Practical Proverbial, from 1 Thessalonians, 16 January 2018

You know how we lived among you for your sake.  1 Thessalonians 1:5.

Before we move on, let’s discuss the last sentence of verse 5.

Our dog, Josh, had been part of our family since September 2006, and he got very sick these last few months.   Yesterday, it was time to say goodbye, so we made an appointment with a vet to have hit put to sleep; that’s what you do as a pet owner.   Josh died bravely, and he licked me on the face just a few seconds before he received the injection.   It tore at me but I didn’t want to see my canine friend suffer.  He was my pal, and I loved him.  My wife and I cried together as he died.

I have another friend, not canine, who is battling terminal cancer.   She and I were co-workers, and we’ve stayed friends over the years, commiserating over work, sharing life stories.  My friend has battled cancer already, but this time the disease is likely to win.   How do you support someone who is facing death?  Do we ever really know what to say when they are fighting this battle we all must eventually fight?

The Apostle Paul, Silas, and Timothy had lived among the people of the church at Thessalonica.   They had witnessed to the parishioners, helped them set up things from the start, and helped them to hold fast to this new and fast-spreading faith.   At the time this was happening, Christianity was brand-new.   When the congregation was figuring out how to do things, how to worship in the face of real, physical persecution, they did so without history to guide them.   They were setting that precedent; they were figuring out how to do things for the first time.

What a comfort it must have been to have these storied men live among them, be themselves among them, and help them through this difficult time.

Perhaps that’s a lesson we can remember now, in difficult times when we lose loved ones and face the troubles life gives us.  God gives us people in our lives to live among us for our sake.   He gives us each other to support each other, encourage each other, love on each other.   God chooses to live among us by living through us and letting us share Him through how we live.  Famous people don’t make the world go around:   you and I, living out our faith, do.

What do we say when our friends and family face death, when times are tough and we don’t know what else to say or do?  We love them as Jesus would, listening, talking, feeling for them when they hurt, even saying goodbye.   We do what Paul and his friends did, for their sake, for their comfort.   For Jesus’ glory.

For further reading:  Colossians 3:12, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 2 Corinthians 2:12, Romans 1:16, 1 Thessalonians 1:6.

My Lord, teach me to live Your love for other and to others in my circle.

 

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Practical Proverbial, from 1 Thessalonians, 10 January 2018

We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers.  1 Thessalonians 1:2.

This is something with which I struggle.  In fact, it was the subject of my personal devotion just this week.   How can someone continually pray?

If you read the verse, you’d think that all Paul, Silas, and Timothy did was pray; all day long, nothing but prayer.  Even in the first century, that would have been socially odd.  If you were praying all the time, you wouldn’t get anything else done.   You’d actually turn off the people you’re trying to witness.  Quite honestly, if you aren’t working, you aren’t using the talents and resources God made available to you, and that itself is ungodly (and lazy).

Joyce Meyer says that prayer is an attitude.  It’s an action that we should do like breathing, even unconsciously.   “Our spiritual life is designed to be nurtured and sustained by continual prayer,” she said.  Our spirit feeds on time with God.  We feed it through prayer, which is a conversation between you and your Maker.   It’s the way God gives us to communicate our thoughts and feelings to Him, and it’s one way He imparts His voice into our lives.   Think of it:   you get to have a one-on-one, private (if you want it to be) conversation with the Creator of all things and the God who saved you from your sins.   You don’t need a priest or pastor to do it for you:   you GET TO do it yourself.  He hears you and He always answers you, even when the answer takes years to understand.  Sometimes it’s a formal conversation and sometimes it’s just a chat.

Yet know these things.  Prayer isn’t about always hitting your knees, or bowing your head, or even doing it in private.   To pray, you don’t have to say the Lord’s Prayer first, or end every sentence with “selah” or “amen.”   You don’t have to act formal, and you don’t have to be in a church pew, be led by a pastor (or have him and only him do the praying), and you don’t have to pray in a deep voice that might resonate in the 15th Century king’s English.

Indeed, so many “don’ts” seem to paint prayer in a completely different light, one different from the kind of light painted by Paul, Silas, and Timothy.  And Joyce Meyer.   The light these folks shine on prayer is that it’s a way to talk with God, to thank Him for all He does, and to talk with Him about other people who affect you.   It’s an active way to battle evil.   It’s a real thing instead of just some church practice.   It’s something we get to do as easily and frequently as breathing.

For further reading:  Romans 1:8, Ephesians 5:20, Philippians 1:3-4, 1 Thessalonians 1:3.

Lord, thank You for prayer.   Hear my prayers, teach me to pray better, and thank You for the blessing You give of other people.

Practical Proverbial, from 1 Thessalonians, 9 January 2018

Paul, Silas and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you.  1 Thessalonians 1:1.

A few more words, please, about the opening to this letter.   Notice that it speaks for three people:   Paul, Silas, and Timothy (as does the opening to 2 Thessalonians).  As mentioned yesterday, all of Paul’s letters open with a flourish, and all of them open by naming (at least) the apostle.  Romans opens with Paul only (as do Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus), Paul and Sosthenes open 1 Corinthians, Paul and Timothy in 2 Corinthians (also Philippians, Colossians and Philemon), and Paul and “all the brothers with me” begin Galatians.

What does this mean?  To me, it speaks of the honesty of a growing movement.   Put yourself back in the First Century Mediterranean world dominated by Rome.  It was a barbaric culture spread across three continents.  Paul wrote many of his letters to churches in modern day Turkey (Corinth, Galatia, Colosse, and Ephesus are there) while Timothy was from that same area.   Philippi and Thessolonica are in Greece (with Thessalonica actually being in Macedonia), and it is believed Philemon was from Colosse.   All these churches grew out of Paul’s missionary efforts that began on the road to Damascas (in modern day Syria).   If you look at a map you see that Paul’s missionary journeys took him north from the Transjordan, around the Mediterranean coast, and even as far west as Rome (where he was eventually martyred).   That’s a distance of hundreds, even thousands, of miles:   all of it by foot, wagon or boat.

That doesn’t happen without reason.

All along the way, people listened.   Many listened, some rejected, but others believed.   Enough people believed to start churches, formal underground groups of followers committed to this new message of Jesus Christ, Himself only recently crucified.   The movement grew in spite of Roman physical oppression and Jewish ecclesiastical persecution.   It grew across languages, cultures, and boundaries.   Indeed, the three men who wrote just this letter were all from vastly different backgrounds with Paul being Judean, Silas a Greek, and Timothy from what we consider to be Turkey.

Again, that doesn’t happen by chance.   The fact that three men from different countries could come together to evangelize a radical new belief system that preached real non-violence, peace, and love towards enemies speaks volumes.   Even with 24/7 global communications, that rarely happens even today.   Yet that’s what happened in Paul’s day, in Paul’s life.   Before now, maybe you didn’t consider the implications of a simple though eccentric greeting in an obscure letter.   Hopefully after this, you’ll never forget it.

For further reading:  Read the first verses of the first chapters of Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon.

Lord, thank You for the spectacular nature of Your church and the diverse leaders who started it.

Practical Proverbial, from 1 Thessalonians, 8 January 2018

Paul, Silas, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you.  1 Thessalonians 1:1.

Welcome to the 5 T’s:   1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus.  Two thousand years after they were written, we are still reading them and drawing wisdom and encouragement from them.  These five letters comprise 5 general letters that the Apostle Paul wrote to a church and to friends.   They are 5 of the 13 New Testament books written by Paul, which were actually letters instead of books, and they deal with ministry, encouragement, matters of faith, prophecy, and advice on matters of church practice.   Coolest of all, each of them starts with a flourishing greeting which finishes in praying for God’s grace and peace to the reader.   In reality, all of Paul’s letters start this way (though in the Timothy letters he prays for grace, mercy, and peace).

Have you ever started a letter like that?   Instead of a Christmas letter, this year my wife and I sent out a New Year’s letter (mainly because we were away from home over Christmas).   I’d like to think someone will be reading my holiday letters 2000 years from now the way we’re reading Paul’s but it’s 99.9% unlikely.  If they did, I’m sure that (like yours) they didn’t begin with such flourish.

Are you in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ?   Sure you are, you might say; you believe.  But have you ever really had someone ask you about it?   At the start of a new year (and a new series of books), where are you in God and your Lord?   Let’s keep it real:   it isn’t up to us to determine where God has us.  It IS up to us to make the choice about whether or not we care about it, though, and what actions we should do if we find ourselves feeling separated from Him.

Make no mistake:   God is never away from us.   If we feel distant, it isn’t because of anything He’s done; sometimes it isn’t even things we do.   Instead, things cloud our hearts that keep us feeling away from Him.   Or the enemy tricks us into thinking God is far when, in fact, He’s as close as can be.  When that happens, it’s important to remember Paul’s flourishing greetings that end with grace and peace.   They’re reminders that God’s undeserved and unfathomable love is always with us, and that the peace only He gives is always within us.

His grace and peace are all throughout these five letters we begin reading today.   Look for them and you’ll see that.   What’s more, you’ll be in Him more as you do so.  He’s in you already.

For further reading:  2 Thessalonians 1:1, Acts 15:22, Acts 16:1, Romans 1:7, Titus 1:1, 1 Thessalonians 2-3.

Lord, infuse me with Your grace and peace.   Thank You for inspiring these letters into Paul so long ago.

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 4 December 2017

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.  Hebrews 13, verses 20-21.

This is a love letter.   It bids adieu like a love letter would.

For many years, people assumed Paul wrote Hebrews.   The words used in concluding it were part of the reason.   Paul closed his letters with flourish, and the writer of Hebrews, whoever he was, did the same.   Not to set myself up as equal to the Apostle Paul (or the writer of Hebrews, whoever he was) but I could have written this.   Why say “bye” in one word when you can use 158?  Paul did this in most of his other letters so it’s understandable that people might think he wrote Hebrews.   Current thinking is that the letter might have been written by Barnabas, Paul’s contemporary.   The fact is, we don’t really know…and it doesn’t particularly matter.   What matters is what the letter says, even how it says it, not so much who said it.

But, you know, letter-writing seems to be an art we are losing.  I have one pen pal who still writes me long-hand letters (and she was my third grade teacher, who is now in her late nineties).  Not so long ago, if you wanted to impart thought, you had to write them down.  In the day of Hebrews, writing was the only way to exchange thoughts long-distance.   Whoever wrote a letter knew that his thoughts could (would) be read over and over by both his intended audience and complete strangers.   Knowing that makes it more understandable why one would conclude their letters with flourish.

Like a love letter.

Not only, but the entire book of Hebrews is a letter explaining the faith to people who needed encouragement in it.  It’s an explanation and re-iteration of the tenets of following Jesus.   Hebrews is a primer for why people should put their faith in this Son of Man.  I’m hoping that we’ve seen how the book explains in common sense ways why Jesus is who He said He is, and why it’s a good thing to follow Him.   With that established, it makes sense that the ending of the letter should contain flowery language, some of it almost a catch-all.

It’s like it’s a love letter…because it is.  It’s a vehicle to show long distance agape love to people who need it.

Thirty years ago this week, I started dating the lady who is now my wife.   Our relationship started as friends in Indiana four years before, then stayed long-distance over years and miles before she found me while I was overseas with the Air Force.   Thirty years ago this week, we went out on a date and have been together, through many ups and downs, ever since.   I used to write letters to her like this, letters full of flourish, grand visions, and sparkle.   With time and togetherness came the lazy complacency of familiarity.  Today we share more, and less, and I think we both look back and sometimes wish we could recapture the elegant times when we devoted many words and many moments into building “us.”

That’s a beautiful thing about love letters:   if you keep them and re-read them, they can remind you of what matters most.  They share things you might not get to say any other way, things you want someone to remember.   In the case of the writer of Hebrews, he wanted people to remember that their God is a god of peace.   That He gave His Son for our salvation.  That through Him all things are possible.   That He is worthy of glory that we get to witness and share and grow.

For further reading:  Romans 15:33, Genesis 9:16, Isaiah 55:3, Ezekiel 37:26, Matthew 26:28, Acts 2:24, John 10:11.

Lord, thank You for this love letter You shared with us through Your writer.   Thank You for preserving it so we might enjoy and learn from it so many years later.

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 29 November 2017

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.  Hebrews 13, verses 17-18.

Pastors, presidents, parents, bosses:   they are our leaders.   So are mentors, quarterbacks, famous actors, media figures, teachers, and drill sergeants.   Every group has leaders and followers; it’s human nature.   Some leaders have natural aptitude for it; some have elected authority; some have power they have simply assumed from those around them or the situation in which they find themselves.   Some leaders inspire you to want to follow them in anything; some leaders are complete jerks.   Some are virtuous; some are murderous Communists.  Whether these verses are talking explicitly about ecclesiastical leaders alone misses the fact that these verses actually do apply to all situations.

God allows leaders to be vested with (and use) authority that originates with Him.  Just before ascending after His resurrection, Jesus said that “all authority in heaven and on earth” had been given to Him.   God the Father owned it and vested it into His Son.  That means Jesus is where the buck really stops.   And because of that word “all,” through delegation, if someone on earth has any kind of authority, they have it because Jesus directly or indirectly gave it to them.   Even people who don’t believe in Jesus have this endowment.

Yesterday evening I was having an online discussion with a friend who doesn’t profess conventional belief in God.   I don’t think of him as an atheist, or even an un-believer as I don’t think his heart is hardened against God.   Indeed, I’m hopeful that God is working on him as we speak.  He’s going through a terrible time right now, and I hope and pray that He learns to seek comfort from the Lord.   He’s having a leadership crisis because he has lost faith in many of the leaders in his life (work, family, etc).  If you told him that these verses required him to have confidence in these leaders he might rip your head off.

Yet think about the writer of Hebrews.   He was saying these words and echoing his contemporary, the Apostle Paul.  Paul exhorted his fellow believers to submit to authorities, and many of those believers were being actively persecuted by those authorities.   Paul himself was imprisoned and tortured by both Roman and Jewish officials.  Unless you have been tortured by ISIS, you and I may not be able to comprehend what kind of character it must take to put trust in leaders who are evil.   But we’ve all worked for bosses who didn’t seem to know how to lead; sometimes those bosses have been us.   And we can each tell stories about parents or people we looked up to who let us down or didn’t do things they should have.

The verses are another of God’s reminders to us that we are to remember that those in charge are in charge because He allows it.   He allows their selection (or assumption of power) because it serves His purposes (even when we don’t understand what those purposes are).  I don’t know what purpose was served by God allowing tens of millions of innocent people to be murdered by Communists in the last hundred years but I do know that God worked to turn that evil for good purposes after.   I don’t know what good purpose was served at Auschwitz, but I do know about the stories of faith and love from people who survived there.   I don’t know what good is accomplished by allowing pedophile priests to rape kids, or presidential candidates destroying classified information, or the exploitation of people for profit and power, but I do know that good people come out of those situations even stronger.   It’s tough to admit but we, as people, have the power to stop many of these things, yet we don’t, and then we blame God when they happen.   But a tangent of this is also true:  when good prevails, you can count on the fact that it was because God was at work through it.

Besides, those in charge will have to give an accounting for how they used the power entrusted to them.   Did they use it in ways to further God’s Kingdom?   Was love increased because of things they did?   To God be the glory or was it to the person waving the flag?  It’s important to remember that we must not hold God to standards that we ourselves won’t abide by.  Thus it’s a fool’s game to blame God for all evil because doing so simply means we’re putting ourselves in His place as God.   I don’t know of anyone who’s worthy of that.

I’ve been fired from jobs, and it’s hard for me to do honor to my former employers but that’s what God calls me to do.   There are leaders in our government whose words and actions I detest, but Jesus tells me to abide and follow them.   Some of what elders and mentors tell me is tough to hear, and some of it is dead wrong, but the Lord still tells me to respect them.   All of this is true because God entrusts them with the authority they have and we all serve His purposes in one way or another.

For further reading:  Isaiah 62:6, Acts 20:28, 1 Thessalonians 5:25, Acts 23:1, Romans 15:33, Matthew 28:18.

Lord, abide with humanity’s leaders.   Empower them, instruct them, guide them and forgive them.   And teach me to do the same as I follow them.   When I follow, I’m following You.

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 28 August 2017

 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.  Hebrews 11, verses 32-34.

Where are there great heroes today?   Gideon, who led when nobody else would.  Barak, the warrior who answered God’s call to rally troops and defeated the Canaanite, Sisera.   Samson, the self-centered leader in the days of the Judges, who rejected his selfishness to rally the power of God in his death and, in doing so. slew the Philistines.   Jephthah, the great Israelite leader who conquered the Ammonites yet made a foolish vow, then considered his word to God to be more important than any other word he had ever spoken.

Here in our day, is President Trump a hero?   Hardly, especially since (as one of my relatives pointed out) so many of our countrymen consider him to be a boor, a scoundrel, and “an incomparable cheat.”  How about his predecessor, President Obama?   Hardly again, especially since so many more of our countrymen consider him to be weak, of poor beliefs, and an enemy of liberty.  The leaders of our major churches live in luxury and opulence.   The gulf between the richest and poorest in our country, in our world, keeps growing ever wider.   We all want to believe we are special in God’s eyes yet we, myself included, look across the room and see people of different beliefs, different colors, different places in this world and we consider them aliens.  How must our God feel about us?

Where are the people whose weakness God turned to strength, and who became powerful in battle through the Lord and routed foreign armies?   Where are the men and women of honor and valor who walk the walk and talk the talk for Jesus today?

You saw a few of them on the news this weekend.   They were friends, relatives, first responders working beyond exhaustion to retrieve strangers from the floodwaters in Houston.   They were the pastors in Africa who walk miles between villages on Sunday afternoon just to share a few minutes of Christian worship with people hungry to know more about Jesus.   They’re people who smile at you when you meet them in the streets, mothers who raise their children (and new puppies) while husbands and fathers are deployed overseas.   They are nurses in hospitals, grandparents raising grand-babies, the people who hold open doors.  Ordinary people live extraordinary lives and, very often, just by doing so are heroic in small ways that matter.

Yesterday in church, the sermon text was on the fruit of the spirit.   From Galatians 5, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”   The heroes of the Bible listed above knew these things, knew them centuries before Paul recorded them in his epistle.   The heroes mentioned in our world today know them, too.   Whether any of them, or us, know it or not, they are evidence of God for only from God’s Spirit are these things possible.  Apart from the Savior, they’re just niceties, ways to get along for a short time in a hostile world of hopelessness and futility.  Abiding in the Savior, they’re evidence of His presence.   And they’re the makings of heroes.  When we consider how people of faith live out these good things from God, we can be sure that our God feels only love for us since it is His love that binds all those other things together.

I don’t consider myself a hero.   More often than not, I mess up these words and mess up the message I’m trying to convey.   I offend people who are trying to understand where I’m coming from, and I don’t represent the God of our Fathers in the good way He deserves.   Maybe I’m describing you.  I know I’m describing me.  Yet perhaps there’s someone, somewhere who looks at you differently.   Perhaps there’s someone who see’s through our warts, who looks past our sins and failings, who doesn’t tolerate our cruel words but loves us enough to look past them.  There’s someone like that for all of us; His name is Jesus.   If we see our blessings, we get to see how others live out the fruit of His Spirit and they are heroes whether they do good deeds or not.  A few days ago, I wrote things that offended someone close to me.  For that, I apologize, especially since she’s a hero in my eyes.  I pray that she, and you, would know a hero today.

For further reading:  Galatians 5:22-23, Judges 4-8, 1 Samuel 15:1, 13-20, 2 Samuel 8:1-3, Daniel 6:22, Daniel 3:19-27, Exodus 18:4, 2 Kings 20:7.

Lord, I praise You for the fruit of Your Spirit that lives out in the heroes of today.   They’re my brothers and sisters, and I look up to them because when I see good things they say and do, I’m looking at You in their eyes.