Letters to the Old and the Young (2 Timothy 2:1-7)

Paul and Timothy by Unknown artist, 1886

As for you, my son, be strong through the grace that is ours in union with Christ Jesus. Take the teachings that you heard me proclaim in the presence of many witnesses, and entrust them to reliable people, who will be able to teach others also.

Take your part in suffering, as a loyal soldier of Christ Jesus. A soldier on active duty wants to please his commanding officer and so does not get mixed up in the affairs of civilian life. An athlete who runs in a race cannot win the prize unless he obeys the rules. The farmer who has done the hard work should have the first share of the harvest. Think about what I am saying, because the Lord will enable you to understand it all. (Good News Translation)

The Apostle Paul was a spiritual father to Timothy. Oh my, how we desperately need Paul and Timothy relationships today!

Too much independence breeds nothing but goofy thinking, messed up emotions, extreme ascetic practices, doctrinal heresy, and shallow spirituality. A good and godly spiritual father or mother is an absolute necessity to properly guide others, pass on sound teaching, and model how we ought to live.

I’m going to address two groups of people: older generations and younger generations….

Dear Older Generations:

Hey, if you are concerned about younger generations, then by God do something about it!

Heed the words of Paul to Timothy and be a spiritual director of souls to those who are like sheep without a shepherd.

Get your mental and emotional energy off of retirement, your economic portfolios, only giving money, and placing your hope in political elections.

You have built a lifetime of knowledge concerning personal piety and ethics, human behavior and community, and divine ways and means of living. Don’t squander it by dying and leaving only a material inheritance. Rather, die to self, and leave a spiritual legacy of mentoring others in the faith.

Guide a younger man or woman in discerning between the workings of the Holy Spirit and the machinations of evil spirits. Help them unlock the mysteries of being united to Christ. Assist them in moving into greater self-awareness and God-consciousness.

Keep learning and growing. Don’t rest on your laurels. Continue navigating the circuitous ways of the interior life – and leading other younger Christian disciples into the life of the Spirit.

Warn and encourage with all spiritual wisdom. Warn against the temptations of wealth, security, and attention. Don’t be the answer guy but learn to ask good and helpful questions which pilot the soul and inspire the spirit – instead of rigid lectures telling others what exactly to do and how to do it.

Don’t be a putz, a schmuck, a curmudgeon, or a blockhead. Be winsome, kind, self-effacing, gentle, and above all, humble. You have learned many things in the school of hard knocks. So, give the space and grace for younger generations of people to fail and be trained by their mistakes. And be there to help them get back up.

With sincerity and humility,

Pastor Tim

Dear Younger Generations:

This may or may not be obvious: You don’t know it all. And you cannot do it all by yourself. You need a spiritual guide.

So, go find one. Actively seek for a spiritual father or mother. In your search, look for a virtuous person, especially looking to see humility, self-control, service toward others, wisdom, deep and prayerful contemplation, a heart for God and a love of neighbor.

This may take a while but that’s okay. The journey is as much or more important than the destination. Once your search finds such a person, take advantage of the opportunity by submitting fully to your mentor with obedience. Follow their advice because they’ve been there, and they know what is useful for you.

You haven’t reached the Promised Land. There is a lot of wilderness wandering that needs to happen, a lot of soul-searching, and many temptations to face down. Your director knows these challenges better than their back door, so don’t think for a moment that everything is going to be victory in Jesus. Suffering can be your greatest teacher.

It isn’t the outer person who needs all the attention; it’s the inner person. And the journey to the heart is fraught with many trials.

Stick with the process. Don’t flame out early. Persevere, endure, and don’t give up. Work hard at not having a “meh” attitude. Expect to struggle with spiritual laziness, emotional heaviness, physical weakness, fearful apprehension, depressing despondency, desertion of hope, and dark thoughts.

Nobody is going to give you a shot in the arm which inoculates you against harm, heresy, or half-baked obnoxious people. Every good thing in life requires a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears, so be willing to roll up your sleeves and put in the work of sanctification.

The Christian life is a marathon, not a hundred meter dash. When the metaphorical bear jumps on your back, and you feel you cannot go on, remember that your spiritual mentor has your back – not the bear.

Be patient and do the consistent practices which will add up to a godly life, blessing both the church and the world.

With encouragement and love,

Pastor Tim

Coming to Grips with Grinding Adversity (Psalm 137)

“By the Waters of Babylon, They Sat Down and Wept” by Kate Gardiner Hastings

Alongside Babylon’s streams,
    there we sat down,
    crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up
    in the trees there
    because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
    our tormentors requested songs of joy:
    “Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
But how could we possibly sing
    the Lord’s song on foreign soil?

Jerusalem! If I forget you,
    let my strong hand wither!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
    if I don’t remember you,
    if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy.

Lord, remember what the Edomites did
        on Jerusalem’s dark day:
    “Rip it down, rip it down!
    All the way to its foundations!” they yelled.
Daughter Babylon, you destroyer,
    a blessing on the one who pays you back
    the very deed you did to us!
    A blessing on the one who seizes your children
    and smashes them against the rock! (Common English Bible)

This side of heaven is full of both love and heartbreak, celebration and lament, encouragement and insult. It is a spiritually schizophrenic existence of heaven’s kiss and hell’s bite. 

We live in a fundamentally broken world. Yet, it is a world that is presently being reclaimed by God’s kingdom. Therefore, our emotions run the gamut from joyful happiness to sheer sorrow. Either way, especially through the difficult stretches of our lives, Christians are to tether themselves to their true home of heaven.

The psalmist was speaking of Jerusalem, the city that represented the very presence of God. Yet, the Babylonians came and destroyed the temple, their homes, and carried thousands of her citizens into exile.

Although experiencing the Babylonian Exile, the people of Jerusalem were not to forget their real home. 

For the believer in Jesus, this present abode is like camping in a tent – it is a temporary home, and not our permanent residence.

It is easy to forget our true home, which is why we need the constant perspective of eternity. We ought not get too familiar with our current living conditions. 

Simple acts like looking up at the stars at night or gazing into the vast expanse of the day’s sky can be tangible reminders that we are meant for larger things, for the embrace of heaven.

None of this, however, means that we are to ignore what is happening in the here and now. Trauma is real and needs to be dealt with. Having an expansive perspective doesn’t mean we stuff the details and emotions of traumatic events.

The psalmist names the difficult experience, the agonizing emotions, and the bitter thoughts. None of it is hidden or buried under a layer of positivity.

“Lamenting Jews in Exile” by Eduard Bendemann, 1832

We need the combination of faith that my experienced is acknowledged, of hope that a better future is coming, and of love that good still presently exists in the world. Faith, hope, and love are all vital in coming to grips with terrible adversity.

Hiding large swaths of our lives and stories from others is not the path to spiritual wellness, emotional healing, and personal peace. Spiritual and emotional health comes from owning our internal struggles. The virtues of weakness, humility, vulnerability, and faith opens us to the way of grace.

We too often struggle because we don’t struggle. 

I’m the expert on stuffing feelings and turning them into thoughts. I learned it well early in my life. Yet, feelings never evaporate just because we ignore them. Just the opposite, like a forgotten half-carton of cottage cheese in the back of the fridge, our feelings only gather moldy bacteria and crust over with nastiness. 

We need to understand that feelings really do have an expiration date to them. If not openly acknowledged and dealt with, they’ll fester into bitterness. It’s much better to deal with our present struggles instead of living with the wishful thinking that they’ll just go away.

There are 52 references to “one another” in the New Testament, including: 

  • Love one another (John 13:34-35)
  • Be kind to one another (Ephesians 4:32)
  • Show hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9)
  • Forgive one another (Colossians 3:13)
  • Encourage one another (Hebrews 3:13)
  • Bear the burdens of one another (Galatians 6:2)
  • Spur one another on toward spiritual well-being and healthy community relationships (Hebrews 10:24)

Nowhere in Holy Scripture will you find references to hide from one another, pester one another, or put up a false front toward one another.

God desires for us to take a risk on betting the farm on Jesus. Embracing Christ involves owning our struggles, both to God and to one another. 

You may argue that it isn’t helpful to wear your feelings on your sleeve. But I’m not talking about emotional diarrhea; I’m referring to something far worse: emotional prostitution, where we sell ourselves to others in a cheap façade of who we really are and how we are really doing. 

We want to be liked, loved, and longed for. And we very much desire to avoid heartrending pain. So, many mistakenly believe that keeping up false appearances will get them what they long for.

What matters most is faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:6). It takes personal risk to have faith. And it takes two to have love.

Own your struggle. Face it squarely in all of its foulness, degradation, and ugliness. Face it with both God and others. 

If you’re mad as hell at God, then say it; the Lord is big enough to take it. If you need prayer or help, ask for it. Don’t just expect someone to read your mind or your emotions. If someone asks you to pray, stop what you’re doing, get on your knees with that person, and pray like there’s no tomorrow.

Life is too short to sleepwalk through it with a constellation of unacknowledged emotions. It takes no relational effort to ask a pat question like, “How are you?” It takes even less relational energy to give a pat answer such as, “Fine,” or “Busy.” Instead, let’s get down to why you feel a constant need to say how busy you are, even when you’re not really all that busy.

Holy Scripture doesn’t call us to hide, but to love one another enough to both give and receive God’s grace. 

Daily reading and praying of the psalms is a good place to begin in learning to be authentic with God and the people in our lives. It’s the only way of dealing with the overwhelming circumstances and emotions we face.

Loving God, please grant me peace of mind and calm my troubled heart. My soul is like a turbulent sea. I can’t seem to find my balance, so I stumble and worry constantly. Give me spiritual strength, mental clarity, and emotional calm to find my purpose and walk the path you’ve laid out for me. Just as the sun rises each day against the dark of night, may the light of your divine countenance shine on the shadowy places of my life, through Jesus Christ my Lord, in the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How to Cope with Trials of Faith (James 1:2-11)

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls, and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business. (New International Version)

Where do you turn when unwanted circumstances leave you wondering how to cope?

The Apostle James, no stranger to adversity and stressful situations, likened our position in hard situations as faith being on the witness stand, put to the test. Faith is being examined and cross-examined. And it must stand the test. 

Our attitude toward such trials, in all their varied forms, determines whether we will become upset, hard-hearted, and calloused, or, come through having our faith confirmed with newfound peace and joy.

Christians are to view their adverse situations as an opportunity for their faith in Christ to develop and grow.

Rejoice in the midst of trials

Telling someone to consider their tough situation as pure joy is a really hard pill to swallow. 

James, however, was looking to fortify the believers’ faith. Whenever we get a cut or a laceration, the first thing needed is to apply peroxide to the wound so there will be no infection from the injury. It might seem insensitive because peroxide applied to an open wound, frankly, hurts like hell. Yet it must happen. It’s a necessary part of healing. 

The Apostle cared enough about the people to tell them what they needed to hear, up front. Without a positive, godly, and wise perspective on their difficulties, their faith would fail. Infection would set in and destroy the fledgling church.

Suffering is a significant part of the Christian life. God never promised that life would be or should be all cupcakes and unicorns. 

In fact, Christ promised just the opposite – that everyone who wants to live for Jesus in this present broken world will have a hard time of it. It’s not a matter if you will face the testing of your faith, but of whenever you face trials.

The good news is that adversity can become our teacher. We can learn patient endurance, which is necessary to the development of our faith. Spiritual growth only matures through the testing of faith through adversity.

These troubles come to prove that your faith is pure. This purity of faith is worth more than gold, which can be proved to be pure by fire but will ruin. But the purity of your faith will bring you praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is shown to you.

1 Peter 1:7, NCV

Faith is not a neutral or static thing. Faith is active and dynamic. It’s always either developing or degenerating.  Without spiritual peroxide, faith degenerates and becomes rancid. Eventually, gangrene sets in, and an amputation will happen. To avoid this, we need to learn how to experience joy in the middle of hard things.

Faith is challenging, and often hard. Yet, even within the pain, faith is incredibly invigorating and joyful.

Do not avoid trials

We need perseverance. Only through endurance is spiritual maturity realized. Let your hard situation do its necessary work. Immature people avoid hard things and instead put their energy into keeping up appearances.

Conversely, the mature person perseveres through the test and trial of faith. They understand that there must be pressure for spiritual maturity to occur.

God is looking to do something beautiful in our lives. So, if we constantly run away and do not deal with our hard situations, there will never be a pearl. It takes about ten years for a pearl to form in an oyster in the ocean.  Observing an oyster every day, you never notice any movement is happening. But it’s there.

In the Christian life, the consistent daily choices over a long period of time (perseverance) form the eventual beauty.

Pray for wisdom in the trials

Ask God for wisdom to see the adverse circumstance from a different angle – of its positive good, and for what God is accomplishing in and through it. The truth is, God is developing within people a strong vibrant faith, if we allow it.

Within a hardship, it does little good to ask, “Why is this happening to me?” It is much better to ask, “Why is this trial here for me? What can I learn from it?”

With no meaningful prayers, there is no meaningful wisdom for our circumstances.

Believe God is good no matter the trial

God is not mean, but generous. The Lord gives with no questions asked, and without giving us a hard time about our situation. Yet, there is a condition….

We must believe – that God is good, answers prayer, and gives wisdom. We may doubt a lot of things. Yet we are always to be secure in the knowledge that God has our best interests at heart. This is why there can be joy and perseverance, even when everything around us is going to hell.

Christians in humble circumstances actually have a high position because their poverty enables them to be open to God; and the pressures of poverty lead them to rely on God’s enablement and provision.

Whenever you find yourself with few material possessions; work hard but struggle to keep food on the table; and find it difficult to pay the bills – then, you are stripped of the illusion of independence and are left vulnerable before God. Trust isn’t optional, but absolutely necessary for survival.

Will we pour our lives into things, or into people?

Will we look for ingenuity and technical solutions in order to make our budgets budge, or will we come to God?

Will we define success as worldly wealth, or will we define success as acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God?

Do not trust in wealth during a trial

In the midst of hard times, those who love the Lord Jesus are realize their true position and draw strength from it. Yet, for those who do not trust God alone but trust in their wealth and resources, things will not end well.

“Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions, even when someone is very wealthy.” Then he told them a parable: “A certain rich man’s land produced a bountiful crop. He said to himself, What will I do? I have no place to store my harvest! Then he thought, Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and goods. I’ll say to myself, You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself. But God said to him, ‘Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’ This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.” (Luke 12:15-21, CEB)          

Such persons fade away even while they go about their business. Those who trust in things are the real underprivileged people. They may grow up and look beautiful. And yet, the next day, they’re gone – annihilated by a hot wind. 

Like a cornfield in a massive hailstorm, or a flower in a severely hot sirocco wind, the rich cannot stand in the judgment, that is, if they are trusting in their wealth to provide power, control, attention, and status.

The upwardly mobile path of worldly success and financial security, never stopping to lay up treasure in heaven, will have a rude awakening with a major career change in hell.

Conclusion

Where are you on the spectrum of faith? 

Do you need to turn from trust in stuff, and trust in Christ? 

Confess to God a love of things over love of Christ.

Declare to God that you want to change.

Believe in forgiveness through the cross of Christ.

Tell a trusted person about your decision.

Grant, O God, that we may never lose our way through stubborn self-will, and never abandon the struggle but endure to the end. Help us never to choose the cheap way of avoiding or circumventing our trials but embrace the Via Dolorosa. May we never forget that sweat is the price of all things, and that without the cross, there cannot be the crown. Amen.

Less Is More (Luke 17:5-10)

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So, you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (New International Version)

You and I do not need control. Authority and power belong to God. And we are not God.

You and I need faith. And, since we belong to God, who is the ultimate authority and controls all things, we already have it.

You already have what you need: Jesus. There is no need to hustle and cajole for something you do not need.

Jesus tells his disciples two parables designed to reorient their thinking and their lives around God, and not around the typical worldly tools of power and authority.

We find self-control something very hard. We’d rather have plain old control.

In the 1990s, The Department of Transportation set aside $200 million dollars for research and testing of an automated Highway System. The plan was that this system would relieve traffic problems by placing all cars that entered the highway on “super cruise control,” allowing them to move in unison as they traveled in heavily congested cities.  

Such travel would be made possible by using special magnets embedded in the asphalt every four feet, which would transfer signals between the vehicles and a main computer system.  

Steering, acceleration and braking would be controlled by sensors, computer navigation systems and cameras along the side of the road. Control would be returned to drivers as they exited the highway.  According to the technology manager of the project, “The only thing we can’t do yet is get people to comfortably trust the system. It’s not a technology issue.”

The grace of God in Jesus Christ is our fail-safe system designed to put us in “super cruise control” when dealing with circumstances and relating to people. There is just one difficulty with the system: Getting people to comfortably trust it.

The real problem is that we prefer to retain control of life’s steering wheel, even though it is this tendency that drives us to discontentment and endless relational conflict. Rather than insisting on doing life our way, we need Jesus to take the wheel.

And the irony to all this is that we already have what we so desperately seek.

Just a little bit of Jesus makes a large impact on the world.

            Our Lord’s entire kingdom movement looked as insignificant as a mustard seed. Christ’s little band of disciples were, at best, a motley crew of very human characters who vacillated between faith and doubt; they spent as much time arguing amongst themselves as they did engaging in ministry. Yet, it was these same people who ended up turning the world upside-down.

            The insignificant and small looking mustard seed eventually becomes a world-sheltering tree. In the same way, a barbaric, bloody, seemingly insignificant cross became the means of changing the world.

            We, even though imperfect and small, can become, with Jesus in us, a healing force for the world. Little is much when God is in it. Although Gideon believed he needed to be in charge of a large army to defeat Israel’s enemies, God whittled his soldiers down to just 300, against a force described as an army with men as many as the sand on the seashore. Victory was no problem. Gideon already had what he needed: God. (Judges 7:1-25)

Never underestimate the potency of our little bit of ministry with Jesus animating it. Our…

Kind words spoken in the name of Jesus…

Hidden prayers uttered silently behind closed doors…

Secret giving in which the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing…

Gentleness in the face of violence…

Humility in the midst of pride…

Mercy given instead of judgment…

Peacemaking wherever frustration exists…

These and so much more, when energized by Jesus, becomes a mighty force for good and change in this old fallen world.

Yet so many Christians think they need all kinds of power, authority, and control – then mountains can be moved, trees uprooted, and things can happen.

With this misguided notion, we too easily succumb to the temptations of winning success, spinning a superior self-image, and pinning down power to get what we want and need.

However, we already have what we need, Jesus, and we do not need what he has – power and authority; we just need him.

The Lord Jesus has shown us the way in this. In Christ’s incarnation, he emptied himself and became like one of us – eschewing the typical power dynamics of the world. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus spends 40 days in the desert fasting – making himself empty.

And at the end of that time, the devil came to Christ and tempted him in the very same ways we are tempted (Matthew 4:1-11):

Satan: “You need to be successful.”

Jesus: “Nope, don’t need that.”

Satan: “Well, you definitely need to be on the right religious track.”

Jesus: “Get out of my face. I don’t need to play that game.”

Satan: “It’s simple. You can do your Father’s will with the tools of power I have.”

Jesus: “I’m not going there. I don’t need your sort of help.”

In submitting to his Father’s plan and will, Jesus showed us the way to live as his followers.

We, too, have to stare the same three temptations in the eye: the belief that I need to be successful, to be right, and to have everything under control.

The truth, however, is just the opposite. In actuality, we need to be poor in spirit, powerless,  and humble – not full of strength and control.

Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul responded, “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NIV)

In reality, we need to be open and vulnerable – not spinning a self-image which projects strength, authority, and power.

 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8, NIV)

We need to be meek and gentle – just like our Lord – not puffing our chests out with a show of strength and authority.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NIV)

Less is truly more. Only those who have nothing to prove and nothing to protect can receive Christ. And Jesus himself will lead us on this path of self-emptying.

We already have Jesus. Therefore, we already have everything we need. Even a smidgeon of Christ is more than enough for us. What we may think we need – to win at success, to spin a narrative of rightness, and to pin down control through power and authority – amounts to nothing in the kingdom of God.

Instead, what we really need is to walk in the way of Jesus – to be weak through self-emptying, to leak out our pride and embrace humility and vulnerability, and to be meek by having a gentle spirit.

Being a servant is a good thing. And being a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ – the author and perfecter of our faith – is the only vocation we need. With Jesus, less is more.

Almighty and everlasting God, we are far too often influenced by what others think of us. We pretend to be in control, with it, in charge, and strong. Prevent us from trying to attract attention. Don’t let us gloat over praise on one hand or be discouraged by criticism on the other. Nor let us waste time weaving imaginary situations in which the most heroic, put together, and powerful person present is me. Rather, show us how to be humble of heart, just like your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.