Veneer or Solid Wood?

March 27, 2020

When I was a small child, I remember a dresser which had veneer. If you are wondering what veneer is, the dictionary definition of veneer is “a thin decorative covering of fine wood applied to a coarser wood or other material.” This dresser had seen better days, so some pieces of veneer were missing or loose. As a curious child I noticed the difference between the beautiful veneer and the coarse wood beneath. And truth be told, I wanted to pull on the veneer to see more, much to my Mother’s dismay.

As an adult, I have a couple of pieces of furniture from my family which are solid wood. The veneer dresser, by the way, is long gone. One of these pieces of furniture is an oak end table. I remember when it was purchased at an antique store. It too had seen better days. But being solid wood, the beauty of the oak was restored to its former glory, because it was oak all the way down. It was solid wood.

I cannot help but feel that we as Christians are being tested by the Covid-19 pandemic. If we can’t assemble together, will we worship God in smaller groups? God continues to be worthy of worship. In fact, our English word, worship, has as its etymology “acknowledgement of worth.” God is still our creator. God is still our redeemer. God is still the one who reveals himself through his word. God’s providence hasn’t failed. I still have blessings, and God still deserves thanksgiving.

What I fear is that this past Sunday, God received less worship, less praise, and less thanksgiving than the week before. And if my fear is true, it is not because churches weren’t trying to provide resources for their members. It seems to me that a crisis is exactly the time to turn to God even more devotedly. So I want to make clear the challenge for us.

On Paul’s Second Missionary Journey, he and Silas were arrested in Philippi. They were placed in stocks in the inner prison. Roman prisons had less creature comforts than our modern jails and prisons, and I wouldn’t want to live in a modern one let less a Roman prison. Not only were they in jail, but Paul and Silas were placed in the most secure part of that prison. Their feet were placed in stocks, a device to confine their extremities and make it impossible to escape. And I thought long flights in economy class were uncomfortable. I can’t imagine the discomfort felt by Paul and Silas. And yet, what did they do? “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25 ESV). Paul and Silas didn’t stop worshipping and praying when times were tough or even when they couldn’t be in an assembly with others.

So the question is a simple one. Will we continue to worship and pray? Is our Christianity more like a thin layer of veneer, or are we solid wood all the way down?

— Russ Holden

*Oxford Dictionary of English, see under veneer and worship.


Christian Living and Covid-19

March 20, 2020

Covid-19 has changed our lives. Most churches are cancelling their assemblies because of the CDC’s recommendation of not having a gathering of more than 10. These have been difficult decisions for church leaders. The kind of closings we are experiencing haven’t occurred since the Spanish Influenza of 1918. By the way, most church leaders closed church doors during that time, but they reminded Christians of the things we can continue to do. So let me remind you of the things we can do as we face this present crisis.

Christians Pray In Times of Crisis. Paul writes, “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” (1 Timothy 2:1–2 ESV). Our leaders certainly need our prayers at a time like this. And we should remember our church leaders as they struggle with these issues as well.

I’ve read articles asking whether Covid-19 is the plague of Revelation. My short answer is no. My convictions about Revelation is that it is written about the persecutions of the early church by the Roman Empire, so that Revelation 1-19 is dealing with Roman persecution and the Fall of Rome.

My longer answer goes something like this. God did use natural disasters and armed conflict to punish nations. We see this in the prophets. But it would be presumptuous of me to say that this crisis is a punishment from God. You need a prophet to say that. But I think it is wise to use any calamity as a time to examine ourselves spiritually. I’ve been saying for decades that we need to pray for spiritual revival in our country. So whether this is sent from God or not, this is a good time to pray for revival, to pray for the spiritual condition of our country and our world.

A crisis brings a certain amount of anxiety into our lives. So let me remind you of a couple of passages.

“casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7 ESV)

“do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6 ESV)

Scripture gives us prayer as an important way of dealing with worry. I don’t want to live a life of fear even now. Prayer and trusting in God’s providence is my way of dealing with life’s difficulties and this current crisis.

Christians Worship in Times of Crisis. We are facing a situation where many church buildings may closed for worship this Sunday all around our country due to Covid-19. But Christian worship is simple in what we do, and profound in what it means. So my hope is that families or a few people may get together and worship this Sunday minding the CDC’s recommendation about groups not larger than 10. I’ll miss the assembly, and I will want to get back to regular church life as soon as possible. But Christian worship scales down to where two or more are gathered in my name and scales up to the largest assemblies that we have. I think if a family has children, this will make a lasting impression on them. Christians always worship God. We worship God because he is worthy of worship. We can’t even let a pandemic stop our worship and praise to God.

Christians Serve in Times of Crisis. Christians always serve others, but a time of crisis may present additional opportunities. Our congregation is making certain that people who can’t get out at this time have food and supplies. We are also cooperating with Feeding America to offer special food pantry days to serve the community. You may be able to find such opportunities in your own life. You may know neighbors who are in the high risk category who need help.

I have multiple myeloma. I underwent a stem cell transplant where they kill your immune system with chemotherapy and then reboot it with your own stem cells. I tell you this, because I know what it is like to be quarantined. It’s bit lonely, and you feel a little stir-crazy. I think all of us may be feeling that in the coming days. I want to emphasize how important phone calls were to me while I was going through my quarantine. One way you may serve others is reaching out to them with a phone call. You may brighten someone’s day, and you may find out other ways you can serve them.

Christians serve, and Christians certainly serve in times of crisis. When we do, it makes our faith real to us and real to others.

May God be with you through this time of crisis.

— Russ Holden


What Jesus Means to Me

March 13, 2020

Jesus is the wisdom of God. I probably would not have called it wisdom as I was first coming to know Jesus. The more common phrase would be moral teaching. But it may very well be that Jesus attracts us at this beginning point, and we begin to connect with him.

The moral teachings are accessible. Even a child can understand the basics. The greatest command is to love God with all of our being. The second greatest command is to love our neighbor as ourself. We need to control our anger. We shouldn’t lie. Jesus teaches us a simple beginner’s prayer. We need to trust God as our heavenly Father. We must build our house on the rock, and not be like the foolish man who builds his house on the sand.

As we mature, it may hit us how challenging some of these teachings are. To love our enemies is not an easy task. To go the second mile may chafe us like an ill-fitting suit. We may also grasp that Jesus is the wisdom of God because he has come from the Father. Jesus is the one who has come down from heaven to reveal God. “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus is Immanuel — God with us.

Jesus is the gift of God. At a young age I learned “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” Jesus died for my sins.

To understand those words, we must come to accept that God is holy. The basic human problem is sin — moral failure. My moral failings estrange me from God. They lead to my spiritual death if not forgiven. Forgiveness is possible because of a life sacrificed in my place. Jesus is that sacrifice, that offering.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Seen by witnesses and predicted by prophecy, the resurrection is also God’s great affirmation of Jesus. Sin and death are conquered. New creation has begun. In Christ, I am a new creation having been born again of the Holy Spirit. With God’s help, a moral transformation is at work in my life. The same Spirit will raise me from the dead giving me a resurrection body or transform me in the blinking of an eye if I’m alive at Jesus’ coming. Because of Jesus we experience new life now, and we look forward to resurrection and life with God for eternity.

Jesus is wisdom, a gift, and life. And Jesus is so much more. Jesus means much to me. What does Jesus mean to you?

—Russ Holden


Don’t Be Worldly Like Esau

March 6, 2020

Hebrews uses Esau as an instructive, bad example. Encouragements to avoid certain behaviors occurs in Hebrews 12:15-17. The part about Esau reads, “unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” (Hebrews 12:16–17, ESV) The overall appeal in the larger section is to see that no one fails to obtain the grace of God. The author surveys several ways that it can happen, but it is worth focusing for a moment on Esau.

Hebrews calls Esau “profane” (KJV, NKJV); “godless” (NASB, NIV, NET); “unholy” (ESV); “irreverent” (CSB); or “irreligious” (FHV). The Greek word, βέβηλος (bebēlos, Strong’s Number 1013), has an etymology of “walk” and “threshhold.” The idea was is to be beyond the threshold of a temple, and therefore be in profane space. And from there, the word deals with the attitude of living without regards to the holy. It describes the profane or worldly person. Esau wasn’t thinking about spiritual things or the promises of God. The underlying problem in Esau’s life was his worldliness. Hebrews is warning us: don’t be worldly like Esau.

Esau is also incredibly shortsighted. All of us have to decide between short-term needs and benefits versus long-term needs and benefits. Esau was legitimately hungry and thirsty. But Jacob would only give Esau some of his stew if Esau sold his birthright (see Genesis 25:29-34). The birthright included a double portion of the inheritance, a special blessing, and leadership in the family. In a family with two sons, it means Esau paid one third of the inheritance for one meal besides the other things he was giving up. The price was too high! Surely there was another way to meet his needs, but Esau was only looking at the short-term.

Esau experienced great regret for his wordiness and shortsightedness. There came a time “when he desired to inherit the blessing” (see Genesis 27:34). But he was rejected. As Hebrews says, “for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears” (Hebrews 12:17, ESV). We see Esau’s regret in the historical narrative of his life. He missed the spiritual, so he serves as a great reminder that missing the grace of God will lead to regret at the judgment. At the judgment, if we have missed God’s grace in this life, we will regret it, but there will be no further opportunity for repentance. We must learn from Esau.

“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.” Don’t be worldly and shortsighted like Esau.

— Russ Holden


For Such a Worm as I

February 28, 2020

I remember a song leader who stopped every time he led “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?” and drew our attention to the end of the first verse.

Would he devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

He would instruct us to sing instead, “For such a one as I.” He would remind us that we are valuable in God’s eyes. “We are not worms!” he would say. I suppose he was concerned about our self-images when called worms. And yes, I know that some people have grown up in toxic environments. But I’ve always considered that such steps were missing the point of the poetry as well as missing a biblical allusion. A proper explanation could help the person from a toxic environment as well as changing the word. Unfortunately, song book editors have also followed suit. You won’t find “worm” in the first verse of this song in our current song books either. “For such a one as I” is the substitute.

Isaac Watts wrote the lyrics to this hymn. I suspect that there is a biblical allusion behind the end of the first verse. People familiar with Scripture should recognize it. (People not being familiar with Scripture is part of the problem.) The passage is Isaiah 41:14.

Fear not, you worm Jacob,
you men of Israel!
I am the one who helps you, declares the LORD;
your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 41:14 ESV)

In context, it is God who calls Jacob “you worm.” And by Jacob, he means the nation of Israel. Worm in this passage doesn’t mean worthless, but it emphasizes that the nation is weak and helpless in comparison to God. It is God who helps and delivers them. In the same way, when it comes to our salvation from sin, I am weak as a worm. I can’t save myself.

Now I’m not lobbying to get “worm” back in the lyric. I can sing the line either way. But I think it is a cautionary tale. Do we know our Bibles well enough to recognize allusions in our hymns? When the world is crying out about something like self-image, do we know the Bible well enough to give a scriptural response? The Bible doesn’t focus on self-esteem but has us focus outwardly on God. When we do, we get a proper sense of self. When we love as God has inspired and instructed us, we also heal the hurts of this broken world.

The hymn having drawn the contrast between “the sacred head” that was offered and my helplessness as a worm, it boldly commits; “Here, Lord, I give myself away, ’Tis all that I can do!”

— Russ Holden


The Approval of Sin

February 21, 2020

We are introduced to the Apostle Paul at the stoning of Stephen. This is before his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road and his conversion. In fact, this incident in his life introduces him in Acts, and then tells how he became a persecutor of the church. What is Paul’s role at the stoning of Stephen? “And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58 ESV). Paul isn’t throwing stones at Stephen, but his presence at this scene is sympathetic with those who do. The text then reads, “And Saul approved of his execution” (Acts 8:1 ESV). Paul approves of the murder of Stephen and so participates in the sin by his approval.

Paul uses the same word “approves” in Romans 1:32. In this section of Romans, Paul has described humanity which has failed to acknowledge or give thanks to God. He depicts a downward spiral of wrong behavior, and he concludes the section with a series of sins. We are not really convicted of sin until we are convicted of specific sins. But notice the end of the list.

Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:32 ESV)

I don’t think we can mistake Paul’s statement. To approve sin is sin

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In our current world, the definition of tolerance has changed. It used to be that tolerance involved the ability to kindly disagree. We granted the other freedom of speech and were willing to compete in the marketplace of ideas for the minds of people. The new tolerance means acceptance of other views as true or at least as true as your own. Failure to do that is viewed as being intolerant. Obviously, the person who believes in moral absolutes cannot agree with such a position, but he or she can be tolerant in the older definition of the term.

The first century culture would have accepted Christianity, if only Christians would have recognized the pagan gods as valid ways to truth. Christians couldn’t do this without compromising their faith, and some paid with their lives. We face a similar conflict, although we are long way from the persecution of the first century. Our culture will tolerate a compromised Christianity, one that will acknowledge many ways to truth and the validity of all values. But here’s the rub. To approve sin is sin.

Our goal should be to approve of what God approves and disapprove of what God forbids. We must stand for truth and morality as revealed by God. That approach will be unacceptable to many people in our society, and we must accept the fact that there will be opposition to us. But we must not fall into the trap of approving sin. To approve of sin is sin.

— Russ Holden


The Challenges of Discipleship

February 15, 2020

Jesus is about to leave the crowds behind him and cross the Sea of Galilee. Two men come to him expressing their desire to follow him: one is identified as a scribe and the other man as “another of the disciples.”

The scribe says, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” I suspect we would do everything to sign this man up. Jesus, however, reminds him of the challenges of discipleship. Jesus replies, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20, ESV). If we were to distill this colorful statement, it seems to mean: The disciple must value Jesus above material comfort and possessions.

It’s a challenging statement especially for those of us living in the United States. We have very comfortable lives. Even the circumstances of our poor can be favorably contrasted with the past and with third world nations today. So how do I apply this principle? A few will become missionaries and go into third world nations and not live as comfortably as we do here. But even for those of us who stay in the USA, we may practice generosity pleasing to Jesus and so live below our means in order to be generous. And who knows what the future may bring on a national or international scale? Regardless of what happens, we must value Jesus above our comfort and possessions.

The second man identified as “another of the disciples” begins with a request: “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” (Matt. 8:21, ESV). Jesus replies, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matt. 8:22, ESV). As we look at Jesus’ cryptic reply, we see some who are literally dead and needing burial. But Jesus says to allow “the dead” to do the burial. Obviously, the first “dead” cannot be literal, because literally dead people don’t bury literally dead people. So, the first dead must be figurative and most likely the spiritually dead who are not responding to the call to follow Jesus. What’s the principle for us to learn? Disciples must value Jesus above earthly relationships.

Fortunately, following Jesus does not always require separation. It is only when they force a choice between family or Jesus. (See also Matt. 10:35-37, Luke 14:26). But it can happen. I knew a new Christian in college who had converted from Judaism and his parents had cut him off: he was dead to them. Converts from Islam will often lose family and in some settings face the danger of losing their lives. Jesus is making a point. The disciple must value Jesus above earthly relationships.

Jesus wants us to know up front the challenges of discipleship. The value of following Jesus is higher than every earthly value, because Jesus offers the eternal. This is not always easy, but always worth it. As we make and renew our commitment, Jesus wants us to ponder the challenges of discipleship.

— Russ Holden