are healthier, less depressed, have stronger immune systems, and even lower blood pressure than people who do not experience healthy relationships. People who are deprived of relationships when they are young suffer a host of personal, psychological, and social problems later in life.

Often,  we stop at the point of talking about the importance of relationships. We fail to go on to note that all relationships are based upon communication, and all communication is an exercise in knowing and being known. If you think back upon the most important conversation in your life with the most important person in your life, you are likely to conclude that what made that particular conversation so important was the moment in which the other person realized that you could be trusted to know them, and you realized that they knew you in a deep and loving way.

Scholars and pastors often tell their congregations that the Old Testament word most frequently used for knowledge is also used for the physical relationship of men and women. In other words, knowledge, real knowledge, life changing knowledge, is more than information. Information communicated in words or numbers is only the surface of our knowledge. The meaning, importance, and power of that knowledge is the depth of what knowledge is all about.

Sometimes in the church and in social groups we joke about the differences between men and women. While there are real differences between most women and most men, there are areas in which we are identical. One of those areas has to do with our desire to be known. We human beings express this in many ways. For example, communication experts tell us that people who do nothing but listen are often considered to be better communicators than those who speak. Why would that be the case? It would be the case because we all have a desire to be known and understood. We think of people who understand and know us as being good communicators.

God is the Source of True Loving Knowledge.

imgres-4As Christians, the importance of relationships and communication should not surprise us. The Bible teaches that we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Our Christian faith teaches us that God exists as a loving relationship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In John, the Son (the Second Person of the Trinity) is referred to as the “Word” or “Logos” in Greek. (John 1:1). This Logos, or Word, is the rational expression of God’s wisdom and love radiating into the world by the Grace of the Father.

God exists in the eternal relationship of self-giving love, and Jesus is the incarnation of the rational expression of that love. Part of being made in the image of God is being made for a loving, self-giving relationship with God and other people. The eternal God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, exist in a perfect relationship of love. The members of the Trinity are the same in being and express a kind of unconditional love based upon perfect understanding (God’s Omniscience), Perfect Love (God’s being of Agape, Self-giving Love), and Power (the ability to express perfectly that love). Human beings, who are made in the image of God, were made for relationships that mirror the relationships of God, including the Divine communication of self-giving love within the Trinity.

Most people understand in some way that human relationships are important. In addition, most people understand that communication is important for healthy relationships. For example, there is no realistic kind of marital counseling that does not emphasize the point that most marital problems are actually communication problems. Financial problems, emotional problems, physical problems—almost any kind of problem you can imagine in marriage— normally involves an underlying communication problem.

It’s a harder for us to understand that almost all the problems we have in our spiritual life are also communication problems! If we feel isolated and alone, somehow we are communicating our need for a relationship to God in an appropriate way. If we feel lost and without guidance from God, often were not communicating with God appropriately.

This is not an essay on listening prayer; however, since at least 85 percent of successful communication is learning to listen, it’s not surprising that most of us have trouble communicating with God since all we ever do is talk! If you only time we pray is when were in trouble and need an answer, our level of communication with God and our relationship with God is going to suffer.

Prayer begins with Knowledge—God’s Knowledge of Us!

A second area in which we can misunderstand what it means to pray and communicate with God, to have a relationship with God, is when we think of God as a kind of abstract principle, a force, a power, or even a distant creator no longer personally involved in creation, a “First Principle” of sorts. You really can’t have a relationship with the force or power or principle. In order to have a vital prayer relationship with God we have to keep in mind understand that God is a person and he wants to have a personal relationship with us. God wants to communicate with us.

imgres-3As I was preparing for this blog, I read an article about human relationships. It was actually an article about relationships between men and women. It turns out that whether the man for the woman initiates a relationship, people normally only initiate a relationship if they already believe that the other person wants to have a relationship. In fact, the person who initiates a relationship has already been signaled by the other person in some way that they want to open a relationship. This is also true in friendships and social relationships. We naturally form relationships with people we sense are already open to a relationship with us.

A good portion of Psalm 139 has to do with expressing the psalmist’s understanding that God has already established a relationship with the writer and the human race and signaled that He desires a deeper relationship, before we establish any relationship with God. God made us, God is always present with us. God already recognizes that we are unique and valuable—he made us that way! God already understands us. He knows our strengths, our weaknesses, our sins, our shortcomings, our fears, our needs, our hopes, and our dreams. God, you see, is interested in us. God also loves us before we love God. The doctrine of grace is a simple recognition of the fact that God loves us and desires us to be a relationship with him even when we are alienated or distant from God.

The author C. S. Lewis wrote a book called, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a character called “Eustace” askes Edmund whether he knows Aslan, a giant lion who is the Christ of the series. Edmund answers, “Well, He knows me.” [1] In other places in The Chronicles of Narnia Aslan is portrayed as knowing characters before they ever know Aslan. This is Lewis’ way of reminding us that God knows us long before we know God. God is listening to us long before we decide to communicate with God. God is offering us his grace long before we decide to accept that grace. The foundation of our relationship with God is God and God’s love for us.

Where Do We Go from Here?

For the next several weeks, we are going to talk about prayer. We are going to talk about praying to God for healing. We are going to talk about praying to God to refresh us and give us the strength to go on. We are going to talk about the importance of thanking God for answering our prayers. Finally, on September 11, going to talk about praying to God for protection. As Cindy mentioned in the moment for mission a few moments ago, next week after church you’re going to have a short seminar and an opportunity to learn more about prayer. We hope many people will sign up.

Those of us who have children know that long before the child speaks a word to us we are communicating to the child. Every time we hold the child, we are communicating love to the child. Every time we  put a child to bed, we are tell them we love them. Every time we sing a song, tell story, or just say good night, we are telling a child we love them. Every time we pick up the child and say good morning, we are communicating love to the child.

As to God, we are like a child. God has been knowing us, loving us, and communicating with us a long time before we ever know God , love God, and communicate our love to God. God is listening to us a long time before we listen to God. In other words, God is building a relationship for us long before we build a relationship with God. That is the meaning of grace.

imgres-1I think it helps begin to learn to pray to remember that God already knows us, already knows our hopes and dreams, already knows what we intend to pray about long before we ever pray. Prayer, you see, is not as much about information as it is about a relationship with the living God who loves us and cares for us.

Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  C. S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader (New York, NY: Harper Trophy, 1952, 1980), 117. I am indebted for this quote and for the insights and research of Brian S. Rosner, Known By God: C. S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoerffer E. Q..4 (2005), 343-352. Both for the quote and for the insight into the way Lewis speaks of God’s knowledge of us through the character of Aslan. Rosner has the insight that evangelicals talk a great deal about knowing God, but not enough about God knowing us.

What God Remembers: Seeing What God Sees

It is good to be back. Next week, we begin a series on prayer. This week is on Matthew 25:31-45 and asks us to learn to see what God sees and react accordingly.

Three weeks ago, we talked about Nehemiah’s final prayer. Near the end of his life, three times, Nehemiah asks God to remember him. In that sermon, we focused on the fact that we all search for a kind of significance in life.images-2

We all joke about losing our memory as we grow old. There is a story told about a President who decided to visit a local Washington, DC nursing home. The President began his tour down the main hallway and passed by a little old man who doesn’t seem to notice him. Sensing this, the President backtracked to the resident and asked the resident, “Do you know who I am?” The old man looks up from his walker and says, “No, but if you go to the front desk, they will tell you your name.” Part of the tragedy of dementia is that we lose a part of who we are.

Memory is important. Psychologists tell us that our character is largely determined by our experiences and memories. Experiences and memories form and shape us. They shape what we find valuable and what we find not valuable. Our memories control who we are, what we desire, how we react to stress, what things make us angry, and what things give us joy. When a person loses their memory they lose all or a part of themselves.

John Polkinghorne, when he speaks of eternal life speaks of God’s memory. God has a perfect memory. God sees and remembers every single fact about every single particle of our existence. God remembers all that we are in all that we’ve done. When Polkinghorne speaks of eternal life, he says that God, in his mercy, will reconstruct us at the time and a place of his choosing.[1] In other words, because God loves us, he remembers us. Because he remembers us he will not let go of us. Instead, he will choose to re-create us, not just as we were, that he intended us to be.

When We Meet the Son.

imgresOur text this week is one of my least favorite passages from scripture. When I looked back to see how often I had preached on this text, I found that I preached on it exactly one time in 25 years. This text is about the final judgment, and it doesn’t necessarily make any of us feel very comfortable. It challenges us. It forces us to ask the question, “Am I doing the kinds of things for which God would want to remember me favorably?” In other words, “Am I being wise in my Christian walk?”

Here is a part of what Jesus says near the end of earthly ministry about what God sees and remembers:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:31-40).

Prayer: Lord God, particularly today, we pray as we sometimes do that if anything is said contrary to your will you will snatch it from every ear, but if anything is said according to your will, you would please burn it into all of our hearts. In Jesus Name, Amen

 A Prophesy and Parable of the Coming of the Kingdom.

During the last week of his life, Jesus, among other things, taught his followers about the end of the age. He promised them that he would return. He warned them that they should be careful to be wise in how they behaved, watching for his return. He let them know that no one knows the day of the hour of the return (Matthew 25:13). He taught them that they must be good servants, continuing to be about the Masters business until he returns (vv. 14-30). He then spoke about the final judgement (Matthew 25:31-46).

imgres-1Be Filled with the Spirit. First, Jesus told a story about ten young women, who are bridesmaids for a friend (25:1-13). We know this as the “Parable of the Ten Virgins.”  Under Jewish custom, on the wedding night the bridegroom would come and get the bride from her home taking her to his own home. Of the ten bridesmaids, five, who were wise, had lamps that were filled with oil. Five, who were foolish, had not filled their lamps. Unfortunately, the bridegroom came late at midnight, hours after he should have arrived. The five foolish bridesmaids were forced to go and get oil so that they could lead the bride to the groom’s home. When they arrived, they were locked out of the wedding banquet. Jesus by this story, reminds his followers that they must remain filled with the Holy Spirit (the oil in their lamps) and be watchful because no one knows the day of the hour of his return (25:13).

imgres-2Use your Talents. Second, he told the story of the wise and foolish servants, what we sometimes call the “Parable of the Talents” (25:14-30).  A man went on a long journey, Jesus says. When he left, he called his servants and gave them money to invest for him. When he returned, the man asked for an accounting. The first servant, with whom he left five talents, brought him five more. The master praised the servant. The second servant, to whom he gave two talents, brought two more. The master praised this servant. Then, the servant to whom he gave one talent came and brought him only one talent. This servant, fearful of the master, simply buried the talent and did nothing with it. This servant was criticized. This parable is a reminder that God has given each one of his talents that he expects us to use.

imagesDo the Right Things. Finally, Jesus talked about the last judgment in what is sometimes called the “Parable of the Sheep and Goats.”. In this teaching, Jesus described himself as the Son of Man, the King of Kings, who returns from a long journey to heaven to reassert his control upon the earth. Having defeated all his enemies and taking control of all the earth, he brings the people of the earth together and separates them like sheep and goats. The hearers of Jesus would have visually been able to see the white sheep and the black goats of Israel lined up ready to be separated.

The King begins by blessing those on his right. In his blessing, he teaches us what God truly sees, remembers, and values. He invites these servants to inherit the kingdom prepared for them with these words: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (vv. 35-36). Then, he condemns those on his left because they’ve not done these things. They object that they never saw him in need. Jesus answers them that then they failed to do the proper things to the “least” they did not do them for him.

How are we to understand these verses? Are we to assume that, contrary to much of Scripture, we are not saved by faith but by works? Are we to assume that God, who has promised to forgive our sins, actually will not do so at the last judgment? The answer is “No.” What Jesus is doing is clearly explaining what a good servant will do as he or she invests her time, talents, and energy as we await the return of Christ. It turns out, that what God will remember us for our acts of love and service to others as we, like Jesus, serve others. [2] This is a parable about how to wisely and lovingly use the time God has given us.

This is another story, like the wise and foolish virgins and the wise and foolish servants, designed to help us live our the Christian life loving others and using our time, talents, and energies wisely. If we are wise, then we will use our time to do things that God truly desires and which God will truly remember us for doing. The story is a story of having wisdom in a foolish world.

The Problem of Inattention.

Why do you suppose we so often fail to love and serve others? As a person who suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder, I think I can give you an answer: Inattention. adhd_inattention2As the story unfolds, both the sheep and the goats fail to see Jesus; however, those who Jesus praises do see human suffering. They see those who are in prison. They see those who are hungry. They see those who are naked. These people saw the world the way Jesus sees the world and responded to human need. The people who Jesus criticizes would certainly have stopped and helped the poor, the suffering, the hungry, thirsty, if I had known it was the Messiah. However, they did not see Jesus. They saw only human beings (or nothing at all) and passed by.

In Romans 12, Paul talks about our need to see the world the way God sees the world when he says:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2).

Paul, like Jesus, thinks that our faith should make a difference in how we behave. He teaches us that, if we see the world the way God sees the world, being transformed in the way we view the world, then we will offer God our lives and be able to habitually  do the kinds of things that please God.

In this week’s bulletin and on Facebook, I pointed out that seeing involves two aspects: First, we have to have the natural ability to see. Physically, we need eyes. Spiritually, we need eyes that see the world in the way God sees the world. The transformation of our seeing is a work of grace by the power of the Holy Spirit. Secondly, physically and spiritually we have to pay attention. This is our work.

It’s easy not to pay attention. When I’m proofreading, after a while I get tired. It’s hard to pay attention. I get sleepy. The same thing is true as we look at the world around us. It’s easy to get tired of the poor. It’s easy to get tired of looking at people different from us. It’s easy to stop paying attention to human suffering. It takes attention to see the world the way God sees the world. We cannot pay attention because of our own talents and abilities. As Jesus makes plain in the parable of the Ten Virgins, only the Holy Spirit and keep us awake to the tings of God.

Paying Attention to What God Sees.

Just before I left on vacation, there was a tense incident in Memphis. The following Monday, a group of local pastors met for a time of prayer about our city. We heard from the Police Chief, Shelby County Sheriff, and other public officials. All of them recognized that churches can play a role in healing our city. At one point, a community leader told us that he was not asking us to start in new programs or become actively involved in politics. He was just asking us to continue to make disciples and be the church. I can’t remember exactly the way he put it. But, basically he was saying we can share God’s love with others in ways that government and the police cannot. We can change the human heart, and it is from the human heart that piece or violence flows.

In recent years, we have used the phrase “Worship + 2” to describe a way of being a disciple at Advent Presbyterian Church. We desire people to be regular in worship. We desire people to belong to some kind of discipleship group (Sunday School, a Small Group, etc.) in order to grow in Christ. We also ask folks to serve Christ in some way. Changing human hearts involves preaching the gospel It involves learning how to communicate the gospel to other people. It involves teaching. It also involves living out the Gospel day-to-day in our community. It involves being Salt & Light in our world.

Advent has many ways for us to put our faith to work serving others. Just before I left, we had a mission trip to Honduras. While I was gone, we had the Fellowship of Christian Athletes here for a week. It was a wonderful success, and three young men came to Christ. Each month, we have people helping in the various ministries of First Presbyterian Church in the inner city. We have folks who help young people learn at Riverwood Elementary School. We have volunteers who help with Youth Leadership Memphis. This morning, we have heard from the Unnerstalls, who saw a need in the Middle East and responded. We have many ways inside and outside of our church by which people van serve those in need. The question is, “Will we see the need?”

The Things God Remembers.

images-1At the Last Supper, Jesus asked his to remember him, and they did. The sacrifice that Jesus made for them was so enormous and so unexpected that they could not forget it. The reason we come to the Lord’s Table is because disciples have always remembered and reenacted his sacrifice. When we take time to serve other people, and especially when we take time to serve the least and the lost, we again reenact what Jesus did on the cross, this time for the benefit of another human being.

Amen

[1] See, John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 2002).

[2] This is one of the many instances when we can sometimes both take too literally what Jesus is saying and also fail to pay attention to the context. This story of the last judgement might be called a teaching with parabolic elements. See, William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1973), 885 and Charles Barclay, “The Gospel of Matthew” in The Daily Bible Study Series (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1975), 325).  As a follow up on the Parables of the Ten Bridesmaids and the Ten Talents, it is clear that Jesus is not so much giving a literal picture of the final judgement as he is teachings his disciples (and us) what kind of people we ought to be between now and his return. We need to be filled with the Spirit, use the talents and gifts God has given to us, and care for the least and lost just as Jesus did when he was among us. This hard teaching of Jesus needs to be taken in context just as all the teachings of Jesus need to be taken in context.