LOOKING AT WHOM?

In a post a few weeks ago I suggested that Revelation is the most difficult book in the Bible to interpret and understand. I still think that is true, but now as I come to the conclusion of a class I have been leading on the New Testament letter of Hebrews I’m thinking it is probably the second most difficult book in the New Testament.

As challenging as our study has been, we have gained a lot of knowledge as well as received much challenge and encouragement. I think challenge and encouragement for readers was the two primary goals of the author. And while parts of the letter are not easy to understand, other parts are crystal clear.

Today I’m thinking about Hebrews 12:1-3 and the writer’s image of the Christian life as running a race while keeping one’s eyes fixed on Jesus. We can get discouraged, question our faith, and get into all kinds of trouble when we take our eyes off Jesus. And often when we take our eyes off Jesus it is because we fix our eyes on someone else – usually a pastor or leader whom we look up to and admire.

The problem with fixing our eyes on another Christian is that no Christian measures up to Jesus. In spite of the highest motives and deepest faith, every Christian leader still has feet of clay. As committed to the Lord and their calling as they are, there are no perfect pastors.

This has always been the case, but in the recent months and weeks there seems to have been more cases and accusations of failures among Christian leaders than usual. Of course it grieves us, but it does not destroy our faith. Our faith is in Jesus and we are to keep our eyes on him.

The reality of the imperfection of pastors does not mean we shouldn’t respect, honor, and look up to our leaders. We should. Hebrews 13 gives two notes of instruction about how we are to view leaders.

Verse 13 tells readers to “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” My sense is that these leaders are primarily the ones who first presented the gospel to them and welcomed them to faith in Christ.

Verse 17 challenges readers to “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” The leaders in this verse seem to be the ones who are currently overseeing things.

I think all pastors and church leaders should echo the words of the Apostle Paul, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (I Corinthians 11:1). And we can more easily do that if we make sure we fix our eyes on Jesus and never take them off him.

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photo credit: Damien Walmsley <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/23766806@N00/34549305814″>20170618_Lily</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

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PRETENDING

Living close to and being involved with my two grandsons (ages 4 and 8) almost every day gives me the opportunity to do a lot of pretending. In recent weeks I’ve played the parts of Superheroes as well as a variety of “bad guys.” And it usually is a lot of fun.

Yesterday I read an interesting blog by Lance Witt entitled Image Management that sounds a lot like pretending to me. The difference, however, is that Image Management is neither a game nor fun. Witt’s primary intended audience is pastors and ministry leaders, but what he says is applicable to all Christians.

Those familiar with the New Testament no doubt are aware that Jesus’ primary issue with the Pharisees was what he called hypocrisy. They managed their images by pretending to be something they were not. What they projected to be on the outside by their actions did not match what they actually were on the inside.

Whether we are Christians or not, most of us know that pharisaism is not dead. As a matter of fact, chances are there is a little Pharisee inside all of us. To manage our images we sometimes struggle to let people know we really are not as good or as far along in our spiritual maturity as they think we are. Image management is not really management but deception.

By raising this subject I’m not suggesting that the thing for us to do is to become totally transparent with anyone and everyone in all our interactions with others. To refrain from pretending that we are better than we are, or that we have no problems, does not require us to publically “air our dirty laundry”.

I think what I am trying to say about this issue of image management or pretending is that we really need to work at being authentic. But again, to be authentic is not a call to total transparency.

When we give up pretending and become authentic we realize we have a new freedom. And that freedom opens the door and paves the way for us to actually make progress in what we want to become.

At the conclusion of his article Witt relates the honest words of a veteran Christian leader in his upper sixties: “The older I get the less concern I have with what I have or have not done and the more concern I have for what I have or have not become.” I’m in my late sixties and those are a couple of things I too would like to have less concern and more concern about.

By the way, pretending is not a bad thing — especially with grandchildren — as long everyone knows that we are just pretending.

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“BECOMING A FRIEND OF GOD”

I don’t know when I have been more impacted by a book than I have been by Jack Deere’s memoir Even in Our Darkness: A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life. After the opening chapters, which are very short, it was difficult to put it down. I know reading his personal story touched me in a variety of ways, but I’m not sure how to describe my feelings. I’m surprised, sad, challenged, affirmed, convicted, and encouraged all at the same time.

I knew of John Deere through news stories and his books (that’s why I bought the book), but I had no idea of the ups and downs he has experienced. He calls this first book of his in almost 20 years “the unsanitized version of me becoming a friend of God.” That description compliments the book’s sub-title “A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life.”

What I have written so far may not sound like it, but I’m not necessarily recommending you read his story. He is a good writer, but Even in Our Darkness is not an easy read. It is real and raw, and as I read I was impressed with his transparency.

The darkness he writes about includes alcoholism, physical abuse, immorality, drug addiction, sexual abuse, attempted suicide, suicide, betrayal, and more. But as the book’s title suggests, this is a story of beauty even in the darkness of a broken life.

Let me share a few selected quotes that stimulated my thinking and will give you a taste of Deere’s account.

Following his dad’s funeral after he committed suicide: “We had neither church nor church friends to comfort us” (p. 34).

Commenting on some seminary faculty: “They traded blessed are the meek for blessed are the learned, and blessed are the poor in spirit for blessed are the pure in doctrine” (p. 120).

Speaking about his wife: “She tried to tell me how unhappy she was, I couldn’t hear her” (p. 136).

Assessing his spiritual state at one point: “The pursuit of knowledge had supplanted the pursuit of love, and a love of pleasure had replaced my hunger for the eternal things that can’t be seen” (p. 156).

His take on a congregation he served, “I tried to sympathize with their tiny frozen hearts” (p. 195).

This got my attention: “When the devil wants to send a message, he can always find a religious person to deliver it with perfect timing” (p228).

This is worth considering: “Anger circulates in our bodies as negative energy until we discharge it. We can carry it for years, punishing people we love, never understanding why” (p. 257).

His reflection on his life: “Almost nothing in my life has worked out like I thought it should. I thought as I grew older, I would grow more deserving of God’s love, not less” (pp. 269-70).

Thinking about his three children: “I had them too soon. I was too preoccupied with building my kingdom. I didn’t enjoy them as much as I could have” (p. 274).

Another reflection on his life: “When I lusted after material wealth, he turned my gaze toward eternity. When I sought large crowds, he brought me humility. When I tried to change my wife, he taught me how to love and understand her” (p. 278)

I read in order to learn, to be challenged, and to be encouraged as well as for other reasons. I won’t be ready for another book along the lines of this one for a while, but I am glad I read Deere’s gripping story of his life so far.

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IT’S NOT EASY BEING GREEN?

Hopefully most readers will be familiar with Kermit the Frog and his famous song It’s Not Easy Being Green. Kermit is a favorite of Jim Henson’s Muppets for many. In his song he complains about being green, but concludes with a change of mind: “I am green and it’ll be fine, it’s beautiful! And I think it’s what I want to be.” In the title of this post I have turned his statement into a question.

Following a situation in which one of our grandsons was deeply disappointed and my attempt to help didn’t work, on the way home I asked myself, “Being a grandpa isn’t easy, is it?” As I reflected on what had just happened, I thought back to similar situations with our children and remembered “being a parent wasn’t and isn’t easy either.”

I stayed in Kermit mode and reminded myself of a lot of the roles and positions I have had that were not easy. Being a youth pastor was not easy, being the pastor of a small church was not easy, going to graduate school was not easy, being the founding pastor and a senior pastor was not easy, teaching at a college was not easy, and teaching a Bible class at our local high school this past year was not easy.

As I continued to think about these things I realized what a privilege all these roles and positions I have filled have been. If I had it to do it all over again I would not pass on any of the opportunities I have had. As odd as it may sound, part of the fulfillment and enjoyment I have experienced in these positions and roles has been because they were not easy, but it was worth it! If things were or are too easy, I can’t imagine they could or would be as satisfying.

With Kermit the Frog’s line “It’s Not Easy Being Green” in mind, and thinking about everything from being a grandpa to this past year’s teaching, a challenge from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount came to mind. In Matthew 7:13 and 14 Jesus instructs us, “Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires total attention” (The Message). According to Jesus it’s not easy being a Christian, but it’s worth it!

I agree with Kermit (and borrowing a little from Popeye), “I am what I am and it’ll be fine, it’s beautiful! And I think it’s what I want to be.” I just want to do better and better with it. What about you?

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MY MOM

Our pastor came up with an idea for something different for the message/sermon time on Mother’s Day weekend. He had a few staff members speak at each service telling how our mothers impacted our lives. The challenge was to do it in just five minutes. I was given the opportunity to speak in one service and below is what I said about my mom.

What I remember about my mom when I was very young is when we had friend chicken. Some of you may remember in those days when you bought chicken from the grocery story it included, in addition to the wings, also two backs.

For the longest time I thought the backs and wings were the best pieces because my mom always took them and left the other pieces to my dad, my brother, and me. I eventually realized that she took the pieces she did so we could have the legs, breasts, and thighs. My mom was unselfish.

The next thing I remember is that when I was in grade school my mom when to work in the school cafeteria. When my class and I came through the line she tried not to show me special favor, but it was so difficult for her. While in grade school I always was glad she was there. When I moved to junior high so did she; but to my shame I never was as glad to see her or as proud of her as I had been in grade school. But I do think she understood and never said anything to me about it.

While I was in grade school and junior high my dad was a problem drinker—every weekend he got drunk. But even though my mom would have been justified to kick him out, she never did. As I came to my teenage years my dad became a Christian and got his act together. I don’t think my mom ever regretted staying with him.

When I got my license and was able to buy my own used 53 Chevy my mom always had a message for me before I went out. She would say, “Just one word Bobby, be careful.” I knew what she meant, but I could not help saying, “Mom, be careful is two words.” Like many mothers, my mom worried a lot about both my older brother and me; and about my dad. I guess it goes with having that role.

When my dad was diagnosed with leukemia my mom took great care of him. He passed a few years before she did and took it hard. She lived in Ohio and we lived in California. When I think about it I’m sorry my children did not have more time around my parents, and I’m still sad I was not able to spend time with her during her last few years after my dad’s death.

My mom wasn’t perfect by any means, but she was a wonderful mother through whom God took care of me, loved me, and blessed me.

And on this Mother’s Day I again say thanks to her and to Him.

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DIFFERENT THINGS TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE

Some readers will remember the song “Happiness Is” in which after citing a variety of specifics for select people, the chorus affirms it is “Different things to different people.” Our own experience no doubt confirms the truth of the song’s premise.

I’ve been thinking about another word (in addition to happiness) that also means different things to different people. And not just one word, but several.

What brought it to mind was my quoting of Bruce Metzger in my Bible class and a student’s suggestion that he was one of my favorite professors. As I left the classroom I thought, “What a privilege it was for me to take several classes with such a brilliant, well-known, and gracious New Testament scholar.”

The word, of course, that means different things to different people today is privilege. I looked up a dictionary definition of privilege and read that it was “a special right or advantage granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” That wasn’t my definition as I was using the word.

Then I looked up the word lucky and read that among other thing it means “fortunate, favored, charmed, fluky, and accidental.” In terms of those choices, I would agree I was fortunate (lucky) to study under Bruce Metzger—I don’t think it was accidental.

The third word, and perhaps the best word, to describe my experience with Bruce Metzger is one of the words included in defining lucky: blessed. One dictionary definition of blessing is “a special favor, mercy, or benefit.” My favorite definition suggests a blessing is “a favor or gift bestowed by God.”

As I understand and use the words I don’t think I have been or am privileged, but I consider many of the opportunities and experiences I have enjoyed as privileges. I wouldn’t necessarily use the word lucky to describe these things, but neither would I be upset if someone suggested I have been lucky. If pushed to be precise in describing my life experiences I would say I have been richly blessed by God and enjoyed many blessings from him.

The words privilege, privileged, lucky, blessed, and blessings all mean different things to different people. The point is that we all have been on the receiving end in many ways, haven’t we?

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MOST DIFFICULT?

As I wrap up my first year of teaching the Bible at Amarillo High School I’ve been preparing what to say in coming to the Bible’s last book.

This will not be the first time I have taught about the Book of Revelation, but a couple of weeks ago I purchased a book about it that was highly recommended and offers some new insights and twists for me.

One thing the author said that got my attention is that Revelation is the most difficult book in the Bible to interpret and understand. You may or may not agree, but I certainly do; and if we survey the many different interpretations and understandings, we have to conclude it is complicated.

I could not agree more with what Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart say in their book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: “It seems necessary to say at the outset no one should approach Revelation without a proper degree of humility!” Yet many interpreters think they have it all figured out.

My sense is that none of us knows exactly what everything in the book means, but I think that is part of the author’s intention. While written late in the first century, Revelation is meant to be read by and applicable to all believers until Jesus comes again. Contrary to what many suggest, I do not believe Revelation’s purpose is to give us a timeline and details of the future. Or as one author phrases it, an “advance DVD of the end of the world.”

Rather than telling us about when and what will happen at the end of time, the purpose of the book of Revelation is to give Christians warning, encouragement, hope, confidence, and comfort in whatever time they live.

One thing the book tells us is that things are bad and they are going to get worse. Revelation, of course, is not the only book in the Bible that tells us that.

A second thing the book tells us is that God is still on his throne. Even though it may appear that evil is dominating, God is still in charge.

Third, since God is still in charge, believers need to remain faithful. Even in the face of suffering and persecution, the call to followers of Jesus in Revelation is to maintain their faith.

Finally, the book of Revelation tells readers that in the end God wins. And if God wins, those who have remained faithful to the Lord also win.

Obviously there is a great deal more that can and should be said about the final book in the New Testament. But hopefully these few words about this sometimes strange and most difficult book will stimulate your thinking.

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