Monthly Archives: December 2014

2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,200 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 20 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


Christmas Traditions, Religious Ritual, and Christian Freedom

Most families have treasured Christmas traditions. The sending and receiving of Christmas cards. Buying Christmas gifts. Searching for and decorating the perfect tree. Attending the Christmas Eve Candlelight service. Gathering the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwhole extended family together for a turkey dinner.

But it must seem strange to those from other religious backgrounds that evangelical Christians have no rigid religious rituals that they must observe. This will be especially so for Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Shinto friends for whom external rituals are prescribed. Our Orthodox, Ukrainian or Roman Catholic friends may even consider this lack of ritual as an erosion of faith. And for some this dearth of fixed traditions may indeed indicate disinterest or a lack of faith in the reality of Christmas.

But to understand gospel freedom from ritual, we must consider the differences between the Old and New Testaments; the old and new covenants. Out of a pagan culture rife with superstition, human sacrifice, cruelty and oppression God called Abraham to be the progenitor of a purified people living in a just society—Israel. God gave to Moses the laws for this new nation. To remind them of the Lord’s centrality in national life, God gave them daily rituals, Sabbath rules, and seven festivals which the people were required to keep: Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Weeks or Pentecost, Trumpets or Rosh Hashanah, Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, and Tabernacles. To these festivals Jews later added a seven day long festival, Chanukah, to celebrate the re-dedication of the temple in 165 BC after its desecration by the Syrians. Clearly, obedience to law and ritual was mandated for those under the old covenant. ???????????????????????????????

However, in the New Testament we search in vain for required rituals. There is nothing about how to celebrate Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost. We are free to innovate. Only two important ordinances—baptism and communion—are mentioned.

Why this lack of prescribed rituals in the new covenant? Because external religiosity always fails to generate genuine devotion. God’s purpose in the old covenant was to demonstrate how external ritual and law is powerless to make us holy; is totally incapable of changing our fallen natures. Israel’s utter failure to keep the old covenant paved the way for something new.

Jeremiah and Ezekieh saw this problem and predicted a new covenant: “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel…I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts”(Heb. 8:8,10). Hebrews explains, “By calling this covenant new, he has made the first one obsolete”(Heb. 8:13).

Jesus came to introduce this new covenant, but in doing so repeatedly clashed with those who loved the external trappings of religion found in the old covenant. Jesus said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men”(Matt. 15:8-9). “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside ???????????????????????????????but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean…inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness”(Matt. 23:27). Very tough words.

Clearly, obeying God’s law of love from heart and mind is the key to being a new covenant person. But the problem, as the whole Old  Testament points out, has no human solution. “The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked”(Jer. 17:9). For real devotion to occur, we need heart surgery and mental transformation. Jesus explained this to Nicodemus. “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again….of the Spirit”(John 3:3,5).

Paul explained what being born again means to Titus. “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared [through Christ’s coming at Christmas] he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior”(Titus 3:4-6).

The new covenant question is not have you kept the traditions but have you been??????????????????????????????? reborn through the Holy Spirit? How does this come about? The instant, you or I, sincerely pray to God confessing our sins and believe in our hearts that Jesus died and rose again for our salvation, the Holy Spirit changes us from within. He creates a new heart that loves God and others. The work of transforming our lifestyle really begins.

Jesus came at Christmas to establish a new covenant people who worship God from the heart. Sadly, we often tend to prefer ritual and law over heart devotion. When some of the early church leaders sought to re-impose the old covenant laws, Peter stood and said: “”Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear”(Acts 15:10)?

And so we find no Christmas or Easter rituals in the New Testament. A call to celebration and worship? Yes! And a challenge to infuse everything we do with heart devotion to the glorious Triune God. Lord, with your help, may all our celebrations come from deep within. ???????????????????????????????

Forecasting Weather and Making Plans

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur national weather service predicts a milder than usual winter. On the other hand, the farmer’s almanac warns of a very severe winter. Weather prediction is an inexact science. This is in spite of circling weather satellites, planes that fly through the eye of hurricanes, a century of recorded data, and a detailed understanding of high and low pressure systems. Earth is just too big, the sun too unpredictable, and variables too many to expect anything more accurate. Nevertheless, we enjoy generally helpful forecasts. We plan trips. We plant crops. We carry an umbrella or wear a parka. We buy ice-melting salt for our driveway. And when forecasters miss the mark, we can all have a field day blaming them. Such fun. Think for a moment about forecasting our lives, that is, making life choices based Sunriseon what we think will happen. We expect our retirement funds to increase by x percent so we can plan a cruise next year without cutting into our equity. Then the market tanks. We schedule a picnic for Saturday but it rains. We start a business selling a hot commodity but its popularity wans and we lose our investment. We plan to drive to New York but our car packs it in. Fortunately, life is not quite so uncertain. (Unless we live in Iraq or Syria or the Ukraine.) We should plan. And when our plans go awry, we should pick ourselves up, adjust our plans and press on with perseverance. But there is a lesson here.

“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’”(James 4:13-15).

James reminds us that it is arrogant to declare what we will do without qualifying it. It used to be much more common among Christians to write, dv, that is, Lord willing after declarations. We have come far in our modern world of engineered marvels and tech advances but we have not banished uncertainly and never will. God is the only one who knows with certainty what the weather will be tomorrow in Bongo Bongo or Boston. The Triune God, alone—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—knows your future and mine. No wonder, those who understand reality, have humbly prayed from the beginning of time for the Lord to guide them. “The Lord is my shepherd…he leads me”(Ps. 23:1,2). “Our Father in heaven…lead us not into temptation, but Winterloghm, croppeddeliver us from evil”(Matt. 6:9,13). Hundreds of years before Christ came, the Holy Spirit perfectly guided the prophets to predict the place of Jesus’ birth and scores of other facts. May the Lord guide you and I at this Christmas season. Let us entrust him with our futures.

Connected We Prosper

Maple branchesThe deciduous trees on our country property stand stark and bare at this time of year. With the lush foliage fallen, the inter-connected network of branches. From the tiniest twig, the frailest branch, to the main trunk all are exposed. The only part still hidden is the root system. Each tree is a vast inter-connected network of tiny passageways that carry life-giving sap to the farthest twig. Nutrients and water rise through the tree by capillary action. In the growth season the nutrients generated in the leaf-factories descend. The capillaries distribute what is necessary throughout each part of the tree. Cut off a twig or branch and that part of the tree dies. Like individual twigs, we humans, were not created to live isolated lives. We need connections with each other; in families, in villages, in towns, and cities. Who can live independent of farmers, pharmacists, doctors, carpenters, plumbers, snow-plow operators, school teachers, and the list goes on and on? Some have tried to live like hermits and become misanthropes, living twisted, selfish, miserable, pessimistic and cynical lives. The church, the body of Christ, by its nature is an inter-connected network of Christ-followers. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body.…If the foot shCountry Road,Frostould say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body”(1 Cor. 12:12,15). We can’t imagine a part of our body proclaiming its independence. Each part is absolutely necessary. And so it is in any community, especially in the church. We need each, very, very much. For encouragement. For ideas and inspiration. For prayer. For practical help in time of need. For skills and spiritual gifts. And we often need the challenge we give one another to participate in the extension of the kingdom. Sometimes, we just need each other for fun and fellowship. We often don’t recognize that mutual need. In the church, we may take our relationships for granted without really deepening our common connections. We may pass each other on Sundays, like ships passing in the night. We offer a nod, a hello, a how are you, without really expecting more than a socially acceptable, Good, thank you. Branches, twigsIn a recent meeting, I asked people to pair off with someone they didn’t know well and find out at least one new thing about each other. They had so much fun chatting, it proved hard to get them to stop. In order for us to bless one another, which includes praying for one another, we need to foster these connections. That requires us to be interested in one other. Are we interested, indifferent, or desirous mainly of sharing our own story? If we give people a chance, we’ll find them very interesting. Let’s be curious about one another—not morbidly so. Let’s listen to one another and encourage one another. And let’s not monopolize any conversation. I’m certainly not claiming by this blog that I’m much of an example. I can be quite happy to stay at home, curl up with a book, or work on my computer. But when I have sought to deepen my understanding of others in our church or community, I have been really surprised and blessed.

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