Category Archives: Theological Reflections

Hints about Writing and Storytelling


 

Telling Your Story Is the Best Way to Witness

But there is one more important reason to recognize and write stories. Our stories are one of the best ways we have to witness without presumption to the “mighty acts of God.” Jesus asked his disciples to be his witnesses. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). He was really asking them to be His storytellers. Through the careful writing and telling of our stories, we shift a story about “me,” and use it as a testimony that demonstrates God’s intimate role in the life of people. Our stories remind the listener that God is actively pursuing every human on earth. His pursuit transcends religion, nationality, and race. That pursuit is a moment-by-moment process with significant events occurring at unforeseen and unpredictable times. The most spiritual people of the world may arguably be those who carefully build a structure in their life that heightens their awareness of God’s interaction in their life.

Some of the best of life is lost because important experiences are not recognized, are not written, and are not retold. If you don’t think your story is important enough to write and tell, then you have missed so much of what God has been trying to share with you. Your story is a LOVE STORY about God’s love for you. You cannot predict the importance of one of your stories. Erin Morgenstern wrote in The Night Circus, “You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”1

The 23rd Psalm–David’s Best


IMG_0831This Psalm used to be one of the most memorized chapters of the Bible. It was probably the only chapter that most Christians knew by heart. I love it because it teaches us about the nature of God. I suspect that God revealed these truths to David while he sat alone at night tending his sheep.

Here is what I have learned from David’s reflections.

God is a personal caretaker of all who listen for His voice.  “The Lord is my shepherd” (vs. 1)

God is the great provider of our needs.  “I shall not be in want” (vs. 1).

God is a divine and perfect leader. “He leads me beside still waters” (vs. 2)

God provides constant opportunities to renew one’s faith.  “He restores my soul” (vs. 3)

God is always around interacting in our life. “For you are with me” (vs. 4).

God ultimately wins. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (vs. 4).

God is intent on us reaching the highest ethic possible. “He guides me in the path of righteousness” (vs. 5).

 

God is good and loving. “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life (vs. 6).

God is eternal. “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (vs. 6).

 

We All Have Plenty of Pain–Can We Turn It To Gain?


Pain or Gain? Snippet #1
Every human being endures a variety of pains or suffering in his/her life. And, only to a limited degree, does right living endorsed by the discipline of the Christian faith shield us from certain types of suffering. Helmut Thielicke, a noted theologian, says that one of the greatest defects of many Christian leaders is their erroneous teaching that the faithful will not suffer. That is a ridiculous myth. Everyone will suffer–the key is learning to do what is necessary to transform pain into gain. And, everyone would love to know how to do that. Scripture and other sources of wisdom can help. But for today–expect to suffer, but don’t always think that pain is your fault!

Pain or Gain? Snippet #2

Pain and suffering are part and parcel of the human predicament. Focusing on the possible futility of life because of pain and suffering played a part in the birth of nihilism–the unfortunate philosophical position that life has no meaning. The nihilists get lost in the quandary of their suffering and consider life not worth living. The good news is we can find a resting place through our faith while suffering.

Pain or Gain? Snippet #3

The German and Danish words for crisis are angst and angustia, which mean “to be in a squeeze”. Pain puts in the squeeze. The word distress appears 229 times in the Old Testament. In fact the Jews have always been surrounded with suffering. Why should the followers of the most famous Jew be any different? Jesus endured the weight of the world’s sin upon his shoulders. Can you imagine the suffering the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life? It was as bad an end to life as anyone can imagine. Yet, in a matter of 72 hours the angst of pain transforms supernaturally into eternal hope. Now that is going through pain to arrive at perfect gain.

Pain or Gain? Snippet #4

Life is not always a bowl of cherries. Erma Bombeck wrote “Sometimes it is the pits.” Babies get a simple sample when they pass through the birth canal under incredible physical duress, are thrust into an environment where they nearly catch a chill, get their butt slapped by a doctor 40 times their size, have to lay in wet and dirty diapers, sometimes suffer diaper rash, get fed when someone else is ready, have to eat spinach, and sooner or later fall out of bed. They face all of that with little understanding of the word HOPE. But, they make it. I have learned that despite some bad moments, days, and months, the future has incredible possibilities for love, joy, and peace. I plan to hang around for the gain even in the face of pain.

Pain or Gain? Snippet #5

The anatomy of pain and crisis is not easy to summarize, but the crisis of the crucifixion of Jesus outlines a helpful insight to approach pain and grief. The Lord was aware that he was in crisis from the time he arrived in Jerusalem and handled it with the dignity and spiritual stature that we would want to emulate. We have to believe that Jesus walked so boldly through those days of pain because he had one eye focused on the future victory of the resurrection and eternity while the rest of his body endured the pain of the present. Although no pain compares to the burden of dying for the sins of world, any pain we might face is lowered by focusing on the reward of eternal life.

Pain or Gain? Snippet #6

We can identify eight clear stages of pain and suffering.

  1. There is the build-up toward the crisis. (We can see many crisis approaching.)
  2. There is the tremendous weight of the emotional, mental, and physical pain of the crisis.
  3. There is our reaction to the crisis whether depression, anger, denial, shock, immobility, disbelief, lashing out, etc.
  4. There is trying to understand and interpret the meaning of the crisis or pain.
  5. There is an opportunity to not bear the weight of the crisis alone. (Think about who is best equipped to help.)
  6. There is a time to learn and grow from the crisis. (It is actually an opportunity to grow closer to God.)
  7. There is a time to decide upon our response to the crisis. (Try to find scriptures that identifies possible responses.)
  8. There is an opportunity to turn God for hope in what may seem hopeless. (The suffering and then risen Lord reminds us that “Because He Lives We can Face Tomorrow.”)

Pain or Gain? Snippet #7

Here are four concrete ways to deal with a crisis.

  1. We are adequate to face every crisis if we keep up our stability, endurance, faith, and hope. We need to review every crisis in the light of those four resources.
  2. It is ultimately your choice to decide how you will respond best to a crisis. No one should rob you of making that decision.
  3. Hope remains the best aid to enduring a crisis. If we can keep focused on the future that always includes God’s power to give us the maximum victory, there is no way to lose.
  4. Any crisis is best met by taking the crisis to God in solitude and then quietly wait for the healing and strength of Jesus to fill your mind, heart, and body.

The words of the hymn “Trust and Obey” summarize it well.

Refrain:

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

When we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word,
What a glory He sheds on our way!
While we do His good will, He abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey.

Refrain

Not a shadow can rise, not a cloud in the skies,
But His smile quickly drives it away;
Not a doubt or a fear, not a sigh or a tear,
Can abide while we trust and obey.

Refrain

Not a burden we bear, not a sorrow we share,
But our toil He doth richly repay;
Not a grief or a loss, not a frown or a cross,
But is blessed if we trust and obey.

Refrain

But we never can prove the delights of His love
Until all on the altar we lay;
For the favor He shows, for the joy He bestows,
Are for them who will trust and obey.

Refrain

Then in fellowship sweet we will sit at His feet.
Or we’ll walk by His side in the way.
What He says we will do, where He sends we will go;
Never fear, only trust and obey.

Refrain

Lord Almighty, blessed is the man who trusts in You.” (Psalm 84:11-12)

Baptizing “Bobbers” — A Ecuadorian Taradiddle


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I invite you to come on a trip with me. I am invited by an independent church to fly from Cali, Colombia to a small port city on the Pacific coast of Ecuador. The church’s pastor, a former English student of mine, is not ordained and needs me to baptize thirteen new converts. I arrive in the city and am surprised to learn that the people wish to be immersed in the ocean. This becomes a spiritual struggle for me because our denomination’s preferred mode of baptism is sprinkling and I have never immersed anyone. Of course, I have learned that baptism is done in one of three ways. For readers uncomfortable with church terminology, let me use a common fishing “bobber” as an analogy to illustrate the methodology for the three forms of baptism.

First, you can hold a bobber in your palm and with the other hand sprinkle water on it. This is called sprinkling or aspersion. The quantity of water isn’t really that important. Just a few drops will confirm the sanctity of the event. But, I always like for the bobber to get wet enough to know something happened, otherwise the immersionist might say, “Well, the bobber didn’t even get wet!” Actually it is a very efficient way to baptize a lot of bobbers at one time with very little effort. These bobber baptisms are popular when fishing in Presbyterian, Lutheran and Methodist waters.

Second, you can get a cup, dip it into the ocean or lake, and then pour it on the bobber three times in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is called pouring or affusion. It became the standard practice in the western church around the 10th century, but was in use much earlier. The earliest explicit reference to such baptism occurs in the Didache (a Christian document from approximately 100 A. D.).

Many Mennonites and Amish still prefer this mode of baptism.

Third, the most difficult way to baptize a bobber is by immersion or dunking. The bobber is pushed totally under the water. This bobber baptism is practiced by smaller groups of fisherman called Baptists, Pentecostals, and Church of Christ.

Now, let’s go back to my visit to Equador. The pastor explains to me that on the coast, people just don’t feel like they have been baptized unless they have been fully immersed. So, I have a dilemma. I can refuse to do these baptisms or I can put my tradition aside and meet the wishes of these sweet people. I decide to move ahead with the immersions. The pastor informs me—“It is crucial that these people be put fully under the water. Be very careful that one hand or a foot doesn’t fail to be under the water. Or, you will have to do it again. When they request TOTAL immersion, they mean it.”

I think, “Well, they can’t be too hard.”

I meet with the candidates on Saturday evening to confirm they have affirmed their faith in Jesus and understand the meaning of baptism. Everything goes along heavenly. I am surprised all thirteen candidates are women.

The service is scheduled for Sunday following worship on the beach. I wake up excited about my first immersions—little do I realize what the Lord is about to teach me about the consequences of breaking from my tradition.

We form a single line and I lead the procession of women in white gowns until we are waist deep. But during the higher waves, the water is nearly slapping them in the face. So I ask them to move back toward the shore.

Suddenly, I realize I have no idea how to actually hold a person to get them fully under the water. My mind is literally chasing an answer and I am not even catching up with the question. This is bad! So, I take the hand of the first candidate, Mrs. Johnson. I tell her, “With your left hand squeeze your nose and cross your right arm over your body close to your beltline. Then, when I push you back with my right hand, you lean back onto my left hand and you will go under the water. Then I will raise you up with my left hand.” That plan sounded so perfect. What I didn’t realize was that I was about to try to push a five foot-six inch horizontal bobber under seawater while trying to not get knocked down by the next wave intent on drowning both of us. Well, I get her head under water, but her feet pop fully out of the water. And when I let go of her arm over her waist to push her feet under, her head explodes out of the sea like a whale expelling water from its blowhole. In an instant this bobber is totally out of control so I abort any concern about lifting her out of the water and resort to using both hands to getting her fully under, but she panics and starts to flay around. I am not about to fail in this task so I start to fight back and realize I am pushing down where I have no business placing my hands. The sanctity of this experience is quickly slipping away. Finally, I realize a total immersion is not going to happen. So, I help her get to her feet and apologize as she tries to get her breath and struggles to get away from me and toward the shore.

The whole line of women has now broken ranks and headed for the shore while the observers are in a state of disbelief—some laughing and others in total shock. I am stunned. The pastor intervenes and finally calms the crowd. Eventually, we decide the pastor will assist me with the remaining baptisms…but poor Mrs. Johnson insists that she was indeed fully under the water and certainly didn’t need a re-baptism.

These days, “sprinkling” is my preferred mode of baptism.

A Christmas Gift I Will Never Forget


It’s Thanksgiving, 1975, not our typical day with family because we now live in San Jose, Costa Rica. We moved four months ago and the time has passed ever so slowly, like the months before I got my first driver’s license.  I feel I must nudge the hour hand of the clock to force it to cycle twice and signal another passed day.  Language learning is the worse and most difficult task I have undertaken. My mouth wants to utter a lot of phrases but they are not in Spanish. Living in a foreign land forces me to make comparisons between what was and what is.  The results are depressing.  I hope this changes soon.  Who ever wrote absence makes the heart grow fonder was a self-deluded romantic.  Absence makes the heart grow resentful.  I am more than a bit upset with God for calling us as missionaries to Colombia.  What is He thinking?  We can feel the despair of the present, but have no idea whether the future will get better.

Had our calling to serve not been so certain, I would have thrown in the towel and returned to the USA where they eat pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, where most people speak English, where people know the meaning of pilgrim, where Thanksgiving signals a hint of winter.   Bah, Humbug, and it isn’t even Christmas eve.

When a husband and a wife fall into the same pit of discouragement at the same time, who will throw down a rope?  This whole experience is a very slippery mountain that tests our faith, determination, and commitment.  It wears down even our resistance to illness.  I am just getting over a bout with pneumonia that stole 30 pounds from my plump body.  Where is our family when we need them?  The truth is they didn’t want us to leave in the first place, so we have to sleep in the bed we created for ourselves.

We are lying in bed after a turkey-less Thanksgiving and I say, “If you think this is bad, can you imagine a Christmas away from family and friends?”  This is our first realization that Christmas will be lonely, very lonely.  And, equally bad, we see or hear none of the normal Christmas signals of late November.  The yeast of the season has lost its reason.

The temperature reads 85 instead of 30. No one peddles Christmas trees in the lot next to Kroger’s or Hy-Vee.  Fisher Price toys for tots are non-existent except through the mail and then you can expect delays and taxation at the customs office. This year our extended family will be easy to visit because there are only three of us within a thousand mile radius, and we all live in the same house.

Of course, we will make new missionary family traditions, but that brings little solace when set side by side with what we will be missing.  I realize for the first time that Christmas involves going to the attic for two kinds of Christmas boxes.  Not only are we unable to pull out the tree bulbs, the stuffed Frosty and Santa (the one that somehow lost one arm years ago), the pine cone wreath that has long since lost a fragrance, and the angel topper.  Neither can we dig through the boxes of experiences past with those people we love most.

Those laments resurfaced daily from Thanksgiving until December 16th, when we got the most unexpected phone call from our wonderful sending church friends—Dr. and Mrs. Anne Bourne from Camden, TN.   They always serve as our sounding board for both the good and the bad, and always call when we need them most.

Anne starts the conversation, “How are things going for you?”

We reply, “We are hanging in here, but there isn’t a lot of joy in Mudville, even though it is nearly Christmas.”

Dr. Bob says, “We have a little present that we are sending your way that might help.”  Visions of a “care package” immediately popped into my head—a fruitcake, a country ham, and some North American toys for David.  “It is scheduled to arrive on December 22 at 6:30 p.m.  But you will need to pick it up.”

I ask, “What do you mean?”

Anne continues, “You will need to go to the San Jose International Airport and wait in the baggage area until you see Bobby and Elizabeth.  We are sending them to brighten your Christmas!”  We are absolutely speechless.  Elizabeth was our son’s #1 baby sitter during his first year of life and almost like a daughter to us.  They were 13 and 15 and their parents are giving them up to spend their Christmas vacation with us.

Elizabeth with David as an infant in Camden.

Elizabeth with David as an infant in Camden.

Such love and sharing still rocks me.  Of course it can’t compare to the God’s gift of Jesus, but it was a real “incarnational” gift that remains one of the most precious of my life.  It definitely modeled in a concrete way the divine love of God by sending His son to dwell among those He loves.  But in a human sense, the gift of two kids for Christmas “saved” us by transforming sadness to joy.  That year, we sang “Joy to the World, some friends have come.”

The Banning of Clocks in Church


God never intended for clocks on the walls of sanctuaries. God created day and night—it was that simple.  Clocks came later.  My argument for the banning of clocks in church is quite simple.

I arrived in Armenia, Colombia in the summer of 1976 after intensive Spanish language training at El Instituto Linguistico in San Jose, Costa Rica.  My first assignment in Colombia was the pastorate of the Armenia Cumberland Presbyterian Church. They expected me to preach three times every week to a congregation of 100 people.  It was a beautiful Gothic sanctuary with one major flaw.

The liturgy of most Colombian churches is informal, but Armenia church had a formal service.  It was an unwritten law that worship should last no longer than 60 minutes. The service began precisely at 11 a.m. and ended as close to 12 p.m. as possible.  Any deviation from this met serious criticism.  This locked me into a pulpit confinement I didn’t like.

Long before my arrival, the Rodriguez’ family donated an ornate antique clock with the understanding it would have a prominent place in the sanctuary.  I immediately “fell in hate” with the beautiful beast.  It was the size of a newborn and just as distracting.  At precisely 11 a.m., the clock chimed the hour and everyone knew it was the moment to begin worship and then at 12-noon the ungodly thing announced the warning that if the minister didn’t quit preaching, he was guilty of the dreadful sin of prolongation of the unnecessary.  For all practical purposes, the chiming signaled the end to everything good and holy, and started a Pavlov response of growling stomachs.

The whole issue was more frustrating because the church fathers, in their wisdom, had mounted the dark mahogany time piece on the wall directly to the right of the pulpit in plain view of the minister and the congregation.

I made it no secret that I hated the thing.  People knew I prayed for it to mysteriously disappear or become irreparable.  I struggled with this emotional agony for months.  But, by God’s grace, I came to church one Sunday and the sexton’s announced a break-in at some time the previous night.  I asked, “How bad is the damage and loss?”

He said, “You are not going to believe it, but nothing is gone but the Rodriguez’ clock.”  Sure enough, thieves did not touch the electronic sound and musical equipment or expensive altar.  The only sign of the break-in was the broken lock on the door and the lonely nail on the wall to the right of the altar.  Under my breath, I whimpered, “Thank God.”

Word quickly spread and friends began to tease, “Pastor, don’t you think this looks a little obvious?”  I remain convinced that God honored my continuous prayerful nagging about the banning of a clock in the Armenia sanctuary.

My argument also has an etymological perspective. The Greeks had two words for time—kairos and chromos.  Chromos refers to sequential time.  It identifies the passing of an hour, day or week.  On the other hand, kairos signifies a right or opportune moment.  It is the quantitative moment when God chooses to do something special.  My concern is that if a person or a church is too anxious to limit worship in term of minutes (chromos), it might literally suspend the Holy Spirit’s intent to cause a kairos moment for an individual or the congregation.

For Paul Tillich, a neo-orthodox Lutheran theologian, kairos indicates a “crisis in history.”  It is the dynamic expectation that a divine moment is pending or occurring.  I don’t like Tillich’s use of “crisis in history” because of the negative connotation of crisis.  Instead, I like to see kairos as the strategic moment God chooses to speak to individuals or congregations.

We often hear people say, “Why do our worship services sometimes exceed the one hour we have allotted?” Or, “I don’t like it when worship planners and the minister disrespect the reality that many of us have lunch commitments.  I hate to wait in line at the restaurant because the Methodists always get out of church on time and we don’t.”  This is a joking way to say chromos is always more important than kairos.

Paul speaks about the crucial nature of time in 2 Corinthians 6:1–“In a favorable time (kairo dekto) I heard you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you. Behold, now is the most favorable time (nun kairos euprósdektos); behold, now (nun) is the day of salvation.”  Kairos is the word used for the moment of salvation.

A church errors when it focuses on schedule more than a spiritual experience that might call for a prolonging of a “choreographed time-based” worship service.  Could it be that the Spirit of God might be moving so powerfully to merit a disregard of the worship schedule?  I think so.

So, perhaps it is time for international movement to send all church clocks to where they belong–Switzerland.

Sometimes I Hear God Speak to Me, Am I Crazy?


Sometimes I “hear” God “speak” to me.  Does that mean I am crazy?  I can’t produce an audio recording of God’s voice.  But, I definitely sense God speaking to me.  There is no scientific explanation for such “a small, silent voice,” but I find it reasonable to categorize it as a religious or spiritual experience that can only be traced to an eternal power bigger than myself that somehow exists both inside and beyond me.  Theologians say God is omnipresent—able to be present everywhere at the same time.  I would also coin another term—“omni-interested.”  God is interested in a personal relationship with everyone.  Before I was ten, I sensed the interest of God in forming a friendship with me. I slowly learned I could speak to God and often sense an answer either through reading scripture, moments of silence, and being instructed by preaching and teaching.  It is difficult for me to describe how I hear God.  It is easy to define the action of talking to God.  I just start telling God about my reasons to be happy or sad, my problems and plans, my sins and my spiritual victories, and I feel an invisible listening ear.

Talking or Listening?

The other side of the friendship—God’s initiative and inaudible voice directed to me is more complex to explain.  God doesn’t use sound waves to speak to me.  God doesn’t have a voice that depends on how well my ears discern sounds.  Instead, God’s “voice” travels on a spiritual plane that is pure mystery.  It is heard because of a special sensitivity given to the created by the creator.  Sometimes, I hear God when I am not attentive to God.  God spoke to me before I realized God spoke to anyone.  In fact, God spoke to me before I knew God really existed.  God initiated our communication.  I believe that God uses my mind and my feelings to speak to me.  My mind perceives some “voice” that comes from an internal “spiritual” me.  I can only say that God has put an invisible something that acts as an interpretation station that translates God’s communication to me in a way that I can hear it.  The Bible says it is God’s Holy Spirit dwelling within us.  Jesus put it this way, “If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever–the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”  John 14:15-17

I am thankful I can talk to God.  But I am more thankful that sometimes I get an answer.