FREEDOM, INDEPENDENCE, DEPENDENCE, AND INTERDEPENDENCE

I read a statement in an article by Charles E. Moore this week that got my attention and provoked some thinking on my part. He suggested “we must realize that freedom is not the same as independence.” Yet our holiday of July 4 is called “Independence Day” and is the occasion we celebrate our freedom as a nation. In his article, however, Moore wasn’t referring to our national celebration this Tuesday.

As followers of Jesus we are certainly free, but not independent. As a matter of fact, our freedom is the result of our declaration of dependency on the Lord. That’s what we do when we come to faith in Christ and commit to following him. The freedom I have in mind is our freedom from guilt and deserved punishment for our sin—doing things God has instructed us not to do as well as leaving out of our lives things God has asked us to do. Generally speaking, most of us focus more on sins of commission and tend to ignore sins of omission. In Christ we are forgiven for both.

We are free in Christ, but as Moore points out, “we are not free to do whatever we want regardless of others.” As Christians we are members of the body of Christ and of one another. That means we are not independent, but interdependent. As fellow members of the body of Christ we need each other.

The New Testament stresses our interdependence with a variety of specific “one another” instructions regarding our mutual responsibilities. The foundation of our interdependence is Jesus’ command: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so must you love one another” (John 13:35b). The other “one another” instructions give concrete examples of how we are to love one another.  A sampling of those include “accept one another” (Romans 15:7), “serve one another” (Galatians 5:13), “carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), “encourage one another and build each other up” (I Thessalonians 5:12), “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other” (James 5:16), and “offer hospitality to one another” (I Peter 4:9)

Admittedly, it is a challenge to live out our interdependence today. Many go to church, and are members of a church, but do not engage in the “one another” instructions. Its takes time and effort, and we have to be open and willing. It’s not the only way to do it, but many church members are able to practice interdependence through participation in a small group.

On Tuesday I will be celebrating our nation’s independence and our freedom. I am grateful to live in this country and enjoy the privileges we have. But I also realize I am dependent upon the Lord and interdependent with other believers. I celebrate that every week; and I am also thankful for both.

What do you think? Feel free to leave a reply below and/or share this post on Facebook or other social media.

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AMBITION: GOOD OR BAD?

Is ambition a good or bad thing? My response is something of a cop out: I don’t know; it all depends. How would you answer? Like many words, ambition can be used in a variety of ways. Some of the ways it is used make it a bad thing. On the other hand, some of the ways it is used make it a good thing.

The definitions given for ambition suggest both the good and bad. For example, one online definition describes ambition as “a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.” Nothing wrong with that. But the next description of the word is “an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power.” Not so appealing.

Another entry says ambition is “a particular goal or aim, something that a person hopes to do or achieve.” Again, nothing wrong with that. But then comes the description “a desire to be successful, powerful, or famous.” Again, two of the three words are not as positive.

William Barclay discusses the Greek work in his book New Testament Words with the title “The Wrong Kind of Ambition.” He reports that in the beginning it was a perfectly respectable word meaning “labor for wages.” But with the passing of time the meaning of the word degenerated to describe something a person did “simply and solely for his [sic] own honor and glory and for his [sic] own profit.” The word is used seven times in the New Testament and always has a negative implication.

The best known and clearest usage of the word in the Bible is in the Apostle Paul’s instruction to Christians in Philippians 2:3a, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit” (NIV). I think the NIV’s addition of the adjective selfish to ambition captures the degeneration of the word Barclay traces. The NLT renders the warning, “Don’t be selfish; don’t live to make a good impression on others.” And in The Message Eugene Peterson has Paul caution, “Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top.”

In the next chapter in the letter Paul doesn’t use the actual word, but I think he is writing about his ambition and what I would call good ambition. He writes in Philippians 3:12-14, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

In his review of a book of essays about ambition James A.K. Smith makes a couple of observations that ring true and are descriptive of Paul’s ambition. One is that “the opposite of ambition is not humility; it is sloth, passivity, timidity, and complacency.” And he is right to note the ambitious are not always prideful and arrogant. His second observation is that “it is the telos [goal] of ambition that distinguishes good from bad, separating faithful aspiration from self-serving aggrandizement.”

At the age of 66 I am not as ambitious as I was in years gone by, but I haven’t lost all my ambition. I pray my ambitions are not self-serving or arrogant. I hope they are more in line with the Apostle Paul’s—to become more and more the person God has called me to be as a follower of Jesus.

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SECRET DISCIPLES?

In the book JESUS AMONG FRIENDS AND ENEMIES (edited by Chris Keith and Larry Hurtado) there is a chapter in the friends part titled “Secret Disciples.” David M. Allen presents a thoughtful discussion of two interesting characters in the biblical record: the two Jewish leaders Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Allen suggests the night visit of Nicodemus to Jesus (John 3:2) indicates “someone who is potentially sympathetic to Jesus but unwilling to express that publically” (p.158).  Citing John 19:38, Allen suggests Joseph of Arimathea became a “secret disciple, one who wishes to be associated with Jesus, but seemingly not in public.” (p. 167).

When I first saw the chapter title “Secret Disciples,” and still as I think about it now, I’m not sure a person can be a secret disciple. The terms sounds like a contradiction to me. The purpose of this post is not to criticize what Allen has written. His chapter is carefully researched and written, well worth reading. I want to use his essay to challenge and stimulate our thinking.

The New Testament seems to teach that the very nature of being a disciple means one has declared allegiance to Jesus. For example, in Matthew 10:32 Jesus promised, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus used two metaphors to describe His followers that contradict the idea of being a secret disciple. While neither “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13) nor “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14-16) demands a confession as such, it’s not easy to reconcile how a person could be both salt and light as a secret disciple. A Christian’s witness as salt and light does not have to be overt, but both do speak to a disciple’s influence.

One of my favorite New Testament teachings on this subject is in I Peter 3:15b, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks to give the reason for the hope that you have.” The instruction to be prepared to respond when asked about one’s faith suggests the believer’s lifestyle has created interest. Similar to the images of salt and light, living with an obvious hope that others take note of does not have to be overt. But equally important to the instruction of I Peter 3:15b is the manner in which the writer tells us we are to answer. I Peter 3:15c cautions, “But do this with gentleness and respect.” Too often Christians acknowledge Jesus before others and answer questions about their hope and faith without gentleness and respect. With gentleness and respect calls us not to be arrogant, or condescending, or combative, or judgmental.

To be potentially sympathetic to Jesus but unwilling to express that publically, or to wish to be associated with Jesus but not in public, hardly gives a person the opportunity to acknowledge Him, to be the salt of the earth or the light of the world, or to live in such a way that one would be asked the reason for his or her hope.

I have often told the story of a little boy answering the door with his mutt dog when a door to door salesman knocked. Trying to create goodwill, the salesman noted the dog and asked, “What kind of dog is that?” The boy proudly answered, “He’s a police dog.” Puzzled, the salesman remarked, “He doesn’t look like a police dog.” The boy responded, “He’s in the secret service.” There very well may be unique situations when it would be necessary to be a secret disciple; but generally speaking a secret disciple is an oxymoron.

What do you think?

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THE LOSS OF A FAMILY MEMBER

Jan and I lost a wonderful family member this past Saturday. Even though we knew it was coming, we are sad. She was 81, and had been diagnosed with terminal cancer several months ago. After Easter we traveled to Cincinnati and spent a few days with her while she was still alert and active. (The picture above is from that visit.)

Pat was special to us for a variety of reasons. She and Jan’s dad were married after Jan’s mom passed away over 34 years ago. She was a great partner for my father-in-law all those years, enriching his life until the end. As we would expect, at the age of 94 he is deeply wounded and filled with grief.

When my father-in-law married Pat our family immediately expanded. Pat had two daughters and a son; Jan’s dad had two sons and a daughter. Although Jan and her two brothers were gone, Pat’s two daughters (one still in high school) lived with them. Jan and I, her brothers, and Pat’s children and spouses all became family.

Jan and I never felt or thought of Pat as a step-mother; and I’m confident she never thought of Jan or her brothers as step-children. Nor did Jan’s dad ever consider Pat’s girls or son step-children. Having lived with them for a few years, Jan’s dad especially loved her girls and they loved him.

Pat took great interest in our two children and grandchildren as well as Jan’s nephews and niece. She was a real grandmother to our children and great-grandmother to our grandsons. Both our daughter and son are disappointed they cannot travel to Cincinnati to celebrate her life and mourn her loss with the rest of the family. I too am sorry I am not able to join them.

It was always great to visit Pat and Jan’s dad because of her gift and love of hospitality. She wanted everything to be perfect for us. Some of my favorite memories are our visits with them in Tucson during several winters. When in Cincinnati I sometimes felt guilty going out to lunch with friends or going to Skyline Chili because she always loved feeding us.

Pat Kissell was a woman who loved her family and friends and was deeply loved by them. The past few months have been difficult for many of us as we supported and encouraged her and each other through her final journey. As I have said to so many through the years who have lost loved ones, we will never get over our loss.

As I write this tribute the number one movie in our nation is Wonder Women. As a member of her extended family, I join with the rest of the family in thanking God for and grieving the passing of our Wonder Woman: Pat Kissell.

Please join me in praying for Pat’s family, for my wife Jan as she travels, and for Pat’s husband/Jan’s dad Bill.

 

 

THAT’S WHY WE’RE HERE

Several times since my wife and I moved to Texas something has happened that prompted one of us to say “That’s why we’re here.” We relocated to help our daughter, who has a full time job, with our two grandsons–ages 7 and 3. We talked and thought about moving for over a year, and finally pulled the trigger this past December. The past six months have proven to be even better than we imagined as we have become a vital part of the daily lives of our daughter and grandsons.

Their dog became ill and needed to be taken to the vet. Jan volunteered and said “that’s why we’re here.” Our younger grandson got strep throat and I stayed home with him one day. I told my daughter “that’s why we’re here.” Jan does so much around our daughter’s house that I have occasionally complained only to be reminded “that’s why we’re here.” It was my privilege to help coach our older grandson’s little league baseball team. One time the coach told me I didn’t have to carry the equipment, but I told him “that’s why we’re here.” I won’t bore you with more examples–I think you get the point.

As important as being fully engaged as grandparents is, there is more. On multiple occasions our new pastor has suggested to us that God had a reason for bringing us to our new church. We’re not yet totally sure what that is, but I have already preached on two weekends and we are talking about other ways I can serve. Not only are we plugging into our new church, I have had a variety of opportunities in other venues to preach, teach, and serve. I am especially excited to fill the position of teaching the Bible class at Amarillo High School beginning this fall.

Through the years I have often been asked by people who were discouraged or depressed or seriously ill, “Why am I still here?” Occasionally I have offered a reason or two, but I think it is better when I ask what they think the reason is. It is not always obvious, but there are reasons why all of us are where we are. The challenge, of course, is to realize there are reasons, explore what they may be, and then fulfill them.

The Texas Panhandle is the fourth place Jan and I have lived in the 43 years we have been married. There was a reason we lived on the west side of Cincinnati and I was youth pastor at Bridgetown Church of Christ for almost five years. There was reason we moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia and I was pastor of Delaware Valley Church of Christ for almost 10 years. There was a reason we moved to Moreno Valley, California, and I was the founding pastor of Discovery Christian Church where we stayed for 30 years.

As hard as it was to leave Southern California, we have not regretted our move to Texas. There is a reason we are here and we know at least in part what that reason is. And we look forward to realizing other reasons why we’re here.

Why are you where you are?

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THAT HURT!

Has anyone ever said something to you that hurt your feelings? Has anyone ever said something about you to someone else that was relayed to you that hurt? I sure have—many times, but mercifully, only a few I remember. I was reminded of the power of our words (and actions) to hurt others last week as I spoke with one friend who had been deeply hurt by the words of another friend.

The next day in my Bible reading I came across this in Ecclesiastes 8:9 (NIV), “All this I saw, as I applied my mind to everything under the sun. There is a time when a man lords it over others to his own [or to their] hurt.” Intrigued, I checked a few other translations:

New Living Translation: “I have thought deeply about all that goes on here under the sun, where people have the power to hurt each other.”

New Revised Standard Version: “All this I observed, applying my mind to all that is done under the sun while one person exercises authority over another to the other’s hurt.”

Contemporary English Version: “I noticed all this and thought seriously about what goes on in the world. Why does one person have the power to hurt another?”

The Message: “All this I observed as I tried my best to understand all that’s going on in this world. As long as men and women have the power to hurt each other, this is the way it is.”

I am no expert in the Hebrew language, but I think this verse includes not only physical hurt, but also hurting others with our words. Taking a cue from the biblical writer, I too gave serious thought to what my friend had shared with me the previous day. I was hurt because she was hurt and disappointed by what my other friend had said and done to her.

Earlier I said I have been hurt by both what others have said to me and by what others have said about me that got back to me. Equally important, however, if not more important, is the truth that I have said things to people that have hurt them as well as things to others about people that got back to them and hurt them. The purpose of this post is not just to alert and challenge readers about this matter, but also for me to confess my guilt in this area and commit to doing better myself. I am not referring to having fun teasing someone with no intention to hurt–however, we do need to be aware that sometimes our teasing hurts those we tease (especially when we go too far with it).

I think it also needs to be said that there are times when it is appropriate to hurt a friend with our words. Proverbs 27:6 (NIV) informs us, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” Wounds hurt, but sometimes our friends need to wound us with their words for our own good. It has never been pleasant, and I certainly don’t like it, but I am grateful for the times in my life when friends have appropriately wounded me with the goal of helping me. Even though it is meant to be helpful, and perhaps even necessary, a real friend will never delight in wounding a friend even when it is needed.

Back to being hurt by the words of someone, how should we respond? I have three suggestions for our consideration:

Try not to be defensive. It’s easier said than done, but try to let it roll off your back. Sometimes it may be helpful to set the record straight, but generally speaking ignoring it is probably best.

Try not to strike back. I’m confident the person who hurts us with words has shortcoming and faults we could attack, but for the most part escalation will not prove to be helpful.

Try not to be overly sensitive. Again, it is easier said than done–and I know because I am often overly sensitive to such things. But in the end, being overly sensitive just compounds our hurt.

To conclude these thoughts, here are two more verses from the book of Proverbs to contemplate:

Proverbs 12:18 (NLT), “Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing.”

Proverbs 15:4 (NLT), “Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.”

Lord,

Forgive me for hurting others with my words and help me do better. Empower me to appropriately respond to those who hurt me with their words. Guide me in knowing when and how to wound a friend for his or her own good. May my words encourage and build up others as well as honor and praise you.

Amen

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THE OTHER SIDE OF EASTER

In this fifth week after Easter I’m thinking about what took place after Jesus’ resurrection. The Gospels tell us that for 40 days Jesus appeared several times to his followers to encourage and instruct them. He appeared to Mary Magdalene Sunday morning (John 20:11-18), to two unnamed disciples in the afternoon (Luke 24:13-35), and to 10 of the apostles that evening (John 20:19 and 20). The following Sunday he appeared to the 11 apostles, this time including Thomas who was absent the week before (John 20:24-28). Later he appeared to seven of his disciples by the Sea of Galilee after which he restored Peter who had denied him (John 21:1-19). In I Corinthians 15:6 the Apostle Paul reports Jesus appeared “to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at the same time.”

After 40 days Jesus concluded these appearances with an important act that is rarely emphasized by his followers today: he ascended (returned) to heaven. Even though it is rarely emphasized, Ascension Day is on the church calendar on the sixth Thursday after Easter—the 40th day of Easter, this year on May 25. Jesus’ ascension is important in the New Testament—so much so that Luke reports it twice: at the end of his gospel in Luke 24:49-53 and at the beginning of the book of Acts in 1:9-11. Jesus’ exalted status seated at God’s right following his ascension is also important and frequently mentioned (Ephesians 1:20, Colossians 3:1, Hebrews 1:3, and others).

Those familiar with the Apostle’s Creed will remember the reference to Jesus’ ascension in it: He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. What are we to make of this part of the classic statement of the Christian faith often recited in many churches?

One thing we should realize is that the ascension marked the end of the resurrected Jesus’ appearances to his followers. Acts 1:9 reports “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” During the 40 days of his appearances he would appear and disappear, but this time was different. He had accomplished what he came to do and returned to the Father. The creed’s affirmation that Jesus “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father” summarizes the teaching of the New Testament.

The descriptive words of both Jesus’ “ascending to heaven” and being “seated at the right hand of the Father” are symbolic. One theologian warns us “It is important to realize that the ascension is not making a statement about cosmology and how to find heaven on an astronomical map” (Michael Bird). Another theologian suggests the imagery of being seated at the right hand of God means he has returned “to the close presence, power and majesty of his Father” (Alister McGrath).

Jesus returned to heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Father, but that does not mean he is absent from our world or us. Nor, in the words of James Bryan Smith, does it “mean he is up in heaven taking a long nap.”

In Matthew 18:20 Jesus promised “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them.” And in John 14:18 he told his apostles “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” The primary way Jesus is still with us today is through the Holy Spirit he promised following his ascension.

Ascended and sitting at the Father’s right hand, Jesus has been given absolute sovereignty. New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger put it this way: “That Christ ascended and now sits at the right hand of God means that he lives and rules with all the authority and power of God himself.”

Jesus is also talking to the Father about us. In Romans 8:34 the Apostle Paul writes Christ Jesus “is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” The writer of Hebrews affirms as our high priest Jesus “always lives to intercede for those who come to God through him” (Hebrews 7:25).

To conclude this post let’s return to the account of Jesus’ ascension in Acts 1. After “a cloud hid him from [the Apostles’] sight” and “they were looking intently up into the sky” a couple of angels asked them why they were looking into the sky. Then the angels affirmed, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Jesus will return!

In Philippians 2:9-11, after talking about Jesus’ death on the cross, the Apostle Paul takes his readers from the ascension to the second coming, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

(The title of this post was borrowed from my pastor, Jim Shelburne of Washington Avenue Christian Church.)

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