Trusting the Holy Spirit; September 21, 2018

Romans 15:14 I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another.

This is a very interesting statement on the part of Paul to people whom he had never met. On the one hand it might come across as simple flattery, but there are two other, very important things at work here. The first is that people tend to live up to, or down to, what is expected of them. Our self-image is controlled to a large extent by what others think of us, and that self-image is the template by which we operate. By presenting the Roman believers with this word picture of mature believers who can teach each other, Paul is encouraging them to be exactly that. The other factor at play here was Paul’s faith in the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit. He knew full well that he himself couldn’t transform people, but he had seen time and time again that the Holy Spirit could and would – besides having experienced such transformation himself. When you think about it, Paul had a history of arriving at a place, teaching for a few days or weeks, and then leaving behind a church, complete with elders. On a human scale, that seems entirely foolhardy. However, God had done it through him again and again. It’s interesting that he spent a fairly long time in Ephesus, but in Jesus’ letters to the churches in Revelation, Ephesus is warned that if they don’t return to their first love, they will be removed from the roster of churches. (Revelation 2:4-5) Length of human ministry doesn’t guarantee anything! Paul’s confidence wasn’t in people, much less himself, but in God.

This is extremely timely for me right now, because for the first time in many years I will be leaving this church on a Sunday without anyone specifically trained in charge. Right now attendance is down, and humanly speaking I have a lot of misgivings. However, it has been made very clear to me over the past year that I have allowed this church to be entirely too pastor-dependent, and I believe God has planned this as a very necessary course correction. This will be something of a trial run, because in March I will be gone (to my granddaughter’s wedding in the US) for probably three weeks in a row. I don’t know what workers the Lord might bring our way in that interval, but I do know that He wants to grow the current believers as active disciples, and this is a very good step in that direction. I’ve been given a wide suite of abilities and certainly have a lot of experience, but when I do it all, no one else gets a chance. I need to trust the Holy Spirit to use the believers to teach each other, and especially to feed on the Word for themselves, so that this church may become the healthy part of the Body of Christ God intends it to be.

Father, thank You for this reminder, and for this encouragement for me. Thank You for the various things I already see You doing in relation to this. I know that Sunday won’t be anything like “business as usual,” but that’s a very good thing. Help us all be at peace with that, trusting You do do what we need, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Acceptance; September 20, 2018

Romans 15:7 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

This chapter is full of really rich truth that I could easily see as someones “favorite verse.” At the same time, it is stressing the reality that we need a lot of help, because nobody’s perfect. A big part of that is that we tend to want everyone to be like us, subconsciously at least. That’s where xenophobia and racial prejudice come from, but those are just some of the more obvious symptoms of the problem. A majority of marital friction comes from the countless differences between men and women (regardless of what some people are saying these days). However, differences are part of God’s plan. Paul goes to some length in 1 Corinthians 12 to explain the whole matter of unity in diversity, with the almost comical illustration of the whole body being an eye, or an ear. (1 Corinthians 12:17) This is a theme he touches on in many of his letters, and this verse is a vital part of that. One problem in this is that not all differences are equal. Some people are claiming today that pedophilia is “just another sexual orientation,” for example. We need to know the difference between accepting and affirming, between forgiving and condoning. Jesus indeed accepts us as we are, but that doesn’t mean He says everything about us is good. God indeed has standards of right and wrong, good and bad, but the problem is, we tend to ignore those and set up our own standards, and that never ends well. The better we grasp exactly how Christ accepted us, the more accurately and fully we will accept one another. Another facet of this is accepting ourselves. We spend far too much time wishing we were like someone else, or were someone else, when we need to have a clear-eyed view of ourselves and go from there, to grow and improve as God directs.

This is an issue I deal with constantly. As a Caucasian in Japan, I have dealt with acceptance all my life, sometimes more successfully than at other times. That struggle has enabled me to grow, and right now people are sometimes surprised at how I treat and accept people equally. That doesn’t mean I’ve got it nailed down, though! I still get exasperated at people for various reasons, wanting them to be more like me, forgetting how much I’ve messed things up at times! As a pastor I am constantly seeking to help people recognize this truth themselves, but it is generally slow going. That’s why we all need the grace, mercy, and guidance of the Lord.

Father, thank You for this reminder. I indeed run into this issue constantly! Keep me from talking down to people, but rather help me speak the truth in love in ways they can receive it, so that together we will do Your will, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Appetites; September 19, 2018

Romans 14:17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

This whole chapter is remarkably down to earth, and easily translates from the 1st Century to the 21st. Back then it was the matter of meat from animals that had been sacrificed to idols, whereas today it is all sorts of eating fads. People avoid gluten without really knowing what it is, much less having celiac disease! Dietary issues have loomed large for much of history in one way or another, but for the vast majority of that time it has simply been a matter of getting enough to eat. That Americans obsess over so many things about food – along with the very high rate of obesity – is an indication of the incredible abundance that is available. As has come out recently, overindulgence in anything isn’t good stewardship, but what Paul is stressing here is the whole matter of priorities. It’s not that dietary issues are completely unimportant, but rather that they are way down the line in terms of the kingdom of God. Distraction is one of the devil’s favorite tools. That’s why Jesus told us to “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” (Matthew 6:33) The problem comes when people define righteousness in terms of such externals as what we eat.

For me, the reference to drinking wine in verse 21 clicks home, because I grew up in a tea-totaling family but have known many people with alcohol abuse problems. One time in college, out of curiosity as much as anything, I tried to get drunk on bourbon coke, but never even felt a buzz. Whether that means I have an abundant supply of liver enzymes or that God put a supernatural block on it I don’t know, but that was my experience. I have felt very little temptation in that direction in the many years since (plus I don’t like the taste of beer at all) but that doesn’t make me any better than someone who has a daily drink. I think it all comes down to what we seek, and the test Jesus gave us applies in every area of our lives.

Father, help me indeed seek first Your kingdom and Your righteousness, because peace and joy in the Holy Spirit are what truly satisfy my soul. Help me submit all my appetites to You so that they will serve me well rather than the other way around, and I will be fully available and useful to You. Thank You. Praise God!

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Motives; September 18, 2018

Romans 14:7-8 For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

It’s interesting to read the Bible and think about how different political positions would claim different sections as their justification. The first several verses of this chapter would be very dear to a Libertarian, for example. However, these two verses bring all such “cherry picking” down to earth. Human imagination and human judgment aren’t the last word, because we belong to God. I think perhaps Americans in particular might rebel against this passage, because we have always glorified the “rugged individualist.” However, no amount of posturing can negate the fact that we are created beings who exist at the pleasure of our Creator; we cannot sustain ourselves. It’s sad that most people don’t come to this awareness until they are very old and/or very ill. In a sense, suicide is a last-gasp attempt to deny this reality. The devil can persuade someone to commit suicide only if he succeeds in blinding them to the truth in this passage. This is the ultimate call to accountability, because if we belong to the Lord, then we are to live and die as He desires and intends.

Recently I have joined a Missionary Kids (MK) group on Facebook, and it has been interesting indeed to see the opinions and attitudes expressed. MKs are a specific subset of Third Culture Kids, people who are raised in a culture different from that of their parents, so they synthesize a “third culture” of their own from what they experience. As both an MK and a missionary, I understand both generations involved in creating MKs. It has been a blessing to see how many enjoy a rich faith and fellowship with the Lord, but sad to see how many are embittered by their experiences, some discarding faith entirely. There are perhaps multiple motives for becoming a missionary, but this passage needs to be at the root of any such commitment. In other words, it is irrelevant whether our assignment is right where we were born or somewhere on the other side of the world; we belong to God, and should seek and do His will. To whatever degree personal ambition enters in, that will distort and go so far as to poison even the most noble-sounding occupation, and that will be expressed in the next generation. Jesus was the only human being with absolutely pure motives, but then, He was also God. The rest of us need to keep watch over our motives and allow the Holy Spirit to purify them. As it says in Proverbs, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” (Proverbs 4:23)

Father, I feel like I could write on this all day! Thank You for all that You have brought me through for the past 70 years, and for all that You have ahead of me. I do ask You to purify my thoughts and my motives so that I may be more and more pleasing to You, delighting in You as I do Your will for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Thought Life; September 17, 2018

Romans 13:14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

I don’t know the turn of phrase in the Greek, but the Japanese says, “Don’t use your heart for the sake of the appetites of the flesh.” Thinking about it, that’s exactly what the devil tries to get us to do. That’s what pornography is all about, and actually a majority of advertising of all sorts. The devil wants us to concentrate on our physical appetites, when Jesus told us to “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” (Matthew 6:33) If we “put on Christ,” as Paul says here, that is what we will do. In Philippians Paul gives us some specific advice on how to do this: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8) In other words, that’s what we’re to “use our heart (mind) for.” The particular context in Philippians is in avoiding things like depression, but it applies to avoiding a wide variety of the devil’s traps. Modern translations put it completely differently, but there is real truth in the KJV of Proverbs 23:7. “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” Jesus pointed out that sin starts in our thoughts. (Matthew 5:28) Putting on Christ is putting on the whole armor of God, that Paul talks about so memorably in Ephesians 6. If we are going to resist the devil effectively, the first step in submitting to God is in our thought life. (James 4:7)

I’ve certainly experienced this, as we all have. I’ve discovered that continuing to think about a sin I’ve already repented of makes me far more likely to commit that same sin again. I’ve also found that “putting on” Christ, focusing on Him, is far and away the best cure for anxiety and emotional distress of all sorts. Going at it from a negative angle is futile. (The classic example is that if you tell people not to think about zebras, they can’t think of anything else.) We need to replace negative, sinful thoughts with thoughts that build us up and draw us closer to God. That brings us back to Philippians 4:8. That one verse, if followed, could virtually empty the psychiatric hospitals of the world. I know it’s not easy; we can’t do it consistently in our own strength. However, if the choice is there, I’ve found the Holy Spirit will help us, (Romans 8:26) and victory is sweet indeed.

Father thank You for this reminder. I deal with people all the time who are tormented by their distorted thinking. Help me be more effective in pointing them to Christ, to help them realize the richness of Your grace toward them, so that they too may rest, relax, and rejoice in You, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Overcoming Evil; September 16, 2018

Romans 12:21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

After having told his readers to present their bodies as living sacrifices to God in verse 1, Paul discussed the gifts we’ve been given to do that in verses 6-8, and then from verse 9 he tells us what that looks like in terms of daily living, and this verse is a summation of all of that. There is a lot of evil of many kinds in the world. We aren’t to be intimidated by that, but rather win out over the evil. Overcome is a good word here, but the Japanese has slightly more flavor: “Hit and win.” (Or, “Win by hitting.) This isn’t passive. If we just “go with the flow,” we will soon be swept away by all the evil. For many years, generations even, Christians were taught that the thing to do was to separate from the world, to withdraw. Some of that came from a sincere misinterpretation of Jesus talking about our being “in the world but not of it.” (John 15:19, 17:14-16) However, if we withdraw, how can we be salt and light? (Matthew 5:13-16) We are to be active representatives of good, to our neighbors, on school boards, in our work, in local and even national government. Withdrawing, doing nothing, is “putting your light under a basket,” which Jesus expressly said not to do. (Matthew 5:15-16) We aren’t to go “looking for fights,” because as soon as we do that, we will start operating in our own strength, which is really weakness, and will be defeated. If we are actively living for Christ, He will direct us to the issues He wants us to tackle, and how. Our own wisdom is flat out insufficient for the task, but God is never deceived, nor is He ever at a loss for what to do. Our place is full submission and obedience, no matter how public or how private. If we aren’t Christlike in private, our public facade will quickly be destroyed. It is God’s plan to cause His name to be acknowledged as holy and bring His kingdom to earth through His children’s obedience to Him in every area of their lives and every part of society, for His glory.

This naturally applies to me as much as it does to anyone. Because I am an American citizen but a permanent resident of Japan, my options in the political field are quite limited, but that’s only part of society. There’s plenty of evil to go around! Right now we are working on a CD album to combat the evil of suicide. That’s something that most people recognize as evil, but tools to fight it seem hard to come by. The Lord gave my wife a list of songs that at first she had no idea what they were for, but He has led inescapably to the awareness that they are a weapon against suicide. The album will be titled, Living Hope, and will be bilingual Japanese/English. She had thought at first it was just to be Japanese, but friends in many different countries heard about the project and asked that it be bilingual. The work on it has gone more slowly that we desired, but we are not to give up. Interestingly, as we have worked on it, the devil has tried to hit us with depression as well! As Paul said, we aren’t to be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Father, thank You for the privilege of being Your agent in overcoming evil. (1 John 3:8) May we recognize our own weakness and so allow Your strength to operate through us, (2 Corinthians 12:9) working Your will for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Our Bodies; September 15, 2018

Romans 12:1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.

Modern society has certainly spotlighted the importance of this verse. Far too many people today are focused on their bodies almost to the exclusion of everything else, and it’s certainly not holy or as a sacrifice to God. The abortion movement uses the slogan, “My Body, My Choice,” completely ignoring the fact that the baby has a body distinct from the mother, even still in the womb, and they offer the baby’s body, and life, not to God but to their own convenience. Of course, they are faced with that choice because they offered their body to pleasure rather than to God in holiness, and that sin knows no boundaries of gender. The Bible has a lot to say about sexual sin of all sorts, and about alcohol abuse. At that point alcohol was the only significantly available drug, but today drugs of all sorts, prescription and otherwise, would come under the same category. And of course, gluttony comes in here too, though very few people want to admit it. There are churches in America today where lack of obesity is rare! That said, obsession with the body in any form, including anorexia and being a “health freak,” is a symptom of failing to offer our bodies to God. We all have room to grow here, but that fact doesn’t excuse any individual from accountability to God for their body. For genuine Christians, it all comes back to James’ remarks about deceiving ourselves. (James 1:22) We see someone else’ misuse of their body and it makes us feel comfortable with our own. I think this verse puts a point on what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman: “True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23-24) Some think that means the body is irrelevant to worship, but Paul says explicitly that offering our bodies is spiritual/reasonable worship. As came out a couple of days ago, we are trinitarian in our makeup just as God is, and at this point in our existence we can’t divorce the spiritual from the physical, and think the physical makes no difference.

This is something I have to keep in focus. I’ve never been particularly obese, nor have I been ensnared by ethanol or other drugs. My fling with nicotine was thankfully brief, and I don’t like the taste of beer at all. However, there’s more to offering my body to God than that. God has been incredibly gracious in the area of sexual sins, guarding me in ways that, looking back on them, were at times miraculous. Also, there’s the matter of my father dying of heart disease at 64 because of failure to understand what he needed to be doing physically as a steward of his body. I’ve outlived him by six years, but there are times when choosing to go walking is a genuine expression of offering my body to God. I actively look forward to heaven, but right now I inhabit this body, and I am responsible to worship God through my use of it.

Father, thank You for this reminder on my 70th birthday. That feels like a considerable milestone! Help me indeed offer my body, and everything else, to You consistently for as long as You keep me here, so that Your purposes may be accomplished in and through me for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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