Bethlehem: Good news for All People

 

Bethlehem does not resemble the Christmas cards. We pass through a security checkpoint before we are allowed to enter this Palestinian authority area. As we walk down the street, a combination of shabby and gaudy greets us. Merchants hawk carved nativities and rosary beads as we walk by. We are told that Christians — and there are several ancient strains of Christianity resident in this town, are a minority, prone to persecution. At the same time, the tourist income brought in by Christians is a major economic factor in this Palestinian Arab enclave.

The Shepherd’s fields, close to town, are dotted with shrubs, trees and rocks. The area is still used mostly for grazing animals and later in the day we see Bedouin shepherds with their flocks, much as they would have looked 2000 years ago. At the Shepherd’s fields We sit on benches and listen to a reading of the Nativity story.  We try to imagine angels from heaven entering this humble landscape.

Up the hill is a cupola-topped chapel.

An angel, with wings unfurled hovers over the doorway.  Inside, as we look around at mosaic depictions of the nativity, a large group of South Asian tourists enter the space. Women dressed in colourful skirts and scarves perform rituals of devotion at each alcove. Initially I am astonished. It is not that I have never seen people from that part of the world before. In fact, my home city has one of the largest populations of South Asians anywhere in North America. But apparently my  Caucasian-Evangelical-centred bias has caught me off guard. Of course, there are South Asian believers, plenty of them, who would want to visit Bethlehem and geographically, India is much closer to Bethlehem than Canada is. We are the ones who have come the longest way.

The leader of the group, an older man with pure white hair, stops below the cupola and sings. We don’t understand the words, but his voice and the eastern melody he intones is haunting and beautiful. I am touched by their presence here and by their worship.

2000 years ago, God sent angels to a group of shepherds, one of the lowliest professions of the time, here to this rocky outpost in a politically and ethnically charged atmosphere to announce good news. When I think about it, that must have been really astonishing to those present. “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11

I am reminded today that this news was for ALL the people. It is fitting that all of us, worship our Saviour, wherever we come from.

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Arrival in the Holy Land

 
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Intermittently, I gaze out of the window of the plane, but all I can see is bright clouds. The aircraft shudders as it passes through on the slow descent to Tel Aviv.

I wonder, what will I see? What will strike me? It has been a stressful few months and I  hope this ancient land and its spiritual connections will help me feel alive in my faith and closer to God.

The plane dips below the bright clouds into darker, low lying billows. Rain. That is not what I expected. Coming from the West Coast I’ve had enough of that this Spring.

Below, Tel Aviv appears, a sprawling city of skyscrapers but somewhere I know the Biblical land of Israel awaits my exploration and contemplation.

Weary from two long flights, our group piles onto the buses for the final leg of our journey to our hotel in Jerusalem. Our guide, Harrison, explains that from every direction one ascends to Jerusalem, both literally and in a spiritual sense. The strains of a song I haven’t heard in years fill the bus. “Jerusalem” heralds our arrival. The enthusiasm on our bus is palpable as we sing along.

Last night I lay a-sleeping, there came a dream so fair
I stood in old Jerusalem beside the temple there
I heard the children singing and ever as they sang
me thought the voice of angels from heaven in answer rang
me thought the voice of angels from heaven in answer rang
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, lift up your gates and sing
Hosanna, in the highest, hosanna to the king.
(John Stallin)

Psalm 24:3 states “Who is allowed to ascend the mount of the Lord? Who may go up to his holy dwelling place?”

At this moment in time, we can and will. Both literally and figuratively.

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The potter and the clay

“Of course I can almost hear your retort: “If this is so, and God’s will is irresistible, why does God blame men for what they do?” But the question really is this: “Who are you, a man, to make any such reply to God?” When a craftsman makes anything he doesn’t expect it to turn round and say, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ The potter, for instance, is always assumed to have complete control over the clay, making with one part of the lump a lovely vase, and with another a pipe for sewage. Can we not assume that God has the same control over human clay? May it not be that God, though he must sooner or later expose his wrath against sin and show his controlling hand, has yet most patiently endured the presence in his world of things that cry out to be destroyed?

Romans 9:19-26a (JB Phillips translation)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This past fall I took my first pottery class. My friend had been going for a number of years and had made some impressive pieces. Unfortunately, I discovered pottery is not as easy as it appears. It took me a number of frustrating attempts to make my first lopsided bowl— an item barely fit for the kiln. Clay is not always a perfectly uniform substance. Sometimes it can be downright stubborn. If it is not the right consistency or contains hard lumps that resist the potter’s gentle pressure it is not possible to get a good result.

Imagine my surprise if I were a highly skilled potter (I am not) and one of my failed projects were to start talking. “Hey, see that delicate teacup over there? Why didn’t you make me into that instead of this rough planter!” I would be tempted to answer, “Well, maybe if you weren’t so hard and resistant, I could have made you into a teacup.”  I also might be heard to mutter under my breath, “who does that piece of clay think it is to talk back to me?”

The potter can make what he or she wants.

People’s reasoning for rejecting God sometimes goes like this: It’s not fair that God doesn’t choose everyone. Romans 8 makes it seem a little like that is the whole story: God foreknew, predestined and called some to salvation and at the same time others not. But that is only part of the picture.

Consider Pharoah. Moses asked Pharoah to let the Israelites go worship God, but instead, he immediately made their lives as slaves, even more difficult then they already were. (Exodus 5) When confronted with the miraculous, he rejected God. “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him…?” he asked Moses. (5:2) Pharoah dared to question Yahweh, the omnipotent God of Israel. Pharoah hardened his own heart and God hardened Pharoah’s heart.

Romans 9:17 states of Pharoah, “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” This is clearly God’s prerogative and it is true that God chooses.

In Romans 9, Paul anguishes over the fact that his own people, Israel, missed out. They did not see what he saw, even though God had revealed himself to them, through the law, the prophets and Jesus Christ, Messiah. They rejected righteousness by faith (Romans 10:3) and did not submit to it.

In spite of their privilege of birth the Israelites repeatedly rejected what had been revealed to them and hardened themselves against it, like clay that would not yield. But there is good news– the hardness won’t last forever and they will come to faith (Romans 11:25).

Pharoah and Israel both remind me of hard, lumpy clay. God, being the divine potter, chose them for His own purposes, not theirs (Romans 9:17). His power will be displayed and his name will be proclaimed whether he chooses to harden or have mercy and when he will do so. The question for us, both Jews and Gentiles, is what kind of clay will we be?

Note: This series of blogs, while growing out of a “Bible Study Fellowship” (BSF) study of Romans, is not affiliated or endorsed by BSF. Nor are these blog any sort of definitive theological commentary. The opinions expressed here are simply my own thoughts and reflections on the book and what I am learning from the study.
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The Divine Editor

 

I am not a prayer warrior. In fact, prayer has always been an area of struggle. As a child, I learned those rote prayers—you know the ones—“now I lay me down to sleep” for bedtime and “Thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat…” for meals. Eventually I graduated to “Bless Mom and Dad, my brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and the missionaries. And please help me… Amen.”

Thousands of repetitions later, I pexels-photo-267559.jpeghaven’t progressed that far. I struggle to focus on the subject at hand, whether praising God, confessing my sins, being thankful or requesting help for others or myself. Not even halfway through my list, my rabbit trail mind reminds me of brilliant things to write and tasks that must be done IMMEDIATELY. Sometimes I have actually gotten up to do them and yet again neglected disciplined prayer time. My supplications are reduced to little missives while driving or doing the dishes: Lord help me through this day or Please heal so and so, Help them know your comfort. Amen.

For a long time, I scrupulously avoided prayer meetings. I waffled between being intimidated by the eloquent prayers of others and bored at their excruciating length.  I couldn’t pray like that. I simply didn’t know what to say. My sentences would ramble and trail off like an overgrown forest path.

Over the years, I have found a few tools that help. While praying in a group, sentence prayers are perfectly acceptable. Praying scripture is powerful and I have found the written prayers of others helpful to my concentration. Still, I recognise that prayer is far from being my special spiritual gift. Often, I still don’t know what to say or how to express what is really on my heart, especially when others seem so good at it.

In my inadequacy, I have forgotten Someone very important. The Holy Spirit. He “helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for.” (Romans 8:26) I am not alone. None of us truly knows what to pray for, because we cannot presume to know God’s sovereign will. “The Spirit intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express…He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” (Romans 8:26-27) Further in the chapter, we discover that not only is the Spirit interpreting our prayers, but Jesus is standing at God’s right hand interceding for us. According to Hebrews 7:25, this is part of his role as our living Saviour.

No other religion has this kind of inside track on Heaven’s throne room. Other religions pray, perhaps even more diligently than many Christians, but we have the power of the Holy Spirit and the living Son of God working on our behalf, expressing our prayers and defending us before the very throne of God.

My prayer efforts are feeble and scattered at worst. At best, they are based on earthly ignorance. Like other human beings, I cannot truly discern how God is working in the life of another. I have little knowledge of what is taking place at this moment across the world. I don’t have a clue how difficult situations should be worked out and I don’t know if God’s desire is to heal a person at this particular time or if he has another plan in mind.

But this I do know. My prayers will not only be heard, but like a Divine editor, the Holy Spirit will take what I really meant, sift out those requests not in accordance with God’s will and translate it all in a way I am incapable of expressing. Wow.

This is why, no matter how pathetic my efforts, I must keep praying, knowing that in my weakness and ignorance, he is the Strength beside me, hearing my prayers and lifting their essence to heaven.

This series of blogs, while growing out of a “Bible Study Fellowship” (BSF) study of the book of Romans, is not affiliated or endorsed by BSF. Nor are these blog any sort of definitive theological commentary. The opinions expressed here are simply my own thoughts and reflections on the book and what I am learning from the study.
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No Shame

By Heinrich Hofmann Georg Hahn (https://archive.org/details/ofimitationofch00np) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Does the gospel ever strike you as being just a little weird?

Is it really “good news” or just a collection of crazy ramblings from ancient authors? Has something been lost in the translation from ancient Greek, Hebrew and Latin into modern languages? Let’s start with the idea of a God who created human beings. Not a popular thought—especially if you try taking it into your science class. As if that weren’t bad enough, a further examination of this God reveals that he demands perfection from the humans he created. Many people see that as unfair and would accuse him of tempestuous judgements.

Then, of all things, God sends a kind of anti-hero, a God-man, but he doesn’t rescue the world as people hoped. He dies. On a cross. When you think about it, it is a strange story for the modern mind to grasp.

As an author with another blog where I discuss history and things that may appeal to a more secular audience, it has crossed my mind that blogging over here at “Glimpses of Glory” might tarnish my brand, for those who think the gospel is weird and irrelevant. Commercially, it might be— awkward.

Perhaps, as a modern 21st century individual, I should be ashamed of believing such out-dated ideas and practicing the Christian religion with its macabre rituals and observances of sin, death and resurrection.

But before you agree wholeheartedly, I think we need to clarify what I’m talking about. What is the gospel anyway?

The book of Romans tells us, that its very heart, the gospel is GOOD NEWS. I would be a fool to be ashamed of it.

The gospel is God, who loved us enough to provide a way out of our sin and its consequences of death, by sending his son, Jesus Christ to take it all on, suffer the just punishment for our mess and then rise again, offering us new life. Through faith, we take on the perfect righteousness of God, as if it were a new set of clothes. We are then free to walk a new path.

According to the apostle Paul, the gospel is power. He states, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written; The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17)

The gospel is FREE! Everyone loves free stuff, but free stuff almost always comes with strings attached. The gospel has no strings. It is not “free,” plus do all this other stuff; or “free,” but if you mess up you lose its benefits. It is simply free.

And, the gospel is for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). The gospel is the great equalizer. It was entrusted to the Jews, but available to the Gentile (non-Jews). The gospel is for white people, black people, brown people, rich and poor, educated and uneducated; and anyone else who believes.  It is available to the Muslim, the Buddhist and the atheist. The gospel is for everyone.

The gospel enables us to live by faith, for now we are righteous. (Romans 1:17b)

How could I be ashamed of the gospel? I can only be amazed.

This series of blogs, while growing out of a “Bible Study Fellowship” (BSF) study of the book of Romans, is not affiliated or endorsed by BSF. Nor are these blog any sort of definitive theological commentary. The opinions expressed here are simply my own thoughts and reflections on the book and what I am learning from the study.

 

 

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The nightly news

Recently I heard a radio announcer say the nightly news was straight out of the book of Revelation.

By Astronaut photograph ISS008-E-19646 was taken March 7, 2004, with a Kodak DCS760 digital camera equipped with an 50-mm lens, and is provided by the Earth Observations Laboratory, Johnson Space Center. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have wielded unprecedented paths of destruction through the southern states and the Caribbean. Irma is one of the worst storms on record. Similarly the 8.1 Richter scale earthquake that devastated impoverished parts of Mexico, is said to be the strongest quake in the past century.

In my province of British Columbia, Canada, a smoky haze has enveloped the local region since early August.  The province was under a state of emergency for most of the summer due to raging wildfires. Every week thousands of evacuees were sent scrambling to get families and livestock out of the path of consuming flames.  The fires, razing over 9000 square kilometres, are the worst on record ever.

A solar eclipse was seen throughout North America in August. A few weeks later what appeared to be a meteor landed in southern B.C.

On top of these events, we have terrorism in the Western world, the ongoing crisis in the Middle East and the supposedly supreme leader of North Korea who has pointed his missiles at the Western world, are clear threats of war.

Revelation 6:8 speaks of death by “sword, famine and plague.” There is a great earthquake and the sun turns to blood (6:12). A star falls to earth (Revelation 6:13). “Thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake,” take the stage (8:5) and on it goes. The book of Revelation, like the evening news, is not for the faint of heart these days.

What is one to make of the recent news? The popular viewpoint is to blame climate change and human beings’ tendency to pollute the earth in the name of progress and the economy. It is a possibility, but hard to prove, given that accurate records have only been kept during the past 150 years or so which just happens to coincide with the later industrial revolution, a well-known culprit when it comes to polluting our atmosphere. Without getting into these arguments here, I suggest considering another possibility.

The earth was created as a home for human beings (Genesis 1:1). Before death and decay were introduced by humankind’s choices, it could have made a fine permanent home. But, since the first people on earth messed up a perfect place by their sinful choices (Genesis 3) and we, the descendants of that first couple, have continued to do so, I would argue that the earth is no longer permanent. It has an expiry date (Matthew 24:35) and will eventually wind down as an old clock stops ticking. Ironically Even Steven Hawking is in agreement.

But for the believer this is not as bad as it may seem. It is easy to draw parallels between Revelation and recent events, but the end is not yet and we are promised a new heaven and a new earth. (Revelation 21:1). You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.  Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.” (Matthew 24:4-8)

The birth pains are the end of earth as we know it, also the beginning of a new era.  “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind (Isaiah 65:17).

In the meantime what is the message here? Do we put our energies into buying smart cars and planting trees? Try to recharge the earth as if it was a battery? Stock up on emergency supplies and build a fallout shelter in case of natural disasters or nuclear war?

Environmental stewardship is a good idea and one we should embrace. Preparing for the worst is a reasonable plan, but if this is all we do, we have missed the whole point.

As you may have read in my earlier blogs, the book of Revelation, with all its imagery and disastrous events, points us to one thing. Jesus Christ. The Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. As we view our present earth going to pieces we need to be reminded of him and what he asks of us.

Warning: it’s not as popular or politically correct as climate change or political solutions.

The message for all humankind and the church in particular is to repent. (Revelation 2:5, 16, 21, 22 3:3, 3:19,9:20-21, 16:9, 16:11.) We are given opportunity to repent and invite others to do so.

Good old-fashioned repentance may have fallen out of favour, but it’s time to to turn from our wicked, corrupt, selfish ways and worship Jesus, who will make the earth new once again. If we are willing to turn ourselves towards him, we can face whatever flood, landslide, earthquake, war or persecution this old world can throw at us and nothing will be able to separate us from him (Romans 8:38-39). When we hear the nightly news, let’s remember what it really means.

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Repost: View from an Airplane

From theIMG_0116adust2 window of the plane, the earth below is a random collection of rugged snow-topped peaks. Placid lakes, scattered like pearls over the snowy Rockies are strung together unevenly by meandering streams, rivers and forests.

We descend into the lowlands where the marks of human habitation are easy to spot. Rectangular fields furrowed in straight lines. Barns and houses, situated neatly in a corner; the lines between properties delineated clearly with fences and hedges. A ribbon of highway cuts along the valley towards the suburbs punctuated by vast parking lots, vehicles, uniform box stores and rhythmic subdivisions are the marks of civilisation as I know it.

It occurs to me that humans like order. The farmer ploughs a straight line. The builder uses squares and rectangles for his measure.  We operate according to clock, calendar and schedule, meting out our minutes as if we were in charge of them. Our plan, on any given day, is to get from Point A to point B along the smooth and efficient highway with no traffic or accidents.

We want to know our children will come home from school. That our parents will live a long and happy life and die peacefully in their sleep. We want the security of knowing we have a job and pay cheque tomorrow.

Like Job in the Bible, we don’t appreciate the disruption of devastating illness, random violence or the collapse of financial security. When relationships break or a loved one falls ill, our desires for predictability and order are shattered. We want our plans to work out.

When viewing the chaos of life from an earthly perspective, some refuse to acknowledge a God who allows such apparent disorder. Others cry out to the God of the universe, asking Him to re-order our lives, to make the crooked straight and to restore what is broken and lost. To make everything to how. It. Should. Be. According to our straight and limited designs.

But God’s order is not like ours. His designs are subtle and yet profoundly beautiful.

As viewed from the airplane, I do not at first notice the design etched upon the crags of the mountains where the snow has collected or the perfection of individual snowflakes. I cannot fathom the fractal placement of each tree branch and the measured out tributaries of the snaking river which follow this same pattern. The Fibonacci sequence, which is the numerical blueprint for flower petals and pine cones is a complex mystery to my mathematically challenged mind. The Creator whispers His mysteries in the secrets of nature down the side roads, along the winding forest trail. Even out the airplane window.

That same God reveals beauty in other unexpected places. The smile of a child with Down’s syndrome. The vision of heaven experienced by a woman on her deathbed. The sorrow of a prison inmate who repents from his past life and begins anew.

I cringe when told “everything happens for a reason.” It is such a clumsy attempt to sum up God’s plan when things go awry. We might naively think we should find a reason or even think we know it, especially when it comes to the troubles of others. But if we are honest we realise it will rarely be revealed in this life. Humanly speaking, we are incapable of seeing it, just as the intricacies of a snowflake can barely be discerned without a magnifying glass.

The patterns of nature are not immediately visible, but they are there for those who would observe. Life in this world may seem haphazard and unfair, but when we reflect on God’s creation, study His character and take note of His workings throughout the kaleidoscope of history, glimpses of a pattern will emerge.  The rest will be revealed. In God’s own time and way.

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