Reflecting on Time

August 17, 2018

When I was a child summers seemed like they were an eternity long, but now that I’m older I perceive time moving at a much faster pace. Of course, children may find the long car trip to be an eternity, and as parents we hear the annoying, “Are we there yet?” I suspect some of our perception of time has to do with this: for an eight-year-old one year is 1/8 of his or her lifetime, and for a sixty-five-year-old, one year is 1/65 of his or her lifetime. As we accumulate years, they become a smaller percentage of the total. You hear older people talking about and event, and they’ll say, “Has it really been ten years, it seems like only yesterday.”

We must all deal with the flow of time. Yesterday is past; tomorrow is uncertain. I have what the author of Hebrews calls “Today” reflecting on Psalm 95. Matt Perman gives four helpful adjectives to time.*

Time is inelastic. We’ve all experienced it. A deadline looms, and we have too much to do. We wish we had more time than anybody else on the planet. If somehow, we could have our own personal, extra day. I’ve mused about that with sermons and Sunday coming. The Jews had a lunar calendar so periodically they had to insert intercalary months or days to match the solar year. If I could just have that intercalary day between Friday and Saturday, sermon preparation would be easier. But time doesn’t stretch. It is inelastic.

Time is perishable. You can store money in your savings account. You can store canned goods and staples in your pantry and frozen foods in your freezer to eat later. But you can’t store up time to spend later when you need it. Seven days in a week, 24 hours in a day, and 365 days in a year, but no extra time to insert as needed. We only have today.

Time is irreplaceable. Great cooks know about substituting missing ingredients. You are missing 1 teaspoon of baking powder, so you use ⅓ teaspoon of baking soda and ½ teaspoon of cream of tartar. Some ingredients in life can be substituted, but not time.

Time is necessary. You can find activities that don’t require money. You may find some things to do that can be done alone and do not acquire other people. But everything we do requires time. Time is necessary.

Given our relationship with time, I want to live fully for God. I want to be wise. I ponder the following. “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalms 90:12, ESV). “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15–16, ESV). I give thanks for today.

*Matt Perman, How to Get Unstuck, pp. 165-166.


But It’s Not Perfect

August 10, 2018

The local church is not heaven. Heaven will be a place of perfection. No sin. No problems. No conflicts. Although the church is made up of forgiven people, it is not made of perfect people. Regrettably, problems can arise, and these can even disturb the faith of some. We need to remind ourselves, that even in the New Testament we can read about people in the church attempting to resolve problems.

In Acts 6:1-7, the Hellenistic Jewish widows were being neglected. It involved the church’s ministry and matters had reached a crisis. The apostles commanded that seven men to be chosen, so they could be appointed over this need. Fairness was restored. Afterwards, the church grew even more.

In Acts 15:36-41, Paul and Barnabas had a serious disagreement as to whether John Mark should be taken on the next missionary journey. It involved matters of judgment, but I bet it was a bit tense in the Antioch church until that matter was resolved, but good came out of it.

In Galatians 2:11-21, the apostle Paul opposed the apostle Peter because he was not eating with Gentiles for fear of the circumcision party. This was a matter of doctrine, and my guess is that it was difficult for the friends of Peter and Paul to see such a disagreement arise. Yet an important doctrinal point was made; Peter was prevented from going the wrong direction. Later in life, Peter was able to write commendably of Paul (see 2 Peter 3:14-16).

I have to admit there are probably times when all of us would like to quit. Working with people can seem so hard. Why can’t I just go out in the middle of a field and worship alone! The reason is simple. God has called me to be a part of an assembly of people—the church (Hebrews 10:23-25). God in His infinite wisdom knows I need others for the maturing process that goes on in Christian living. The process is sometimes painful, but I must trust the Potter as He molds me, His clay.

What do we do while we wait for the perfection of heaven? “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1–3, ESV).


More than a Melody

August 3, 2018

It may be significant that Eutychus didn’t fall asleep during the singing (Acts 20:9). The song service for most of us is the easiest part in which to stay awake and involved. Occasionally, one will hear of singings until midnight, but when the preaching is continued until midnight (Acts 20:7), many of us would be like Eutychus.

This observation is not made to suggest that we do away with preaching, but rather to note that most of us enjoy singing. Music is powerful and brings us much joy. It has great appeal, but in worship we need to remind ourselves that it should be more than a melody.

In Your Hearts to God. Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 reminds us that the singing is not just for enjoyment but is directed to God. It is possible for an atheist to come in and sing our songs, and quite possibly enjoy the aesthetic of the experience, but that would not be acceptable worship. Singing is worship directed to God.

With the Understanding. Paul has repeatedly made this point in 1 Corinthians 14 (see verse 15 for the one on singing), because apparently the Corinthians coming out of their pagan past thought they could worship acceptably with minds disengaged. Understanding is an essential ingredient for Christian worship. Do you understand what you sing (“beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand,” “here I raise my Ebenezer”*)?

In Truth. Jesus’ words “worship in spirit and in truth” apply to songs as well. Is the song true and contain what is pleasing to God? Erik Routley in Hymns Today and Tomorrow states:

A congregation’s disposition toward right belief or away from it is subtly influenced by the habitual use of hymns. No single influence in public worship can surely condition a congregation to self-deception, to fugitive follies, to religious perversities, as thoughtlessly chosen hymns. The singing congregation is uncritical, but it matters very much what it sings, for it comes to believe its hymns. Wrong doctrine in preaching would be noticed; in hymns, it may come to be believed.

Thank God we have this powerful and joyful means of worship — our singing. May it always be to the Lord with understanding and in truth.

*Fain=gladly, Ebenezer = stone of help and is an allusion to 1 Samuel 7:12.


Optimism Versus Hope

July 27, 2018

N.T. Wright makes an interesting observation on the differences between optimism and hope.

“Hope” and “optimism” are not the same thing. The optimist looks at the world and feels good about the way it’s going. Things are looking up! Everything is going to be all right! But hope, at least as conceived within the Jewish and then the early Christian world, was quite different. Hope could be, and often was, a dogged and deliberate choice when the world seemed dark. It depended not on a feeling about the way things were or the way they were moving, but on faith, faith in the One God.*

Optimism deals with positive circumstances despite whatever problems may exist. Hope in God takes us beyond the circumstances. The circumstances may in fact be bleak, but hope sees light in the darkness because of what God has promised.

Let me explain the differences with my own health situation. I’m optimistic about my multiple myeloma prognosis. I’m blessed to live in a moment of history where treatment options are what they are. Life expectancy is three to four times longer than what it was five years ago. I’m blessed to live in a city with cutting edge medical treatment. I have a great team of doctors dealing with my ongoing treatment and stem cell transplant. My hematologist says that with treatment I could live another 15 to 20 years. (I’m very aware there are no guarantees, and something else could kill me.) At my age, that puts me in the Psalm 90’s range of “seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty.” I also know that not all cancers are the same. Some cancers are terminal with short time left to the patient; other cancers are more like chronic conditions. In those cases, doctors talk about living with cancer. But with my physical health at the moment, I’m optimistic. Outward circumstances look good.

But my physical health will not always be optimistic. I will get older, and my disease will likely progress unless there is a cure in the offing. But there is no cure for old age and dying unless the Lord returns first. Mary Hornburger had multiple myeloma. When I found out, I had to look up what it was. My visits to her were probably always more encouraging to me than to her. She was a woman of great faith. I was seeing her near the end of her disease. She was weak, tired, and in many ways ready to die. Her physical health was no longer optimistic. The outward circumstances were not positive, but her hope saw light in the darkness because of what God had promised. She knew where she was headed.

Hope is not dependent on the outward circumstances of life. I’ve become convinced and have faith in Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, and that changes everything. Jesus has promised eternal life and place in his Father’s house to those who have faith in him. Paul was facing Roman execution, yet his words brim with hope (2 Timothy 4:6-8) for he knew the crown of righteousness that awaited him. Hope in Christian thinking is not wishful thinking but faithful expectation.

I like Wright’s phrase, hope is “a dogged and determined choice.” I must keep my faith strong and hold firmly to hope. Some stumble and fall on the Christian walk, but hope is worth the perseverance. Even when the circumstances are bleak, hope sees the light of what God has promised. Optimism will fail. Hope leads us home.

*N.T. Wright, Paul: A Biographyh, p. 45


“President/Owner”

July 20, 2018

Computers are wonderful machines, but one of their less desirable traits is the ability to generate tones of supposedly “personalized” mail. We recently received an envelope with the following:

PRESIDENT/OWNER
GRANDVILLE CHURCH OF CHRIST

No doubt we were on a mailing lists mainly of businesses for which the addressee of President/Owner was more appropriate, but with that title staring me in the face, I couldn’t help but think.

In a sense we do have a “President/Owner,” although the more familiar and biblical terms are “Lord” and “head of the church.” (Ephesians 1:22, 5:23) God is in fact the sole owner. No stocks were sold; no shareholders were invited to participate in the financing. Christ alone gave His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). That should say something about the kind of allegiance we owe him.

He has even given us inter-office memos and memorandums to follow. We call them the New Testament. He has set up an organization to provide for the proper training of people. “ And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…” (Ephesians 4:11–12, ESV). And he has even been known to threaten closing down a “branch office” when it failed to live up to the task. “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Revelation 2:5, ESV).

We are conditioned to give due respect to presidents, urgent memos, job training, and the like. When we turn from the world of business to the church, let us not loose reverence for our Lord, urgency for His word, dedication to his training, and respect for His warnings. He is after all our “President/Owner.”


Why Not Me?

July 13, 2018

A tragedy or calamity can be difficult to take. In my own case, that difficulty has been the diagnosis of multiple myeloma. Admittedly, there is stress and adjustment that must come. And with it comes a very human question: why me?

But I’ve not allowed myself to dwell on this question. I have felt it one that should be immediately dismissed. The problem with the question is that it is unanswerable, and it leads to self-pity. The question presupposes that calamities should not come into the life of the questioner.

Dismissing the question has meant reflecting on the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. Proverbs 3:16 says this about wisdom:

Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. (Proverbs 3:16, ESV)

The Book of Proverbs presents general truths. In other words, a person who lives according to God’s wisdom is more likely to live longer, be able to take care of material needs, and have a good reputation. Yet we all know that good people die young, that natural calamities can destroy wealth, and that evil people can steal and slander good people. The rest of the wisdom literature helps us nuance these general truths.

The Book of Job lets us know that the righteous person may suffer. Job suffers from the acts of lawless Sabeans, natural calamities, bereavement, and illness. The conflict in the book surrounds Job’s friends’ attempts to convince him that his troubles are the consequence of his own wickedness. The Book of Job confirms that the good person may suffer. But the end of the book doesn’t so much answer our questions as say God knows how to run the creation. Trust him.

Ecclesiastes has its characteristic lament: vanity of vanities. The Hebrew word is hevel which means breath or vapor. The phrase emphasizes that life for all of us is transitory, and it suggests that it can be enigmatic — vapor, think of the fog in a morning, can obscure things from our view. We do not have God’s viewpoint.

Ecclesiastes also reminds us we don’t know why good things come to some and miss others.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11, ESV)

We don’t know why certain people are in the wrong place at the wrong time. “But time and chance happen to them all.” In Ecclesiastes 8:14, we find that sometimes the righteous seem to get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked receive what we think the righteous should get. Ecclesiastes in the end asks us to trust God: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13, ESV).

For the Christian, the problem of this life is that we live in between the perfection of the Garden of Eden and the perfection of the New Jerusalem when God will wipe away all tears and make everything new. In this in-between time, death, disease, calamities, accidents, and evil deeds happen. And they can happen to all kinds of people: both the good and the bad.

In ministry I’ve been with people as they experienced the most terrible struggles of their lives. I’ve seen people of great faith face the challenges of this in-between time. I’ve witnessed their faith and hope. The interesting thing about difficulties is that people of God often find within these difficulties God’s providential care. So, as I face my own challenges, I’ve come to realize that “Why me?” is the wrong question. Rather the challenge must be faced with faith and hope. If it can happen to the people of faith I know, why not me?


The Uzzah Fallacy

July 6, 2018

David desired to bring the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. The ark had been left at the house of Abinadad for decades since its return by the Philistines (1 Samuel 7:1). They approached this task with great joy and sincerity (2 Samuel 6:5). A new cart was acquired for this purpose. Two men, Uzzah and Ahio, took pains to see that it was properly guided, but the whole enterprise ended in tragedy:

And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:6–7, ESV)

David frightened and angry returned to Jerusalem without the ark. But David doesn’t remain dejected. Something wonderful took place — the scriptures were searched, and a valuable lesson was learned. When the Levites were prepared for the second attempt to get the ark, David shared the painful truth he had learned.

Because you did not carry it the first time, the LORD our God broke out against us, because we did not seek him according to the rule. (1 Chronicles 15:13, ESV)

Amazingly, David and his associates had either failed to read the regulations concerning the transport of the ark (Exodus 25:10-22, 37:1-9, Numbers 4:15-20, 7:9) or failed to obey them. The death of Uzzah was avoidable and in a sense predictable.

What is bothersome about this episode is that we know the king was commanded to have his own copy of the law that “he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes” (Deuteronomy 17:19, ESV). The priest was “to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the LORD has spoken” (Lev 10:11, ESV). Both failed. The second time they transport the ark it is a different story.

And the Levites carried the ark of God on their shoulders with the poles, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the LORD (1 Chronicles 15:15, ESV).

Uzzah is a warning example to our confused and confusing religious world. Many seem to commit the Uzzah fallacy. They approach religious faith with enthusiasm but fail to take seriously the question: how does the Lord want this to be done? Let us remember to inquire of God for what he would have us to do.