WHAT TO CALL MYSELF

As we finish our study of the gospels in my dual credit Amarillo High School/Amarillo College class I’m wondering what the best designation is for those of us who believe what the record says about Jesus. Not everyone, of course, believes the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; but many do.

In the first two sentences I’ve already suggested one popular designation of what to call myself: believer. Believers believe the accounts of the gospel writers, but more than that, they believe in Jesus in terms of who he was and is and what he said and did.

As good as believer is as a designation, there is another one in the gospels I like better: disciple. In the gospels those who gathered around Jesus as believers were called disciples. But what is a disciple? In my reading the definition of a disciple is usually one of two terms: a follower or a learner. Well, which is it? Both, and that is why disciple is such a good designation.

Those with some familiarity with the gospels may wonder about the term apostle. When talking about those closest to Jesus in the gospels a lot of us use the terms apostle and disciple interchangeably. But Luke 6:12 and 13 reports, “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles.” It looks like all the apostles were disciples, but not all the disciples were apostles.

So far I haven’t mentioned the best known and most used designation: Christian. Where did that come from? Not from the name Jesus, but from his role as Christ (the Greek title for the Hebrew Messiah). It may be surprising to some readers that the word Christian is used only three times in the New Testament.

The first usage of the word Christian is the most instructive. In the book of Acts, the book that tells us about the birth and growth of the early church, tells us in Acts 11:26, “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” They were called Christians because of their actions, behavior, and speech. I’ve always heard people say that Christian means “of or belonging to Christ.”

The other two usages of the word Christian in the New Testament are also instructive. Acts 26:28 gives the second usage, “Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?’” The third and final usage in the New Testament is in I Peter 4:16 where the writer encourages readers, “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”

So what should I call myself? With the exception of apostle, I like all of them for myself. I think they all are descriptive and informative. I still have a long way to go in becoming what I want to be, but I am a believer in Jesus, a disciple of Jesus, a follower of Jesus, a learner of Jesus, and a Christian.

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PRIVILEGED, LUCKY, OR BLESSED?

Prompted by some recent news stories, I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of privilege and how it relates to me. When I looked up the definition of the word I realized I have been misusing it.

According to the first definition that came up in my search, privilege is “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” Most of my adult life I have been calling a variety of opportunities, relationships, and good things that I have experience privileges.

I have considered things like being married to my wife, being the father of a daughter and a son, being the grandpa of two grandsons, serving as a pastor in multiple ways for over 46 years, having the friends I have had and have, and much more as privileges. Most recently I officiated my son’s wedding and called that a privilege.

However, given the meaning of privilege in the definition above, none of the things I have been considering privileges have been such. I do not question or dispute that there are persons who indeed have benefitted from privilege in its primary definition and others have not.

If the good things in my life I have been calling privileges are not really that, what are they?

I’m uncomfortable to think or say that all these good things are nothing more than luck. The first internet definition for luck is “success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.” I wouldn’t disagree that some of the things that happen to us can be thought of in terms of good luck or bad luck, but it is more than that. Instead of luck many Christians use the word providence that is defined as the “protective care of God.” I believe in God’s providence in terms of the good things in life, but don’t have a satisfying answer for those who may ask about “bad luck.”

If I have to give up the idea of privilege, and don’t want to call it luck, I think the best choice is to say “I am blessed.” My favorite definition of a blessing received is “a favor or gift bestowed by God.” In all honesty I think Christians sometimes overuse the idea of blessed and blessing, but that’s really what I’m talking about in terms of many of the good things in my life.

I’m writing this reflection late on Saturday evening following the wedding of my son. I guess it was a privilege to officiate as a pastor in terms of the dictionary definition, but it was much more than that. Some may consider me lucky to have done this, and maybe I am; but the bottom line for me is that it was a wonderful blessing to do so and I was blessed by doing it.

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PLAYING THE FOOL

Since I take seriously Jesus’ instruction in the Sermon on the Mount not to call anyone a fool, I don’t call people fools. But that doesn’t mean I don’t at least on occasion think of someone as playing the part of a fool. And there are times when that someone I think has played the part of a fool is me.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have been reading the book of Proverbs during the month of January. When I read chapter 18 this week three verses describing the talk of fools struck and challenged me.

Here is the first of the three (verse 2) from the New Living Translation:

“Fools have no interest in understanding;
they only want to air their own opinions.”

When I read that I thought to myself “ouch!” The truth is that there have been and still are times when I have played and do play the part of a fool in some discussions. Convicted by what I read, I am hoping in the future to do better with both parts of the verse.

Here is the second of the three (verse 6) from the New Living Translation:

“Fools’ words get them into constant quarrels;
they are asking for a beating.”

The writer of Proverbs doesn’t connect verses 2 and 6, but I certainly do. Having no interest in understanding, but only in giving your own opinion, can and often does lead to arguments. I’ve never been physically beaten due to a quarrel, but I have regretted getting so heated in the back and forth when it did absolutely no good at all.

Here is the third of the three (verse 7) from the New Living Translation:

“The mouths of fools are their ruin;
they trap themselves with their lips.”

I’m not sure I fully understand this verse and wasn’t helped by other translations I checked out. My sense is that verse 7 builds on what the writer said in verses 2 and 6 taken to the extreme. Like many, I have played the part of the fool with my mouth and lips many times. Thankfully, however, my words have not led to my ruin.

As I said above, these three verses from Proverbs 18 struck and challenged me. Other chapters in the book also provide direction and warnings for the usage of our tongue, mouth, lips, and words. If you’re interested in reading more go to biblegateway.com and search these keywords out in the wisdom of Proverbs.

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ARE YOU OPEN OR CLOSED?

As I have done the last several years, I am reading the book of Proverbs again this year during the month of January. Each day I read the corresponding chapter in Proverbs to the day in January. Since today is January 9th I came to Proverbs 9 this morning.

Focusing on verses 7-17, I had to ask myself if I was open or closed when it comes to continuing to learn and grow in wisdom. Here are the verses (I copied and pasted from BibleGateway.com):

Proverbs 9:7-12 New Living Translation (NLT)

Anyone who rebukes a mocker will get an insult in return.
Anyone who corrects the wicked will get hurt.
So don’t bother correcting mockers;
they will only hate you.
But correct the wise,
and they will love you.
Instruct the wise,
and they will be even wiser.
Teach the righteous,
and they will learn even more.

10 Fear of the Lord is the foundation of wisdom.
Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgment.

11 Wisdom will multiply your days
and add years to your life.
12 If you become wise, you will be the one to benefit.
If you scorn wisdom, you will be the one to suffer.

Verses 7 and 8a warn us that mockers and the wicked are not open to be rebuked or corrected. Their response shows they are not just closed to such efforts, but are hostile to them.

Verses 8b and 9 tell us the wise and the righteous are open to being corrected, instructed, and taught. They are not just open, they will love you for correcting them and will be wiser as they learn more.

Verse 10 reminds us that “the fear of the LORD” is the foundation of wisdom, and that good judgment is an outcome of knowing him. When I teach the book of Proverbs I use an acrostic I came up with (ARWOL) to give a sense of what it means to fear the LORD. It is not to cower before him but rather to acknowledge, respect, worship, obey, and love him.

Finally, verses 11 and 12 encourage us that gaining wisdom is beneficial and that rejecting it is damaging.

For me the first part of verse 9 is the most striking observation in this passage: “Instruct the wise, and they will be even wiser.” My take on it is that wise people — because they are already somewhat wise — are open to learning, growing, and becoming even wiser.

My intention is not to be closed to continue learning and becoming wiser but to be open. It’s not always easy, but it is my intention. Are you open or closed?

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SAYING SOMETHING STUPID

A few weeks ago on my way to a seat at church I spoke to a group of men and then as I sat down asked myself, “Why did you say that? That was stupid.” In the interest of full disclosure, that’s not the first time I’ve asked myself that question.

As I sat in church I thought about the phrase “saying something stupid” and remembered it was from a popular song when I was in junior high (too long ago for me to give a date). It’s a romantic song in which the singer is telling about a relationship in which he or she reports, “And then I go and spoil it all, by saying something stupid like ‘I love you’.” (I don’t think of saying “I love you” as something stupid, but I can imagine there could be times when it would be.)

I’ve already admitted that many times I have blurted out things that were stupid. Are you ever guilty of saying something stupid? My guess is that all of us at times say stupid things – some of us more often than others. Sometimes when I do it I realize it immediately, sometimes I realize it later, and occasionally someone who heard it tells me it was stupid.

Why do people say stupid things? I’ve heard observers of those who tend to be guilty of saying stupid things suggest they have no filter. I’m not sure what they mean by that, nor am I convinced that is an acceptable excuse.

My answer to why I say stupid things is that usually I’m trying to be funny. The problem is that what I say isn’t always funny or is not funny to everyone who hears it.

In the aftermath of saying something stupid we may be asked or ask ourselves, “What were you thinking?” The honest answer to that question most of the time is probably, “I wasn’t thinking.” If we were thinking, or were more aware of our context and those around us, we wouldn’t have said what we did.

I’ve come to conclusion that the reason I say stupid things is because of a lack of discipline. Whether I am just greeting someone, having a serious conversation, or anything in between, I need more discipline when it comes to what I say. Of course I need to think — but that’s part of discipline. I don’t think I have to quit trying to be fun or funny, but I do need to exercise discipline.

As I turn the page from 2018 to 2019 my one resolution is to be more disciplined when it comes to opening my mouth to say something.

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GOD’S RETURN POLICY

Now that Christmas Day is over and we have opened our gifts, many will be returning something they received. Different stores, of course, have different policies with regard to the way they deal with returns. Some will refund what the gift cost, and some will only offer an exchange for something else. Some require a receipt and a few charge a restocking fee.

I’ve been thinking about this after Christmas post since November 1 when I read an online article entitled “God’s Generous Return Policy” by John Lee. In his article Lee did not relate anything to Christmas gift returns, but I am. I’m borrowing from his basic idea.

My interest isn’t in returning gifts as such, but in returning to God. In the Old Testament the prophets speak often of God’s people not returning to him.

Following an assessment of the Northern Kingdom’s misdeeds and consequences, in Jeremiah 3:10 God comments on the Southern Kingdom, “In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense.”

In Joel 2: 12 and 13 the prophet relays God’s invitation, “Even now return to me with all your heart with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”

In Amos 4:6-11 God reminds his people through the prophet of five consequences they have endured, and yet have not returned to him. Very similarly God does the same through the prophet Haggai, “I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew and hail, yet you did not return to me” (Haggai 2:17).

My favorite two verses from the Old Testament prophets about God’s return policy are similar to Jeremiah, Joel, Amos, and Haggai, but add a promise not included in the others. Zechariah 1:3 proclaims God’s message: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you’.  Malachi 3:7 offers the same promise, but also reminds them why they need to take action: “Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.

These messages from the prophets to God’s people in the Old Testament give us insight into why a person today might need to return to God: they have left him. The call to return to God suggests that someone has turned away from God or drifted away from him.

When I was a youth pastor some 48 years ago we had a sign in front of our church building on which we posted a new message every week. One of my favorites our senior minister put up has stayed with me: “Feel Far from God? Guess Who Moved?”

The preaching of the prophets to God’s people in the Old Testament also make it clear that often or usually when people leave God there are consequences in their lives. Those consequences are intended to get the attention of those who have done so.

When those who have turned away from God want to return to him what is needed is a change of attitude and action. In the New Testament, especially with the prophet John the Baptist, returning to God requires repentance (Matthew 3:1 and 2).

I’m not sure what to make of Zechariah and Malachi’s promise from God, “Return to me, and I will return to you.” It reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. Do you remember what the father did when he saw his younger son returning? In the story Jesus says “while he (the prodigal son) was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, thru his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

John Lee is right, isn’t he? God indeed does have a generous return policy. And if you need to take advantage of it, I encourage you to do so.

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ON GIVING AND RECEIVING

Every year as we near Christmas I am reminded of one of Jesus’ most succinct sayings. This saying is not recorded in any of the four gospels, but is passed on by the Apostle Paul in his farewell remarks to the Ephesian elders. In Act 20:32-35 Paul is reminding them of his example while with them and then adds, “remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

In light of the fact that this saying of Jesus is not in the gospels, I wonder how Paul knew about it. And my conclusion is that there had to be sayings of Jesus that did not get included in the gospels, but that were known and passed on among Jesus’ followers.

Regardless of how Paul knew of the saying, I find it interesting and challenging. And I hope it is obvious why I think about it each year during this season. It is not just ‘the most wonderful time of the year,’ it is also the season when there is more giving and receiving than any other.

Let me ask you a question — do you believe what Jesus said is true? In your life experience and observation of others, is it “more blessed to give than receive?” What do you think?

I’m pretty sure we all would agree that we are blessed in receiving. Everyone reading this post has been blessed again and again by receiving. And please note that Jesus said that is the case. But He also said that it is more blessed to give than receive.

Not to be negative, but I’m not sure everyone would agree that they are blessed in giving. And yet many of us know from our own experience that what Jesus said has been proven true in our lives.

When Jesus gave the teaching “it is more blessed to give than to receive” he wasn’t thinking about Christmas. I think it is certainly applicable to our Christmas practice of gift giving and receiving, but it is about more. The greater blessing of giving than receiving is true in all of life and is not limited to Christmas. There are many ways to give that have nothing to do with presents. And as we engage in those ways we are blessed.

I think Jesus knows both the blessing of receiving and giving. He certainly knows the blessing of giving because he gave his life for us. In our relationship with him I hope we also know the blessing of both receiving and giving. There is great blessing in receiving what he offers – love, grace, forgiveness, acceptance, eternal life, and much more. But don’t forget the greater blessing we receive from giving ourselves to him, to giving him praise and honor, and to following him in obedience as our Lord.

Merry Christmas to you as we celebrate again this year the birth of God’s wonderful gift to us: Jesus, our Savior and Lord. I pray you are blessed through both giving and receiving.

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