Choices; March 22, 2020

2 Thessalonians 2:10 They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.

The Japanese translation of this verse has an interesting slant: “They did not receive the love of the truth [needed] to be saved.” God provides absolutely everything we need, but we have to receive it. Ephesians 2:9 famously proclaims that faith is a gift from God, and here it speaks of a love of the truth, but sadly there are many who simply say, “No thank you”. That is tragic indeed. As James says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17) However, gifts must be received in order to be operative as gifts, and all too often we refuse what God offers us. I suppose there are many things that could influence that, with a love of the flesh and its pleasures being prominent, but at their root is the fatal flaw of pride, of saying I’m going to decide, I’m in charge of my life. It was Lucifer’s desire to be first that got him thrown out of heaven, (Isaiah 14:12-14) and pride was what he used to trick Eve into direct disobedience toward God. (Genesis 3:4-5) People get all worked up over “How could a loving God throw people into hell,” but it’s all a matter of our choice. Those who choose deviant lifestyles often claim they’re “born this way,” but there is no genuine scientific evidence to back that up. All sorts of emotional wounds can blind us to the truth, but that doesn’t change the truth. It’s ultimately up to us to receive the love of the truth that is called for to be saved.

I could say, “been there done that,” here, because I’m all too familiar with pride that blinds me to the truth. I love acquiring information, but that’s not necessarily the same as loving the truth. I need to focus on the fundamental humility that God’s God and I’m not, and that’s a very good thing indeed. I need to rest in the assurance that everything He does is rooted in love, whether it looks that way to me at the moment or not. I am not the final arbiter of truth! As a pastor I am called to help others understand this as well. Sometimes they love the truth and receive it, and sometimes they refuse it, preferring the lies the devil feeds them. That is tragic, but it’s not my choice. I am not to abandon anyone, but rather pray for them and continue speaking the truth in love, offering myself as an instrument of God’s grace toward them, just as He has poured grace out on me so abundantly.

Father, you are doing good things here, and I thank You. I can’t figure it all out, but then I don’t have to. Help me be where You want me to be, saying and doing what You desire, on Your schedule, so that in all things Your will may be done for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Answered Prayer; March 21, 2020

2 Thessalonians 1:3 We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing.

It was quite a few years ago when I heard someone point out that this is the record of a direct answer to prayer. In his first letter to them, Paul had prayed, “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.” (1 Thessalonians 3:12) You could hardly get more specific in the prayer and the answer! I personally think one factor is that this is the sort of prayer God delights to answer, because it so clearly aligns with His will. After all, it’s the sort of thing Jesus prayed for in His great Pastoral Prayer before his crucifixion! (John 17) Recognizing such answers to prayer is one of the biggest reasons to keep some sort of a prayer journal. Frankly, we tend to forget what we’ve asked for, and so fail to be properly thankful when God provides it. It’s not that we aren’t pleased to have it, but when we recognize it as an answer to prayer our gratitude is intensified, and our faith is certainly strengthened. I think one of the delights of heaven will be getting to see all the many, many ways God has protected us over the years, and all the prayers He has answered, so that we may give Him the praise and thanks He truly deserves.

I’ve been using the SOAP system of devotions for quite a few years now, writing daily, but I haven’t kept prayer lists the way some people do. I might try that, to sharpen my awareness of answered prayer. I am regularly aware of God’s grace in speaking to and through me, but after all, Jesus did say, “Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.” (John 16:24) I don’t want to miss any of the joy God has for me! I do find myself overwhelmed with gratitude at times when I read over what I have written in the past, both remembering answered prayer and being touched afresh by what God has said to and through me that I have recorded. That’s just one of many reasons I encourage every believer to have a consistent devotional time, specifically including writing. I am grateful to Wayne Cordeiro for formulating the Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer system that I use, but there is nothing canonical about that; any of a number of systems will do. The important thing is to spend time daily with the Lord and keep a record of it, both to hear from Him and to know that we hear from Him. We tend to doubt that God cares about us that personally, but if we have consistent, daily devotions, it shouldn’t take long to realize that God really is speaking to us, as the Word comes alive in relation to our daily lives. I need to keep speaking this truth in love so that more and more people will realize that God really does care about them, individually, and so commit themselves as His disciples.

Father, thank You for this reminder. Thank You for the growth that I am seeing in some of the believers. Those who have latched onto reading the Bible daily make the most progress! I pray that everyone in this church would have the joy of knowing that You speak to them, that You answer their prayers, and that You use them for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Benediction; March 20, 2020

1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.

There is a very great deal of very good content in this chapter (it’s almost all underlined in one color or another in my Bible) but I couldn’t resist writing on this bit. That’s because the Japanese translation I use has been set to music verbatim, and I can’t read it without the music running through my mind. That’s all the better because this is such a beautiful benediction. We tend to think of a benediction exclusively as something spoken by a minister at the end of a worship service, but the word itself simply means, speaking blessing, or even speaking good. That’s something every believer should be doing constantly, toward just about everyone they encounter! In Japanese churches they refer to the benediction at the end of a service as a “blessing prayer,” and most require ordination before they will allow anyone to give one. How unbiblical! There are indeed different offices and functions in the Church, as Paul discusses in Ephesians 4 and elsewhere, but nowhere does it say that anyone is restricted from speaking blessing on another person or people. On the contrary, we are told to build each other up, and what better way to do that than speaking blessing? One issue is that we mistake the source of the blessing, thinking the one doing the speaking has to have a “reservoir of goodness” from which to pour out blessing. How absurd! The source of all blessing is God; we are just channels. (James 1:17) Even Jesus, in talking with the Rich Young Ruler, said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good–except God alone.” (Luke 18:19) We have the joy and privilege of sharing God’s blessings with those around us, through word and deed.

I think I have known this for as long as I can remember, but I don’t always act on it. Maybe one reason for that is that I have also used words to tear people down, more times than I like to remember. That has sometimes been intentional, but more often accidental, and I regret it all. I realized early on that words are powerful things. After all, Genesis 1 says that God spoke the universe into existence, and John 1 tells us that Jesus is the Word of God, and He said to Isaiah that His Word never goes out from Him without accomplishing that for which He sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11) Particularly when I have been given a gift for words, I need to use those words to bless and build up, whether they are spoken or written. I need to ask and allow the Holy Spirit to put a brake on my mouth so that I won’t say anything that isn’t of Him, but I’m not to hold back as a channel of blessing.

Father, thank You for this Word. Thank You for blessing people through me yesterday when I was at the hospital for a physical. That one lady really surprised me when she came over to speak to Cathy and me as she was leaving, saying that overhearing what I was saying to others really blessed her and made her think that I must be a pastor, bringing back memories from her childhood in Osaka. I pray that she would follow through and come to church, receiving the ultimate blessing of eternal life in Christ and passing that along to her family and friends, for the salvation of many. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Sexual Sin; March 19, 2020

1 Thessalonians 4:7-8 For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.

The section from verse three through eight should totally deal with virtually all of the sexual nonsense that is in society today, but we make all sorts of excuses, showing that we are indeed rejecting God. The whole issue of homosexual attraction fades away if the one so attracted abides by what Paul says here. The sin isn’t in the attraction, it’s in the fantasizing and acting out. And “hetero-normative” people have no wiggle room here either. Verse five sounds like it’s talking about Spring Break, that is going on at beach resorts in the southern US right now, ignoring all the recommendations about the pandemic. It’s actually no surprise that people who don’t know Christ would act that way, but it is downright tragic when Christians get pulled into it. The devil uses social pressure – everybody’s doing it – to convince even preacher’s kids, for example, into this sort of thing. Young people, and old, need to be taught these two verses so that they will seek and receive the help of the Holy Spirit in resisting the flood of sexual temptation that is so prevalent. The devil has done all he can to denigrate marriage and sexual purity, and the results of his successes in that effort are tragic indeed. Sex is an enormously powerful gift from God, not only for procreation but particularly for the bonding of husband and wife into one flesh. The devil hates that, because it is a figure of the relationship of Christ and the Church, (Ephesians 5:25-33) and does all he can against it. We cannot resist him successfully unless we are submitted to God, but if we are submitted, we can. (James 5:7)

This naturally applies to me, since I’m as human as anyone else. I am deeply grateful for God’s protection, and for His mercy and grace for the times I’ve slipped up in various ways. I have no high horse from which to look down on others, but I can certainly proclaim the blessings of sexuality that is submitted to God. Some people are in awe of the relationship that my wife and I have, but it wouldn’t be as it is if it didn’t extend to every area of our lives. We have learned the reality of Jesus’ statement that “They are no longer two, but one,” (Matthew 19:9) and that has only grown over the years since 1969.

Father, thank You for Your overwhelming grace toward me. Help me respond to Your grace as You intend, speaking the truth in love to those around me so that they too may walk in Your plan, rather than in the tragedy of the devil’s plans. May we cause Your name to be acknowledged as holy and Your kingdom come as Your will is done in and through us, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Paul’s Prayers; March 18, 2020

1 Thessalonians 3:12-13 May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

Paul’s prayers, scattered throughout his letters, are very good examples for us to follow in praying for each other. I don’t know that we often pray for people’s love to increase, and it really seems like a good idea. Right now love seems to be in somewhat short supply! We tend to look at each other as rivals, rather than as members of the same family. However, we need to model the behavior we are praying for in others! Also, Paul didn’t hesitate to ask for prayer for himself, and he never prays for someone else something that he wouldn’t want for himself. I think he realized that praying for others is one of the best ways to receive blessing yourself. Here, he prays that the believers’ hearts may be strengthened, and I’m sure his own heart was strengthened in the process. In mentioning Christ’s return, he was also reminding himself that indeed, Christ would return and set everything straight. This wasn’t escapist, like people essentially doing nothing while they wait to be raptured, but rather setting an end point to look forward to and strive for. Later in his life Paul realized that he himself would likely be martyred, However, as he wrote to Timothy, he had faith and assurance that God had prepared him for that end point, just as he had prayed for the Thessalonians. (2 Timothy 1:12) Sometimes we are impressed by Paul’s, or someone else’s, prayers, but think that we could never pray such “beautiful” prayers. However Paul, and every other mature Christian, learned to pray by praying. Books on prayer, and particularly reading the Bible, can be helpful, but nothing teaches you to pray like actually praying. The more we pray, focusing our minds and hearts on the One who created and loves us, the more we open ourselves to allow Him to grow us and clean us and heal us. It is only by praying that we discover that the Holy Spirit indeed helps us as we pray, (Romans 8:26-27) and that gives us boldness to pray as He directs.

I was enormously blessed to be raised in a family where prayer was as natural as breathing. In consequence, I have never hesitated to pray, and for that I am very grateful. I have had people blessed by my prayers, for which I praise God, but I have also had people intimidated by them, since their own prayers didn’t flow the same way. My prayers are no “better” than those of anyone else, I’ve just had more practice! Growth in prayer is one of the prime goals I hold for each believer in my care. I pray for them, but I cannot pray instead of them. Sometimes they want me to do that! I need to help each person understand that God loves them individually, just as He does me, and He’s eager to hear what they will say to Him. He’s never surprised, much less shocked, because He already knows everything, but He wants us to grow in our fellowship with Him, and that won’t happen apart from our talking with Him. John Denver is hardly a reliable spiritual guide, but I have always liked the line from his song, Rocky Mountain High, that says, “Talk to God and listen to the casual reply.” I want everyone to realize that God is the holy, omnipotent Creator, but He is also Daddy for anyone who will repent of their rebellion and accept what Jesus did for them on the cross. That’s how Paul prayed, and how we need to as well.

Father, thank You for the incredible privilege of prayer. I ask that You keep growing me in prayer, and keep growing everyone in this church. May we indeed be knit together in love as Your children, as part of the Body of Christ, so that Your kingdom may come as Your will is done in and through us, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Worthy; March 17, 2020

1 Thessalonians 2:11-12 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

Now that is pastoral ministry! Thinking about it, I don’t remember this passage ever being mentioned when I was in seminary, either in class or in a chapel service. How sad! There were some professors who indeed modeled servant leadership, but it seems as though this would have been an ideal passage to use in teaching the students. I think many if not most of the graduates came away feeling like some kind of hotshot, ready to set the Church straight, rather than having the attitude Paul talks about here. I’ll confess I had some of that! Jesus dealt with this subject repeatedly with His closest disciples, most notably when He washed their feet, (John 13:1-17) but we have a strong tendency to forget it. Paul uses the expression “walk worthy” repeatedly in his letters. In a very real sense we can never be “worthy” of God, as we use the word in English, but Paul is using it to mean “appropriately, in line with.” The whole matter of being worthy, and who is worthy and why, is a study I’d like to do some time! As far as we are concerned, our effort should be to get in line with God, to listen to and obey Him, and a pastor should encourage, comfort, and urge those under his care to do so. We get all caught up in “leadership,” when what we need to do most is lead people to be like Jesus, by word and by example.

I can’t say exactly when I came around to this way of thinking, because it has happened gradually. I think my father modeled it, but it was sometimes hard to grasp because he seemed so advanced in so many ways. I myself have never been a “type A personality,” and have had problems setting goals and driving toward them, much less leading others toward them. That has at times been a real hindrance to the ministry here. However, the flip side of that has been a delight in helping people. Yes, sometimes I get irritated at being called on for that sort of thing, but generally it gives me great satisfaction to know that I have been a help. I need to keep growing in that, realizing that the chief goal is exactly what Paul says here: living appropriately as children of God.

Father, thank You for this encouraging Word. Thank You yet again for Your unfailing patience with me when I am so slow to get things right. Thank You for protecting me from more serious injury when I fell yesterday. Guide as I go today to get a couple of x-rays, that they will give accurate pictures of my thumb and toe. I do ask for Your full healing, and that Your purposes in allowing this to happen would be fulfilled, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Spiritual Growth; March 16, 2020

1 Thessalonians 1:3 We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

This verse should settle the perennial “faith vs. works” argument, and the fact that argument still exists shows that people aren’t as familiar with the Word as they think they are. As this states very clearly, genuine faith causes us to do things (works), and genuine love causes us to put our all into it (labor). On top of that, if we understand what God has prepared for us in Christ, we will be able to make it through any trial because of the anticipation (hope) that we have of God’s resolution to it all. Looking at it that way, we can gauge our own spiritual development fairly easily. Looking around, we can easily see people who seem to be deficient in one or more of these areas, but judging others isn’t our job, as the Bible says in multiple places. However, we can and should encourage each other to grow in faith, love, and hope. Such encouragement will do far more to correct undesirable behavior than trying to deal directly with the behavior. And always, we need to remember that we ourselves will always have room to grow in each of these areas, which should keep us from pride.

As a pastor, encouraging spiritual growth is the biggest part of my job description. At the same time, people tend to expect (demand) perfection from me in each of these areas. Since even Paul didn’t have it all together, (Philippians 3:12-14) their expectations are certainly misplaced! It is certainly desirable that I be as far along the road as possible in each of these areas, and indeed it is encouraging to look back and see that I have progressed, but any temptation to pride is quickly checked when I stumble over really trivial things. Just as I tell others to do, I need to be consistent in taking my eyes off of myself and fixing them on my Lord Jesus Christ. (Hebrews 12:2) When I do that, He surprises even me by the things He does through me. Yesterday was a good case in point. We had some new people in the service yesterday who arrived a little late, so I had no interaction with them until after the service. It turned out that for one of them, my sermon couldn’t have been any more direct and personal. That was manifestly not anything I could have planned, since I had never met that person, much less known their background or that they would be in the service. God doesn’t miss a beat! My job, when I was preparing the message, when I was delivering it, and always, was and is to listen obediently to my Lord and yield myself fully to Him. That will produce the work, the labor, and the endurance that He desires.

Father, thank You for Your wonderful patience and faithfulness toward me. Thank You for using me yesterday. Your appointments are the best! Help me be available for each of the appointments You have for me today, so that I will keep growing and keep doing Your will, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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