Archive for September, 2012

“The basic fear is that there is only one book to be written, one contract to be signed, one song to be composed, one project to land, and we’re all vying for it.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.”

via Blaine Hogan | Giving Away My Book For Free | Giving Away My Book For Free.

In the beginning was the Word…

Posted: September 14, 2012 in Sunday school
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(On Mondays I will be presenting an abbreviated version of the Sunday school lessons I teach at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, verse-by-verse, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wants us to…as the holy Son of God, the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament, the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption.  Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved.  Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.)

Prologue (1:1-18) – The Apostle John sets the stage and scope for the story he is about to tell; and in the process crafts one of the most elegant theological statements ever written.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

(v. 1-5) – Unlike the other Gospel writers, John takes us back to The Beginning, in his carefully worded retelling of the Creation Story. John first introduces us to logos, the Word, and identifies Him as co-existing and co-eternal with God, and in fact the Word is God…all that God is, the Word is. He then tells us that the Word was present at the creation, not a part of it, and that He was the active agent for creation, it all passed through Him. This tells us that all that God does, the Word does. John next explains that what the Word does is bring life and light into the darkness. For John, “darkness” is a metaphor for the fallen human condition, lost to sin and death, forever separated from the glory of God.  So absolute is this separation, that we in darkness have become hostile to the light, afraid that it will show us exactly how desperate our situation really is. The light of God’s love is beyond our unsaved comprehension, and so we fear and hate it instinctively.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 

(v. 6-9) – To overcome this fear, God uses men who are receptive to Him, to reach out and spread the message of hope, the coming Messiah, who will bring the light back into the world. John the Baptist is one such man, dedicated to serving God and calling out for repentance in preparation for the One to come. He knew he was not the Savior, he was only a witness that He was coming soon. But it is significant that for there to be a witness, something really had to happen, something for him to witness about…that something is Jesus.

 He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him. He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him. Yet to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

(v.10-13) – This passage summarizes the heart of the Gospel message – the Word has come into the world, to His chosen people, but they have rejected Him because they did not recognize Him. This is the key, because all who do recognize Him, receive the blessings promised to His people: membership in God’s family, with all the rights concurrent to that. John also affirms that we are not saved by who we are, or what we do or even what we think, but by the saving grace of faith in the Word of God.

The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John testified concerning Him. He cried out, saying, “This is the One I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because He was before me.’”) Out of His fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is Himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made Him known.

(v.14-18) – John now makes an even bolder statement: having identified the Word as God, he now tells us that God has come to the earth, living among us in the flesh, and we know who He is! We have seen Him with our own eyes, and His name is Jesus Christ. The apostle then cites The Baptist again, who, after seeing and baptizing Jesus, regularly and loudly pointed Him out to others with these words, fulfilling his mission of making Jesus known. John then makes the same distinction between the Old and New Covenants that Jesus Himself does: the Law (OT) shows us what is required to be holy before God, and convicts us of our failure, and our need for a Savior; while Jesus (NT) brings the necessary grace to forgive our sin, and the truth we need to know to be able to remain faithful to God. Jesus reveals God to a world that has forgotten what He looks like, and when we truly see Him, we truly see God.

Next week we will continue in Chapter One, verses 19-28, with more detailed testimony from John the Baptist about his identity, and that of Jesus.

Welcome to the Friday Forum: a place to have some friendly discussion about issues that arise when Christianity and secular life “rub against” each other. There is no right or wrong here, just different ways to deal with things that come up. Each week I will post a topic, and my thoughts on it, and we will see where the comments take us!

Elections in this country seem to be the only time that people want to discuss some of the basic assumptions that we operate on a a nation, and this election cycle is no different. The United States is involved in wars, police actions, military interventions…whatever name you want to call them…all over the world, and the politicians are making as much hay from this fact as they can, with both sides claiming to “support the troops” but also trumpeting the need to “protect America’s interests” at home and abroad.

I am no peacenik radical who feels that all things martial are by definition evil; at the same time, I have a real problem with the idea that the best way to serve and protect a nation necessarily involves asking my government to give me a gun and send me to a foreign land with permission to kill people we choose to call “the enemy”. That just doesn’t sound like what Jesus had in mind when He addresses His audience in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:43-44 –

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

So here is the forum topic for this week:  Should Christians volunteer for military service? Post your comments below, I will reply throughout the week, and next Friday we will discuss a different topic.

Following hard after Him,

Nicky

I had promised to interview my wife , to let her express her own thoughts of living with cancer, but that will have to wait. Yesterday she woke up feeling all-over sore and achy, and found she was running a low fever. A quick phone call, followed by a quick trip to the hospital (glad its only 20 minutes away!) and some blood work, and we had a scrip for antibiotics and orders for bedrest and fluids. At least (so far) she is not being admitted…but if the fever doesn’t break today, she will be. That’s why I’m home from work today, just in case. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that, and she won’t have to delay the next chemo treatment, scheduled for Monday.

A few words about my employer…I have to praise the Lord for bringing me to this company. I have been working in commercial HVAC for nearly twenty years, but never been at any one job three years. Most of that is my fault…I spent a long time living away from God, and running my life to ruin in drugs, affairs, and all sorts of behaviors guaranteed to stifle any potential for success you may have. Even after I got sober and got back to Him, I still had some messed-up attitudes and habits that I needed to get clear of, so I could be the kind of employee God wants me to be, to have His approach to work. The apostle Paul sums this up so neatly in his letter to the church at Colosse, in chapter 3, verses 23-23:

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

It can be very hard to keep a humble attitude, because they pay me to be hard-nosed and forceful, to get the job done as quickly, as well, and as low-cost as possible. (I could write a whole ‘nother post on the algebra of “Good/Fast/Cheap” construction practices…suffice to say it is not simple math!) And they pay me pretty well, because I am pretty good at what I do. Probably the only thing “holding back” my career is my insistence that life contains more than just a job; that there is room in life to do more than make money. To their credit, the people I work for actually support that idea, and go above and beyond to accommodate employees whose vision extends beyond a paycheck. Let me give some specific examples.

I participate in the Kairos Prison Ministry (more about them here), and I take several days off twice a year to spend in the prison we serve at.  I also reserve several Saturdays for training meetings in the weeks preceding a Weekend. My service there predates this current job, and became a factor when I interviewed for the position: I was two weeks away from a prison week when hired, and told them I still intended to be gone three days, my second week of employment…and they agreed. They even went so far as to delay the start of the project until the week I would be back!  Only by the grace of God does an opportunity like that come around, and only a fool does not recognize a gift when it’s presented to him. I have been a fool in the past, and cannot claim that my foolish days are done, but this one time at least, I saw it and I received it. Since then, I have tried very hard to be the best employee I can be, and they in turn have shown great favor on me – my salary has gone up 25% in two years; I have never had to miss a ministry event because of work, and I now receive assignments to marquee-level projects (my next building has already been written up in the corporate newsletter, and will be entered for consideration in several award categories upon completion.) And they have been absolutely wonderful during Karen’s illness. I ran out of PTO days back in June, so my absences are now unpaid, and we are living on about 40% of my previous income. It’s tight (eeek!), but it’s sufficient. More importantly,  I am maintaining our health insurance. (never knew I could learn to love the words, “annual out-of-pocket limit exceeded” ) The company has guaranteed me that minimum, whether I work or not, until her treatment is complete. And why is this? There are two kinds of reasons, I think: I believe it is largely because I can see God working in all of this, because I do see Him moving, and I openly give Him glory for doing so. I’m not unique, lots of people praise God for good things. But that is where many people stop, and I feel there is more to it. The other, not-so-obvious reason I have the success I do is because I don’t care if I am successful…I care if I am faithful. To me, one of the distinctives of  Christianity is that we are not going to be judged on what or how much we produced, but by how well we obeyed. The words of our Lord ring hard in my ears, whenever I have a choice between doing what’s best for me, or doing what He wants me to do (and you have to understand that those will not always look the same, from our perspective…that’s what faith really means.) In John 13:17, Jesus has just demonstrated servant leadership, and then He tells the disciples,

“Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

The implication is that blessings are missed if I do not follow His example and His leadership. I won’t necessarily die or anything, but He is sure to be less than pleased with me. Because of His love and His sacrifice on my behalf, I find myself unwilling to displease Him, so I follow, hard, after Him.

You should, too. Reach out, He is there. What do you have to lose, compared with everything to gain?

Words for Wednesday

Posted: September 12, 2012 in Uncategorized
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“A spiritual life without prayer is like the Gospel without Jesus.”

-Henri Nouwen

Reaching Out,   p.123

So we are in the “off” week of Karen’s chemo…she saw all her doctors yesterday and received glowing reports, so that is very good, praise God. I hope that this is the pattern to come: a few rough days of side effects, and generally life as normal. (Does that word even have a meaning? I keep waiting for it to happen, and I think I’m waiting for the wrong thing.) Monday she has her next treatment, and we start over again.

I spoke of the weather changing in the title…and it has, in many ways. Living in Houston, you just get used to the heat and humidity, but you still get tired of it. And I work construction, so I’m out in the heat and blazing sun far more often than the average person. Somewhere around the Labor Day weekend I start having nostalgic visions of October…that’s when it usually cools down for good.  (One reason Halloween was always my favorite holiday was it was finally cool enough to enjoy being outdoors with people!) But the “sneak preview” we’re having this week is a refreshing pause…stepping outside in the morning, and taking a deep breath that doesn’t make me want to spit it back out is a nice change! The change of the seasons, the circle of life making another revolution…these things always bring to mind the constancy of God’s grace. The bible tells us  in Psalm 19 that:

“The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of His hands.
 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
 They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.”

Just as I can see the seasons change, I see the internal weather of our lives ebb and flow, and I can feel God’s sustaining presence all the while. Sometimes it is very hot for a spell, and we wonder if we will ever see a break from the heat; other times it’s cold and blustery in our souls, and we crave the warmth our bodies need. In these and other times, we need to be aware that God is always there in His creation, always maintaining the rhythm…and that the ups and downs are all a part of the plan, not deviations from it. The writer of Ecclesiastes, speaking from his vantage of age and wisdom, encourages us to keep this in mind, as we consider the state of our lives:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Ecclesiastes 3:11 (emphasis added)

We have a choice: we can either lament the situation we are in, and long for other (better? not really) times; or we can rejoice that this moment belongs to the Lord, just as every moment does, and rejoice in all that He has done, is doing, and has in store for tomorrow. I think I much prefer the latter, and I would strongly encourage you to try looking at the world from this perspective…it really can change your weather forecast, too.

Following had after Him,

Nicky

Allow me to introduce…Jesus!

Posted: September 10, 2012 in Sunday school
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(On Mondays I will be presenting an abbreviated version of the Sunday school lessons I teach at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, verse-by-verse, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wants us to…as the holy Son of God, the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament, the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption.  Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved.  Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.)

An important part of studying the bible is to be aware of the original audience for the writings, and the intent of the author in each particular case. For example,  in 2 Timothy, the Apostle Paul is writing to encourage and instruct his young apprentice pastor as he begins to shepherd his own flock; while in Acts, the good doctor Luke is writing to preserve an accurate record of the activities and testimonies of the earliest church, as a continuation of his work in the Gospel which bears his name (you can almost imagine Acts as 2 Luke, if that helps maintain the narrative continuity). These are very different things, while both being similar in vital aspects: both are inspired writings, directed by the Holy Spirit, and are therefore trustworthy; both speak to events and issues relevant and present today, just as they were in biblical times; and both contain God’s plan for us – a relationship with Him based upon our acceptance of the grace He has given us in His son Jesus, sent to redeem the lost from death, and give eternal life.  But these books require an awareness of context for us to be able to understand both what is being said, and how it applies to us. Even within books of similar nature, as the Gospels, the differences matter. Let’s look at the first four books of the New Testament a little closer.

The Gospels collectively narrate the life and earthly ministry of Jesus…from the circumstances around His birth, ending with His return to heaven after rising from the grave. Three of these – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – parallel very closely, leading to the term Synoptic Gospels (from the Greek syn- together and -opsis view:  many looking at the same thing at the same time). The Gospel of John, however, is markedly different…it passes over certain themes (Jesus’ birth and early life), and magnifies others (the last week of Jesus’ life occupies nearly half of the book). Most scholars agree that one reason for this is that John wrote his Gospel much later in life, after he had been a pastor and elder for some time, leading the churches in Ephesus and Asia Minor, and training up the leaders who followed after him. John has a very clear agenda in how he selects and presents the actions and words of Jesus, and he helpfully reveals his exact intent right within the book:

“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.”

John 20:30-31

As we go through John’s account of the signs of Jesus, we must keep this focus in mind…we need to read this book looking for Jesus…and we need to be ready to accept the consequences of whatever truth we find.

Next week we will begin in Chapter One, verses 1-18, the “prologue” to the Gospel. John uses this passage as a “course summary” of all that is to be revealed, so we want to be sure we understand the assumptions for our discussion.

Friday Forum

Posted: September 7, 2012 in Friday Forum
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Welcome to the Friday Forum: a place to have some friendly discussion about issues that arise when Christianity and secular life “rub against” each other. There is no right or wrong here, just different ways to deal with things that come up. Each week I will post a topic, and my thoughts on it, and we will see where the comments take us!

 

So we have seen both the Democratic and Republican national conventions; the nominees are in and have accepted; and we are on the last leg of the race to the White House. And you know what? I find myself simply unable to care very much about any of it. I used to be rabidly political…a Reagan Republican in high school and college, becoming disillusioned during Bush 41’s term and switching to the other side (and I still think Clinton was a great President, regardless of his personal foibles). But as I grow spiritually, and learn more about the Kingdom of heaven and what it means to be a citizen there,  it is becoming more and more easy to leave “the world” to its own devices, and ignore the rancor, the name-calling, and all the rest of it on the TV. I have no plans to vote in any election again, I do not campaign for any candidate, and in all honesty, I just don’t care. I do not think that as a Christ-follower, I should even want to participate.  Am I alone in this, or do others out there feel the same? Here is the forum topic for this week:  Should Christians be concerned about participating in government, or focus on helping real people instead? Post your comments below, I will reply throughout the week, and next Friday we will discuss a different topic.

 

Following hard after Him,

Nicky

Two days ago, my wife Karen did her first chemotherapy treatment, and now we have the joy of waiting for the side effects to kick in; we have read everything, which means we know probably less than we did before, but have so much to be anxious about now…I call it “the uncertainty cloud”. Nothing is for sure, the range of possibilities is vast and overwhelming, and sometimes it’s just easier not to think. We are both very typical Type A people, and being out of control in situations is so hard to deal with. This is where strong faith in God has been the lifeline, the only constant in a whirlwind of confusion and change. Being two different people, we each experience that differently. Today I want to talk a little about my own outlook; next week I will interview Karen and let her share her perspective.

Karen has taken to telling people that I have “cancer of the wife”, and I find that to be an oddly appropriate description. I love my wife, in the most desperate, urgent, all-encompassing sense of that word…second only to God, there is nothing and no one more vital to my existence.  The idea that she may go home to glory before me, leaves me torn and anxious: of course I would never want to hold her back form the joy of being in the presence of the Lord, but I’m not done with her yet! So to see her fighting this disease leaves me at wit’s end most of the time. I trust God, even when His plans don’t look like mine;  and I know that He is in control of everything; and He is not required to give an accounting to anyone, least of all me. But trusting God means that I have to get off His throne and let Him reign, and that goes against all human nature, and brother, I am neck-deep in my human nature!

 

So what does this mean to me? It means that I get to experience peace, the kind of peace promised in the bible. You may know the verse – Philippians 4:6-7:

 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

 

This is a conditional promise, which many teachers do not point out: peace only comes when we give our worries to God, in expectation that He is willing and able to take care of them. God is such a gentleman, He will not force His grace upon us. We are free to hold on to ALL our trouble, if we want to…but that is surely NOT the path to peace. For myself, I have decided that grace is better than stress, and so I will gladly lay my stress at the foot of the cross, and accept His grace in its place. I would also strongly recommend this to you, Constant Reader, because He really does love you, and only awaits your acceptance of Him to make you complete. Won’t you?

 

Following hard after Him,

Nicky

Words for Wednesday

Posted: September 5, 2012 in Uncategorized
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“Cure yourself of the affliction of caring how you appear to others. Concern yourself only with how you appear before God, concern yourself only with the idea that God may have of you.”

– Miguel de Unamuno