Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Faith Does, Part 3: Slaying the Dragon.

 

Hey, Cobblestone,

     I wonder if Jesus ever felt like a screw-up. Don’t imagine I blaspheme; the Bible itself says he has been tempted in every way, just as we are (Hebrews 4:15) – so it’s possible he was tempted, just as we are, to think he had messed up at times.

     When a man fathers a child, he’s headed into a long series of opportunities, large and small, to mess up. Most of these he will take full advantage of. Don’t imagine I exaggerate; just take a look around. (And, as the T-shirt says, “Been There – Done That.”) In the best of circumstances, a dad will learn at least something from his mistakes, and not make the same ones more than a few dozen times apiece. In anything less than best, he’ll start to wonder if he’ll ever be able to do fatherhood right. And if a man launches into fatherhood with a history of mostly mess-ups, he will quickly give up.

     After a week’s diversion, the “Faith Does” series is resuming, urging us to practice religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father (James 1:27) – to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep (ourselves) unstained from the world. The series would be incomplete if we didn’t address the topic of fatherhood, and what happens if “being dad” is done poorly – or goes undone – for long periods of time. Because, in serving “functional” orphans and widows – meaning anyone who’s suffering under most of the same disadvantages as actual orphans and widows – the best way to ease the affliction is to encourage dads to get back on track.

     Henry David Thoreau was famous for his observations on nature. But his most quoted observation was on a particularly human condition: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The mass of men knew this long before Henry came along. We know it still. Leading a life of quiet desperation involves staying one step ahead of regret – or not. The survivors stay engaged, battling always to slay the dragon. The victims get eaten by it. At any given time, a dad might not know which side of the fight he’s on.

     As people of God, we are destined to be victors, not victims; and given the ministry of reconciliation (2Corinthians 5:19), our mission is to draw others into victor status, under the banner of the one who was without sin, yet was made sin for us, that in him we might become the righteousness of God (verse 21). At the moment, I’m looking into two programs that would help us – yes, little ol’ Cobblestone – encourage dads who’ve been eaten by the dragon of regrets, to get them back into the fight against desperation. I’m still scouting, and there are plenty of arrangements yet to be made, but I haven’t found a no-go up to this point. Please pray that our church can merge with these couple other organizations to provide a seamless, Holy Spirit-guided ministry to men who have initiated “problem” or “unwanted” pregnancies, whose children will otherwise be functional orphans.

     The idea, in a nutshell, is to live out the gospel of Jesus in the presence of, and in close proximity to, two categories of fathers: expectant dads and estranged dads. In the programs I’m looking into, expectant dads are the men, usually very young, who have found themselves the biological father of a child, but outside the usual structures of responsibility; estranged dads are men who’ve done something to take themselves, at least temporarily, out of the possibility of directly being a father to their children. Expectant dads are probably waiting in the car outside the pregnancy care center; estranged dads are probably wearing an orange jump suit. Men in both categories may already be two or three generations deep in fatherlessness themselves, convinced there’s no hope or encouragement to be found. We’re out to change that notion.

     There’s a calling on us, Cobblestone, to be an agent of hope in fatherhood – I’m convinced of it. I haven’t figured out yet why the Lord would put such a calling on us (not sure I need to), but I’m sure he wants us to move outward with everything he’s equipped us with up until now – and trust him to provide whatever it takes to do what we haven’t foreseen. Not all of us will be at the point of contact; most of us will pray and observe from some distance. But I’ll be asking some of you to step into situations you wouldn’t ordinarily step into. Some of you will go to jail, I hope. And there will be scenarios the Lord has yet to reveal. The clearest thing I have from the Lord at this point goes something like this: he’s testing our willingness to move outward with the message of hope to dads who aren’t hearing it anywhere else.

     I’ve never known a dad who never felt like a screw-up. The condition is universal. To go into fatherhood with a backlog of blunders already, I can imagine how hopeless it must seem – “Will I ever be anything else but a failure?” How did Jesus, as a man, overcome the temptation to give up? At frequent intervals, the Father provided encouragement to him. Jesus, lying awake at night after those tense encounters with Pharisees and self-righteous scribes, maybe thinking, “Oh, boy – that coulda gone better…” was never alone. In this walk-around world in our own century, our job is to recreate the never-alone condition, on behalf of Jesus’s Father, my Father… our Father.

     The state of fatherhood around us is about to improve, supernaturally.

 

 Grace and Peace from God our Father,

 

John         

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Weaponize

 Hey, Cobblestone,

The plan was for me to be writing the third installment of the “Faith Does” series. I can’t pull it off today. Sorry. I was supposed to be telling you about the next great thing Cobblestone would be doing to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep (ourselves) unstained from the world (James 1:27), but my cynical streak has the upper hand at the moment, so I’d better leave off the topic and deal with this enemy within.

As of this writing, it’s the early morning of Thanksgiving Day. Three of my younger grandchildren are asleep elsewhere in the house; the sun is dispelling the dark of night; and I’ve just had two cups of the best coffee on the planet. Who could possibly be cynical in circumstances like these? (A visual for you: my hand is slowly rising.) As often as I battle cynicism – which is to say, a lot – this is a tougher fight than usual.

Time to call out the big guns. Cynicism has a chink in its armor, and one weapon hits it every time. Before I give up the secret, I’m going to take a wild guess and say I’m not the only one among us who maintains a low simmer of cynicism, living life waiting for the other shoe to drop. From what I’ve seen, it’s not uncommon for cynicism to pick up a few allies – intellect, vocabulary, an overly ambitious newsfeed, maybe some achy joints – in its efforts to cast a pall over any given day. Maybe I’m only writing to three people this morning, but hey, if you’re one of the three, here’s what I got for ya: Gratitude.

I’m urging you to weaponize gratitude. Use it to push back the onslaught of cynicism. Cynicism doesn’t fight fair; don’t bring a fair fight. Hit it where it hurts and kick it while it’s down. Your big gun comes out of 1John 4:1-4…
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.

Greater. Infinitely greater. Whole other league. No possible comparison. The Spirit of God, in you – greater than he who is in the world. Maybe you were expecting me to launch into a quaint, Norman Rockwell-ian list of things to be grateful for. Nope – going nuclear, right from the get-go.

The apostle goes on to say… In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1John 4:10). The Spirit of God is in us because Jesus made a way for him to be in us, and he is the one by whom we know how to navigate this cynical, screw-loose world. No weapon formed against us shall prosper, because the one who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world – like atom bomb versus BB gun.

Gratitude, properly directly directed, goes to the Father before it goes anywhere else. His love is the starting point for anything we may be grateful for. Gratitude attached to circumstances will run out of ammo real quick. Gratitude rooted in the love of God is inexhaustible. That’s the stockpile I choose to draw from in this moment – and to be perfectly honest, I can’t type as fast as cynicism is retreating right now.

Put it on the run, Church. No need to apologize. The love of God makes this day and every day bigger and brighter than circumstances, on their own, will indicate. Greater is he. The skirmishes with cynicism will come and go, but now you know the one thing that always wins the firefight. Can’t say I didn’t tell you. I’ll get back on track next week with the “Faith Does” series – meanwhile: lock and load.

And if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go take a place at the breakfast table with some truly adorable little humans.

Grace and Peace (for the good fight),

John

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Faith Does, Part 2: Meet the fosters

 

Hey, Cobblestone,

     Here’s how Scripture describes you:

…the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth (1Timothy 3:15).

     As members of a forever family, we are uniquely qualified to help others whose situation is less certain. Not everybody has a forever family to come home to. Or sometimes, what looked like forever takes a hit, and “forever” becomes a tenuous term. Stability can be in short supply. But the household of God has stability to spare – and share.

     Every day in our Cobblestone counties – Butler, Union, Preble, Franklin, plus slices of Dearborn, Hamilton, and Fayette – children are displaced. For a multitude of reasons, home and hearth are out of their reach; the adults in their lives have been unable to provide what most of us take for granted. Other adults will have to fill the gap.

     I’d like you to meet the fosters. No, that wasn’t a typo; I meant for the “f” to be lower case. The fosters are the gap-fillers, the parents who answer the call and do their best to make a way where there was no way. They’re strong and steady and resourceful. And every once in a while they could use a little break.

     This past Sunday, I mentioned three initiatives I’m working on that have to do with serving orphans and widows by visiting them in their affliction (James 1:27). I’m about to fill you in on the first of those three. Children in the foster system can be said to be temporarily orphaned, and we’ll do no harm to Scripture to consider them as such, as we live out a religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father (James 1:27 again). When the opportunity presents itself, one of the best things we can do for orphans is to support those who support them.

     To that end, Cobblestone will be hosting a foster parent date night on Friday, February 17, 2023. Parents will drop off the kids at our place for a few hours that evening, and go on a date together. Another organization will provide a really nice dinner and swing dancing (along with an instructor) at a separate location in town. Our job is simple: to provide the place and a couple dozen people to care for the kids. The kids’ job is even simpler: eat pizza, play games, be kids.

     The event takes place 12 weeks from today. In my world, that’s an eternity. To a good planner (which I’m not) that’s not so long. I’m hoping it’s fair notice in any case. Please, dear reader, pray to understand what the Lord wants you to do. Yes, I know: it’s the Friday after Valentine’s Day… that’s kinda the point. Maybe we could take our own sweethearts out on the fourteenth, actually, or make it up to them (with interest) on the eighteenth. Yes, please pray, and if the Lord says to do this thing, you can get more info at info@cobblestonechurch.com

     Back in the Sixteenth Century, a guy named Martin Luther poured heart-and-soul into getting a message out: salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. He was right then and he’s right now. He was also puzzled by the Bible letter James wrote, especially the part that says, For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead (2:26). Luther spent his life fighting the bad idea that salvation could be earned through works, in any fashion. Finally, he realized the solution to his dilemma was embedded in the message to which he was utterly committed: God shows his grace by implanting a faith that will only attach itself to Christ, leading saved people into good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10). Or, if I may (humbly) recall a statement from last week’s letter: faith is AND faith does.

     This is the second installment in a four-part series titled “Faith Does.” In the next two weeks, I’ll describe two more initiatives we’ve been given to live out our faith… to see what faith does.

     In architectural terms, it doesn’t get any more solid than “pillar” and “buttress.” Another translation gives foundation of the truth in 1Timothy 3:15 to describe the household of God. We get the idea our Father wants us to be convinced of our firm footing. When I learned to build houses, I was not surprised to learn that a solid footer/foundation was the only suitable beginning for a solid home. But I was surprised to see how floppy a stand-alone stud wall is. No matter how rugged it looks, nailed together and lying on the sub-floor, it’ll look more like a wet noodle as soon as you stand it up. Tie it in on one end, sure, but the house only becomes rigid once the perimeter is closed and some sheathing goes up on the corners. With the Foster Fun Night, we’re basically joining together to close the perimeter, and invite some precious souls inside to share the warmth and security for a while.

     

Grace and Peace (to build undisturbed),


 John    

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Faith Does

 

Hey, Cobblestone,

     Sometimes I wonder why God put the various books of the Bible in the order they appear. They’re not all chronological, or alphabetical, or arranged by topic; the two books Luke wrote are split up by John’s Gospel. In several places, the order of Bible books is something that’ll make a person say, “Hmm…” But when I look at the back-to-back arrangement of Hebrews and James, the logic is clear: Hebrews describes what faith is; James describes what faith does.

     Growing up, I was simmered in a stew of King James Version, and still, some verses only make sense to me in the old Shakespearean tongue. The first verse of Hebrews 11 is one of those, the verse that contains the phrase “faith is.” Take a look:

    Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1, KJV). Other translations give it a good try, but run off track when they go with any terms less solid than “substance” and “evidence.” If the writer of Hebrews wants us to know anything at all about faith, it’s to know that faith will eventually manifest in something solid. And then along comes James…

     When we all get to heaven, James is on my short list of people to have a long talk with. I gotta know: Was his faith, in practice, as vibrant and hard-working as what he wrote about? My best guess right now is Yes, based mostly on the premise that God wouldn’t have a couch-potato-in-the-faith write such an athletic letter. We’ll see, won’t we? One more reason to long for heaven.

     Put the two letters together, Hebrews and James, and we see clearly that faith is nothing like a fine collectible or a museum piece; it doesn’t sit on the shelf and look pretty. Faith is energetic and eager and available. Faith is, AND faith does.

     Several years ago, a fellow showed me a fairly rare and very desirable sports car he owned. It was tucked into a garage, away from sunlight and weather and unauthorized eyes. The owner’s favorite thing about the car was that it had hardly any miles on it – not the fact that it could generate over 500 horsepower, or it could corner like a roller coaster on rails. As a collector, he saw the car as worth more because it had hardly been used. As a driver and quasi-engineer, I saw the car as worth nothing at all unless it was tested, a lot. If it looked like a hundred miles an hour sitting still – and it did – just think of the fun if you get the dang thing rolling. The car was stuck in the realm of “could, maybe.” Somehow, I kept myself from asking if the keys were in it.

     In this largely screen-based existence we’re living now, there’s a constant tug on our faith to become two-dimensional, like the screen – to trade away the actual for the virtual, to leave way too much in the realm of “could, maybe.” Lots of conjecture, lots of couch-potato faith – as if it’s OK to never take it for a spin.

     But here’s a thought: How much leftover faith should Christians have when this life is done? The last verse of 1Corinthians 13 suggests an answer: So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love (verse 13). Why is love the greatest? Because it never ends (see verse 8). The other two expire. When all is revealed and we see Jesus face to face and heaven is our forever home, our faith will become sight and what we’ve hoped for we will have. There’ll be no need for faith, which is why it’s meant to be spent, every particle of it, here in this walk-around world. Or, as one racer’s motto goes: “Use it up, wear it out, eat it all.”

     Turn your faith loose. It’s meant to run. Wind it up, dump the clutch, and feel the satisfaction of driving something powerful. James says, Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (1:2-4). Green flag, clear track – take a few laps and see how you like it.

     Meanwhile, here’s the same question Andrew asked last Sunday: “What has your faith made you do this week?”  

  

Grace and Peace (and gobs of horsepower),

 

John

 

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Knock, knock

 

Hey, Cobblestone,

     I’ve made this confession before: I am by no means an end-times expert. If you want to be convinced one way or the other about how, exactly, the prophecies of the Revelation and Daniel will work out, I’m not your guy. But I should probably make it clear: I’m not without an end-times theory. Indeed, I have two, and I hold both to be viable – even likely. And now you know for sure why nobody’s blowing up my phone asking questions about the end of days!

     Some eschatologists say the condition of creation and mankind will continue to decline, most rapidly in the very last days, and bottom out at an all-time low, setting up the huge-est of all contrasts when the rightful King returns to make all things right. Other eschatologists, equally sincere, say the condition of creation and mankind will improve, most rapidly in the very last days, simply through the ongoing sanctification of individual Christians, and the rightful King will be pleased to return and receive his spotless bride, the church. Though the argument of the first bunch seems more plausible (based on sheer observation), I believe both bunches are right. And wrong.

     Are you trackin’ with me yet?

     Of course not. So let’s back up to the origin of my theories and see what they’re made of. No end-times theory is worth a dime if it’s not rooted in Scripture – a lot of Scripture. You’ll probably think my eschatology is kind of quirky, but I can assure you it’s not without scriptural grounding. Here are both theories, along with the Bible evidence and the pet names I’ve given them.

     Say hello to my little friend, the “Bad2Worse End-Times Theory.” It states that the earth’s axis is something more like a greased pole to a very hot place, and the planet is quickly attaining terminal velocity. Terminal. As recently as one generation ago, if what’s going on now would have been going on then, most people would be asking, “What the heck are you even talking about?!” The Bible evidence comes, for instance, from 2Timothy 4:3-4…

    For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

    Was the Information Age born for this, or what?

     And then there’s the “On-Ramp End-Times Theory.” Can you imagine backing out of a driveway directly onto Interstate 75? If you can, then you can also imagine the impact and trauma that are bound to be the result. That’s why we have on-ramps: to come up to speed, to merge with what’s happening on the super-slab. The On-Ramp Theory has biblical basis in Ephesians 5, which describes Jesus sanctifying his bride…

…so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (verse 27).

    That’s happening right now, at Jesus’s pace. And unless I’ve missed my guess, he plans to have the greater part of the work done before the wedding day.

     But how can these seemingly disparate endings both happen? Key word: seemingly. Being a Christian in this last age is like attending the greatest of all dramas – and we get to be the audience, the stage hands, and the players… all at the same time. Without this three-dimensional view, both endings surely would seem impossible.  

     Before I lose you (again), here’s what I mean. The pet name “Bad2Worse” comes straight outta 2Timothy 3:12-13…

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.  

    For doubly-doggone-sure, humanity at large will sink to an all-time low. But only Christians will know how dire the situation has become. Conversely, non-Christians will think humanity has finally found a way to boot-strap itself out of the quicksand, and Christians are the ones who’ve not gotten the memo on how to do that. The only fix for the deception/deceiving is the rightful King coming to separate “the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32).

     Likewise, the On-Ramp Theory gets worked out in Scripture. In Matthew 25 again, Jesus describes all the counter-cultural, amazingly helpful, and delightfully godly deeds of “the sheep” – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned – and they respond with…

“did we…?” (verse 37).

    “Those on his right” are propelled by Christ-likeness to the point of merging seamlessly with what the Lord is preparing in heaven and bringing to earth. Those on his left will be backing blindly onto I-75.

     None of this would be worth my writing, or your time reading, if it didn’t have an application for right-the-heck now; it could be filed away in one of the lonelier places along the broad spectrum of end-time –ism’s. So latch onto this if you will: It’s OK for Christians to be shocked by what’s happening in this young century, but there’s no reason to be surprised. Granted, the rate of acceleration can be disorienting, but this has been a long time coming. Hold fast. From our three-dimensional perspective, we have a unique opportunity in this age to cooperate with the Lord in bringing his kingdom. Just because evil people and impostors… go on from bad to worse doesn’t mean they are excluded from eventually coming to the knowledge of the truth (1Timothy 2:4). And just because unbelievers missed an on-ramp a while back doesn’t mean we can’t wave them onto the next one. The benefit: we who have loved the Lord’s first appearing will have more family to rejoice with at his second.

     There’s plenty of then-and-there prophecy to be had in Scripture, and it all matters. The end will play out a certain way, and God will be glorified. Jesus wins; the devil loses, forever. But in the here-and-now, perhaps our greatest hope could be in the astounding statement Jesus makes in the letter he commissioned to the lukewarm church in Laodicea:   

    “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 3:19-22).  

 

Knock, knock.

  

Grace and Peace (through opening the door),

 

John   

 

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Involvement

 

Hey, Cobblestone,

     Every once in a while, somebody will ask me if I think Christians should be involved in politics. It’s usually in the autumn of an even-numbered year, kind of like right now. And it’s an odd encounter, in the sense that I’m asked what I think. What I think matters very little, but I’m happy to relate what Scripture says:

     Yes.

     First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1Timothy 2:1-4).

     I was especially glad for a reminder Andrew gave us in his sermon last Sunday. He said when we look into Scripture, don’t be looking first for where we are; rather, be looking for where God is, and that’ll keep us from getting all sideways in holy writ. In the passage above, where is God? Ahead of what we may think about kings and all who are in high positions, what does God say about himself in the passage?

     First, he is God our Savior, and we may take that to mean that the kings and high position-holders are not. Romans 13:1 says, Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. From the same verse in the King James Version, we get the term the powers that be. The powers be, all right, but they wouldn’t be if God hadn’t be’d them. If we get confused or frustrated over why certain people hold certain offices, we can do no better than check with the one who put them there, and try to find out what the greater purpose is.   

     The passage also tells us there’s something pleasing in the sight of God our Savior. If pleasing God is important to us, we’ll want to know what that is. It’s in the preceding sentence: that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. Now we know what is pleasing in his sight. And how might we manage this? Here it comes: First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions.

     A Christian’s involvement with politics begins with prayer. Prayer precedes all other involvement, when the involvement is done right. Anything other than prayer-forward devolves quickly into nothing more than the “sharing” of opinions – and we’ve all heard enough crude clich├ęs about opinions to know that everybody’s got at least one. By looking for God first in this passage about prayer, we can keep opinions down-ticket where they belong. I might not want to pray for certain office holders because I don’t agree with what they’re saying or doing. Doesn’t matter – if God would be pleased with me praying only for the office holders I agree with, he would have said so. The fact is, he said all.

     Many of you are, no doubt, already better at this than I am; but still, I’m compelled to give a tutorial of sorts on praying for all who are in high positions. For office holders who are Christians, I pray for the Holy Spirit – “the Spirit of truth” (John 16:13) – to well up in them and affect everyone around them. For office holders who aren’t Christians, I pray salvation first of all. For Christians and non-Christians alike, I pray protection from the devil’s schemes, safety for them and their families, and some reasonable level of peace and privacy even though they’re living in a fishbowl. That’s not all I pray, but it’s not a bad set to start with. Do I ever pray for certain issues to be advanced and some to be halted? Absolutely – but here’s the thing, and the tricky part, and quite honestly, what I have to work hardest at: to separate the issue from the souls of those who are advancing it or opposing it.

     One whole lifetime ago, Kay and I were in a pickle. It seemed very likely we would be on the losing end of a power struggle, and the loss would directly and negatively affect our family in a big way. But my bride, praying girl that she is, looked for God first. She called me one morning as I got to the shop, hadn’t even got out of the truck, and urged me to look into Psalm 20 – Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God (verse 7). That verse changed our lives and our family forever. Putting God first, making his name highest, brought about better outcomes than any of us could have imagined.

     I’ve talked with a couple of Christians lately who are considering running for public office on the grounds that we need more people making decisions who can think like Jesus. I agree (as if it matters what I think!) – as long as prayer is the first particle of involvement. To broaden the concept to, well, all of us who have the mind of Christ (1Corinthians 2:16), the same applies from our own houses to the White House and beyond… or to simply stepping into a voting booth. Will we trust in the name of the LORD our God?

     For at least the past ten years, in political arenas large and small, loud-and-overbearing has been the go-to tactic. Debates, by and large, became uncivil shouting matches that no second-grade teacher would allow in a classroom or on a playground. And how’s that working out for us? Is there a better way? Scripture says Yes, and calls the people of God to lead peaceful and quiet lives, godly and dignified in every way – lowly and unassuming, yet supremely confident in the name of the LORD our God. 

  

Grace and Peace (and trust, well placed),

 

John   

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Adjectives

 

Hey, Cobblestone,

    How would you like to knock out a whole book of the Bible in less than three minutes? Two-forty-five, actually, at an unhurried pace – I timed it. If you’re not on the boss’ dime at the moment, you could even do that right now. Go to Paul’s letter to Philemon, and I’ll see you in a few.

     The synopsis: Philemon is a Christian in Colossae, known to Paul, who wrote the letter from Rome. Philemon’s bond-servant, Onesimus, has fled Colossae, possibly taking money or property that belongs to his master. Philemon would be wanting him back, for obvious reasons. Moving heaven and earth, God brings Onesimus into contact with Paul, and Onesimus becomes a Christian. A dilemma takes shape. What will Paul do? Which party deserves his higher loyalty?

     Understanding a storyline involves understanding a good deal about the characters as well. How should we describe Philemon (other than what I’ve already offered)? How should we describe Onesimus or Paul? If we had to put together a bunch of adjectives, adverbs, and nouns to fill out the storyline by painting a clear picture of the players, what would those words be? Would our choice of words be influenced by what we already believe about integrity and loyalty – or slavery and Christianity for that matter?

     Of course they would.

     The question is this: How much influence should those beliefs have? Answer: a great deal, indeed, and for we who are Christians, those beliefs can provide all the insight we need into the proper choice and placement of those words. Problem is, we don’t always use the mind of Christ (1Corinthians 2:16) to put our words together, or to give them the proper weight. Paul’s letter to Philemon gives a priceless lesson in setting the priorities straight. Let’s do an exercise to see if we can pick up the lesson.

     Describing Onesimus, some of us would say, “He’s a lying, thieving fugitive slave.” This man, at the least, had an indentured-servant arrangement with another man, but broke the contract and stole from his master (charge that to my account, Paul wrote in verse 18). If we believe integrity is the most important consideration, then Onesimus has to go back to Colossae immediately, reenter the master/slave arrangement, and make restitution.

     Describing Philemon, some of us would say, “He’s a cold-hearted, closed-minded, tight-fisted slave owner.” What makes him think he can hold such power over another human being, anyway? If we believe slavery, or even indentured servitude, is always wrong, then Philemon needs to get over himself, and Onesimus gets to live and work wherever he pleases.

     Statistically, most of us will go with the second description. Paul should let Onesimus stay in Rome, and indeed wanted to: I would have been glad to keep him with me (verse 13). But that’s not what happened. Writing under the direct inspiration of God, Paul made a completely “other” proposition. It wasn’t the first description or the second. To be sure, it was nothing that ever would have occurred to the natural mind. Something supernatural was in play.

     Remember: by the time Paul wrote the letter, Philemon and Onesimus both were Christians. Though there were many traits and criteria to take into account, Paul put child-of-God status ahead of them all. Paul says to Philemon, I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother (verse 7), and appeals to him to receive Onesimus back no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother (verse 16). Notice: Paul didn’t order Philemon to emancipate Onesimus outright. That’s a big deal – it demonstrates Paul’s belief that adoption by God is infinitely better than emancipation from any man, and the gospel of Jesus Christ can redeem even a master/slave arrangement.

     Quite simply, Paul put the adjectives in their proper place. That’s the supernatural part. It would be easy – and natural – to describe Onesimus as “an enslaved Christian” and Philemon as “a slave-holding Christian,” and move on to the next hot-button situation. End of story – except it leaves no room, no epilogue, in which the power of the gospel does its glorious work.

     To the pollsters, I’m a post-middle-age white guy living in a blue-collar neighborhood in Midwestern fly-over country. The pollsters don’t bother with me, thinking, I suppose, they’ve already got me figured out. At times, I’m tempted to think they do. But then, I engage the mind of Christ. “Christian” has to be set in the front, by supernatural means, trusting God in letting the adjectives and adverbs fall in line behind.

     The recently departed theologian, J.I. Packer, had, I’ve heard, a nearly daily ritual. Early in the day he would remind himself, “I am a child of God. God is my Father. Heaven is my home, and each day is one day closer. My Savior is my Brother, and all Christians are my brothers and sisters too.” As top-notch as his theological skills were, as well studied as he was, he still wanted (and probably needed) frequent reminders of his simplest, most secure, and most important titles.

     I could quote a few other dead English guys with two letters in front of their last names – Chesterton, Lewis, Spurgeon – could bring you their insights on what it means to be a child of God plunked down in actual history and geography. And I’m tempted, I really am – they wrote some good stuff, almost prophetic. Instead, I’ll leap past their centuries and back into Paul’s, since his stuff has the clearest application for our times – and is altogether prophetic. We’re heading into a season, this being the autumn of an even-numbered year, in which we’ll be compelled to put the adjectives up front – to think and speak and act (and vote) according to labels and descriptors that should by no means hold first place. Philemon was given a chance to Refresh (Paul’s) heart in Christ (verse 20) by receiving Onesimus back as a brother. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say (verse 21). Notice: “in Christ” – Paul’s heart would be refreshed “in Christ.”

     This election coming up is being called the most significant in our country’s history – right… as if twenty or thirty others haven’t been. Politically, it’s no bigger or smaller a deal than any other. But from the perspective of God’s kingdom, this is the most important one for Christians to be engaging the mind of Christ. And the one after that will be more important still, simply because the kingdom will be two years closer to consummation, and I imagine God expects more cooperation from his people as the time draws nearer. “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – absolutely, and all the quicker as more of God’s kids begin to think like their eldest Brother.

     Over the next couple weeks, I’m going to work on getting us some practice.             

 

 Grace and Peace (refreshing one another’s hearts in Christ),

 

John