This blog focuses on the quest to know and please God in a constantly increasing way. The upward journey never ends. My prayer is that this blog will reflect a heart that seeks God and that it will encourage others who share the same heart desire.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Get the Picture?

Many Christians set aside a portion of their day for "quiet time" or "devotions" - time spent in the Word. While variety abounds, a typical approach is reading a chapter of the Bible per day. Unfortunately, that might be all that people do - read through the twenty or thirty verses in front of them before moving on with their day. There is no mystical power in simply reading words. The value of spending time in the Word is achieved when the reader understands what he is reading. Too often the reading is done so quickly that the Christian is largely unaware of what he has read. Even immediately after reading, he might not be able to tell what the passage was about.

Obviously, taking the time to concentrate and ponder the Scriptures is very important. One aspect of the Bible that requires some time for consideration is the use of pictures or illustrations. It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words; good writing utilizes comparisons such as similes and metaphors. Considering the pictures found in the Bible can yield profitable insights. For example -

"Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows." Matthew 10:29&31 (NASB)

If Matthew 10 were the daily reading, these are just two of the forty-two verses. With such a long chapter, the reader might have to read quickly to finish in the allotted time. If asked what he had read, he might reply, "Jesus was talking to His disciples." He may not be able to give any specifics; the Bible reading for the day was checked off the list but didn't yield much profit.

Let's take those two verses and consider the picture they present. Jesus was making a comparison between His followers and birds. In particular, He was talking about His followers' value to Him. The simple statement is that God knows when every sparrow falls to the ground. He tells His disciples that they are more valuable than the sparrows. The implication is that God also knows about everything that happens to His followers. He watches over them and their lives because of their value to Him.

There is a bit of understatement going on here. It isn't that the value of God's children barely exceeds the value of a few sparrows; Jesus says that even if many sparrows were under consideration, His disciples would be more valuable. There is an underlying assumption that the disciples are much more valuable. Who would suggest that birds and people are on the same level? The point is clear, but why does Jesus specifically mention sparrows? What is the picture?

Jesus Himself realized that sparrows had little monetary value and could be bought very cheaply. They aren't big enough to provide a good source of food like chickens or turkeys; they don't lay eggs large enough to be used for human consumption. They aren't a comforting or entertaining pet like a parrot or cockatiel, and they aren't valued as a songbird like a canary.

Sparrows are small, most measuring only five to six inches from beak to tail. They are fragile and can be easily injured, crushed, or killed. In harsh weather, they can be blown about by the wind and must work hard to find enough food to stay alive. They are not like a powerful hawk or mighty eagle that preys upon its food.

Sparrows are plain. In general, they are nondescript brown birds with streaked feathers. Only a few species have any outstanding markings or eye-catching color. They are so plain that people who try to distinguish one species from another often have trouble. Sparrows can be easily overlooked in a field, yard, or brush pile. They are not bright and beautiful like a cardinal, goldfinch, bluebird, or peacock.

Sparrows are incredibly common. They are widespread across the globe. Twenty-three different species can be found in Pennsylvania, and rarely do people point them out as interesting. They are found in cities and towns, where other types of birds are scarce. Sparrows hop about on sidewalks, build nests in the large letters on storefronts, and even become trapped inside large stores.

Sparrows are plentiful, one of the world's most abundant species. Sparrows abound so much that they are often deemed unpopular, maybe even unwelcome or a nuisance. While many bird species have become endangered or threatened, the sparrows have no such problem. There is no need to protect them like other less common birds.

What's the point? Jesus did not choose an eagle or a peacock for His comparison. He did not choose a swan or a macaw. He didn't even choose a warbler or vireo. He chose the lowly sparrow - the almost valueless, small, fragile, plain, common, plentiful sparrow. People look over these birds without really seeing them and without giving them a second glance. Not God. God says He sees when every one of those tiny birds falls to the ground.

Returning to Jesus' statement, His children are much more valuable than an abundance of sparrows. If God gives such conscious oversight to these nondescript birds, there is no doubt that He looks with great care over His children. Spending time to examine the picture provides a reassuring comfort that God does indeed care deeply for His children. The few minutes spent in reflection of these two verses provide far more profit than using the same time frame to skim the entire chapter. Christians seeking profit from their time in the Word must slow down and consider the pictures.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thanksgiving: Who, How, Where, When

In addition to providing many worthy reasons for praising God, Psalms 145-150 also provide other insights regarding praise. These psalms also give instruction about who should praise God, and how, where, and when one should do it. I realize that the key word in these psalms is praise, which is not exactly the same as thanksgiving; the two concepts, however, are very closely linked. The application of giving praise and giving thanks are essentially the same. When someone thanks God publicly, he is praising Him. Both terms are used in these psalms, and they go hand-in-hand very nicely.

Who should praise/thank God?
Some of the answer to who is actually what? The sun, moon, and all the stars (148:3) are to praise God. God is to be praised by the highest heavens and by the waters above the heaven (148:4). Fire, hail, snow, clouds, and stormy winds are to praise Him (148:8). God is to receive praise from the mountains, hills, fruit trees, and cedars (148:9). The sea monsters, beasts, cattle, creeping things, and winged fowl are to join in praise (148:7,10). In short, all of God's works (145:10) are to bring Him praise.

If the creation can so powerfully bring praise to God, man certainly ought to do his part as well. These psalms request praise from men in general (145:6) and from all flesh (145:21). This call to praise extends to the heavens, including all of God's angels and all of His hosts (148:2). Praise is specifically elicited from Jerusalem, Israel, and the sons of Zion for the works God has done especially on their behalf (147:12; 149:2). Praise should come from both great and small: kings, princes, judges, and all people (148:11). It should come from all age groups and genders: young men, virgins, old men, and children (148:12). One generation is to share God's praise with the next generation (145:4). Most appropriately, all of His godly ones are to lift God up in praise (145:10). Indeed, everything that has breath is to praise the Lord (150:6).

How should the godly ones praise their God?
Praise is often expressed by speaking with the mouth (145:6), but it ultimately comes from the soul (146:1). Another very common way to praise God is by singing to Him and of Him (146:2). Praise can also be shared through instrumental music; these psalms mention the lyre, timbrel, trumpet, harp, stringed instruments, pipe, and cymbals (150:3-5). Although this clearly means something different than our modern, sensual definition, dancing is also mentioned as a way of praising God (149:3). The way a man lives also plays a part; God is praised when man rightly executes justice (149:6-9). In these psalms and throughout Scripture, speaking of God's works and singing (or music) are the chief methods of praise.

Where should the godly ones praise God?
These psalms instruct to praise God both in the heights and from the earth (148:1,7). Men are to praise Him in the mighty expanse of creation (150:1). Praise can be private, done on one's bed (149:5). Praise is never complete, however, if it is not also done in God's sanctuary (150:1) and in the congregation of the godly ones (149:1). Part of the purpose of praise is to lift God up in the eyes of others.

When should the godly ones praise God?
While the fourth Thursday of November is definitely an appropriate time to praise God, the reality is that believers should praise God every day (145:2). There is no end to praising God, and Christians should be careful to pass that praise from one generation to another while they still have the opportunity (145:4). Believers should continue to praise God as long as they live and as long as they have their being (146:2). In fact, after death a believer's praise does not cease, as praise belongs to God forever and ever (145:1). Never will man be able to completely exhaust all the reasons for praising God nor praise Him adequately for all that He is and has done. May Thanksgiving Day be  a focused day of expressing the thanks and praise that resides constantly in the heart of God's children.

"I will praise the LORD while I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being." Psalm 146:2 (NASB)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Why Thanksgiving?

The book of Psalms ends with a crescendo of praise to God found in the final psalms. I don't know that the human compilers of the psalms purposefully arranged the psalms in this order, but I believe God did. As one studies through the book of Psalms, a great God is revealed to him. It is entirely fitting to end this collection of psalms with praise to that great God.

It is too easy for believers to take God's blessings for granted. The Thanksgiving season is a reminder to take note of God's goodness and thank Him for it. The reality is that God's blessings are too numerous to count; the challenge is to have eyes open to recognizing those blessings. While it is good to thank God on a daily basis, this season allows believers to pause in a special way to lift their hearts in praise to God.

Psalms 145-150 provide a long list of things for which God is worthy of thanks and praise. Some of these go beyond the traditional Thanksgiving statements and can lift one's praise to a higher level than that of the standard testimonies. The following characteristics give praise to God both for who He is and for what He has done.

God deserves praise because He is great (145:3). He has unmatched power (145:11) and He is abundant in strength (147:5). He has used that power to do many mighty acts (145:4) and to perform countless wonderful works (145:5).

God's greatness includes His splendor (145:5). His kingdom is full of glory (145:11). God executes judgment on the wicked (149:7), and someday will do that in the ultimate judgment of making all things right and establishing His eternal kingdom.

God's greatness includes His understanding, which is infinite (147:5). God was wise enough to make the heavens and earth (146:6), including every amazing part of creation. He knows and controls every star (147:4).

God's greatness includes His care of the earth. God is the one who provides rain (147:8) and causes vegetation to grow (147:8). He supplies food for all the creatures of earth (145:15). He controls the weather (148:8). He sends and then thankfully melts the snow (147:16-18).

God deserves praise because He is abundantly good (145:7). This goodness is seen through many of His character qualities: righteousness (145:7), graciousness (145:8), mercy (145:8), longsuffering (145:8), lovingkindness (145:8), and kindness (145:17).

God's goodness is expressed as He meets the physical needs of His people. God gives food to the hungry (146:7). He supports the orphans and widows (146:9). He executes justice for the oppressed (146:7). He protects the strangers (146:9). He sets the prisoners free (146:7). He opens the eyes of the blind (146:8). He builds up Jerusalem and gathers Israel (147:2).

God's goodness is expressed as He meets the emotional needs of His people. God sustains those who fall (145:14). He raises up those who are bowed down (145:14). He heals the brokenhearted (147:3). He supports the afflicted (147:6).

God's goodness is expressed as He meets the spiritual needs of His people. God is near to those who call on Him (145:18). He hears their cry (145:19). He saves them (145:19). He keeps them (145:20). God keeps faith forever (146:6). He gives peace (147:14). He gives His words to His people (147:19).

God's goodness causes Him to go beyond meeting needs. God blesses His people (147:13). He takes pleasure in them (149:4). He favors those who fear Him (147:11).

All of these are wonderful reasons to praise God. How many of these things has God done for you? Take some time to ponder these qualities and to add them to your praise and thanks this year.

"Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant and praise is becoming." Psalm 147:1 (NASB)

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Facebook Semi-participants

If you have a Facebook account, you know that people have very different approaches to Facebook. Some people keep their group of friends small, choosing only those they know best, while others try to have as many friends as possible. Some people post nothing but pictures and videos, while others post links to stories they've read and quizzes they've taken. There are people who share significant aspects of their lives and others who write nothing but nonsense. Some people choose to update their status multiple times per day, and others never post anything at all.

It is this final group that interests me at the moment. (Please don't be offended if you fall into this group; I'm sure you have your reasons, and the level of your participation is your choice.) It seems a little odd to me that people would choose to be part of a social media network for the purpose of staying in touch with others, and then not contribute anything to staying in touch. I am okay with their knowing about my life, but I also want to know something about theirs.

I don't know why people choose only to see what others post and not to share themselves. Some of the reasons are probably legitimate and quite sensible, but I can think of a few reasons that are not so palatable. Some of these people could be snoops, gossips, busy-bodies, or even stalkers. They are just hungry for news about other people and are seeking ways to learn more information. Also, people in this category might be showing a form of pride. Although they consider it quite acceptable for others to share, they consider themselves to be walled off and unapproachable. They have determined not to let others get to know them well.

No, this post is not really about Facebook. It is about Christian semi-participants. On one level, there are Christians who limit their participation by being "pew warmers." They may be fairly faithful to church services, but don't do anything else. Just as Facebook would fail if everyone chose to read but not post, so a church will fail if everyone chooses to come but not be involved. Neither a social network nor a community of believers can survive that unbalanced approach.

Also concerning to me is Christian semi-participation on another level. Many Christians are involved in the church ministry, but their participation is from "the skin out." In other words, their service is routine or obligatory; it is impersonal and detached. They may be doing an incredible amount, but they are not sharing. Their ministry to other members is from an unapproachable pedestal that does not allow others to know them well. They learn all about others in the church, but offer no window into their own souls.

Christians are to edify and encourage one another. The reciprocal nature of "one another" means that both parties are at both ends. All Christians should be edifying and encouraging others, but all Christians also need to be edified and encouraged. Each Christian on his spiritual journey experiences high and low points. Even a mature Christian sometimes has struggles in which he needs the help of someone else who is doing well at the moment.

Some believers seem to set themselves up as always stable and never needing help. They shy away from admitting that they are human and have struggles. They are the ones who serve, listen, or counsel, but who never need served, listened to, or counseled. It is admirable to want to be a servant like Christ was and not to want to put a burden on others, but the reality is that God put us into a church to minister to each other. This is God's plan. Believers are to be concerned about one another, to encourage one another, to each do his part to edify the body. That can't happen when people refuse to share their needs.

When going through a difficult time, failing to share creates two deficiencies. It deprives that believer of the help he needs. It also takes away the opportunity for others to edify. Ultimately, this detracts glory from God, both because His church fails to operate the way it should, and also because one member continues struggling when he could have victory.

It is also important to share during times of blessing and growth. The one who is blessed reinforces the blessing in his own heart by sharing it, and others are encouraged by hearing what God has done. A lesson learned by a new convert or a mature believer can be instructive and beneficial to the listeners. Subsequently, God receives glory through the situation.

I like churches that incorporate a testimony service into their program. I don't mean testimonies just about answered prayer, healing, or blessings, but also testimonies about what God is doing and teaching in the life. Whether in a public service, a smaller group, or one-on-one, this kind of interaction should happen. Each believer should encourage and edify when he is able, and should receive encouragement and edification when necessary. This reciprocal edification helps all parties to operate correctly within the church, bringing glory to God. It is when members know one another that their love can grow and their ministry can expand.

"Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing." I Thessalonians 5:11 (NASB)

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Book Review: Bonhoeffer Biography

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas 

I had heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a Christian author. (His best-known book is The Cost of Discipleship.) While perusing book titles about World War II, I came across Bonhoeffer's biography. With a German pastor as the focus, the book provides an interesting perspective on Hitler's Germany. On that troubled stage, Bonhoeffer was influential as both a political and a religious figure.

Bonhoeffer seems an unlikely religious leader. His father was not a Christian, his family did not attend church, and his only early religious instruction was from his mother.  Nevertheless, by age thirteen Bonhoeffer had decided to become a theologian. He studied at Berlin University, where the head of theology viewed the Bible merely as a book to analyze, not completely true,  and not intended to promote a personal relationship with God. After graduating and then spending a year in Spain, Bonhoeffer was still not old enough to be ordained, so he spent a year in America studying at the very liberal Union Theological Seminary.

Bonhoeffer gradually grew in his understanding of Christianity. His father had taught him to analyze carefully, to think independently, and to be absolutely certain of his beliefs before speaking. Perhaps these qualities led him toward theology. As a teenager, Bonhoeffer visited Rome. Impressed with the pomp and ceremony, he equated this to devotion and believed he was beginning to understand the concept of the church. At the university he did have one professor who taught strongly about a relationship with God.

Oddly, it was during Bonhoeffer's time studying in America that his life changed dramatically. Disappointed with the liberal theology of the school and the spiritually dead churches he visited, he found a church that was different. At an African-American church in New York City, and later as he traveled in the southern United States, he was exposed to genuine Christianity - people who possessed, taught, and lived the truth. He returned to Germany a changed man.

Bonhoeffer's ministry was varied and international. He did a great deal of writing as well as preaching. He gave lectures and met with small groups of young people for discussions. He was a pastor for a time in London and also visited other countries for religious meetings and conferences. Probably his most influential work was as a nationally-respected church leader. The church faced an intense battle as the Nazis intended to destroy Christianity in Germany. Though the Nazis' initial changes were small and subtle, Bonhoeffer was perceptive to recognize the danger early on. The German Christians (officially-recognized churches) faced the question of compromise. In order to establish a clear foundation for truth, Bonhoeffer gathered a group of pastors to write a doctrinal confession to which the church must cling.

Some churches compromised, but many others became part of the Confessing Church, so named because they affirmed the confession that had been written. Bonhoeffer was the leader of these uncompromising churches and worked both within Germany and internationally to have the Confessing Church recognized as the true church of Germany. Since no institutions were available to train pastors for the unrecognized Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer started a seminary. When the seminary was shut down, he came up with an internship program in which groups of aspiring pastors could train under supervising pastors. The church faced increasing oppression but remained strong. In one year more than 800 pastors and lay leaders were arrested by the Nazis, yet the churches were overflowing every week.

Bonhoeffer was also important in Germany's politics. This role is less surprising, as both of his parents came from distinguished backgrounds. The family was quite well off and had numerous important connections. When World War II started, Bonhoeffer was convinced the war was unjust and decided that he could not fight in it. As a well-respected leader of the Confessing Church, he found himself in a quandary. If he refused to enlist, he would be killed, and he did not want his example to create pressure for all Christians to do the same. Bonhoeffer avoided military service for as long as he could; when his mandatory enlistment became imminent, he procured a last-minute deferment of his enlistment for one year by returning to America to study.

After less than a month in America, Bonhoeffer rethought his decision and realized that he must return to his work in Germany. Still under his one-year deferment, he applied for a non-combat position, but was denied. He then joined the Abwehr both to avoid fighting and because of the powerful movement within the Abwehr to overthrow Hitler. As part of the intelligence community, Bonhoeffer was closely involved with the conspirators, involved in actions including the Valkyrie plot, and he used his international connections to solicit support for the conspirators. He continued his pastoring ministry, ironically as his cover in his intelligence position.

Through the arrest of another conspirator, Bonhoeffer came to the attention of the Gestapo and was arrested, though only for minor charges. After the plot to kill Hitler failed, Bonhoeffer was implicated and transferred to a Gestapo prison and then Buchenwald. When the assassination conspirators were gathered together to be killed, Bonhoeffer was missing. He had been mistakenly put with the wrong group of prisoners in a different location. Gestapo guards arrived at Bonhoeffer's location just as he was completing a worship service, and he was taken to be executed with the others. He died only two weeks before the Allied troops arrived.

I would recommend this biography about a man who lived by convictions and remained faithful to the end. It was interesting to see the aspects of World War II and Christianity combined to illustrate what it is like for a devoted Christian in a difficult situation. My biggest caution is that Bonhoeffer did not begin with a strong fundamental foundation; even with his great Biblical insight, he was heavily involved in ecumenical work. Most notably he worked hard to establish a strong national church as well as to strengthen religious institutions with international oversight and guidance. He also expressed interest in learning from and imitating aspects of Catholicism and learning of Gandhi's methods. 

The book is well-researched, supported with many excerpts from letters and other writings. I found the story compelling, especially for someone with an interest in history. The overall action of the story moves well and presents a clear idea of this man's life. This biography also incorporates some information not previously available which clears up some of the shadows that have previously fallen on Bonhoeffer.