Grateful Service

Every Friday morning during the school year back in the 1950s was an all school assembly day at the Jackson Avenue Elementary School. Each assembly opened with the reading of a Psalm, a non-sectarian prayer and hymn. It was during one assembly program that I was first exposed to the 100th Psalm. Over the years it has become one of my favorite Psalms. I like how it translated in the English Standard Version. It is entitled as in the Hebrew Bible,

A Psalm for giving thanks.

100 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!
    Serve the Lord with gladness!
    Come into his presence with singing!

Know that the Lord, he is God!
    It is he who made us, and we are his;[a]
    we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
    and his courts with praise!
    Give thanks to him; bless his name!

For the Lord is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever,
    and his faithfulness to all generations.

The One Hundreth Psalm is the one and only Psalm out of 150 Psalms to be called a Thanksgiving Psalm. Notice how it’s titled, “A Psalm for Giving Thanks.” This is how it begins in the Hebrew Bible.

And just how are we to give thanks? The Psalmist declares, Serve the LORD with gladness!(v.2)” Sure, some translations read it Worship the LORD with gladness” but the Hebrew verb ( עָבַד ) ordinarily means “to serve,” “to do work,” or “to labor.” What the Psalmist wanted us to understand is that giving thanks to God is not only expressed by our voices in joyful praise, but by our labor or service dedicated to God alone. Thankful people understand that all our labor, all our service while it may be offered to others, is ultimately for God and God alone.

Too often, we think of serving the Lord in terms of Sunday services, or things we do at church.  Not so!  Serving the Lord has to do with what we do every day of the week, even when we feel stressed and divided in our loyalties. We need to step back and ask ourselves this question, “For whom am I really working?”  “For whom am I serving?”

Without sanctioning slavery as some misguided souls have argued, the apostle Paul writes to those saints who struggled to know how to honor God in their ordinary work and service done under the scrutiny of those who often didn’t value them, those who took them for granted.

He writes,

17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. Colossians 3:17, 23-24 ESV

Paul’s counsel sounds almost counter-intuitive, but it was very much in keeping with what our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son did for us. For our sakes He  took on the form of a bondservant, made in the likeness of human beings, humbled himself and became obedient to death, the death on a cross. He was the same One who said He did not come to be served but to serve and give Himself a ransom for many.

James Mars was a slave sold in his youth to a frail but cruel man named Munger, in Norfolk, Connecticut in the early nineteenth century. He endured mistreatment and lashings from Mr. Munger, as a young man. In spite of his sharp inquisitive mind and hunger for good literature, James was denied formal schooling. Fortunately however, he was legally emancipated in his early 20s, and subsequently as a free citizen he exercised his voting rights, voting in two important elections for the late President Abraham Lincoln.

Later in life, James Mars returned to Norfolk, Connecticut to care for a dying man, the same man who sorely treated him in his youth, the elderly Mr. Munger. And as it turned out, he also cared for Mr. Munger’s daughter who predeceased him in death. How did he care for them? Why did he care for them, serving those who once had harmed him? I think something he said later nearer the end of his life says it all.

I was under the watchful care of a Friend that sticketh closer than a brother. He has thus far provided for me, and I feel assured that He will if I trust Him, with all my heart and soul and strength, and serve Him faithfully, which is my duty, the few years or days that are allotted to me, and it is my prayer that I may have grace to keep me, that I may not dishonor the cause of Christ, but that I may do that which will be acceptable in the sight of my Heavenly Father, so that I may do good to my fellow-men. [James Mars, Life of James Mars, a Slave Born and Sold in Connecticut, pp. 37-38]

The question we must ask in all of our labor and work is, “Who am I serving?”  Too often we secretly grumble and complain under duress at home doing menial tasks, or at the office picking up the slack for lazy co-workers.  We all need a change of perspective! What elevated the service of James Mars ought to elevate us in much easier circumstances. I like what a wise pastor and author, Oliver Price once said,

“For the dedicated believer, all of life is elevated to the level of divine service.  (Yes, even) at the kitchen sink… Wash dishes as a service only to God.”  And, that applies to men and children, as well!  Amen?

Where Is Your Sacred Space?

Where, oh where, is that quiet space to engage God? Susanna Wesley was the mother of nineteen children, two of whom were John and Charles. Nine of the children died as infants, but you can only guess what life might have been like in that home.

Where would a busy mother find space for God? It has been said that she found a few moments each day by sitting down and throwing her apron over her head. What, not even a closet in which to hide? No, just an apron. But consider the impact her life had on her children, especially John and Charles.

One might conclude that the rise of Methodism, one of the most important manifestations of the First Great Awakening began not in the open air where Whitefield preached, nor in the venues crowded by thousands to hear John and Charles Wesley, but in a mother’s apron, where she made space to prevail with God in prayer.

“Dollie,” our little mixed dachshund, is yipping at my feet, even as I write this post. She loves her “Mommy and Daddy,” but her needs press urgently upon me, like the demands of family and ministry. But the question is, do we love God enough to make space in our lives for Him?

Thank God I don’t have to resort to an apron! But for the soul that has no other option and resorts to a piece of cloth, my God will quench your thirsty soul!

“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.” John 7:37b NIV

A Visit with an Old Faithful Guide

One of the best things I did soon after moving into the Tampa Bay area five years ago, was to reconnect with an old friend, a pastor who figured prominently in my childhood, influenced my conversion to Christ at seven years of age, and baptized me two years later. His name was Albert R. Siebert and he was 94 years old at the time, and much more slight and shorter than I had remembered him.  It had been more than 50 years since we had last met, but to my surprise, he remembered me!

I drove down to visit him one afternoon. And after reminiscing with him over lunch, Al, as he preferred to be called, invited me to his high-rise apartment overlooking Tampa Bay, and we began sharing God’s working in our lives. Just before leaving, he pulled an old thin book from the top of the stand next to his easy chair. He said, “You know what this is?” Bending closer, the faded brown cover read, The Practice of the Presence of God, its author, Brother Lawrence. He told me that he was still teaching a Bible class for seniors on Thursdays, and then he said, “I’m going to be sharing selections from this with my group at Northside.”

Al then shared with me how he rediscovered Brother Lawrence and how his little book had encouraged his walk in Christ. He had struggled with loneliness since the death of his wife Sue, just four years earlier. But in the midst of his loneliness, he spoke of experiencing the consolation of God’s presence. And then he read the following passage from Brother Lawrence’s last letter, entitled “From his death-bed.”

GOD knoweth best what is needful for us, and all that He does is for our good. If we knew how much He loves us, we should be always ready to receive equally and with indifference from His hand the sweet and the bitter; all would please that came from Him. The sorest afflictions never appear intolerable, but when we see them in the wrong light. When we see them in the hand of GOD, who dispenses them: when we know that it is our loving FATHER, who abases and distresses us: our sufferings will lose their bitterness, and become even matter of consolation.

Let all our employment be to know GOD: the more one knows Him, the more one desires to know Him. And as knowledge is commonly the measure of love, the deeper and more extensive our knowledge shall be, the greater will be our love: and if our love of GOD were great we should love Him equally in pains and pleasures.

Let us not amuse ourselves to seek or to love GOD for any sensible favours (how elevated soever) which He has or may do us. Such favours, though never so great, cannot bring us so near to GOD as faith does in one simple act. Let us seek Him often by faith: He is within us; seek Him not elsewhere. Are we not rude and deserve blame, if we leave Him alone, to busy ourselves about trifles, which do not please Him and perhaps offend Him? ‘Tis to be feared these trifles will one day cost us dear.

Let us begin to be devoted to Him in good earnest. Let us cast everything besides out of our hearts; He would possess them alone. Beg this favour of Him. If we do what we can on our parts, we shall soon see that change wrought in us which we aspire after. I cannot thank Him sufficiently for the relaxation He has vouchsafed you. I hope from His mercy the favour to see Him within a few days. Let us pray for one another.

[He took to his bed two days after and died within the week.]

Tears welled up as Al read these words, and I looked deep into the heart of a man who loved Christ more than life itself. Two years later, I discovered him a little more frail on the outside, but still a well of fresh life giving water on the inside. I wanted to call on him again on the occasion of what would have been his 97th birthday, but learned God had called on Him first, and taken him home a little sooner. Disappointed to have missed him, I was happy for him.

Oh, that I would love Christ like Al!

You Don’t Mean to Say, YOU Believe in Divine Healing?

From time to time, people ask me if I believe in Divine Healing. What they aren’t asking me, is if I believe in random acts of miraculous healing. But, do I believe there is some provision in the death of Jesus Christ for the healing of the body, a provision for us as believers to claim.

I have known many who have experienced miraculous healing, including myself! But one healing stands out. A little over 25 years ago, Charlotte a wonderful saint of God, then in her mid-seventies, underwent a heart catheterization procedure that went bad. She required major surgical intervention which left her comatose and almost vegetative. After many days in the hospital, she was sent to a skilled nursing facility with a “vent” unit. In other words, she could not breathe and survive on her own. There was virtually no hope, humanly speaking for her recovery. We were prepared for her to die. This was in November of that year, just before Thanksgiving.

During a special prayer meeting that November many prayed for her “home-going,” and I sincerely was inclined to pray for that myself. But then God impressed on my heart a very different way to pray. I was to pray that she not only would be healed, but that she would sing at the Punta Gorda Alliance Church on Resurrection [Easter] Sunday morning. For reasons beyond me and defying every outward evidence to the contrary, I was suddenly absolutely certain that God would raise her up from near death. I stuck my proverbial neck out and publically prayed with the assurance that she would not only be healed but sing!

This is NOT the kind of thing that has often characterized my prayers for the sick. I do not claim any special spiritual gift of healing or extraordinary faith. Perhaps in this instance it might have been something on the order of “the prayer of faith” James speaks of, I do not know. It was special endowment of faith and very much out of the ordinary. For several days afterwards there was no change in Charlotte’s condition, and no change over the next few weeks that followed.

Our pastor visited Charlotte regularly and reported back on her condition. Then one day, he reported a change. She began to show signs of alertness. Her healing accelerated, she was taken off the ventilator, and then she was discharged home, but with barely an audible voice. Gradually, her voice began to return and yes, on Resurrection Sunday morning, for the first time since her surgical mishap, Charlotte sang as part of the “Mifflin Trio” with her sisters, Jessie and Dorothy, to the glory of God.

In the years that have followed, I have come to appreciate the provision of Christ our Healer for the body and the soul. Occasionally, I have witnessed God’s miraculous healing in answer to prayer, at times after praying for the sick and anointing them with oil. I have come to believe that such healing experienced today by God’s people is rooted in the atonement of Christ.

The prophet Isaiah anticipated the Messiah’s death not only as a substitutionary atonement for sin, but also as God’s provision for the healing of the physical body (Isaiah 53:4-5; cf. 1 Peter 2:24). If there was any doubt that this was the intent of the prophet, the apostle Matthew confirms that this was Isaiah’s meaning, and the very basis for the healing ministry of our Lord (Matthew 8:16-17). Efforts to deny the plain meaning of Isaiah’s words strike me as unconvincing and contrived. Sin came into the world and death by sin (Romans 5:12). That death includes the whole being, body and soul. The cross was God’s answer to sin, providing redemption from sin and its wages, which affects the whole man, soul and body. Complete healing like our sanctification will not be fully realized in the believer’s experience until the appearing of Christ (1 John 3:2). However, in the interim we may appropriate by faith the benefits, even if imperfectly.

God wants us to entrust our physical well-being to Him, and it is ordinarily His will for the church to pray for wellness (3 John 1:2) and healing (James 5:16). He has in point of fact endowed some in the church with gifts of healing (1 Corinthians 12:9, 28) for the common good and unity of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:7, 18-19) and for the encouragement and strengthening of others in the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:16). It is my understanding that the gifts of healing are likely special endowments of faith given to some in the Body of Christ for the effectual kind of prayer that trusts God to heal the sick (Romans 12:3ff correlating with 1 Corinthians 12:9, 28).

Even so, God is sovereign and He may choose to deny a request for immediate healing to allow for something better (John 11:4; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10), and ultimately to call us home to Heaven (Psalm 90:10; 103:15-17a). But it is generally His will for us to seek His face for healing (Matthew 7:7-11; James 5:16). Therefore, it behooves the church to pray continually for healing (James 5:16) and to encourage those who are afflicted to seek God’s face for it.

Should the church then discourage the sick from seeking medical attention? We do well to remember that all true healing comes from God (James 1:17), that by Him we are wonderfully made (Psalm 139:13-14), and that He is the creator of the immunological system in our bodies that fights disease. Medication for illness may clearly be in the will of God, as it was for Timothy, associate of the apostle Paul (1 Timothy 5:23). The apostle Paul himself, undoubtedly benefitted from the skills of Luke, God’s provision of a physician who travelled with him (Colossians 4:4; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). Indeed, we can also say that God is the true source of wisdom and skill, which He has given to modern physicians.

We also do well to remember that God is sovereign, and that He has the right to determine how He will heal. Often it seems God uses more than one means of healing, and believers should avail themselves of all that God has provided for it. But, as we learn from old King Asa, who neglected to consult with God, but only his physicians for the life threatening disease in his feet (2 Chronicles 16:12), God wants His people to go to Him first, and trust Him primarily and ultimately for our physical well-being.

Like a Vapor in the Wind

“For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”

James 4:14b NKJV

Wednesday’s headline read, “Stabbing Spree in Southern California Leaves 4 Dead and 2 Hurt.” This according to TIME Magazine online, in addition to and less than a week after the carnage in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, which had already taken 31 lives. These horrific occurrences remind us of something we don’t like to think about, namely the brevity and fragility of life. In a day when investment firms are convincing us to sock away funds in our working years sufficient to support us into our late 70s, 80s, and even 90s, these savage events serve to jar us into a reality embraced by our forbears.

In 18th century New England, people rarely lived through their forties. So, it was deemed essential that young people be reminded of the brevity of life and the importance of living the years God gave them for His honor and glory. The Puritans used to configure the benches in their meetinghouses so that they faced the windows across the length of the buildings, which looked out on their cemeteries. We live in denial of death, even today, but for tragic events like those of this past week. We don’t want to think about our mortality. Isn’t it time we got a grip, and faced reality. Even a lifespan of 60, 70, 80, or 90 years is but a vapor. The wicked in the world escape nothing, nor the righteous. Death is 100% certain for everyone. The only treasure that really lasts and earns interest in life is what we invest for God’s kingdom. Where is your focus? Where is mine?

I am minded of words by C.T. Studd, the great missionary pioneer and statesman of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Only one life, yes only one,
Soon will its fleeting hours be done;
Then, in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet,
And stand before His Judgement seat;
Only one life,’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.”

C.T. Studd

What an Unusual Name for a Child

His name was Maranatha. He was a little towheaded boy in my cabin at New England Keswick Bible Conference and Camp during the summer of 1970, and I was his camp counselor. He was a funny little guy. I’ll never forget the night he fell out of his bunk bed onto the hardwood floor landing with such a thud that it sounded as if a bowling ball had been dropped through the roof. No bones were broken, and he didn’t even have a bump on his head, but it really gave us all a scare. Needless to say, we made him sleep in a lower bunk from then on. But I remember thinking, “Maranatha” what an unusual name for a boy.

Maranatha is an Aramaic expression which occurs but once in the Bible, specifically in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians [1 Corinthians 16:22] meaning, “Our Lord, come!” In the early church, when Christians were persecuted for the faith and didn’t know who could be trusted, marantha was used commonly by believers as a watchword [a password]. It expressed what early believers of the first century longed for, the personal and visible return of the risen Christ to rule and reign over the earth as both Lord and King.

Old and New Testaments alike speak of the coming of one called “the Son of Man,” “the Son of David,” “the Messiah” or the “Anointed One,” that is to say “the Christ” to reign over the world. The New Testament records a first coming as a matter of history, and anticipates a second coming yet future. What the Old Testament saints didn’t comprehend nor even the prophets who wrote of it, was that the Messiah they anticipated would need to come twice in order to fulfill two very different and distinct lines of prophecy spoken of him. It was as if there were two missions to be fulfilled. The missions were related, and the latter would be based on the former, but two separate and distinct advents were essential nevertheless.

One line of prophecy spoken of by Isaiah, Daniel and Zechariah, concerned a suffering servant or Messiah whom Israel would reject, a Messiah who would be afflicted for the sins of the nation, a Messiah who would be cut off. Isaiah spoke of him in these words:

“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, the punishment which brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away and who can speak of his descendants, for he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.” Isaiah 53:4-8 NIV84

But then the prophets also spoke of a very different coming, in which the Son of Man would come in glory to judge the nations and establish His kingdom over the earth.

“I was watching [Daniel writes] in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, And His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed.” Daniel 7:13-14 NKJV

Is this Messiah who comes once to suffer and the Messiah who comes a second time to reign as king really one and the same Messiah? Listen to the words of the prophet Zechariah.

“In that day the LORD will defend the inhabitants of Jerusalem; the one who is feeble among them in that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the Angel of the LORD before them. It shall be in that day that I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn.” Zechariah 12:8-10 NKJV

The New Testament identifies Jesus of Nazareth, as that Christ, the Messiah, who alone fulfills both the mission of the suffering servant, and will come again a second time, to fulfill the prophecies of a reigning Messiah, who will judge the nations and rule in righteousness and peace over an everlasting kingdom. Jesus himself understood that.

You will recall the words of Jesus on the night he was betrayed and forced to endure the mockery of a trial before the Sanhedrin.
“Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God,”  he was asked.

“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you. In the future you will see the Son of Man [simply another designation for the Messiah] sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Matthew 26:63b-64 NIV

At that, he was charged and dispatched ultimately to Pilate, who ordered him crucified. But then on the third day following his death, Jesus rose bodily from the dead, later to ascend in a cloud into heaven, where he is presently seated at the right hand of the Father. But we are reminded that he will return just as he left, first for the church (1 Thessalonians 4:161-18), and then to judge the nations (Matthew 25:31-48). Maranatha!

“For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Matthew 24:27
“’Surely I am coming quickly’ Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus! ” Revelation 22:20b NKJV

Geometry and the Calling of God

It is no small accomplishment to have graduated at the very top of the bottom third of my high school class (1966). With all of 16 credits I did not merit a New York State Regent’s diploma. The truth is, I wouldn’t have graduated at all but for a largely unappreciated “over the hill” math teacher, Roland Reade. Somehow, the “light turned on” in the middle of my junior year and with God’s help and Mr. Reade, I became a learner.

Mr. Reade taught me not so much about plane geometry as he did about motivating students to reach their highest potential. He was more concerned about his students as persons than he was about their ability to perform academically. He cared about the low achiever as much as he did the high achiever. For a student who had not been considered “college material” that was all I needed to become a learner.
Then in the Spring of the same year, I began the discipline of reading one chapter of Proverbs each day. And, on the fourth of April, these words leapt off the page:

“Take fast hold of instruction; let her not go: keep her; for she is thy life.” Proverbs 4:13 KJV

Suddenly, I knew my mission in life was to be both a learner and a teacher of the Scriptures. The convergence of events that junior year with what I sensed was God’s calling, transformed my life. And it was reinforced most unexpectedly on the day I graduated from Philadelphia College of Bible, now Cairn University.

On Saturday May 8th, 1971, dressed in cap and gown, I walked over to the Sheraton Hotel in Center City Philadelphia. As I was about to step on the elevator which would take me up to the Ballroom for college commencement ceremonies, who do you suppose was stepping off that very elevator? Mr. and Mrs. Roland Reade! It gives me chills to this day!
We greeted one another and it took him a minute to remember who I was. I hadn’t seen him for six years.

But, to this day, I don’t know for whom God meant this timely encounter. Was it for me, or was it for him? Methinks, it was surely an affirmation of the investment he made in the lives of students like me, one which was very much under-appreciated in Mineola. But it also spoke to me of God’s ways with those who trust in Him. To fulfill His calling for my life, God knew I needed a Roland Reade and at just the right time. Soli Deo Gloria!