Sunday, October 15, 2017

WHAT I SAID TO THE GRADUATING CLASS OF PASTORS IN CUBA


Love and Competition

Several years ago I was asked to travel to the island nation of Cuba as part of a humanitarian aid group. There I was to give the commencement address for the graduates of a small pastoral training school. There were twenty or so graduates.

I had no idea what an appropriate message should be, and I was given no advice concerning things that I should or should not say in that communist society. Before that time, I had given commencement addresses in other Latin American countries, but Cuba was its own case.

For most of us in the United States, Cuba has been a closed country. At least, it was for me. I had not known much at all about what was happening on that island nation. However, as I prepared my sermon, I was drawn to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians because some of Paul’s words seemed to express what I was also feeling at the time.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

AMBASSADORS FOR CHRIST (Part 3)

To help us understand part of what it means to be a Christian, the Apostle Paul likened our position to being an ambassador for Christ.

In the previous two posts, I spoke much of what that position entails. However, there is another aspect in the life of an international ambassador that helps us to understand the Christian life. When considering what it means to be an ambassador for Christ, it is also helpful for us also to consider the existence of the foreign embassy. 

The Embassy as an Overseas Extension of Home

Embassies are interesting and rather unique places. The embassy is the seat of representation of a foreign country within another country. It is also often the dwelling place of the ambassador.

The first embassy that I ever visited was the US Embassy in New Delhi, India, when I was not yet even twenty years old. I remember my visit well. I was living in a small village in northern India in a situation far different from the life I had left not long before in Wisconsin.

After being in my village in India for some months, I made a trip to New Delhi and visited the embassy. I had spent the months before in my village and the neighboring areas eating the local food in dark, little tea stands and in the homes of friends. I had grown to like the cuisine of the country folk well enough, but by now I was eager for some American food. So upon my arrival on the embassy grounds, the first thing that I did was to go to the restaurant there. To my great delight, the embassy restaurant looked a little like a Denny’s or a Perkins restaurant in the US, and had a real menu that was printed in English.

Because of local customs and religious beliefs in the village where I lived, and because meat simply was not available, I had eaten no meat for all those months. So as I sat down at the table, I did not need to look at a menu. I already knew what I wanted before I entered. I ordered a steak and a baked potato. As I looked around me and saw the food that was being served, it appeared to me that everything that the restaurant served had been imported from the states: the meat, the coffee, even the catsup. I still remember being impressed by the catsup. Certainly, I must have been American.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

AMBASSADORS FOR CHRIST (Part 2)

Moses the Ambassador: One Who Intercedes

In the final part of the previous post, in discussing the personality of God, we strayed somewhat from our subject of being an ambassador for Christ. However, in order to see this role of Moses, it is important to understand some of these concepts concerning who God is as our authority. We cannot be God’s representatives without understanding him as well as we can.

But returning now to our topic of being ambassadors for Christ, and using our example of Moses, we see in the story of the golden calf and the giving of the Ten Commandments that Moses was acting as a representative of the people before God. When God threatened to destroy the people, Moses intervened. Moses interceded for the people and he also identified with them. 

As ambassadors for Christ, we also have this ministry of intercession. In another incident, when the judgment of God was again falling on the people of Israel by means of poisonous vipers, the people pleaded with Moses.

“We have sinned,” the people said, “because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people (Numbers 21:7 NAS, emphasis added). 

“Pray for one another, so that you may be healed,” James tells us. “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:16 NAS).

 When we pray for people—for their health, for their salvation—is this not the ministry of intercession? Are we not bringing their case before the throne of God? We are, as Moses was, acting in this role as an ambassador for Christ. We are coming before God, representing the interests of others before him. As Moses spoke with God on behalf of the people, we see him in this role as intercessor.

Moses the Ambassador: The Representative of God before Men

Standing on the peak of Mount Sinai, we have seen that Moses represented the people before God. However, when he came down off the mountain, his role as ambassador changed. When he approached the people and stood before them, he was now representing God before the people.
Do you see the difference?

Sunday, September 24, 2017

AMBASSADORS FOR CHRIST

The Apostle Paul says of Christians in 2 Corinthians 5, “We are ambassadors for Christ.” It is a phrase that we hear spoken from time to time, and usually we do not give it much thought. Perhaps we should.

We live today in a time of great internationalism, when the role of the international diplomat has become very important. Even in the day of Paul, ambassadors played an important role. Some of the functions of various kinds of diplomats have changed through the centuries with changing situations, but the responsibilities of ambassadors have largely remained constant.

Taking this office of ambassador as an example, it may be helpful for us to consider, for a few moments, how this relates to being an ambassador for Christ. 

Responsibilities of an Ambassador

Ambassadors are the official representatives of their sending country. Their major task is to represent the interests of their sending government. What the ambassador may or may not feel or believe personally on any specific matter is not as important as what the official position of their government is. In fact, an ambassador normally does not have the freedom to speak his or her own mind on important matters. They receive the position from their home country, and that is what they must speak.

I am sure that this is sometimes very difficult. An ambassador, living in a foreign country, most certainly often sees matters differently than his home government. His view is affected by what he sees and experiences in his day-to-day life in the foreign country.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

HIDDEN LIVES

The Apostle Paul has written this:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.  Colossians 3:1-4 (ESV) 

In regards to our lives in this world, what we learn here from what Paul has said is that, as expatriates in a foreign culture, our true lives are hidden from the world. The people of the world cannot see or understand us as we truly are.

It is much the same as when I am living in another country here on earth apart from my home in Wisconsin. The people in another place see me as I am in their country, but they can never fully understand how I am when I am in my homeland. I can tell them about the place from where I have come and even show them pictures, but my real citizenship is largely hidden from them. It is something that is beyond their experience.

“We have died,” Paul says, “and our lives are hidden with Christ in God.”

In order to live well in the world, we must first remember this fact. The important things that we do in this world are things that those who are not of our same homeland cannot see. The goals of our lives that matter to us are those goals that have to do our citizenship with Christ, even if these aspirations are now hidden from the view of others.

It seems so simple, and yet it is at this point that we often fail so miserably. To our own disgrace, it often seems as though our greatest plans and our greatest projects are for this world. Most of our effort, it often seems, is to do the best that we can in this present life. We try to make the most money that we can, and accumulate the most material goods that we can. These seem often to be the driving forces behind our efforts.

However, the Scriptures tell us, “Set your mind on things above, not on the things that are on the earth.”

Sunday, September 10, 2017

LIVING WELL IN THIS WORLD

As you might suppose, one’s view of life is affected in many ways by living in a foreign country. At least mine has been. I am not talking about mere travel.  I am not referring to tourism. What I mean is when one needs to settle down for an extended period in a foreign land, long enough where he has to buy or rent a house and set up a residence. I have had to do this (I just counted) six times in six separate countries of the world other than the United States.

This is different than travel or tourism, for in settling down, a person must learn to live in a culture that is foreign to anything that he has ever before experienced. It is possible to exist, certainly, but to live in a content manner is a different matter entirely, and it is not always easily accomplished.

I suppose almost all expatriates (as these foreign dwellers are called) must struggle with this difficulty of living contently while overseas. This especially seems to be true for us fortunate ones—we individuals who have come from loving and caring homes in our home countries.

There are different ways that people find to deal with this inner conflict of living in a foreign culture. It is interesting to note the various ways in which people respond to this change in their lifestyle.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

OBEDIENCE: THE ROAD TO BLESSING

 There are some words that tend to bring about within us an immediate negative or defensive reaction. The word obey is one of these words. A child is often introduced to this word brusquely, accompanied with a wagging index finger in his face from a harsh parent. “You obey me, now!”

The word command may be another, and “I order you to do it!”

One of the first words many children learn is the word no. The child wants to do something or have something, but Mommy and Daddy say no! We learn that we must obey.

Since our first reactions to these words may be largely negative, the words themselves have come to have a negative connotation. In the military, we learn the proper response to an order. Obedience. It is not important in the least if we want to fulfill the order or not, or even whether or not it is a good order. We really have no choice in the matter.

With this backdrop in the formation of our personalities, we then have the danger of having the same frame of mind when we read these words, “You shall therefore obey the LORD your God, and do His commandments and His statutes which I command you today” (Deuteronomy 27:10, NAS).
 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

THE SALT OF THE EARTH

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men” (Matthew 5:13, NIV).
***********************
We today use the phrase “the salt of the earth” to speak of a person who lives his life in a wholesome and unpretentious manner. When we say that someone is “the salt of the earth,” it implies that he is honest and forthright, and living without deceit. In the verse quoted above, Jesus used it in the same way. Unlike many other phrases that have been passed on through the generations and for thousands of years, the meaning of this one seems not to have changed much since Jesus spoke it in the first century.

Actually, as far as what we have in recorded history, the use of this phrase by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount was the very first time that it was used. Nevertheless, because of the important role that salt played in the daily lives and in the thinking of the people of that day, the meaning of the phrase would not have been difficult for his hearers to understand.

Salt was something that these people saw as indispensable. It was, above everything else, a preservative—something that was used to keep food from spoiling and putrefying. 

Salt in History
 Despite the fact that we call it “common table salt,” it was not so common in those days. No doubt in the immediate area of Palestine it was not so difficult to obtain because of the proximity of the Mediterranean Sea (and of course the Dead Sea, or as it was actually known in those days, the Salt Sea).

Nevertheless, throughout history, in every part of the world, “Where to get salt?” has been an important question for entire nations of people. Many of the world’s ancient trade routes were first established for the purpose of trading for and obtaining salt.
 

Monday, August 21, 2017

THE LOG CHURCH - INTO THE SECOND CENTURY

(This is the message that I gave at the centennial celebration of the Log Church)


One hundred years ago the town of Tripoli was a booming community. There was a great sawmill on the bank of the millpond. There were stores, hotels (more than one), taverns (pretty sure more than one), a lumber yard and railway station. Tripoli had schools and even a theater. There was everything that a growing town would need.

Someone gave the town the name of Tripoli. The name sounds like it came from the Greek, and so it did. It means “three cities.” In this nascent town of Tripoli, there was great hopes of promise. Perhaps the community would one day grow to include even the town of Clifford, and possibly even Brantwood. The three cities.

Now we turn the calendar twelve hundred pages – one hundred years. The stores are gone, the hotels and taverns are no more…oh, I think there is one tavern yet, in case someone has a real thirst, but it is not one of the original taverns. The theater is gone, and the train now just speeds on by Tripoli without even so much of a thought of stopping. The schools are gone. Even the sawmill, the enormous engine of the community, is gone.
 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

BUILDING WITH LOGS

For a few years of my life I worked as a log builder. That is to say, I learned the art (that is really what it is) of constructing buildings using whole, round logs.

Building with logs is a world of building not only for form and function, but also for beauty and posterity. It is a world of learning to choose a certain log for a specific purpose, and of discussions about how to cut the notches and the grooves in the logs. It is about how the building will settle after it is constructed. These are discussions that only come up in log building construction, since these issues have no relevance in other types of buildings.

The log builder comes to learn the grain and knots of every log of the building he is working on and to take pleasure in how he is able to shape one log to fit snugly as it is placed on top of the log beneath. The worker must be familiar with the specialized tools and techniques that are a part of building with logs. The windows and the doors, for instance, must be installed by connecting them to “sliders” instead of nailing them directly unto the logs themselves.

As I mentioned above, the log walls in a house will settle in the first couple of years after construction. A wall may decrease in height as much as eight or nine inches. If any window or door were connected directly to the logs, the glass would surely break, and the doors would not open. To prevent this, each window and each door must be specially installed in a manner that only log builders must use. 

The Process of Scribing and Fitting

Building with logs is an incredibly slow process if one is to do it correctly. The form of the top of a log lying horizontally must be carefully drawn with a pencil onto the bottom of the log that is to fit over it. This work of drawing on the top log is done by placing this log over the log beneath and bracing it so that it will not move. Not even a hair.
 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

TODAY, I WILL BAPTIZE A BABY


Today, we will be having a baptism service in our church. To be baptized is something that Jesus has instructed all of his followers to do. In that regard, it is like the observance of the Lord’s Supper. We are told that we should do this.

Also, just as Jesus shared in the first communion with his disciples, he himself was also baptized. Jesus did these things as examples for us, so that we should continue in what he taught us.

However, we as a church have not been good at remaining faithful to his intentions in these traditions. It is an unfortunate development that baptism, like communion, is a custom that has historically caused controversy among church denominations.

Last week I spoke of how we in the churches have hijacked the observance of the unity Lord’s Supper to create division within the body of Christ. We allowed this to happen rather than allowing communion to be a sign of the oness of the church, as Jesus intended it to be. It is a sadness for me to say that it is much the same concerning baptism.

Both of these practices are meant not only to represent for us deep spiritual meanings (the greatest portion of which none of us understand completely), but they are to both also be a demonstration of our unity in the body of Christ. But again, like communion, because the entirety of the all of the spiritual implications and meanings concerning baptism is beyond any of our abilities to comprehend and appreciate as a whole, some churches choose to emphasize one certain aspect of baptism, and other churches choose other things.

Thus, as it is in the Lord’s Supper, instead of listening to and learning to appreciate various viewpoints and to learn from them, we have used these different perspectives to draw lines of division among the churches. The sad result is that, in our different church denominations, it is our tendency to arm ourselves with arguments about how our own denomination has the “right” understanding of baptism, and those who do it differently are “wrong.”

Again, baptism is unfortunately much like communion in this regard. If we do take the time to listen to the perspectives of another church, we often listen in the same sense as one would listen to his or her opponent in a debate. We are not really trying to understand the motives involved with what another church believes, but we are instead only listening with the sense of building a counter argument against each one of their points.

Primary and Secondary Beliefs

Because of our upcoming centennial of our church, I have been asked by a number of people in recent weeks if the Log Church is “non-denominational.” My response, of course, always is, “yes, it is.”

I do not know what that phrase, non-denominational church, means to you, but to me it means that when it comes to the secondary beliefs of the church, like communion and baptism, we take time to consider the traditions of others. I call these “secondary beliefs,” because to me, in these there is some room for latitude.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

CONCERNING MY WOUND THAT WILL NOT HEAL

Some months ago an old wound of mine opened up again, and even though by now a good deal of time has passed since this latest episode of the old infliction has come to me, the pain has not abated. In fact, in some ways it has gotten worse. This time, it has set itself deeper within me than it has in the past.

Before this latest occurrence, I thought that this injury would one day be healed in my lifetime. But now, I fear that it will not. It is beginning to look like I will take this pain to my grave.

This is a wound not of my body, but a wound of my soul. It is one that begins to ache when I see the Holy Communion being used to bring separation between believers in Christ. The pain comes when I see that the Lord’s Supper is used for division instead of being a sign of unity in fellowship, as Jesus intended it to be. The wound that has come to me is one of my heart, and is an affliction that actually drains me even of physical strength.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

JE SUIS NICODEMUS

I do not know why Nicodemus waited until it was night before he went to speak with Jesus. Generally, we assume that it was because, as a member of the Pharisees, Nicodemus was afraid that the act of his going to see Jesus would cause him to be censured by his colleagues in their religious order.

By and large, we today have a largely negative connotation of the Pharisees of the first century. The Pharisees were a group of self-righteous religious leaders who were often the objects of scorn by Jesus.

Jesus said of the sect of the Pharisees as a whole, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”[1] Hypocrisy seemed to be the central issue of the Pharisees. When Jesus spoke to the Pharisees face to face, he even spoke in much harsher terms than he did when merely speaking to someone else about them.

Once, when Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees directly, he told them this: “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.”[2] Jesus also called them such things as “unmarked graves, which men walk over without knowing it,” [3] as well as “fools” and “hypocrites.”

Even John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, showed no deference to these men who always looked for the most important seats at gatherings and who loved to be honored by others. “You brood of vipers” John bluntly called them. These are the same words that were repeated later by Jesus when he spoke to the Pharisees.[4]

Notwithstanding these comments by Jesus and by John, in the Jewish society at large, the Pharisees actually were largely respected as the religious leaders of the day. They, along with the Scribes (who also were often of the sect of the Pharisees), were the ones who studied and knew the Scriptures.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

LIVING IN THE TORRID ZONE

And there will be a shelter to give shade from the heat by day,
And refuge and protection from the storm and the rain. Isaiah 4:6

The sun over my head seared down merciless upon me, blindingly intense and draining me of all energy. I was at the time living in a town in western Venezuela and I was walking across and open soccer field on my way home from an errand that I had to make that day on foot.

The errand began early that morning out in the hills surrounding the village. My journey into the hills had begun in the coolness of the day, and I had not prepared adequately for the heat that I should have known would come later. Actually, my task had taken me further than I first intended to walk, and I was returning home later than I thought that I would.

Our village was in the Andes Mountains. While it was not in the highest of mountain areas, it was still at quite a high altitude. In places such as these, with the thin air and dryer atmosphere, the nights may be refreshingly cool, but the day can warm up quite fast. By noon it can become pretty unbearable to be out in the sun without protection. That is where I was in this last part of my walk, under the full sun with no protection. As I entered the village, there seemed to be no shade anywhere. Now, I was cutting across a soccer field to get back to our home. The heat and the sun had exhausted me of any energy reserve.

I thought that it must be about noon as I walked across the open field. At this point at the end of my journey, the heat and intensity of the sun was more than I could endure. As I made my way across the turf, I noticed that the town had recently erected huge light poles around the field, the bases of which were nearly two feet in diameter. There were no lights on the poles yet, but the poles were in place, ready for the workers to later place them to illuminate the field at night.

I had been hiking under the cloudless sky all morning long. In the hills there had often been a little shade, but not in this last leg of my walk. It had been all intense sun. After enduring the heat of the sun for some hours, I decided that when I reached the other end of the field, I would sit with my back resting on the shady side of one the poles for a few minutes before making the very last of this bit of my return trip to our home.

Much to my dismay, however, as I approached my intended resting spot, I could see no shadow. I walked completely around the pole and was disheartened to find that every side of the light post was being heated by the sun. Squinting my eyes, I looked up at my tormenter above my head and realized that it was indeed noon, and I was in the Torrid Zone at the equinox. 
 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A PATH THROUGH MÉRIDA

God once provided a path through the Red Sea for the Israelites so that they could pass. Our family also has experienced paths of God, perhaps not to the same extent as did Moses and his people, but nevertheless, we also saw the hand of God in these times. This is a story of one of those times: 

A PATH THROUGH MÉRIDA 

The city of Mérida, in the Andes Mountains of Venezuela, is built on a narrow plateau that sits like a castle high above several rivers that seem to surround it like a moat. It is a college town. The Universidad de Los Andes is there. During the years that we lived in that country, the university had about 30,000 students.

College towns usually have a culture all of their own, but this was especially true in Venezuela where both student and faculty protests and strikes were very common and where the strikes would frequently close down an entire town or even a city. The kids learned it from the earliest grades. It was not uncommon for us to see first and second graders in our own town carrying placards along with the rest of the students of a school, protesting some sort of “injustice”.

Mérida, because of the geography of the mountainous region where it is built, is a long and quite narrow city. There are really only three roads that lead through the length of it. The streets were not built for the amount of traffic they needed to bear when the city grew to its present size, and the downtown congestion was common.

One day we had to drive the length of the city to return to our own home in western Venezuela. Again, things may have changed since we lived there a couple of decades ago, but at that time, there were seldom bypasses to cities in Venezuela. One had to simply drive through the heart of town and hope for the best.

As we approached the city of Mérida, I suppose we should have been immediately suspicious that things were not right when a police barricade blocked off the first main street that we wanted to take.

However, this was not that uncommon. Streets seemed to be almost routinely blocked off for one reason or another, and without further thought, we proceeded to the second street. When we arrived at that second passage-way, we saw that there were cars on it, and they seemed to be moving along.

Well…the word moving may be a little misleading, because once we got in the line of traffic, we realized that they were mostly stopped, bumper to bumper. Nevertheless, since we thought we might have no other choice, we also joined in. With that, in the spirit of driving in the cities in Latin America or perhaps anywhere in the world, we hoped for the best.

We expected the line to move slowly, but as we sat in our car on this hot day, this one became agonizingly slow. As we tediously proceeded, I noticed that the cross streets were absolutely abandoned. In fact, there were very few shops open. No cars were parked along the sides. Something was not normal in the city of Mérida.

As we got nearer to the university and the downtown area, I could really tell something was up. The only street that had any cars on it was the one on which we were stuck in the traffic. The city looked abandoned with all the roll-down steel window coverings over the store windows (for some reason they call these security doors “Santa Marias”), and only a few university students standing idly about on the streets.

I was getting tired of sitting in the car going almost nowhere, and I saw a nice shady place where I could park our car on one of the side streets. I decided to get out and see if we could find out what was going on. Sticking my arm out of my window to try to get the other drivers to make a gap for me, I cut across a line of cars and made my way to our shady spot.

Vivian, our two boys that were with us, and I got out of the car and began walking toward where we saw a group of students standing in the middle of the intersection. As we got closer, our sons began to complain. “The air is stinging my eyes and burning my throat,” they said. Vivian and I really could not sense anything.

We approached the students. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“We are having a protest,” one of them told me.

“Why, what happened?”

Sunday, July 9, 2017

ESTHER’S DILEMMA

Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone – especially to those in the family of faith. (Galatians 6:10)
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The story of Esther takes place in the citadel in the city of Susa. Susa was located in present day Iran, and is one of the oldest cities of history. During the days when we read of Esther at somewhere around 460 0r 470 BC, Susa was also probably the most splendid of all cities of the world. This was in the days of the first Persian Empire and the reign of King Ahasuerus, otherwise known as Xerxes I. This is where we pick up the story. 

The Party

Ahasuerus, whom I shall just call by his other name of Xerxes, was throwing a big party. In fact, it was a huge party. The invited guests where the nobles and officials from all of his provinces, and since these provinces stretched from Ethiopia to India, this included a lot of people. In addition to these guest dignitaries were also his military leaders. The king took them all around the area to show them his vast wealth and the marvels of his kingdom.

The party went on for 180 days (if you can imagine), and when this time was over, the king then held a special banquet in his enclosed gardens lasting seven days. The garden was bedecked with hangings of white and blue linen, fastened to rings made from silver and placed on marble pillars surrounding the dining area. The wine was served in goblets of gold, each goblet unique. It was open bar. The king specifically instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man as much as he wanted.

It was a party like no other. The king was eager to show off his great wealth. His queen was Queen Vashti. She also was having separate party in the royal palace for the women and wives of the nobles.

The party seems to have been largely a success until near the end, when things began to go wrong for Xerxes.
 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

THE RAVEN AND THE DOVE

Our Man Noah

What was there about Noah that caused God to look upon him with favor?

Like many saints of old, we really do not know very much about this man. We do know that the society of his day was extremely wicked, perhaps more so than any society which has ever lived. It must have been so to provoke such a severe judgement from God.

However, we do not know any of the particulars of the people of that day. We do not know for what reasons God declared the society to be so wicked. Nevertheless, as we earlier read in the account of Noah, God’s assessment of the people demonstrated the extreme depth of depravity to which they had descended.

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

Among the seven things listed in the book of Proverbs that are particularly detestable to God are “hearts that devises wicked schemes and feet that are quick to rush into evil.”[1]

King David wrote of this condition in the book of Psalms:

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.

All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:1-3 NIV)

Whatever form that the evil took in the lives of the people of Noah’s day, their immorality was apparently to the point that even their every thought was evil. There was no goodness at all left in them. After God had seen the deep corruption of the world, it was to Noah alone that he came with the news that he had determined to put an end to all people

Somehow, Noah managed to retain his goodness and stay strong in the midst of this evil society. Of Noah, we read, “he was a righteous man and he lived a blameless life among the people of his time.” Those words remind us of another outstanding person of the Old Testament – the man Job. God said of him, “there is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”[2] 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

NOAH THE BOAT BUILDER


The world-wide flood that the Bible teaches took place during the days of Noah is one of those stories that is so fantastically extraordinary that I think that most people in these days do not believe it actually happened. Even some people who believe the Bible have serious doubts about the literal interpretation of the events as they are described in the Scriptures.

This sermon is not intended to be an argument for or against any opinion, but because people are often so passionate about this subject, one can hardly speak on it without addressing some of the geological and hydrological, as well as a couple other aspects of the flood.

Broadly speaking, although I acknowledge that there may be some allegorical language used when describing the events on the flood of Noah’s time, I still accept the events as described as being true. One does not need to be an intellectual Neanderthal to hold to this view, and if you care to do some research, there are some good resources available.

I would first like to address two questions rather briefly so that I can move on to the real topic of this sermon. The first of the two questions is this: Where did all the water come from so that the entire earth could be flooded? And the second question is: How is it possible that one pair of every kind of animal, including the dinosaurs, could fit on the ark?
 

Water, Water Everywhere

Because the amount of water needed to cover the entire surface of the planet is so great, many people believe that the flood did not literally inundate the entire planet, but was a flood that may indeed have been great, but perhaps limited to the local area surrounding that region. To Noah, it would have seemed like the whole earth had been covered by water, but if there had been astronauts circling the globe at that time, they would have radioed back to Houston that most of the planet still has large regions of dry ground (probably Houston would not have been one of these areas).

Sunday, June 18, 2017

THE SINS OF OUR FATHERS (AND OUR OWN)

When we were living in Venezuela many years ago, on one hot afternoon, a young man named Carlos sat on our veranda and under the trees in the chair opposite me. We were enjoying the shade and the breeze, and we were talking about the fatherhood of God.

“Since becoming a father myself,” I told him, “it is not quite so difficult for me to understand some of the things that God, as our Father, has been willing to do for us in the past, and still is doing for us.

“When I look at my own children, there is so much of myself that I see in them. This is not surprising, since they have inherited half of their genetic factors from me. When God made man, we are told that God made us in ‘his image.’ It is not that I understand all of the truths that are involved with this phrase, but whatever else it means; it means that when God looks at us, there are some things of himself that he sees in us.”

Carlos seemed to be listening intently to what I was saying, so I continued speaking.

“I am also able to understand a little more about the lengths to which God has been willing to go to redeem us. I do not pretend to comprehend entirely or even a small portion of all that is involved in our redemption, but what I am beginning to see is that it is God’s great love that was his motivation in redeeming us. I can see this fact because of the love that I find I have for my own children, even though my own love is far from perfect.”

Here Carlos stopped me.

“For me,” he said, “this is very difficult to understand. Certainly, I do not have the perspective of a father, only that of a son. Nevertheless, among my friends and I, we do not have an image of a father as one who loves us. All of us have had fathers who lived detached from family life, and who, on the occasions when they would come home, usually came home drunk and held us all in terror.

“Our fathers came home not to love us, but to beat us,” he said.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

THE CHRISTIAN PILGRIMAGE

(Much of this post is a repeat of the blog posts that I made when I went to Ethiopia. However, the people of my church told me that they wanted to hear more about the trip, so I used some of this to speak on a subject that has not traditionally been a part of most Christians in America)

THE CHRISTIAN PILGRIMAGE
 
The town of Lalibela is in northern Ethiopia, and is one of the oldest of Christian pilgrim destinations in the world. As I said in my earlier posts on Ethiopia, the primary reason that I went to that country was to see my son Levi. However, as he and I went up to the town of Lalibela, it was also with a sense of pilgrimage that I traveled to that place. It is this subject of being a pilgrim that I would like to speak on today.
With this in mind, before I tell you about the city of Lalibela, I need to go into a little of the history of how it became a center of worship.
 
Very early in history, even before the birth of Christ, there were communities of people in Ethiopia who had converted to Judaism and practiced their faith according to the Mosaic Law. The exact origins of these communities are unknown and shrouded with many theories (which I won’t go into right now). There are still some of the Jewish faith in Ethiopia today, although many had emigrated to Israel in the 20th century under Israel’s Law of Return.

 
The Birth of Lalibela
 
When we move ahead in history from the Old Testament times to the second century after Christ, we come also to the time of the establishment of the city of Lalibela. Even a great deal of this more recent history is unknown to us, and much is open to the interpretation of whatever historian one cares to read. However, the general consensus is that the city began its role as a site of pilgrimage for Christians during the reign of the king of the region of that time, one Gebre Mesqel Lalibela. It was after this king that the city was named. The first two names, Gebre Mesqel, of the king literally mean, “Servant of the Cross,” for Lalibela was born into a Christian home in the year 1162.

Monday, June 5, 2017

POURED OUT

Not many days before he was to be crucified, Jesus was a guest at a home in the village of Bethany, a place not far from Jerusalem. The house was that of one Simon, a man who had been a leper but must have been healed some time before, presumably by Jesus. The man was still called “Simon the Leper,”

When Jesus was in the house of Simon the leper and as they were at the table, a woman approached Jesus with a vial of very costly perfume. The vial was made of alabaster, which is a soft stone that was often used for sculpture and, as in this case, to make household vessels. The perfume that it contained was very valuable, probably worth about three hundred denarii. This amount may not mean anything to you or me, but one denarius was what a man was often paid for one day’s work. This made this container of perfume worth almost a year’s salary. 

At the Feet of Jesus

The woman, it turns out, was Mary, the sister of Lazarus. Lazarus was the man whom Jesus had brought back to life some time earlier. Just before Jesus had done that, Mary had fallen at the feet of Jesus and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32).

At the time, Mary probably thought, “It is too late now.” Indeed, at that point, Lazarus had already been entombed four days. Despite this, Jesus called Lazarus to come forth from the tomb. With the call of the voice of Jesus, the one who had been dead appeared at the opening – alive!

On yet another occasion, Mary was again found again sitting at the feet of Jesus. At this time, despite the work around the house that her sister Martha thought important, Mary saw the greater need at that moment to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his teachings (Luke 10:39).

Now here again, not many days before the crucifixion of Jesus, Mary was once again found at the feet of Jesus. She knelt down and broke the spout on the vial of perfume. Presumably, the vial had a spout with a stopper of some kind. It must have had one where someone had put in the perfume at the beginning. 

Mary’s Commitment

But Mary did not pull out the cork. She did not merely open the vial. She broke the spout. This act of breaking the vial was one of commitment. It was not the same as removing a cap so that she could pour out a portion of the contents. Whatever Mary intended to do with the perfume, she meant to use all of it.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

HOW TO WALK IN FAITH

For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

These are the words of the Apostle Paul in describing the Christian life. We often hear about “living a life of faith” and “walking by faith,” and we are fond of calling ourselves, “people of faith.” These are all very pious sounding words, but sometimes we do not really understand what it means to walk by faith.

On the other hand, walking by faith is often misrepresented and ridiculed. Christians are sometimes accused of having a “blind faith” and placing hope on something that, deep down, they fear does not really exist.

Mark Twain, for all his wit and writing ability, did great damage in mischaracterizing the life of faith with the much quoted statement of one of his characters: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” (Pudd’nhead Wilson). Also in our culture, it is common to refer to a “pie in the sky” type of faith, which ridicules the life of faith by implying that Christians are placing all of their hope in some future promises of heaven that do not actually exist.

Both of these references have their elements of humor, and if we do not take them too seriously, we can laugh at them. But unfortunately, they have also mischaracterized what actually is a walk of faith. 

Two Walks

However, if these characterizations of faith are not true, then what does it mean to walk by faith? The Apostle Paul is quoted as saying “We walk by faith, not by sight.” Just what does this mean? What is it to walk in faith? Is it true that those of us who practice walking by faith, walk in blind trust, without sight and without any evidence whatsoever?

If it might help in your understanding, here is how I would compare a life of walking by faith in contrast with a life of walking by sight alone: 

Walking by Sight

Walking by sight can be likened to what a man or woman may do when they stand in a doorway of a room. They do not immediately enter, but only stand in such a way so that they can see all that the room contains. They are able to simply stand in the doorway without making any real commitment to enter. Finally, when they become satisfied that they know sufficiently what is in the room, they may choose whether or not to go inside. Their commitment to act only follows their sight. It does not go before.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

STREET BOYS

An experience that I had in Addis Ababa reminded me of something that I wrote many years ago. When I arrived in Ethiopia, Levi told me that I needed to be careful of street boys who may surround me and try to lift my money clip.

As it turns out, this did happen from time to time as I walked alone. Only once did it get a little physical, but no big deal.

In our own country, we know that we have many adults that live on the streets of our cities, and I am sure that there are also many minors that are homeless and living on the streets. Nevertheless, in some cities of Latin America, and also apparently at least in Ethiopia, boys living on the streets can be a genuine security problem, even on a busy street in full daylight.

Our first reaction to being accosted by these young boys is understandably reactionary and negative, and I am not claiming that they are all misunderstood and misled adolescents. However, there may be some other factors that we do not know.

Hence the story from Lima, Peru. What I write below is not actually my story, but it was told to me by a man had opened a home for street boys and who shared with me some of the stories of the boys that had come into his home. (There are no real names in this essay).
 

THE STREET BOYS OF LIMA
 

Pedro is no longer a boy. He has grown into a young man and works as a janitor in a rescue home for street boys of Lima, Peru. He is married, has a child and is a believer in Jesus Christ – but this only after many years. And he still carries some scars in his soul.
 
When Pedro was born, his mother died in the delivery. He had an older brother and a sister, and for some years, the father kept the family together. Then, when Pedro turned four years old, his father called him into the room.

“Pedro,” his father said, “you are now four years old and for four years we have been waiting to tell you something. You are now old enough to understand. First, listen to your brother. He also has something to tell you.”

Saturday, May 20, 2017

TO ETHIOPIA I GO - Part 13

(scroll down for parts 1-12)
LALIBELA 3

Perhaps the best known of the churches of Lalibela is the church of St. George. This church is the best preserved, most likely owing much to the fact that it is the most recent of the churches to be sculpted. In some ways, it was surprising to me that a church was constructed in Africa that commemorates St. George.

Like many historical figures, St. George is not only a person of history, but also of many legends. As an historical figure, it seems that George was born in Lydda of Cappadocia (now central Turkey) to Christian parents. His father was named Gerontius, a name I kind of like because it means “old man” (I suspect that we get our word Geriatrics from this word). This Gerontius, the father of George, was a well-known soldier in the Roman army. However, despite his name, Gerontius died when George was only fourteen years old.

As in many military families, the son followed his father in this career. Gerontius had been one of the finest soldiers in the Roman guard. Thus, when George enlisted, the Roman emperor at the time, a man by the name of Diocletian, was happy to have George also join his forces.

However, after some time, things changed in the Roman Empire. Some time after George became part of the Imperial Guard, the emperor Diocletian suddenly became opposed to Christians and ordered that all the soldiers should offer up sacrifices to the Roman gods.

George, not only a Christian by name but especially by conviction, refused to do so. What was more, his refusal was not done in secret, but in front of the other soldiers and even in an audience with the king himself, before whom George strongly held to his conviction as a believer in Christ. Diocletian did not want to lose George as a soldier, and tried to convince him to renounce his faith by offering him many gifts of land and money and slaves if George would make a sacrifice to the gods of Rome.

After repeated refusals, the king then subjected George to many torture sessions, three times from which he had to be resuscitated only to endure more torture. Before his death, George had distributed his wealth to the poor. His end came with a public decapitation on April 23 of the year 303. Among the witnesses to his death was a pagan priest and a Roman empress, who thereafter also became Christians.

His body was returned to his birth place of Lydda. Almost immediately Christians from the area visited his tomb, recognizing him as martyr for the faith.

That is the story of St. George, at least the part that is at least
somewhat substantiated by history, but George’s story goes far beyond this. For instance, you have no doubt heard of how St. George slayed a dragon. This event is said to have taken place in a now unknown location, but one which had a small lake, in which the dragon lived. The dragon carried a plague that was ravaging the countryside, so in order to keep the dragon appeased, the townspeople would feed it two sheep every day.
Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer

Eventually however, the town ran out of sheep. After that time, so the story goes, each day one of the children of the town was given to the dragon for his food, each child chosen randomly by lot from among the village children.

This was the case until the lot fell on the daughter of the king. The grief-stricken king offered the people of the town all of his wealth and half of his kingdom if his daughter could be spared, but the people would not have it. They demanded the king to feel the pain that many of them had already felt.

Reluctantly, the king complied with the decision of the people. His had his daughter dressed up as a bride, since she would never see her wedding day, and brought to the lake to be fed to the dragon.

However, as chance would have it, George happened upon the situation. As he was speaking to the girl, asking her why she was dressed the way that she was, the dragon emerged from the lake. George, instead of fleeing the dragon as the girl had told him to do, instead made the sign of the cross in the air and charged the dragon, seriously wounding it with his lance. After some additional dramatic details in the story, George then struck the final and fatal blow to the dragon.

So that then, is the legendary part of the story of St. George, at least the shortened account of it. It may seem incredible, but it is accepted widely enough that the image of St. George on horseback slaying a dragon is seen on many coats of arms, and the sign of his cross found on several flags of nations and cities. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill named his own personal aircraft after the name of St. George’s lance, Ascalon. I am told that there are several sculptures of Saint George battling the dragon in Stockholm, the earliest of these inside Storkyrkan (The Great Church).

And, as we see now, the image of St. George battling the dragon is also found in the town of Lalibela, Ethiopia. Not only is
the image of George on several wall hangings in some of the churches, but the cross of St. George elaborates many of the window openings. But King Lalibela did not stop there paying honor to the saint of old. The entire structure of the Church of Saint George is made in the shape of what we know to be his cross, patterned after the sign the saint made in the air before charging the dragon, while mounted on his steed and brandishing his lance Ascalon.

There are those of us who may question what we might see as the sometimes excessive veneration of past saints, but we should not be so harsh in our condemnation. After all, the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews also brings many of these saints of yester-year to our attention, calling them “A great cloud of witnesses that surround us.”

In our culture, wearing the football jersey to honor our favorite player, or a tee-shirt emblazoned with our favorite rock band seems always to be acceptable – even to church. Instead of this, why do we not honor some of these men and women of the past who teach us that true virtue is not that you can throw football, or hash out some mean chords on a guitar, but true virtue can be found in doing good, in helping people, and in staying strong in our Christian convictions in the face of great persecution?

Don’t know where to start?

Hebrews, chapter eleven.