MEMORY WORK REDUX

Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. [Matthew 6:16-18a (HCSB)]

sunflowerA young pastor friend admits to not being good at reciting Bible verses from memory. A product of the computer/Internet age, he just taps in a key word or topic and, almost instantly, the verses are right in front of him in whatever translation he wants. There’s no need to memorize verses when, with just a few keystrokes, the words appear. I may read the Bible every day and predate the age of computers but I’m no better at knowing verses by heart than he. If I  remember my passwords for both computer and Internet, I can find whatever verses I need. While that works when I’m researching or writing, my desk is not where most witnessing opportunities occur. I could plead age as an excuse but I didn’t memorize Bible verses even when my brain was younger and possessed far less useless trivia than it does now. My pastor friend and I both profess to love God’s word and yet we don’t seem to love it enough to learn it by heart.

For decades, I have given up some thing or things for Lent, often sweets and alcohol. I know those minor denials have nothing to do with my salvation or righteousness. They are just a way to remind me Christ’s difficult days in the wilderness and what God gave up when He sacrificed His only son for my sins. Although Jesus told his followers that fasting should be private, I often found myself needing to explain my refusal to partake in the host’s decadent dessert or the great bottle of wine he purchased in Napa. I also admit to occasionally feeling a sense of self-righteous pride when I denied myself chocolate chip cookies or a glass of pinot noir. Since self-denial should be private and never lead to self-righteousness, God and I decided to rethink my Lenten practices.

Last June, in a devotion called “Memory Work,” I wrote about four-year old Tanner Hemness who memorized a Bible verse for every letter of the alphabet. At that time, I downloaded the twenty-six verses he memorized with the intention of doing the same thing. Somehow, my good intention got side-tracked and I stopped after “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” [Matthew 7:7]

Rather than a season of fasting, this Lent will be my season of growth. There will be no need to worry about looking sad or explaining why I won’t eat someone’s homemade pie. Rather than a period of self-denial, it will be one of self-discipline. If four-year old Tanner could memorize those twenty-six verses in seven months, even with my neuron-challenged brain, I should be able to do it in the forty-six days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. After all, I’ve already learned one! We are to put God’s word to work in our lives and the first place to start is by putting His word into our hearts. God’s word in my heart can only put a smile on my face and His promises on my lips.

Bible memorization is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation. If I had to choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life, I would choose Bible memorization, because it is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what it needs. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth. That’s where you need it! How does it get in your mouth? Memorization. [Dallas Willard]

This book of instruction must not depart from your mouth; you are to recite it day and night so that you may carefully observe everything written in it. For then you will prosper and succeed in whatever you do. [Joshua 1:8 (HCSB)]

I have your decrees as a heritage forever; indeed, they are the joy of my heart. [Psalm 119:111 (HCSB)]

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IT IS WRITTEN

sheepThe thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. [John 10:10-12 (ESV)]

I came across a cartoon drawn by Paul Noth in which an enormous billboard overlooks a pasture inhabited by a flock of sheep. The sign, a political advertisement, shows a picture of a smiling wolf in coat and tie with the words: “I am going to eat you.” Looking up at the billboard, one sheep tells another, “He tells it like it is.” Would that all politicians were so forthright!

While it was political commentary on the part of Noth, seeing the sheep in the pasture made me think of how often we’re compared to sheep in Scripture. Unlike that wolf, however, Satan would never be so honest as to openly announce his intention to devour us. Instead, like many politicians, he distorts the truth and makes false promises.

In Matthew 4, we read of Jesus being led into the wilderness to be humbled and tested. For forty days Jesus fasted and, during that time, Satan visited Him. Like a politician who knows the people’s hunger and promises a chicken in every pot, Satan tempted Jesus to tell the stones at his feet to become bread. He then took Jesus to the highest point of the Temple and, like a true politician, offered only a half-truth. Citing God’s promise to protect His people, Satan dared Jesus to jump. Finally, he took Jesus to a mountain peak where he promised to give Him all the nations of the world if only He’d kneel down and worship him. Like many a politician, Satan promised something he couldn’t deliver—it wasn’t his to give away! In all three cases, Jesus countered Satan’s deceitful words with Scripture. “It is written, man shall not live by bread alone. … It is written, you shall not put the Lord your God to the test. … It is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” [Matthew 4:7-10]

Unlike the sheep in Noth’s cartoon, our shepherd has not left His flock defenseless. We’ve been given the armor of God, including a sword, with which to defend ourselves from the wolf’s attack. That sword is God’s word. Perhaps, it’s time to sharpen up our blades with some Bible reading so that, when we’re tempted, we too can say “It is written…!” It was Thomas Jefferson who said, “A well informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.” Those words apply to the citizens of God’s kingdom, as well; when we know the truth, the enemy can’t bamboozle us with his lies.

I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. [Psalm 119:11 (ESV)]

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LEAVE THEM WANTING MORE 

And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. [1 Peter 3: 15b-16a (NLT)]

dubble tulipHaving heard that I write Christian devotions, the man looked across the dinner table and asked, “Have you always been religious?” The unexpected question from a Jewish man I barely knew caught me off guard. While I knew he wasn’t asking for a long salvation story, I needed to answer his simple question. I faltered through a brief explanation that I couldn’t remember a time I didn’t consider myself a Christian but that my faith grew deeper as it carried me through some really rough spots in life. Having no idea where I’d go from there, I heaved a sigh of relief when the table’s conversation moved to another topic.

Describing our salvation experience was one of the topics this past week in our small group. There will be times, as there was at that dinner, when we’re given a brief opening to tell it and we’d best be prepared with a good but short answer. Pastor Bill Hybels suggests keeping that first answer to 100 words or less. In actuality, the shorter the answer, the more likely there will be a follow-up question later. As P.T. Barnum said: “Always leave them wanting more.”

When we ask someone, “How are you?” unless we’re a nurse or physician, we’re probably not interested in a detailed accounting of blood sugar, weight, bowel movements or blood pressure. When a non-believer asks about our faith, they’re not looking for a dissertation about the historical accuracy of the Bible, a sermon about salvation, or a blow by blow account of a faith journey that has probably taken years. They certainly don’t want to hear Christian buzz words like justification, conviction, propitiation, and sanctification or about the time God spoke to us in the grocery store.

When someone asks a simple and straightforward question about our faith, they expect a simple and straightforward answer. If someone is really interested in learning more, there will be additional opportunities to share the particulars. In actuality, for many of us, our salvation story is rather ordinary—we weren’t healed supernaturally, there were no burning bushes, the sky didn’t open, and a voice from heaven was not heard. Nevertheless, our lives changed. Unless we’ve thought about how to succinctly communicate that change, we may blow an amazing opportunity to share a little of God’s amazing grace. That time at the dinner party, I wasn’t well prepared; next time, I will be!

Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments into less than twenty-five words and Stephen managed to summarize the entire Old Testament into about 74 sentences for the High Council.  With a little effort, we should be able to put our faith story into 100 words. What’s your story? Can you tell it in 100 words or less?

When you communicate your personal faith story with sincerity, you will see supernatural sparks fly as God uses it for his glory and your listener’s good. [Bill Hybels]

So never be ashamed to tell others about our Lord. [2 Timothy 1:8a (NLT)]

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CLOSE ONLY COUNTS IN HORSESHOES

For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that every one who believes in him shall not be lost, but should have eternal life. … Any man who believes in him is not judged at all. It is the one who will not believe who stands already condemned, because he will not believe in the character of God’s only Son. [John 3:16,18 (PHILLIPS)]

prairie coneflower - grey-headed coneflowerWe have friends who attend what I call the church of “what’s happening now.” While they acknowledge a “higher power,” it may or may not be God. There may be an afterlife or reincarnation and, then again, maybe not. Although they look to the Bible for wisdom, much of it is considered mythical and legendary. They also find spiritual inspiration in texts like the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu), Dhammapada (Buddhism), and Tao Te Ching (Taoism). Theirs is an eclectic mix of beliefs with each person having his or her own personal truth. They are loving caring people who believe in good things like justice, compassion, peace, protecting the environment, and the dignity of the individual. Nevertheless, while some of their thinking may be correct, their conclusion is wrong.

C.S. Lewis asserts that while many non-Christian religions have good ideas and may not be entirely erroneous, they most definitely are not correct. He points out that, while some math answers might be closer to being correct than others,  there is only one correct answer to the problem. If, for example, we had to determine the volume of a cone, we’d begin with the formula (1/3 x b x h). Before starting, however, we’d have to figure out b, the area of the base (pi x r2). What with two formulas, several multiplications and one division, there are plenty of opportunities to get the final answer wrong. If the wrong formulas are used, no matter how accurate the figuring, the answer is wrong. If both the formulas and math are correct but the wrong number for pi is used, the answer is wrong. If everything is done correctly but the decimal is misplaced, while nearly correct, the answer still is wrong. Although a nice math teacher may give us some credit for being partially correct, I’m not so sure God works that way. As Lewis points out, although some of the answers offered by other religions are closer to being right than others, Jesus Christ is the only correct answer to the problem.

A mathematician is given a set of axioms and postulates (mathematical truths) on which he is to base his figuring. They are his foundation—the starting point for reasoning and truth. While mathematicians may arrive at the same answer in different ways, they share a belief in the same basic truths. Within those basics, they are free to measure, calculate, and theorize to their heart’s content but they must abide by those basic truths until one of them is proved wrong.

Our creeds are the axioms and postulates of Christianity. These basic truths of our faith are based, not on the works of Aristotle or Euclid, but on the Bible and the words of God. Within those uncompromisable Christian truths, we are free to make choices. Some people worship on Saturday and others on Sunday, some baptize with a sprinkle of water while others are fully immersed, some kneel when praying and others stand, some observe Lent when others don’t, and some have two sacraments while others observe five additional ones. Nevertheless, our Christian creeds are just that—Christian—and they clarify and encompass our universal beliefs so that we all share the one and only right answer!

You all belong to one body, of which there is one Spirit, just as you all experienced one calling to one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God, one Father of us all, who is the one over all, the one working through all and the one living in all. [Ephesians 4:4-6 (PHILLIPS)]

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KNOWING THE TRUTH

Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. [1Peter 3:15 (NLT)]

pink roseSocrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth having.” It would seem that an unexamined faith isn’t worth much either and yet many of us are hesitant to examine it! Jesus told us to love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, and mind. Since He asked far more questions than He ever answered, it would seem that he wanted thinking disciples rather than unthinking followers. When we only love Him with our emotions and passion, we are vulnerable to the enemy’s attacks; faith can get shaky and stumble when it isn’t grounded in reason and certainty. Moreover, we don’t make good witnesses when we’re unable to speak as rational thinking believers. We must love Jesus with our minds as well as our hearts and souls.

At some point, when digging into Scripture, we may ask ourselves how we can believe the validity of what is read. Simply saying the Bible is true because it is God-breathed doesn’t hold water when doubt rears its ugly head (and it will). How can we trust the writers or know those really are the words God breathed? Since nearly 2000 years have elapsed since the writing of the New Testament and far more since the Old Testament’s prophecies, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if Christianity is more myth than reality. Fortunately, we have Christian apologists to help us see the truth. Rather than offering apologies for the wrongs committed by evil people in the name of Jesus, apologists share the objective reasons and evidence that Christianity is true and should be believed. The Apostle Paul was probably the first apologist when he showed that Jesus’ fulfillment of Scripture’s prophecies proved He was the Messiah. Paul knew that the truth could stand up to scrutiny and it still does today.

I’m not a religious scholar, historian or an archeologist; I haven’t examined the Dead Sea scrolls or ancient papyri. Nevertheless, I do read the work of those who have. The more I study Scripture and the work of Christian apologists, the more certain I am that there is nothing unreasonable, irrational, or unfounded about my belief. The Bible can stand up to intense archeological and historical investigation so we have nothing to fear (and much to gain) when we look closely at God’s word. Like the atheist turned apologist C.S. Lewis, we will know the reason for our belief in mere Christianity. As did Josh McDowell, we’ll discover that Jesus was more than a carpenter. When lawyer David Limbaugh put Jesus on trial, our Lord withstood the most intense scrutiny and cross examination and easily won. As thinking Christians, we must never be afraid to ask questions and seek answers. When we seek the truth, as did Lee Strobel, we’ll be able to make a case for Christ. We’ll recognize what Nabeel Qureshi did when, while seeking Allah, he instead found Jesus: Jesus really is the way, the truth and the life!

As was Paul’s custom, he went to the synagogue service, and for three Sabbaths in a row he used the Scriptures to reason with the people. He explained the prophecies and proved that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead. He said, “This Jesus I’m telling you about is the Messiah.” … they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth. As a result, many Jews believed, as did many of the prominent Greek women and men. [Acts 17:2-3, 11b-12 (NLT)]

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PSALM 151

I was small among my brothers, and the youngest in my father’s house… [Psalm 151:1a (NRSV)]

ground orchidOn the last day of 2017, the liturgist at church read Malachi 4, Revelation 22, Proverbs 31, and Psalm 150 – the last chapters of the Old and New Testaments, Proverbs and Psalms. It seemed fitting on the final day of the year to hear the final words in Scripture. It was only later that I learned there is one more psalm, but don’t look for it in your Bible. Unless you are Greek Orthodox, it probably won’t be there. Although both the traditional Hebrew and Christian Bibles have only 150 psalms, the Greek translation known as the Septuagint includes Psalm 151. We have to go back a bit in history to understand why the discrepancy.

By the 4th century, Latin was replacing Greek as the common language and Pope Damascus commissioned a young priest named Jerome to translate the Gospels into Latin. Once done, Jerome turned to translating the Old Testament. Not wanting to depend on the earlier Greek translations of what originally had been written in Hebrew, the gifted linguist translated from the original language. Finding Psalm 151 only in Greek translations and not in the Hebrew Scriptures, he omitted it from the Psalter.

Much of what we call the Old Testament is based on the work of a scholarly group of rabbis called Masoretes who worked between the 6th and the 10th centuries. They corrected any errors that crept into the text of the Hebrew Bible following the Babylonian captivity and wanted to prevent any future alterations of the text. Like Jerome, they only found Psalm 151 in Greek translations so they, too, did not consider it to be part of the Psalter. They did, however, place it in the Apocrypha with other works of unknown origin or doubtful authorship.

When a copy of this disputed psalm was found in a Hebrew psalter among the Dead Sea Scrolls some sixty years ago, scholars had to rethink their exclusion of the psalm. The Hebrew Psalter in which it was found dates back to between 300 BC and 50 AD.  Originally two psalms in Hebrew, the Greek translators had condensed them into the one found in the Septuagint. Psalm 151 is now found in some expanded versions of the NRSV (and some other translations) with the notation that it is ascribed to David “though it is outside the number.”

A first-person account of both his anointing by Samuel and his defeat of Goliath, the psalm certainly could have been written by David. It’s a bit like a Reader’s Digest version of 1 Samuel 16 and 17. Perhaps, however, it should be renumbered; rather than being the last of the psalms, this should the first in the Psalter. These seem to be the words of a young David, with a hint of boyish braggadocio, fresh from his victory over Goliath. Little did the confident young man know of the weight of kingship—the joy and sorrow, love and loss, friendships and betrayals, or the great and terrible things that lay in his future. Yet, even then, he knew the most important thing—he had been called by God to be His servant.

I was small among my brothers, and the youngest in my father’s house; I tended my father’s sheep. My hands made a harp; my fingers fashioned a lyre. And who will tell my Lord? The Lord himself; it is he who hears.  It was he who sent his messenger and took me from my father’s sheep, and anointed me with his anointing oil. My brothers were handsome and tall, but the Lord was not pleased with them. I went out to meet the Philistine, and he cursed me by his idols. But I drew his own sword; I beheaded him, and took away disgrace from the people of Israel. [Psalm 151 (NRSV)]

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