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Christian Unity: Reflections Beyond the Reformation

October 21, 2019

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4: 7-8)

 Next Sunday is Reformation Sunday–the Sunday that Christians all over the world remember the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation.  It seems like an odd time to be thinking about unity in the church.  After all, a firestorm of protests and defections from the Catholic Church began with Martin Luther’s posting of his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517.  Yet it is the perfect time to think about the issues that divided the church in the 16th century and to reflect on whether we have made any progress in the last five hundred years to heal the rifts.

In his last hours on earth Jesus prayed for us—the future believers in the church; he prayed that we be unified—not that we should be the same—but that we should be unified in the Spirit. We are all in the orchestra playing the same score (the Bible), on different instruments: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you . . . May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17: 20,23).

Luther’s Intention Was Only to Stimulate Debate

That Luther possessed a formidable intellect and many other talents is not seriously disputed.  But it was his students, not Luther, who are generally considered to be responsible for the dissemination of his Theses.  Luther, an Augustinian monk at the University of Wittenberg, wrote his objections in Latin, the language of scholars, and posted them on the door of the church (akin to a university bulletin board or a blog), to stimulate debate of the issues by scholars and theologians.

He also sent a copy to the local archbishop responsible for the sale of indulgences, and a copy to the bishop.  Three months later, Luther’s Theses was translated into German, printed on the recently invented Gutenberg printing press (the 16th century version of the internet), and was widely disseminated throughout Europe.

Despite Luther’s objections to the sale of indulgences and other practices, it was not his intention to leave the Church.

Catholic Theologians Agree That the Sale of Indulgences Was Wrong

Luther’s main objection was to the Church’s permitting of the sale of “indulgences”—the sale of forgiveness of sins for a fee.  This practice was typified by Johann Tetzel, a priest who used this slogan to boost sales, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings/the soul from purgatory springs.”

According to Peter Kreeft, a respected Catholic theologian, “The Church soon cleaned up its act and forbade the sale of indulgences at the Council of Trent, agreeing with Luther on this point.”[1]  Kreeft goes on to say this about the Reformation:

“How do I resolve the Reformation? Is it faith alone that justifies, or is it faith and good works?  Very simple.  No tricks.  On this issue I believe that Luther was simply right; and this issue is absolutely crucial.  As a Catholic I feel guilt for the tragedy of Christian disunity, because the church in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was failing to preach the gospel . . .  Much of the Catholic Church has not yet caught up with Luther; and, for that matter, much of Protestantism has regressed from him.”[2]

Several years after Kreeft wrote these words, he “put his money where his mouth was” and in 1994, with other Christian theologians, endorsed a document called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium. ”  Based on Biblical truths, the Trinitarian doctrine and the Nicene Creed, the purpose of the document was to point out the need for Protestants and Catholics to exhibit a common Christian witness to the modern world.  Evangelical signatories or endorsees included Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, Os Guinness of the Trinity Forum, Richard Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary, Mark Noll of Wheaton College, J. I. Packer of Regent College, and Richard Land of the Christian Life Commission.  In addition to Peter Kreeft, the document was endorsed by the following Roman Catholics: Fr. Avery Dulles (Society of Jesus/ Fordham University), Bishop Francis George (Diocese of Yakima, Washington),

Mgsr. William Murphy (Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Boston), Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (former Lutheran minister and Institute on Religion and Democracy), Archbishop Francis Stafford (Archdiocese of Denver), George Weigel, Mary Ann Glendon, Michael Novak and others.

A few years later in 1999, The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was created and agreed to by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation, stating in sum, that both faiths share “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.”   For many, this document appears to resolve the root cause of the conflict that started the Reformation.

The Future

While significant steps have been taken to resolve some of the causes of conflict identified by the Reformers, it would be simplistic and inaccurate to state that all of the differences between the Catholic Church and other Christian churches have been resolved.  Yet, from the perspective of this layperson, the re-unification of the church under one roof seems less important than the acknowledgment of our common beliefs as expressed in the documents referenced above.  It is time to embrace our fellow sojourners in faith and to enjoy fellowship with each other.

Peter Kreeft observes that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are praying in the name of the whole church:

“One of the greatest of all mysteries is contained in that first little word, our.  It is the mystery of solidarity, the mystery of the Mystical Body.  Each individual who prays this prayer is to call God not only “my Father,” but “our Father.”  Each individual is to pray in the name of the whole church.  When you pray the Our Father, all the presence and power of the Mystical Body of Christ is praying with you, helping you.  God sees you praying alongside the Pope and Mother Teresa and Jake Grubb (never heard of him?  God did!) and Saint Francis and Saint Augustine and Saint Peter and the Blessed Virgin Mary herself. . . Solidarity is a fact, not an ideal.”[3]

Dallas Willard echoes Kreeft’s words in The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (1998): “[W]e will see ourselves situated in the family of God across time and space, as we pray ‘our Father,’ and we will see God as our Father . . .”

Luther, in his Small Catechism, explains the meaning of “our” in “Our Father”:  “In Jesus all believers are children of the one Father and should pray with and for one another. Eph.4:6: [There is] one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all; Gal. 3:26: You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.”

Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, denominational and non-denominational believers-–all believers in Christ–-are children of “our Father.” That makes us siblings.

After Judas left the Passover meal to betray Jesus, Jesus told the disciples assembled, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34).  Remember that Jesus’ words are not a suggestion, but a command to love each other.  May the world witness our love as we interact with each other as loving siblings in Christ.

Prayer: “Set our hearts on fire with love for you, O Christ our God, that in its flame we may love you with all our heart, with all our strength and our neighbors as ourselves, so that keeping your commandments, we may glorify you, the giver of all good gifts.”  Eastern Orthodox Church

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith, Ignatius Press, 1988, p. 278. A version of this essay was originally published on this website in 2011.

[2] Id, p. 290

[3] Id, pp. 191-192.

 

It’s the Truth, Ruth: The Truth and Reliability of the Bible

October 14, 2019

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3: 16-17

It’s the Truth, Ruth is a Christmas musical that our children participated in at our church when they were young. There are two premises of the production: (1) the reliability and truth of the Bible; and (2) the significance of the birth of Christ in God’s plan for salvation. The blogs published on this website follow the weekly Revised Common Lectionary used throughout Christendom to point the way to those truths, with the understanding that the Bible is a reliable compilation of ancient texts reflecting the inspired and inerrant word of God. This understanding is the key to living life according to God’s purposes.  Paul teaches in this week’s epistle lesson, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” 2 Timothy 3: 16-17.[1]

But there are many objections to the value and reliability of the Bible. Theologians spend years studying the Bible in many contexts—including the historical, archeology and the inherent challenges presented by the Bible itself.  This is a cursory overview of some issues addressed by theologians, and why it is logical to conclude that the Bible is the reliable and inerrant Word of God.

  1. The Reliability And Accuracy of the Bible

One challenge to the Bible is its reliability, considering the fact that it was written and copied by many people over centuries before the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century. There is no question among scholars as to the authenticity and reliability of the texts.  As to the accuracy of Biblical accounts, Paul Little notes, “Archeology confirms the Biblical accounts in more than 25,000 sites connected to biblical history.”[2]

Almost every year more archeological discoveries are added to that great body of evidence.  In 2016 an article appeared in the New York Times about scientists who are now able to read a damaged Biblical scroll dated to between 50 and 100 A.D.  Eric Metaxas writes, “The story begins in 1970, when archaeologists at En-Gedi found a burnt scroll that was little more than a lump of charcoal.  A fire in 600 A.D. has destroyed the synagogue there, leaving its ancient documents so brittle that a touch could cause them to disintegrate. Unable to read the scroll, curators merely preserved it, hoping that someday, the technology necessary to peek at its contents would be developed.  Well, that day has arrived  . . . computer scientists at the University of Kentucky partnered with biblical scholars in Jerusalem to pioneer a technique for ‘unfurling’ this badly damaged scroll . . . known as ‘volume cartography’” permitting them to read the manuscript without opening it.[3]

Nicholas Wade explained in the New York Times article that “The scroll’s content, the first two chapters of the Book of Leviticus” is identical to “the Masoretic text, the authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible and the one often used as the basis for translations of the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles.”[4]

In his book, 7 Reasons Why You Can Trust the Bible, Erwin Lutzer gives seven reasons why the Bible is trustworthy based on logic, history, prophesy, Christ, science, and personal experience, noting that the unity of the Bible is also evidence of its reliability: “It evolved over a period of fifteen centuries, written in three different languages [Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek]. During this period empires rose and fell and cultures came and went but this did not affect the unity of the Bible . . . It was written by forty different human authors . . . from a variety of occupations: kings, fishermen, tax collectors, shepherds, prophets, and even a physician . . . they wrote at different periods of world history, their writings dovetail with one another, not superficially, but intricately and brilliantly . . . This unity is achieved despite a diverse literary structure . . . ”[5]

 The Old Testament

The professional scribes who copied the manuscripts in ancient times were extremely careful and meticulous because they believed that they were working with the Word of God.  Josh McDowell notes, “All scribes in ancient times took great pride in carefully hand-replicating manuscripts.  But there was something special about Jewish scribes in particular. Because of the stringent rules and disciplines these scribes were required to follow, no other work in all literature has been so carefully and accurately copied as the Old Testament.”[6]

McDowell describes the three tests that must be applied to any ancient historical record to determine its reliability: the Bibliographical Test (number of manuscripts and time that elapsed between the writing and the earliest copy); the External Evidence Test (other corroborating historical materials); the Internal Evidence Test (whether the book is consistent within itself and if the authors are reliable).  The Bible has passed these tests with flying colors as evidenced by centuries of scholarship.  The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 in caves near the Dead Sea was a major find that “confirmed the accuracy one thousand years of both the record and the history of the Hebrews—that is from 200 B.C. to A. D. 916.”  The Dead Sea scrolls and subsequent discoveries uncovered fragments from every book of the Old Testament except the book of Esther.[7]  The Los Angeles Museum of Natural history displayed some of these fragments a few years ago.

The New Testament

There are over 5,500 manuscripts of the New Testament with only minor variances in grammar or spelling between them.  Paul Little notes, “The time elapsing between the actual events and the writing of the books, from the standpoint of historical research is satisfactorily short [Jesus was crucified about A.D. 32 and the New Testament was complete or almost complete by A. D. 100] . . . The extraordinary number of copies of early New Testament materials defies imagination. When we compare it with other documents of ancient writings from the same time, it fills us with admiration.” (Compare to five manuscripts dated to 1,400 years after Aristotle died).[8]

2.  The Bible is the Inspired and Inerrant Word of God

The Bible is a narrative written by about 40 authors, explaining God’s plan for humanity from creation to a glimpse into the life beyond.  Little explains what is meant by the inspired Word of God: “The Bible describes itself this way” ‘All Scripture is God-breathed, and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’ (2 Timothy 3:16). “The word God-breathed (or inspired as other versions translate it) is not to be confused with the common usage of the word, as when we say Shakespeare was inspired and wrote great plays, or Beethoven was inspired and composed great symphonies.  Inspiration in the biblical sense is unique. God is its primary author.  . . The Bible is a product of God himself.  These are not mere human ideas but God’s divine character and will revealed through human words.  Those writers of Scripture were not merely writing machines . . . It is quite clear that each writer had a style of his own.  Jeremiah did not write like Isaiah, and John did not write like Paul.  God worked through the instrumentality of human personality but so guided and controlled the people that what they wrote is what he wanted written.”[9]

 Another challenge is the claim that the Bible is filled with errors.  Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe approach the issue with logical reasoning: “God cannot err. The Bible is the Word of God. Therefore, the Bible cannot err.”[10] The conclusion is inescapable if the premises are valid.

Geisler and Howe point to numerous Scriptures declaring “emphatically that ‘it is impossible for God to lie,’” to confirm the first premise that God cannot err.  They also point to many Scriptures that confirm that the Bible is the Word of God, including the text from this week’s lectionary from 2 Timothy, compelling the conclusion that the Bible cannot err.  The Bible does not contain any untruth.  They note,  “By truth we signify that which corresponds to reality. An error, then, is what does not correspond to reality.”[11]  The authors analyze in detail many categories of “difficulties” resulting not from Biblical mistakes, but from misinterpretations by critics.  They quote St. Augustine: “If we are perplexed by any apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, the author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong or you have not understood.”[12]

It’s the truth, dear reader.  If you have any questions about the reliability or the inerrancy of Scripture, I challenge you to undertake your own studies of the texts and of the huge body of scholarship attesting to its accuracy and truth.  May the Holy Spirit open your heart and mind to the treasures waiting to be discovered in its pages.

Prayer: “Lord, here is my Bible, here in this quiet room, here in this quiet time, and here am I.  Open my eyes; open my mind; open my ears; and speak.”  Dick Williams

Diane Cieslikowski  Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for next week are Psalm 121; Genesis 32: 22-30; 2 Timothy 3: 14-4:5; Luke 18: 1-8.   A similar version of this blog was published on this website on October 10, 2016.

[2] Paul Little, Know Why You Believe (1968) InterVarsity Press, p. 87.

[3] Metaxas, “The Bible Shows Its Age: Unfurling the Burnt Scroll,” Colson Center, Breakpoint Daily, colsoncenter@colsoncenter.org, September 28, 2016.

[4] Wade, www.nytimes.com/2016/09/22/science/ancient-sea-scrolls-bible.html, New York Times, September 21, 2016.

[5] Lutzer, 7 Reasons Why You Can Trust the Bible (1998) Moody Publishers, pp.47-51.

[6] McDowell, God-Breathed: The Undeniable Power and Reliability of Scripture (2015) Barbour Publishing, p. 124.

[7] Little, Know Why You Believe, pp. 74-75.

[8] Id, pp. 78-79.

[9] Id, p. 60-61.

[10] Geisler and Howe, When Critics Ask (1992) Baker Books, p. 11.

[11] Id, p. 13.

[12] Id, p.15.

Redeemed

October 7, 2019

“He provided redemption for his people; he ordained his covenant forever—holy and awesome is his name.”(Psalm 111: 9)

I love the book of Ruth. It is a story with rich characters, high drama, loyalty, love, and redemption.  A marvelous tenor sang “Whither Thou Goest,” at our wedding. The song, written by Guy Singer in 1954, quotes the words from the Scripture text, “Whither thou goest I will go, whither thou lodgest I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1: 16, KJV).[1]

Dr. Bill Creasy begins his teaching of the book of Ruth with a rough translation of the story’s character and place names from Hebrew to English.  For example, the story line using the Hebrew names is that Elimelech and his wife, Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon and Chillion, from Bethlehem in Judah moved to Moab, where Mahlon married Ruth, and died.  Creasy’s rough translation is as follows: God is my King and Mary Sunshine, and their two sons, Sickly and Puny, from the House of Bread and Praise, moved to Moab. Sickly married Audrey Hepburn and died.

Ruth’s vow after Mahlon’s death to leave her own country and family and to travel with her mother-in-law to a foreign land, is a story of amazing love and devotion.  Because of her determination to stay with her husband’s family, Ruth meets Boaz, their “Kinsman-Redeemer” in Bethlehem, who falls in love with Ruth, and redeems Elimelech’s family property.  Through her marriage to Boaz, Ruth gives birth to a son, Obed, whose descendants are traced through Jesse and David to Jesus, our Redeemer.  Ruth’s decision to return with Naomi resulted in her descendant being the Redeemer of the world.

A redeemer is one who saves or retrieves another.  Boaz was Ruth’s and Naomi’s Kinsman-Redeemer, foreshadowing Jesus, our redeemer.  Paul reminds us that Jesus, who set us free, is a descendent of David: “Remember, Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel . . . “ (2 Timothy 2:8).  And David and Jesus were both descendants of Ruth.

Just as he redeemed the ten lepers from disease and death in this week’s gospel lesson (Luke 17: 12-14)[2],  so Jesus redeems us from our diseased lives and death, promising us eternal life with him.  The psalmist sings, “He provided redemption for his people; he ordained his covenant forever—holy and awesome is his name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding.  To him belongs eternal praise” (Psalm 111:9-10).

Ruth played a key role in God’s plan for salvation, yet during her lifetime she wasn’t aware of that role.  She followed Naomi to a foreign land because of her love for Naomi and her loyalty to her mother-in-law.  She learned that the Israelite God would be with her wherever she went.  God rewarded her for her faithfulness and loyalty by placing her directly in Jesus’ lineage.

Like Ruth, we are unaware of how God will fit together the bits and pieces of our lives into his plan, but if we are faithful and obedient, he will work every part of our lives for his glory: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8: 28).   God, the chess master, will put people and circumstances in our path that will move his agenda down the field.  Like Ruth, we may not know during our lifetimes what our part in God’s plan is, but if we are faithful and obedient, we will play a part in his plan.

It is not our job to see the overall plan; it is our job to finish the work that he has begun in us.  We are the redeemed who should be forever grateful to the one who made it possible.  He assures us “I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for(Jeremiah 29:11, Good News Translation).

Trust in God and in his plan for your life. He will be with you wherever you go.

Prayer: “Lord, you are here, Lord, you are there. You are wherever we go. Lord, you guide us; Lord you protect us.  You are wherever we go. Lord, we need you, Lord, we trust you. You are wherever we go.  Lord, we love you; Lord, we praise you. You are wherever we go. Amen.”  Author Unknown.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

Praying the Scriptures:  The Scripture texts for Sunday, October 13 are Psalm 111:1-10; Ruth 1:1-19a; 2 Timothy 2: 1-13; Luke 17:  11-19.  Choose a word or phrase each day from one of the texts, or from the following excerpts from the texts to pray during the coming week:

“But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” (Ruth 1: 16).

Remember, Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel . . . “ (2 Timothy 2:8).

As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy[a] met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’

When he saw them, he said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed.” (Luke 17: 12-14).

He provided redemption for his people; he ordained his covenant forever—holy and awesome is his name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding.  To him belongs eternal praise” (Psalm 111:9-10).

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for (Jeremiah 29:11, Good News Translation).

[1] The Scripture texts for next Sunday are Psalm 111:1-10; Ruth 1:1-19a; 2 Timothy 2: 1-13; Luke 17:  11-19.  A version of this blog was published on this website on October 3, 2016.

[2]As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy[a] met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’  When he saw them, he said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed.” (Luke 17: 12-14).

Keep the Faith

September 30, 2019

Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him. Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress.  I will never be shaken.”  (Psalm 62: 1-2).

The song “Keep the Faith,” sung by Bon Jovi, encourages listeners to keep the faith through the rain—the disappointments, hurts, and difficulties of life.  Likewise, Sunday’s Scripture texts encourage us to keep the faith in the face of life’s vicissitudes.[1]

It is not uncommon for people to lose faith after the death of a family member or during other times of devasting loss or stress.  They ask, “How could a loving God permit this to happen?”  In such times, God tells us to hang on. Just hold on.  He is coming.

Habakkuk asked God the difficult questions: Why doesn’t God do something about the evil in the world?  Why is there evil anyway?  Is he coming to rescue them? Habakkuk complained, “God, how long do I have to cry out for help before you listen? How many times do I have to yell, “Help! Murder! Police!” before you come to the rescue? Why do you force me to look at evil, stare trouble in the face day after day?” (Habakkuk 1: 1-3, The Message).

Habakkuk used the metaphor of a watchman to draw a picture of expectation–of waiting for God’s answer to his complaints: “I will climb my watchtower and wait to see what the Lord will tell me to say and what answer he will give to my complaint. The Lord gave me this answer: ‘Write down clearly on tablets what I reveal to you, so that it can be read at a glance.  Put it in writing, because it is not yet time for it to come true. But the time is coming quickly, and what I show you will come true. It may seem slow in coming, but wait for it; it will certainly take place, and it will not be delayed.  And this is the message: ‘Those who are evil will not survive but those who are righteous will live because they are faithful to God.’” (Habakkuk: 2: 1-4, The Message).

God knows that we are impatient.  He knows that we not only want answers to our prayers, but we want the answer we asked for—and we want it now.  God often asks us to wait—sometimes hours, sometimes weeks, sometimes months or years for an answer.  But he promises that justice will ultimately prevail.

While we are waiting, the psalmist encourages us to turn to God constantly for strength, refuge, and comfort: “Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from him. Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress. I will not be shaken.  My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge. Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge” (Psalm 62: 5-8).  In other words, keep the faith.

Luke reported that the apostles asked Jesus to give them more faith to enable them to forgive and to trust: “The apostles came up and said to the Master, ‘Give us more faith’” (Luke 17: 5).  Jesus responded, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (Luke 17: 6).   It is the genuineness of the faith that is important.  Genuine faith that starts out as small as a mustard seed can grow as big as a mustard bush, if nourished by the sun of trust in God and the rain of humble dependence and obedience to God under all conditions.  Our faith has a chance to grow during the rain of circumstances—the setbacks, the disappointments, the losses, the illnesses, the heartaches, the anxieties—that push us to our knees.  Keep the faith.

Paul encourages us during difficult times to keep our faith alive by fanning the flames: “That precious memory triggers another: your honest faith—and what a rich faith it is, handed down from your grandmother Lois to your mother Eunice, and now to you! And the special gift of ministry you received when I laid hands on you and prayed—keep that ablaze!” (2 Timothy 1: 5-7). Be thankful for those who nurtured you in the faith.  Keep the fire alive.  Keep the faith.

God gives each of us a special gift to use in ministry.  We are to use our gifts to help build up the body of Christ.  We strengthen our own faith when we encourage others in the faith. When others see the joy that is in us through Christ Jesus, they are encouraged in their faith journey.

Keep the faith.  And let Christ’s light shine brightly through you to those around you.

Prayer: Father, “Come and find the quiet center in the crowded life we lead, find the room for hope to enter, find the frame where we are freed.  Clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes that we may see all the things that really matter–be at peace and simply be.”  –Shirley Erena Murray

Praying the Scriptures:  The Scripture texts for Sunday, October 6 are Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 62; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; and Luke 17:1-10. Choose a word or phrase each day from one of the texts, or from the following excerpts from the texts to pray during the coming week:

Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him. Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken. My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge. Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge” (Psalm 62: 5-8).”

God, how long do I have to cry out for help before you listen? How many times do I have to yell, “Help! Murder! Police!” before you come to the rescue? Why do you force me to look at evil, stare trouble in the face day after day?” (Habakkuk 1: 1-3, The Message).

I will climb my watchtower and wait to see what the Lord will tell me to say and what answer he will give to my complaint. The Lord gave me this answer: ‘Write down clearly on tablets what I reveal to you, so that it can be read at a glance.  Put it in writing, because it is not yet time for it to come true. But the time is coming quickly, and what I show you will come true. It may seem slow in coming, but wait for it; it will certainly take place, and it will not be delayed.  And this is the message: ‘Those who are evil will not survive but those who are righteous will live because they are faithful to God.’” (Habakkuk: 2: 1-4, The Message).

The apostles came up and said to the Master, ‘Give us more faith’” (Luke 17: 5).  Jesus responded, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (Luke 17: 6).

That precious memory triggers another: your honest faith—and what a rich faith it is, handed down from your grandmother Lois to your mother Eunice, and now to you! And the special gift of ministry you received when I laid hands on you and prayed—keep that ablaze!” (2 Timothy 1: 5-7).

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for next Sunday are Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 62; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; and Luke 17:1-10.

Me! Me!

September 23, 2019

“Tell those rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life.”  (1 Timothy 6: 17-19, The Message).

The world has always had selfish, self-absorbed, self-centered people, but psychologists have documented an alarming trend of self-absorption that threatens the fabric of our society.[1]  They cite quantifiable cultural changes such as a dramatic increase in plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures, the fact that Americans are racking up more debt to create the appearance of wealth, the emphasis on acquiring more and more things, the desire to be famous, and the increasing number of people who cheat to get what they want, among other factors.  We’ve seen mind-boggling cheating recently in the college admissions scandal.  The rise of social media has fed the frenzy for self-absorption, with people documenting all aspects of their lives to garner more phony “friends,” and to become “famous.”  The Scripture texts for Sunday explain that such self-centeredness will result in self-destruction.[2]

Quoting the message he received from God, Amos sounded a warning that is eerily applicable to the present day culture: “Woe to you who are rushing headlong to disaster! Catastrophe is just around the corner! Woe to those who live in luxury and expect everyone else to serve them! Woe to those who live only for today, indifferent to the fate of others! Woe to the playboys, the playgirls, who think life is a party held just for them! Woe to those addicted to feeling good—life without pain–those obsessed with looking good—life without wrinkles! They could not care less about their country going to ruin” (Amos 6: 3-6, The Message).

As Paul points out, money in itself is not evil.  Money is neutral. It is not intrinsically good or bad.  Rather, it is “The love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6: 10).   If money or fame or anything else becomes the focus of your life, you will have no time for God.  You will have no room for God. You can’t be obsessed with fame, fortune, power, your looks, good times, or anything else without pushing God out of the picture. You won’t have the time or energy for God if you are absorbed with such things.  You just won’t.

Narcissistic behaviors not only push God from our consciousness, but also diminish our interest to help others.  When we are self-centered instead of other-centered, we tend to forget the needs of others because we are distracted with feeding our own desires.  Paul instructed Timothy to “Tell those rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life.(1 Timothy 6: 17-19, The Message).  Being generous is not only a boost to those in need of help, but benefits the giver greatly in keeping one focused on the things that God views as important.  And being focused on God and others leads to the peace that passes all understanding:  “And God’s peace, which is far beyond human understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in union with Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).

Paul advised Timothy, his young protégée, to “Run for your life from all this. Pursue a righteous life—a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy. Run hard and fast in the faith. Seize the eternal life, the life you were called to, the life you so fervently embraced in the presence of so many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6: 11-12, The Message).

Jesus was well aware of the human tendency toward pride and self-aggrandizement.  He knew that many people do not accept God because of their own feelings of self-importance. In the story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, Jesus reports that the rich man, suffering in hell from his separation from God, begged Abraham to resurrect someone to warn his brothers.   Abraham told him that they would not believe even if someone was resurrected: “Abraham replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead’”  (Luke 16: 31, The Message).  It was a prescient statement for Jesus to make as he made his way to Jerusalem to die. He was warning his audience that unbelief would continue even after he is resurrected.  Jesus knew human nature.

The psalmist gives us advice that we can take to the bank in reminding us that the God who created the universe is in charge: “Don’t put your trust in human leaders; no human being can save you. When they die, they return to the dust; on that day all their plans come to an end. Happy are those who have the God of Jacob to help them and who depend on the Lord their God, the Creator of heaven, earth, and sea, and all that is in them. He always keeps his promises; he judges in favor of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry” (Psalm 146: 3-7).

Go counter culture. Turn away from the pull of the culture that encourages you to concentrate on yourself.  Put your faith and hope in the God who created the universe and everything in it. Put your time and energy into the things of God.  He always keeps his promises. Turn your life over to the Spirit who is by your side, guiding, comforting, and counseling. Become other-centered instead of self-centered.  Be self-sacrificing instead of self-indulgent.  And remember that God is in charge, no matter what happens, and that you are his precious child.

Prayer: “Father, help me to be sensitive to what is happening to people around me .  . .  I know that today I will meet some who are enduring hidden physical or emotional pain, others who are fearful of an uncertain future, and still others who carry burdens of worry for families and friends. May I take no one for granted, but instead, be a ready communicator of your love and encouragement.  Make me aware of the concerns of others, available to express your care, and articulate with your hope.”  Lloyd John Olgivie

Praying the Scriptures:  The Scripture texts for Sunday, September 29 are Amos 6:1-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 3:1-13 or 1 Timothy 6:6-19; and Luke 16:19-31. Choose a word or phrase each day from one of the texts, or from the following excerpts from the texts to pray during the coming week:

Woe to you who are rushing headlong to disaster! Catastrophe is just around the corner! Woe to those who live in luxury and expect everyone else to serve them! Woe to those who live only for today, indifferent to the fate of others! Woe to the playboys, the playgirls, who think life is a party held just for them! Woe to those addicted to feeling good—life without pain–those obsessed with looking good—life without wrinkles! They could not care less about their country going to ruin” (Amos 6: 3-6, The Message).

And God’s peace, which is far beyond human understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in union with Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).

Tell those rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life. (1 Timothy 6: 17-19, The Message).

It is “The love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6: 10).

Don’t put your trust in human leaders; no human being can save you. When they die, they return to the dust; on that day all their plans come to an end. Happy are those who have the God of Jacob to help them and who depend on the Lord their God, the Creator of heaven, earth, and sea, and all that is in them. He always keeps his promises; he judges in favor of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry” (Psalm 146: 3-7).

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]See,Tweng and Campbell’s The Narcissism Epidemic(2009) Simon and Schuster.

[2]The Scripture texts for Sunday are Amos 6:1-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 3:1-13 or 1 Timothy 6:6-19; and Luke 16:19-31

Using a Setback to Make a Comeback

September 13, 2019

I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival. . .”  (Luke 16: 8, The Message).

Years ago, my husband had a poster of a photograph depicting a golf ball in a sand trap.  The caption was the famous Einstein quote: “In the midst of every difficulty lies opportunity.”   He could probably quote you many instances in golf history when a golfer snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with an incredible shot from a sand trap or another adverse lie.  One of the themes running through Sunday’s Scripture texts is not only overcoming the inevitable obstacles and adverse events that occur in our lives, but turning them into opportunities for success.[1]  Tiger Woods did just that in overcoming setbacks in his personal life and physical health to win the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia last April.

The example of overcoming adversity given by Jesus, and recounted in the 16th chapter of Luke, is the parable of the dishonest manager.  The owner of a company decided to fire his general manager because of the man’s dishonesty.  He had been overcharging customers and pocketing the difference between the actual price and the price he quoted to them. After his boss fired him, the manager realized that he wouldn’t be able to get a job anywhere unless he made some friends.  So he went to the customers, asked them what they owed; they quoted him the inflated charge that the dishonest manager had previously given them.  The manager told them to pay a reduced amount (the actual charge).  The result was that the owner got what was owed to him, and the manager made a few friends to look to for future employment.

Much to our surprise, Jesus says that the owner praised the dishonest manager: “Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself.  Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior” (Luke 16: 8-9, The Message).

God doesn’t want us to cheat others or look for sly angles to get ahead.  He makes it clear in the words of the prophet Amos, that he will not forget the evil deeds of those who take advantage of the poor: “Listen to this, you that trample on the needy and try to destroy the poor of the country. You say to yourselves,  . . . we can overcharge, use false measures, and fix the scales to cheat our customers. We can sell worthless wheat at a high price. We’ll find someone poor who can’t pay his debts, not even the price of a pair of sandals, and we’ll buy him as a slave.  The Lord, the God of Israel, has sworn, ‘I will never forget their evil deeds’” (Amos 8: 4-7, Good News Translation).

In saying that with every difficulty there is an opportunity, Einstein was echoing what Jesus had said two thousand years before—that we should not despair when we are in a tight spot, but should look for creative ways to overcome the setbacks we encounter.  We face many kinds of setbacks in life—setbacks in our education, relationships, careers, self-esteem, health, financial situation, and motivation, to name a few.  We lose sleep, money, a job, a competition, a court case, an employee, a spouse, a child, our health, a home, our freedom. We drop out or flunk out of school, get fired or laid off from a job.

Someone said that a setback is a setup for a comeback.  Joseph is a prime example.  After overcoming many obstacles, including being thrown in a cistern and being left for dead by his brothers, Joseph told them, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).  We should expect difficulties in life, but they can give us reason to hope—reason to look to God to help us through the difficulty, and to turn it around.

Jesus’ point in the parable of the dishonest manager is that we should look at our adverse circumstances as opportunities to do good.  Corrie ten Boom was a person who used adversity to minister to others.  When her entire family was arrested after the Nazis found out that they were hiding Jews and helping them escape, Corrie and her sister were able to hide a small Bible.  Checkpoint after checkpoint, the Bible went undetected, which was a miracle in itself. They used the Bible to conduct worship services to praise God during their imprisonment.  Many women were comforted, converted, and bolstered in their faith through the use of the small smuggled Bible.

How do we turn a setback into a comeback?  We turn to God and ask him to help us make lemonade from the lemons that were left on our doorstep. He demands total dependence on him—total trust in and reliance on him.  When we rely completely on God to help us through our troubles, we will turn to him frequently throughout the day seeking guidance, comfort, and assistance.  Praising him even in the midst of difficulties demonstrates our reliance on him: “Praise the Lord! You servants of the Lord, praise his name!  May his name be praised, now and forever. From the east to the west, praise the name of the Lord! The Lord rules over all nations; his glory is above the heavens There is no one like the Lord our God. . . He raises the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from their misery and makes them companions of princes . . . He honors the childless wife in her home; he makes her happy by giving her children.  Praise the Lord!”  (Psalm 113: 1-9)

God wants us to see our problems as opportunities to foil evil.  He wants to help us put the adversities we face in life to good use. Nothing is wasted in God’s economy—nothing.  If you lean on him, and trust him, he will help you turn your setbacks into comebacks. Don’t despair that you can’t see the fruit of your labor immediately.  God will honor your commitment to act with integrity and honor and love for others.  It took years for Joseph to make a comeback.   We want our problems solved in our time, not in God’s time.  But his timing is perfect.  Put your trust in God and in his timing, and keep the faith.

Prayer: “Lord, I rejoice that nothing can come between me and your love, even when I feel alone or in difficulty, when in sickness or am troubled.  Even if attacked or afraid, no abyss of mine is so deep that your love is not deeper still. Lord, you have experienced many hells of this world but descended so that you could lift us up.  Be always near.”  –Corrie ten Boom

Praying the Scriptures:  The Scripture texts for Sunday, September 22 are Amos 8:4-7; Ps 113; 1 Tim 2:1-15; Luke 16:1-15. Choose a word or phrase each day from one of the texts, or from the following excerpts from the texts to pray during the coming week:

Listen to this, you that trample on the needy and try to destroy the poor of the country. You say to yourselves,  . . . we can overcharge, use false measures, and fix the scales to cheat our customers. We can sell worthless wheat at a high price. We’ll find someone poor who can’t pay his debts, not even the price of a pair of sandals, and we’ll buy him as a slave.  The Lord, the God of Israel, has sworn, ‘I will never forget their evil deeds’” (Amos 8: 4-7, Good News Translation).

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

Praise the Lord! You servants of the Lord, praise his name! May his name be praised, now and forever. From the east to the west, praise the name of the Lord! The Lord rules over all nations; his glory is above the heavens There is no one like the Lord our God. . . He raises the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from their misery and makes them companions of princes . . . He honors the childless wife in her home; he makes her happy by giving her children.  Praise the Lord!”  (Psalm 113: 1-9)

As a result the master of this dishonest manager praised him for doing such a shrewd thing; because the people of this world are much more shrewd in handling their affairs than the people who belong to the light.”(Luke 16: 8)

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]The Scripture texts for Sunday, September 22, 2019 are Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-15; Luke 16:1-15.

The Lost Sapphire

September 9, 2019

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep . . . declares the Lord. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured . ..” (Ezekiel 34: 15-16).

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one.Doesn’t she light a lamp sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?”  (Luke 15: 8)

I was stopped at a red light on my way home from work a few years ago, when I absentmindedly glanced down at my hand on the steering wheel.  I was shocked at what I saw: a gaping hole in the heirloom ring that my late mother-in-law had given me about twenty years before.  The large blue sapphire that had been the centerpiece of the ring was missing–I couldn’t believe it! How could it have fallen out? Then I noticed that two of the four prongs were broken, and the reality that it was gone sunk in.

It had been a busy day.  I arrived in the office early to prepare for a court appearance, argued the case in court, and took a lunchtime walk down Grand Avenue, one of the busiest streets in downtown Los Angeles.  Later, I met with various colleagues throughout our offices.  My car was parked in a large underground parking structure.  The stone could have fallen out anywhere. Even so, I searched the car when I arrived home, and looked all over the house. No stone. I had no idea when it had fallen out.  I hadn’t looked at the ring since I put it on in the semi-darkness of the early morning.  The next day, against all hope, I retraced my steps and alerted colleagues in the office, the security desk of the building, and the clerk in the courtroom where I had appeared.  No one had seen the stone.

The Scripture texts this week describe our lostness in the context of Jesus as our shepherd, who will always search us out and find us when we stray. The psalmist admits. “I have strayed like a lost sheep” (Psalm 119:176).[1] God gave words of assurance to Ezekiel to give to the people that he will find those who have strayed and bring them back: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep . . . declares the Lord. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured . ..” (Ezekiel 34: 15-16).  Paul describes his lostness in his letter to Timothy: “[F]ormerly I was a blasphemer persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief . . . Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:13, 15).

The loss of a treasured stone does not begin to compare with the 2,996 mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and friends who were lost 18 years ago on September 11,2001.   Life gives us many opportunities for despair– the loss of a loved one to death, drugs or illness; the loss of a job, the loss of health, setbacks at work and school, the loss of retirement funds in a fluctuating stock market, the loss of love, the loss of friendship, the loss of a home and other treasured things—to name a few types of losses leading to despair. But in a world filled with despair, we need to remember that we are an Easter people—a people with hope in the future.

I like to think that it was a flash of light from the silver coin that drew the woman’s attention to the lost coin in the parable Jesus told in our Gospel lesson for Sunday: “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one.Doesn’t she light a lamp sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?” (Luke 15: 8).[2] We are drawn to the light—and to shiny, sparkly things that reflect light. And isn’t that what Jesus asks us to do?  Even the light from one person standing up in faith can light up the darkness in a room.  A smile, a phone call, a note, a visit, or a few words of encouragement to a friend or co-worker can go a long way to lift a person up and let a little sunshine into his or her life.

Almost five months after I lost the sapphire, I woke up at 4:15 am as usual on a week-day, pulled on my gym clothes, stumbled downstairs half-asleep, dumped the tote bag I use to carry things up and down the stairs onto the kitchen table, and poured myself a cup of coffee, before plunking down into my chair at the table. As I began to wake up, a sparkle caught my eye on the inside of the tote. It was a little stone, which turned out to be the lost sapphire!

It had been buried in the dark recesses of my tote bag for months, where it must have fallen off that morning after I got dressed.  It reminded me of the words from the John Newton hymn, Amazing Grace: “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”  We were all lost and in darkness, but Jesus found us, and his light gives us hope and certainty for our future here on earth, and afterwards.

Jesus calls us to sparkle—to stand up and shine–to be a light in a dark world. We are not to keep the light to ourselves, but to let it shine so that others may see it and be encouraged.

I didn’t see the sparkling sapphire when it was hidden in the tote bag. I only saw it when the bag was opened, and it spilled out onto the lining, catching my eye.    We too, will catch the eye of those who surround us, who are in despair and darkness, when we open our hearts and lives to them. Just as Jesus sought us out and found us, we can be a light to lead others out of the darkness in their lives.

Jesus lifts us up out of darkness and despair, and fills us with his light and hope, so that we may reflect that light to others. May you sparkle and shine to draw others closer to him.

Prayer: “May our souls be lamps of yours, kindled and illuminated by you.  May they shine and burn with the truth, and never go out in darkness and ashes.” Mozarabic Liturgy

Praying the Scriptures:  The Scripture texts for next Sunday are Psalm 119: 169-176; Ezekiel 34:11-24; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15: 1-10. Choose a word or phrase each day from one of the texts, or from the following excerpts from the texts to pray during the coming week:

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep . . . declares the Lord. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured . ..” (Ezekiel 34: 15-16).

I have strayed like a lost sheep” (Psalm 119:176).

“[F]ormerly I was a blasphemer persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief . . . Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:13, 15).

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one.Doesn’t she light a lamp sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?”  (Luke 15: 8)

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]The Scripture texts for next Sunday are Ezekiel 34: 11-24; Psalm 119: 169-176; 1 Timothy 1: 5-17; Luke 15: 1-10.  A similar version of this blog was originally published on this website on September 5, 2016.

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