Author: kennethstuartbaker

Heart or Brain ?

Heart or Brain Cut

Today’s blog post was inspired after a recent vibrant and lively meeting of  our men’s small group. We talk about serious truths of the Lord — but we also joke and tease each other as love grows amongst us as brothers .

Heart or brain ?  Love or truth ? Which one  drives you ?

Here’s how I  lean : I appreciate how much the gospel contains good ideas and concepts and doctrine. It’s truth. But I face a danger : even though truth is the most important part of what the gospel is,  it’s easy for me to slide into making  truth expand into  being all that the gospel is. Then, the gospel is reduced to being only a list of propositions to believe  or a set of rules governing  behavior. That’s rather cold, isn’t it ?

Other folks lean the opposite way. They are awed by and overwhelmed by God’s love, and filled with enormous compassion. They say, “The only law is the law of love.” But then they can slide into making love all that the gospel is. When this happens, just about any action is OK if it “feels like” love.

So, how can we join heart and mind, truth and love, together properly ? I think Isaiah gives us an idea.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)

In this passage Isaiah volunteers after seeing a vision of God and his holiness. I don’t think you would ask Isaiah whether he was  driven by his head or his heart. No, his experience of God had both ; it was a call on Isaiah’s total being.

Isaiah received coal  on his  lips to symbolize his purification from sin ; and for us Jesus’ death on the cross purifies us. Due to this cleansing, we are able to push forward on Jesus’ mission :  Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. (Ephesians  4:13).

See how Jesus blends truth and love together ? We humans like to organize everything in life into little compartments —including the Lord himself ! But our God is not compartmentalized. We can’t split out either love or truth from the grand totality of who God is.  Our powerful encounter with the Lord Jesus drives us to serve him fully with heart and brain !

Can Christians Cure Cussing ?

Let me begin today’s post with  a clarification. There’s a modern trend that says that Christians should be free to cuss in order to be  “authentic.” I am not advocating that trend in this blog post.

But I do want to warn against putting too high a priority on having clean language, because over-emphasizing language implies that  being a Christian means we need  to “clean up our act.”   When that happens, we force ourselves not to cuss. We keep our cusswords bottled up and we stifle any vulgarities from coming out of our mouth.

But the problem with stifling ourselves is that it prevents us from dealing with the underlying heart attitudes of envy, anger, etc. which often do spew forth in cussing.

Matthew 15:10-20 talks about the interplay between our outer stuff and what is in our hearts. Here, the Pharisees were ticked off at Jesus because he criticized their emphasis on conforming to outer rules of behavior.  Specifically, they asked why Jesus did not follow their handwashing rituals.

Jesus replied by saying that the heart is more important.

“ But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” (Matthew 15:18-20)

I think Jesus’ words suggest that when we try to throttle cursing by our own willpower, we are putting on a nice outer appearance while avoiding dealing with the evil stuff which lurks beneath.

Take a guy I’ll call Seething Sam, who has quite an anger issue. Usually he has enough will power to bottle up his anger but eventually  he spews enraged expletives when he does not get his own way.  But what if, instead of trying to put a lid on things, Sam repents of being an angry man?

If he repents, Sam can stop suppressing his evil thoughts and start to see how Christ’s way can  renew his mind and begin to replace his evil thoughts.  He begins to understand how the spiritual gift of self-control works. Instead of Sam struggling to put a stopper in his bottle, Jesus, by grace,  replaces the vicious and murderous  thoughts he is bottling up with  the freedom to love, edify, encourage, be patient, etc.

As that kind of gradual grace-fueled  biblical change proceeds, Sam’s volcanic eruptions of vulgarities  become less and less frequent.

In my church we have a group of men in a Christian community  called Battleground who are very helpful in achieving change.  How so ? The group is not interested in  portraying a nice Christian image where our bad stuff is all bottled up or secret. Instead, we are seeing that curing cussing (or any area of our Christian life that needs repair) is like dealing with a weed. Do we only cut off the leaves on a weed or do we choose to pull it out by the roots ?

Good news : When we repent and want more than the mere appearance of righteousness, the Lord graciously transitions us from mere outer change  to deep-rooted, spirit-filled heart change.

If the River Dries Up, What Can We Depend On ?

low danube     resized begg

This past August we went on a cruise on the Danube river, led by Pastor Alistair Begg.

We saw many wonderful sights in Germany, Austria, and Hungary but were faced with a major issue: due to drought in central Europe, the river was too shallow. Because of this, our Viking cruise ship was in danger of running aground.

At two different locations, one in Germany and one in Austria, the water was so shallow that we had to leave the boat, take a bus bypass around the shallow area,  and then embark on a different, almost identical ship downstream. It was a Bizarro world experience — we got the same stateroom number and room type, but tiny details might be different—for example, the bathroom sink might be black instead of white, or the electrical sockets might be different.

We did finally get to where we were supposed to go —Budapest —  but definitely not by the route that had been planned.

Doesn’t something similar happen in our Christian lives ? We embark on our plans and get detoured. Sometimes our lives seem like a bizarre, inexplicable variant of what we originally expected.

When such detours occur, do things “just happen” to go the wrong way ? Are the bypasses in our life some kind of chance or accident ? No, God is sovereign over each of those twists and turns.

But, does God’s lordship mean we are responsible for nothing ? Not at all. When a detour happens that seems out of our control, at least we are responsible for our attitude. When the spit hits the fan,  we can choose whether to dwell in contentment  or to whine. On our river trip, we had an example of that choice : did all the extra packing and unpacking lead to grumbling ?

Anyone who depends on the Danube’s water level faces conditions which are always fluctuating. But Jesus never changes.

 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)

What Jesus supplies does not waver or vary and is totally dependable.

Yes, we can rely on him. What a wonderful lifesaving truth to cling to during the unexpected  detours  in our lives!

 

He Sustains Us

Evening, morning and noon
I cry out in distress,
and he hears my voice.
(Psalm 55:17)

Living in our time, isn’t there something distressing every day ?

Sometimes we cry out because we have a chronic affliction like depression or battling persistent  headaches from Lyme disease or suffering from recurrent autoimmune attacks. But even if we don’t suffer from a lingering ailment, simply living in the 21st century provides plenty that makes us groan.

As we face distress, we cry out in prayer to our Lord who hears our voice :

Cast your cares on the Lord
and he will sustain you;
he will never let
the righteous be shaken.
(Psalm 55:22)

If I were in charge (which I’m not !) then once I cast my care in prayer, I would be mercifully freed from that care and not have to worry about it anymore. However, today’s Scripture  does not say that the Lord will quickly remove all our cares. No, the promise is that the Lord will sustain us even while we have them.

I face a new care in my own life : I have developed a heart rhythm  issue, so I  can’t run competitively any more. My plans had been to keep running competitively  year after year, limited only by the gradual decline based on aging. So it was a shocker to have such a sudden exit from being able to enjoy something I have done for decades. (But please do note: I am very thankful that at least I can still jog for a few miles !)

No, God never guaranteed I’d be able to compete against the top runners in my age group year after year.  Yet in the face of all that, God does provide a different and better guarantee! It’s a guarantee that  I will not be shaken.  My faith and security in Jesus will remain and won’t be shaken even if  I can’t ever compete again in this lifetime.

But what if I face another new challenging issue ?

Cast it on him.

I don’t know exactly what your stresses are. But my counsel from the Lord is

Cast it on him.

Guaranteed : As we pray, we see that no matter what happens, God loves us, cares for us, and sustains us. He will  not let our unity with Jesus be shaken.

Sheep Without a Shepherd

shep 3

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)

When I, then an agnostic, heard the good news and believed the gospel, it was a life-changing event. Indeed, God instantly took away a kind of alienated rage that I often felt. But the Lord had much, much more work to do in me yet.

I had plenty to learn about what it meant to follow my shepherd and to hear his voice. And some of this learning took a long time. As just one example, it took eight years to be cured of my smoking addiction. And my training is still going on today.  Why do I still need that ? Because even after all these years part of me is still addicted to wanting  my own way.

Here’s how the Apostle  Paul presents the sequence of first believing the gospel and then  making every effort to live it out:

Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.  For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children,  encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.  (1 Thessalonians 2: 8b,11-12)

Today we often think of the Christian life in overly individualistic terms. Once we’ve believed and come to faith, we try to  live a private Christian life. But Paul challenges this solitary mindset, with a compelling comparison of how being Christians  is like being part of a family.

Two thousand years after Paul,  we are asked to live Christian life in community, sharing our lives as well.  What does this kind of community look like for 21st century people ? How can a more experienced  believer share life in Christ with new believers , encouraging them and comforting them ?

It’s through this family sort of community, called koinonia in the Bible,  that we  progressively  grow out of being harassed and helpless. I think we’ll be growing together in seeing  in how to live this out.

It’s my prayer that koinonia grows in all our churches.

Senator Blumenthal and Me

Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47)

Watching the Justice Kavanaugh hearings, I disagreed with what some of the Senators said, but one Senator in particular took me beyond disagreement into angry resentment : Senator Blumenthal.

Senator Blumenthal said that if Kavanaugh told even one lie about his personal history, then he should be totally disqualified for consideration for the Supreme Court.  But there was a huge problem : this Senator was known for misleading  statements about his own personal history.

Since many of the other Senators had their own annoying traits,  I wondered why it was only Blumenthal who got me so riled up ?

Well, after watching the hearing, I went to a physical therapy session for my tender left shoulder.  I heard a fellow patient ranting bitterly  against Blumenthal, but I kept quiet. Later, though, I considered the  gap between  my polite outer exterior and my own secret agreement with that gentleman’s angry rant! Yes,  I like to project a certain  image…an even-keeled man who doesn’t express nasty, ranting  thoughts. But wait a minute —isn’t that a gap between how I present myself and what I am really like …. just like Blumenthal ?!

The Lord used my reactions to Blumenthal to switch me to dealing with my own deceit instead of ranting at his !

I am glad we have a Lord who is so patient with our inconsistencies! And he loves us so much that he engineers circumstances to expose them, so they can be corrected.

I can’t yet say I am just like Jesus’ disciple Nathaniel in whom there is no deceit. But by God’s grace I can say I’m willing to admit it when I’m being deceitful. Then I can pray for help in putting off two-faced deceit and putting on single-minded transparency and honesty.

I could never live up to that!

bingo 3

 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Matthew 25:35-36)

As Christians we’re called to do good, loving deeds.

I often hear of people who are constantly doing tons of loving things for Jesus. Then, an accusing voice tells me, “You could be visiting more sick people than you do…. And how can you even call yourself a Christian if you are not involved in a prison ministry?” It’s easy to start feeling insecure.

Where does that insecurity come from ?

Here’s the problem : If  my focus is on comparing myself to others I will always either  feel bad because I come up short compared to them or feel superior because  I think I am doing better than they are. If my measure basically revolves around me, I am trapped…….I need a remedy !

Thankfully, Paul points the way towards a solution :

For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. (Romans 12:3)

I think Paul’s advice helps us both to not think more highly of ourselves than we ought and also not to think more lowly of ourselves than we ought.  For at the heart of this verse is getting rid of  comparing ourselves to others.

So, in faith, our small group looked for ways to serve in our town. A couple of activities we tried weren’t quite a right fit. But some people in our group had gone each  Christmas to sing carols and give out cookies at a local adult residential care home. So we began to wonder — how could we reach out to the residents during the rest of the year?

We started a monthly Bingo Night for them.  Now, for years, they always look forward to our visits and enjoy the games and prizes. And I love joining them, not grudgingly or under compulsion, but  propelled by faith and love.