Monthly Archives: August 2017

Reflection on Mark 9:38-41 (Revisited)

This post was originally published on August 16, 2013. It remains one of the most-frequently read articles on this blog.

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward. (Mark 9:38-41, ESV)

Mark 9, along with its parallels in the other Gospels, has popped up often for me: In my personal devotions, sermons I’ve heard, and books and articles I have read. Maybe God is trying to tell me something. God wants His children—myself included—to confront the conflict between pride and prayer, self-seeking and selfless service, and the other spiritual battles common to growing Christians.

To see the irony of this discussion, one should consider all that had occurred earlier. John had just been one of three disciples to witness the Transfiguration, when Jesus radiated His divine glory while visited by Moses and Elijah on a mountain (Mark 9:2-8). John, more than almost any of the disciples, should have been humbled in Jesus’ presence, having seen first-hand that He was more than a great teacher!

Having come down from the mountain, they found that the other nine disciples had failed to cast a demon out of a boy. The disciples were experienced exorcists, having been sent on a ministry trip for which Jesus empowered them to cast demons out of people (Mark 6:7). Yet, they had failed because, Jesus said, this kind of demon “cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29).

This incident was followed by other discussions, intended to change the worldly perspective of the disciples: Jesus’ prophecy of His impending arrest, death, and resurrection (Mark 9:30-32); and instruction about the disciples’ need to be humble and childlike, instead of arrogantly seeking status (Mark 9:33-37).

Like many of us, the disciples were slow learners. Despite these instructions and their previous failures, John essentially boasts that some of the disciples had tried to stop someone from casting out demons in Jesus’ name, simply because he was not part of their travelling party. I can almost imagine the rebuke sounding something like, “Hey! Stop doing that! You don’t have ministry credentials for that. We have certificates, signed by Jesus Himself, saying that WE should do that when He’s not around. Why don’t you just go feed the poor and leave the REAL ministry to us?”

(I am sure that in the back of John’s mind, he was really thinking, “STOP THAT! You’re making us look bad? How dare you cast out a demon after my friends just had trouble with one last week? You’re ruining our credibility!”)

Jesus response calls us to the charity and unity that should draw His followers together. The disciples’ status did not matter. Yes, they enjoyed a unique relationship with Him, gaining in-depth teaching and training that others did not enjoy. Many people admired Jesus and rushed to hear His teaching. I am sure many sought to live by His doctrine, even if they did not have the privilege of travelling with Him. Yet, only 12 spent all their time with the Lord, having many hours to pick His brain.

The disciples had a special privilege and a deeper call to serve the Lord. Yet, they were not expected to claim it as a reason to exclude others. Jesus called them to serve, not to claim offices and titles. Later, Paul would write that their role was to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). John’s response to a common man’s success in casting out demons should have been, “Congratulations! Great job, brother! We need more guys like you in this ministry.”

Modern Christians should focus on service instead of status, on the task instead of the title. We need to recognize the gifts God has given us, and the mission He has called us to, and put that first. We must resist the temptation to let titles, recognition, and prestige distract us from the needs around us and our ability to serve.

We need to recognize, respect, and encourage the gifts God has given to others. The pastor’s job is not to do all the ministry, but to equip the saints for work of service. When somebody shows an aptitude and eagerness for a ministry, that person should be encouraged and trained, not “put in their place.”

Yes, there are times some people will try to exercise spiritual gifts they do not really have. Some churches over-emphasize certain gifts, like prophecy and healing, to a point where people feel like second-rate believers if they do not have those gifts. When a person does not have a particular gift, or is not fully equipped in a particular ministry, he or she should be trained or re-directed.

Finally, the unity of believers is precious to our Lord. Christians have a terrible history of dividing ourselves. We divide over doctrine, denominations, worship styles, etc. We divide ourselves into churches that serve a specific racial or ethnic group. We refuse to fellowship with those who practice certain sacraments or ordinances differently. We even divide within our own congregations, into cliques of clergy vs. laity, of the “in” crowd vs. the outer circles.

Jesus said, “For the one who is not against us is for us.” Let us remember that it is not our denomination or dogma that matters. It is the Lord whom we claim to love and serve. He comes first, and He calls us to serve, even as He came to seek, save, and serve.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

In the World, Not of It (Revisited)

This month, I am reposting a few favorite articles from the past. This article was originally published on July 25, 2015.

In a recent post, I shared my thoughts about how Christians should respond to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling legalizing gay marriage. This ruling reflected the state of our society: we cannot consider America a “Christian nation” at this time. Likewise, our response to the ruling should be a reflection of our faith. Neither the Supreme Court ruling, nor the Church’s response, occurs in a vacuum.

Christians should not be surprised by the Supreme Court’s ruling. Neither should we be surprised that a growing majority of Americans have come to favor legalizing same-sex marriage in recent years and, as a corollary, have come to view pro-traditional-family Christians as bigoted, hateful homophobes. Jesus warned us that Christians would always find themselves as “outsiders” in the world:

“But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves. I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.
“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:13-22, NASB).

Most American evangelicals have lived comfortably in a society that has been at least courteous to, and at times even supportive of, our faith. However, as the above passage and countless other Bible verses show, Christians should not really be surprised that society is growing increasingly hostile towards us. We should be surprised that we have enjoyed a somewhat favorable status in American society for so long. Jesus warned His disciples that the world would hate them.

As the world’s hostility becomes more visible, how should Christians respond?

First, I would urge Christians to begin reading the Bible from a different perspective. We have grown accustomed to reading the Bible as if it were written to people with a socio-cultural experience similar to our own. We imagine Jesus and the disciples as a bunch of working-class guys—like the working-class guys we know from our jobs. However, American comforts would have been foreign to them. When Jesus told His disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” they probably took it literally: Pray for food for the day. They did not think long-term, budgeting a two-week paycheck so that you can buy several weeks worth of groceries and make your car payment. Their idea of “prosperity” was probably having leftovers after dinner. The so-called gospel proclaimed by some preachers—those who claim that faith in God will bring us health, wealth, success, and comfort—would seem odd to the first Christians. To them, faith meant that you would still call yourself a Christian and believe you had eternity with Jesus as the executioner’s sword was coming toward your throat.

The Bible was written primarily to oppressed people. The Old Testament was written to a small country, which was frequently threatened by the great empires of its day. The New Testament was written to members of a fledgling religious sect, considered extremist by many and treasonous (after all, they claimed that Jesus was their King) by the government. Their neighbors probably thought the early Christians were as odd as the Amish, as wacky as the Heaven’s Gate flying-saucer cult, and perhaps as dangerous to society as an Islamic terrorist organization.

As you read the Bible, take time to remember that Jesus is speaking to “outsiders.” Paul is writing to people who may have to sneak to church (the church in Ephesus did not run newspaper ads), whereas we casually arrive, carrying our big Bibles for all to see.

The Bible is speaking to people who hear the word temptation and think, “The Romans might threaten to throw me into an arena with lions if I say ‘Jesus is Lord.'” They probably did not equate “temptation” with an ice cream sundae.

We need to repent of a world view guided by the secular culture:

“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2, NASB).

Scripture should renew our minds, transforming us so that we may no longer be conformed to this world. Many Christians are shocked when the Supreme Court determines that marriage should be defined by whatever makes some people happy. Yet, how many Christians base their life choices on personal happiness instead of the “good and acceptable and perfect” will of God? How often do we try to “baptize” sinful attitudes (pride, self-righteousness, greed) and try to make them seem spiritual?

Perhaps more can be written on this topic. I expect that future posts will be written from this perspective, as it has begun to shape how I read Scripture during my daily devotions.

I will conclude by saying that the standard American brand of Christianity will not be adequate to stand against the most recent onslaughts against our faith. We need to reclaim the faith that recognizes that we are strangers and pilgrims in this world.

[PS: In my previous post, I proposed that the church should “eliminate the connection between civil marriage (which requires a license) and holy matrimony (which is a sacrament or ordinance performed by the church or other religious body).” I would like to clarify that this was not intended as approval of redefinition of marriage. Rather, it should be seen as more of an example of resistance against the ruling: Christians and other religious groups should never have allowed the secular government to define marriage for us, and we have reached a point where a state-issued marriage license no longer means what true Christian churches mean when we speak of “marriage.”]

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christians and Culture, Current events | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Robin Williams, Suicide, and Hope (Revisited)

I originally shared this post on August 12, 2014, a few days after comedian Robin Williams committed suicide. The recent anniversary of his departure seems a good opportunity to consider some of the lessons we can learn from this tragedy.

If the LORD had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.
When I thought, “My foot slips,” your steadfast love, O LORD, held me up.
When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.” (Psalms 94:17-19)

Robin_Williams_(6451536411)_(cropped)

Robin Williams, 1951-2014. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_Williams.

Over the last 27 hours, I have joined millions of fans around the world who mourn the sudden death of Robin Williams. As I logged onto my computer last night, I saw the shocking “breaking news” alert at the top of my Yahoo! homepage, that the popular comedian/actor had committed suicide.

While I have been a fan of his for many years (“Mork and Mindy” was one of my favorite TV shows during my youth), his death disturbed me more than others. Perhaps that is because “there but for the grace of God go I.” Like Robin Williams, I have battled depression at various times in my life. At times it has cost me dearly. Even in my best moments, I have to think of my depression as being “in remission,” not really “cured.” Thanks be to God, though, even in my worst moments, I could not succeed in ending my life.

It is ironic that a man who devoted his life to bringing happiness to others suffered through so much deep-rooted despair that he eventually surrendered to the lying spirits who told him that death would be better than life. Despite that, maybe it should not come as a surprise. He did not hide his struggles with drug and alcohol addiction. He regularly made jokes about his struggles as part of his stand-up act.

Social networking sites have been ablaze lately with posts reminding people that there are millions of people like Robin Williams. There is nothing like front-page news to bring an issue out of the closet and place it before the masses. I can only hope that Williams’ death raises some red flags so that some people get the help they need to avoid his fate.

With this in mind, I would like to offer the following thoughts:

  1. The Body of Christ must do a better job of ministering with compassion and mercy to those who suffer from depression. Some of the most asinine posts I have read recently have come from those who think they are writing in Jesus’ name. Yes, suicide is a horrible act. I do not want to imagine the agony his wife and children will endure for the rest of their lives. For all I know, maybe Williams is in hell. But, I honestly hope I’m wrong about that. I would like to find out some day in eternity that, at some point, Robin Williams came to have a personal relationship with Jesus and is now in heaven, even if he did have to receive forgiveness for the way he arrived there. We Christians should be eager to find ways to populate heaven, not look for excuses to damn people to hell.
  2. Out of that compassion, we should understand the pain of depression and other mental illnesses and reach out with God’s transforming grace. I know churches that do a great job ministering to drug addicts and alcoholics. They recognize that there is a certain physical healing process that must occur alongside the spiritual and emotional healing that accompanies repentance. Yet, when somebody struggles with depression, many a Christian responds that we need to “snap out of it.” We do not need medication or counseling; we need more faith. The fields are white unto harvest, but we bury the crops in condemnation. (Really, you do not need to judge or condemn someone with depression; many of us do that quite well on our own, so we do not need your help.) As I began writing this post, I was thinking of ministries to the emotionally and mentally ill I could endorse. Unfortunately, I could not think of any.
  3. Take note of the warning signs of suicide. A good list is provided at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/learn/warningsigns.aspx.
  4. If you read those warning signs and it reminds you of someone you know and love, do not gossip about them. (That includes sending a prayer request to all of your friends.) First, go talk to them. Be open; be honest. Ask them outright about their feelings. Many suicidal people find hope when a friend allows them to verbalize their feelings. I can think of a few people who are alive today because I or someone else had the guts to actually ask them if they were considering suicide. (Feel free to pray for them before speaking to them, but before asking others to pray, obtain their permission.)
  5. If those warning signs sound like they describe you, get help. I would recommend seeking a godly Christian counselor: preferably one with a strong relationship with Christ, the appropriate spiritual gifts, and adequate training. Suicide is serious business, a life-and-death issue. A quick fix by quoting one or two Bible verses out of context will not solve your problems. It requires compassion, wisdom, insight and TIME.
  6. Finally, even if you are not at high risk for suicide, but have prolonged issues related to depression, seek help. Much research suggests that there is a biochemical aspect to depression which must be addressed. One can debate whether a chemical imbalance causes depression, or depressive thinking causes the chemical imbalance. Nevertheless, a healing process is necessary.

Finally, remember that you are not alone. Even Elijah struggled with despair and asked God to take his life (1 Kings 19:5). As long as you have breath, you have hope. As long as God is with you, healing and restoration are freely available.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Character and Values, Christian Life, Christians and Culture, Current events | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Through a Glass Darkly (Revisited)

The following is an article I originally posted on August 9, 2010, at https://michaelelynch.wordpress.com/2010/08/09/through-a-glass-darkly. During this month, I will share a few favorite articles from previous Augusts. This article provides the inspiration for the blog title, “Darkened Glass Reflections.”

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NASB).

When I began following Christ, I dreamed of becoming a Christian rock musician. I have often thought that the perfect debut-album title would be “Through a Glass Darkly” (inspired by the King James version’s wording of the verse above). I recently tried to create a new blog here on WordPress with that name but, alas, others beat me to it. Maybe I will find a good alternative soon enough.

The concept that believers see “through a glass darkly” should encourage us. Questions often assault our faith: “Why? What are you doing to me, God? When will you do what I thought You would?” These are the questions that shake our faith, perhaps more so than the intellectual or philosophical challenges to our faith. The fact that we worship an unseen God, Who usually chooses to work in subtle ways, is perhaps the greatest challenge to our faith.

Faith grows as we go from knowing about God to knowing Him personally. This forces us to stretch and strengthen our spiritual muscles as we seek to see Him “through a glass darkly.”

Knowledge is Not Power, but the Love of God is Powerful

The last few years have been a long lesson in learning to accept the fact that, no matter how smart I think I am or how much I study the Bible, my knowledge will always be deficient. I am learning to accept that as a blessing. God is not looking for knowledge as much as He is looking for His holiness to be manifested in my life. Any knowledge about Him is intended to foster a relationship with Him. For example, I grow more by discerning Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, than I do by trying to analyze how the bread and wine can be His body and blood.

First Corinthians 13:12 appears near the end of one of the most famous chapters in the Bible, Paul’s famous discourse on love. In that passage, Paul emphasizes that love is much more important than many of the “marks of spirituality” to which some Christians cling.

Gifts of the Holy Spirit? It is a blessing to speak in tongues, and one can be a blessing if he has the gift of prophecy or can reveal the deep mysteries of the faith to others. But, without love, it is just a lot of noise.

Faith? We need it for salvation; if we do not have faith in Jesus, we are lost. It is wonderful to have the sort of mountain-moving faith that tears down strongholds and prays miracles of healing and other supernatural blessings down from heaven. Without love, though, I am nothing.

What about a self-sacrificing spirit? We should be eager to give sacrificially to those in need, and I admire those great men and women of faith who were willing to give their lives for the sake of the Gospel. But, without love, it profits them nothing.

Paul goes on to describe love (vv. 4-7). Next, he shows that it will last until the end of the age, and even into heaven, although other marks of spirituality will pass away (vv. 8-10).

When we get to heaven, there will be no seminaries: no job openings for theologians or philosophers. In fact, I am sure that theological debates and reflection will look pretty silly when Jesus is seated just a few feet away, right next to His Father. We will see them both in all of their glory. Philosophical discourse will be done. Exegesis and analysis of biblical passages will come to an end. Our deepest questions could probably be answered by turning to the throne and saying, “Excuse me, Jesus, I was wondering….” Just wait for the audible voice of God to answer.

Instead of debate, there will be devotion: eternal worship and praise to God, and direct fellowship with Him. Love will endure.

We Bear the Image of God, but It Is a Marred Image

In June 2010, Joyce and I were on a flight from New York to Florida, where we sat with a man from Italy. He was quite a talkative fellow, so we had a long conversation, which lasted most of the flight. On a few occasions, Joyce guided the conversation to spiritual matters. During a few of those discussions of God and faith, he referred to “the divine within us.” The belief in such a “divine within us” is quite common today, and is accepted by many who profess to be Christians. But, it is not a biblical or Christian notion: certainly not in the manner it is usually defined.

The Bible teaches that we are made in the image of God. Yet, that image is marred. It is like looking at a severely weather-beaten picture. Imagine finding an ancient fresco, buried under thousands of years of rubble and dirt in an ancient Roman village, depicting the face of a local dignitary. The image may show you what the man looked like, but you would have to scrape away centuries of dirt. A major restoration project would be required to restore the man’s image. Perhaps parts of the image are missing, and we have to guess what the rest of the image looks like.

Or, perhaps, we should imagine looking at our own image in a mirror. However, the mirror is hundreds of years old: cracked and covered with rust and dirt. We can glimpse a reflection in the mirror, but it is a dim reflection.

The great danger, when we try to understand God by relating to “the divine within us,” is that we are basing our awareness of God on a dim reflection, or a marred image. It is an image with pieces missing: a reflection that has  been beaten, cracked, and distorted by the rust and grime of sin.

Our Perspective Is Limited By Our Imperfections

In addition to the corruption of our “image of God,” there is the limitation of our perspective. God is eternal; He existed before the beginning of time. We are not eternal; although we will live forever, each of us has an existence that began at a specific moment in time. God is omniscient (all-knowing). We are not, although sometimes we act like know-it-alls.

Our finiteness gives us a limited view of God and His purposes. I can think of no greater example of this than Job. The Old Testament book of Job tells  the story of a man who served God faithfully. As a result, Satan accused God of being unjust: after all, Satan reasoned, Job only served God because He blessed him. To prove that Job’s faith was genuine, the Lord allowed the devil to afflict Job. In one day, Job lost almost everything that mattered to him: his possessions, children, and a host of other things. Next, Satan took his health. It seemed like all Satan left for Job was a nagging wife and some self-righteous judgmental friends.

After Job and his friends had engaged in a prolonged argument about why God allowed this suffering, God decided to answer Job’s questions:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said,
“Who is this that darkens counsel By words without knowledge?
Now gird up your loins like a man, And I will ask you, and you instruct Me!
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding,
Who set its measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on it?
On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together And all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Or who enclosed the sea with doors When, bursting forth, it went out from the womb;
When I made a cloud its garment And thick darkness its swaddling band,
And I placed boundaries on it And set a bolt and doors,
And I said, ‘Thus far you shall come, but no farther; And here shall your proud waves stop’?” (Job 38:1-11).

Job felt God was treating him unfairly and wanted God to explain  why He was doing this. His friends had other suggestions for his suffering: perhaps Job was harboring a secret sin which God needed to judge; or Job was proud and needed a swift kick in the butt.

God did not answer Job’s questions directly. Instead, He pointed out that He has a much broader perspective than Job could even imagine. When our faith is shaken by unanswered questions, we should take comfort that, even if we do not understand everything, God knows all. God’s answer to Job lasts several chapters, during which He points out how He is concerned with the intimate details in the lives of all His creatures. God is concerned about the most mundane creatures on our planet. He is also concerned about the most mundane details of our lives. Does He care? Yes, He does. Can He answer our questions? Yes, He can. Are we ready to hear the answers? We might think we are, but since we have such a limited perspective, maybe we should just trust Him.

After God pointed out how little Job understood, Job had his chance to respond:

Then Job answered the LORD and said,
“I know that You can do all things, And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me.’
I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You;
Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:1-5).

How often we need to hear Job’s confession and make it our own! How often we Christians, in our attempts to understand the Bible, twist it into something we can explain. Instead, we should say, “This is what it says. I cannot explain everything in there, but I know God is true. Someday, when I see Him face to face, I will understand.

How often do we try to explain God’s ways, but we do so in a way that justifies our own actions! How often we place God in a box that we can carry.

Instead, we should seek to know God as Job came to know Him. Instead of seeking to know about God, let us just come to Him by faith. Faith enables us to see through the glass darkly, glimpsing a shadow of God’s glory, with the assurance that there is more to love than we can imagine.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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