Some of his [Paul’s] comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction. [2 Peter 3:16 (NLT)]

butterfly weed“You have to drill through mud and water to get oil; you have to sift through sand and silt to get gold; you have to chop and hack through stone to get diamonds. So why do so many people feel that the treasure of ideas should come to them with little or no effort?” asked Sydney J. Harris. Even though he wasn’t referring to the Bible, the journalist’s words made me think of the way we often approach Scripture; complaining that it’s too hard to understand, we simply don’t study it!

If we’ll put forth effort to perfect our golf or tennis swing, train for a marathon, master chess or bridge, plant a garden, or become a gourmet cook, I wonder why we think understanding Scripture should be effortless. It’s only natural that words penned by 40 (or more) people, between 1400 BC to 90 AD, in a wide variety of genres, in another language, and shaped by different cultures and traditions, require some work to comprehend. Scripture’s words were God breathed by the One who created words and thoughts! He is greater than any novelist or journalist so we should expect His words and ideas to be more difficult to understand than theirs! But, because of the effort required to understand them, many of us don’t bother and stick to a few favorite stories, verses and Psalms.

During this sheltering in place, our church conducted an online Bible study and, after thirteen weeks of video lectures given by Biblical scholar N. T. Wright, we finally completed our study of Philippians. In some sessions, Professor Wright walked us through as few as five verses, but the way he shed light on Paul’s circumstances, the Philippians’ society and environment, the political situation of the time, the original Greek meaning of many of the words, the way Paul’s words in Philippians related to his other letters, and what the Apostle’s words meant to us, was immensely rewarding. It was like taking a beautiful old piece of heavily tarnished silver and polishing it. Before this study, I appreciated Philippians the way I might the tarnished silver piece. After studying the epistle in depth, however, the profoundness of Paul’s words were uncovered the same way silver’s true beauty is revealed when it’s polished! Polishing silver, however, takes “elbow grease” and comprehending Scripture takes effort, as well.

Admittedly, understanding Bible passages and spiritual concepts can be challenging but that shouldn’t discourage or surprise us. Even the Apostle Peter admitted the difficulty of comprehending Paul’s words! Nevertheless, the Apostle knew the importance of trying to understand Scripture to avoid being misled. Peter was concerned about teachers who claimed that Christ’s followers could still live immoral lives. Today’s false teachers may be spouting other nonsense but, without our making the effort to study Scripture, we won’t recognize their errors.

Since each Bible study on Philippians lasted about 45 minutes, we spent around 585 minutes on four chapters. That sounds like a lot of time until we consider the 52 billion-plus minutes of The Office that were streamed by Netflix users in 2018 or the 437 billion minutes spent watching NFL and college football’s regular seasons that same year.

For the last several years, I’ve devoted a part of every day to studying Scripture. I still can’t quote chapter and verse, but my life is fuller and more purposeful because of its words. It’s worth the effort because, like mining for diamonds, each time I dig deep into God’s word, another beautiful gem appears.

The book to read is not the one which thinks for you, but the one which makes you think. No book in the world equals the Bible for that. [Harper Lee]

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT)]

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So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. [John 13:34-35 (NLT)]

Last week, I saw a video of a prayer service in the streets of a major American city. “Give a shout!” called the pastor and the crowd shouted back before raising their voices in song. In another time, I’d have been thrilled to see so many people gathered to praise Jesus, but these are not normal times. This was in a state where COVID-19 cases are on the increase and even those considered low risk have been asked to wear face coverings and refrain from gathering in groups greater than ten. Nevertheless, the crowd of several hundred stood tightly together and few wore face masks.

Franklin Roosevelt was wrong when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!” There’s much we should fear; after all, Scripture tells us to fear God. Along with fearing God, the fear of both spiritual and physical danger can keep us safe. The minute David put his eyes on the naked Bathsheba, he was in spiritual danger but, instead of turning around in fear, he walked straight into the enemy’s trap. The good fear of physical danger is what gets us in the basement during a tornado warning or puts up shutters before a hurricane. It’s the fear that seeks shelter from lightning, looks both ways even after the light turns green, gets vaccinated, wears seat belts, and puts life jackets on toddlers when they wade in the ocean. It’s when we allow our fear of spiritual or physical danger to turn into preoccupation or obsession, when we lose perspective or faith, or when we become anxious, neurotic, hopeless, incompetent or incapacitated, that good fear goes bad.

Our bodies are not our own; like everything else we have, they belong to God. As His stewards, we are expected to take good care of them; a certain amount of fear helps us do that by assessing risks. There may be times we are called to risk our lives, as are firemen when entering a burning building. Needlessly risking health and safety, however, is not God’s intention for us. “You’re afraid!” is not an insult when it comes to COVID-19; we all should have a healthy fear of this virus. As Christians, we live by faith not fear, but that doesn’t mean we live foolishly or inconsiderately!

It’s not just the elderly or those with secondary conditions who are at risk. One of the mysteries of this disease is that relatively healthy young people, including small children and teens, can become critically ill or die. Everyone should have a healthy fear of this virus and respect it the same way we would a bear on the back deck: by keeping our distance! Moreover, our reckless actions have ramifications and can cause collateral damage. Every attendee at that prayer rally later interacted with family, friends, co-workers, and even strangers; their carelessness might cost someone else their health or even their life! Christians are called to love and that love should respect, honor, and value the lives of others as much as their own.

Ignoring scientific data, our state, like many others, is re-opening and some churches have followed suit. After all, empty pews often mean empty collection baskets. While our church, like many, wants to resume services, we readily admit to being afraid. We take the numbers and threat seriously and needlessly bringing ourselves or our church family into a risky situation is irresponsible. “Let the vulnerable stay home!” say some while other churches tell those over 65 they can’t attend. I don’t think the Lord who spoke of leaving the ninety-nine sheep to find the one who was lost, would agree. Every single life mattered to Him and it is the most vulnerable God has called us to serve!  Believing that the church should be a place of sanctuary not infection, our church is not yet meeting in person. It’s not a popular choice, but Jesus was never about being popular. He was about love—about doing the right thing—about caring for the health and safety of others.

Face masks and social distancing aren’t about politics; they’re about love! When Bishop Michael Curry was on the Today show last week, he spoke of choosing to live in the way of love which, he explained, is seeking the good of others as well as of self. After placing his two hands in the shape of a heart, he said there was a new symbol of love: a face mask! “I wear it to protect you and you wear it to protect me,” explained the Bishop. Me doing all I can to protect you from harm and you doing all you can to protect me exemplify Christian love! Right now, for many of us, along with wearing a face mask, that means continuing to worship together from a distance!

This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. … We love each other because he loved us first. [1 John 4:10-11,19 (NLT)]

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ELOHIM (The Trinity – Part 2)

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’” [Mark 12:29-30 (NIV)]

Tower Falls - Grand Canyon

Although words like divinity, omniscience, incarnation, and omnipresent are fundamental to our understanding of God, they never appear in Scripture; their concepts, however, do. Like them, the word “trinity” never appears in the Bible but its concept is found throughout God’s Word.

In Deuteronomy 6:4-5, we find the Shema, the Jewish confession of faith and it was this commandment that Jesus cited as the most important commandment of all. Although His words made it clear there is only one God, from the first words of Genesis to those in Revelation, we find a plurality to that one God. In Hebrew, the singular form of God is El, but when Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” the word translated as “God” is Elohim, the plural form of God. Yet, wherever we find the plural Elohim referring to God, the verb used is singular, clearly implying only one God!

In Genesis 1:26, we have God (Elohim) speaking in the plural, “Let us make man in our own image” and, in 3:22, He says that man “has become like one of us.” God isn’t speaking to the angels because they are nothing like us nor is God using a royal “we” since there are no other examples of its use in Scripture. In fact, the earliest evidence of royalty referring to self as “we” is not found until the 4th century!

The personages of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are found in both the Old and New Testaments. In Genesis 14:18, we have the Father when El, the singular form of God, refers to “God Most High.” In Isaiah 7:14, we have the Son in “Immanuel” meaning “God with us.” In Job 33:4 and 37:10, we find the Holy Spirit as the ”Spirit of God” and “Breath of God.” In the New Testament, we have all three personages present when Jesus was baptized, God publicly proclaimed Him as His Son, and the Spirit of God descended like a dove upon Him. [Matthew 3:16-17] We then have Jesus putting all three persons together when He gave the disciples the Great Commission.

Last Sunday, Christians celebrated Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus’ followers. While Pentecost, like Christmas and Easter, celebrates an event, this coming Sunday we will celebrate a vital part of Christian doctrine: the Holy Trinity. Just as the Trinity was there in the Old Testament when Elohim decided to make man, the Trinity was there when Elohim chose to save man in the New! Thank you God!

When I know it is the Word of God that declares the Trinity, that God has said so, I do not inquire how it can be true; I am content with the simple Word of God, let it harmonize with reason as it may. And every Christian should adopt the same course with respect to all the articles of our faith. [Martin Luther]

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” [Matthew 28:18-20 (NIV)]

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ANALOGIES (The Trinity-Part 1)

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” [Matthew 3:16-17 (NIV)]

apache plumeI don’t think there is a way we can fully understand the Trinity—how one God can exist as three distinct and complete persons: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Sometimes, it comes down to finding analogies that come close. A common one is that God can be experienced in three forms just as water can be experienced as a liquid, solid or vapor. Like every analogy, though, it isn’t quite right. At Jesus’ baptism, God appeared in all three personages at the same time but water can’t do that! As imperfect as they are, however, analogies help us better understand the mystery of the Trinity.

It was hearing a chef on the Food Network use the term “holy trinity” that brought to mind another analogy. Rather than talking theology, the chef was making a mirepoix—a mixture of onions, celery, and carrots. Just as these three distinct vegetables combine into a flavor foundation for stocks and stews, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons who combine into one being and form the foundation of our Christian faith. In spite of a chef’s mirepoix being called a “holy trinity,” however, the analogy doesn’t capture the concept fully. In a mirepoix, once the vegetables are combined and sautéed, they are no longer distinct—not so with the Holy Trinity. Even when combined in the Godhead, all three persons of the Trinity retain their individuality.

Rather than a mirepoix, perhaps the chef’s cookbook makes a better analogy. Having length, width and thickness, it is three-dimensional. Its length is not its width, its thickness not its length, and its width not its thickness and, while they all differ, none is more important than the other. Each is a separate and distinct measurement and yet they connect into one book and, if we remove any one of the dimensions, we no longer have the book. The Godhead, like a cookbook, has three unique dimensions that combine to make up the entirety without changing the original dimensions.

God, however, is neither dimension nor thing; He is a being. Analogies will always fail us because they are limited by human comprehension. Nevertheless, being pretty much incomprehensible doesn’t mean the Trinity isn’t real. It just means that understanding an unlimited God is too immense for our finite minds. If we could fully understand the essence of God, He wouldn’t be God!

The point isn’t to understand it all; it is simply to know and be known by God. While I have but a vague understanding of the Trinity, I believe in it because I have experienced all three persons! I pray to God the Father, have knowledge of Him through His Son Jesus Christ, and have His Spirit living within me. Thank you, God!

That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. [Athanasian Creed]

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. [2 Corinthians 13:14 (NIV)]

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. [John 14:26 (NIV)]

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Mallard ducksHe will say to them, “Listen to me, all you men of Israel! Do not be afraid as you go out to fight your enemies today! Do not lose heart or panic or tremble before them. For the Lord your God is going with you! He will fight for you against your enemies, and he will give you victory!” [Deuteronomy 20:3-4 (NLT)]

The book of Numbers lives up to its name with two censuses commanded by the Lord. The first was taken a year after the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, around 1444 BC, in the Sinai wilderness. Only men over twenty (not counting Levites) were counted and the total was 603,550. With the addition of women, children and Levites, the number of people in the exodus is estimated at two million. The purpose of the census was to assess Israel’s military strength, to keep an accurate record of genealogies, and to organize this enormous group into effective groups for both travel and battle. Family banners identified the tribal units so they could stay together as they moved and camped. A year later, convinced that the power of God and over 600,000 fighting men were not enough to defeat their enemies, the Israelites refused to enter Canaan.

Thirty-seven years later, when a new generation of Israelites was camped on the east side of the Jordan River, a second census was conducted. Like the first, this census ascertained military strength but also determined the amount of land allotted to each tribe. 601,730 fighting men were counted—slightly less than when they refused to enter Canaan the first time. Their opponents were no less formidable a generation later but this generation didn’t underestimate the power of God and the value of each man; they conquered the same people their parents had feared.

If we took a census of our assets, what would we list? Along with our faith in God, we might list things like bank accounts, investments, homes, possessions, education, experience, reputation, and even family. Would we list our sisters and brothers in Christ? I ask because I recently overlooked this valuable asset.

It had been a difficult week for me; writing had gone badly, the news was worse, loved ones were hurting, and a cloud of sadness enveloped me. While I’d been prayerfully bringing my concerns to God, I was trying to muddle through on my own. During our weekly church board teleconference, I reluctantly admitted my struggle and asked for prayers. Our pastor immediately led us in prayer before we continued our meeting. Immediately after its adjournment, my phone rang. On the other end was a fellow board member with words of encouragement—words I desperately needed to hear.

Sometimes we’re so determined to be good examples of faith that we let pride get in the way. We allow God to see the chinks in our armor but no one else. We’re told to share one another’s burdens and to encourage, pray for, and counsel one another but how willing are we to ask for help, encouragement, prayers, or counsel when we need it? We don’t have an army of over 600 thousand fighting men but we are blessed with an army of people who care: the prayer warriors, encouragers, comforters, helpers, and even correctors who are found the body of Christ. They aren’t, however, mind readers!

A Christian isn’t meant to go it alone. Jesus never compared us to solitary animals like bears or leopards; He compared us to sheep, creatures that follow a shepherd and gather in a flock. Take a census today and count the people in your life who give you strength—the people who will walk with you on your rocky road and prop you up when you weaken. Let us never be afraid to ask for assistance from our brothers and sisters in Christ. Unlike the Israelites, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of God and His army! Remember, it’s not the size of the army that’s as important as the size of their faith!

Blest be the tie that binds Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds Is like to that above. …
We share each other’s woes, Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows The sympathizing tear.
[John Fawcett]

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. [Galatians 6:2 (NLT)]

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I have given them your word. The world hated them, because they are not from the world, just as I am not from the world. I’m not asking that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one. [John 17:14-15 (NTE)]

wild geraniumAlthough we’d originally planned on a birthday dinner out with friends, we ordered a take-out lunch, did curbside pickup, and celebrated by ourselves at an isolated picnic table in the park. Coronavirus meant that disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer joined us instead of friends and family.

Yesterday was shopping day and my husband was at the grocery at 7:00 AM before most shoppers have gotten out of bed! He wore a face mask, observed social distancing guidelines, and frequently used hand sanitizer and bleach wipes. Upon his return, he showered while his clothing and mask were washed. I quarantined the boxed and canned goods on the floor of the spare bedroom, washed the produce, and disinfected the cold items before putting them into the refrigerator. Attempting to avoid contamination, there was a continual cycle of disinfecting and hand washing until everything was stowed. It’s probably overkill, but we don’t want COVID-19 to enter our home through carelessness. As I carefully disinfected the faucet, sinks, refrigerator, door knobs, kitchen counters and washed my hands yet again, I wondered if we’re as careful about keeping sin out of our lives as we are about this virus. While both are invisible, sin is even more devastating and deadly than any disease and, regardless of our age or underlying health, we’re all equally vulnerable!

We often hear it said that Christians are “to be in the world but not of the world.” Jesus wasn’t a recluse who spent the day exclusively in prayer and study. He walked, talked, taught, healed, and even socialized in the world with both the righteous and sinful, hypocrite and sincere, Jew and Gentile. Even though He was in the sinful world, however, Jesus was not of the world because He never allowed sin to contaminate Him. The vast majority of us are called to go out into the world as did Jesus rather than retreat to a contemplative monastic life. It is only when we are in the world that we can reach out to witness, teach, serve, share, heal, and love. It is only by being in the world that we can be Christ’s ambassadors: His hands and feet. But, once in the world, like Him, we are not to become part of it.

Some people describe being “in the world but not of it” like being in a boat on the water but making sure the water doesn’t get into the boat. I think it’s a bit like trying to function during a pandemic without getting infected. Of course, just as being incautious during a pandemic makes infection more likely, the more we splash around in the water, it’s more likely that some of that water will spill into the boat! It is only through God’s guidance that we can determine the line between in and of.

Jesus doesn’t want us to be contaminated by the sins of the world any more than we want to be contaminated by COVID! Are we as vigilant about avoiding dicey tempting situations as we are about crowds? Are we as wary of the media we allow into our homes as we are about packages and groceries? Are we as cautious about staying away from sin as we are about remaining six-feet away from our friends and neighbors? Do we shield ourselves from sin as readily as we don a face mask? Are we as careful about not contaminating ourselves with immorality as we are about not touching the grocery cart before it’s been disinfected? Do we wipe bad thoughts from our minds as thoroughly as we clean our kitchen counters? Are we as attentive to our prayers as we are about washing our hands?

Right now, we live in a hostile viral environment but we also live in a hostile sin-filled world. N95 masks, disinfectant wipes and hand washing won’t protect us from our most treacherous enemy: Satan. As careful as we might be about our exposure to COVID-19, what are we doing about reducing our exposure to the sins of the world? What kind of social distancing are we practicing when it comes to our real enemy?

What’s more, don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you can work out what God’s will is, what is good, acceptable and complete. [Romans 12:2 (NTE)]

The warfare we’re engaged in, you see, isn’t against flesh and blood. It’s against the leaders, against the authorities, against the powers that rule the world in this dark age, against the wicked spiritual elements in the heavenly places. [Ephesians 6:12 (NTE)]

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