(Finding Real Life in the Nick of Time)
Time flies. Steadily, unrelentingly time has an unfailing way of passing us by. If you don’t believe me, just remember the last time you thoroughly enjoyed yourself. The day or evening or weekend was over all too quickly and you were faced with the same routine once again.
As I write this, I am sitting in a room where a clock is ticking off the seconds. Perhaps a hundred ticks have sounded in the short time it has taken to type these opening words. One hundred seconds have come and gone, never to return. In those seconds, people have been born and others have died. Unique events have occurred which can never happen again.
Most of us live under the illusion that we have plenty of time. It is only when some sobering event happens that we are shaken out of our false security. We wake up to find that we have graduated, or we have turned thirty, that our marriage has dissolved, that our children are grown, that we are gravely ill–and we realize that those ticking seconds have come and gone in their hundreds of thousands.
I like the elegant way in which Psalm 90 expresses this bitter-sweet passing of time (verse 10), “The days of our years are three-score and ten (70); and if by reason of strength, fourscore (80), yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off and we fly away.” Ah yes. The King James Version is unbeatable for poetic expression. It simply says that the maximum most of us can expect is to live is seventy or eighty years, and that when we reach the end, it seems like such a short time. Then we die and cannot return to any of the days we once had. But although this quotation is indeed poetic, it certainly is no exaggeration —as people in their retirement years will testify.
But the Psalm goes on the give some reassurance that though life goes by with startling speed, there is a very definite consolation. Verse 12 counsels, “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Apply our hearts to wisdom? Yes, on at least two levels:
First, we must ask God to show us how to live each day fully. This means that we should make a practice of asking God’s guidance each day. “How shall I walk with you in the hours and seconds allotted to me today, Lord?” For all of us, there is a blessed urgency to each day because the opportunity to accomplish something, to enjoy someone or something, or to finish that particular day with a clear conscience will never come again.
Secondly, in all of our activities we must hold onto an eternal perspective. What is the purpose of life in general? What is my particular life’s purpose? How have I been gifted, trained and provided with opportunities to make a significant contribution in the world? Money, fame, prestige and power–the things so many people spend their lives pursuing–are all sadly temporary and ultimately unfulfiling. As enjoyable as many things can be, real life is found in Christ. Listen to his words in John 17:3, “…this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (New International Version).
Let me be very clear. Jesus isn’t saying that eternal life is in church. Neither is he saying that eternal life is in Christian activities and programs. They are, at best, channels through which we may find God and Christ. Jesus is promising that we will find life in its fullest sense (the Greek of the Gospel of John describes it using the term “zoe”–the highest form of life) only in knowing God through himself.
There is so much to this that a few brief paragraphs can’t begin to do it justice. The enjoyment of the blessings God makes available, as good as they are, cannot give us life. That’s why so many people who have so much are so empty. Things simply can’t give life because it isn’t in them. Life comes from its source: God. God has made that available through his Son who has become one of us precisely to make it accessible. Until we draw our lives from God through Christ, and stop trying to draw it from other people and things, we will remain unfulfilled.
Just one more thing: don’t put this off. Those seconds continue to tick away, stopping for no one.
For those who have just completed an educational milestone, the future can be both exciting and a bit frightening. The whirl of graduation events, job applications, moves for further education, marriage and just generally thinking about the future can leave a person feeling slightly dizzy. So much is changing in such a short time!
In the midst of this flurry of events, the adult world insists on giving advice. Graduation speakers, relatives, friends and teachers are usually quite conscientious about sharing what wisdom they have with those they care about. At the risk of being lumped in as just one more voice, let me try to give some biblical counsel for those beginning such a new phase.
In chapter 12 of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes it says, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come…” (verse 1). It is a very wise thing to remember God while you are still young, before serious mistakes have been made.
Picture a sailboat ready to depart–its decks decorated; its lines trim and bright. On board is a happy crowd of friends with plenty of provisions, but their destination is indefinite. Their only plan is to set sail, catch the breeze and enjoy, hoping eventually to find a harbor somewhere down the coast. Well-wishers on the dock shout things like, “Watch for storms!” or “Post a lookout.”. Others recommend, “Get along.” or “Work together.” At the very last moment before they edge away from the dock, someone says, “Wait. You will need this.”, tossing one of the group a compass as the boat slips away.
To embark on a significant stage of life’s journey with no clear direction is pure foolishness. The Bible is God’s compass, given to us to keep our bearings on our journey. Use it to set your direction and make whatever corrections may be necessary throughout your life. The earlier you use this guide, the more certain you will be to reach the particular destination God has charted for you. Don’t wait for the inevitable storms to use the compass. By then, you may be seriously off course. Most of all, look to the North Star as the sure focal point–trust your life to God through Jesus Christ.
I thank God that someone handed me a compass early in life. I have made my share of mistakes, but by God’s incredible grace, God’s word has always brought me back on course. For me, it has made all the difference!
It’s a job description that even Superman might think twice about: executive, counselor, soldier, manager, coach, teacher, legal expert, friend, master of ceremonies and, at times, construction worker and janitor. Who could possibly be expected to do these things as part of a normal routine? The local pastor! Maybe he didn’t bargain for all this. No doubt he feels inadequate. Sometimes he fails. But all of these areas of expertise are indeed part of a pastor’s job.
I once saw a cartoon picturing a small boy looking up at his pastor after church and saying, “What do you do with yourself the other days of the week?” Nearly every pastor would give much the same response: “If only you knew!” A pastor’s weekly routine includes these duties:
Executive. Important decisions must be reached as to church policy on a variety of issues. Sometimes policy is made in conjunction with boards and committees. At other times, decisions must be made on the spot with little time for consultation.
Counselor. Without a doubt, the most sought-after givers of advice and guidance are still the clergy. Pastors, priests and rabbis help millions every year, and usually do so for free. Did I hear something about clergy being mercenary?
Soldier. The Bible speaks of spiritual warfare involving people’s souls and the unseen forces of evil. Foremost in this conflict are often pastors who are regularly expected to be fearless, skillful in combat, slow to retreat. Our weapons are God’s word, persistence and prayer. Our ally, the Holy Spirit.
Manager. Every church, large or small, has a program. Programs can be as simple as the order of the Sunday worship service, or as complex as a full-blown Christian educational system. The pastor is usually a key figure in enabling these church programs to run smoothly.
Coach. Everyone needs someone to motivate and develop the important skills it takes to compete in the game of life. A minister is often one who stands on the sidelines providing pointers and encouragement to improve the individual and advance the team.
Teacher. The Bible is an amazing textbook on the realities of the world around us. It speaks of God and people; choices; attitudes and world-views. It brings a message of reconciliation between God and people through Christ. This supremely beneficial course is offered at your local church without tuition costs. The pastor is to teach this course material in a way that is interesting, relevant and in-depth.
Lawyer. The local clergy can also be counted on to come to the defense of their people in times of trouble. They visit the jails, write letters on parishioners’ behalf and argue the case for the gospel before the jury of the world.
Friend. Your pastor or minister is the one you expect to be concerned for you even when you haven’t been around for awhile. He is the one who will look you in the eye and tell it like it is–in love. He is the one who urges you to become more than you have been and to follow Christ wholeheartedly. It is this role in which the pastor often shines brightest.
Master of Ceremonies. He is the host, the comedian, the one who officiates at important events for you and your family. He must have the charm of the talk show host and the decorum of a head of state.
Oh yes—don’t forget the variety of other jobs which, in some churches, simply go with the position. It is not unusual for the pastor to clean a restroom or two, fold bulletins, work with youth, participate in a construction project and secure the building after services. While there are some exceptions, the Christian ministry is still an honorable profession. It is served, for the most part, by honorable men and women. Now more than ever, with the image of clergy tarnished by a few highly publicized bad apples, it is nice to know that you really can trust that amazing man behind the pulpit!
I have just returned from Mexico and thought I would report on my current trip to teach the first summer session at JBI, Tehuacan. On Friday, July 3, I arrived in Tehuacan, along with my friend and traveling partner, Pastor Jonathan Villalobos. Tehuacan is located four hours south of Mexico City in the southern part of the state of Puebla. Our flight left Fresno at 1:00 am, with legs from Fresno to Guadalajara and then Guadalajara to Mexico City. After that, there were two bus trips from Mexico City to Puebla and, finally, Puebla to Tehuacan. We stepped off the bus around 5:30 pm after a long trip and only sporadic sleep.
After greeting friends made on previous trips, we were settled in our living quarters for the week. The house is directly across the street from one of the churches sponsoring the Bible Institute, so the 6:30 am session is a very convenient walk. The property has an enclosed garden with several very nicely landscaped outdoor areas. The house itself is two-stories with tile floors throughout and everything done in a sort of modern Spanish style.
After our respective preaching assignments in two separate churches, Jonathan and I were introduced in a joint session of churches on Sunday where we gave a synopsis of our upcoming course on Biblical Communication. There were approximately 50 people present. Certificates were awarded from our previous session last January with a regular ceremony calling the names, shaking hands with each person and presenting them with certificates. They seemed very pleased to receive them.
Afterward, some youth invited me to play touch football in a little yard between the church and the house next door. I was not surprised that the Mexican youth didn’t really know the rules for American football, so I was able to give them some pointers. Everything went well until I intercepted a pass. When I stretched out to catch it and started running, somehow my body got ahead of my feet and I went down, landing on the side of my head and right shoulder. Although it hurt, there seems to be no damage and actually my back, which had been out before the game, now kind of feels better.
The first session of the Summer 09 JBI-Tehuacan opened Monday morning at 6:30 at Manada Pequena (Little Flock) Church. There were perhaps thirty students in attendance. Some of the church ladies made a nice breakfast snack of tacitos with jello and coffee. The subject for the day was how to build an effective Bible lesson. I repeated the same material that evening from 7:30-9:30 pm to about 65 students at Oasis 1, a related church across town. This course is part of the larger summer, 2009 session of JARON Bible Institute in Tehuacan, which will continue next week with my colleague, Gene Beck teaching Theology 2. A youth outreach will take place the week after that, led by fellow JARON staff member, Kenton Rahn.
On Tuesday, along with the regular morning and evening sessions, we were added to a team, which makes regular visits to the local jail. Six or seven male prisoners were assembled for Bible study. We prayed together at the end and they expressed their amazement that Americans would actually want to visit them in jail. There are apparently some 70 or so believing prisoners and these guys see it as their calling to reach the rest. Wow! Afterward I was joking to the team that this was my third time in a Mexican jail, but that thankfully my sentences have always been short (less than an hour). Having done this before, I can say that a couple of the prisoners have now become my friends.
Later we ate lunch at the home of Cheque Vasquez, one of the leading pastors of the churches who sponsor the Bible institute. We were served a kind of chili relleno, stuffed with almonds, apples and other tasty ingredients and covered with a sweet white sauce, typical of the state of Puebla. Delicious!
It is now 10:30 am on Wednesday and the morning session is over. I’m working at a little table upstairs in the house in a sort of mini-solarium (a sun roof in a corner of the sitting area). Outside there are sounds of birds mixed with and some contemporary Mexican music coming from somewhere nearby. Very pleasant.
My friend Jonathan is teaching this second portion of the week. He is a natural communicator and has already won these people over. The schedule is actually quite demanding with early morning and late evening sessions and often counseling and planning in between.
In addition to teaching the morning and evening sessions of JARON Bible Institute, here is an idea of our schedule for the next few days: Lunch today is with one of the students, named Rosadela. Her husband is well known as the painter of the murals on the ceiling of the entrance to the Tehuacan City Hall. On Thursday we are scheduled to speak at an alcohol rehabilitation center. Friday there are plans to visit the onyx-producing village of San Antonio Texcala and then have lunch with a student. We are invited for coffee with my dear friends, Memo Lagunes and his wife, Betty on Friday evening. Yes, ours is a busy social calendar!
Prayer is essential. I can’t say enough about how we are looked after by the Mexican believers. In other places, mission projects have been much more rugged. But being away from family and the normal routine is a strain. It seems that nearly every time I have traveled on a missions trip lately I gave come down with some kind of virus or infection. I had a truly shocking cold and bronchial infection the first three days I was here. There are also bouts of homesickness (especially in the evenings after the sessions) and just the weariness of living in a different routine and culture. Thank God for the Mexicans’ care for us!
Michel, the son of Betty and Memo has been doing some of the interpreting for me when I teach. This morning he made an offhand remark about how amazed he was at the improvement of my Spanish over the last three days. Others have said much the same thing. These remarks are encouraging, especially since yesterday and today my mind has sort of shut down on all languages. For instance, I got up at 5:45 am this morning and knocked on Jonathan’s door to take a shower in the adjacent bathroom. When he answered, I couldn’t even put the English sentence together: “Is the shower free?”. I just stood there gurgling incoherently, until I finally blurted out with, “I want to take a shower.” I think my mind feels overloaded and wants to go on some kind of tropical vacation for awhile, where no talking of any kind is required.
(This concluding portion was written later, after our return to the United States) We finished out the week strong, completing the course and enjoying part of a day of rest and relaxation. Saturday afternoon was spent in planning with local church leaders for future JARON events in Tehuacan. The return journey on July 12, though long, was uneventful.
Thanks for your prayers and concern, Mike Bogart
The May 1984 issue of National Geographic Magazine held me spellbound for several hours one evening some years ago. It showed through color photos the swift and terrible destruction which buried the cities of Pompey and Herculaneum a few miles south of Naples, Italy in the year 79 AD.
Although nearby Mount Vesuvius had been rumbling and smoking for some time, the volcanic explosion which destroyed the two cities occurred so suddenly that many of their residents were overwhelmed in the midst of their daily routines. The article showed people desperately trying to escape the flood of ash and superheated gas that flooded the cities in a matter of minutes. Until shortly before the final eruption, people had been at work, men and women walked the streets, slaves toiled–even family pets suffered the same fate. It takes little imagination to picture the panic of that fateful day. It must have been horrible.
Maybe the saddest part is that these people trapped and buried in the ash did not need to die. Researchers confirm what ancient Roman records tell about the weeks of rumblings and emissions of gas which preceded the explosion. An ominous plume of smoke had been clearly visible days before the catastrophe. Many people had taken heed of the warning and had fled elsewhere, leaving behind not only their belongings but the diehards who believed the quakings to be merely another episode in the periodic unrest of the mountain. If only all of them had taken the warnings seriously!
There are similar rumblings in our own times: constant warfare, the ever-present nuclear threat, economic woes, the breakdown of the institutions of society, disregard of moral standards, etc. While these things are not exactly new, it does appear that the frequency and intensity of these “rumblings” may point to a coming catastrophe.
Jesus forecast a future day of judgment in Matthew 24, which is expanded in other parts of the Bible. I understand that this type of thing has been said so many times before that people have grown weary of hearing it. Nevertheless, Jesus’ predictions and the troubling current events do remind us of the truth that no matter what the timetable may be, disaster is coming and people dare not be caught unprepared.
So, what to do? Now is the time to prepare for what may come upon us at any moment. It is time to come to terms with God, with our own inadequacies and with the certainty that, come what may, we are not disaster-proof. Now is the time to bring our lives into some kind of order, working consistently, spending within our means, making reasonable and modest choices about consumption and lifestyle. We need to cultivate deep relationships and firm family ties. But there is a deeper, spiritual dimension to all of this. The bottom line is to get real with God. For some of us this is the crux of the issue because we aren’t even real with ourselves.
The good news is that God has a way of helping us do what must be done when we ask for his intervention. It might be appropriate to begin with a simple prayer saying, “God, please come into my life and change me. Open my eyes to the reality about myself and those around me. Help me to be what you created me for. Show me how much you love me. Help me to love others.” As a Christian and a pastor, I would love to add the part about faith in Jesus at this point. But maybe this is enough for a beginning.
I honestly have no special insight into what the future holds, other than what the Bible predicts and what little may be gleaned from current events. But I am certain that one disaster or another will overtake us all, whether the end of the age, a serious illness, the loss of employment or the breakup of our families. It is utter foolishness not to be prepared, thinking that peace and prosperity will be ours forever.
Many people use the word faith. People claim to have faith or not to have faith in lots of things from baseball teams to governments, marriage and religion. When someone uses the word faith, a variety of things come to mind.
In one popular dictionary, there are at least nine shades of meaning in the current English usage of the word faith. For example, it can be defined as a personal opinion, a religious system, a sacred promise, or even as an attitude of perseverance (as in “Keep the faith.”). We English speakers have a genius for taking a word and using it creatively. In many ways, that is what makes our language so rich and adaptable.
However, there are times when we must be very clear about what we mean. For example, when Christians use the word in a gospel sense, much hinges on the correct understanding of the term. The gospel of Jesus Christ promises forgiveness, new birth, peace of mind, life-purpose, eternal life and much more. In essence, the gospel is this: If we will turn from our destructive patterns of doing things (sin) and put our faith in Jesus Christ, we will be saved. But what exactly does it mean to put faith in Jesus Christ? The New Testament idea of faith comes from the Greek word pistis, meaning trust, reliance, conviction–faith. As the New Testament uses the word there are several facets to the meaning of pistis:
First, it is a firm conviction that Jesus is who he claimed to be in the gospel accounts and that his death on the cross paid the penalty for human sin against God. It is an acceptance of what the gospels and the rest of the New Testament say about him. In other words, it is a belief that the information given to us in the Bible is accurate.
Of course, there are many people who simply don’t believe these assertions are true. They deny that Jesus was deity in any sense, or that his death had any significance other than as a tragic example of injustice. Some even deny his existence. Other people do believe in Jesus as he is portrayed in the New Testament. They have come to the conviction that Jesus was unique in his dual nature as human and divine; that his death achieved atonement for sin; that he is lord over all and that to know him in a faith-sense is to be granted eternal life. This is the factual basis for faith. It is the mental response to the gospel message.
But faith moves on from a willing acknowlegement of certain biblical and theological truths to a personal choice to surrender one’s life with its willful independence, destructive behavior and violation of moral principles and to rely on God to remake us from the inside out. In other words, it is entirely possible to know the facts about Jesus and assent to their validity, but to miss eternal life. What is lacking is a profound response to these truths. This works out as a definite choice to receive Jesus’ forgiveness and allow his benevolent ownership of our lives.
This is why a main feature of evangelistic events is to bring truth to bear on the conscience so that people come to a point of decision. Without a definite positive response to Jesus Christ, there can be no salvation. This is salvation-faith. It what God asks of us in response to what he has done in Christ. It is both emotional and volitional. That is, it is a choosing to act on what the mind accepts.
But there is still another aspect to the New Testament usage of the word faith. Faith always results in actions and conduct consistent with the assent of the mind and the response of the will and emotions. The book of James reminds us that faith without works (actions) is dead. This is stating the rather obvious truth that we understand pretty well in other aspects of life. In a romantic relationship, if the feelings, commitments and words don’t show themselves in any sort of tangible action, the beloved would clearly have the right to question the reality of what he or she has been told. To say we believe in Jesus and never act in a way which confirms that claim, rightfully causes people around us to be highly skeptical of the validity of our faith.
In other words, faith in Jesus shows itself in visible ways. Certain things we were in the habit of doing which are offensive to God and other people now bother us. We notice and feel uncomfortable about how we use our mouths, how we treat people, how we regard ourselves and about our attitude of flippancy toward God. There is a new desire to please God along with the beginning steps of tangible actions showing that desire. We are pleased to see the basic shape of faith appear in our lives as we act on what we have come to believe.
OK: enough explanation. Now let’s get practical: does this describe you? Perhaps you don’t know enough yet to have a well-rounded theological faith, but at least you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died for you, rising again from the grave. You have moved on from what you know about Jesus to a response of gratitude and a willing reception of what he has done. Your life is now showing the beginnings of real change on a number of levels. This is biblical faith, saving faith. There is nothing on earth like it. I highly recommend it!