ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO FEAR

The news media yesterday evening were dominated by the effects of the world-wide spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, which the Centers for Disease Control has now designated a global pandemic. Meanwhile, although seldom mentioned, during the 2019-2020 influenza season, there have been at least 15 million flu illnesses in the United States, resulting so far in some 250,000 hospitalizations and at least 14,000 deaths. Rampant fear has gripped the nation, causing runs on hand sanitizer and other supplies that have stripped store shelves bare. Public gatherings, such as parades, sporting events and even political rallies, have been cancelled or postponed. The NBA even cancelled the remainder of its season after one player was diagnosed with COVID-19. Workers are being told to work from home where possible or just not to report to work at all.  Public and private schools, including some universities, are instructing students not to return to campus following their spring break, are cancelling on-campus classes and making arrangement for students to pursue their studies on-line. Stock markets continue to plunge precipitously deep into bear territory.

President Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office in the White House later in the evening, announcing further travel restrictions, urging us not to panic, and attempting to assure us that all necessary steps were being taken to control the spread of the virus and to mitigate the economic impact on companies and individuals. However, following his remarks, most commentators opined that these had caused more confusion and concern than comfort. It seems as if the world as we know it is falling to pieces all around us.

And so, before I went to bed yesterday evening, I prayed: “Lord, what do you want me to do now?”

Then around midnight God awakened me to reassure me I had nothing to fear and that he had everything under control. He reminded me of some of his promises, such as:

Because I dwell in the shelter of the Most High, I can rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I can say “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Since he will cover me with his wings and provide me refuge, I need not fear pestilence and plague. Since I say, “The LORD is my refuge,” and make the Most High my dwelling, no harm will overtake me, nor disaster come near me. (Psalm 91)

And I need not fear the collapse of the country’s economic system because “my God will meet all my needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19)

And because God is my refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble, I will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea. (Psalm 46:1,2)

Since I was wide awake now, I pondered these things as I sipped a glass of wine. Then I went back to bed and slept soundly until morning.

The last thing God said to me was “Comfort my people.” So I am writing this to remind you that if you put your trust in God you have absolutely nothing to fear.

ULTIMATE ENLIGHTENMENT

When we begin to see creation and all it contains as it really is, suffused with and maintained by God’s power and glory, we begin to understand why God declared it good and mankind, created in God’s own image, as very good and why God loves all of his creation with an everlasting love. And when we realize that although God is saddened by the manner in which mankind has treated his creation, he was not surprised by it, since he created us with free will, knowing that we would misuse it. And, knowing that, God’s plan from the beginning was to take on human flesh and live among us, experiencing the full human experience, both good and bad, and suffering the wages of sin, although he himself was sinless. That God willingly took on sin’s punishment on behalf of all humankind to demonstrate unmistakably his unfathomable love for us.

Then we can begin to understand that and learn to share that love for all of God’s creation, seeing and experiencing it as God does. When we can do that we have, in a sense, become what the Eastern mystics call enlightened. But then when we have experienced God as a personal friend, rather than an amorphous, impersonal force, we have achieved what God calls the ultimate enlightenment. We have, as Jesus said, become one with him and with all mankind. Hallelujah! What a thought.

“God has allowed us to know the secret of his plan, and it is this: He purposes in His sovereign will that all human history shall be consummated in Christ, that everything that exists in Heaven or earth shall find its perfection and fulfillment in Him.” (Ephesians 1:9, 10 JBP)

VENTURING FORTH

In his book, “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life”, Richard Rohr says:

“…the task of the first half of life is to create a proper container for one’s life and answer the first essential questions: ‘What makes me significant?’ ‘How can I support myself?’ and ‘Who will go with me?” The task of the second half of life is, quite simply, to find the actual contents that this container was meant to hold and deliver.” 1

“Only when you have begun to live in the second half can you see the difference between the two. Yet the two halves are cumulative and sequential and both are very necessary” 2

“We are”, he says in his Introduction, “a ‘first-half-of-life culture,’ largely concerned about surviving successfully.” 3  “But it takes us much longer,” he continues, “to discover ‘the task within the task,’ as I like to call it: what we are really doing when we are doing what we are doing.” 4 “It is when we begin to pay attention, and seek integrity precisely in the task within the task that we begin to move from the first to the second half of our own lives. Integrity largely has to do with purifying our intentions and a growing honesty about our actual motives. It is hard work. Most often we don’t pay attention to that inner task until we have had some kind of fall or failure in our outer tasks.” 5

As we pointed out in “Spiritual Entrepreneurship: Fulfilling Your God-Ordained Destiny” 6, American psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow postulated a hierarchy of needs, beginning with the most basic needs of food, drink, shelter and relief from pain and progressing upward through safety and security, belongingness and affiliation, esteem and finally to self-actualization. Maslow’s theory assumes that a person must fully satisfy the first level needs before progressing to the second level and so forth. For this reason most people fail to reach the ultimate level of self-actualization, or becoming who they were created to become. Maslow and Rohr are both implying that we tend to be so concerned with the mundane issues of life that we fail to even consider there may be something more to be obtained. It is only when we come to the realization that what we have attained does not satisfy the deeper longings of our soul that we begin to search for something further.

This occurs for many when they experience a so-called “mid-life crisis”, the solution to which is to make a pivot of some sort and proceed in a different direction toward a different goal. In the nine plus years since my retirement I have worked with a number of people in the midst of job transition, either having lost their job or simply unhappy with their current job. Many of these have been middle-aged and most of those have expressed a desire to find work that would be more meaningful than what they have been doing. In Rohr’s words they are wanting to begin filling the container they have created with what it is meant to contain. I like to think of this as coming to know who you are and why you are here; that is, what your purpose in life is meant to be. Discovering that and striving to fulfill your purpose is where you will find your greatest satisfaction and sense of accomplishment. This always involves leaving your comfort zone and going out into the unknown with no guarantee of success.

Since God created us to “do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10 NIV), it makes sense for us to ask God what those works are. Fortunately he is more than willing to show us. Jesus came to earth in the flesh to do just that. It won’t happen without a willingness to change on our part and to venture forth from the comfort zone we have created for ourselves. When Jesus began his ministry his first command was “Repent {Greek metanoia}, change your mindset (look at the world differently) and then he invited us to follow him and do what he taught and showed us to do. And his worldview and actions were radically different from what the world taught and did. He made it clear you couldn’t follow him without leaving everything else behind and focusing only on the road ahead.

If you have read “Spiritual Entrepreneurship” you know what that meant for my wife Mary and me. When we made our joint commitment to follow Christ wherever he led us, it meant not only leaving home, our extended family and our circle of friends for a strange and foreign land (south Louisiana) but also for me leaving behind my chosen profession of aerospace engineering and for Mary to pursue a career path she had not anticipated. It was not without trepidation that we made that first move, and for a while we wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. But in the long run we not only discovered much more about who we were and what we were capable of doing, but most importantly that the plans God had for our lives were much more exciting and rewarding, and, yes, challenging than what we could ever have imagined for ourselves. It simply required venturing forth and never looking back.

As we described in our book, over the 53 plus years we shared together our containers were filled to the brim and overflowing. Talk about self-actualization. We achieved it in spades. We travelled the world together (all 50 of the United States and over 60 foreign countries) and enjoyed successful professional careers in a variety of industries. And now that Mary has passed on to her reward, I find myself going ever further from where I began and accomplishing even more than what I thought I was capable of. And I am no different than any one of you. God is no respecter of persons. He will bless beyond measure anyone who is willing to venture forth and follow where he leads. What about you?

Notes:

  1. Rohr, Richard, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, 2011), p. 1
  2. , p. 2
  3. , p. xiii
  4. , p. xiv
  5. , p. xv
  6. Harrison, Bill and Mary, Spiritual Entrepreneurship: Fulfilling Your God-Ordained Destiny (Tulsa, OK: Total Publishing & Media, 2017), pp. 120,121

 

 

THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

Jesus had a great deal to say about the kingdom of heaven (aka the kingdom of God). After he was baptized by John the Baptist he spent 40 days in the Judean wilderness, fasting and being tempted by the devil. Then when he heard that John had been arrested and imprisoned by Herod, he went to Galilee and settled in Capernaum. It was here that he began his public ministry by announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 4:17 CEB) His call was to change one’s mindset or worldview (Greek: metanoeo) because the kingdom of heaven operates very differently from the kingdoms of the world. And he then began to offer a simple invitation to others to join him on a journey to enter that kingdom by simply saying, “Come, follow me.” (Matthew 4:19 CEB)

A group of twelve men did follow him as he travelled around the countryside, teaching about the kingdom of heaven and demonstrating the attitude and actions required to enter into it. Sometimes speaking to large crowds and at other times only to his twelve disciples, Jesus gave many illustrations of what the kingdom of heaven was like. It was, he said, like the smallest of seeds that, when planted, grows into a large tree that provides a nesting place for birds. Or, he said, like a small amount of yeast that permeates the whole amount of dough into which it is placed. It might start small, he implied, but would ultimately grow into something quite large. (Matthew 13:31-33)

And it was a thing of great value, like a pearl so priceless that a jewel merchant sold all he had to obtain it, or a field containing such a great treasure that a man sold everything he owned in order to purchase it. (Matthew 13:44-46) Of great value, but offered freely to those who were willing to enter in. The kingdom of heaven belongs, Jesus said, to the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3) and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness (Matthew 5:10)

When his disciples asked him who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, he called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:3-5)

The haughty and self-righteous can hardly enter, as Jesus explained to the chief priests and elders of the people, saying “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” (Matthew 21:31, 32 NIV)   No, he said, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) So repent (metanoeo), change your worldview and believe what I have to say.

And Jesus made it clear that mere mental assent to his teaching was insufficient; action was also required. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven,” he said. (Matthew 7:21 NIV) But it is not up to us to decide who can enter and who cannot. That decision is God’s alone. In the meantime, he said, “the kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’  ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’ ” (Matthew 13:24-30 NIV)

“Once again” he said, “the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:47-50 NIV)

Jesus made it clear that, although everyone was invited to enter the kingdom not everyone would come. “The kingdom of heaven”, he said,” is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.” (Matthew 22:2-6 NIV)

He expressed his outrage with those kinds of people. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13 NIV)

These were those experts in the law who believed they could gain God’s favor by slavish attendance to a myriad of rules and regulations, while they were neglecting the heart of what God really wanted from them.  When one of them asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life, he asked the man, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” When the man answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus replied, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” (Luke 10:25-28 NIV)

But when the man began to nitpick the definition of one’s neighbor he betrayed his true attitude of self-justification. And a little while later, when Jesus was invited to share a meal with a Pharisee and did not ritually purify himself by washing his hands before he ate, the man was astonished at Jesus’s neglect of what he considered to be a point of law. Jesus’s response was devastating, “Now, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and platter, but your insides are stuffed with greed and wickedness.  Foolish people! Didn’t the one who made the outside also make the inside? Therefore, give to those in need from the core of who you are and you will be clean all over. How terrible for you Pharisees! You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and garden herbs of all kinds, while neglecting justice and love for God. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others.”  (Luke 11:38-42 CEB)

When one of the experts in the law complained that they also were being insulted by this, Jesus replied, “How terrible for you legal experts too! You load people down with impossible burdens and you refuse to lift a single finger to help them.” (Luke 11: 46) The hypocrisy of those whose hubris and self-righteousness not only prevented them from entering the kingdom of heaven but created stumbling blocks for those who could not meet their self-imposed standards was thus laid bare.

The essence of Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom of heaven then was that entering the kingdom was a simple matter for those who were willing to humble themselves, admit their shortcomings and honor God’s unconditional love for them just as they were by demonstrating their  love of him through sharing that love with those around them. On the other hand it was quite difficult, if not impossible, for the rich and powerful, the haughty and self-righteous to enter in without a major change of attitude (metanoeo: repentance).

What is often overlooked is the fact that Jesus was not describing some “pie in the sky bye and bye” type of utopia but a possibility that exists here and now. When the Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God was coming, he replied, “God’s kingdom isn’t coming with signs that are easily noticed. Nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ Don’t you see? God’s kingdom is already among you.” (Luke 17:20, 21 CEB)

Those who are willing to alter their worldview, to follow where Jesus goes and to do what he shows us to do can enter the kingdom of heaven right now. But realize that means humbling ourselves in God’s presence, receiving his unmerited love and favor and then sharing all he gives us with all those around us who are just as undeserving as we are. If we are ready to do that we can freely enter the kingdom of heaven today. I am; won’t you go with me?

 

THE INCARNATION

As we celebrate the Christmas Nativity we are bearing witness to an astonishing event, the incarnation of the infinite eternal Christ as a member of the human race, a tiny baby born into a working class family under very unsanitary conditions – Jesus, the Christ, as Emmanuel (God with us). God in the flesh, walking among us, eating and drinking and experiencing all of the same emotions that we all do. And inviting us to follow him into the kingdom of heaven by being born again of water and the Spirit into the family of God (John 3:1-8)

Now to me it is even more astounding to realize God’s incarnation is continuing. Just before going to the Garden of Gethsemane on the night he was arrested, Jesus prayed to the Father for his disciples, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.”  (John 17:20-24 NIV)

A little earlier Jesus has said to this disciples, “If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help 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 NIV)

He will be in you – incarnation of God! This then first occurred on the Day of Pentecost when the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and Peter preached a powerful sermon.  (Acts 2:1-36) And it continues today as evidenced by what happened next.

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.’ (Acts 2:37-39 NIV)

So, as the Apostle Paul tells us “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (I Corinthians 12:27 NIV) That is to say, Christ is incarnated in each one of us and we have become one with him. This is astounding, but it should not be unexpected. For, as Paul told the church at Ephesus “For God has allowed us to know the secret of his plan, and it is this: He purposes in his sovereign will that all human history shall be consummated in Christ, that everything that exists in heaven or earth shall find its perfection and fulfillment in him.” (Ephesians 1:9,10 J.B. Phillips translation)

Therefore, incarnation will ultimately include all of creation. This is what Richard Rohr calls the Universal Christ.1 Wow! Fantastic! Astounding! So on Christmas Day we are celebrating more than just the birth of the Christ child, we are celebrating the ultimate restoration of the whole creation to the state God originally intended. So rejoice and give God the glory!

  1. Rohr, Richard, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (New York, NY: Convergent Books, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2019)

REAL LIFE JUMANJI

If you have seen either or both of the “Jumanji” movies you know that each of the players takes on the attributes of one of the characters in the video game. In the movies the players actually become the avatars of the game characters. Each character has certain strengths and weaknesses unique to them and it requires the special strengths of each character to be utilized for the team to be successful in their mission. Each character’s weakness must also be avoided if possible. Each character has a unique role to play that depends on their particular strengths. If any one of the players fails to fulfill their role the mission is doomed to failure for all the players. Success of the mission definitely requires an all-out team effort.

Now it seems to me that God’s intent for the Church, the Body of Christ, is similar to this in many ways. Each of us as members of the Body have unique natural strengths and weaknesses, as well as God-given gifts. As the Apostle Paul said to the church at Corinth “Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed…There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.

There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (I Corinthians 12:1, 4-7 NIV) He then goes on to list a number of these gifts, although not all of them.  These gifts allow each individual to perform at a higher level that they are capable of using only their natural strengths.

Paul goes on to describe the Body of Christ thusly “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ…Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many…But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” (I Corinthians 12:12, 14, 18 NIV) Paul then goes to some length to make the point that it takes all of the parts to complete the Body and that each is just as essential as the next.

The upshot of this is that, just as in Jumanji, each of us with our own unique strengths, gifts and even weaknesses must work together if the mission of the Church is to be accomplished. That mission will be impossible to achieve without utilizing the unique strengths and gifts of all the parts of the Body of Christ. Now it happens that, just as in Jumanji, some of us are jealous of other’s strengths and gifts, and wish we did not have the weaknesses of our character (that is, us). And just like in the game we occasionally cause someone else (or even ourselves) to fail. In the game that means we cause someone to lose one of the three lives allocated to them. Hopefully in real life the failures are not fatal since we only have one life, but they represent setbacks to the mission anyway. So whether you prefer to think of the universal Church as the Body of Christ or as a team of people each with their own unique strengths (and weaknesses) and roles as in Jumanji, we would be much better off in pursuing the mission of the church to share the gospel of the kingdom of God with the whole world if we would learn to work together as a unit rather than arguing over who has the better strengths or the worst weaknesses and by combining all of our best efforts to reach a common goal.

Given the fractured and fragmented state of the Body of Christ today, as it has been for all but the first few decades of the Church’s existence, with all of its dissensions and bickering, it may seem that achieving a unified body with one common goal is impossible. But I believe that nothing is impossible with God. I am confident he is not surprised by this lack of unity and that he has a plan to accomplish that goal in spite of it. I have seen several posts on Facebook recently that say essentially the same thing; i.e., when God called you to the mission he has called you to do he took into account your own faults and stupidity. I would add that his plan includes a way to overcome those shortcomings. And I believe that applies not only to each of us as individuals but also to the Church as a whole and the mission to which he has called us. I am beginning to see some signs of that already and am eager to see how God completes the work he has begun so that we can all come together and complete our mission. It will be done!

 

 

RETHINKING THE ROYAL BIRTH

Now that Christmas Day is almost here I find myself rethinking about the way we celebrate the birth of Christ these days. I don’t mean all the commercialization of the holiday by merchants eager to bolster their sales. I mean all of the Nativity scenes on church lawns, the crèches in our homes, and the Christmas plays depicting the royal birth. These invariably include Mary and Joseph in bright, clean clothes, baby Jesus wrapped in cloth and peacefully sleeping in some sort of cradle, all sorts of cattle, shepherds in clean robes and three kings with crowns and royal robes and laden with expensive gifts. Quite a spectacle.

But what was the Nativity really like? I believe it was very much different than usually depicted and for very good reasons. Royal births usually take place in palaces, or these days, in modern hospitals and are announced to all the public in the worldwide media with great fanfare. But if Jesus had been born in the palace in Jerusalem he would never been able to relate to the common people the way that he did. In fact he would probably never have even met any of them. But Immanuel (God with us) entered the world in the rural hometown of his supposed father Joseph, a working class carpenter, some 10 kilometers south of the capital city.  He was born in a stable because when his parents arrived in Bethlehem after traveling on foot and donkey back from Nazareth (some 110 kilometers to the north as the crow flies, but much longer by the footpaths they had to take) all of the hotels in town were full. There was no advance reservation system in place back then. The only option available to them for shelter was to share a stable with their donkey. There was no valet parking service available then either.

Mary and Joseph were undoubtedly covered with dust and sweat after their arduous journey and may or may not have had a chance to bathe and change clothes. They certainly had no deodorant or perfume and anyway were staying in an environment that smelled of hay, manure and donkey (no pleasant Christmas aromas of pine boughs, hot chocolate and spiced cider or gingerbread). Whether or not there were other animals present is somewhat problematical. It was a stable after all, not a barn. I doubt there were any cattle (they are not usually kept in stables). There might have been horses, but more likely, if anything there might have been other donkeys as most of the working class folk did not have horses. We are not told how big the stable was or what animals were housed there. But I find it unlikely there was the kind of menagerie found in some Nativity scenes.

When the baby was born he was swaddled in cloths in the manner of a newborn lamb and laid in a feed trough. It was apparently the only viable option to keep him off of the dirt floor of the stable. So the Son of God entered the world as the baby of a working class couple in a very crude, smelly and none too clean environment. Not what you would expect for a royal birth.

And as to fanfare, there was a spectacular display of that, including an angelic messenger announcing the birth, surrounded by a terrifyingly brilliant display of God’s glory and accompanied by a massive heavenly choir. However, the announcement was not made to the general public, but only to a handful of working class shepherds spending the night outdoors in the midst of their smelly flocks of sheep.  After they recovered from their fright, the shepherds decided they had to go into town to see the newborn king for themselves. I don’t believe they took the time to fetch a change of clothes. When they had seen the baby they spread the word about what the angel had told them to the amazement of all in the neighborhood.

So the King of Kings was born to working class parents in a dirty, smelly stable with the only witnesses a group of working class shepherds. No kings present, no royal gifts. The news of his arrival no doubt spread throughout the surrounding area, but apparently never reached the palace in Jerusalem until somewhat later when a group of magi (that is, priests in Zoroastrianism and the earlier religions of the western Iranians per Wikipedia) stopped off in Jerusalem to inquire about the birth. “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” they asked. Adding “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2 NIV) This caused quite an uproar. When word reached King Herod he was disturbed and called all the chief priest and teachers of the law to ask them where the Messiah was to be born (He was apparently Biblically ignorant as are many who call themselves Christians even today). When told that the prophets had said the birth would take place in Bethlehem, Herod asked the Magi the exact time the star had appeared and then sent them on their way, asking them to alert him when they found the child so that he could worship him also.  His real motive though was to find the child so that he could kill him and eliminate the threat he perceived to his throne.

However, after their visit to Bethlehem the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they returned home another way, bypassing the palace without stopping. This must have been some time after the birth occurred, because when Herod realized they were not coming back he issued orders to kill all of the boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding area who were two years old and under.

So there were no kings at all at the Nativity stable and when the Magi (a special class of Zoroastrian priests endowed with occult knowledge, magical powers and power of divination who also interpreted dreams and performed divinatory rituals to portend the future – according to Hinduwebsite.com) finally arrived in Bethlehem, instead of a newborn infant, they would have found a one or two-year old toddler (living somewhere other than a stable I hope). Although they were not kings, they presented him with expensive gifts (gold, frankincense and myrhh) possibly signifying his kingship, his priestly role and prefiguring his death and anointing for burial. At any rate the fact that the Magi (representatives of a non-Jewish nation and religion) came to worship the king of the Jews presaged the offer of grace to all peoples of the earth, and their gifts hinted at the coming of Gentiles to offer themselves to Christ.

So it seems to me we have lost a good bit of the full significance of the Nativity, as well as the Epiphany in the way we celebrate them today. God was incarnated in very ordinary everyday circumstances, totally helpless and dependent on his parents for his care and feeding, much as any other human baby, and grew up with respect and obedience to his parents’ authority, to demonstrate that, with God’s help, we can live the way that Jesus did and as he calls us to do.

By the way there is another thing that has occurred to me in researching how the Nativity really went down. At the risk of alienating a whole lot of folks, let me say the concept expressed in the carol “Silent Night” seems ludicrous to me. How can it be a silent night when there is a vast heavenly choir in a brilliant cloud of glory announcing the royal birth? Bright yes, but calm and silent? And since I have opened that can of worms, how about the third verse of “Away in a Manger”. If baby Jesus was awakened by cattle lowing (or more likely a donkey’s braying) I believe he would signify his displeasure by crying loudly as any normal baby would. Newborns are seldom quiet as many sleep-deprived parents will tell you. If you’ve ever been a parent of a newborn baby you know what I mean. Come on! Get real!

 

THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS A PARTY

I just realized that the Kingdom of God is a party. There are hints to this throughout the Scriptures, but I only recently put them together to reach this conclusion. Jesus said he had come to give life more abundantly (John 10:10). The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines abundant as “occurring in large amounts” and “marked by great plenty”. Now having an abundant lifestyle seems to me to be a good reason to rejoice and throw a party. And throughout his ministry Jesus gave people reason to rejoice.

When Jesus began his ministry, he proclaimed “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the gospel.” (Mark 1:15) The Greek word translated “repent” is “metanoia”, meaning “change your mindset”. And the Greek word translated “gospel” is “euaggelion”, meaning “glad tidings”. So Jesus was saying “The kingdom of God is coming, change your outlook on life and believe the good news.”

I find it telling that the first recorded miracle of Jesus occurred when he and his disciples were invited to a wedding reception. When the host ran out of wine, Jesus’ mother urged him to do something about it. So he had the servants bring him six 20 or 30 gallon jars of water and turned the water into wine. It wasn’t cheap wine either (think Thunderbird or Strawberry Ripple), but wine of the very best vintage, to the amazement of the master of ceremonies, who apparently thought the bridegroom had been holding out on him. And the party went on. (John 2:1-10)

Jesus obviously wanted everyone to enjoy themselves and live life large (i.e., abundantly)

As his ministry continued “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.” (Matthew 4:23-25 NIV)

Everywhere he went Jesus invited everyone to follow him into the kingdom of God (or kingdom of heaven). In the Beatitudes he said the kingdom of heaven belonged to the poor in spirit and those who were persecuted because of righteousness. He said that those who mourned would be comforted, those who were meek and humble would inherit the earth, those who hungered and thirsted for righteousness would be filled, the merciful would receive mercy and the peacemakers would be called children of God. (Matthew 5:3-10)

He used many illustrations to describe the kingdom of heaven, comparing it to a hidden treasure, a priceless pearl, a net that brought in all kinds of fish and a tiny seed that grew into a great tree. In other words, he was saying, it is greatly to be desired and is open to all sorts of people. His invitation included those who were outcasts of society: lepers, those considered unrighteous (sinners), the working poor and even the hated tax collectors.

He obviously enjoyed being with all kinds of people and sharing good times with them. In doing so he violated all sorts of current social norms. So much so that he incurred the wrath of the entrenched religious and political leaders. He simply wasn’t austere enough to suit them. They thought he was enjoying life too much and was inviting all the wrong kind of people to join him. Because he came eating and drinking, they said of him “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” (Matthew 11:19 NIV) Eating and drinking; sounds like a party goer to me.

Jesus reserved his harshest words for those who not only refused to join him but were hindering others from entering the kingdom: “You hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13 NIV)

Shortly before this Jesus had likened the kingdom of heaven to a wedding banquet.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come…Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.” (Matthew 22:2, 3, 8-10 NIV)

One thing about this story used to bother me. When the king came in to see the guests, he noticed one man who was not wearing wedding clothes and had him thrown out. But then it occurred to me that the man must have tried to enter on the basis of his own righteous acts, which Isaiah tells us are “like filthy rags”. (Isaiah 64:6) If he had sought the kingdom of God and his righteousness as Jesus had instructed (Matthew 6:33), then he would have had the righteousness of God imputed to him and been properly dressed. Jesus concluded the story by saying, “Many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14 NIV)

So when Jesus calls us to follow him and enter into the kingdom of God he is inviting us to the ultimate party, the wedding feast of the Son of God. As he said, “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 13:29 NIV) And the Apostle Paul tells us “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (I Corinthians 12:27) And furthermore Paul says when a man is united to his wife in marriage,   “the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:31, 32 NIV) So if we are the body of Christ, as a man and wife become one flesh, we must be the bride of Christ. So we are not just to be guests at the wedding but Christ’s bride to be. Talk about a reason to celebrate.

John the Revelator was given a vision during which, he said, “After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: ‘Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God… Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.) Proper attire indeed for the bride of Christ.

So I am filled with excitement when I think about the unbelievable party Christ has invited us to. How about you?

The Prayer of Jabez

For a number of years I have carried in my wallet a card with the Prayer of Jabez because it expresses my desire to reach as many people as possible with the good news of the kingdom of God on earth. Jabez called on God and said,

“Oh that you would bless me indeed and enlarge my territory, that your hand would be with me, and that you would  keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain.”

And God granted him that which he requested. (I Chronicles 4:9)

And God, being no respecter of persons, has granted me the same. I have always been the recipient of God’s blessings, from my birth until now. I was born into a family of believers, raised in a 3-generation household that taught me to honor my parents (and grandparents), how a Christian gentleman should behave and the value of hard work and perseverance. Although I strayed from the fold of God when I left home to go to college, my parents and grandparents kept me covered with prayer that kept me from too much evil and insured my survival. So God’s hand never left me even while I was otherwise engaged and ignoring him.

However, after I met and married my wife, Mary, and our daughter Jennifer came along, things escalated dramatically. Mary and Jennifer were the two greatest blessings I have ever received and they are the gifts that just keep on giving. That would be enough for a lifetime in itself, but God was just beginning. I should point out here that this was long before I ever heard of the prayer of Jabez, but God, knowing I would one day utter it myself, began granting that which I had not yet requested. What an awesome God!

It began in earnest when Mary and I jointly made a commitment to follow Christ wherever he led us and to do whatever he asked us to do. As we described in “Spiritual Entrepreneurship: Fulfilling Your God-Ordained Destiny”, God began to lead us on an adventure that took us many places we had never expected to go and gave us the opportunity to do things we had not known we could do. I had been born and raised in Texas and had no desire to live anywhere else. But God began to enlarge my territory by calling us first to move to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and then to Virginia Beach, Virginia before calling us back to Texas. In the process Mary and I both were given opportunities to employ our God-given abilities in ways we had never anticipated. God also both planted in us a desire to travel and gave us the means to do so. In doing so he managed to enlarge our territory to include all 50 of the United States of America and over 60 foreign countries. We began to realize that the kingdom of God on earth was meant to encompass all of humanity throughout the whole world.

God’s hand was with us everywhere we went, protecting and guiding us and empowering us to accomplish all that came to our hands to do. This awesome adventure together lasted for nearly 53 years before God called Mary home to be with him. However, I was not truly left alone. Mary is still with me in spirit every day, everywhere I go, and God has never left my side. He is always with me and in me by his Spirit. So now I travel solo, but never alone. And God is still enlarging my territory.

After all the places Mary and I had travelled to, there were few places left that we had a desire to visit. One of these was South Africa, but Mary’s declining health prevented us from being able to undertake the rigors of that long a trip. But earlier this year (2019) I did make that trip, and I felt her presence with me throughout it. I took her in spirit where she had not been able to go in the flesh. And I did it in September and October to celebrate what would have been Mary’s 75th birthday.

Then this November I participated in a mission trip to the Texas border at Brownsville to take meals to the asylum seekers in the migrant encampment across the border in Matamoros, Mexico. Closer to home I have been given the opportunity to serve once again as a Deacon at Grace Presbyterian Church in Plano, Texas, to serve on the Men’s Council planning the 2020 Men’s Conference at Mo Ranch in the Texas hill country and to participate in the outreach effort to get people engaged in their local church and community through the North Texas Presbyterian Pilgrimage organization. Next Spring I plan to take a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, one of the last areas Mary and I wanted to visit. Once again I will take her with me in my heart.

As you can see, God has abundantly answered my prayer as he did the prayer of Jabez. I can hardly wait to see what else God has in store for me. One word of caution here: Be careful what you pray for; God may just give it to you in ways you don’t expect.

EMBRACING CHANGE

Our Senior Pastor recently preached a sermon urging us to reject maintaining order that perpetuates inequality and injustice for some and to embrace change that provides equality and justice for all. Those who are well served by the status quo are always loathe to allow changes. And those who are ill-served by it are always advocating for it to be changed. Both sides tend to defend their position vehemently and this often leads to clashes, nearly always highly vocal and sometimes violent. And positive results are generally slow in coming. But the good news is they are coming, however slowly.

This was pointed out in a book I recently read by Hans Rosling (with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund) entitled “Factfullness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think”.1 In it Rosling uses statistics compiled by the World Bank and the United Nations to show that our long-held preconceptions about the state of the world are incorrect. Instead of getting worse at an increasing rate conditions are actually getting better in most respects.

In 2017 he and his colleagues asked nearly 12,000 people in 14 countries a series of 13 questions about current conditions in the world. On average they answered only 2 of the first 12 questions correctly. And many groups of highly educated people fared worse than the general public. As these were all multiple choice questions with three possible answers, Rosling postulates that a group of chimpanzees would get one-third of the questions right by sheer luck (they have a 1 in 3 chance). And the chimps’ guesses would be more or less evenly distributed between the incorrect answers, while the human errors tend to be in one direction. Every group of people tested believes the world is more frightening, violent and hopeless than it really is.

The correct answers to the 13 questions are:

  1. In all of the low-income countries of the world 60 % of girls finish primary school.
  2. The majority of the world’s population lives in middle-income countries.
  3. In the last 20 years the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has almost been halved (i.e., 50% fewer).
  4. The life expectancy world-wide is 70 years. (Actually, the worldwide life expectancy at birth in 2016 was 72 according to the World Health Organization 2 and since 1900 the global average life expectancy has more than doubled 3)
  5. There are 2 billion children in the world today aged 0-15 years. According to the United Nations there will be 2 billion in 2100 (no change)
  6. The United Nations predicts that by 2100 the world population will increase by 4 billion because there will be more adults (aged 15 to 74).
  7. Over the last 100 years the number of deaths from natural disasters has decreased to less than half.
  8. There are roughly 7 billion people in the world today, 1 billion each in the Americas, Europe and Africa, and 4 billion in Asia. The United Nations projects that by 2100 there will still be 1 billion people in the Americas and Europe, but 4 billion in Africa and 5 billion in Asia.
  9. 80% of the world’s 1-year-old children have been vaccinated against at least one disease.
  10. World-wide 30-year old men have spent 10 years in school on average, while women of the same age have spent 9 years.
  11. In 1996, tigers, giant pandas and black rhinos were all listed as endangered. Today none of them are.
  12. 80% of the people in the world have at least some access to electricity.
  13. And the one answer 86% of people got right. Global climate experts believe that, over the next 100 years, the average temperature will get warmer.

This is due to the massive public awareness campaign to inform people of this issue. Regardless of what position people take on the causes of it, the fact of global warming is becoming self-evident. However, there is mass ignorance (not stupidity but lack of correct knowledge) on the other 12 questions. This lack of knowledge of the facts leads to misguided and mostly ineffective attempts to correct problems that do not really exist in the magnitude believed. And it tends to lead to seeking immediate solutions that are quick and easy to what are generally complex problems that take a long time to fully resolve. And so it behooves us to embrace the documented facts that positive change to issues like extreme poverty, child mortality rates, illiteracy, income inequality and Malthusian projections of overpopulation is ongoing and much progress has already been made and to continue to patiently and persistently pursue the eventual culmination of these changes. If this idea seems farfetched to you, I recommend that you read the entirety of Rosling’s book, which is available from Amazon.com.

Another book I read recently by Matt Brown, entitled “Awakening: How God’s Next Great Move Inspires & Influences Our Lives Today” draws similar conclusions about the general lack of knowledge about what God is doing in the world today. Brown’s premise is that Christians in the western world (and particularly the northern hemisphere) are so wrapped up in what is happening in our own churches and denominations that we fail to notice what God is doing in the rest of the world. If we were more aware of the incredible things happening in Christianity around the globe we would be greatly encouraged, he says:

“Most of the believers I’ve met at churches from many denominations across the country are unaware of how Christianity is flourishing around the world—and even down the street from where they live. They perceive the status of the global Christian faith through the microscopic lens of their local church, churches they may have heard of in their city, or what little they know of their denomination. This lack of knowledge and understanding of God’s constant activity can lead to many problems in a believer’s life—not just an unawareness of what God is doing, but a lack of understanding about our place in a much bigger story… With all that is going on in the world—political instability, persecution of Christians, tragedies, and wars—we need encouragement that God is at work all around us.” 4

Brown then proceeds to share “how God is moving around the world in ways unprecedented in history” and asks us to “reflect on how being a part of this larger story affects {our} own story.” 5 He begins by asking several questions about the status of Christianity today and the size of the movement of God globally. 6 These are:

  1. Where is the largest church building in the world, and how many people does it seat?
  2. Where is the largest church numerically in the world, and how big is it?
  3. Who has preached the gospel in person to more people than anyone {else} in human history?
  4. What is the largest ministry in church history for an individual ministry (not denominational)?

The largest church building is in Nigeria, Africa, he says, and seats nearly 50,000 people for a single service. The largest church numerically is no longer Yoiddo Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea, a small-group-based church that has close to one million weekly attendees. It is now another church in Nigeria, not the one with the largest building, but another congregation with nearly two million attendees (note that is not members, but attendees). This church holds a monthly prayer meeting outdoors that draws as many as eight million people. These are staggering numbers to those of us accustomed to much smaller numbers of attendees who are a small percentage of the members on the church rolls.

The answer to the third question is a “German-born missionary by the name of Reinhard Bonnke {who} leads an organization known as Christ for All Nations that has communicated the gospel to more people than any other in human history. Billy Graham’s largest crusade was in South Korea in 1979, and he preached in person to more than one million people in a single service. Reinhard Bonnke’s largest crusades have been held in Africa, and he preached to several million on a dusty field in Nigeria in 2001, and more than one million people dedicated their lives to Jesus Christ in a single service!” 7

And the answer to the fourth question is a man by the name of “Vincent Ferrer, whom the Catholic Church has since named a saint. He ministered in the fifteenth century, around the same time as Martin Luther, and he had as many as ten thousand people on his ministry team who traveled with him across Europe on foot as they spread the gospel.” 8

If you are like me you probably didn’t know the correct answer to any of these questions. These and many other astounding facts are unknown to many Christians.

“These kinds of stories”, Brown says, “could impact and inspire you and me to the greater things God has for us. Hearing about these people should stir our hearts and move us into action. But we often miss our moments. What can we do in our own neighborhoods? Some churches are effectively bringing in those who need to hear the gospel. But some are not as effective in this area, and many Christians don’t attend church at all. What can you do to show the life of Christ that is in you to others? We need to be willing to take what we know to be true and share it with those who don’t yet know it. We want to awaken them to the same life that we have because of Christ.” 9

Once we are aware of what God is doing in the world we should be inspired to actively participate in the movement of God by joining local or regional prayer groups that seek God’s guidance and empowerment to become part of what he is doing in the world. If we are unaware of such a group we should start one. A good resource for beginning an effective prayer group is a book by Brad Long and Doug McMurry, entitled “Prayer That Shapes the Future: How to Pray with Power and Authority” 10

And we should be involved with justice movements, rejecting the maintenance of order that perpetuates inequality and injustice for some and embracing change that provides equality and justice for all. In doing so, however, we need to avoid taking a one-sided, one-size-fits-all, approach that pits us against those with a different point of view and leads to bitterness and division. That only adds to the problem. Instead we should demonstrate a better way through loving our neighbor (and even our enemy) as Jesus commanded (not suggested). That means taking the time to listen to their point of view and prayerfully considering whether there is validity to it that can better inform our understanding and hopefully lead to joint solutions to the problems we are concerned with.

We should also fulfill our part of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20; see also Mark 16:15 and Acts 1:8) by going into all the world and teaching all the nations everything that Christ has taught us. And while this may seem to be an impossible task, the truth is it is already well under way. In fact, according to Brown, “People are coming to faith in Christ at a rate like no other time in human history, especially in the global South.” 11 We noted some of the evidence of that earlier in regard to Africa. But it is also happening in South America and even China. Brown quotes the pastor of a church in Bogota, Columbia with a quarter of a million weekly attendees as saying:

“Christianity is growing at three times the rate of the world’s population. In America only is it decreasing.”

“But even this quote can be deceiving,” he continues, “since America still has the number one population of Christians in the world. In fact, ten times more Americans attend church on a single weekend than the crowds that fill all the NFL football stadiums over the entire football season.” 12

As to China, Brown quotes Joe Carter, a writer for The Gospel Coalition, who says:

“The number of Christians in Communist China is growing so steadily that by 2030 it could have more churchgoers than America.  The People’s Republic of China remains, at least officially, an atheist country. But the number of Protestant Christians in China has grown from one million in 1949 to more than 49 million in 2010. Experts believe that number could more than triple over the next generation. . . .  Sociologist Rodney Stark estimates that during the first 350 years of Christianity, the faith grew at a rate of 40 percent per decade. During the 61-year period from 1949 to 2010, Christianity grew at a rate of 4,800 percent in 61 years, a rate of 89% per decade. . . .  By mid-century, China may have more citizens who identify as Christians than the United States has citizens.” 13

Even in the Muslim world people are coming to Christ in record numbers. Christianity Today quotes career missiologist David Garrison as estimating that “2 to 7 million people from a Muslim background worldwide now follow Christ.” 14

Much has been accomplished, but much remains to be done, and we should be motivated to join with our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world in this effort. We do that by following Christ’s commands and living our lives before the world to demonstrate the kingdom of heaven on earth, while inviting others to join us. As Francis of Assisi said:

“Preach the Gospel everyday & only if you have to…use words.” 15

And where are missionaries needed the most? According to Melissa Steffan:

“The country that received the most missionaries in 2010? The United States, with 32,400 sent from other nations.” 16

It should be obvious that you don’t have to go overseas to be a missionary. You can and should be one at home. In fact, the slogan of the church of which I am a member has the slogan “Every member a missionary” 17.

So what is my point in all of this? Simply that if we are concerned about the issues that we see and hear about every day and that makes us fearful, depressed and angry, believing that the world is rapidly “going to hell in a handbasket”, we are woefully uninformed about what is really happening. We should wake up, open our eyes and ears to behold what God is doing on a global scale to alleviate these problems and make the world a better place. And we should be asking ourselves how we can get onboard with this move of God and become an active participant with  him in bringing this to pass.

Notes:

  1. Rosling, Hans (with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund), Factfullness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think (New York NY: Flatiron Books, 2018
  2. https://www.who.int/gho/mortality_burden_disease/life_tables/situation_trends/en/
  3. https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy
  4. Brown, Matt Awakening: How God’s Great Move Inspires & Influences Our Lives Today (Abilene, TX: Leafwood Publishers-An Imprint of Abilene Christian University Press, 2015). Kindle Edition, pp. 11-12
  5. , p. 12
  6. , p. 25
  7. , p. 26
  8. , p. 27
  9. , p. 27
  10. Long, Brad & Doug McMurry, Prayer That Shapes The Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999)
  11. Brown, op. cit., p. 116
  12. Brown, op. cit. p. 116
  13. Brown, op. cit. p. 122
  14. Timothy Morgan, “Why Muslims Are Becoming the Best Evangelists,” Christianity Today, April 22, 2014
  15. http://famousquotefrom.com/st-francis-assisi/
  16. Melissa Steffan, “The Surprising Countries Most Missionaries Are Sent From and Go To,” Christianity Today, July 25, 2013, accessed October 27, 2014,
  17. https://www.gracepc.org/missions/