Pay Attention to the Word (2 Peter 1:16-21)

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.

We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (New International Version)

The Bible is a set of living documents. It breathes with a revitalizing and reliable message about Jesus Christ.

Rather than being merely an ancient book to be displayed as some sort of museum artifact on a coffee table, Holy Scripture has demonstrated amazing resilience of use and pertinence throughout the ages.

Millions of people have discovered it’s riches; and have found the Bible’s message of knowing Christ and him crucified, died, risen, and coming again as their hope and salvation. Indeed, God’s Word to people is a gracious revealing of God to humanity so that all persons may reconnect with divinity.

The earthly ministry of Christ had eyewitnesses and earwitnesses. The witness above all witnesses was the Most High who audibly affirmed Jesus with a voice from heaven:

“This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.” (Matthew 3:17, NLT)

Baptism of Christ, by Vitaly Melnichuk, 2009

Christianity is a religion of the book. Scripture unites us with believers across the world and throughout history. The Bible is to the Christian what weights and barbells are to a bodybuilder. 

The people of God need Holy Scripture, God’s Word, in order to spiritually grow and become mature. Christian character formation cannot truly occur apart from the continuous repetitions of reading the text of Scripture, and letting it build strength into the muscles of the soul.

Scripture is a powerful unifying force within the life of God’s people. We may not all explain every Bible verse in exactly the same way (hence the many different Christian traditions) but believers share a common desire to honor, apply, and obey God’s Word. Ultimately, a passion to listen, talk about, and apply God’s Word brings believers in Jesus together, rather than separates us. 

Perhaps because the average American household today has at least three or four Bibles, we take for granted the availability of God’s Word. It is always at our fingertips, on our smartphones and computers. Yet, because it is always present and available, we may let the busyness and business of life keep us from paying attention to it. 

A commitment to reading and listening to Holy Scripture ought not be done quickly or mechanically, and certainly not half-heartedly. For the Word to penetrate and seep into our souls, we must take the time to listen carefully and slowly.

A first century rabbi, Akiva, once noticed a tiny stream trickling down a hillside, dripping over a ledge on its way toward the river below. Below was a massive boulder. The rock bore a deep impression. The drip, drip, drip of water over the centuries had hollowed away the stone. Rabbi Akiva commented, “If mere water can do this to hard rock, how much more can God’s Word carve a way into my heart of flesh?”

Water flowing over a rock, all at once, leaves it unchanged. It is the slow but steady impact of each small droplet, year after year, decade after decade, that completely reforms the stone.

O how we desire quick answers to our questions! Yet we must take the time to prayerfully listen and reflect on God’s Word and allow it to do it’s work on us and in us. Truth is revealed over many days, months, and years. Big splashes aren’t usually God’s way of doing things. Instead, the slow drip of careful study, contemplative prayer, and meditative reflection, day after day, year after year, shapes us and spiritually forms us into the likeness of Christ.

Thus, a patient, humble, and teachable spirit is necessary. Sometimes the Bible is not apparently relevant. We oftentimes need others to help us and to encourage one another to stick with reading and learning, even when we aren’t sure about what it is saying. 

Rightly interpreting Scripture happens in community, both in present local churches and small groups and in the community of saints who have gone before us. It doesn’t occur in isolation.

Always an appropriate response to hearing God’s Word is to address and the problems of others and the issues of our day. That’s because God is not just concerned about you and me, but about other people, as well. 

What do you suppose would happen if we all committed to carefully reading and listening and meditating, even memorizing God’s Word on a daily basis? Would it transform our worship? Make a difference in our relationships? Change how we do life together?

Attention, people of God and of the Book! God is our God, the One and only!

Love the Lord your God with your whole heart:

Love God with all that is in you; love the Lord with all you’ve got! 

Write these foundational commands I’ve given you on your hearts. Get them inside of you. Then, get them inside your children. 

For this to happen, talk about God’s Word at home when you are eating supper together and when you are working or playing with each other. Start your day with God’s Word when you get up in the morning and end your day with God’s Word when you go to bed at night. 

Put God’s Word on your refrigerator and your car’s dashboard; have it on your smartphones and let it be available to you anywhere and anytime. Use every opportunity you have to incessantly chatter about God’s Holy Word.

(Deuteronomy 6:4-9, contemporary paraphrase)

Pay attention to the Word made flesh and the written Word proclaimed. It makes all the difference.

Our Great Physician, Your Word is like alcohol – when poured on an infected wound, it burns and stings, but only then can it kill germs. If it doesn’t burn, it doesn’t do any good. 

Father, we are all hungry baby birds this morning. Our heart-mouths are gaping wide, waiting for you to fill us. A cold wind seems to have chilled us. Wrap us in the blanket of your Word and warm us up. 

Lord, we find your Word like cabbage. As we pull down the leaves, we get closer to the heart. And as we get closer to the heart, it is sweeter.

–Daily Prayers of Haitian Christians, translated by Eleanor Turnbull (1924-2020) missionary to Haiti for over 50 years

The Necessity of Mentoring Relationships: Paul, Tom, and Timothy (2 Timothy 3:10-15)

Orthodox icon of St. Paul
Orthodox icon of St. Timothy

You’ve been a good apprentice to me, a part of my teaching, my manner of life, direction, faith, steadiness, love, patience, troubles, sufferings—suffering along with me in all the grief I had to put up with in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. And you also well know that God rescued me! Anyone who wants to live all out for Christ is in for a lot of trouble; there’s no getting around it. Unscrupulous con men will continue to exploit the faith. They’re as deceived as the people they lead astray. As long as they are out there, things can only get worse.

But don’t let it faze you. Stick with what you learned and believed, sure of the integrity of your teachers—why, you took in the sacred Scriptures with your mother’s milk! There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (The Message)

Paul and Timothy had a special relationship. Paul, the Apostle and mentor in the faith; and Timothy, the apprentice.

Together, they saw it all – and experienced it all. And through it all, the Christian tradition was passed on because of Paul’s purposeful mentoring of others, especially Timothy, by both verbal teaching and life example. In this, Paul helped set Christianity on a trajectory of modeling the words and ways of Jesus.

Faith is a gift given by God through Scripture and faithful people – and then received by us. Christianity is designed for community; it is not merely a solitary affair between the individual and God. Anyone trying to go it alone in the Christian life will soon discover they are overwhelmed and in over their heads with trouble.

Contemporary pastoral ministry still needs to follow in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul. Just one of the many reasons why churches in the West are in such decline is that Christian leaders are not intentionally focused to passing-on a solid body of teaching, along with a consistent example of how to put it into practice, through close relationships.

Anyone who has been in the pastoral ministry gig for a long time, remaining consistent and faithful, has most certainly had a good spiritual teacher and guide shepherding them through their Christian experience. A good long ministerial life isn’t happenstance; it’s the result of a solid foundation through a Paul-and-Timothy sort of relationship.

Mosaic of Paul and Timothy, Cathedral of Monreale, Sicily, Italy

By God’s grace, I’ve had several persons influence my life in profound ways in such a relationship. One of the earliest and longest was with Tom – a campus minister on my university who built into my life as an undergraduate and a very young Christian. We remained connected and became good friends for nearly four decades until his untimely death.

Tom knew what he was doing with me. To this day, even with multiple academic degrees and many professional ministry experiences, I attribute most of what I know about Christian faith and practice as simply saying and doing what I saw Tom say and do. And, I might add, Tom consistently saw my true self, even when I didn’t see it myself.

A good model in the faith has the same qualities and insights as the Apostle Paul of old. For example, here are just a few of the important things I learned from Tom:

  • Christian ministry is interpersonal; time must be spent with others, getting to know them and building relationships. Doing pastoral ministry from afar is an oxymoron. From what we know of Paul, at times he had a team of up to seventy persons following him around on missionary endeavors.
  • There are always going to be charlatans and bad apples around. Don’t simply ignore them. Confront them in grace and truth. I still remember a time when I went along with Tom, not knowing where we were going or what he was up to. In retrospect, he probably knew I would bolt if I caught wind of what he was about to do. We went to the dorm room of a believer whom Tom flat-out confronted on his talking and living being inconsistent with his professed Christianity. My eyes got huge when Tom said, “In the name of Jesus Christ I rebuke you and I call you to repent.” This was said in a gracious and conversational tone, not in anger, which communicated concern and love for this individual student.
  • Develop relationships. And the best way of doing this is by having the Timothy tag along with the Paul. Tom continually brought me along to whatever he was doing, whether it was a weekend retreat he was leading, or going to the grocery store. We cannot learn from others if we aren’t around them, and Tom understood this better than most. As a result, I learned more than lessons; I learned a life.
  • It’s not about me. Tom never took himself too seriously. And because of that, I observed him never becoming overwhelmed or obsessing over the trouble he would sometimes get into. In fact, he typically welcomed the trouble whenever he saw it was not of his own making.
  • Openness and vulnerability are necessary. More than once, Tom strolled into a bible study with me and some other guys, flopped down and said, “Man, I really blew it today…” and then went on to explain some boneheaded thing he did. We unpacked the entire situation together. Not once do I ever recall Tom trying to look like the perfect Christian leader. He embraced who he was and was always willing to shine the light on the shadowy places of his heart.
  • Holy Scripture is central to Christian life and ministry. Inevitably, Tom’s question to us, after describing his bonehead move, was to ask, “What are you learning in God’s Word? Do you have any encouragement for me?” On a daily basis, without fail, Tom asked this question of me: “So, what is God teaching you in the Word?”

Through both Holy Scripture and the significant relationships I’ve had throughout my life, I can confidently state that there are two indispensable elements to effective Christian ministry:

  1. It must be firmly grounded in objective theory derived from God’s Word.
  2. It must be intentionally practiced with subjective experience derived from interpersonal relationships.

Objective theory without lived practice leads to being puffed-up with knowledge and no love – because love requires people. And subjective experience without a grounded theory is nothing but a form of spiritual A.D.D. in which whatever shiny thing we see grabs our attention.

I always considered Tom as my spiritual father (and his wife as a dear spiritual mother!). They have shown me not only how to live the faith, but also how to be a spiritual father myself. And as a result, my own dear wife and I have many spiritual children scattered throughout the country.

This is the consummate Christian: Coming to faith by God’s grace, mediated to us through actual flesh-and-blood people; being taught and mentored in that faith by proven Christians; and then, simply saying and doing what you have seen and heard from holy leaders and Holy Scripture.

It’s not rocket science. It’s not abstract art. It’s a life. It’s relationships. And it’s absolutely necessary in order for both the church and the world to be blessed.

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
    what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
    be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—
    take God seriously. (Micah 6:8, MSG)

Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.

Listen to the Prophets (Jeremiah 25:1-14)

St. Nicholas Church fresco of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel by Leopold Bruckner, Prešov, Slovakia

This is the Message given to Jeremiah for all the people of Judah. It came in the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah. It was the first year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon.

Jeremiah the prophet delivered the Message to all the people of Judah and citizens of Jerusalem:

From the thirteenth year of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah right up to the present day—twenty-three years it’s been!—God’s Word has come to me, and from early each morning to late every night I’ve passed it on to you. And you haven’t listened to a word of it!

Not only that but God also sent a steady stream of prophets to you who were just as persistent as me, and you never listened. They told you, “Turn back—right now, each one of you!—from your evil way of life and bad behavior and live in the land God gave you and your ancestors, the land he intended to give you forever. Don’t follow the god-fads of the day, taking up and worshiping these no-gods. Don’t make me angry with your god-businesses, making and selling gods—a dangerous business!

“You refused to listen to any of this, and now I am really angry. These god-making businesses of yours are your doom.”

The verdict of God-of-the-Angel-Armies on all this: “Because you have refused to listen to what I’ve said, I’m stepping in. I’m sending for the armies out of the north headed by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, my servant in this, and I’m setting them on this land and people and even the surrounding countries. I’m devoting the whole works to total destruction—a horror to top all the horrors in history. And I’ll banish every sound of joy—singing, laughter, marriage festivities, genial workmen, candlelit suppers. The whole landscape will be one vast wasteland. These countries will be in subjection to the king of Babylon for seventy years.

“Once the seventy years is up, I’ll punish the king of Babylon and the whole nation of Babylon for their sin. Then they’ll be the wasteland. Everything that I said I’d do to that country, I’ll do—everything that’s written in this book, everything Jeremiah preached against all the godless nations. Many nations and great kings will make slaves of the Babylonians, paying them back for everything they’ve done to others. They won’t get by with anything.” God’s Decree. (The Message)

An ancient rabbi once said that we have two ears and one mouth so that we will listen twice as much as we talk. 

Listening with curious and focused attention is a forgotten skill and a lost art in Western society. 

Slick marketing, political punditry, and over-the-top speech all scream into the culture because there is such a dearth of listening. It seems many people are more concerned to make their opinions known than do any kind of deep listening to another.

No one seems to want to put in the work of discovering another’s true thoughts, feelings, and needs. Instead, we’d rather rant, play armchair quarterback, and make uninformed comments on things we don’t understand.

It’s really downright sad and tragic that we fail to listen to each other. And it is especially terrible when we do not listen to God. 

The Old Testament prophets exist because of a failure to listen. At the time of Jeremiah, not only did the people not hear; they refused to listen. They put their fingers in their ears and babbled “la-la-la-la-la.” So, it was only fitting that the Lord sent the people to Babylon.

This was not merely the inability to listen because they were overworked, too tired, or “hangry.” The problem was much deeper than that. For years, God kept up a steady stream of words, telling the people exactly what was expected. But they didn’t listen, on purpose. Like a parent speaking to an angsty teenager, it all went in one ear and out the other with nothing getting done.

God passionately desired the people to amend their evil ways. But they didn’t want to hear it. 

So, after years, even centuries of unfaithfulness, unrighteousness, and injustice, God’s patience came to its limit. Tragedy happened. The Babylonian Exile became a terrible and harsh reality.

If there is no deep listening to God and God’s Word to us, there will be deep repercussions. 

Listen, my friends: None of us can do the will of God if we don’t know what God wants. It takes listening. And listening takes focused attention. And focused attention requires a posture of humility. And humility requires being emptied of all pride and hubris. 

Apart from genuine listening with the intent to understand and alter actions accordingly, there will be no peace, no love, no grace. The space of inattention quickly fills with lazy ears, emotional heaviness, spiritual sickness, xenophobic suspicion, anxious fear, dark thoughts, angry rants, and a retreat into selfish caring for oneself. 

The beginning of wisdom and human flourishing starts with listening well. Paying attention through deep listening brings humility of heart, purification of pride, and love of God and neighbor.

Truly hearing the words of God leads to self-awareness, cries for God’s mercy, a knowledge of humanity, the study of Holy Scripture, and a familiarity with the Church’s long tradition of sound teaching.

Therefore, silence is vital for everyone. Prayer needs to be more about sitting still in solitude and silence in order to listen and much less about talking at God.

But if we insist on making more noise than a couple of skeletons dancing on a tin roof, we will eventually be those skeletons – without any substance and only good for the grave.

So, read the prophets. Listen to them. Pay attention to their message. And heed their warnings and exhortations. Your ears will be glad you did.

Holy Father and God of all, your speech goes out into all the earth. Your Word is there for us to hear if we will only but listen. 

Lord Jesus, let your words and your teachings penetrate so deeply into my soul that your loving ways come out of me in all I say and do.

Blessed Holy Spirit, help me to so listen to your inner voice that encouragement and forgiveness pours forth from the wellspring of a heart which is baptized in God’s Word. Amen.

Psalm 29 – The Power of Language

Praise the Lord, you heavenly beings;
    praise his glory and power.
Praise the Lord’s glorious name;
    bow down before the Holy One when he appears.

The voice of the Lord is heard on the seas;
    the glorious God thunders,
    and his voice echoes over the ocean.
The voice of the Lord is heard
    in all its might and majesty.

The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars,
    even the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes the mountains of Lebanon jump like calves
    and makes Mount Hermon leap like a young bull.

The voice of the Lord makes the lightning flash.
His voice makes the desert shake;
    he shakes the desert of Kadesh.
The Lord’s voice shakes the oaks
    and strips the leaves from the trees
    while everyone in his Temple shouts, “Glory to God!”

The Lord rules over the deep waters;
    he rules as king forever.
The Lord gives strength to his people
    and blesses them with peace. (Good News Translation)

“Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes

I have always felt comforted during thunderstorms. Having grown up in the Midwest of America, strong thunderstorms are a given every summer. When my daughters were small children and frightened by the loud clap of thunder, I routinely said to them, “That’s just God letting us know he is powerful and watching over us.”

God spoke and stirred up a storm… So, they cried out to the Lord in their distress, and God brought them out safe from their desperate circumstances. God quieted the storm to a whisper; the sea’s waves were hushed. (Psalm 107:25, 29-30, CEB)

Yet, there is even more going on in today’s psalm than a reminder of God’s glory and power throughout creation. God’s very voice is the source of all the power.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth – with words. The Lord Almighty spoke the entire world into existence. God’s words are generative, that is, the speech of God creates and gives life. When God’s voice goes forth, things happen.

God said, “Let the waters under the sky come together into one place so that the dry land can appear.” And that’s what happened. (Genesis 1:9, CEB)

God generously gives through speech.

Yes, the mechanism of God’s provision for us is language. The Lord creates, gives, sustains, and blesses us creatures through language. Out of all creation, humans are the only creatures formed in the image and likeness of God with the power of connection through speech.

God said, “Now we will make humans, and they will be like us. (Genesis 1:26, CEV)

Not only are we as people capable of speech, but we also have the ability and the capacity to form our own generative words. We have the God-given means to give life with how we use our power of language.

“Life and death lie in the power of language”

Helen Keller

I believe we all intuitively know this is true. As we reminisce the history of our lives, we can observe events where another’s words impacted us so significantly that it was as if they gave us the gift of life. We never forgot those words.

Unfortunately, we also have had times when another’s words cut us emotionally and it felt as if a part of us died. We remember those as well, and they hold us back in our own life-giving speech to ourselves and others.

“The godless destroy their neighbors by their words, but the righteous are saved by their knowledge.” (Proverbs 11:9, CEB)

We must listen to the voice of the Lord. God’s speech neither disappoints nor destroys. God’s Word is eternal life. The better we listen to God, the better we can have the generative power of words to provide life for others.

It only takes a cursory look at Holy Scripture to realize that words are powerful and are to be used with great care. We are all to continually develop the craft of wordsmithing so that we might ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name, as well as bless the world.

“As a tree gives fruit, healing words give life, but dishonest words crush the spirit.” (Proverbs 15:4, NCV)

The language we use—spoken and written words, sign language, facial expressions, bodily gestures, singing—helps us understand ourselves and lets us create relationships with others. Our words give us the power to describe our past, define our present, and dream of our future. 

“Words from wise people are like water bubbling up from a deep well—the well of wisdom.” (Proverbs 18:4, ERV)

We adults may balk at the notion that words are anything more than a creative expression. Yet, as I believe is typical with most things, children are closer to the kingdom of God than us bigger folk. Kids effortlessly make connections between words and reality – whereas older people barely have an idea this even occurs.

My grandson once remarked, when I was talking to him about being cautious at the playground, “How am I supposed to meet new people if I can’t talk to strangers?”

“When I asked my son (5 years old) how his day was, he said it was awesome. I asked him what made it so awesome – his response was ‘because I wanted it to be.’” – Tanya Niedzwiecki (Huffington Post, November 2015)

The voice of the Lord exhibits a mighty God who has the power to create and recreate with but a word.

As people in God’s likeness, our words are powerful tools to be used with wisdom and care. Our speech allows us to praise God and encourage one another. Even more, the use of language enables us to speak into existence new realities for ourselves and others.

May our words bring forth hope and blessing to a world in need of healing.

Mighty God, the Lord who is King and all powerful, I am overwhelmed before such awesome majesty, and my response to your voice is reverent worship through Jesus Christ, your Son, my Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.