Zachary Bright

The Wonder of it All


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Jack’s DOGmatic Reflections

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the Word of God is more precious tha gold

O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him.
— Psalm 34:8 (NRSV)

…if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
— 1 Peter 2:3 (NRSV)

How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
— Psalm 119:103 (NRSV)

More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
— Psalm 19:10 (NRSV)

Jack Lewis, the Bible Study Dog (BSD), is an avid bibliophile, a lover of books. We had been scanning the horizon, looking for the arrival of our book order, when one day my wife Terry, brought in at the end of the day, a ripped-up package, that contained a book. Apparently, the mail-person had chucked our book order over the fence, and on to the lawn, which as far as Jack was concerned, placed the projectile clearly in his “wheelhouse”, on the BSD’s “plate”, so to speak. Doubtless, the damage to the package came from the Bible Study Dog’s attempts to drag the package to safety, knowing that the timed sprinkler would come on and damage our long-anticipated book order. But just to show you the respect that Jack has for books, the book itself was totally undamaged.

I buy most of my books on my Kindle; it’s cheaper and it saves room. Sometimes though, only a hard copy will do, or maybe the book is not out as an ebook yet. Jack, however, prefers the hard copy; I think the way he put it was, “something you can sink your teeth into.” The Bible Study Dog is nothing, if not earnest, in his participation in my theological studies.

Recently, Jack has been interested in drawing together, in a meaningful whole, his scattered biblical insights. Hence his interest in theology, the study of God, who for the BSD, is often revealed through Jack’s relationship with me. I am trying to exercise some of the care of creation that God assigned to humankind (Genesis 1:26-28), through my life with Jack Lewis. Also, I have a little sign that someone gave me, that reads: “I want to be the person my dog thinks I am.”

The Bible Study Dog especially enjoys the theology that draws on biblical theology, historical theology, and God’s revelation of himself in creation and redemption, DOGmatic Theology. This is for at least two reasons: 1) the word “dog” in the title, helps Jack feel included; and 2) the size of many dogmatics volumes are impressive. Just looking at some of the dogmatics books on the shelves behind me: “Church Dogmatics” (I have seven of them), by Karl Barth; “Systematic Theology”, two volumes (1997), by Robert W. Jenson; “The Institutes of the Christian Religion”, two volumes, by John Calvin; The “Christian Foundations” series, seven volumes, by Donald G. Bloesch; four volumes so far by Michael Horton; five volumes by Emil Bruner; several single volume Presbyterian theologies; and more. My favorite right now is probably the Jenson volumes.

As so often, the BSD has an important insight. Even though culinary interests are not in view, we do taste (in a spiritual way) the reality of God and the wonder of the Word (Bible). From this I take two understandings: 1) encounter with God in worship or Word can be a pleasure, even greater then physical pleasure; and 2) we don’t eat physical food just once a week or once a month, but we eat every day. Daily feeding on the Word, and worshiping our Creator-Redeemer, help us to grow spiritually, to grow to be more like Jesus.

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This post was powered by the album, “Hope’s Not Giving Up” (2016) by Remedy Drive and the album, “Vittles and Valentines” (2016) by Rebecca Loebe.

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U-Turns Permitted

You are never too old to

Lamentations 3:22-24 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
22
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
23
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

Jeremiah 31:31-34 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Matthew 9:14-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Matthew 13:52 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Romans 6:4 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

2 Corinthians 5:17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Let’s think together about “newness.” We alternately desire “newness” and resist it. We need safety and some order in our lives, but then sometimes we hear the call to change, to adventure, to great projects, or just a change of scenery. Maybe we would like a “clean slate” and a new beginning, a fresh start, a “do over.” The call to remember God’s mighty acts in history and in our lives is an important theme in the Bible; I wrote about this in my post, “The Gift of Memory.”

One night last week, Jack Lewis, the Bible Study Dog (BSD), was restless. Our usual routine is that I lay down on the recliner chair, Jack jumps up and gets his bedtime treat, then the BSD wedges himself between my right leg and the arm of the chair, and Voíla!, we settle into our respective canine and human dreams until morning. But on the night in question, the Bible Study jumped down, and wandered to the front door. So, I let Jack out; he was out for about twenty minutes, so he presumably did his business. Coming back in, the Bible Study Dog made a gesture toward sleep and routine, and then he was down on the floor, begging (it’s a high-pitched whine that is not attractive at all, as I’ve tried to explain to him) to be let out. The process was repeated a couple more times, and then I decided to share the joy with my bride. Terry made a few tries at satisfying the BSD, and the next thing I knew was that I was staggering across the room to the bathroom to brush my teeth thinking I had had maybe an hour and a half of sleep.


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The Gift of Light

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Hanukiyot

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. – 1 John 1:5, ESV

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shined. – Isaiah 9:2, ESV

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – John 8:12, ESV

Winter is almost upon us, but already the nights seem longer, darker and colder. It’s dark here in California by 5 p.m. Jack Lewis, the Bible Study Dog (BSD) is adjusting to survive the Winter: his fur has become thick and luxurious again, and on mornings that are warm enough, Jack goes outside to capture whatever sunshine he can in his coal black fur. Terry resists turning on the heater, so at night, the Bible Study Dog sleeps wedged between my right leg and the recliner chair arm, with a faux Native American blanket covering both of us (did you know that normal temperature for dogs is a few degrees higher than for humans?). Jack Lewis is a social dog and he likes to cuddle. The BSD is sweet this time of year, except when he’s not, like when he feels neglected as I work in my office, and he lets loose with an ear-splitting, frantic howl, that I have called his “social misery howl.” I have tried to discuss this behavior rationally with the Bible Study Dog, with very limited success. Usually, he just stares at my moving lips or into my pleading eyes, seeking to discern what sort of human behavior this is. The most successful technique so far is for me to stop up my ears, until Jack realizes his supplications are hopeless. Though the other day when I stopped up my ears, I heard Jack mutter as he retreated, “Yeah, that’s real mature!”

I’ve been thinking about how light, especially candle light, is prominent for both Jews and Christians at this time of year. Perhaps you have held a little white candle while singing Christmas carols on Christmas Eve or when caroling at a nursing home or from door to door. In the Latino/a culture in which I served as a pastor for many years, there is a tradition called Las Posadas. The carolers go from door to door re-enacting the search of Joseph and Mary for lodging. At the final stop, refreshments are served, including a Mexican variety of hot chocolate (it’s an acquired taste). And every time I walked in the procession, I was almost unimaginably cold.

For Christians who follow the Church Year, the last Lord’s Day of the Year is “Christ the King,” followed by four Sundays of Advent, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the Season of Christmas, and then Epiphany (remembering the Gentiles, and the Star that led them to the place to worship the Messiah). Each Lord’s Day in Advent a new candle is lit on the Advent Wreath. Last Sunday, November 29th, was the first Sunday of Advent and the Hope candle was lit. Each Sunday an additional candle is lit, along with all the previous candles. The white Christ candle is placed in the center of the wreath and is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. A family may also light the Advent candles at home.

Advent Wreath15

On the First Sunday of Advent these words might be read:

We light this candle as a sign of the coming light of Christ.
Advent means coming.
We are preparing ourselves for the days

when the nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, Isaiah 2:4
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

The next Sunday two candles are lighted, the above is read, and Isaiah 11:6 is added. You get the idea: the third Sunday, Isaiah 35:1 is added; the fourth Sunday, Isaiah 7:14b is added. And then on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, this text is added:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Isaiah 9:2
those who lived in a land of deep darkness,
on them light has shined.

Each candle lighting is concluded with these words:
Let us walk in the light of the Lord.

The Jewish observance of Hanukkah is also celebrated with candles, a festival of lights. The background of Hanukkah takes us back to the 2nd century, BCE, when Judah was under occupation and oppression by the Greeks. The Greek Emperor, Antioches Epiphanies IV, even desecrated the temple in Jerusalem. A family of priests (one son was called Maccabee) revolted in about 165 BCE, and sought to take back, and reconsecrate or rededicate the temple (the word, ‘hanukkah’, may be translated as ‘dedicate’ or ‘rededicate’). Under siege by the Greco-Syrian army, the priests found a small amount of oil (they thought a day’s worth) to light the temple. However, the oil lasted for eight nights! Thus Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights and an additional candle of the Menorah is lit on each night: there are nine candles, one of them to light the other candles. The first biblical mention of a “Feast of Dedication,” is in John 10:22, when Yeshua stood in the Portico of Solomon of the temple. Hanukkah began on the evening of December 6th this year.

Hanukkah remembers and celebrates the LORD’s provision for Israel and his faithfulness to his promises. It is also an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the Missio Dei (Mission of God) in the world. But what I’m interested in now is the place of light in YHWH’s salvation of humankind.

In the Bible, both the Tanakh and Brit Hadashah, ‘light’ is sometimes used literally, as that by which we see the material world, avoid obstacles, etc. It is also used metaphorically as knowledge, wisdom, the holiness of God (1 John), the glory of YHWH (shekinah), candor, openness, the witness of disciples (“city on a hill”) and divine guidance.

The Living God exults in light, as a material reality, a spiritual reality and as a metaphor, from the Garden (Eden) to the City (New Jerusalem). From “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:4) to the pillar of fire that the LORD used so that Israel “…might travel by day and by night” (Ex. 13:21) to the Promised Land, from “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6) to the star that showed the wise men where the Christ child was, from “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12a) to “…the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk…” (Rev. 21:23-24a) and light crackles from God’s fingertips and lightens our darkness.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have come to a turbulent patch of mixed metaphors, rapidly changing metaphors and changing definitions; stay seated, keep your hands inside, and do not attempt any sudden movements until we have finished. Let’s make several observations about light.

1) When you don’t have it, you wish you did. If you have gone back-packing or attended retreats, camps or conferences, you were instructed to bring a flashlight. We still keep flashlights and candles available for the occasional blackout here in Southern California.

2) Often light appears brighter against a dark background. The main reason we cannot see many stars is the ambient light from cities and towns. If you want to see a panoramic array of stars and constellations, go to the desert, far from any light (you will need to backpack). However, the drop in temperature at night may leave you shivering so that you can’t focus. Anyone with eyes to see, knows that we live in a morally and spiritually dark time. As an adolescent, I was inspired by these words from the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song, “Long Time Gone” (1970): “You know the darkest hour is always just before the dawn; And it appears to be a long time before the dawn…” And these words of St. Paul: “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world…” (Philippians 2:14-15, ESV) Rejoice sisters and brothers! This is our time to shine!

3) People who want to hide what they are doing, run from light (like cockroaches I’m told), and seek the darkness. This is all of us at some time. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5, ESV) “And this is the judgement: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” (John 3:19, ESV) This explains a lot about us, our cultures and our society.

4) Yeshua is the greatest light in our world, and we may walk in his light and not stumble. “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12, ESV)

5) Yeshua’s disciples, his Light Workers, if you will, are called to be lights & witnesses for others. Yeshua: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16,ESV) Enough said.

6) The most joyful and free way to live is to walk in the light, to live in candor and openness before God and to live in candor and openness with our sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ. “This is his message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:5-7, ESV) What would it mean to walk in freedom without guilt? Think about not having to keep your story straight. Imagine a world with complete trust between members of the Body of Christ. My dad called this living with “roof off and walls down.” Or alternatively, keeping short accounts with both God and others.

So much more could be written about light! But I hope you will catch the joy I have in the Light of the World and in the festivals of lights that Jews and Christians walk among at this time of year. These words from alternative Christian rocker Miss Angie’s song, “I Love Light” (1999) keep going through my mind: “I love light, I love light ways; You never fail…”

O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the LORD. – Isaiah 2:5, ESV

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This post was powered by the EP, “Peace, Love & Light” (2013) by The Choir; the CD, “Songs for Christmas” (2014) by Branches; and the EP, “Echoes Of Wonder” (2015) by Salt Of The Sound.


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Focus

faith to walk on water

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12:1-2, ESV

Immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
– Matthew 14:22-33, ESV

“Pressing On” (1980) by Bob Dylan

Well I’m pressing on, Yes I’m pressing on
Well I’m pressing on, To the higher calling of my Lord

Well I’m pressing on, Yes, I’m pressing on
Well I’m pressing on, To the higher calling of my Lord

(Repeat chorus yet again)

Many try to stop me
Shake me up in my mind
Saying, prove to me that he’s the Lord
Show me a sign
What kind of sign they need
When it all comes from within
What’s lost has been found
What’s to come has already been

(Repeat chorus twice)

Shake the dust off of your feet, Don’t look back
Nothing can hold you back, Nothing that you lack

(Repeat chorus)

Temptation’s not an easy thing, Adam given the Devil reign
‘Cus he sinned I got no choice, it runs in my vein

(Repeat chorus about one thousand times lol)

Speaking to Jack Lewis, the Bible Study Dog (BSD), this morning, I asked him what he thought of the pack leader going to the hospital tomorrow to have yet another foot surgery. His reply was to lunge at me, continuing the Predator Game, as if to say, “Tomorrow can worry about itself. Let’s play!” Jack lives in the moment, but not passively. He is alert and curious: watching and sniffing for food, staring intensely into human eyes, and attempting to ingratiate himself to other pack members. Alertness and focus are qualities that the BSD usually displays, but more about that later.

The Bible Study Dog was rather well-behaved at Bible study tonight. Jack slept on someone’s lap, then engaged in silent prayer for table scraps, and finally walked folks to the yard gate at the end of the evening. He is now waiting for me to come to bed, bringing his customary tasty treats.

Our theme today, as you can see, is “focus.” I know someone with focus: Mr. Jack Lewis, the Bible Study Dog. Arriving home from worship recently, we found Jack Lewis waiting for us in the closest shade he could find (Jack doesn’t like heat any more than I do) near the gate. I remarked to my wife, Terry, that I am fascinated that some dogs, especially Jack, will look into one’s eyes for a long time, or at inappropriate times, in a way that many humans would consider bad manners in another human. Terry said, “You know that Jack lives for you, don’t you?” We laughed. But it’s true that the BSD was appointed to be in a symbiotic relationship with me as surely as a giant fish was appointed to swallow Jonah.

Someone else who, at least briefly, had focus was St. Peter. As St. Matthew tells the story, when Yeshua (Jesus) came walking on the water to the disciples’ boat, Peter asked Jesus to “…command me to come to you on the water.” Yeshua said, “Come.” The Word that commanded, “Let there be light” and there was light, through whom all things were created, could of course, accomplish this small thing of enabling Peter to walk on water. Though I saw a cartoon recently that said something to the effect that, if someone was seen walking on water today, people would say it’s because she can’t swim; people are perverse. But I digress.

Fear runs through this story. When the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water, they thought he was a ghost, and “…they cried out in fear”; they were “terrified.” Jesus said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” (I have written in another blog post about the relationship between ‘heart’, courage, and encouragement; and how ‘heart’ can leak out of us.) When Peter, walking on the water, saw the storm, “he was afraid.” Just as Yeshua was present to the disciples, reaching down to rescue Peter, when he began to sink, and calming the waters, so Yeshua has promised us, “Lo, I am with you, even to the end of the age.”

Jesus’ powerful Word, his command to “come”, sparked faith in Peter so that he could step out of the safety of the boat (perhaps a symbol of the church), into the world of wind, waves and storm. Have you heard the call of Yeshua, “Come, follow me”? I hope you said “yes”, and if not, you can say “yes” right now. However, so many that trust in Yeshua as Savior for forgiveness of their sins, and as Lord of every area of their lives, don’t follow him very far. They become distracted by “conditions”, the threatening winds of life, and lose their focus on Jesus, and begin “to sink.” Peter cried out, “Lord, save me!” It’s a short and succinct prayer, understandable under the circumstances, but it has all the necessary elements: 1) it’s addressed to the Living God, to the Lord Jesus, not “to whom it may concern”, or the forces of nature, etc.; 2) it gets to the point, to be saved, and there are many ways in which Yeshua saves us, depending on what ‘pit’ we are in: and 3) “me”, we should not be too proud or ‘spiritual’, to ask for our own needs.

We are to focus on our aim in life, as can be seen in our text from Hebrews 12, and keep moving in the same direction (“endurance”), or we will not make progress. If the goal keeps changing, we will not make any progress, and if we aim at nothing, we will surely hit it (ha! ha!). The “cloud of witnesses”, who have run this race of faith before us, and the example of our Lord Jesus, “…who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” encourage us. We must not look back. Jesus said that, whoever put his hand to the plow and looked back, was not worthy of him, and I would add, will not plow straight. Think of trying to look over your shoulder while driving a car or riding a bicycle. It is interesting that the text not only instructs us to lay aside sin (we expect that), but we are also to “…lay aside every weight…” A weight to give up could include ‘dead weight’, anything that slows us down (if you have been backpacking you know all about this – no, you can’t take a six-pack) or it could be a distraction, like the siren calls of “the world, the flesh and the Devil”, or unfruitful drama in your life, or the consumption of culture that does not build up, or just the winds of life.

I also think that sometimes ‘focus’ is just another word for ‘perspective.’ The Virgin Mary magnified the Lord; God’s name was great in her eyes. But sometimes we magnify ourselves: we are great in our own eyes and God is small. It’s a matter of perspective, seeing what really matters most. It’s like looking through the right end of a telescope instead of the wrong end. Perspective: don’t start your day without it. I’m thinking of the story about the twelve spies sent into Canaan to “spy out” the land before invasion. Two spies, Joshua and Caleb, gave an encouraging report, but ten spies gave a “bad report”, a discouraging and faithless report. The majority report said that, “…all the people that we saw in [the land] are of great height…and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” (You can read about this in Numbers 13:32-33.) My Dad called this “grasshopper faith”, what Jesus called “little faith.”

Sooo…, we are called to follow Yeshua, and to focus on him, not turning back or looking to the right or the left. The majority report that says, “look out for #1”, survival is the aim, competition is the means, “all is fair in love and war”, try to be in the “in-crowd”, have sharp elbows, “live and let die”, self-esteem must be protected at all costs, and “power” or some other idol (God-substitute) is god, will eventually leave you discouraged, unfulfilled, run over, overwhelmed, hopeless and helpless.

However, the minority report, the report of faith, trust, confidence, and faithfulness, teaches us that one plus YHWH is a majority, that as we magnify Jesus, and not ourselves, ironically, we become confident, hopeful, able to keep going and able to withstand the winds of life. It’s a matter of perspective. I am little and weak, but I serve a God who is great and powerful! I wouldn’t have it any other way; I’m thinking of that band called “Thousand Foot Crutch.”

…I press on to make it my own… [O]ne thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:12b, 13b & c, 14, ESV

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This post was powered by the albums, “Saved” (1980) and “Shot of Love” (1981), both by Bob Dylan, and the album, “Brutal Romantic” (2014), by Brooke Fraser; and Hannah Kirby, quarter-finalist from “The Voice”, singing Bob Dylan’s “Pressing On”, a couple of days after returning home from “The Voice.” The best version on YouTube is titled, “Hannah Kirby Sings Bob Dylan.”


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Saturated Souls

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Yeshua (Jesus): “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.” – Matthew 12:43-45, ESV

“Winds of Time” (1984), a song by Mark Heard
It takes more than a good intention
It takes more than than a cursory line
It takes more than mortal vigor
To withstand the winds of time
To withstand the winds of time

It takes more than an eager heart beating
It takes more than an enigmatic smile
It takes more than positive thinking
To stand against this tide
To stand against this tide

It takes a saturated soul
And a faith that will never let go

It takes a saturated soul
And a faith that will never let go

It takes more than mindless passion
It takes more than dogma in mime
It takes more than virtuous fashion
To withstand the winds of time
To withstand the winds of time
To withstand the winds of time

It takes a saturated soul
To withstand the winds of time

There is a renewed energy in our home for several reasons. After wearing a surgical boot for a couple of weeks, I am back in the foot brace which allows me more mobility. I did a brief jig, which so excited Jack Lewis, the Bible Study Dog (BSD), that he has been in a better mood ever since. We went out on the porch and sat on the bench like we used to do. We greeted the people and dogs as they went by. Jack and I had a discourse about the people and animals that we observed: squirrels, of course, and the parrots that are back from Central America. Jack Lewis prefers to not have moving objects above his head. Here is a recent picture of Jack Lewis, the Bible Study Dog (BSD), being his handsome self:

New Jack 5:15

After taking a hiatus in April, the Thursday Evening Bible Study in our home is meeting again. I need the conversation to help steer me toward working on the questions that people are asking. The Bible Study Dog lays respectfully in someone’s lap, and sometimes, he seems to be attending to the teaching. We had a good attendance at the Bible Study, and we expect more people next week.

While I continue on disability (I will need to use a walker from now on), I seek to share the blessings of God’s kingdom, through this blog, the Thursday Evening Bible Study, occasional phone conversations, Facebook posts, and praying for people who ask for prayer on Facebook. Sometimes I say that, “I seek to spread seeds of dissatisfaction and rumors of glory wherever I go.” I try to scratch the itch that people have, of longing for something more, which brings us to the theme of this post.

But first, I must say that I had an unintended ministry this week. I drove my car for the first time in awhile and did some shopping. I sometimes needed to look down to see if my foot was touching the brake. I had some sudden accelerations and abrupt stops, surely making other drivers uneasy. I like to think that some people thought to themselves that perhaps they should make an effort to find the meaning of life, and that, followers of Yeshua were moved to gratitude and praise, having escaped unharmed from an erratic driver. I’m glad to be of service!

I read so much about repentance on Facebook. Jesus preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” The apostles of Yeshua, in the Book of Acts, called people to, “Repent, and believe the Good News!” To repent is to change one’s mind, agree with God, make a U-turn, and surrender to God and his Messiah. Repentance may involve emotions of sorrow and regret, but it is essentially changing one’s mind and surrendering to God. C.S. Lewis has written something to the effect that, repentance is not a work that God requires of us, but rather, it is simply a description of surrendering to God.

Merely saying “no” to the world, the flesh, and the devil, is not the point of the Christian life. I read a comment of someone on Facebook, to the effect that he must sit under continuous, red-hot preaching of repentance in order to battle his sin. The point of the Christian life is to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4, ESV), and to not only consider ourselves “dead to sin” (Rom. 6:11), but “alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 6:11)

Some Christians have come to enjoy the cathartic effect of “repentance” and to identify a sense of the conviction of sin as the primary evidence of God’s presence. But we must not only say “no” to sin but “yes” to the new life in the Spirit, the resurrected life. Will power, just saying “no,” does not give us victory over sin, or lead to holy lives, for two related reasons:

1) just focusing on saying “no”, and thinking about the sin continually, leads to the likelihood of giving in (think of when your mother said, “Stay out of the cookie jar”);
2) what you struggle with shapes you.

I want to suggest that we must be overwhelmed, baptized in the beauty, holiness, goodness and love of God. We want to be inundated, saturated with the presence of the triune God. Then sin will be seen as tawdry, stupid, and not worth the trouble, compared to the awesome presence of God. I am so passionate about this point and I have tried to write about it in various ways in my blog posts. And now I am taking another run at it.

Consider Yeshua’s parable at the top of this post. The background to this text is the water baptism of John for repentance (Matthew 11:1-19) and comparisons between the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. The casting out of the unclean spirit from the tormented person represents John’s ministry of repentance. Note that descriptions of John’s ministry go beyond mere baptism to a call for new behavior appropriate to repentance; there was a real attempt to not only cast out the old sinful practices, but to live a new quality of life. In the words of Yeshua’s parable, the cleansed person was “empty, swept, and put in order.” (Matthew 12:44c, ESV)

And yet in Yeshua’s view all this was not enough. Someone who just, as we say, cleans up her act, is undefended against the overwhelmings of evil, sin, life, and death; Jesus’ judgement is that a life that is merely repentant and cleaned up can result in “..the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Matthew 12:45c, ESV) The ministry of Yeshua would provide something more. John predicted that something more.

John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize
you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16, ESV)

Before his ascension into heaven, Yeshua ordered his disciples “…not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father…” because “…you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit…” (Acts 1:4-5, ESV) And then that ‘something more’ came upon them. The baptism of fire and the divine wind, the Holy Spirit, that John prophesied about, empowered the disciples to boldly do what they had cowered from doing before.

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire
house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak
in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4, ESV)

The basic idea of “to baptize” is: to be overwhelmed, dunked, submerged, inundated, saturated, and the like. Until we are overwhelmed by the presence of God, following Yeshua will be a frustrating, and largely joyless, duty. The overwhelming, fiery love of the Father changes everything!

Mark Heard sang about how we need “a saturated soul” to “withstand the winds of time.” My hope and prayer is that we can move beyond just saying “no” to also saying “yes”, beyond only dying to sin to also living to righteousness, beyond cleaning up our lives to walking in the Spirit, and yes, beyond repenting of the same sins over and over to setting our minds on heavenly things. Will power and saying “no” is a losing battle. The Puritan writer, Thomas Chalmers, had the right idea when he entitled one of his books, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” Nothing overcomes the old like the new, nothing overcomes hate like love, and nothing overcomes sin and evil like baptism into the overpowering love of God.

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The Gift of Memory

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“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” – Deuteronomy 6:4-9, ESV

…but his delight is in the law [Heb., ‘torah’ = instruction, teaching] of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers. – Psalm 1:2-3, ESV

I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word. – Psalm 119:11, 16, ESV

My son, do not forget my teaching,
but let your heart keep my commandments,
for length of days and years of life
and peace they will add to you. – Proverbs 3:1-2, ESV

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart… – Ephesians 5:18-19, ESV

Jack Lewis, the Bible Study Dog (BSD), seems to be experimenting with a new (for him) form of prayer. Jack has become a master of the prayer of persistent asking, after the model of the widow seeking justice from the corrupt judge (Luke 18:1-6). Like the widow wearing down the resistance of the judge, who feared neither God nor man, caring not a rip for anyone but himself, but who finally gave justice as he foresaw that the woman would keep coming until she wore him down, the Bible Study Dog is a past master of the prayer of harassment.

But a few nights ago I awoke, at 2 a.m., to find the BSD sitting quietly by the door, ready to go out and do his business. He made no sound; he wasn’t eager. He just stared at me; Jack was experimenting with the prayer of waiting. Doubtless, the Bible Study Dog was thinking of Bible verses like, “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is in him.” (Psalm 62:5, ESV) Or verses like:

To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maidservant
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
till he has mercy upon us. – Psalm 123:1-2, ESV

I take the prayer of waiting to be not only a patient, trusting waiting for God’s answer; but also, like a good waiter or waitress in a restaurant, an attentive, watchful attempt to anticipate and fulfill each of God’s directives to us. So, satisfied with the results of his experiment, Jack Lewis quietly slipped out into the dark.

This same week, I was scheduled to have a minor out-patient surgery in a nearby hospital. It seems that a screw in my foot from a previous surgery, was being ejected by my body. The surgeon proposed just taking, the now unnecessary screw, out. I could be heard joking, for a few days, that I had a screw loose. The puzzled looks on people’s faces showed that they were unsure whether I meant a figurative screw in my head. Unfortunately, that screw will be loose until Yeshua comes and makes all things new!

I wondered what I should take to read in the hospital while I waited through the surgical preparation. I decided that I would take a few of my scripture memory cards; I would still be able to occupy my mind when I couldn’t hold my Kindle in my hands.

Memory is necessary to any defined way of life, if only to continue on the path one has chosen, and not wander repeatedly off the path or into dead ends or cul de sacs or dangerous obstacles. When I was young, I would hike in a National Forest on a path for a half-hour sometimes, until the path would dead end at a cliff or a steep rock face; I had somehow been diverted into a deer path! In primarily oral cultures, the people of God in the Ancient world, both Jews and Christians, were dependent on memory to stay on the path that God laid out for them.

The people of God are repeatedly called to exercise memory, which in turn requires the practice of memorization, especially of Bible texts (but also ideas, events, connections, songs, etc.). In the verses at the beginning, we see that God called families to talk about the Torah in everyday life, in the midst of all activities, and not only when a priest read and interpreted it. We also see that the godly meditate, chew on, look on the various aspects of the Word of God “day and night.” They are called to “not forget” the teaching and the commandments. They have “stored up your word” in their hearts that they might not sin. Christians are called to “singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart”, which surely involves memory. When Christians receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ we are called to remember his sacrificial death for us. Many calls to remember who we are now in Christ can be found in the New Testament Letters. Among the results of memorizing and meditating on Scripture, the texts above refer to a vigorous life, a long life, fortification against sin, prosperity, and peace.

To summarize: no way of life without memory, so therefore no Christian way of life without memory; not much memory without memorization, therefore to really flourish as a Christian one must do some memorization. Let me add that the Holy Spirit usually works in our lives through the Word, “the Sword of the Spirit.” The more Word of God we have in our hearts and minds, the more the Spirit has to work with in us. Ultimately, we are seeking to re-describe our world in terms of the stories, words, and categories of the Bible, that is, a biblical worldview.

Today, many Christians move through life expecting that whatever of Christian understanding sticks to them from worship, devotions, corporate Bible study and fellowship with Christians, is all they need. What doesn’t stick, what is forgotten? Oh well… Many years ago, I counseled a severely depressed young woman, after she had already been through two psychologists in our congregation, and who knows how many state counselors. After months, I was at my wits’ end, sometimes looking longingly at the door or doodling nooses on my notepad. Then I gave her worksheets about what God thought of her (love, forgiveness, acceptance, beautiful, etc.). She had to look up Bible verses and fill in the blanks. The next week she came back and she was better! Then a few weeks later, she came back completely overwhelmed by life. I explored with her what had happened to her during the week: she had been prayed for after a worship service. I gave her more worksheets and she came back better again. Eventually, I discerned that when someone prayed with the woman, she expected that God would instantly heal her, without the necessity of remembering Bible verses. So forgetting what she had known from the Bible, she would become vulnerable to depression again. I know that this is not the experience of everyone, and I have nothing against praying with each other, but don’t many of us expect to grow in Christian knowledge, wisdom, and maturity without effort?

When I lived under my father’s roof, my dad would ask the family to memorize chosen Bible texts, often quite long texts. Off and on through the years, we would recite our assigned verses to Dad at the breakfast table or during evening devotions. Sometimes I would memorize by just looking at the text and repeating it aloud, adding a phrase when the earlier phrases were memorized. Sometimes I would make note cards, that I could refer to frequently during the day. This memory activity, was not something we could be disciplined about if we slacked off; it was a friendly competition. Under my dad’s direction, I memorized Romans 4-8; John 1, 14-17; Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians; Psalm 1; Psalm 23; Galatians 5:16-25; 1 Corinthians 13, and parts of chapters 1 and 2: parts of 1 John; Hebrews 12; parts of Colossians; Philippians 2:1-11; parts of Revelation 1-3; and probably some other texts that I have forgotten.

I studied German in Jr. High and High School, but it was not taught with a good method; today I am not fluent in German. I studied French at two colleges, and eventually became fairly fluent in French. I made memory flash cards and I wrote out paradigms frequently. Before an exam, I would meet with a study group, and write out vocabulary and grammar on one page as we talked; during the exam, when necessary, I could remember where something was on the study page. In seminary, New Testament Greek was learned in the same way. Biblical Hebrew was not so easy, but I still recognize a lot of it. As a pastor for twenty-some years, I memorized certain passages of the Bible like Colossians 3:1-17, in The Message translation, and Romans 12:1-2, that could be used as charges to the congregation. I also memorized Bible passages each week for the sermon. I wanted to have a flow and a precision when I spoke. Am I writing about this in order to boast? No, well maybe I am; but mainly I’m writing about my experience for two reasons: 1) to show that this is how memorization is done, and 2), to show that the more you do it, the more you can do it.

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This post was powered by the album, “RUN WILD. LIVE FREE. LOVE STRONG.” (2014) by for KING & COUNTRY; the Album, “When Numbers Get Serious” (1999) by The 77’s; and the album, “Live From the Woods” (2015) by NEEDTOBREATHE.


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My Hapless, Fickle Heart

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Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” – Matthew 16:16, ESV

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” – Matthew 16:21-23, ESV

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

“Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.'”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the Highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowd said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” – Matthew 21:1-11, ESV

And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” – Mark 15:13-14, ESV

And they spit on him [Jesus] and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him. = Matthew 27:30-31,ESV

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I could write about how Jack Lewis, the Bible Study Dog (BSD), is sometimes fickle, shifting his attention to whoever has food. But, that would not be fair to the BSD; dogs are “opportunistic predators” (especially Jack!), and they are doing what is natural for them, seizing opportunities. What is worth noting, though, is how often Jack Lewis displays remarkable loyalty and affection.

Fickle – changeable, unreliable, going after anything that sparkles.

I am writing this the night before Palm Sunday, when Christians celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, as King and Messiah of Israel, in the week before he was crucified. The details are memorable: the miraculous provision of the donkey; the crowd of people acclaiming Yeshua as the One who was to come in the name of the Lord, and as their Messiah (“Son of David”), their King; the people throwing their cloaks and palm branches on the ground before Yeshua and crying, “Hosanna!” (meaning “O save!”). Preachers often note that probably most of the people proclaiming Jesus as King on Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, a few days later are screaming “Crucify him!” Fickle, treacherously so.

The two stories above tell us much of what we need to know about who we are. Peter moves from recognizing that Yeshua is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” to rebuking Jesus and refusing to accept that Jesus’ saving path went through death on a cross. Jesus calls Peter’s rebuke the work of Satan (Adversary) and declares Peter’s mind is not “on the things of God, but the things of man.” Wow! From divine revelation to tool of Satan; from remarkable insight to the usual human, self-protective, suffering-avoiding human point of view.

Here are a few observations that struck me while thinking about the Palm Sunday story:

1. We are made to worship. This is one reason that a crowd could be gathered to proclaim Jesus as Messiah and King. This is also why if we don’t worship the living God we will worship an idol – our life-style, our families, our nation, some religion or philosophy, etc. And this is why it is so pleasurable to praise an excellent performance or to admire the good qualities of others (whatever is of good repute, worthy of praise, lovely – think on these things). Or would be pleasurable, if we were not twisted by sin into competitive critics. So, there is worship of the living God, worship of idols, and admiration and appreciation appropriate to reality.

2. We are social creatures. This is another reason a crowd could be gathered around Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, drawn partly by curiosity and the excitement of a crowd. The support of others makes it much easier to be honorable and courageous. But the support of others also makes it much easier to do something shabby, cowardly or brutal, to scream, “crucify him!”; to do something that we would never do on our own. We may need extraordinary courage in the gathering storm of persecution. We must gather with faithful sisters and brothers to support each other in our various callings.

3. We are fickle, changeable. One day we are filled love and passion for God, committed to being radically obedient to our Lord. A few days later the passion has leaked out and we want a break from Jesus. One moment we want peace and safety. Another moment we want excitement and adventure. This is human nature and is built into us by God. But this means we will need to make plans to be faithful, regardless of how we feel. My mother said to me, “Never doubt in the dark what you have seen in the light.” We must continue to live according to what we have seen when we were thinking well, even when boredom, mental fog, confusion and doubt become our experience.

4. Among some Christians today there is an obsession with denial and suffering, almost as a good in itself. And of course, there have always been Christians who are down for the blessing but not faithfulness when it is hard; they want the crown without the cross. Not our preferences, but communion with Christ, in both his death and resurrection, should be our aim: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know HIM and THE POWER OF HIS RESURRECTION, and may SHARE HIS SUFFERINGS, becoming like him in his DEATH, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:7-11, ESV, emphasis added)

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This post was powered by the EP, “Dear St. Isaac” (2014) by Dear St. Isaac, the CD, “The Good King” (2013) by Ghost Ship, the CD, “Flying” (1997) by Grammatrain, and the CD, “Pete Stewart” (1999) by Grammatrain.