Thinking Out Loud

November 29, 2018

Book Review: Not Dressed for the Occasion

As more and more people are diagnosed with ADHD, and the internet erodes the attention span of the rest of us, I would expect books which offer smaller bites are an ideal reading retreat in a distracted world. Mart DeHaan did this a decade ago with Been Thinking About, but for the most part, if you want a quick read on your lunch break or before falling asleep, most of what’s out there is either fictional short stories or collections of news stories involving emergency responders performing heroic acts.

What if there were simply a collection of articles which — not unlike the blog you’re reading now — offered some thought-provoking insights into a somewhat random collection of topics? What if, in your own busyness you could consider a faith-focused subject with a three or four minute investment?

Not Dressed for the Occasion by Ron Harris (with Christine Winter) is one such book.

The 71 articles are gathered here in a form the author says, “has no beginning and no end.” You can jump in anywhere and read as many or as few as time permits. The articles are somewhat devotional in nature — think something 3 to 5 times longer than Our Daily Bread, The Upper Room or if you’re in the UK, Every Day With Jesus — which allows more space to anchor the reading in more than one scripture text reference. Each piece is clearly written from a pastor’s heart.

But the articles are also topical. Ron leads a congregation about 40 minutes east of Toronto and there are frequent references to current Canadian current news stories and organizations, though he has also ministered in England and South Africa. Although his church is Charismatic, I would argue that the writing gives the book a much broader appeal, as do citations of everyone from Tim Keller to Rick Joyner, along with the use of a wide variety of Bible translations.

Collections of this nature are also very suitable for older readers, though the publisher has inexplicably chosen to set the book in one of the smallest fonts of any Christian book I own, other than some Bibles. The book can also be used as springboard for topical discussions in a less formal small group setting.

Not Dressed for the Occasion is published by Word Alive Press and available throughout the U.S. and Canada through Anchor Distributing. (9781486616763, paperback, $17.99 US/Can.) The book is one of only a few in the Christian market belonging to a rather unique genre and I would argue it thereby fills a need.

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August 6, 2018

Theologians Who are All Knowledge and Little Experience

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:40 am

Over eight years ago, I used a phrase which may or may not exist (probably doesn’t) from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind to make a point about secular journalists who try to cover stories about religion in general and Christianity in particular.  At the time, I wrote,

There’s a scene near the end where the French scientist — his name is Lacombe — turns to lead character Roy Neary and says, “I envy you, Mr. Neary.”

But the next line, the line that has been stored in my memory since the picture released was not heard next. Here’s exactly how I remember the line, “I envy you, Mr. Neary; I study the phenomenon, but you have had the experience.”

After the movie, for 30 minutes, no searching the internet would reveal the phrase the way I am recalling it. Did I invent this? Or do I have two movies confused? Arrrrgh! I am so sure that line is accurate!

I then pressed into the application:

…We are studied and examined by all manner of journalists, academics and those who simply find us to be a psychological curiosity. But ultimately, their reports are lacking because they don’t have the necessary experiences to fully empathize with the Christian spiritual condition. (In a previous generation, that sentence would simply read, ‘They don’t have the Holy Spirit.’)

You can also turn this around.

The next time you’re in discussion with someone who you don’t feel is totally on the same wavelength, ask them, “Are you a student of the phenomena or have you also had the experience?”

Or how about, “Would you like to have the experience?”

This summer, I realized that this also applies to those of us who are Christians, but are trying to make sense of a denomination with which we have no familiarity. We have a sort of textbook knowledge of what they believe, but it’s missing all the fine tuning and nuances which would be gained by greater intimacy. We would never consider darkening the door of their churches even though ostensibly, we’re Christians and they’re Christians. 

You can take this another direction.

There are people whose preoccupation with Christianity is largely academic; scholarly; historical; theological. While they are busy analyzing and dissecting the doctrinal systems to death, there are others out there who are simply enjoying; living; experiencing. They’ve reduced to academic terms what other people are living out abundantly. They’re writing blog posts, articles, books; all trying to classify and clarify what is for others simply the reality of following Jesus.

I concluded,

I maintain that many of the people we come into contact with on a daily basis are simply observers, many watching from the outside. I often compare it to someone who encounters a log cabin filled with people on a cold, snowy day. Inside people are standing by the fireplace, laughing and drinking hot cocoa. The person outside watches with their face pressed against the window while the ice, snow and drizzle piles up on their winter coat and hat. 

Even if the line isn’t exactly in the movie as I remember it, it’s an appropriate metaphor to contrast those who are immersed at an academic level from those who are immersed in a life of faith.

Are you part of this family, or are you observing, as though from outside, with your face pressed against the window?

Why not come inside?

March 30, 2018

Sunday Was Coming, But They Didn’t Know That

In many respects, we’re all guilty of a measure of “playing with time” when it comes to Good Friday. The reason is simple. We already know how the story ends. It’s entirely impossible for us to approach Good Friday not knowing that Resurrection Sunday is just around the corner. We don’t have to read ahead because we’ve previously read the whole story.

But it wasn’t like that on that overcast day at the foot of the cross. In play-script form, The Voice Bible reads:

John 19:29-30 The Voice

29 A jar of sour wine had been left there, so they took a hyssop branch with a sponge soaked in the vinegar and put it to His mouth. 30 When Jesus drank, He spoke:

Jesus: It is finished!

In that moment, His head fell; and He gave up the spirit.

It’s so easy to miss what those standing around the cross at that moment must have felt.

The second way we play with time — going backwards instead — is in the way we’re able to trace back all the prophecies Jesus gave concerning himself. The disciples are dejected and grieving His death, and we read this in the 21st Century and we want to scream at the pages, “Look, go back to page ___ and read what he says about how The Messiah must suffer and die! It’s all there!”

You get a sense of this in Luke 24; and again, we’re going to defer to The Voice translation:

Luke 24 – The Voice

13 Picture this:

That same day, two other disciples (not of the eleven) are traveling the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. 14 As they walk along, they talk back and forth about all that has transpired during recent days. 15 While they’re talking, discussing, and conversing, Jesus catches up to them and begins walking with them, 16 but for some reason they don’t recognize Him.

Jesus: 17 You two seem deeply engrossed in conversation. What are you talking about as you walk along this road?

They stop walking and just stand there, looking sad. 18 One of them—Cleopas is his name—speaks up.

Cleopas: You must be the only visitor in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard about what’s been going on over the last few days.

Jesus: 19 What are you talking about?

Two Disciples: It’s all about the man named Jesus of Nazareth. He was a mighty prophet who did amazing miracles and preached powerful messages in the sight of God and everyone around. 20 Our chief priests and authorities handed Him over to be executed—crucified, in fact.

21 We had been hoping that He was the One—you know, the One who would liberate all Israel and bring God’s promises. Anyway, on top of all this, just this morning—the third day after the execution— 22 some women in our group really shocked us. They went to the tomb early this morning, 23 but they didn’t see His body anywhere. Then they came back and told us they did see something—a vision of heavenly messengers—and these messengers said that Jesus was alive. 24 Some people in our group went to the tomb to check it out, and just as the women had said, it was empty. But they didn’t see Jesus.

Jesus: 25 Come on, men! Why are you being so foolish? Why are your hearts so sluggish when it comes to believing what the prophets have been saying all along? 26 Didn’t it have to be this way? Didn’t the Anointed One have to experience these sufferings in order to come into His glory?

Clearly, Jesus’ later teachings about his impending sufferings weren’t registering. Or perhaps it was a case of serious denial. Verse 21 is translated more commonly in a form like “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” (NIV) The verse captures most accurately the sadness felt by those two followers.

If you continue reading The Voice, you find at this point an embedded commentary suggesting the writer Luke is doing his own version of playing with time; using this story a set up for something he knows is coming just a little bit past the point where this chapter resolves itself and this book ends: The Book of Acts. Acts is this gospel’s sequel. The commentators seem to feel that Luke is preparing his audience for something which, while it does not in any way diminish the resurrection — which is after all, the centerpiece of the entire Bible — is going to astound them, namely the birth of The Church.

However, it’s Good Friday, and as we place ourselves back in that particular part of the story through this Holy Day and its various church gatherings, we can’t help but know what happens next. So with a glimpse into Easter Sunday, let’s see how The Voice ends Luke 24:

27 Then He begins with Moses and continues, prophet by prophet, explaining the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures, showing how they were talking about the very things that had happened to Jesus.

28 About this time, they are nearing their destination. Jesus keeps walking ahead as if He has no plans to stop there, 29 but they convince Him to join them.

Two Disciples: Please, be our guest. It’s getting late, and soon it will be too dark to walk.

So He accompanies them to their home. 30 When they sit down at the table for dinner, He takes the bread in His hands, He gives thanks for it, and then He breaks it and hands it to them. 31 At that instant, two things happen simultaneously: their eyes are suddenly opened so they recognize Him, and He instantly vanishes—just disappears before their eyes.

Two Disciples (to each other): 32 Amazing! Weren’t our hearts on fire within us while He was talking to us on the road? Didn’t you feel it all coming clear as He explained the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures?

33 So they get up immediately and rush back to Jerusalem—all seven miles—where they find the eleven gathered together—the eleven plus a number of others.

March 5, 2018

Deliverance Ministry: Specialty Calling or a Work for all Believers?

Not the type of deliverance ministry we’re discussing today…

…okay, we’re getting warmer…

A few days ago, I was asked this question and decided to answer by email. Then, I figured it would make a good blog post at Christianity 201. Because I put a fair bit of work into it, I decided to share it here as well. This is a topic which, outside of Charismatic and Pentecostal environments, is not discussed among Evangelicals.

The issue is whether or not ‘the average Christian’ when in a situation of spiritual confrontation can move in the power of the Holy Spirit, or if they need to retreat and defer to ‘the experts’ in this area of ministry. An analogy to the movie Ghostbusters, while rather distracting, is not entirely out of place here. Who are you gonna call?

Before we begin, an important question to ask is, ‘Does the person seek healing and deliverance?’ If the person who needs Christ doesn’t particular want Christ’s help — and I’ve met people on both sides of this equation — then you’re possible going to proceed differently.

Another clarification needs to be made between deliverance ministry and spiritual warfare, something we looked at here in January, 2014:

The difference between deliverance and spiritual warfare is that deliverance is dealing with demonic bondages, and getting a person set free, whereas spiritual warfare is resisting, overcoming and defeating the enemy’s lies (in the form of deception, temptations and accusations) that he sends our way. Deliverance involves the breaking up of legal grounds, the tearing down of strongholds (offensive spiritual warfare), and the casting out of demons. Spiritual warfare on the other hand, is dealing with three key things the enemy sends at us: temptations, deception and accusations.

So we need to keep that distinction in mind as we proceed.

Deliverance is certainly similar to the supernatural gifts of the spirit in 1 Cor. 12, yet it is not one of them; of the nine listed, see especially these:

The same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing. He gives one person the power to perform miracles… (12:9-10a)

This certainly gives the believer confidence that part of our ministry can include operating in the supernatural realm. Also, bringing relief to those in need was part of Christ’s mandate as shown in Luke 4:18 (AMP):

The Spirit of the Lord [is] upon Me, because He has anointed Me [the Anointed One, the Messiah] to preach the good news (the Gospel) to the poor; He has sent Me to announce release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to send forth as delivered those who are oppressed [who are downtrodden, bruised, crushed, and broken down by calamity]

and then he tells us (John 14:12-13)

“I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father.

In Luke chapter 10, Jesus sends out the 72 disciples and then we read in vs. 17:

When the seventy-two disciples returned, they joyfully reported to him, “Lord, even the demons obey us when we use your name!”

The tone of the verse suggests a bit of surprise on the part of these short-term missionaries, but also implies something which came naturally or organically because of their connection to Jesus. We get this sense two verses later in 19-20:

[Jesus:] “Look, I have given you authority over all the power of the enemy, and you can walk among snakes and scorpions and crush them. Nothing will injure you. But don’t rejoice because evil spirits obey you; rejoice because your names are registered in heaven.”

While the last half of the 16th chapter of Mark has been disputed because of manuscript corroboration, it is there we find a ‘spiritual power package’ of instructions including verse 17:

These miraculous signs will accompany those who believe: They will cast out demons in my name, and they will speak in new languages.

You have the authority. So why have we relegated deliverance ministry to being a the purview of a very select few?

It might be that this passage brings with it the potential for deliverance ministry failure:

Mark 9.17 One of the men in the crowd spoke up and said, “Teacher, I brought my son so you could heal him. He is possessed by an evil spirit that won’t let him talk. 18 And whenever this spirit seizes him, it throws him violently to the ground. Then he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast out the evil spirit, but they couldn’t do it.”

19a Jesus said to them, “You faithless people! How long must I be with you?…

25 When Jesus saw that the crowd of onlookers was growing, he rebuked the evil spirit. “Listen, you spirit that makes this boy unable to hear and speak,” he said. “I command you to come out of this child and never enter him again!”…

28 Afterward, when Jesus was alone in the house with his disciples, they asked him, “Why couldn’t we cast out that evil spirit?”

29 Jesus replied, “This kind can be cast out only by prayer.

The Pulpit Commentary elaborates:

Though all things are possible to faith, some works are more difficult of accomplishment than others. This kind can mean only this kind of evil spirit, or demons generally. But the latter interpretation is excluded by the fact that the apostles had already exercised successfully their power over devils without special prayer or fasting. The words point to a truth in the spiritual world, that there are different degrees in the Satanic hierarchy (comp. Matthew 12:45); some demons are more malignant than others, and have greater power over the souls of men. In the present case the possession was of long standing; it revolved a terrible bodily malady; it was of an intense and unusual character. The mere word of exorcism, or the name of Jesus, spoken with little spiritual faith, could net overcome the mighty enemy. The exorcist needed special preparation; he must inspire and augment his faith by prayer and self-discipline. Prayer invokes the aid of God, and puts one’s self unreservedly in his hands; fasting subdues the flesh, arouses the soul’s energies, brings into exercise the higher parts of man’s nature. Thus equipped, a man is open to receive power from on high, and can quell the assaults of the evil one. (emphasis added)

Elliott’s Commentary adds:

The disciples, we know, did not as yet fast (Matthew 9:14-15), and the facts imply that they had been weak and remiss in prayer. The words are noticeable as testifying to the real ground and motive for “fasting,” and to the gain for the higher life to be obtained, when it was accompanied by true prayer, by this act of conquest over the lower nature.

or perhaps this passage from Matthew is in the back of someone’s mind:

17.14b A man came and knelt before Jesus and said, 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son. He has seizures and suffers terribly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. 16 So I brought him to your disciples, but they couldn’t heal him.”

17 Jesus said, “You faithless and corrupt people! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” 18 Then Jesus rebuked the demon in the boy, and it left him. From that moment the boy was well.

19 Afterward the disciples asked Jesus privately, “Why couldn’t we cast out that demon?”

20 “You don’t have enough faith,” Jesus told them. “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.

We often refer to the website, GotQuestions.org. Some non-Pentecostals or non-Charismatics downplay the need for this as a specialized ministry. Since you’ll find this thinking online in various places, here is a sample from their site:

…The Gospels and Acts relate that Jesus and the disciples cast out demons. The teaching portions of the New Testament (Romans through Jude) refer to demonic activity yet do not discuss the method of casting them out, nor are believers exhorted to do so. We are told to put on the whole armor of God…

…The Gospels and Acts relate that Jesus and the disciples cast out demons. The teaching portions of the New Testament (Romans through Jude) refer to demonic activity yet do not discuss the method of casting them out, nor are believers exhorted to do so…

…It is interesting that we have no record of Jesus’ instructions to His disciples on how to cast out demons…[and then the commentary goes on to list a rather significant number of ‘exceptions.’ Hmmm…]

Did we answer the question at the top of the page?

I think the issue here is not the office or title of the person rebuking the evil spirits, but rather the preparation of the person entering into such a ministry.

Of course, some situations are extremely short notice. We don’t know exactly when we might find ourselves seeing or being part of a direct demonic confrontation. I believe in those situations, a person who has heard God’s word on this subject, and is thereby aware of the powers that exist should resolve to act in whatever timely opportunity is available. (But I also believe God will give you some foreknowledge to be prepared to do so.)

In other parts of the world, I’m told that demonic activity is much more acute; much more visible. People in those situations don’t need to be told what they’re dealing with, they see its effects.

So the answer is both: It is a ministry that is the specialty of some pastors and Christian leaders, but it is also within the reach of any Christ-follower who has prepared themselves for the task.

Do you want to take this on?

It’s definitely worth remembering that the seventy-two were sent out in pairs. That might be a better way to apprentice in this type of ministry.


In any deliverance situation, there’s also the issue of providing ‘filling’ to someone whose ‘casting out’ of something has created a void or a whole. In Matthew we read the words of Jesus,

12.43 “When an evil spirit leaves a person, it goes into the desert, seeking rest but finding none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the person I came from.’ So it returns and finds its former home empty, swept, and in order. 45

There are some good resources online on this topic, be discerning as you search however, and recognize that there are differences of opinion on this issues from different theological traditions.


Scriptures today were all NLT (just because) except where indicated.

January 9, 2018

When Churches Become Self-Serving

Filed under: Christianity, Church, evangelism — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:49 am

Years ago I heard someone state, “Libraries aren’t made for the public, they’re made for librarians.” While some might object to that notion, there is a grain of truth, particularly in terms of the organization of the facilities, which often leaves those of us who haven’t memorized the Library of Congress classification system or the Dewey Decimal system asking for assistance.

Are churches any different?

Many times, especially around Labor Day Weekend in the U.S. or New Year’s Day, churches will get serious about appealing for volunteer help. And the pitch is always the same: Serve in our Sunday School; join our choir; lead one of our small groups. We’ve been there.

My wife and I visited a Presbyterian Church once and after the service ended, she was approached about joining the choir, without even an inclination as to whether or not she can sing. (She can and does.) There was no qualification if she considered herself a Christian, although I suppose visiting this church on a Sunday morning increased the odds.

More recently, a local Evangelical church wanted to replace traditional membership, with a form of covenant membership that would require one be involved in an area of service at the church in order to maintain that status. The problem is, many people in that church are involved with parachurch organizations based both in the community and nationally. They are already serving, just not within the confines of the congregation.

The problem is that this has no outward focus.

Furthermore, when we give, we’re subconsciously giving to ourselves. We are the beneficiaries of the programs the church offers. Our children attend the mid-week program and consume the resource materials and goldfish crackers. We show up Sunday night and consume the video material that’s part of an adult elective. We take notes during the preaching and sing with the worship team and consume what’s projected on the giant screen (and relayed to the baby/cry room; and later posted online.)

But at the first mention that some of our donations might be spent on projects in the broader community, or to a major overseas project, we bristle at the suggestion.

Surely, there are greater needs at home; and by home we mean within the church building. (“Lord, Bless me today and my spouse and our two children; us four, no more.”)

And then there’s the strange logic of the idea that we need to develop more inwardly in spiritual depth and discipleship before we’re ready and able to reach out to the broader community. This just in: It will never happen! We’ll never reach that point where we’ve got it all together and are now prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder and reach the world. We have to reach them not having it all together. They might actually like us better that way. They might be more inclined to want to join a family of the broken than a family of the perfect

…Are we missing something? Do our neighbors see us leave for church on the weekend and mentally follow us and ask themselves, ‘What goes on in that building?’ Indeed, what? Are we more like a community center or more like a secret society? (Especially given the current penchant for not having windows in our auditoriums.)

I think as we’re only days into a new year, we need to ask ourselves how much of our church activity, and how much of our church budget is completely self-serving.

To repeat, we need a greater outward focus.


Graphic: Sermon video (39 min.) from Vermon Pierre at Roosevelt Church, a Gospel Coalition Church in downtown Phoenix, based on this text:

NLT Mat. 20:25 But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. 26 But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. 28 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

December 30, 2017

The Mind is a Battlefield

The Mind is a Battlefield. It truly is. I’m surprised there’s never been a successful Christian book with that title. Here’s a summary of some things that have appeared here at Thinking Out Loud with the blog tag “thought life.”  Each one of the titles below is a link to a larger article.

Over-Consumption of Internet Media

5 General Principles to Guide Potential Online Addiction

(this ran in March of this year; you need to click the title to see these spelled out)

  • Self Control
  • Mind, Thoughts and Heart
  • Shifting Values
  • The Stewardship of Our Time
  • Misdirected Worship

Media to Fill Your Home

(you need to click the title to see these spelled out)

  • Bible teaching
  • Christian books
  • Christian movies
  • Christian music
  • Hearing God’s voice

Phillips – Col. 3: 16-17 Let Christ’s teaching live in your hearts, making you rich in the true wisdom. Teach and help one another along the right road with your psalms and hymns and Christian songs, singing God’s praises with joyful hearts.

What will control your thought life this week?

A Day Lived Entirely for God

Several years back, a phrase from Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps became part of popular Christian culture through the acronym WWJD?. It appeared on wristbands, bumper stickers and a host of novelties and trinkets and in the crush of popularity, a few people actually bought and read the book.

Facing everyday challenges with the question ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ is a great idea, but I wonder if it’s too focused on doing; in other words, I’m concerned that it only measures action.

I’ve written much here about temptation here with respect to our thought life. For myself, a person who doesn’t commit great transgressions of moral or spiritual law, a better question might be WWJT? or What Would Jesus Think? In a review of David Murray’s The Happy Christian, I noted the following chapter outline based on Phil. 4:8… 

[the link takes you to an overview of David’s media diet and ministry diet.]

The Fruit of Your Thoughts

…If your mind is saturated with unhealthy thoughts and ideas, it will manifest itself in several ways:

In your conversation: We all have heard the Biblical principle that out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. Even the most guarded, careful, filtered person will let something slip that betrays where their heart is wandering. Or they may lose interest in topics that would normally engage them.

Stresses: For the Christian, having made poor choices in the area of inputs and influences will result in an inner conflict that may come to the surface in being short or snappy with the people we love or people we’re close to. The inner turmoil may simply result from a feeling of personal failure.

Distractions: A mind focused on things below instead of things above will inevitably be un-ordered, resulting in forgetting to return a phone call, missing a payment deadline, forgetting the directions to an appointment. Time allocation to responsibilities may slip noticeably.

Acting Out: Experts say that people dealing with online addictions often end up taking some action as a result of the content they have been viewing, but we tend to think of that as more overt. In fact, acting out often takes places in subtle ways that are more tangential to the addiction than direct. It’s possible that only the person themselves knows that the behavior trigger.

Reticence: Other people whose mind is otherwise preoccupied will simply become withdrawn. An unhealthy mind condition will manifest itself similar to worry and anxiety. For the Christian who senses that they are moving away from The Cross instead of moving toward The Cross, they may opt to retreat from their fellowship group or simply be less animated than is typical.

What Goes into a Mind Comes Out in a Life

We are all fighting a battle within ourselves… The illustration goes like this: There is a old Indian chief telling a story about how each of us have two rival dogs, a good dog and a bad dog. Both are always fighting each other. Sometimes it seems like the good dog is winning other times it appears like the bad dog is winning.

One of the tribal members asks, “So, how do you know which one will win?”

To which the chief replies, “It depends which dog you feed.”

click image to orderRelationships and the Internet’s Dark Side

(the article contains two stories of the manifestation of over-consumption of the worst the net has to offer)

…Someone once compared the things that enter our thought life to what happens when farmers sow seeds and later reap the harvest. The little verse goes:

Sow a thought, reap an action;

Sow an action, reap a habit;

Sow a habit; reap a lifestyle.

One thing is certain, whether there’s aversion or attraction, interpersonal dynamics are changed. Someone has said, “You are what you eat.” You certainly are what you read or view on television or your computer screen…

November 18, 2017

The Relational Quality of a Personal Relationship

Often I think that those of us who comprise “the Church” suffer greatly because language is often inadequate to describe some of the most elementary principles of faith. Much ink (or in the case of the internet, electrons) is used up trying to describe atonement, salvation, the indwelling presence of Christ, or even the subject which returns on a regular cycle much like certain comets: “What is the Gospel?”

Entering into “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” or “asking Jesus into your heart” or “accepting Jesus as your personal savior” probably means something to most readers here, but we forget how quickly we’re losing our audience if we’re speaking to seekers, skeptics, atheists or agnostics. The quality of “relationship” probably reminds them more of something likely to be encountered on a dating website. (“If you think Jesus would be a good match, swipe right.”)

I believe the idea of relationship serves us better if we think about it visually. Since we can only share with others what we’ve experienced ourselves, let’s aside evangelistic efforts and make this personal. For example…
Relationship between us and God

I am at the front of the room speaking and I invite my wife to come and stand about six feet from me. “What does it mean,” I ask everyone, “to say I am in relationship to Ruth?”

Some of the answers are:

  • “You love each other.”
  • “You have shared history and experiences, that the rest of us don’t know about.”
  • “You are intimate with each other.”

But then I ask her to sit down and invite Mike to come up to the front. Mike and I are not close, I had to ask his permission before this point because we only know each other superficially. I position him in the same spot.

“So again,” I ask, “Where am I in relationship to Mike?”

After a bit of laughter, some dare to come up with something:

  • “You are standing to his right and he is on your left.”

“Let’s go with that,” I respond, “What does that entail?”

  • “He can see you and hear you and knows what you’re doing.”

I start to deliberately creep back from him. “What about now?”

  • “The distance between you can change.”

The first set of answers all have to do with what we normally think of with the word relationship.

The second set of answers could easily involve other words or phrases: Where I am with respect to Mike; Where I am according to Mike.

When we think about our relationship with God, we might want to consider it in terms of love, intimacy and shared history. “And he walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am His own…

Today I’m proposing we look for ways to expand that and consider the possibilities that:

  • We need to be aware of God’s position in our lives; that he does stand next to us, and our posture should be that of standing next to him. One counselor I know would say we need to visualize this. The example of me standing next to Ruth or Mike can provide the imagery we need to do this.
  • He sees us; he is watching us (“the eyes of the Lord run to and fro”) and this is also true for everyone on earth; whether they acknowledge him as Lord or not, he sees them. But this works both ways; I think we could also include in this an awareness of seeing Him in the everyday routine.
  • We ought to keep close to him; not let ourselves drift away from the awareness of His presence, either on a momentary basis or over a period of time. (For example, I could continue speaking and forget that Mike is still standing there until he asks if he can sit down now!)

In other words, asking the question “Where I am in relationship to God?” is only partly about the nature or quality of the relationship itself, but also about where God is in my life, and where I stand with respect to Him. The focus shifts from the tie that bind us to how I act and live my life according to Him.

The issue is one of proximity or closeness.

God is omnipresent but that sterile piece theological information means, by definition, that He is also present… 

…Only when have this relationship solidly mapped out in our own understanding can we begin to share the dynamics of it with others. If we think in terms of it in terms of physical proximity (as with the example of Mike) we’re on the right track. But hopefully we move on to something that involves more intimacy (as with the example of Ruth.)  

Out of the overflow of that type of relationship is something we will be excited to share with others.

November 12, 2017

5 Ways We are A Living Sacrifice

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice–the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.
– Romans 12:1 (NIV)

“The problem with a living sacrifice is that it tends to crawl off the altar.” (source unknown)

Today we are joining with Christianity 201 as part of its weekly Sunday Worship series. To read the entire series, click this link. Our key verse reminds us that worship is something we do, but rather worship is something we are. Years ago, Christian musician Chris Christian wrote,

We lift our voices
We lift our hands
We lift our lives up to You
We are an offering1

I really try to eschew pithy illustrations and stories here at C201, but I find this one most appropriate:

A chicken and a pig were discussing how they could do something for the farmer. Finally the chicken said, “He loves a good breakfast; why don’t we give him bacon and eggs?”

To this the pig replied, “That’s easy for you. All it demands of you is an offering, but for me it demands total sacrifice.” 2

Here are some things I think will help us remember what it means to live our lives as a living sacrifice. Each starts with the letter ‘s’ followed by a different vowel.

Sacrifice

If we are to judge it, the measure of a sacrifice is not the size of what is given, but the size of what is left over.

A sacrifice will cost us and it will be consumed. There is no taking back the investment of our energies, gifts or material possessions given up in the service and pleasing of God. The last distinction is important. In service we see tangible results. But God is sometimes pleased by our giving up of things. Ask yourself: How much cash would you put on the offering plate if, as it was in Old Testament times, what was giving was then burned? That’s what our Old Testament predecessors did with the best of their grain and animals.

Set-Apartness

If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

In a world that values conformity, no one wants to be the odd duck. Yet the book of Leviticus is essentially God wanting to insure that his people could maintain a distinct identity. It was all about showing yourself to be different.3

Sinlessness

Jerry Bridges has written,

Jesus said, “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). We must honestly face the question, “Am I willing to give up a certain practice or habit that is keeping me from holiness?” It is at this point of commitment that most of us fail. We prefer to dally with sin, to try to play with it a little without getting too deeply involved. 4

Sovereignty

“There is a God. You are not Him,”

Jesus himself deferred to his Father on many occasions; providing us a reminder of who is in charge. We choose to forget this because we are driven to be in control.

Surrender

When Abraham is asked to sacrifice is only son, we have the advantage that Abraham and Sarah didn’t; we know how the story ends. They did not, and yet Abraham is willing to do whatever it takes to obey God.5

Although we speak very different languages, two symbols are universal throughout the worldwide church. One is the word “Hallelujah” which I’m told is rendered the same in most languages. The other is lifted hands as a sign of surrender.

A writer at Charisma points out that our fingers, hands and arms are also most associated with human strength, power, creativity; both in a human sense and if we examine the Biblical record of God’s actions presented in a way we can best understand them. 6

 


1 Full video at YouTube.

2 This story is often used by leadership coaches as well. Here’s a longer version with the punchline contrasting contribution and commitment.

3 We looked at maintaining a distinct identity in this March, 2017 article.

4 We included more quotes from Jerry Bridges on this topic in this article.

5 This is excerpted from a fuller look at Abraham’s trip up the mountain with Isaac at this link.

6 See the full article about lifting hands at this link.

October 19, 2017

Hospitality

Most Christians would affirm the Bible teaches that we should “practice hospitality.” A look at various translations of 1 Peter 4:9 shows that only the NLT suggests that this be directed at “those who need a meal or a place to stay;” though it’s unclear why this one version adds those extra words.

However, the NLT rendering raises an interesting consideration; namely the relative socioeconomic status of hosts and guests in each situation.

Peer Hospitality

This is probably what we do most often. Our guests are often people just like us. We invite them, and a few weeks later we’re invited to their place. Perhaps we’re frequent guests in each others’ homes. Maybe their names is Jones and they are the ones others are trying to keep up with. Or maybe you are the Jones family and you want to show off the widescreen TV you just obtained.

But relatively speaking, it’s an even playing field.

Charitable Hospitality

This is what the NLT was getting at, I guess. Where that single mom and her kids could use a break from leftovers. Where you feel like taking a risk and crossing a line and inviting the guy from the soup kitchen over for Thanksgiving.

Jesus has this in mind when he says, “…When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  (Luke 14: 12-14 NIV)

He’s contrasting the first type of hospitality with the second.

A Third Case

But what if the above situation is reversed? This is a situation that struck me a couple of days ago, and was the reason for writing this.

Several years ago I heard a story about a very wealthy Christian man who along with his wife was invited to the home of the part-time Assistant Pastor and his family. The house was very sparse and not well-heated. There was water on the table, and the meal was somewhat basic.

Was there some other motivation? The wealthy man’s wife told me that she really didn’t know what to make of the invitation; the experience was simply unusual for them. (Yes, I’ll bet it was!)

I know there were times in our life when money was tight but we still tried to entertain. (Now our biggest problem is that the house is a mess!) However, it would have been unusual — that word again — for us to invite a couple from a much higher economic station, although in the very early years of our marriage, I can think of two times we did this more out of naïveté than anything else.

It is very much the opposite of the case Jesus described above, to know that money is tight and bills are due next week and yet someone of means is sitting at your table enjoying a roast beef dinner that represents a great sacrifice on your part.

Truly this is the hardest form of hospitality…

…And yet, this is what people do. Not here. Not in Western Europe or Australia or North America. But in third world countries. When guests comes to a village, a Christian family will invite them into their home (or hut or tent) and share their very last bit of food with them; and they will consider themselves honored to be able to do this.

They would agree with the verse in 1 Peter; we do need to “practice hospitality.”

Yet they are probably reading it completely differently than we do.

 

 

October 8, 2017

Being Good While Being Yourself

For several years Clarke Dixon has been a regular writer at our sister blog, Christianity 201. A year ago he wrote a piece about Islam just for readers here, and a few times we’ve cross-posted material from C201, such as this one about cremation, or this one about the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Two weeks ago, I accidentally formatted one of his C201 posts here and decided you were probably meant to read it. So without further introduction…


by Clarke Dixon

“Just be yourself!”

This is a message often heard in today’s society. “Be authentic, be genuine, don’t let anybody tell you that you need to change!” The Christian message seems to be the exact opposite with the instruction “be transformed” (Romans 12:2), a call to repentance, and testimonies of changed lives. It seems like acceptance of who you are clashes with needing change. Which is the better path? Romans 12:9-21 will help us figure this out.

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:9-21 (NRSV)

THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ABOUT CHARACTER.

Notice that there is no call to change one’s personality in Romans 12. A change in character is what is called for. This is not a change in identity, so that you are no longer authentically you, but a change in character, so that you are a better you. I am, and have always been, a quiet, shy person. The Lord did not ask me to become a naturally outgoing person when He called me to follow Christ.

We want to be careful here not to mix up personality traits with character traits and so miss an opportunity for growth. For example, many people describe themselves as being impatient people, as if impatience were a mark of their personality and something that cannot change. However, anything that is listed as a fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22,23) is something God can and will help us change. As we sort out which of our “quirks” are personality traits that make us unique, and which are sins that keep us from being like Christ, let us remember that being a Christian is not a call away from authenticity, but a call to character.

THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ABOUT OUR MINDS BEING RENEWED (BUT NOT REMOVED) BY THE HOLY SPIRIT.

In Romans 12:9-21, Paul is fleshing out 12:1,2:

1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1,2 (NRSV emphasis mine)

The word behind “renew” has the idea of “making new again”. It is not a complete replacement, but rather a renovation. To renovate a home is a very different thing from demolishing it to build a completely different home. Take, for example, the apostles Peter and Paul. There is nothing to make us suspect that their personalities changed from before they knew Christ to after. We do see them change in very important ways, but they are still very much Peter and Paul. They are still very unique individuals. Discipleship in the Christian life is not like assimilation into the Borg in Star Trek, but rather becoming more like Jesus in our character.

THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ABOUT RESPONDING TO THE TEACHING OF JESUS.

Romans 12:9-21 feels familiar. These are things that Jesus taught about, and demonstrated in his own life. It begins with love in verse 9: “Let love be genuine”. It includes non-retaliation, putting into practice turning the other cheek, which Jesus both taught and demonstrated. Someone might point out here that Jesus taught that we should deny ourselves, pick up our crosses and follow. Does that not mean giving up our individuality? In calling us to pick up our cross and follow, Jesus was not calling upon us to give up our identity as being unique in the universe, but to give up a desire to be the centre of the universe. In doing so, you will still be very much you, with all your quirks that make you interesting and unique. But you will be a better you.

THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ABOUT CHOOSING GOOD OVER EVIL

All of Romans 12:9-21 is framed by the the opportunity to choose good over evil as reflected in verses 9 and 21: “… hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”. This is where “just be yourself” does not actually work. Such a sentiment must always be qualified. In watching the Emmy’s recently I did not hear anyone say anything like “Isn’t it wonderful how Donald Trump is comfortable in his own skin? Isn’t it great that he is just being himself?”. No one is saying that about Kim Jong-un either. At the end of the day, all people want everyone else to be good and not evil. All people want others, if they insist on being themselves, to be their better selves. Unfortunately, most people want to go with their own definitions of good and evil. However, the Christian life leads us to God’s definitions of good and evil, plus God’s empowerment to choose to do good rather than evil.

THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ABOUT BEING COUNTER-CULTURAL.

Romans 12:2 does not say “no longer be conformed to your own identity” but “do not be conformed to this age”. Simply put, be yourself, but be your better self, and so stick out like a sore thumb. Those who live the kinds of lives that reflect Romans 12:9-21 will surely do so.

THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ABOUT BEING SALT AND LIGHT IN SOCIETY.

While there is disagreement on how to get there, people naturally long for a better society. Romans 12:9-12 gives some very practical ways of getting there. Just imagine the impact if people were to live like these verses describe. The effect of a renewed mind is much better than the effect of being conformed to the current age. As our relationship with Christ leads to our minds being renewed, people will take notice. How could anyone not respond positively to genuine love (verse 9), hospitality (verse 13), being blessed instead of being cursed (verse 14), care for the downtrodden (verse 15), non-retaliation (verses 17 and following), and being with people who are peaceable (verse 18)? We should note here that we are to think on “what is noble in the sight of all” (verse17). The world is watching, even longing for, a changed people to show the way.

CONCLUSION

Society does not actually say “just be yourself”, it says “be yourself, unless we don’t like you, or there is something about you we think should change”. Jesus says I love you, no matter what you are currently like. I have already demonstrated that love by bearing the cross for you”. Now that is true acceptance, and by Someone whose acceptance of us really matters! When you experience acceptance by God, get ready to be changed, not that you are no longer you, but that you are a better you. Not only are you transformed by the renewing of your mind, but the world around you will begin changing for the better too. So be yourself! But be a God-filled changing-in-great-ways self!


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