Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Shaping the Future of America

 
Last night another history-making announcement came to us when President Trump announced his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacant position on the U.S. Supreme Court.  Thus begins what may be weeks or months of deliberation and bantering between those who approve and those who oppose his nomination.  

As I have thought about President Trump’s pick, I began to wonder if there are any points on which most supporters and opponents could agree.  Here is what I have come up with so far, and feel free to add or comment:

1.   Americans should agree that President Trump’s pick is really his attempt to keep his promise to voters who elected him to the presidency in November.  NOTE:  Those who still deny Trump’s legitimacy to hold the office of the presidency because he did not garner a majority of the popular vote should remember that he was legitimately elected according to the Constitution.

2.  Americans should not be surprised by the president’s nominee because Justice Gorsuch’s name was on Trump’s list of possible nominees which he provided early in the campaign.  Indeed, President Trump’s promise was to nominate a justice like the late Justice Antonin Scalia  who would interpret the Constitution and not legislate new law from the bench.

3.   Americans who take time to read up on the education and experience of Justice Gorsuch ought to agree that he is imminently qualified to serve on the High Court.  If you agree, you are joining the ranks of U.S. senators including Democratic senators Biden, Clinton, Schumer, Feinstein, and Obama who participated in a unanimous confirmation of Gorsuch to serve on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, in 2006.

4.   Americans who have studied the history of our nation’s founding and who understand the importance, even the brilliance, of having a separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government, ought to agree that in recent years we have witnessed an erosion of the intended authority of the Supreme Court.  Justices of the High Court are supposed to objectively interpret the Constitution and not be swayed by personal preference or the will of the people.  Instead, our Founding Fathers intended that the will of the people be expressed through elected legislators and senators.   But in recent  years, liberal justices on the Supreme Court have viewed the Constitution as an evolving document that ought to be subject to the changing morality of American society.  Result: rulings from the Court have foisted moral and social changes upon American culture against the will of the majority of Americans.  These include rulings that affirmed the right of the mother to dismiss the rights of her unborn child through abortion (Roe v. Wade, 1973) and the ruling in 2015 that redefined marriage to include marriage between two individuals of the same gender (Obergefell v. Hodges).  In both cases, the Court decision left behind the muddy, stormy waters of division and angry protests across our land.

5.   Americans ought to agree that the notion of “legislating from the bench” is not always easy to define or detect.  While conservatives who usually support “legislating from the bench” generally define it as overriding the will of democratically elected representatives in the legislative and executive branches, Mark Bennett, Houston criminal defense lawyer and author of the blog, Defending People claims he has a more objective test when he writes:

The test for real judicial activism is this: absent judicial review, would the result have been different? This definition and this test have the virtue of not being in the eye of the beholder. Whether the courts have allowed the other branches to do what they want is easy to determine.

Bennett goes on to evaluate landmark Supreme Court cases such as Roe v. Wade and Dred Scott v. Sanford using his definition.   Although the tone of his 2009 blog article, “Legislating Policy from the Bench: Five Examples” was a bit harsh to me, I found it instructive, which leads me to my sixth (the number signifying “incomplete;” I know--and so is this analysis) and final point.

6.  Americans ought to agree that the U.S. Senate decision on whether or not to appoint Justice Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court will have major influence on the landscape of American culture.  We ought also to agree that this time of senate deliberation ought to be a time for serious study of both the man and the role he is being appointed to play in our justice system.  We all ought to ask, “What kind of America do we want for the future?”  Furthermore, those of us who believe in the sovereignty of God Who is the Author of all rights and all authority ought to commit to regular and reverent prayer.  

Personally, as I consider our desperate need for integrity in all of our halls of government, I must recognize that my own heart is deceitfully flawed (Jeremiah 17: 9), rebellious by default, and in need of constant reproof, correction, and training in righteousness through the Word of God (2 Timothy 3: 16) and the instruction of godly friends, teachers, and mentors (2 Timothy 2: 2). 

As we pray for wisdom for our leaders and for ourselves, what better place to go than to the Book of Proverbs.  Here is just one relevant sample from Proverbs 14: 33-35:

Wisdom rests in the heart of one who has understanding,
But in the hearts of fools it is made known.
Righteousness exalts a nation,
But sin is a disgrace to any people.
The king's favor is toward a servant who acts wisely,
But his anger is toward him who acts shamefully.


When I consider our need for wisdom as a nation of diverse ethnic groups and socioeconomic backgrounds, I want to try to empathize with those whose life is very different from mine; but who also seek representation in our great nation.  Here are some particular examples of those I want to remember and learn to possess more compassion toward:

1.    I want to remember those who are devastated because their presidential candidate did not win the November election and who are fearful of what their future holds. 

2.   I want to understand how many who feel forgotten in “the American dream” would see the need to change America into a society where they can have another chance at life, but possibly themselves forgetting that with rights come responsibilities to family, neighbor, and to God. 

3.   I want to try to empathize with the woman who has chosen to abort at least one child, or the father of that child, both of whom may bear a weight of guilt. 

4.  I want to love and encourage those who have never known the love of two parents, many of whom may be very confused about their sexuality either because they have not had mom and dad to love them into maturity or because they have been sexually abused.  

5.   I also want to understand more of the hate that weighs upon those who hate people of faith, including Christian leaders in our churches, schools, and government whom they blame for the guilt they bear.

In order to be more compassionate toward others and  “practice what I preach,” I must remember Micah 6: 8 (emphasis mine),

He [God[has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?

How about You?  What about this article has helped you think more clearly about this momentous time?   Where do you disagree or wish to add your thoughts?   I’d love to read your responses—just  use the “Comment” box.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Born to Be Gardeners

Azalea planting at Secrest Arboretum, Wooster, OH
This past week, I fulfilled an invitation of The Ohio State University Extension Master Gardener Volunteer (MGV) Program to speak to a group of volunteers at the Secrest Arboretum on the campus of The USU-Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, here in Wooster, OH.   The mission of the MGV program is to educate others with timely research-based gardening information.  Qualifications of successful applicants are very clear:  One must

·         want to learn more about plants and gardening
·         be eager to participate in training
·         have a passion for sharing what you learn
·         have time/willingness to attend training and serve your community

Early arriving MGV's in the Miller Pavilion, Secrest Arboretum
This four-point progression provides an important message for qualifying MGV candidates.  The MGV program wants volunteers who are teachable, participatory, passionate, and unselfishly service-oriented.  These qualities were evident in the enthusiastic participation of the volunteers who composed my audience.  Knowing the spirit of Paul Snyder, program assistant at Secrest Arboretum, I was not surprised by the quality of these volunteers.  Their vocations, representing such diverse fields as education, law enforcement, farming, and industry made for interesting points of discussion during my presentation.

With Paul Snyder, Secrest Arboretum
Paul had charged me with presenting “my passion” for prairies, prairie plants, and prairie restoration.  Because of the mission and qualifications for the Master Gardener program, I devoted some discussion to the notion of how a robust environmental ethic can help us value the world around us and motivate us to invest our time, energy, and passion as gardeners or habitat restorationists. 

I began by explaining that my passion for prairies is based on the Judeo-Christian teachings about gardening and restoration.  [I’ll elaborate a bit more here than in my talk to the MGV.] The Scriptures in Genesis 1 and 2 provide the following foundation blocks for a biblical stewardship environmental ethic:

1.   What many call “the natural world” originated by God’s creative acts and it belongs to Him. 
2.   God, the Owner of creation, appointed humankind as stewards or managers (Gen. 2: 15).
3.   Because God loves His creation and has benevolent purposes for it, our stewardship must reflect our best attempts though good science and sound ethics to “serve with,” or con-serve creation so that God’s purposes for humankind and all of creation are realized. 
4.  A gardener or restorationist who possesses an awareness of God’s purposes at work in the intricacies of living creatures—nutrition, growth, development, reproduction, and adaptation to environment—possesses a more objective and comprehensive ethic or basis for valuing creation, loving God’s creation, and justifying efforts to promote the flourishing of creation and mankind’s relationship to it and ultimately, to God.


Prairie remnants can expand into set-aside farm fields.
After this introduction, I presented the past geologic and human historic factors that explain the origin and current condition of the North American Prairie (See “History is Important.”).   Sadly, the extensive prairies of North America exist now only as very fragmented remnants surrounded by extensive agricultural and urban development.  It is these prairie remnants that prairie restorationists attempt to conserve by managing against the encroachment of woody plants and agricultural weeds. (See “Serving with Our Neighbor.”)

Naturally, a discussion that disparages weeds and values native plants is based on value judgments.  So, why are native plants more valuable than weeds?  The short answer is that “native” animal and plant species are those that resided in the “natural” landscape prior to human settlement within the North American prairie system.  But, this answer raises another question—what do we mean by “natural?”  Did “natural” biotic communities exist until European-American settlers entered the land?  Or, had Native Americans already altered “natural” communities many centuries earlier by setting fires to promote grazing or to burn the villages of enemy tribes?
Considerations used to distinguish gardening from restoration
The discussion of what is “natural” led us to ask whether the typical practice of gardening is any different from the practice of those who manage prairie remnants or who attempt to restore prairie communities on “unnatural” landscapes.  For example, how is the effort we undertook at Cedarville University to restore a prairie on tilled agricultural land any different from the actions of a gardener or farmer establishing a garden of flowers or field of corn?  We used a graphic that lists considerations associated with gardening and prairie restoration to determine if there are substantial differences between the two.  Although some restorationists may suggest that the considerations toward the right side of the graphic are given higher priority by restoration efforts, some gardeners may employ these as well if they are ecologically and conservation minded. 

Is a prairie restoration in a former cornfield a type of "garden?"
Stuart Allison cites the writing of Moore and co-authors in The Poetics of Gardens (MIT, 1988) and concludes there is no difference between restoration and gardening.  He writes (emphasis mine), I think that "gardening" is the perfect word to describe what restorationists are doing because it emphasizes the personal relationship between individual humans and the land. Allison follows with this conclusion:

The hangup some environmental philosophers express about whether restorations are natural or not, or even whether the natural still exists, misses the point.  The connection between humans and the environment is real and cannot be denied. The fact that the relationship is not working well cannot be denied, either.

Allison’s conclusion resonates with the biblical environmental stewardship ethic because both acknowledge the malfunction in the relationship between humans and creation.  The Scriptures explain this malfunction in Genesis 3.  Because of humankind’s rebellion against God, the fall and curse upon creation has marred human ability to follow perfectly the Dominion-Stewardship Mandate issued by God (Genesis 1: 28).  However, Christ, the second Adam, came to Earth, died for the sins of mankind and was raised victorious over death to redeem us from the wages of sin and provide reconciliation between God and mankind, and between mankind and creation (Colossians 1: 13-20). 

The “Good News,” or the Gospel, is the message that God now offers “spiritual restoration” to all who will accept by faith in Christ the free gift of reconciliation .  God has called those He has redeemed and restored by faith to become gardeners and “restorationists” through appropriate ministry in the lives of others who have not heard or believed the Gospel.  As Adam was commanded to “serve and keep the Garden” so Christian believers today are called to follow the second Adam in His Great Commission to make disciples from the fallen and dying (Matthew 28: 18-20).


Gardening in Great Commission
The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8: 19-21 that the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God [and was] subjected to futility… in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  Whereas, Adam had rebelled against his assignment as a gardener, God reissued the gardening assignment through His Great Commission to born again disciples of Christ.  The Apostle Paul uses the “gardening metaphor” for the Great Commission when he writes in 1 Corinthians 3: 6:   I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the [spiritual] growth.

We have seen that gardening and restoration have similar aims in the physical world of creation.   They also make excellent metaphors for the human responsibility of submitting to God in the service of the Great Commission in which we serve as gardeners to sow seed and water it with the aim of bringing a harvest of new believers and nurturing them in the faith.  Because of the closeness of physical gardening to the notion of spiritual gardening, I believe the practice of gardening can teach valuable lessons in spiritual growth and maturity.  I can testify of the role of gardening in my life while I was growing up on our farm.


One of several cantaloupe fields on the Silvius farms
My father, Bert Silvius, was a farmer and a gardener.  Each year on our 200 acres of farmland, he would lead us in the planting, hoeing, weeding, and harvesting of about 4 acres of cantaloupes.  If you can picture 1 acre, you will realize we had one large garden!  Lots of hours of manual labor were required, but I am thankful for the spiritual lessons I learned in the process.  Early in the spring we planned for the dates of planting, tilled the soil, planted the seed in hundreds of “hills,” and then, depended on the weather to bring germination with the help of “hotcaps” that protected the young seedlings against frost.  When the seedlings reached an inch or more in height, we sliced open the paper hotcaps to allow adjustment to cooler temperatures, then eventually removed the hotcaps and thinned the seedlings several times, ending up with one healthy plant per original hill.  Then came at least two summer months of hoeing, weeding, and spraying while anticipating the first delicious ripe melons.  Throughout the sweaty and often tedious gardening effort, I leaned the character qualities of orderliness, patience, responsibility, cooperation, unselfishness, and dependence on God for the ultimate harvest.


Bradley & Mindy growing a prize pumpkin.
Gardening was not only spiritually rewarding in my own development as a young man but it became important in teaching a work ethic in my own family years later.  My wife and I who both gained from our gardening backgrounds were able to pass along the same character development experience in gardening to our children.  Even though our family garden was much smaller than the 4 acre-garden of my younger days, our children dreaded the labor no less than I.  However, we all have many good memories of those days of planning, planting, watering, harvesting, and enjoying the delicious fruits and vegetables fresh from the garden.

And so last week, many years after my boyhood days of gardening, and many years after our young family had gardened together, I stood and spoke to Master Gardener Volunteers in the Miller Pavilion of Secrest Arboretum.  As we discussed the benefits of gardening, not only to the landscape but to the gardeners themselves, I looked out of the pavilion and thanked God for my dad and mom who many years before had brought my siblings and I to Secrest Arboretum to enjoy the garden plants and trees. 

Speaking of the physical dimension of gardening and restoration, Stuart Allison writes,

There are many items on the plate of restorationists, but the most important item must be the restoration of that human-environment relationship.  Without that restoration, none of our other efforts will matter.

As we engage in wise gardening and restoration, we are acting out God’s metaphor for our stewardship responsibility to His creation.  All the while we are cultivating and restoring our relationship to God and creation.   Finally, as our family learned and as I have experienced in working with students over the years, gardening and restoration work provide an excellent opportunity to develop godly character qualities that will last for a lifetime.

Gardening and Restoration Websites:



   Ohio Prairie Association (Explore many helpful links) 
   God as Gardener (Psalm 80: 7-9); God like Garden Soil (Isaiah 61: 11)

How about You:   Perhaps you’d like to respond with a “Comment” about how gardening has played a role in your life or with your family; or, share more insights from Scripture on garden, gardening, and restoration metaphors.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Life as It Ought to Be - Part 2: Set Free…to Renew Our Minds

Tomorrow is Inauguration Day and many Americans will be watching as Donald John Trump is sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.  But indications are that America has never been more divided at any time since the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, in 1861, near the beginning of the Civil War.  Voices of opposition and distain for Trump are heard from people representing the sciences, politics, human rights groups, and the entertainment industry.  Here is a sampling:

America was also divided in 1861 at Lincoln's first inauguration.
I am literally on a remote tropical island and I, even I, don't feel safe. – Hollie Smith (singer-songwriter) 

Having a person in the position of U.S. President who does not acknowledge scientific facts establishing the clear reality of human-caused climate change is a disgrace
. -- Dr. Twila Moon, (University of Bristol)

We will fight to make sure that Planned Parenthood health center doors stay open, and that people in this country can get access to basic reproductive health care
…   Cecile Richards (president, Planned Parenthood)

The world will never be the same.  – Cher (singer-actress)

Winning the electoral college does not absolve Trump of the grave sins he committed against millions of Americans.  If Trump wants to roll back the tide of hate he unleashed, he has a tremendous amount of work to do and he must begin immediately
.  -- Harry Reid (U.S. Senate, (D) Nev.)

We've let a hatemonger lead our great nation.  We've let a bully set our course.  I'm devastated
.  -- Chris Evans (actor—“Captain America”)

The battle of angry words and rude behavior between Election 2016 winners and losers has continued right up to Inauguration Day.  Thanks to the internet, these angry expressions are broadcasted far and wide.  Occasionally, President-elect Trump throws fuel into the fire with angry tweets of his own.

What makes us act this way?  The cause is not Donald Trump.  Nor is it the two-party system; or, the internet.  The cause is not even fear of “losing our rights”—e.g. reproductive rights, gender rights, voting rights, health benefits, welfare entitlements, government job security, etc.  The ultimate cause lies deep within the human hearti.e. the mental frameworks of logic and values each person has constructed with their mind.

 
When we are honest with ourselves, we admit we have personal struggles with pride, lust, and deceit.  These in turn influence our moral beliefs and hence how we think about the social and economic issues listed above.  Regardless of our stand on these issues, many of us experience fear and angst over how the new administration will influence our future.  When we reflect on the violence and destruction throughout human history we realize that humans are not naturally “good-at-heart,” or should I say, “good-at-mind.”  The Bible states, there is none righteous, not even one (Romans 3: 10).  And, the Apostle James asks (James 4: 1), What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?  Scripture answers immediately-- Because of your lusts that war in your members.
   
All of us have to deal with lust, an intense desire for something that is not rightfully ours to have.  Although many including Google mistakenly limit lust to “sexual desire,” it applies more broadly to any inordinate desire. We may lust for things like food, wealth, fame, intellectual prowess, or power.  The root of the problem is not that sex, food, guns, or fame are bad.  Instead, it is the way we think about these gifts of God.  What’s worse, we can use our minds and thought processes to deceive ourselves into believing that we don’t lust, or at least not very much.  As the prophet Jeremiah explains (Jeremiah 17: 9 NET), the human mind is more deceitful than anything else.  It is incurably bad.  Who can understand it?

Thankfully, God’s moral revelation in Scripture comes to us with the Spirit and power to help us attack the root of the problem within our minds.  In Part 1 of “Life as It Ought to Be,” we emphasized how God has power to “set us free….to serve Him.”  As the Apostle Peter writes (1 Peter 3:18), For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit…  Sin, is rebellion against God as a result of the prideful, lustful, and deceitful ways of thinking in our minds.  But sin does not need to have dominion over us.  Paul writes in Romans 8: 10, If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness.

In Part 1, we explained how God sets the sinner free from sin’s mastery and gives the person of faith His Holy Spirit to reside within as a “New Master.” The “old master,” representing sin, selfishness, and Satan can now be brought under the righteous authority of God’s Spirit.  But, as a believer, I must submit to God’s Spirit as His Word tells me to …consider yourself dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus…[not allowing] sin [to] reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts...(Romans 6: 11-12).  Specifically, I must recognize that I cannot serve two masters.  My “death to the old master” representing sin, as expressed in pride, lust, and deceit becomes reality as I submit to my New Master, Jesus Christ.  Romans 12: 1-2 describes what God asks me to do daily (emphasis mine):   


present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.  And do not [let your mind and thinking] be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Notice that our responsibility is to continually allow God’s Spirit through His Word to renew our minds so that our wills are attuned to God’s will.  Dr. Caroline Leaf, a communication pathologist and audiologist has conducted research for years in the field of cognitive neuroscience.  She believes that God created our minds in His image and has given us the “free will” to choose how we will think and react to our circumstances.  Dr. Leaf writes in her book entitled Switch on Your Brain (Baker Books, 2013):   



Your mind is the most powerful thing in the universe after God, and indeed fashioned after God.  Free will and choice are real, spiritual, and scientific facts. Your mind (soul) has one foot in the door of the spirit and one foot in the door of the body; you can change your brain with your mind and essentially renew your mind.

Dr. Leaf rejects the view that the human brain is hard-wired and unchangeable, a view that gained popularity in the 1980’s.  She has based her research on her insights gained from the Scriptures such as Romans 12: 2 in which God commands us to be transformed by the renewing of your mind and Deuteronomy 30: 19 in which God lovingly invites us to choose life in order that you may live….  Dr. Leaf reasons correctly that God would not ask His image bearers to exercise choice if He had not created us with brains that have the neurological capacity to change, and with the free will to make right choices that in turn help build healthy brains.  



In a future article, we will address more specifically how our mind can affect the status of our brain and in turn how we think when we use our God-given free will to make right decisions through the power of His Spirit and the guidance of His Word.   But for now, notice how James 4: 5-10 reveals the blessed benefit of submitting our minds to God’s will.  When we submit to God, we realize that His Spirit is actually longing for relationship with us.  What’s more God wants us to turn our longings back to Him as our Creator.  Listen to God’s loving mind speaking out to our minds (emphasis mine):

Or do you think the Scripture means nothing when it says, “The spirit that God caused to live within us has an envious yearning”?  But he gives greater grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble.”  So submit to God.  But resist the devil and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and make your hearts pure, you double-minded Grieve, mourn, and weep.  Turn your laughter into mourning and your joy into despair.  Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.

How does a God Who created mankind explain the current division in America, and the divisions and strife around the world?  As we have explained, God’s Word tells us that our minds are naturally prideful, corrupt, and prone to lust or desire that which we do not have.  Therefore, God’s Spirit desires that each person submit to Him and allow their minds to be transformed by the renewing of their minds so that each will know what God’s will is for them.  The above challenge from the Apostle James seems very pertinent to this year’s politics.  It is the prideful, lustful, deceitful mind that causes the outpouring of prideful speech and actions.  Our only remedy is to allow God’s Spirit through His Word to go deep into our system of thought, causing repentance (change of heart/mind), submission to God, and confession of sin.  These actions bring New Life in Christ for the unbeliever, and they bring regular renewal and spiritual growth to the Christ-follower. 

If all goes as planned, tomorrow Donald J. Trump will be our new president.  Life will not immediately be “as it ought to be.”  But, if we take to heart the instructions of the Apostle James to submit to God Who will help us resist the devil, God will enable us to replace our own tendency toward divisiveness, anger, and rudeness with the virtues like patience, kindness, and self-control.   We can then be a much-needed, fresh aroma in our struggling homes, schools, workplaces, and churches.  The inspired Word written in a letter by the Apostle Paul to Titus during harsh times of the Roman Empire ought to encourage us to be thankful for the privilege of watching the inauguration and then praying for the Trump family and his new administration (emphasis mine):

Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.  For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another.  But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior so that being justified by His grace we would be mad heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 
– Titus 3:1-7
-------------------------
How about You?   If after reading this article, you sense that you need to do some mind and soul searching, here is a suggestion.  Read Part 1 of this series and prayerfully consider and apply the “four disciplines” outlined there to assure our daily submission to the “New Master.”  They were (1) forging ahead for God while confessing and forgetting past failings; and, being disciplined to (2) feed on God’s Word, (3) adopt a lifestyle of prayer and repentance, and (4) seek fellowship regularly with fellow believers.  If you have particular questions or comments, please use the “Comment” box below or e-mail me at silviusj@gmail.com

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Christmas Readers Theater

Christmas Eve day afforded our family an wonderful opportunity to gather in our home for conversation, a meal together, and opening presents.  A additional special treat for me was to watch our daughter Mindy Salyers with her husband, Steve, their son, Caleb, and older daughter, Kiara present a readers theater based on the draft of a script I had composed and invited them to present.  I have included the words below for your own reading, and will send you as a PDF the readers version of it arranged for four readers if you would like to request a copy by e-mailing me at silviusj@gmail.com.

Readers theater by members of the Steve Salyers family.
May the names and themes highlighted in this short script point your attention to God’s greatest Gift to us, leading you to worship and praise Him as you celebrate the amazing birth of Jesus Christ, “the Word become flesh.”

Christmas!
Celebration
Traditions.
Gifts!

God's Gift!
God so loved the world
that He gave.
Gave His only Son.

And the Word became flesh:

Born of a virgin,
Born of Mary,
Born in Jerusalem.

The Word became flesh
and dwelt among us.
Emmanuel:
"God with us."

The Law came through Moses.
The Law exposed our sin.
We fall short.
We die.
Grace and truth came through Jesus.

He came…
not to judge the world,
but that all who believe might be saved.

“The people who live in darkness
Have seen a great Light.”
The Light of the world,
The Light of Christmas.

Jesus!!
Jesus is the true Light
that lights our way.
Jesus!!

The gift!
The gift of God.
The Gift!
For all who will believe in Him,
The Gift!
For all who will receive Him,
The Gift!

"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us..." John 1:14
Jesus!!
Wonderful Counsellor,
to guide us.
Almighty God,
to help us.
Everlasting Father,
to comfort us.
Prince of Peace,
to calm us.
Emmanuel:
"God with us."

Joy to the World!!
The Lord is come!!
Let us sing!
Let heaven and nature sing!
O come!!
O come, Emmanuel!!

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Life as It Ought to Be - Part 1: Set Free…to Serve

 Overview:  Here we begin a series of articles on the theme of “Life as It Ought to Be.” First we look at what it means to be "set free" in Christ.  Then, we will consider how a Christ-centered worldview can illuminate our understanding of science-related issues like climate change, the origin of life, and the science of human behavior.
The future is uncertain, but it's not the first time.

Christmas 2016 comes as we near the end of another tumultuous year.  America has weathered a most unusual presidential election that seems unlikely to heal a very divided nation.  America’s divisions are rooted in deep disagreements over moral issues including the rights of the unborn, how to address the plight of the poor and the alien among us, and how to respond to the cries from minorities with respect to ethnicity and gender.  Besides these tensions, Americans live daily in the threat of expanding war abroad combined with violence and terror in the homeland. 

More and more Americans are seeking freedom from their pain and despair by turning to alcohol, drugs, and violence; even suicide.  Many are entering the Christmas season with little hope that things will get better.   Yet as in many dark periods of history, the clear message of Christmas still rings with the promise of hope across a dark, cold landscape.
Jesus our Savior: Born to die, to set us captives free.
On that first Christmas night, the message of the angel to the lonely shepherds of Bethlehem was a message of hope for us today:  Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (Luke 2: 10-11)Several months earlier, the angel had said to Joseph concerning Mary who would soon be his wife, She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins (Matthew 1: 21)

When He became a man, Jesus fulfilled these prophecies about His coming as a Savior.  In fact, Jesus Himself stood in the synagogue at the beginning of His ministry and read Isaiah’s prophecy foretelling His coming: The spirit of the lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed(Isaiah 61: 1; Luke 4:18).   Yes, Jesus Christ came into the world to “set free the oppressed.” But Christ came not only to “save us from the consequences of our sins” but to empower us to serve God the way we were created to serve.

But how is it that people “set free” become “servants?”  Seems contradictory, doesn’t it?  And how is it possible that true fulfillment in life can only be reached when we understand that God has set us free to serve? 

The answer lies in the fundamental truth that God loves His creation including mankind.  He created humankind to love and serve Him.  We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19).  The love of God within us then spills out as we love and serve our neighbor and the creation (the physical world in which we live).  These relationships are possible because God is personal and created us with a “personality” and with “free will” to make moral choices.  When we are in right moral relationship with God, we are free to worship our Creator by serving Him, our neighbor, and creation.  This responsibility is best described as stewardship (Gr. oikonomia (οἰκονομία), oy-kon-om-ee'-ah).

“Okay, so I am set free…to serve.”  But, you ask, “Set free from what?”  We are set free from the human tendency to serve other masters and not God.  God created us to love and serve Him above all other masters.  Jesus taught us in His “Sermon on the Mount,” No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6: 24).  Notice Jesus didn’t say, “don’t serve two masters.” Rather, He states, “You cannot serve two masters.” We are simply unable to do this.  In fact, our futility in attempting to serve both God and our own selfish pursuits of material possessions, personal fame, or power will be evident to God, to us, and to others.  It is precisely from this frustration that God can free us.

When we serve God as stewards, we offer back to God the provisions He has granted to us; namely, our talent, time, and treasures.  We become devoted and constrained by His love and power through the help of His abiding Spirit.  The Apostle Paul wrote that the love of God controls us (2 Corinthians 5:14).  The psalmist testifies that his God satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with goodness (Psalm 107: 9).  The person who has known and experienced this kind of love relationship to his or her Creator knows what it means to be free.

But the Bible also teaches that our freedom in Christ does not automatically come prepackaged along with us when we are born.  The psalmist David writes in Psalm 51: 5 as if to say, “Hear this!  I was born a rebel from God!  My very nature is to go the opposite direction from God (Isaiah 53:6) to serve my own interests and not God’s will.”  Soon after God created them as the first humans, Adam and Eve chose to reject God and serve another master, the Tempter, named Satan (Genesis 3).  Since then, all of Adam’s offspring carry his rebellious nature and by default will choose to follow the priorities of Satan’s kingdom.  Satan’s nature spills out of those enslaved to him in the form of lust for possessions, power, and pleasure. But, while these pursuits can bring satisfaction for a season, Satan’s subjects experience emptiness, despair, and ultimately eternal death--separation from God eternally.


Pilgrim is set free from burden of sin at the cross
It is from the enslavement of the sin nature we inherited from Adam that we have an inclination to serve Satan’s priorities.  But God through Christ has set us free!  If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature, not just reformed, but transformed--…old things have passed away, new things have come (2 Corinthians 5: 17).  For…the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so… (Romans 8: 7).  It is only when God’s Spirit gives us the conviction that we are enslaved by sin (Romans 6: 12), dead in sin (Ephesians 2: 1), hostile to God, and must die to sin (Romans 6: 11) that we cry out to God for His forgiveness and His righteousness through faith in Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf.  The Apostle Paul declares …having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life (Romans 6: 22).

Practically speaking, how does a sinner who still lives in a fleshly body capable of sin against God but who is set free from the slavery to the sin nature act as a servant of God?  Here are a few traits that I have found helpful in my discipline to live free as a steward in service to God:

1.   I must forget past failings while forging ahead with a lighter load.  I must apply what Paul wrote in Philippians 3: 13-14:   I do not regard myself as having laid hold of [perfection] yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  We press on victoriously by laying aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and [running] with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus…(Hebrews 12: 1-2).   But, although Christ has set me free, at times I can still hear Satan accusing me of past sins of which I have repented.  Yes, even sins placed under the cleansing blood of the Cross.  In order to continue to live free as a steward of God’s forgiveness, there is another trait I must cultivate.

2.  I must feed regularly on God’s Word to foster a lifestyle of repentance.  Remember Jesus’ challenge to Satan from the Old Testament, in Deuteronomy 8: 3, Man shall not live on bread alone.  (Luke 4: 4).  Just as I must regularly nourish my material body with food, so I must “feed” my inner man on the “Bread of Life” through God’s Word.  I do so when I read, study, meditate, and memorize Scripture.  Then, God’s love and grace assures me of my freedom like an echo of the heavy chains that fell off when Christ set me free.  That echo reminds me of the great price Jesus paid to set me free; and, it drowns out the accusing voice of Satan.  But it also reminds me that I still have a sin nature that wages war against the Spirit within me (Romans 7: 23).  So, God prompts me to apply another trait of a free man in Christ—prayer.

3.   I must find regular times for communion with God in prayer.  When I am convicted of my sin, the Spirit of God through His Word urges me to confess my sin, repent (turn from) my sin, determine to avoid the situations that caused me to sin (1 John 1: 9), and accept God’s cleansing from unrighteousness.  Knowing my depravity and cultivating a sense of poverty of spirit (Matthew 5: 3) can create a “lifestyle of repentance.”  Far from being morose or despairing of life, such a lifestyle draws me closer to the precious bosom of God Who longs to walk in fellowship with me.  Freedom in Christ spurs us to offer adoration, thanksgiving, supplication, and intercession to God in Spirit-led, Scripture-fed prayer.

4.  I must fellowship with other believers on a regular basis.  The assembly of believers, the church, is God’s prescription and plan for His Great Commission (Matthew 28: 18-20; Acts 1:8). When we assemble together we benefit from teaching, edification, accountability, and corporate worship (Hebrews 10: 25).  We do well to join a church in which Scripture is the authority for faith and practice, and in which the spiritual disciplines outlined above are encouraged.

In Part 2 of “Life as It Ought to Be” we will consider traits of those who “Walk in Humility.”  In order to realize a sense of poverty of spirit and cultivate a spirit of utter dependence on my Father in Heaven, I must, as Paul said, “die daily”  and accept Jesus’ invitation to die to self and take up His cross daily and follow Him (Luke 9: 23). 

For now, I close with a very meaningful poem I found in A.W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy (Harper) that expresses what it means to be free in Christ with free access to our Father in Heaven—all made possible through the Gift of His Son, born that first Christmas in a stable in a Roman colony, and then crucified on a Roman Cross in order to set us free:

Arise, my soul, arise;
     Shake off thy guilty fears;
The bleeding Sacrifice
     In my behalf appears:
Before the throne my Surety stands,
My name is written on His bands.

My God is reconciled;
     His pardoning voice I bear:
     He owns me for His child;
     I can no longer fear:
With confidence I now draw nigh,
And "Father, Abba, Father," cry.
                                 --  Charles Wesley

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Let's Value the Team…and Our Opponent

Today is Saturday, but not just any Saturday in November.  Today is “Game Day” in one of America’s greatest football rivalries.  To the Michigan Woverines and Ohio State Buckeyes, and their fans across the nation and world, this is “the Game.”  The Michigan-OSU rivalry is immense not only because of the yearly anticipation but because of the long history that includes great coaching on both sides of the Michigan-Ohio border.  Who can forget the days of Woody Hayes (OSU, 1951-1978) and his former assistant coach, Bo Schembechler (U of M, 1969-1989), who became archrival head coaches when Bo crossed the line into Michigan to coach the Wolverines, in 1969?

Bo Schembechler, Michigan Head Coach,  1969-1989
On this Game Day, 2016, less than an hour to kickoff, Buckeye Head Coach Urban Meyer, and Wolverine Head Coach Jim Harbaugh are each probably giving their last minute challenges to their respective teams.   This morning, our son, Brad reminded me of another great motivational speech, now called “The Team Speech” given by Coach Schembechler to his Michigan Wolverines during the 1983 football season.  Here is an excerpt:

No man is more important than The Team. No coach is more important than The Team. The Team, The Team, The Team, and if we think that way, all of us, everything that you do, you take into consideration what effect does it have on my Team? Because you can go into professional football, you can go anywhere you want to play after you leave here. You will never play for a Team again. You’ll play for a contract. You’ll play for this. You’ll play for that. You’ll play for everything except the team, and think what a great thing it is to be a part of something that is, The Team.

As Brad noted, Schembechler’s words still ring true and valuable to us not only for sports teams, but for success in every human endeavor including marriage, family, the corporate world, government, and the military.  One of the great values of competitive sports is that it prepares men and women to be “team players” for life.

But there is a second great value from rivalries such as the Michigan-OSU rivalry.  There can be no rivalry without a team—and its rival opponent.   It’s “the Team, the Team, the Team,” for team success; but, each team and its fans must also respect the rival team and its fans.  Just as each individual player on a successful team must surrender his or her individual rights to the good of the team as a whole, so each of the rival teams and fans must recognize and defer to the hopes and dreams of the rival players and fans.



With son, Brad, and gandson, Caleb, 2009
One of the great memories I have shared with Brad was when we walked to the Big House, in Ann Arbor, to watch the Michigan-OSU game, in 2009.  We were accompanied by my grandson and Brad’s nephew, Caleb Salyers; and, by our mutual friend, Brian Flora.  What made it so special was not who won (OSU was the victor), but the fact that we as Wolverine fans could stand (Who could sit down?) next to Buckeye fans and treat one another with respect and have enjoyable conversation during an exciting game.

There is a lesson we can learn from respectful engagement between strong rivals in sports.  Just as healthy rivalries make better teams and better individuals, so respectful disagreements can strengthen marriages, family, the academic world, the corporate world, and the realm of politics.  Those who disagree with us are to be valued, not silenced, rejected, or destroyed.  We need to learn from the sports world how to have respectful disagreement in our homes, at work, at school, and in politics.  Those who respectfully disagree in a democratic society make is better citizens.

When we forget the importance of civility in political discourse.

University administrators who are providing “safe zones” for their students to protect them from “hate speech” may need to revisit the mission statement of their institution.  Of course "hate speech" ought to be addressed, but unfortunately many administrators seem   to be ignorant of even basic biblical principles like "love thy neighbor." Most mission statements will include words like community, commitment, exploration, ideas, critical thinking, academic, and freedom.  However, it seems that political correctness has overtaken polite consideration of differing opinions and ideas raised in a spirit of civility.   The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5: 15,

See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.

In conclusion, I thank Brad for “tossing me the morsel” about the importance of “the Team concept” in sports, but also in our respective marriages and in other areas of life. Thanks, Brad, and with that I will conclude lest I follow my tendency to write a too-long blog. 

It’s time for kick-off!   Go BLUE!  And to my Buckeye friends, I hope you enjoy the game.


Related Article:   Sports without Spirit

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Transformation of Trump…and All of Us

Thank you very much, everybody.
Sorry to keep you waiting.
Complicated business.
Complicated
.              – President-Elect Donald Trump

With those words, the man who will likely become the 45th president of the United States publically greeted his staff and supporters in the early morning hours following Election Day, 2016.  Donald Trump’s acceptance speech signaled the end of one phase of his “complicated business” of leading what he calls a “great movement” to “Make America Great Again.”  Meanwhile, his opponent, Sec. Hillary Clinton, her many supporters and many others across the nation were in stunned amazement at the reports of what Trump had just accomplished with no prior experience in public office.


President-Elect Donald J. Trump and VP-Elect, Mike Pence
A very cheery Donald Trump addressed positive words of assurance to our wounded and divided nation following the bitter campaign.  As if he was speaking into the heart of every American, he promised to serve well as their president, saying,

I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be President for all of Americans, and this is so important to me. For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I'm reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.

With a much smaller budget for his campaign and with a much less elaborate “ground game,” Donald Trump accomplished what few believed he could do.  Trump’s key to success was that he understood the outcry of many Americans who want less government and a humble, servant spirit from those in Washington.  Trump addressed this fact with the following words:

As I've said from the beginning, ours was not a campaign but rather an incredible and great movement, made up of millions of hard-working men and women who love their country and want a better, brighter future for themselves and for their family.

Having witnessed the lack of hope and the frustration on so many faces of Americans across the country, and now this night suddenly realizing that his shoulders will soon bear the weight of presidential responsibilities, Trump renewed his commitment to the American people (emphasis mine),

It is a movement comprised of Americans from all races, religions, backgrounds, and beliefs, who want and expect our government to serve the people -- and serve the people it will. … I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be President for all of Americans, and this is so important to me.

This afternoon when I heard these recorded words from President-Elect Trump, I was much encouraged by his vision for the federal government—“a government to serve the people.”  My immediate response was to ask myself whether this often brash, unpredictable man can be a “servant leader” or “steward-leader”—one who can exercise stewardship of the power and privilege entrusted to him by the citizens he serves, and ultimately entrusted by God to Whom all power belongs.  Only time will tell.  But for now, we should thank God for allowing the uncontested selection of our next president, and for allowing the respectful acknowledgement of Trump’s victory by his opponent.  Both of these processes will aid in the reuniting of our country.

If Donald Trump is to be an effective steward leader he will need the prayers of Christ-followers across our land and the world who acknowledge that all power comes from God.  Christians should remember that true steward leadership grows from humility.  A humble leader serves the people well and does not abuse his power.  He or she remembers his own puniness and depravity in the presence of Almighty God.  Or in the words of Vice President-Elect Mike Pence whom I respect as a proven servant leader we must regularly “bend the knee and bow the head” in prayer to God.  We can continue pray that God will spiritually transform Donald Trump through his association with godly men of proven character like Mike Pence, Mike Huckabee, Franklin Graham, and Ben Carson.

In a 2012 article, Character Qualities of a Steward-Leader, I referred to President Ronald Reagan as an example of one whose leadership was successful because he acknowledged the sovereignty of God in the affairs of nations.  Reagan also demonstrated godly character in his dealings with others and through his respect for the spiritual heritage of America.  Speaking at a prayer breakfast shortly after his election as governor of California, in 1967, Reagan said,

Faith in God is absolutely essential if a person is to do his best.  Sometimes we’re afraid to let people know that we rely on God.  Belief in the dependence on God is essential to our state and nation.  This will be an integral part of our state as long as I have anything to do with it.

King Solomon also recognized the supreme authority of God over his rule and acknowledged his desperate need of God’s wisdom and strength.  At the beginning of his administration, Solomon prayed,

Now, O LORD my God, You have made Your servant king in place of my father David, yet I am but a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in…So give Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people to discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of Yours?  It was pleasing in the sight of the Lord. – King Solomon (1 Kings 3: 7, 9, 10)

Could it be that God has bestowed the Presidency of the United States upon Donald Trump so that, in the words of pagan King Nebuchadnezzar,

…the living may know
that the Most High [God] is Ruler
over the realm of mankind,
and bestows it on whom He wishes,
and sets over it the lowliest of men
. – Daniel 4: 17

Neither Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan, or King Solomon were born with exemplary moral character.  However, throughout history God has graciously worked in the lives of men and women to prepare them to be godly leaders.  The Apostle Paul, in Ephesians 2: 10 writes,  We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

If you are a Christ-follower, please pray that God will transform the life of Donald Trump as he senses the full weight of responsibility that is about to be on his shoulders.  Pray that Trump will humbly respond to God’s call in his life through circumstances, through godly mentors, and through the prayers and encouragement of God’s people that we will recognize and exercise our responsibility to pray for our next president, his family, and those he will choose to serve with him.