Finding grace and peace – Colossians 1:1-8, Part 3

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What are so many people in the world looking for, deep down inside? They are looking for things to be right. They want their lives to feel right. They want to feel wholeness. But where do we find it? I would suggest Paul gives us a clue in the greeting he writes in his letter to the Colossians.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Paul begins his letter to the Colossian Christians, intent on encouraging them, in verse 2b, he continues this encouragement by greeting them with a line that is very typical for him. “Grace and Peace to you from God our Father.”  Scholars note that “grace” was similar to a typical Greek greeting, and “peace” was similar to the typical Jewish greeting, “Shalom” which in Hebrew refers to peace.

Paul is not just interested in customary greetings, though.  Notice that he adds “from God our Father.”  Paul is building the framework of his letter on a foundation of the grace and peace that only comes from God.  Paul could have said that he himself was greeting them.  Instead he points them to God as the source of grace and peace. 

Let’s pause and think about the ramifications of that for a minute.  People don’t want to be caught up in sin and pain and turmoil it brings along with it.  They want wholeness, and so they know they need grace.  Grace is a posture of unearned favor toward someone, and here Paul specifically says it is from God.  This is how we can be declared holy.  God makes healing, wholeness and holiness possible through his gracious gift of Jesus. 

People are also longing for peace.  Most of us humans do not thrive under anxiety, stress, and uncertainty.  Peace, or shalom in the Hebrew, is a rather deep concept.  It is a sweeping idea of wholeness and flourishing, being at peace with God, with each other, with ourselves, with nature, even when life and circumstances are not calm.

Think about how rich that is.  Grace and peace is available to us from God! Isn’t that so encouraging?

The rest of the section, verses 3-8 are an Introduction, where Paul will continue his encouragement. 

In verse 3, he starts saying he always thanks God for them when he prays for them.  Thanking God for them and praying for them is such a good example that we can practice.  We can do what Paul did and pray for people. 

Do you have a practice of prayer?  Do you have a list of people that you pray for?  Paul clearly did, and I would encourage you to do the same.  There are great apps for that.  But what it will require, most importantly, is the carving out of time to pray.  I don’t know if Paul is referring to some time he did this all by himself, or if he is referring to prayer in groups.  Both are vital. 

I meet with my friend Chris about once a quarter, and we have lunch, talk about life, then go to one of our cars and pray together.  Our small group prays together.  And I also try to spend time every day praying alone.  But what should we pray for people?

When Paul prays, he thanks God for his friends.  I suggest that you not only establish a prayer practice, but also that you thank God for each person on your prayer list.  This might be especially helpful and potentially life-changing if you take the sacrificial step of putting people on your prayer list who you have a difficult time with.  Start praying for them.   Thank God for them, and watch God transform your heart and mind toward them. Ask him to do just that!

But why is Paul so thankful for the Christians in Colosse? We’ll see what he has to say about that in the next post. Furthermore we’ll learn whether or not he would be thankful for us.

Calling people “holy” or “saints” – Colossians 1:1-8, Part 2

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What do you think about calling a person “holy”? To many of us, calling people “holy” sounds wrong. Only God is truly holy, not people, right?  If we happen to use the word “holy” about a person, we might be describing them as, “holier than thou,” and we’re not complimenting them.  Paul, however, uses “holy” to refer to all of the true Christians in the town of Colosse, and he is complimenting them. So what gives? Let’s talk about that, as we’ll learn something I believe is quite important for Christians to know in our day.

This week I started a series studying the New Testament letter of Colossians. In the previous post I suggest that the Apostle Paul, perhaps assisted by his associate Timothy, writes the letter, but to whom and why?  Look at verse 2a, and there we meet the recipients: “The Christians in Colosse.” Colosse is located in modern-day Turkey, and you can still visit the ruins of the city.  Of the many cities mentioned in the New Testament, very little archaeology has been done in Colosse.  A couple hundred years before Paul, Colosse had been a fairly important city, but in Paul’s day Colosse had declined somewhat. In the vicinity of 5-10 years after Paul wrote this letter, it seems the city suffered a devastating earthquake from which it never recovered. 

More importantly for Paul, there is a church in Colosse.  Not a building, but a church family.   Paul wrote this letter about 25 years after Jesus returned to heaven, so the Christian movement is still quite new, and not accepted in most of the Roman Empire.  They didn’t have official status, and thus primarily operated as a somewhat underground or informal movement of friends.  Also, Paul did not start this church.  In a future post, we’ll learn who did.  For now, we need to see Paul writing as a leader who was widely-respected in the Christian movement, and he has heard something about this church family that, as a leader, he needs to address.   

What has he heard?  There was good news and there was bad news.  Pretty typical for any church, even in our day, right?  No church is perfect.  All churches have room to improve, but we also have many wonderful things about us. 

So Paul is writing, as he always did, to address concerns that he heard about the Christians in Colosse, but he starts with encouragement.  Look at the three ways he describes the church in verse 2.  They are holy, faithful and in Christ.

A better word to describe what Paul is talking about is “saint.”  Peek down to verse 4, and you’ll see it there too.  In the original language, he uses the same word in both verses.  In our day, we use the word “saint” in a formal way, maybe to refer to the 12 Apostles of Jesus, or as in some Christian denominations, to people who achieve sainthood.  Paul is not using the word “holy” that way.  He is using it to describe all the people in the church. Is Paul describing the Colossian Christians as holy or as saints, such as when we say to someone “Well, aren’t you a saint?”, when they help us out or give generously to a cause? Maybe, but it seems there is more to what Paul intends.

“Holy ones” or “Saints” was a way of talking about all the Christians in the church, though it was not indicating that Paul thought they were perfect or holy like God is holy.  Instead God declares that we are holy, because Jesus, through his death and resurrection made it possible for us to put on his holiness.  In that sense, we are declared holy, we are saints, in Christ.  That doesn’t mean we should get big heads and walk around saying “Hear that, I am holy, I am righteous.”  No, the opposite is true.  We should be exceedingly humble and grateful that God in his mercy, grace and love, sent Jesus who willingly died for us, to make it possible for us to have his holiness.  Otherwise, we would be stuck in our sins, separated from God. 

So what should be pouring from us is a joyful gratitude that lives in a perpetual willingness to serve our Lord.  For Paul, writing in the Roman empire, this is a very subversive concept, which he talks about constantly in this letter.  It is a concept we might need to hear too.  Jesus is Lord.  Not the Roman Emperor.  Not the American President.  Not any King or Queen or Prime Minister.  Not any coach or teacher or boss.  For Christians, Jesus alone is Lord, and we give ourselves, all of ourselves, to serve him. We are in Christ. His ways are what we use to determine our steps and our decisions, and His ways are always be the best ways for us to choose.

Serving him is exactly what Paul means when he describes the Colossian Christians with the word “faithful.”  This word could also be translated “believing.”  It seems to me that both English words are needed to capture the essence of what Paul likely intends to explain about a person’s relationship with Jesus.

First, “believing” relates to the mind, the facts or propositions, the content of what one considers to be truth.  As we might say, “In my heart and mind, I believe that Jesus is God, and that he died for my sin, and rose again from the dead, and that his way is the best way to live.”  But as my denomination’s Bishop, Bruce Hill, once said, “Jesus doesn’t want believers, he wants disciples.”  What the Bishop meant was that people can say they believe in Jesus, but if their lives are unchanged, by their actions you wouldn’t know they were disciples of Jesus.  Whereas true disciples of Jesus show by the actions of their lives that they are true believers. 

What Jesus wants is believers who are faithful.  Faithfulness is a living, active pattern of following the way of Jesus.  It is the regular actions that are the life and outpouring of true belief.

Also, when Paul says that the Colossian disciples are “in Christ,” he has in mind something that goes beyond what I already mentioned, about putting on the righteous clothes of Jesus.  Paul’s concept of “in Christ” is wider than that.  He is not just referring to the individual Christian who individually puts on Christ’s righteousness, and thus is in Christ.  Paul is referring to the whole group.  We Christians are, as Paul would write in 1 Corinthians 12 part of the body of Christ, together.  We are a family, connected with all those everywhere, across the millennia who are also in Christ.  Yes, he is talking to a specific local church in the city of Colosse, but he wants them and us to remember that being “in Christ” is much more broad, to the point where some scholars refer to it as cosmic, meaning there is no place in the universe where Jesus is not Lord.  And we are a part of him.  We are in Christ. My hope and prayer, as we study Colossians, is that we get to understand Jesus better, that we have an expanding view of being “in Christ”.

Creativity can set you free – Colossians 1:1-8, Part 1

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I heard from some in my congregation, after the events of this past Wednesday January 6, 2021, the breaching of the US Capitol building by Trump-supporting extremists, that they were really struggling.  What is going on in our country?  How do we Christians respond?  We can feel trapped in our uncertainty about how to respond. What will set us free?

With this post, I start a blog series through the New Testament book of Colossians, and right out of the gate, the message that we will hear is so helpful, I believe, to how we can be set free from the feelings of being trapped by the trauma in today’s world.

Scan through Colossians, and you’ll notice it is fairly short.  I said it was a book, but it is actually a letter. Look at verse 1 where the writer introduces himself: Paul.  Remember the blog series through the New Testament book of Acts last year?  We spent a lot of time getting to know Paul in the book of Acts.  Paul, also called Saul, was a Jew who was a member of the Pharisees, that group of religious leaders who constantly confronted Jesus and the earliest Christians.  Acts describes Paul as a kind of a super-Pharisee, traveling around Palestine rounding up Christians and throwing them in jail.  But one day, Jesus broke into Paul’s life in a miraculous vision that stopped Paul in his tracks.  Jesus changed Paul’s life 180 degrees.  All the passion and vigor, with which he had previously persecuted Christians, he now marshaled into an energetic life of proclaiming that Jesus was alive, truly risen from the dead as the Christians taught. 

This is why Paul describes himself in verse 1 as, “An apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.”  Jesus did it. Jesus intervened and changed Paul’s life.  Now Paul is Jesus’ apostle, which means he is a special messenger for Jesus himself.  An apostle is one who goes into new areas to tell the story of Jesus’ good news, an entrepreneur for the Kingdom of God.  That was Paul to a T.  As we saw in Acts, he traveled, like a missionary, all over the Roman Empire, seeking to tell people about Jesus and start churches

Note that Paul is not alone, and possibly not writing all by himself.  Timothy is also there with him.  We met Timothy a few years ago when I preached through 1st Timothy.  Here Paul calls him “brother,” but in other places he calls Timothy “son.”  Why? Because Paul was instrumental in bringing Timothy to Jesus, and Paul discipled him.  Paul, in other words, taught Timothy how to follow Jesus.  Timothy would go on to become leader of the church in the city of Ephesus.  Who is your Timothy?  Who is your Paul?  Christians should have both in our lives. 

Even though the letter-writer self-identifies as Paul, there is much scholarly discussion, as there is about every book of the Bible, as to who actually wrote the letter to the Colossians.  I’d be glad to talk further with anyone who would like to get into the nitty-gritty of the debate, but my conclusion is that it is highly likely that Paul, perhaps with some assistance from Timothy, wrote this letter.  Along with the letters to the Ephesians, Philippians and Philemon, Colossians is one in a group of Paul’s letters called The Prison Epistles, written in the late 50s first century, when Paul was in prison. 

Pause on that detail for a minute.  Paul is writing from prison.  He is the apostle of Jesus, but now he is under lock and key, incarcerated by the Romans for proclaiming Jesus.  Has the mission of the apostle been shut down by the Roman Empire which imprisoned him?  Can the empire halt the advancement of the Kingdom?  No! The empire cannot stop the Kingdom of God.  And yet it appears to be doing just that, with Paul in chains.  So what does Paul do?  What will set him free?

Perhaps the most enduring facet of Paul’s ministry was his use of communication technology.  He traveled by boat, and he wrote letters, two important technologies in the ancient world.  He saw technology as a means for advancing the kingdom.  Stuck in prison?  Paul doesn’t despair.  He writes letters.  Not only were those letters impactful in his day, they remain so because here we are reading them, studying them, and learning from them!  Paul’s example can be very instructive for us. Are there any situations in our world that seem to hold back the Kingdom of God?  Are there ways we can think outside the box, creatively, and experimentally to continue to advance the Kingdom? Creativity can set you free.

A caution for Christians, in light of the breaching of the US Capitol Building, January 6, 2021

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In light of the unsettling events in our nation’s capital this past week, it is important that we take a few minutes to reflect on the news theologically and biblically. 

We saw images and actions, especially at the US Capitol building, which were difficult and disturbing, not just as Americans, but also as Christians.  I’d like us to consider how those two identities sometimes become convoluted for Christians.  In DC we saw rioters holding crosses, the Christian flag, or flags saying “Jesus saves,” right alongside a hanging noose and rioters carrying the Confederate flag.  Here me clearly: those rioters displayed symbols and the actions that are not in line with the heart of Jesus. In fact they misrepresent who he is and who he wants us to be.  

We should be upset that someone was carrying the Christian flag in that way as they entered the Senate chamber!  As a pastor I care seriously that what we as the church display to the world affects people’s ability to see and know the real living and loving God.  That these actions and symbols were linked in any way to Jesus was simply put, wrong.   

I’ve seen in American Christianity that we can become confused about where our loyalty resides.  The Kingdom of God is not about earthly politics.  It is right to want to have laws and policies that look like things that Jesus cared about.  It is right to want to have leaders with character traits that look like Jesus. But we can’t be so aligned with earthly political parties and people that we forget to have our hearts set on the Kingdom of God and His heart.  We cannot get so tangled up in our minds that a “Jesus Saves” flag next to a Confederate flag does not bother us.

Remember Jesus’ disciples.  They believed the Messiah was going to be a political leader who would save them from earthly difficulties.  But that was not who he was, and it’s not what Jesus teaches us to be about. 

Think about what things upset Jesus? When did we see Jesus get really bothered?  When those who claimed to love him were not loving their neighbor as themselves. When those who, despite knowing all the laws and the rules, were not being sacrificial in caring for those in need.  We should likewise be outraged and upset by things that we saw taking place at the Capitol building this past Wednesday: Confederate flags, nooses, symbols of racism and hate, side-by-side with rioters holding flags that said “Jesus saves.” That is not our Jesus. 

We need for our hearts, minds and actions to be in line with the way of Jesus: sacrificial love and care for our neighbors, and especially for those on the margins, those who suffer and struggle.  Our hope and our principles should be based on the Kingdom of God and not on any earthly kingdom or government.  The King of Kings’ mandate is never to put country first, but to put Christ and the ways of the Kingdom first.  Jesus doesn’t align with any one political party or any one country. His heart beats equally for every tribe, every nation, every people and he was and is sacrificial in his love for all.  He is truth, and he is our model. 

In that light, I’d like to end with a few words from my denomination’s Bishop, Bruce Hill: “I weep for our nation.  To followers of Jesus I say, If our culture doesn’t see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control in us: if they don’t see the goodness of God, the qualities of God in our daily lives, speech, conduct and instead see a political party or a cause, we have missed the point of the Kingdom.  I pray for our nation.  I pray for the church.”  

One Sentence That Changed My Life – Ecclesiastes 12:9-14, Part 5

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During spring break of my freshman year in college, I traveled to Guyana, South America, and my eyes were opened. I met Guyanese Christians for whom it could be said their whole lives were rotten from birth, at least compared to American standards, and yet they were praising God with joyful hearts like nothing I had seen before.  How could this be? 

This post is the second part of my story. If you haven’t read part one, you can do so here. In that first part I explained how during my freshman year of college, I felt so empty inside. Through a series of events, I started reading the book of Ecclesiastes. If all that the author of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher, pursued was fleeting, what then was meaningful? 

When I came to Ecclesiastes chapter 12 verse 13, the Teacher’s words hit me like a thunderclap: “Fear God and obey his commands, for this is the whole duty of man.”  That was what I was looking for!  That was the truth.  I was reading from the same Bible I still preach from every week, and I decided to draw a line in the sand.  It was May 17, 1993, and I signed my name to the page, with a note saying this is my pledge.  There was no turning back.

I had no idea what God had in store.  All I knew at that point was that I wanted to serve him, come what may, and I needed to stay put and learn more about the Bible and ministry.  I’m not saying that you need to read those verses as if the Teacher is saying that you need to become a pastor or missionary.  Not at all.  You might, of course, but what I do hope you have is similar thunderclap from God like I did.  The Teacher meant this for everyone. 

It is one sentence that should guide our lives.  Fear God and obey him, for this is our duty.  Has that simple straightforward sentence become diluted in your life?  Invite someone in to your life to do a thorough evaluation to tell you if your life is one of fearing God, to determine if you are in awe of who he is and all that he stands for, and if you are obeying him.  Do not assume that you are already doing that.  We can so easily let ourselves off the hook, especially when we look around in our church family, or Christian neighbors, or Christian friends and family and the kind of discipleship that they practice looks pretty much like our own. 

When I saw the Christians in Guyana (which I wrote about here), they were a shepherd’s goad to me. A shepherd’s goad? The Teacher, earlier in his final section, said that wisdom is like a shepherd’s goad, a tool meant to corral, guide or direct. You can read what I about that here.  Prior to that spring break trip in Guyana, my understanding of being a disciple of Jesus was very selfish.  Those Guyanese Christians opened my eyes with how they lived their lives.  Other students on campus, especially the older ones, the ones who really loved Jesus, were also a shepherd’s goad to me.  That mission conference speaker was too.  And finally, the word of God through The Teacher in Ecclesiastes.  How about you? Do you need that kind of push?

The Teacher has one final warning for us.  As I mentioned in an earlier post in this series, this is truth that might hurt, but he means it as a corrective.  The Teacher gives us his warning in verse 14: God sees everything we do.  We can’t hide from him.  God knows all that happens.  This might be seen as the Teacher using a scare tactic, but not if we remember that God is love.   He is a loving judge.  The Teacher is not saying that God is salivating up there in heaven, just waiting hungrily to judge us and punish us.  No…not at all.  God is love.

God takes sin seriously, and he wants us to rid our lives of sin, but he does so with a heart of love, because he cares deeply for us, and wants the best for us.  This gives us good reason, then, knowing that God is watching, to pursue a life of honoring him and obeying him.  We love him, because he first loved us. 

Revival happens when the bottom rots out – Ecclesiastes 12:9-14, Part 4

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I grew up in a Christian home, and I am so grateful for the way my parents raised me and my siblings.  Throughout high school and in my first year of college, though, I really had allowed myself to become selfish.  I was terribly unkind to my brother for years, I was selfish in dating relationships with girls, and my goals in life, even as a freshman at a Bible college, were fairly vague.  I was only at Bible college because I had taken no initiative to seek out other options, and since my dad was a professor there, I knew I could take courses tuition-free.  It was kind of a no brainer.  Still, I thought, I would play soccer, date girls, get some gen-ed classes out of the way for free, and then in the next year or so, join my high school friends at their schools, places like Temple or Penn State.  And that’s the way things were headed for about three months. 

I played soccer, and the team was one of my college’s best ever, placing 5th in the Christian college national tournament in Florida.  I dated a girl, but it was a very selfish relationship.  I felt so empty inside.  At the start of the spring semester, LBC had a week-long mission conference.  The speaker was a guy named Sammy Tippit, and he shared the message of truth in a very compelling way.  None of the hellfire and brimstone preaching I mentioned in the previous post.  Instead, he said a phrase that stuck with me.  He used an image that was a lot like that surgeon with a scalpel in my soul (as I mentioned in second post in this five-part series).  He said we commonly think that revival is when life is so good, because the Spirit is being poured out like a cup overflowing with blessings.  Instead, he said, revival often happens when things are so bad, the bottom rots out.  I sat there thinking, “I feel inwardly like the rotten one, like life is falling apart.”  My dating relationship was on the rocks, and would be over in a matter of weeks.  The mission conference finished, and I started spring semester classes still at a low point.  Because of my desire to take gen-eds, I took a junior level history class, and in that first month I was doing terribly.  I failed an exam, and the prof made the bold decision to speak truth to me; again like a surgeon it hurt.  In front of the whole class, he said, “Kime, I know you can do better than this.”  With a familiar last name on campus, remember my dad was a prof and the campus was small, I felt super embarrassed.  But it was a needed incision of truth. 

During that first month of semester my dating relationship crashed and burned, and a few weeks later I went on a spring break mission trip to Guyana, South America, which was at the time the 2nd poorest country in the western hemisphere.  My heart was ripe to begin to learn new truths of who our God is.

I finished out the semester, with a new determination.  Even though I had those thoughts about taking only free-tuition gen-eds at Bible college, and then joining my friends at other colleges, I still had taken some Bible classes, and I was very impressed with the professors.  Truth was getting into my life.  The Bible college had chapel every weekday.  Perhaps most impactful of all were the other students on campus.  There were many Christian students who were really funny and inspiring and clearly they loved the Lord and wanted to serve him.  Put together all this truth was seeping its way in my life. 

Finally, I decided I needed to read the Bible for myself.  I had definitely done this before growing up here and there, but this time was different.  I was older now.  Neither my parents or youth pastor was doing this for me, or requiring me to do it for a mission trip.  I was choosing to read the Bible because I was genuinely interested in learning for myself. 

You know where I started reading?  Ecclesiastes.  As I read, the words of the Teacher leapt off the page.  It was like he was describing the last few years of my life.  Similar to the Teacher, I had been seeking meaning in life through dating, sports, the enjoyment of life in America.  Clothing.  Food.  Entertainment.  All of it was fun, to a degree, but also ultimately fleeting, as the teacher repeats over and over.  My life felt like the bottom was rotting out.  Then there were those Guyanese Christians for whom it could be said their whole lives were rotten from birth, at least compared to American standards, and yet they were praising God with joyful hearts like nothing I had seen before.  How could this be?  If all that the Teacher pursued was fleeting, what then was meaningful?

In the next post, I’ll tell the rest of the story.

What “the fear of God” means – Ecclesiastes 12:9-14, Part 3

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After graduating college, I worked at our County’s youth detention center for three years as Michelle and I started our family and began the process of becoming missionaries in Jamaica. Then called Barnes Hall, and located in a building that has since been torn down, I was employed as a youth care worker.  My role was a mixture of a parent, teacher, counselor, recreation leader, mentor, and guard, for children who were accused or convicted of crimes, and for whom the juvenile justice system deemed their family system insufficiently stable to make sure their kids would keep court appointments.  Thus at any given time, we’d have between 15-30 kids staying in Barnes Hall, and we cared for the kids until such time as they received a “not guilty” verdict and could go home, or they were found “guilty” and transferred to a rehabilitation facility or program.  The same thing continues to this day in our County’s Youth Intervention Center.  In my days at Barnes Hall, I learned something about fear…and wisdom.

In the previous post in this five-part series on Ecclesiastes 12:9-14, we learned that we show we are wise by seeking wisdom, even when it might hurt.  That begs the question: What is this wisdom? Now the Teacher (the author of Ecclesiastes) arrives at what he calls the conclusion of the matter.  Here is how my Old Testament seminary professor David Dorsey translates the final two verses of the book:

“13 But after considering everything, the conclusion is this: Obey God and do what he wants you to do.  This applies to every human being.  14 For God will judge everything that human beings have done, including every secret thing, whether good or bad.”

In verse 13, Dorsey decides not to use a word that all the major English translations use.  Fear.  In verse 13, Dorsey translated that word “obey God,” but it is the standard word in Hebrew for fear, meaning “when you are afraid of or scared.”  It is used that way in many places in the Old Testament.  But the same word is used figuratively for the concept of respect, awe, and reverence.  It is sometimes translated “awesome.” God is truly awesome, meaning that he is worthy of our awe, of our respect, our reverence.  In that sense, God is to be feared; he is fearsome.

As I think about this word, I get it that it can be confusing, and thus why Dorsey went a different direction.  The concept that we should fear God just doesn’t sound right.  When we read “fear God,” it is too easy to think that we should be afraid of or scared of God, which is antithetical to the idea of a loving God.  In fact, one of our Christian communication mistakes over the centuries has been the overemphasis of the judgment of God, making him out to be an ogre in the sky who just can’t wait to lay a smack down on humans who step out of line with his will. 

I remember years ago in a meeting with some people in our church family when one of the persons felt that I was not presenting God as I should be, and they raised their voice, slamming the table with the palm of their hand for emphasis, saying, “People need to know about sin!”  Repeating it a few times, punctuated each time with the slap of their hand on the table: “People need to know about their sin!  You need to preach about sin!”  The tension in the room was crackling.  Talk about being confronted.  By the way, I did not sense that the person confronting me was speaking the truth in love.  It felt instead that they were like the enemy wildly swinging a knife, trying to injure me, as I described in the previous post.

And yet, what should I say in response to them?  I disagreed with their methodology, which seemed like a use of worldly intimidation, anger and manipulation.  Theologically and biblically, though, I mostly agreed with the content of the person’s message.  Sin is the massive problem in the world, and people need to know about it.  There is a time, place and way to talk about sin, though it must be in line with the example of Jesus.  He talked about sin, as did his apostles.  So the person was right, but they were also wrong.  They were wrong not just in their method of raising their voice and slamming their hand on the table.  What I heard from that person was a throwback to hellfire and brimstone preaching days, when the method was to scare people to their core.  Causing them to have similar feelings to those you might get when you’re watching a horror film, or when you’re alone in the dark, and you’re freaked out.  As I think about it, the person seemed to be trying to scare me into scaring other people about sin.

It’s convoluted, isn’t it? To use the hellfire and brimstone method to scare people into trusting in God? Is that how Jesus related to people as he walked on this earth?  With fire and brimstone?  Or with life done so differently and love done so beautifully that people were attracted to him and curious about him. He loved so sacrificially and so boldly, that he was all the talk. So scaring people into loving God sounds pretty backwards if you ask me, and totally counter to what I see in the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus.  It’s a Christian misuse of the “scared straight” mentality. 

Back in my day as a youth care worker at Barnes Hall, the County’s juvenile probation office would gather groups of kids on the bubble and bring them for tours of Barnes Hall.  Perhaps these kids had been convicted of a crime, but it was not a severe enough crime, or maybe it was a first offense, so things weren’t to the point of incarceration or sentencing to a rehab facility.  But they were close.  The point of the tour was to scare them straight.  The probation office wanted them to think Barnes Hall as a terrible place they did not ever want to go.  To accomplish that, at some point on the tour, we would lock each kid in one of the rooms (we didn’t call them cells, but they were basically prison cells) all by themselves for a couple minutes.  On those tours, we, the youth care workers, would also speak loudly, harsh, and act tough, way tougher than we actually were in our normal interaction with residents.  Why?  We wanted to put the fear of God in those kids. 

Wait a minute.  I just said, “fear of God.”  And I used the phrase “fear of God” in a way that is actually somewhat common in our society.  The Scared Straight program wanted kids to be afraid, which is a normal understanding of the “fear of God.”  At Barnes Hall, the juvenile probation office was hoping those kids would be so scared of being locked up in Barnes Hall that they would start a new pattern of making better choices in their lives.  But I have to ask: does fear, does scaring people, make them choose goodness?  Is that what The Teacher is talking about here in verse 13?  Is that the ancient wisdom that the Teacher has boiled his whole book down to?  Make people afraid of punishment?  Focus on their sin and how much God is going to judge them and throw them in hell?  Is that kind of horror going to drive them to believe in God?  Is the Teaching saying that the best wisdom he has found in all his study of life is that humans need to be scared straight? 

I hope the answer is obvious.  No, that’s not what the Teacher suggests.  But there might be some who think, “But didn’t that work in the past?  Wasn’t that how the great revival preachers like Billy Graham got so many people to accept Jesus as their savior?  Scaring them with the consequences of sin?  And furthermore, can’t we talk about sin in such a way that emphasizes the love of God who gave his son to die for us to forgive our sin?” 

Yes, that hellfire and brimstone preaching did work in the past, in a way of speaking.  In fact, it was how I first got saved.  I was a little kid listening to the pastor of my church preach about hell, and it freaked me out.  I have always had a bit of an overactive imagination and for a long time struggled with just about any movie or TV show that was scary or intense.  If someone left the lights on in the downstairs family room in my house growing up, sometimes my parents asked me to go turn it off and then come back up for bed.  I would walk to the edge of the top step, stare down into the room below lit by a single light and think, I hate this.  What if there is a robber down there?  I would take a few deep breaths, and launch with speed down the steps, hit the light switch off, bolt back up the steps, taking two or three at a time, trying to get back to the top as fast as possible, slamming the door behind me, as I breathed heavy breaths in and out.  Whew…I survived!

So years earlier as a little child, when I heard my pastor’s sermon about hell and sin, I wanted no part of that.  None.  I don’t remember much about that night, other than the comforting words my mom shared with me later that evening in bed, that I didn’t have to be scared because Jesus died and rose again, and if I trust in him, I won’t go to hell.  You bet I trusted in him right then and there. 

To that you might say, “See, Joel, that kind of preaching worked.”  We could argue, also, that scare tactic preaching has brought thousands to Christ through the years.  But I would respond that hellfire and brimstone preaching requires major residual work to actually begin to learn about the real character of God, to come to terms with and begin to believe in the love that God has for ourselves others.  To look to God and understand him as so much different than the portrayal that was given to me as an angry God to be afraid of, not a loving God to be in awe of.

But that kind of scare tactic preaching is not what the Teacher is talking about here in Ecclesiastes 12, when he writes “Fear God.”  Furthermore, we need to see preaching as more than just content.  Any time we share the message of Jesus it is not only an act of evangelism, it is also an act of discipleship, such that we are forming people as followers of God when we communicate with them.  We are shaping their belief system.  Our words are quite important. 

Simply put, fear and horror is not what Jesus wants to use to shape people.  It is not the way that Jesus demonstrated the life of God’s Kingdom.  He wants people to be shaped like him, or as I wrote in a recent post, God wants us to walk in step with his Spirit who lives within us, so that the fruit of the Spirit flow out of our lives.  Consider the Fruit of the Spirit as described by Paul in Galatians 5: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Gentleness, Kindness and Self-control.  Those are the God-shaped qualities that the Holy Spirit wants to fill us with.  Not judgement, horror, pain, punishment, anger, being scared or afraid.

So whatever the fear of the God is, it looks like the Fruit of the Spirit. Paul would further write that perfect love casts out fear.  This is also why we speak the truth in love. 

The result of a proper understanding of fear of God, then, is that we revere, we respect him so much that we want to be like him, which means obeying him.  This, the Teacher tells us, is the whole duty of humanity. That one phrase was highly transformative for me, and I’ll explain how in the next post.

Wisdom that cuts us open – Ecclesiastes 12:9-14, Part 2

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When I was 17, as part of my punishment for a horribly tragic car accident, in which I was at fault, I did 150 hours of community service in a local hospital’s emergency room. There I saw some nasty wounds. The most difficult was an elderly woman who got a nasty gash on her forehead in a traffic accident. She was only semi-conscious as the ER surgeon was working to suture the wound, so she repeatedly attempted to reach up and touch the wound. The surgeon asked me to physically hold her arms down while he cleaned and dressed the cut, finally stitching it up. As you can imagine I had a very close-up view to an vivid process, and I often had to look away. While it clearly badly hurt the woman, especially, what the surgeon was doing was meant to heal. Wisdom and truth can be like that.

Truth is not always going to be easy to receive, warm, welcome, and comforting.  In fact, as the saying goes, the truth hurts.  Not always.  But sometimes the truth really does hurt.  And that’s exactly what the Teacher says next in our continuing study of Ecclesiastes 12:9-14. 

Here is how my seminary Old Testament prof David Dorsey translates verses 11-12:

“11 The teachings of the wise are like goads, and their collected sayings are like sharp protrusions embedded in the goads.  These goads are wielded by the divine Shepherd.  12 Beware, my son, of anything other than what wise people teach.   There is no end to what has been written; and there is no end to what can be studied and learned.”

Ouch.  I am not a fan of these two verses.  The message in the verses are themselves good examples of what they are trying to say.  The saying, “the truth hurts” is a saying that might hurt some of us.  Why?  Because we don’t like to be hurt.  How many of us welcome correction, saying, “Bring on the confrontation, tell me how I am wrong, because I love to be confronted and I want to learn how I have screwed up!”???  And yet we know that it is good for us.  Just like the Teacher illustrates from the world of shepherding.  A shepherd’s goad is the ancient equivalent of a taser.  It is a tool that is designed to corral or direct.  To move people in a certain direction, and by force.  Not by enticement, but by pain.

I am not a fan of that.  I can’t stand it when the truth hurts, and therefore I hate conveying anything which I think will hurt someone else.  I would much rather encourage them and speak supportively.  I hate it when I have to confront.  So with these verses, the Teacher is confronting me about my distaste of confrontation.  He is saying that wisdom confronts.  There is a necessary and good aspect to wisdom, that if communicated rightly, it might hurt, but we should desire it.  Because that is part of love.

The Teacher is not saying that we should desire to be hurt by wisdom that is meant to maim or kill or destroy.  No.  The wisdom he is referring to is a more like the scalpel of a well-trained surgeon, who is making an incision to heal.  On the one hand, any incision is painful and will do damage to the body, causing it bleed.  But on the other hand, notice how a surgeon’s incision is different from an enemy’s incision.  The enemy lunges his knife wildly, repeatedly, caring only to damage past the point of no return.  The surgeon’s scalpel is wielded slowly, carefully, with pinpoint precision, making a wound that can heal, and furthermore the purpose of the surgeon’s incision is to remove a tumor, or fix a broken bone.  The enemy wounds leading to death, and the surgeon wounds enhancing life. 

Wisdom is like the surgeon, wounding us, to bring us life.  This is right in line with the words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:15, when he says, “Speak the truth in love.”  That truth, like the shepherd’s goad, will often hurt, but it pushes us toward life.  Imagine a shepherd watching his sheep getting closer and closer to a steep cliff, and, concerned that they will fall over the edge and die, he runs around to the edge of the cliff, pulls out his goad, and starts using it, even to the point of hitting some of the sheep with the pointy parts of the goad.  That might sound mean or unkind, but what is worse…a temporary pain from the goad, or the finality of sheep falling over the cliff to their death? 

We should seek wisdom, in other words, even wisdom that hurts.  This requires us to take the posture of learners, teachable and humble.  We must start at a place where our hearts and minds admit that we do not have life figured out, and we need confrontation, we need accountability, we need people in our lives who speak the truth in love to us.  We show we are wise by seeking wisdom, even when it might hurt.  That begs the question: What is this wisdom? Check back to the next post, as we’ll learn how the Teacher answers that question.

Healthy communication – Ecclesiastes 12:9-14, Part 1

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I’ve had to read some dense philosophy and theology books over the years for courses I was taking. For a doctoral course this past spring, I read one so intricate, there were numerous times I wondered if it was a farce, a parody of a book. In fact, the author frequently made statements that, in an attempt to write original academic work, seemed obviously contradictory, such as a concept which he called “the closed openness,” or another which he called, “the nearness of distance.” He was dead serious. There were so many of these seeming contradictions that I decided to make a class discussion post admitting that I was suspicious. What I came to find out was that hardly anyone else in the class read that book. You see, we had the option of picking between reading that book or another one. Only after getting deep into that book did I learn from my classmates that most of them had picked the other book because the other book was way shorter and easier to read! Clearly I picked wrong.

I mention that difficult book, because we’ve come to the end of Ecclesiastes, and I wonder if we have understood the wisdom of the Teacher.  As the Teacher, the author of Ecclesiastes, writes in Ecclesiastes 12:13, “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter.”  He has covered a lot of ground through these 12 chapters.  I know that sometimes the Teacher has come across a bit dark, with his favorite word, “Fleeting.”  How many times have we heard him say that life is short, fleeting?  But he’s had a good reason for reminding us that life is short.  His ancient wisdom is just as powerful today as it was 3,000 years ago when he wrote: live joyfully now.  Over and over we’ve learned the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, that we should seek to live lives of joy and meaning.  But now we’ve arrived at his conclusion.  What will he say?  What is his conclusion of the matter?  Whatever he has to say in this conclusion, it is almost as if he saying, “Listen up, everyone, I want you to remember what I’m about to say at the end.  This is important!”

Look at Ecclesiastes 12, verses 9-10.  The final section of the book starts there.  In these two verses we learn the heart of the teacher, and the purpose for Ecclesiastes. Here it is in the translation of Ecclesiastes by my Old Testament seminary professor, David Dorsey:

“9 Not only was the Teacher wise; he also taught people what he knew.  He pondered things, researched and wrote much on the subject of wisdom.  10 The Teacher sought to explain things accurately, and to write honestly and truthfully.”

Notice that the Teacher did not want to keep wisdom for himself.  He wanted his wisdom to benefit others.  So he went deep, researching, thinking, pondering, writing, and teaching. 

The Teacher also did not want to be confusing, but to explain wisdom in such a way that people could understand it, apply it to their lives, and benefit from wisdom. We may think we have truth, but if we cannot communicate it so other people can understand it, then we have failed.  Truth will always be truth, but we are responsible to communicate it in such a way that people can grasp it.  Remember that section of Ecclesiastes where we talked about the need to be “receivable”? The Teacher recognizes this, and his writing in Ecclesiastes is a powerful example for us.  The Teacher has made it possible for us to access his wisdom.  Likewise, you and I are bearers of the truth that God loves all as we walk into 2021.  We need to remember that we carry this message of truth.  How are we doing in conveying the message of truth?  Are we making God’s truth accessible for people to receive?

I’m not just talking about content, but also about the methods we use.  Communication studies tell us that the content of a message, the actual words we use, conveys only a small percentage of the actual message communicated.  Other factors play a much more important role, such as tone of voice and body language.  If our fists are clenched and our posture is tense and we are yelling angrily, “I love you!!!”, the person we are talking will likely get the message, not that they are loved by us, but that we are feeling very negative about them.  The non-verbal parts of our communication are far more powerful than the words.  Thus our actions really do speak louder than words. 

When we have such an important message of truth to convey, as we Christians do, then our tone of voice, our body language and the actions of our lives communicate that message far more loudly and far more clearly than our words.  Consider a business owner who identifies as Christian, so that all the employees and patrons of the business know the owner is Christian.  But the owner yells angrily at the employees, creating a chaotic atmosphere.  Employee turnover is high.  The owner is very difficult to work for and work with.  What truth about Christ and Christianity is that owner conveying? 

Or think about it from the other direction. My wife, Michelle, waitresses at a local coffee shop, and she says that the talk among the employees is that the Sunday after-church crowd is some of the most difficult to serve.  They tend to be more particular, and they tend to tip less generously.  Think about the truth that conveys to the non-Christian employees of that business?

That is not to say that the truth is always going to be easy to receive, warm, welcome, and comforting.  In fact, as the saying goes, the truth hurts.  Not always.  But sometimes the truth really does hurt, which is exactly what the Teacher says next, as we will see in the next post!

Keeping up with God – Ecclesiastes 11:1-12:8, Part 5

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We recently had a snowstorm that blanketed our area with 8 inches of snow. Nothing massive, but given that we only got 5 inches total the entire previous winter, 8 inches felt like a lot. About 20 minutes away at my son and daughter-in-law’s house, the storm dropped 12 inches. As you traveled further north into Pennsylvania, the totals increased. Some of my friends from church have cabins in the mountains, and they saw 3 feet of snow. Now that is a huge storm!

Even in 8 inches, though, unless you’re wearing good boots, if you have to walk in the snow, you probably don’t want to trod a new path. Instead, you try to find footprints others have made, and you follow their path, so as not to get snow in your socks and on your clothing! You try to match their steps, by walking in their footprints. Sometimes, though, their steps are too short, making it feel awkward to half-step your way along. Or their steps are too long, and you have to try to jump from one to the next, invariably missing and landing in the snow, as it shoves its icy way into your socks.

As we conclude this week studying Ecclesiastes 11:1-12:8, in which the Teacher, the author of Ecclesiastes, writes that we should honor God, there are so many passages we could look to if we want further description about what it means to honor God.  I’d like us to look one that I find quite helpful: Galatians 5:16-26, as it talks about following God’s steps, about keeping up with him. Take a moment to read through this passage multiple times.

“16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17 For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

“19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

“22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”

How about starting 2021 thinking deeply about this passage.  I urge you to read it every day for a week.  Notice the focus on the Spirit.  As we honor God, we first remember that God lives in us.  The Holy Spirit lives in us.  That means the act of honoring God, as Paul describes it, involves us keeping in step with the Spirit.  Match his steps.  Learn his cadence, his march, and follow him.  No, we’ll never be exactly what he is, but that’s that not the goal.  The goal of honoring him is to strive for looking more and more like him.  

So think about what it will look like for you to answer these questions: Who is this God we are to honor?  What does he desire?  What does his heart long for?  Get to know him!  Have your heart, your thoughts, your actions match his.  Who can you talk to about this?  What do you want to start connecting with about this?

Is there something in this passage that God is saying, “That action is a part of your life, and it doesn’t look like me?”  Look at verses 16-21 and 26.  Honoring God means striving to remove these negative actions from your life.

But that is not all.  Honoring God is also about what we add to our lives, or what should be visible in our lives.  Look at verses 22-25, a list that Paul calls the Fruit of the Spirit.  Review the list slowly, one by one thinking about how much each of the Fruit of the Spirit is a part of your life. If you have to admit that one or more of the Fruits is missing or barely visible in your life, perhaps God is saying, “There’s a action that is not a part of your life, and to look more like me, I want you to work practice that.” 

How can you practice that in 2021?  Talk it over with a close friend, spouse, a group.  Honoring God was never meant to be a solo effort.  It probably won’t be easy; nothing good and worthwhile ever really is.  Starting new habits and new ways of thinking are not going to be easy in any area of life, but the joy, the rewards, the hope, the abundant life that comes with making changes that are more and more in line with honoring God are worth the work.  Furthermore, as you pursue more of the Fruit of the Spirit, you will be enhancing your relationship with our God!  You will more and more in step with Holy Spirit, the gift he lovingly left for us when he ascended to heaven. What a beautiful gift.  What a worthy thing to long for and to sacrifice for so you can grow closer to God as you become more like him.