Appreciating What We Have

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

 “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” (1Timothy 4:4-5)

 

Since starting this blog a year ago, I took on a part-time ministerial assignment: partnering with several pastors and churches whose primary language is other than English.  I’ve been involved in this ministry for close to 10 months, and it’s been very rewarding to say the least.  As I have gotten to better know these pastors and their congregations, my appreciation of their preferred language and cultures has been edifying in unexpected ways.

One of those ways is the ability to fully enter into the worship of GOD even when I know very little of what is being sung or said.  I attribute this ability to the Holy Spirit who is never confused or limited, and is able to lead us across boundaries that are, otherwise, impenetrable because of our human frailty or, perhaps, because of a lack of will.  I count this as new learning for me.

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Reflecting on my attempts to cross cultures has drawn me to another conclusion: sometimes we are more appreciative of the “new” than we are of what has been present and available to us all along.  This, I think, is common to most of us.  We certainly see it in our young children, but the dynamic is not limited to them.  It’s as if the newness of something opens our eyes with joy and appreciation in ways that the equally valuable, but previously present “thing” failed to do.    Here, I refer specifically to women who are 50%+ of the world’s population, and, more often than not, the primary doers of work and sustainers of ministry in the local church (there’s much objective data, both historical and contemporary, to support this last point).  Women have been a major part of the Church, working and often leading, from the beginning, and have been under-appreciated, stymied, and stunted, for my two cents.

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Our “appreciation and celebration” of diversity in the Church need not take on over-sized proportions if we allow ourselves to be molded by the Spirit and the Word.  When we fail in this molding, we often try to make-up for it by making “big deals” out of what should be an accepted reality: unity in the Church.  If the Church of Jesus Christ reflected more of a Trinitarian model of inter-relationships between its members rather than a spiritually outmoded and divisive model more reflective of the hierarchical, patriarchal, and dominant culture dynamics common under the Old Covenant, valuing some members over others, the separations of groups so common in the world would not be so common in the Church, as it still is today.  This model, so inconsistent with the New Covenant, is the Church’s version of the doctrine of separate but equal.1  The dynamics of separation create inequality, a fact underscored by Galatians 3:28.

I’m grateful for the teachers, mentors, and colleagues in the faith (of all hues and genders), who have and continue to influence my faith.  Each has blessed me.  I want to highlight one, Rev. Shirley Goodman whose recently published book, Riding In Cars with Men2, was an eye-opener.  I’ve been privileged to call her friend and to work with her for many years, and I highly recommend you consider reading what she has to say.  Who knows how it may impact you.

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  1. The doctrine of separate but equal was codified as the law of the land by the Supreme Court in 1896 through Plessy vs. Ferguson. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially separate facilities, if equal, were not discriminatory, if they did not otherwise violate the constitution.  It was not overturned until 1954 when the Supreme Court heard and ruled on Brown vs. Board of Education.

  1. Riding In Cars with Men by Shirley Goodman (TheSheRev, LLC, © 2019) is available through Amazon in both paperback and electronic formats.

 

 © Byron L. Hannon, 2019.  All rights reserved to original text content unless otherwise noted.

It’s About Grace

“I’m a grace junkie, brother!  I’ll take all He will give me!”

Those are words spoken to me 30 or so years ago by a former colleague.  I don’t recall the specific context of our conversation; I just remember it being said in humor as we were standing at the corner of several work cubicles.  This recollection is one of the thoughts that crossed my mind as the theme of God’s grace took center stage.

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Like others, I have meditated on what we commonly call “The Lord’s Prayer” (Matt. 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4).  I understand it to be a model prayer, one that teaches the kinds of things to emphasize in our petitions.  What is most prominent to me is that, in all of its simplicity, the prayer reveals that Jesus knew exactly what his disciples (including me) needed for successful life.  “The Lord’s Prayer” is a petition for God’s grace.

Consider the four action verbs used in the petition: give, forgive, lead, and deliver. These are the things we ask God to do for us, things of the Spirit we cannot do for ourselves, things little children need from their parents.  I think it’s significant that Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).   

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Some might argue that we can produce our own “daily bread,” as long as it’s just a metaphor for physical sustenance.  I would counter that only God is able to construct a seed so that it is able to grow into a stalk of wheat or barley or a grain of rice or a leafy vegetable.  Only He places the right mix of chemicals in the soil to nurture the seeds (even when He uses human agents), or sends the sun and rain in due season to activate those nutrient chemicals.  Only He places in motion the miracles of birth that continually provide the animals upon which we feed.  That’s all grace, because it’s by His hand, and none other!  But the “daily bread” is equally, if not more, about the spiritual sustenance of His Word and His Spirit, without which we would fall further and further into the abyss of false and foolish notions of human wisdom and independence.  Paul call this “hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces” (Colossians 2:8) upon which the world establishes its foundations.  To those who rely on God, he gives the daily bread of knowledge and understanding.  That’s grace that I want and need.

Someone I know is fond of saying he is a “debtor.”  He often ends emails and text messages with that phrase as a way of pointing toward God.  It’s in recognition of all that God has done for him, all that he has been given by God, and all he has been forgiven by God.  A number of prominent Christian writers over the centuries have said something to this effect, “The more time I spend in the presence of the Most High, the more aware I become of how deep is my unworthiness to be in His presence, of the depth of my debt.”  I get it, because I’ve experienced that very thing.  That’s very likely the reason the Prophet Isaiah shouted, “Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5), after finding himself standing before the throne of God in a vision.  It is the awareness of the holiness of God that shines a light on our true state, and which prompts us to seek the forgiveness without which we cannot live.  And He gives it, freely (1 John 1:9).  I am a debtor, too; I need His grace of forgiveness!

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I need to be careful in my interpretation of Scripture, so let me say that I believe the intent of the phrase, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” is to show us that God’s grace seeks to influence us to strongly resist destructive spiritual temptations, regardless of their source.  It is grace that drives us into His arms for protection from spiritual folly and darkness.  This full-faith reliance is our deliverance.  We do this by relying on His Spirit, whom He freely gives to those who ask (Luke 11:13).  To be led by the Spirit of God is to be delivered from those impulses and yearnings (internal and external) that would cause us to be deceived, blinded, and eventually enslaved to other than God (Romans 8:1-14).  Here is more grace!

It would be easy to conclude from my comments that I think we’re all helplessly dependent on God’s goodness to us.  You’d be right to think this.  Many find this idea offensive because they think it somehow invalidates them.  To the contrary, I think God desires nothing more than to validate us by saving us from our ego-driven, self-centered selves that seeks its own light rather trusting in His.  Certainly, many of the Enlightenment philosophers rejected the notion of the need to rely on the God of the Bible, René Descartes (of “I think, therefore I am” fame) for one.  They couldn’t conceive of much beyond a fully capable, independent humanity reliant only upon each person’s ability to reason as the sole means of any so-called “redemption” needed.  But the history of the world reveals many brilliant “reasoners,” who remained prideful and unrepentant men (and women), some of whom used their brilliance in nefarious and despicable ways.  I prefer King David’s take (which I may have referenced in a previous post):

My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
 But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content. (Psalm 131:1-2)

 Like my friend, I am an unabashed grace junkie, and will take as much as God will give me.  He is my Father in heaven.

* The lyrics of Precious Lord, Take My Hand were written by Thomas A. Dorsey in 1932.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2019.  All rights reserved to original text content.

Family and Friends

“Count your blessings, name them one by one; 

Count your blessings, see what God hath done;

Count your blessings, name them one by one,

And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.”*

 

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Nearly two weeks ago, my wife and I took an excursion to visit members of my family in one state and then friends of ours in a neighboring state. The first stop of our journey, after driving for eight hours, was with an aunt, one of my father’s three surviving sisters (he had 14 other siblings).  This aunt, a spry octogenarian, is the youngest of the three and was a young teen when I was born.

For reasons too complicated to delve into, it’s only been within the last few years that we’ve gotten to know each other (I still only have a passing knowledge of most of my dad’s brothers and sisters and their children, my many first cousins).  I met this aunt once before, at my dad’s funeral many years ago, but had very little contact with her after that.  I vividly recall the next time we met (three years ago), as my wife and I walked up the short stairway to her home.  She met us halfway, calling me by my father’s name with a warmth that said she had claimed me.  I’ve been to her home twice since then, including within the last few days.

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She has filled-in blanks in my family knowledge, including some gems about my parents. Through her I’ve been able to spend time with four of my first cousins, one of her children and three of her other nephews, none of whom I knew previously.  And because she is now a widow living alone, my wife and I have been, and on this trip were, on the receiving end of her having someone in the house to mother…and did she!  My aunt has been a blessing to me.  A few years ago, she was just a name to me.  Now she is part of my treasure; I have claimed her in the same way she has claimed me.

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Driving north for a little over an hour brought us to the home of dear friends, my college roommate and his precious wife (one of my wife’s dearest friends). Our knowledge of each other and our prayers for each other over the years have bonded us in an uncommon way.  They are more like brother and sister to us than the word “friend” describes.  And although their five sons have their own lives and responsibilities, each of our adopted nephews, took time to come home because they knew we were visiting, some driving significant distances.

In the short letter named Philemon, the imprisoned Apostle Paul asked Philemon, a leader of a house church in Colossae, to offer him refreshment through an act of kindness.  Our friend’s home is a place where we are refreshed.  We talk, we laugh, we eat, we sleep, we pray, we worship; and when we leave we always feel a little lighter and, as the old folks used to say, glad of heart.  In them, I am greatly blessed of GOD.

The old hymn encourages us to count and name the blessings GOD has given us. I have received many.  These are two, and I am very thankful.

* Count Your Blessings.  Lyrics by Johnson Oatman, Jr.  Music by Edwin Othello Excell.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2019. All rights reserved to original text content.

Don’t You Know

If you were looking for a post last week, I apologize for the miss.  The piece I drafted disappeared into cyberspace somewhere, and recently reappeared.  I have no idea what happened.  I knew I had written it, but there was no evidence…and now there is.  Here it is.

“For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (Proverbs 2:6)

 Most of my adult life, I’ve been an early riser. Much of that was driven by work demands, but getting up early became part of my natural rhythm so I seldom viewed starting the day early as an imposition.

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I’ve always liked the sounds of early morning when it’s still dark and as the darkness gives way to the breaking dawn. Even as a child, I would lie in that space between half sleep and half awake, and hear the sound of the commuter trains a mile and a half from where we lived.  Now, whenever I hear a train in the early morning, I’m mentally transported to that time which was always a half an hour or so before my mother would wake me to get ready for school.  Summer visits to my grandparents in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina had its own early morning sounds: roosters crowing in the distance and my grandmother in the kitchen preparing breakfast and baking pies (I blame her for my fruit pie addiction).

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Now the prevalent morning sound is quiet. There are no car sounds in our neighborhood; it’s too early.  During the late fall and winter, I can sometimes pick up the sound of squirrels running through fallen leaves as they forage.  The most pleasing sounds for me, other than the quiet, are the birds calling to each other.  This always reminds me of the way Jesus described GOD’s love of us by talking about the way He cares for the birds of the air (Matt. 6:26; Matt: 10:29-31; Luke 12:6, 7, 24). These words were said to those who thought they (themselves) were all they had.  They had little or no knowledge that GOD was their advocate, that He loved and cared for them, or that He saw their condition and had a compassion that reached out to them.  Their assumption of the necessity for complete self-reliance made faith in GOD irrelevant in every practical way.  A key piece of the “good news” was (is) that this is a false assumption.  Jesus was, in effect saying, don’t you know that there is a better way to approach life: committing yourself to GOD and His care, for He can care for you supremely better than you ever could, now and eternally.  The truth is they didn’t know.  I call these folks unconsciously self-reliant.

ONE HEART CANNOT SERVE TWO MASTERS

On the flip side are those who, with head knowledge of GOD, choose conscious self-reliance.  They believe in GOD; they just don’t believe GOD enough to put their full trust in Him.  They combine limited faith with a confidence in themselves.  Jesus has a word for them, too: “I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing” (John 15:5). It’s as if He is saying,  don’t you know there is no have it both ways spiritual life in GOD?  That’s what the ancient Israelites tried when they built the golden calf, and we all know how that turned out.

The message, as I read it, suggests that the will of GOD is that we experience a healthy spiritual transformation away from both unconscious self-reliance and conscious self-reliance, which are both fed by some combination of false notions about GOD, issues of self-esteem (not enough or too much), and a desire for security and happiness.  According to Jesus, the only true (lasting, trustworthy, consistent over time) path is conscious reliance on GOD.  He wants us to know, and revealed that in His coming, in the way He lived, in the lives of His closest followers, and in His resurrection which is the substance behind His proclamation: “I am the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6).  Phrased another way, I AM your way, I AM your truth, and I AM your life.

This is the kind of stuff I think and pray about in the early morning quiet. I’m deeply grateful for every minute of it.  Thank you, Lord!

© Byron L. Hannon, 2019. All rights reserved to text content.

 

I AM WHAT I AM

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I want to acknowledge and say thank you to all the men and women, including members of my family, who have sacrificed by offering themselves in military service. A special acknowledgement to those who lost their lives as casualties of war and to those who returned wounded in body or soul or both.  May you always be remembered and may your sacrifices be respected and honored.

“But by the grace of God I am what I am…” (1 Corinthians 15:10)

 I referenced this verse nearly ten years ago when I spoke to the church on the day of my installation as their lead pastor. It’s now been more than a year since I stepped away from that role, but I often revisit what the Paul the Apostle said about himself so long ago.

Given his past violent opposition to Jesus Christ and His Church, Paul was keenly aware of the paradox of his elevation to apostleship by Jesus. He knew it didn’t make sense when viewed through human eyes and considered through human minds. That is why he prefaced his statement with the acknowledgment that this was because of GOD’s grace alone. By grace, he was transformed 180º to become one of the Lord’s most passionate advocates and ambassadors…so much so that it eventually cost him his life. “This is what I am!” he boldly declared. And his declaration went far beyond defining what he did; he was defining what he now was, his core identity. That’s what first attracted me to this verse, and still attracts me.

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Common wisdom is inconsistent on the idea that you are what you do vocationally. On the one hand, some of the most wonderful gifts given to the world have come from those whose commitment to and passion for their vocation eclipsed virtually everything else in their lives.  Gifts of art (Van Gogh and Picasso), music (Mozart and Miles Davis), literature (Shakespeare and Garcia Márquez), science (the Curries and G. W. Carver), great inventions (Marconi and Edison) and the many other men and women who mastered their talents to produce such gifts come to mind.  People like Mother Teresa, who left a life of wealth and ease to love the unlovable of Calcutta for the sake of Jesus, stand out as being fully defined by what they did.

I also have met many people who are so much more than what they do occupationally, and who often wished others knew that about them.  I’ve seen too many obituaries which note the deceased person’s former occupation as the first thing right after their name. I’ve often wondered if that is how they would have wanted to be known by the world.  There was a time I felt that way, knowing that I was more than what most of the world saw. I no longer feel that way; I am what I am by the grace of GOD; a shift happened; and what I am is not distinct from what I do.

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In two notable places in Scripture, the Divine is referenced as I AM. GOD identified Himself to Moses as I AM on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 3:14).  Jesus said the same thing of Himself in one of His many back-and-forths with the Scribes and Pharisees (John 8:58). These were unmistakable declarations of self-identification. They were also introductory statements to the work that GOD does: I AM who gives life; I AM who saves; I AM who sanctifies; I AM who provides; I AM who defends; I AM who loves, I AM who reigns, etc. The identity of GOD (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is never separate from the work of GOD.  Why should it be? He loves His work; and it is all good.

Perhaps Paul’s use of that phrase to define himself (“I am who I am…”) was his way of identifying his life with the life of GOD and his work with the work of GOD.  After all, he did say that we should be imitators of GOD in lifestyle and work (Ephesians 5:1), something made possible by GOD’s grace. I believe Paul loved his work; and it was good.

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Being an image-bearer of GOD is more than a spiritual identification tag.  To bear GOD’s image goes to the very nature of being a Christian. It is to allow the I AM in us to be made alive by His Spirit; it is to be transformed by I AM; it is to obey I AM; and it is to do the work of I AM by being a little I am by the grace of GOD.  Is this not the pathway that will make good what we do?

© Byron L. Hannon, 2019. All rights reserved to text content.

Some Things Are Beyond Rational

“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways
and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9)

 

One of the by-products of the Protestant Reformation (16th and early 17th centuries) was a movement away from many of the mystical elements of Christianity (which were, at times, misused and resulted in abuses).  There was, simultaneously, a movement to proclaim and teach biblical truth by coupling it with human ability to reason.  A few examples follow:

  • The use of languages common to people during times of worship was more valid than the exclusive use of Latin known only by the clergy and the educated wealthy. It was reasonable for people to understand what was being said by worship leaders.
  • Cause and effect (‘if this is done, the effect will be that’) in spiritual matters was a relatively easy way to teach spiritual truths…this approach made understanding easier for most people. It was reasonable for people to understand what GOD intended them to know.
  • The sacramental elements of communion (bread and wine) became symbols of a spiritual truth rather than material things that mystically changed in substance as a result of an action by clergy.  It was reasonable for people to accept the metaphor of Christ’s body and blood without believing they were literally consuming flesh and blood.
  • People didn’t need to rely on a priest to intercede before GOD on their behalf because of some ‘special spiritual ability’ only priests possessed. It was reasonable for every person to be able to go directly to GOD on their own because the Temple veil of separation had been torn down.
  • The Bible was for everyone who could read, to read. It was for GOD’s people, not for the exclusive use of the clergy class. It was reasonable for people to have direct access to GOD’s Word.
  • The Church was a vessel for Truth, but not an equal to the Truth.  It was reasonable for believers to not be conflicted or confused by claims of ultimate spiritual authority.

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Even before the Reformation, the use of reason was not an unknown means of faith expression. The Eastern Church, after its split from Rome, was very much open to viewing Greek philosophies as precursors to Christianity and, therefore, was willing to view elements of those philosophies as tools to grasp faith.  Thomas Aquinas, considered by many to be the greatest of Roman Catholic theologians, was a strong proponent of marrying faith and reason.  After the Reformation, John Wesley, the great teacher of Methodism, viewed human ability to reason as only second to Scripture in understanding spiritual truth.  The use of reason has great value.

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All inspired movements in the hands of humans, however, are subject to overreach. I have long held that the Protestant Reformation, in trying to put religion in the hands of the people and in attempting to curb the institutional power of the Church, swung the pendulum so far in the opposite direction that it resulted in mystical elements of Christianity becoming too suspect in the minds of many.  GOD has revealed through His prophets, His Word, and through Jesus Christ what we need in order to be in right relationship with Him.  But that doesn’t mean that we know or can know all there is to know, that we have or can have all wisdom and understanding at our fingers.  Our ability to reason can take us far, but it can’t take us all the way; there remains a super-rational, supernatural aspect to GOD that surpasses reason.

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We may mentally understand the concept of having an intimate relationship with GOD, but how does that happen at a super-rational level? What if this isn’t taught by our spiritual leaders or pursued and practiced by us?  And then there is the question of is that something we really want. What if He speaks to us!?  That’s not just a little mystical; it’s a lot mystical.

We don’t always understand the ‘whys’ of loss and suffering. We don’t get the senselessness of so much of what we see and experience.  If GOD is both sovereign (in ultimate charge) and the very nature of love, how can these things be?  We either accept this paradox and its mystery and soldier through, or we lose faith in GOD.

He tells us to pray as a habit of our spiritual lives. He tells us to pray in those times when we’ve done and said all we can to influence a difference in our circumstances or those of our loved ones or in our churches, and our best seems like it makes no difference at all.  He tells us to be fervent in prayer.  He tells us to trust that nothing escapes His view and that He hears our prayers and answers in the right time in the right way.  He asks us to enter into and remain in this mystery of faith without seeing the fruit of it now, or understanding how it works.

And He continually asks us to believe that His grace is fully sufficient for every aspect of our lives as believers.

Some things are just beyond the rational. That’s no reason to not use reason; we just need to remember not to put so much trust in reason that we forget GOD is bigger than our reason.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2019. All rights reserved to text content.

Addendum: Is Compassion Justice?

I don’t ordinarily do this, but was moved to share this thought from noted theologian, Walter Brueggemann.  The language may be a little academic for some, but I think it’s well worth working through.  It is a reminder of how utterly different and unique the kingdom of GOD is when compared to the kingdoms of this world.

“Jesus in his solidarity with the marginal ones is moved to compassion.  Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.  In the arrangement of ‘lawfulness’  in Jesus’ time, as in the ancient empire of Pharaoh, the one unpermitted quality of relation was compassion.  Empires are never built or maintained on the basis of compassion.  The norms of law (social control) are never accommodated to persons, but persons are accommodated to the norms.  Otherwise the norms will collapse and with them the whole power arrangement.  Thus the compassion of Jesus is to be understood not simply as a personal emotional reaction but as a public criticism in which he dares to act upon his concern against the entire numbness of his social context.”

Quoted from A Guide to Prayer for Ministers And Other Servants, The Upper Room, Nashville, TN, 1983.