When God Asks the Impossible: Meet the Widow of Zarephath

Have you ever read through a familiar passage of scripture and been surprised to notice something for the first time?  That happened to me recently.  In reading through 1 Kings, I came to the account of the Prophet Elijah’s early ministry, at the time of the great drought during which he hid from King Ahab in the Kerith Ravine and then took up residence with a widow in Zarephath.  Here is the particular passage that I had never truly noticed before: after commanding Elijah to leave the ravine and go to Zarephath, God says, “I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.”  (1 Kings 17:9).

So Elijah, that intrepid man of God, leaves his hideout just south of the Sea of Galilee and walks over a hundred miles to the Phoenician town of Zarephath located on the Mediterranean a long day’s hike north of Sidon.  And he encounters a widow and asks first for water, and then for food.  Her response to the latter request is worth noting in full:

“As surely as the LORD your God lives, I don’t have any bread – only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug.  I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it – and die.”  (1 Kings 17:12)

Notice – although she had some familiarity with the God of Israel, she is not herself a worshipper of that God.  Her reference to the LORD is like that of King Saul in his last conversation with the Prophet Samuel, in which he refers to God three times as “the LORD your God.”  (1 Samuel 15:15,21, and 30). So, this widow hears from a God with whom she has the slightest acquaintance and is commanded to do something she cannot possibly accomplish.  She only has enough bread for one last meal – not enough to feed a stranger for months!

Have you ever felt that God is asking you to do the impossible?  Elijah’s response to this dear woman may be helpful to you.  Elijah says, “Don’t be afraid.  Go home and do as you have said.  But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and then make something for yourself and your son.  For this is what the LORD, the God of Israel says,: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD gives rain on the land.”  (1 Kings 17:15).

Elijah encourages her not to be afraid and suggests that she follow her plan – but first she should obey the LORD and supply the prophet with a small loaf of bread.  This instruction is followed by a promise that the LORD himself will provide what is needed for her to obey his command.

Too often we don’t want to obey God’s commands until we have a year’s supply of flour and oil in the pantry.  We want to see the miracle first – then we will obey.  And so we miss many, many opportunities to grow in our walks with God and to be effective in serving him and others.  What impossible, or even merely difficult, things is God calling you to do?  Are there areas in your life where you know God has called you to be someone or to do something and you simply don’t have the gifts or resources necessary?    Trust God and obey him as a first order of business.  Perhaps you will discover that he is able to provide you with your daily bread – even in impossible situations.

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas

N.B. The image above is  Elijah Receiving Bread from the Widow of Zarephath,  oil on canvas painting by Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647).   This image is made available by Getty’s Open Content Program.

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Time, Chance, and the Providence of God

The “Final Four” for the 2017 Men’s NCAA Championship have been determined!  For those of you who don’t follow college basketball, this is a big deal.  Sixty-four teams are invited to compete in this annual championship.  They are divided into four regional divisions of sixteen teams each.  The teams that won their divisions this past week make up the “Final Four.”  This year those teams are: Oregon, Gonzaga, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

For sports fans and gamblers alike, this tournament provides an awful lot of excitement.  It might be said that filling out brackets, i.e. predicting who will win the games in this tournament, is a national pastime.  Just one online platform for projecting tournament winners had 18.8 million participants filling out brackets – predicting who the winners and losers would be![1]  What a wonderful sample from which to crowd source a likely outcome for the tournament.

And yet we find that the nation’s experts and amateurs alike are off the mark.  By a lot.  Shockingly, only 657 people (out of 18.8 million) picked Oregon, Gonzaga, North Carolina, and South Carolina to be the 2017 Final Four.  That is 0.003%.  How can so few people have picked the four teams that would win their sixteen team divisions?

Ecclesiastes 9:11 offers some insight on this phenomenon:

“I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”

In other words, there is something inherently unpredictable about outcomes.  In absolute terms, it is simply not the case that the fastest runner always wins the race; that the strongest fighter wins the battle; that the wise, brilliant, and learned receive food, wealth, and favor.  Under the economy of God’s providential care, there are always circumstances beyond our control that will prove to be the deciding factors in some of our outcomes.   And so we cannot predict our tournament results with anything remotely resembling competency.  Time and chance rule out the possibility of our mere metrics and statistical analyses yielding anything like certainty.

And isn’t that a great thing?  Isn’t it great that your God will use time and chance to grant victories or favor in situations when by all reasonable projections you ought to lose?  Isn’t it wonderful that God cares for you so much that he will humble you by denying you a “slam-dunk” victory when you thought you would surely obtain your objective?

On the third of this month, the NCAA championship will be decided.  I have no idea which of the Final Four teams will either compete in that game or win it.  But I do know this: as a Christian, Every day is game day.  Every day Christian living requires a race to be run as if to win (1 Cor. 9:24) and a battle to be fought with the goal of standing (Eph. 6:13).  The human, physical, secular values of things like speed, strength, and brilliance are of a very qualified importance in determining the outcomes of such races and battles.  God delights in lifting up the humble.  So run however fast God has blessed you with speed.  Struggle with whatever strength he gave you.  Think with what powers of reason you have been blessed, Plan with the wisdom you have received.  And knowing that it is not ultimately your speed, strength or learning that secures your success, put your trust in God who will at times exalt and at times humble you – all in accordance with his glory and your eternal good.

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas

 

[1] http://www.msn.com/en-us/sports/ncaabk/march-madness-2017-bing-predicts-the-final-four/ss-BByYEkd, accessed on 3.28.2017.

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Blessings in Worse Waters

The biblical account of Naaman and his encounter with God has always intrigued me.  Everything that we know about this once great and powerful man can be read in 2 Kings chapter five – take a moment to read it!  He was a successful general, he was a wealthy man, he was trusted by his king, he was loved by his servants, and he was feared by his enemies.  But he contracted leprosy and none of the powers of the East could heal him.  One of his wife’s servant girls was a captive Israelite who suggested that he go and see a man of God in Samaria – the prophet Elisha.  And so Naaman’s life takes an unexpected detour and we find him traveling to a neighboring country in search of a miracle.

Everything about Naaman’s encounter with the prophet Elisha seems designed to humble him.  Elisha does not come out to meet him personally, but sends his servant in his place.  While Naaman thought that he would see a solemn invocation, Elisha merely tells Naaman to bathe – seven times no less!  And although the mighty general was privileged to enjoy the beautiful and majestic rivers of Damascus, Elisha specified which river he must bathe in – the Jordan.

In order to understand how insulting this last instruction must have been to Naaman, it is worth noting that the rivers of Damascus, specifically named by Naaman as the Abana and the Pharpar, were considered to be the most beautiful rivers of the world.  These rivers are the modern day Bavada and el-Anwag and were deemed to be a veritable paradise in antiquity.[1]  In the great general of Aram’s thinking, the Jordan was nothing compared to the rivers of his home.  In the words of a Bible scholar speaking over a century ago, he must have wondered why he was “bidden to wash in that wretched, useless, tortuous stream…”[2]

Whether or not the Jordan compares favorably to Naaman’s local rivers in absolute terms is irrelevant to the story.  The fact is that for Naaman, his home rivers were better – but God explicitly required him to submit himself to what he considered an inferior means of blessing.  And Naaman was humiliated and angry.

It is sometimes the case that God calls us in a manner that necessarily pulls us away from our cultural arrogance.  God sometimes meets us in waters of his choosing, not ours.  Sometimes he does not show himself where we think the circumstances and pageantry would best facilitate our blessedness, but instead acts when and where he can best reveal his glory for and through his people.

Do you believe that God can bring his blessings in water that you deem inferior?  The answer to this question must be an unqualified “YES!”  God does not need clear water and a calm current to change a life – yours or your neighbors!  And he does not need the right mix of trees on the shore line or a sandy bottom.  As wonderful as such things may be, they are completely unnecessary.  And to the extent that we feel they are necessary, they may in fact be impediments to God’s work in our lives.  Sometimes, like Naaman, we need humble servants to pull us up short and ask us “If [God] had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it?  How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash, and be cleansed’!”  (2 Kings 5:13).

Where is God calling you to meet him in circumstances that are less than your desired best?  Perhaps you will experience his power and grace in the wilderness like Moses, in a cave like Elijah, or, like Mary, beside a manger.

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas

N.B.  The image is the picture of the Jordan River used by the Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/place/Jordan-River

[1] Volkmar Fritz, 1 & 2 Kings: A Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 259.

[2] F.W. Farrar, The Second Book of Kings:The Expositor’s Bible (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1903), p. 52.

 

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Psalm 1:1 Learning to Say “No”

When I was a boy, my family used to camp several times a year.  There were five of us then: Dad, Mom, Doug, Bob, and Jim (Steve was born when the three of us older brothers were young men – or nearly so).  And we loved those family adventures.  Hiking, fishing, campfires, s’mores, sleeping in the tent…  What amazing memories.

One memory that I recall from each of our trips was the routine we went through upon arriving at our campsite.  Dad would pace off the area where we would set up the tent, and then he would instruct the three of us boys to clear that area of every stick, rock, bottle cap, or pinecone we could find.  Nothing that could either tear the bottom of the tent or discomfit a sleeping family member would escape his notice.  So before we could catch frogs, play catch, go fishing – or do anything fun at all, that tent site would be cleared.  Thoroughly.

It is remarkable how often memories of campsite-clearing come to mind when I reflect on the nature of the Christian’s spiritual life.  And the first verse of the first Psalm is one of many scriptures that summon up images of young Bjerkaas boys crawling around collecting sharp, hard, and otherwise undesirable objects from the ground.  Psalm 1, with its contrast between the man who is blessed and the man who is wicked, begins with a statement of negation – a summary of “things removed.”

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.”

The book of Psalms has been described by many as the song book of God’s people.  It contains what John Calvin called “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.”  They Psalms address the entire scope of human emotions and present all of God’s attributes.  And it is not without reason that the very first thing this book of inspired songs tells us concerns things that must be removed from our lives: wicked advice, sinful behavior, and mockery.  These things are detrimental to enjoying the blessed life that God offers his people.

In Ephesians 4:22 Christians are told to, “put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires.”  We are to “put off falsehood… stop stealing…let no unwholesome talk come from us…”  Similarly, in Titus 2:11 we are told that “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.  It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions…”  The Christian life, it seems, requires as a first order of business the removal of certain “old” ways of existence.  We must be in the business of stone and bottle cap removal in pursuing our Christian life.  Too often we want to experience God’s blessing by simply adding something new, exciting, or good to our lives as we currently find them.  It is as if we want to improve the campsite of our lives by adding a propane stove or stringing up a hammock.  Instead we should make it a regular practice to say ‘No’ to certain things – like mockery, stealing, implementing wicked advice…

Are there areas in your life or tendencies in your heart that need some attention?  Is your spiritual peace hindered by some bit of spiritual debris that you have not quite removed yet?  Is your growth in grace at a standstill?  What is God calling you to say “No” to; to put off and cast away?  Dear Christian, the first song of God’s people calls you to walk away, stand apart, and sit far from all that does not reflect the character of the God who has shown you grace.  Where will you sit?  With whom will you stand?  Whose counsel will you follow?

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas

 

NB The image above is cropped from a pastel painting by Andrew Gunderson, noted for his wonderful use of the color blue.

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Love Keeps No Record of Wrongs

The language of the Bible is graphic – sometimes even shocking!  While I may take other opportunities in blog posts to demonstrate the shock value of some scriptures, in this post I want to shed some light on how graphic the language Paul uses to define love would have been to his original audience.

New Testament scholar Anthony Thiselton notes that in the love passage of 1 Corinthians 13, “every verb depicts an action or a stance, usually under the guise of a metaphor or pictorial image.”[1]  So, we should understand that “love does not envy,” paints the picture of someone “boiling” on the inside with discontent that so-and-so has something they themselves ought to have.  Similarly, “love is not easily angered” would have plainly suggested to the original Corinthians that “love doesn’t act as if it is being jabbed with a sharp stick.”  The vocabulary that Paul uses is heavily weighted towards words that bring images to mind.  Of a boiling pot, an iron spike, a bag of hot air… But not this time.

When Paul writes that “love keeps no record of wrongs,” he is not using colorful language so much as he is using technical language.  He has moved from the typical language of caricatures to the more specialized language of finance.  There is still a picture, but it is a bit more developed than the relatively simple image of a cattle prod or the full bladder of a bellows.  Instead we see a banker sitting at his table reviewing all of the debits his client has amassed.  He is making his list and checking it twice.  He will not miss one penny of what his debtor owes him.

This may be a picture of many of us.  But it is not love.  Love does not do this.  People do!  But love does not.  The emphasis in Paul’s word choice falls on the “reckoning,” the focus is on the act of remembering to keep account – on being certain not to lose track of the debt.  And love does not do this.  Love does not make it a point to remember the wrongs committed against it.

Although Jesus does not use the same word, he appeals to the same metaphor when he teaches his disciples to pray.  Many of us have memorized the Lord’s Prayer and recited it thousands of times since childhood: “Forgive us our debts (trespasses) as we forgive our debtors (those who trespass against us).”  The word Jesus uses is rightly translated “debtor” – one who owes something.  And in that prayer we are asking God to keep no record of our wrongs (trespasses), in the same way as we keep no record of the wrongs people commit against us.  In a very real sense, you may as well be asking God to love you in the same way that you love those who have hurt you.  Yikes.

Would you dare to pray that way?  Perhaps we should all take some time and ask God for forgiveness for the wrongs we have so carefully kept a record of – we have kept the real and imagined failures and evils of others on our relational radars – and we have held them under our censure – sometimes for decades.   I have long since lost track of the times I have heard Christians say, “I can never forgive so-and-so for… “

Isn’t it amazing how patient and long-suffering God is with us!  This February, as Valentine’s Day draws near, consider something that you have kept a record of against someone you otherwise love – and perhaps you love them well in many respects.  But in this you have not loved them well.  You have kept that record and held on to that wrong…  Forgive them.  If they have any reason to know that you have kept this against them, ask them for forgiveness for keeping that record.  And may we grow in our ability to truly love others the way that God in Christ has so truly and dearly loved us.

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas

[1] Antony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), p. 1053.

N.B.  I wish I could give proper credit for this awesome image of Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but alas, no credits could be found.

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Love is Not Easily Angered

Jeremiah Burroughs, a seventeenth-century English pastor and theologian, wrote a book that was intended to heal divisions and promote a gracious unity in a land fractured by civil war, party spirits, and general discord.  He offered his readers a wonderful example of the dangers of a quick temper.  England, at that time, had beacons along the coast that could be set on fire to quickly communicate urgent news across great distances.  In the event that an invading fleet were to appear off that island nation’s coast, word of the danger could spread quickly.  Referencing this early warning system, Burroughs writes: “If one should set the beacons on fire upon the landing of every small boat, what continual combustions and tumults would there be in the land!”[1]

That simple illustration paints a compelling picture.  No doubt anger does have a part to play in the overall character of the Christian.  Jesus became “indignant” when the disciples tried to prevent little children from coming to him. That passage in Mark 10:14 could be more simply translated, “and seeing, Jesus was angry…”  There is such a thing as “righteous anger.”  But I suspect it is more infrequently experienced or encountered than we might imagine.

God’s definition of love does not say that love never gets angry.  But it does say that love is difficult to anger.  It is not in a state of readiness to respond to the least provocation.  Love does not go about with the safety off and the hammer cocked.  Love is difficult to get angry.  And just as the beacons should only be set ablaze when a real and present threat is poised to overwhelm the land, one’s anger should not be stirred unless there is great cause.

Imagine what would become of your dearest friendships and closest relationships if you became angry at trivial or even merely moderate offenses or disappointments.  How often have you become angry by some perceived offense only to realize, too many angry looks and words later, that you misunderstood the supposed offender?  Over time, the sad result of this character flaw would be that your spouse, friend, or co-worker would be so busy walking on eggshells that your relationship will probably never progress to a place where serious issues can be identified and graciously resolved.  Because of your short fuse, every molehill is treated as if it is a mountain.  Every lost dinghy is the Spanish Armada.

Burroughs goes on to say that, “Those who upon every trifle are set on fire by their passions, and who by that set others on fire, exceedingly disturb the peace of those places where they live, those societies to which they belong.  Their hot passions cause the climate where they live to be like the torrid zone, too hot for any to live near them.”[2]

How quickly do you get angry?  Is it difficult for others to provoke you to anger?  Or does anger lay just beneath the surface – waiting for the slightest cause to erupt?  The received wisdom of our culture says to count to ten, take a pill, or punch your pillow.  Perhaps you will find a surer path to the peace God calls you to if you would consider how your quick temper indicates a lack of love for those God has placed in your life.  It may be that by humbly and prayerfully seeking to love them according to God’s definition of love, you will find that it becomes more and more difficult for the imperfections of others to incite you to wrath.

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas

[1] Jeremiah Burroughs, Irenicum (1653), ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997), p. 185.

[2] Ibid.

N.B.  The image is a picture of a lit signal beacon in Islington, a district in London otherwise famous for being the district where 12 Grimmauld Place – the home of Sirius Black, was located in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

 

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Perseverance or Insanity?

Seven years ago I posed myself a question that I would like to share with you as you begin this new year.  It was sometime in April 2010 that I was watching my youngest two boys (then ages five and seven) playing basketball in our driveway with two of my seven year old’s friends. I was working in my wood shop (which is in the garage) and since the garage door was open  I was able to set my project aside and just watch the kids playing for a while.  This is what I saw: my five year old was taking his turn and could not throw the ball high enough  – even though the basket was lowered to eight feet.  He would shoot the basketball, which would invariably fall short, and say “Let me try again!”  So the other kids would give him the ball and he would try again, the ball would fall short, and he would say, “Let me try again!”  Now reread these last two sentences a dozen times.

At first I was interested to see how long the other kids would let him keep trying.  But then I began wondering how long my young son would want to keep trying.  And then I started wondering, if that was me, how long would I keep trying?  As adults, we all know the definition of insanity: “To do the same thing over and over expecting different results.”  As an adult, watching my child brought this to mind.  I knew that he could try to shoot that ball a hundred times but simply did not have the strength to score.  But I didn’t think he was insane – despite the fact that he was clearly expecting to score any shot now…

And that got me thinking.  Why didn’t I as a parent want to go out and say to my son, “Hey fella, you can’t make a basket right now no matter how hard you try.  It’s crazy for you to keep trying.”  Instead, I was proud of him for his continued effort – I was hoping he would want to try again.

Eventually he did give up without scoring a goal, or even hitting the rim for that matter.  But I knew his efforts were neither crazy nor wasted – despite the fact that his desired accomplishment was never achieved.  He was building character and getting healthy exercise.  And, just as importantly, his friends were learning patience.

Sometimes we as adults try something, do not “at first succeed,” and therefore we assume that we would be crazy to do that again.  And maybe in “sanely” quitting rather than sticking with the old proverbial “try, try again” attitude, we are missing the point.  Just as an earthly father like me knows that there are merits to having eight foot basketball standards in a small child’s driveway, isn’t it possible that our heavenly Father knows that there are merits to calling us to continually confront a challenging obstacle with the same old graces he has outlined over and over in his Word?

I am particularly reminded of Jesus’ words in  Luke 17:4.  He said, “If your brother sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, “I repent,’ forgive him.”  If the world were to watch this kind of persistence from its open garage, surely it would count the forgiving person insane. Yet that repetitious exercise is precisely what we are called to.

How is God calling you to exercise the same graces, over and over and over again – perhaps with nothing to show for it? Or could we be looking for the wrong things to come from our perseverance?  Do we want baskets instead of character; two points instead of muscles?  This year as you commit yourself to a repetitious and often seemingly unrewarded obedience, won’t you join me in praying that “the Lord would direct our hearts into God’s love and the perseverance of Christ.” (2 Thessalonians 3:5).

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas

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A New Year’s Resolution: Be like a Recovering Alcoholic on the Indian Road

I am not a psychologist or a medical doctor.  I am what the old Puritans would term a “physician of souls.” Vocationally I am a pastor.  Avocationally, I coach lacrosse. In both cases, I am focused on helping people change – specifically, from worse to better.  And in every case that any significant improvement occurs, it is because the athlete or spiritual pilgrim in question has accepted that they have something about them that is not “right.”  Maybe they trail their stick on defense or don’t get their hands up to shoot.  Maybe they are easily angered or have a tendency to gossip.  But until a person identifies something that is wrong, not simply “less than perfect” but actually “wrong,” they will always have a perfectly acceptable status quo to fall back on should their aspirations to change prove difficult and inconvenient.

This is what alcoholics understand – and they recite it like a mantra every time they gather: “My name is John, I am an alcoholic.”  Lasting change is premised upon their self-awareness of the wrongness of their condition.  When they believe they are no longer an alcoholic, bad things tend to happen.  So, if there is something the matter with your life that needs changing this year, identify what is wrong; name it and own it.  Recognize that it has defined you.  Be like a recovering alcoholic.

And walk the Indian Road.  In 1925, Stan Jones wrote a little book on his experiences as a missionary in India that went through twenty-three printings in its first two years.  It proved to be a significant and influential missiological book with an unexpected devotional appeal.  That book was, The Christ of the Indian Road, and in his second chapter he shares a part of a conversation he had with Mahatma Gandhi in which Jones observed that neither Hindu karma or Muslim kismet could bring about change in a person or a nation’s life.  Both of those, he believed were essentially defeatist.  But the cross is different:

“Now the cross never knows defeat, for it is of itself Defeat, and you cannot defeat Defeat.  You cannot break Brokenness.  It starts with defeat and accepts that as a way of life.  But in that very attitude it finds its victory.  It never knows when it is defeated, for it turns every impediment into an instrument, and every difficulty into a door, every cross into a means of redemption.  So I concluded, any people that would put the cross at the center of its thought and life would never know when it is defeated.  It would have a quenchless hope that Easter morning lies just behind every Calvary.”[1]

Own your brokenness and embrace the cross.  If human experience has any usefulness as a guide, you may be quite sure that setbacks and disappointments will be a part of your growth.  For the individual who merely aspires to be better, such challenges are opportunities to fail – to let themselves down.  But for the person who has truly owned their brokenness, every challenge and setback cannot be an opportunity to fail because Brokenness cannot be broken; the alcoholic does not become an alcoholic again.  Instead, such crises become opportunities to either remain the same or to grow – as Jones insists, they are doors to a better place.

Titus chapter three instructs us to stress the truths that we are sinners saved by grace; that we are really, really sinful and that God is outrageously merciful towards us in Christ.  This new year, renew your commitments to owning your brokenness and focusing on the cross of Christ.  And look at your difficulties – your trials and temptations, as opportunities to live a different life because of what God has in Christ done for you.  May your year be full of Easter mornings as you experience the lesser calvaries of life on this side of heaven.  May you find yourself living with a quenchless hope.

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas

[1] Jones, E. Stanley, The Christ of the Indian Road (New York: The Abingdon Press, 1925), p. 45.

N.B.  The picture was taken by a friend of mine who attended the church I pastored in Vermont.  She took this picture of a busy intersection in Kalimpong, India where she was serving as a medical missionary (she is a veterinarian – think cows and goats not dogs and cats).  This is her description of that intersection: “So these pictures tell a nice story of the contrasts of this place.  The first one is of the main intersection in Kalimpong.  I was sitting with Melissa on the steps of the corner shop waiting for Miku last week.  The clock tower that you can see has a broken clock, and traffic cops stand below it directing the mass of taxis, motorcycles and pedestrians.  You really have to be alert to cross the streets here.”  Note that there is no reason to believe that the man pictured is an alcoholic.

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A Tenth Century English Christmas

This past Spring I stumbled across a great find in my good friend’s used bookshop.  It was a well-worn, expertly highlighted edition of Jackson Campbell’s highly regarded translation of the Advent antiphons from the Exeter Book.[1]  Intending to read it this Advent season, I bought the book, forgot about it, and rediscovered it this month when it showed up in my notes for December reading. And am I ever glad to have bought it!

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, I would like to share with you my favorite poem from that very, very old collection.  The poem would have been used in the liturgy of the Old English church on the Sunday the Greater Antiphon “O Oriens” was recited.  While that antiphon would have been spoken in Latin, this poem would have been read in the West Saxon dialect of Old English.

But the words in any translation demonstrate a deep and rich comprehension of the significance of Christ’s birth.  May these ancient words recall to your mind and heart an even older truth, and may you be moved to utter thanks to the Lord for the gift of salvation – even in our “era of time.”

O Radiance, brightest of angels

sent to men throughout the earth

and veritable splendor of the sun,

dazzling beyond the stars, you ever enlighten

of yourself every era of time.

Since you, God of God, begotten of old,

son of the True Father in the glory of heaven

without beginning always existed,

so now your own works in dire need

ask confidently that you send us

the bright sun, and come yourself

that you may illumine those who long before,

covered with darkness and obscurity here,

have sat in continual night; enshrouded in sin

we had to endure the dark shadow of death.

Now we hopefully believe in the salvation

brought to men by the word of God,

which was at the beginning coeternal

with God, the Father Almighty, and now has become

flesh free from stain which the virgin bore

as a help to the miserable.  God was among us

seen without sin; together they lived,

mighty son of God and son of man

in harmony among people.  For that we may

utter thanks forever to the Lord for his acts,

for he willed to send himself to us.

 

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas

 

[1] Campbell, Jackson J., The Advent Lyrics of the Exeter Book (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959).

N.B.  The above image of a tenth century manger scene is from the manuscript Homilarium and is courtesy of Basel, Universitätsbibliothek, B IV 26, p. 6r.

 

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Spiritual Gifts

christmas-giftsWell, Thanksgiving is over and now we are beginning our cultural obsession with… gifts.  We are making lists of what we will give to whom. Or perhaps, and even tougher as we grow older, we have been asked to come up with a list of things we might like to receive ourselves.  As we try to stretch both our time and our money to accommodate this busy and expensive time of year, I invite you to spend some time considering “spiritual gifts.”

In 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, the Apostle Paul teaches about gifts that the Holy Spirit gives us.  Although there are a number of extremely important truths in these verses, in my experience it is the very last thing that this text says about spiritual gifts that is most needful in many of the difficulties we face in life and in ministry.  In verse 11, we read,

“…All these [different gifts] are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.”

Let me paraphrase: All Spiritual gifts are from the Holy Spirit – whether they seem more or less important to us.  Everyone one of us has been given spiritual gifts, and the Holy Spirit determined our gifts.

This last part is where many of us sometimes struggle.  I think we tend to operate with wish lists and preconceived notions.  We do this in our marriages, our families, our neighborhoods, our work environments, and perhaps even our spiritual life and health.  If I may pick on myself for a moment, I usually have in mind both the gifts and the relative degree of giftedness that I want from God!   And I get my understanding of the Christian life exactly backwards on this point – I determine which spiritual gift I want and how gifted I want to be.  And then, presuming that I have those gifts in eminence, I proceed to attempt to function in ways that I would like to be used rather than in the manner for which God has designed me.  Have you ever been there and done that?  We cannot approach the subject of spiritual gifts the way we do wedding gifts – we do not “register” for them and then presumptively make space in our cupboards for the exact number of place settings of our favorite fine china!

Shakespeare was on to something when he penned Polonius’ line: “To thine own self be true…”   The Holy Spirit has determined what gifts you would have – you have been gifted “just as he determines.”  Often we struggle in life because we do not truly appreciate what our God-given strengths and weaknesses actually are – which is to say, our areas of giftedness and where we need the giftedness of others.

When we are able to identify what spiritual gifts we have been given, then we are able to best serve others (see verse 7).  And we are also best able to, with genuine appreciation, be blessed in turn by the giftedness of others.  Yes, “eagerly desire the greater gifts” as 1 Corinthians 12:11 commends, but do so recognizing that none of us is truly a master of all trades spiritually speaking and that even Adam needed help before the ruin of our race.

This year, as you make your lists (and check them twice!), take some time to consider what gifts God has given you – not what gifts you want, but what gifts he has determined to give you.  Commit yourself to accepting help from and being supportive of others in areas where you are not gifted.   And let’s all use our gifts to bless and encourage one another – “ministering God’s grace in its various forms.”  (1 Peter 4:10)

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas

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