Lunch with Kevin: My Conversation With A Dying Man

Lessons About Life While Facing Death

On August 7, 2018, Kevin left the struggles of this earth and entered eternity. Kevin was born December 11, 1949 spending most of his life striving to appropriate Christ’s life into his own. In this struggle, he impacted thousands of lives towards a fuller faith in the Triune God, including mine. He will be eternally remembered by His Lord and so many on earth.

This post was written over two years ago. Yet, it’s message rings true today.

Death teaches us how to live.

Life is learning to die.

Kevin is an good example of these connected truths (though he would probably deny this). 


Here’s the post from June 6, 2016:

What is it like to face death head on? To know you are going to die in 2-5 years? To experience the reality of death without actually dying? Two weeks ago I had lunch with Kevin. He’d been recently diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a terminal disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the famous baseball player who died of ALS in 1941. Kevin knows that he will pass from this earth sometime in the next 5 years. It is that final. There is no cure. He is dying.

As an Orthodox Christian, Kevin deals with his impending death with a radically different perspective. It’s actually more than a perspective. It’s a reality. He is experiencing the reality of death before he dies. And as a result, he is experiencing life as never before. You might say, in dying he is coming alive.

Counsel From The Conversation 

  • Everything changed with the diagnosis.” His relationship with his wife, children, grandchildren, and friends came alive. Almost instantaneously, familial and friendship love deepened. He wants to be with his wife and family constantly. They want to be with him. His friends no longer assume he’ll be here tomorrow but declare their love as often as possible.

In an email Kevin wrote: “the love of family and close friends is an especially soothing balm. My relations with my beloved wife and rock of 37 years have been transformed overnight. We see into each other’s eyes deeply; we speak meaningfully and with sensitivity, and hold each other with true love; and we now are beginning to understand what “pure love” means. I also cannot believe the number of friends and acquaintances who have reached out with kind thoughts and words and acts. I am spending as much time with my relatives and friends as possible, even though I am more prone to being introspective.”

  • I can see more clearly now. I see what I could not see before.” He writes, “My thoughts are clear and more focused. My mind does not wander as it did. I am more “watchful” over my thoughts…Useless thoughts are driven away more easily by repeating the “Jesus Prayer:” Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”
  • I am less preoccupied.” He’s not attracted to doing or thinking about certain things. Some activities he once gave his time to are not important anymore.
  • “All I want to do is pray.” He has a deep commitment to commune with God. He is ramping up now for what he will do for eternity.  A “bucket list” is nonsense. He’s preparing for eternity.
  • “This is for my transfiguration.” He told me that a friend who is a faith-healer wrote him advising him to resist those who would tell him he could not be healed. But, Kevin isn’t desperate for physical healing. He desires spiritual healing that he knows dying brings about. For him it is more important that he experience God’s presence to transform than God’s power to deliver. He doesn’t doubt God’s ability to physically heal people. He just knows that his need for inner “transfiguration” is much more significant than his need for physical comfort. He is being transformed by death.

Life From Death

Life is coming out of death. True living begins to happen when you begin to die.

Isn’t this how Christians are to live all the time? St. Paul died everyday (1 Corinthians 15.31). He was “crucified with Christ:” dead already. Yet he lived (Galatians 2.20).

Jesus teaches that new fruit only comes from a buried and dead seed (John 12.24). His resurrection demonstrates that life comes out of death.

You and I struggle to know how to live because we struggle to know how to die.

I asked Kevin to teach me how to die. He wasn’t sure he could do that. Yet the words he spoke were lessons I needed and wanted to hear.

Now it’s a matter of struggling to live out the lessons. I hope not to be diagnosed with a terminal disease before I begin practicing them. But, I am not even guaranteed tomorrow. I better start dying today.


I miss Kevin. Yet, he is in my thoughts and prayers more now than ever. He’s also much more aware of what I’m up to. I look forward to seeing him again someday. I love you, brother!

Share your thoughts below. 

Dr. K 

 

Stirring the Secret Sauce of Christian Living

Synergy is How It All Happens

Every Spring, with the harsh winter behind her, Kathy begins to prepare her little plot of land for delicious vegetables. She tills and feeds the soil and makes sure the garden is protected from pesky deer. She can taste the greens and peas, tomatoes and peppers, cucumbers and squash as she plants the seeds and starter plants. Heavenly showers and the radiant sun along with ground-level nutrients will feed these plants to maturity. Kathy fertilizes and weeds to help things along.

When it comes to having beautiful vegetables, Kathy knows two things: 1) she must exert necessary time and wise effort to prepare the soil, plant, and tend her vegetable garden and 2) she has no vegetables without all the resources God provides. She knows that good gardening is a divine-human enterprise. God gives life to all creation. She is simply participating in that life in a particular “gardening” way. By God’s grace she plants and He gives the increase. 

The technical word for this interaction of human and divine effort is “synergy.” Synergy is normally understood as “the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.” “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” could be one way of expressing synergy. 

Synergy and Salvation 

Though not the emphasis of this post, there is some debate among a few modern evangelical theologians about synergy as it relates to justification. In what ways do God’s will and the human will interact resulting in salvation? Synergism, as a theory of justification, is rejected by most evangelicals due to its association with Roman Catholicism and the belief in human free will.

In this debate, consideration is rarely given, if ever, to the understanding of the early Church regarding salvation. Augustine may be quoted but only as he fits into someone’s preconceptions. Perspectives are skewed in the direction of Reformation and post-reformation writers who shape modern theological understanding. Scriptures are often torn apart and used as daggers to slay the theological enemy of the “true gospel.” Without the grounding of established (early) Church dogma, it’s a chaotic and heartbreaking free-for-all.

It seems the first 1000-1200 years of the Church are ignored as if they knew little of the meaning of salvation and how God brings humanity to Himself. How was it possible for people have a relationship with Christ without the insights from the reformers and their devotees? 

But, as I said, synergism related to justification is not the emphasis of this post. ☺️

Synergy and Christian Living 

I want to emphasize synergy as an explanation and secret sauce for the Christian life. Synergy for Christian living, using the definition above, is the interaction or cooperation of God and humans to produce God-likeness and, actually, anything in the Christian life. 

The word “synergy” comes from the Greek words SYN: same, together and ERGOS: energy, work. It literally means: “work together.” In the New Testament synergism is the idea of being “workers together (Gr. sunergountes) with” God (2 Corinthians 6.1). 

Paul beautifully describes this work when he writes: work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2.12-13). Our past, present and future salvation is being worked in us by God as we cooperate with Him. This is not the normal evangelical understanding of salvation. Perhaps we need to pause, take a second look at Paul’s words, and wrestle with what he’s saying. 

In the past, I (mis)interpreted the word “salvation” in this verse as “sanctification” only to fit my theology. Now, I understand salvation to be the broad term for all the various aspects of our relationship with God – justification, calling, sanctification, glorification, adoption, imputation, etc. These are all aspects of our one “salvation.”

God is working each of these aspects into our lives. It’s our role to cooperate with Him. We are workers together with Him for everything related to salvation, in the broad sense of the term, in our lives. 

Synergy and Early Writers 

From the beginning of Christian thought, the reality of synergism, though the word was not used, is seen. Listen to St. Clement of Alexandria (190 AD): 

A man by himself working and toiling at freedom from sinful desires achieves nothing. But if he plainly shows himself to be very eager and earnest about this, he attains it by the addition of the power of God. God works together with willing souls. But if the person abandons his eagerness, the spirit from God is also restrained. To save the unwilling is the act of one using compulsion; but to save the willing, that of one showing grace. 

St. John Cassian (360-435) in his Conferences (Chap. 13) declares that human efforts cannot be set against the grace of God but that human effort and grace co-operate. 

And therefore the aforesaid teacher of the Gentiles [Paul], though he bears his witness that he had obtained the grade of the Apostolate by the grace of God, saying: “By the grace of God I am what I am,” yet also declares that he himself had corresponded to Divine Grace, where he says: “And His Grace in me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: and yet not I, but the Grace of God with me.” [1 Cor. 15.10] For when he says: “I laboured,” he shows the effort of his own will; when he says: “yet not I, but the grace of God,” he points out the value of Divine protection; when he says: “with me,” he affirms that [the grace of God] cooperates with him when he was not idle or careless, but working and making an effort.

Or, St. Peter of Damascus (12th c): 

Human effort is profitless…without help from above, but no one receives such help unless he himself chooses to make an effort. We need always both things, we need the human and the divine, ascetic practice and spiritual knowledge, fear and hope, inward grief and solace, fearfulness and humility, discrimination and love.

The early Church, the apostles, and patristic writers did not pit grace and works against each other. The synergy of grace and works made possible all things related to God. To accomplish anything worthwhile for God on earth, there must be synergy between God and humanity. 

For example, God alone is holy. We are not. Our actions and thoughts make this very obvious. The only way we become holy is cooperating with God; interacting with His holiness. We don’t make ourselves holy. And, God doesn’t make us holy against our will. We, God and us, work together to see holiness come about. Synergy makes holiness a possibility. 

Without the experience of synergy we’re in danger of swinging the pendulum between strict legalism and complacent libertinism – we think it’s all up to us or we don’t do a thing. Synergy stops the pendulum. 

Synergy in the Scriptures 

There are examples of synergy all throughout scripture.

We see synergy in Joseph’s life: “The keepers of the prison did not look into anything that was under Joseph’s authority, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper” (Genesis 39.23). Joseph worked yet it was God who prospered the work. How was the work accomplished? By God and Joseph working together. 

Nehemiah worked hard to prepare and build the walls of Jerusalem but only because “the good hand of my God” was upon him (Nehemiah 2.8). When opposition came, Nehemiah replied, “The God of heaven Himself will prosper us; therefore we His servants will arise and build…” (Nehemiah 2.20). The servants built. God prospered their work. The walls were finished because God and Nehemiah (and hundreds of helpers) did the work together. 

An understanding of synergism makes certain Bible passages come alive.

For the the Apostle Paul, synergism is how his and our life, ministry and inner transformation take place.

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gave the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it (1 Corinthians 3.6-10).

This whole passage demonstrates the interaction of God and His servants to accomplish His work. The Greek word for “fellow workers” is sunergoi (syn – with + ergoi – work) from which we get our word “synergy.” You work with God and He works with you. 

In this case Paul is pointing out that we work together with God as He plows the field of our heart and builds the building of our lives. God works within us yet we participate in His work. Without our participation, nothing is accomplished. Without God’s work, nothing is accomplished.  

For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me (1 Corinthians 13.9-10). We are to work hard yet God works with us. 

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2.20). How can Paul no longer live but still live? Answer: Christ in him; living life in Paul as Paul lived life. 

Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3.20-21). His power works in us to do above what we ask or think. 

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure (Philippians 2.12-13). We work for it is God who works in us. 

Even Peter gets in on the action. Note that God has given us all His resources to live and be like God. Yet, as we become participants in God’s nature we are to make every effort to supplement our faith: His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature,…For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (2 Peter 1.3-7)

God develops all His virtues in us as we participate in Him and cooperate with Him in that process. 

Illustration of Synergy: Sword & Fire 

Pastor Jon Braun writes about a sword in a fire as an illustration of what strength is available to us when we are joined to Christ. This is an ancient illustration of synergy. 

“Imagine a steel sword being heated in a fire. The sword becomes red hot. Does the sword become blended with the fire so that the fire and sword become one substance? Obviously not. The sword is still distinctly steel and the fire is still distinctly fire. The steel does not become fire, nor does the fire become steel. But the sword does get hot. It partakes of the heat of the fire. The heat of fire, the energy of the fire, interpenetrates the substance of the sword.” (Divine Energy, pp. 74-45)  

“To expand on this ancient example, you heat a sword in a fire until it’s white hot. Then you dip it in a tub of water. What happens? The hot sword makes the water sputter and hiss. Or, if the red-hot sword is pressed against a piece of word, the wood will scorch — perhaps even burst into flames.  

Let us make two observations from this illustration. First, the fire has one kind of nature and iron a nature quite distinct from it. It is the nature of a sharpened sword to cut; it is the nature of fire to burn. Yet, now the heated sword can both cut and burn. The heat of the fire penetrates the sword. The sword does not become fire by nature. But it does participate in the heat, the energy, of the fire. Through all this, though, both the fire and the sword maintain their distinct natures. ”  

Now is it the fire or the sword that burns the wood which the sword touches? The answer is both. Once the sword participates in the heat of the fire, it can inflict a burn quite easily. The energy produced by the fire is passed on to the sword and heat becomes characteristic of the sword as well as of the fire. It is accurate to say that the fire burns through the sword. And it is every bit as correct to say that the sword itself burns the wood with heat from the fire.” (Divine Energy, pp. 114-115) 

“What causes wood to burn when touched by a heated sword? There are a least three correct answers: the fire, the heat, the sword. It is inherent in the nature of fire to radiate heat, and thus it has the capacity to burn. It is not inherent in the nature of steel to radiate heat. But it is in the nature of steel to be able to participate in the heat of a fire and radiate that heat. Similarly, energized by union with Christ, we have access to the qualities needed to be godly. Then we are capable of living God’s way….Living God’s way is not just getting a bit of help; from God, nor is it the old, “God is my co-pilot” scheme, where I’m in charge and He cooperates with me. It is me cooperating with Him. In cooperation there is one operation, but two parties working together. Our God and King works, and we, His servants, work with Him. In dynamic union with Christ, participating in the energies from God’s own nature, we are able to work together with God.” (Divine Energy, p. 125)

Thoughts on Synergy

  • Synergy is not among equals. Limited and finite humans work together with Almighty God. In our weakness, brokenness and nothingness, God is strong, pure, and all we need. Our contribution is minuscule compared to His power. He is great, we are not. 
  • Synergy changes the way we consider certain supposed dichotomies: law and grace, faith and works, Old Testament and New Testament, nature and grace, spirit and body, reality and symbol, God’s faithfulness and humanity’s faithfulness, secular and sacred, Church and state. These pairs of concepts are no longer in conflict but cooperate in a true understanding of the Faith and God’s will for us. 
  • Synergy sheds light on the interactive operation of the Trinity. Three Persons are indeed One as they work together in perfect unity. It is this unified cooperation into which all of us are invited and for which Jesus prayed (John 17.20-26). 
  • Synergy is the way you and I are to live. Our goal is to live in union with the life of the Triune God. God’s work, then, becomes our work and our work is God’s work. We seek to be in such (com)union with God that we do His will with ease and effectiveness. We spend the rest of our lives in this quest. 
  • Synergy gives us theological equilibrium. We are not carried away with fanciful notions related to grace and faith, works and righteousness, Jesus and Church, prayer and scripture. Accepting and practicing synergy provides a clarifying perspective on divisive theological issues. 
  • Synergy challenges us to be humble, to trust, to be faithful, and to commune with God. If we know that nothing happens in our life apart from God’s work in and through us, then we will do what’s necessary to allow God full access to our heart, mind, soul and body. Moment by moment, we acknowledge our need for His mercy and grace. 

Those who would oppose synergism believing that any work of humans diminishes God’s grace, fail to see that a greater sense of God and His grace are actually experienced in synergism. As Jesus teaches us, “apart from me you can do nothing.” Synergists actually know that to be true. 

Conclusion

Seek to live in such communion with God that His will becomes your will and your will becomes His will. Then HIs work will be your work and your work will be His work. 

Always recognize you have work to do, yet it is God who does the work in you. 

Are you familiar with synergism as it relates to your own Christian living? Share your thoughts about synergism below. Thanks! 

Dr. K 

P.S. It is my prayer that this post is written in cooperation with God’s work in your life and mine. 

What Every Christian Should Know About Prayer

It's Not What You Think

You only truly know what you experience. So when a disciple made the request to Jesus, “Teach us to pray,” Jesus did not give his disciples a book to read, a program to follow, or a video to watch. He didn’t form a small group to study prayer. He didn’t give them words to study, exegete, or preach. He gave his disciples words to say and a way to say them. That, according to Jesus, is what it means to pray. That’s how you learn to know how to pray. You learn to pray by praying. There is no theory here, no theoretical ideas at all.

 

You don’t understand Jesus’ words in order to say them. You say them in order to understand them. 

Jesus made prayer accessible and good. We’ve made prayer complicated and intimidating. Let me save you hours of frustration and help prayer become simple again. 

Learn to Pray By Praying 

Learning to pray is a meandering path for many Christians. My journey with God in prayer has taken me from a period when I dismissed prayer as unnecessary to the present where prayer has become an integral part of each day. Along the way were long stretches of inconsistent time with God followed by short bursts of focused effort. On my own I tried my best to learn how to pray by reading books on prayer. “I need to pray! So, I’ll read a book about prayer.” Huh?

However, what I needed to do was actually pray. Learning comes in doing. You learn to play the guitar by playing the guitar. You learn to swim by swimming. You learn to cook by cooking. You learn to pray by praying. Jesus knew this. When asked to “Teach us to pray,” Jesus gave his disciples words to say and a way to say them.

We have much to learn from this brief exchange. But first let’s see that…

Prayer is best learned by repeating a set prayer.

Jesus gave his disciples a liturgy, a prayer liturgy – a form or order to follow with meaningful words expressing the essentials for living in relationship with God. Good prayer liturgy is the way you learn to pray. Good prayer liturgy teaches you to know God and yourself in relationship with Him. It’s that simple. 

Here it is simple and plain. Learn to pray by saying this prayer from Jesus in the morning, at meals, and at night. 

Our Father in the heavens, hallowed be your name

Your kingdom come

Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, 

Give us today our bread 

and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors 

and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one. 

Don’t listen to the ignorant naysayers who believe that repeating a set of words becomes boring, methodical, nonsensical, and rote. They don’t actually know what they’re talking about. Real liturgical prayer is filled with meaning, struggle, surprises, depth, and wonder. Follow Jesus. He knows what he’s talking about. 

I have been saying these words almost daily (and now multiple times during the day) for over 5 years now. After all these years, I’ve not tapped into the depth of their meaning though new experiences of prayer sometimes happen. This prayer, in particular, is an inexhaustible treasure of God’s life, love, and light. 

Say it consistently with a humble heart and you’ll discover its treasure. 

How will you implement Jesus’ prayer to his disciples in your own daily life? What obstacles do you need to overcome in order for this to happen? When will you start? Share below. 

Dr. K 

Exploring the Magnificent, Yet Often Misunderstood, Mercy of God

Mercy = Lovingkindness, Steadfast Love, Goodness, Loyalty

It is very clear in scripture and in life, that God is merciful. Over half the Psalms proclaim God’s mercy. God’s mercy is seen from Old Testament stories to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Your life and mine are filled with evidence of God’s mercy. That you are alive: seeing, breathing, reading, thinking, and being show God’s mercy in action. 

The Lord loves mercy and justice; the earth is full of the mercy of the Lord…Behold the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear Him, on those who hope in His mercy, that He may deliver their soul from death, and keep them alive in famine. Our soul waits for the Lord; He is our helper and defender. Our heart shall rejoice in Him, and we have hoped in His holy name. Let Your mercy, O Lord, be upon us, as we have set our hope on You.

(Psalm 33.5, 18-22)

O God, You have rejected and destroyed us; You have been angry; yet You showed us mercy!

(Psalm 60.1) 

No matter what God does (even the occasional angry act), He always does it in mercy. Whatever your life situation, God will strengthen you in it or guide you through it by His mercy. 

How God Characterizes Himself

God describes Himself as one who “shows mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Ex 20.6). In another conversation with Moses, He says of Himself: “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin… (Exodus 34.6-7).

How do you perceive God? 

Many Christians believe God sees Himself as: The Lord, the Lord God, angry and impatient, eager to punish, and abounding in wrath and displeasure, keeping fury for thousands, outraged by iniquity and transgression and sin. 

If that describes your perception of God, then you don’t believe God Himself.

Does God ever describe Himself as wrathful? The closest I’ve found is Psalm 95.11, “Therefore I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest'” referring to His dealings with disobedient Israel who refused to trust God in conquering Canaan. Moses uses the word “anger” (Numbers 32.6-15) to describe God’s dealings with Israel at this time. However, in an earlier conversation with God (Numbers 14.13-19), Moses says, “The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love [mercy].” It seems that God’s wrath is not so much an emotion God “feels” but an action of judgment or justice towards those who disobey in unbelief. 

God’s mercy is all over this particular event and certainly is seen in His dealings with Israel in the wilderness. 

Does God judge sin? Of course; yet in a manner permeated by lovingkindness. Though hard for us to understand, He has the ability to be merciful as He deals justly with those who disobey and reject Him

There is a place for God’s wrath in His dealing with humanity. Yet, again, it is wrath permeated by mercy. It may not make sense to us humans. But that’s one of many ways God is beyond our understanding. 

My point is that He never characterizes Himself as angry, outraged, eager to punish, or wrathful; only as merciful, gracious, long-suffering, good, truthful, and forgiving. His words, not mine. 

For more on God’s mercy along with some modern-day examples, click here.

A Gospel of Mercy 

A misunderstanding of God’s mercy creates a misunderstanding of the gospel. Modern Calvinists and many others who see God primary as an arbitrator and punisher of sin, belittle God’s mercy and settle for a truncated, crude gospel. It looks like this: God protects us from Himself and His wrath by punishing His Son, pouring down His wrath on Him for sins He did not commit, so that we are spared from His punishment ourselves. What a God! And then we wonder why we struggle to accept God’s love for us.  

The contrast of these two approaches to the gospel are clearly and uniquely presented by my friend Brad Jersak here. He delivers the “Gospel in Chairs” to highlight the truth that God has always dealt with humanity in mercy.

It’s only a merciful God who rescues us from ourselves and a corrupt world that we might enjoy communion with Him. 

Please give the time to look at this video. It could change your life…just like God’s mercy does. 

But I have trusted in Your mercy; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation (Psalm 13.5).

Dr. K 

The Way We Think About Christmas Is Messed Up

Celebrate the Incarnation and Find a Proper Place for the Birth Event

This is not a post yelling at people for taking Christ out of Christmas. Nor am I going to take a poke at the commercialization of Christmas though it is out of control. As good and fun as it is to give gifts, attend parties, sing about Santa Claus, dress in red, and celebrate Christ’s birth, it’s more profound to recognize that Christmas is about God becoming human. In other words, Christmas is more about the incarnation of Jesus than about the birth of Jesus.

We’re just messed up when it comes to understanding Christmas. For example:

We think Mary was just an empty vessel God used to bring Jesus into the world. Nothing more. Her total devotion to God in the Temple is forgotten. Her purity is dismissed. That she is to be called “blessed” by every generation is rejected. The fact that God took human flesh from Mary to become a human being is new information to most Christians.

We also think it’s critical that we get all the details of that first Christmas night exactly right. People argue over the exact birth place of Jesus – manger, cave, home, barn, etc. What was Joseph’s role? Since no exact time of year is given in scripture, people quibble over an exact date – spring, winter, summer or fall? December or January? Pagan holiday? December 25? There’s debate over the timing of the Magi’s visit. Yet, no Christmas details are given in Mark. Add that early Christian writers were more interested in Jesus’ death and resurrection than in his birth and you’ve got quite a debate on your hands. If only Matthew and Luke could have been more specific about all these “necessary” details.

We wonder why the Gospel writers provide scant information about the birth itself. Matthew records that Mary “brought forth a Son” and Luke writes, “she brought forth her first-born Son…” That’s it. There are only two short phrases in the Gospels about Jesus’ birth. We’d like to know how long Mary was in labor or Jesus’ height and weight. Was it an easy delivery? Who assisted? Any complications? What time? How well are mommy and baby doing? Sorry. He is born. Enough said.

We’re just messed up when it comes to the Christmas story and Christmas itself. Could it be that the birth of Jesus is not the real story? Could the significance of Jesus’ birth lie elsewhere, not in the details? I think so.

Simply put, the real story of Christmas is that God becomes flesh and blood. He is Emmanuel – God with us in the form of a human baby.

Examples in Scripture

Gabriel explains to highly-favored Mary that she will give birth to a son who is named Jesus. He will be called the Son of the Most High and be given his father David’s throne, rule the house of Jacob, and have an everlasting kingdom. He is the Son of God though born of a human being.

Elizabeth calls Jesus before His birth, “my Lord.”

Matthew comments that Jesus fulfills Isiah’s prophecy that “the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which is interpreted [literally] ‘with us, God.’”

The shepherds are told that Jesus is a Savior, the Anointed One, and Lord. The details given to the shepherds are a “sign” to the truth the angels declare.

In other words, there’s more said about who Jesus is than his actual birth. That needs to be our focus as well.

The Significance of the Incarnation 

I fear that with the focus on Jesus’ birth, the understanding of Jesus’ incarnation is lost. Modern Christian culture and her people have become so narrowly enamored with the “birth-of-Jesus event “ that His being and purpose have grown fuzzy on the periphery.

Early Christian writers, unfettered by modern ideas or concerns, knew what God coming in the flesh meant. A good example of this is found in the writings of St. Athanasius (296-373) in his work entitled On the Incarnation. He states that due to the corruption of the human race with resulting death, Jesus Christ took on flesh so humans could be made incorruptible through life in Christ.

Pitying our race, moved with compassion for our own limitations, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way. No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father – a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt.

The significance of Christ’s first coming lies in the fact that He takes on flesh rather than the fact that he is born. Obviously, His birth and physical development are not insignificant. God didn’t just appear as a mature young man. Yet, His simple birth, amazing life, and confounding death only make sense in light of the incarnation.

I can’t help myself. Here are a couple more beautiful and significant excerpts from St. Athanasius on God becoming flesh, the incarnation:

The marvelous truth is, that being the Word, so far from being Himself contained all things Himself. In creation He is present everywhere, yet is distinct in being from it; ordering, directing, giving life to all, containing all, yet is He Himself the Uncontained, existing solely in His Father.

At one and the same time – this is the wonder – as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father. Not even His birth from a virgin, therefore, changed Him in any way, nor was He defiled by being in the body. Rather, He sanctified the body by being in it. For His being in everything does not mean that He shares the nature of everything, only that He gives all things their being and sustains them in it.

Glorious incarnation indeed! It must not be ignored.

Irenaeus of Lyons, born in 130 AD in Asia Minor and dying as a martyr in the third century, fought against Gnosticism recorded in Against the Heresies. He taught that the flesh and blood which the Gnostics despised, was assumed by God in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Irenaeus provides multiple reasons for the incarnation, one of which is:

It was for this reason that the Word of God, though perfect, became a child in solidarity with mankind. He did not do this for His own sake but because of the state of childhood in which man then existed. He wanted to be received in a way that suited man’s capacity to receive.

He most famously wrote: “In His immeasurable love, He became what we are in order to make us what He is.” God became like a human so a human can become like God. The implications of the incarnation challenge your very being. This reality gets lost if your focus is only on Christ’s birth.

Again, in the writings of these early Christian theologians and in the ongoing unified witness of the Church, Christ’s coming to earth was a celebration of His incarnation not His birth. Be cautious to not let Luke 2 overwhelm Philippians 2.

This Christmas, I hope we all live more fully into the reality of Christ’s incarnation. He became what we are in order to make us what He is. Thanks be to God. 

Dr. K 

Exploring Sex, Seniors, and Spirituality

Growing Old Has Spiritual Advantages

Jack may be retired, but he isn’t dead. Watching his ever-beautiful wife’s shadowy figure behind the shower curtain heightens the still-employed passion within. He thoughtfully relives memorable nights when it was “all systems go.” Automatically, his ero-system starts to hum. The mingling of hunger and hope feeds the genitive engine while her soft touch energizes it. This is, until “what’s under the hood” breaks down with the finish line far away. 

“Damn it!,” Jack screams at himself, irritated by his “incompetence.” “What is my problem? I’ve got to do something about this. No way am I going to live for the rest of my life unable to perform. I’m a man, not a wimp!”

Are you less human if you are not sexually active, unable to engage in sexual relationships, or choose not to? Some anthropologists think so. Since we are sexual beings, they reason, we must engage in sexual activity or we are not truly human. This is what can happen when God and His ways are missing from the discussion. Secularism struggles mightily to know the true nature of humans and sexuality. 

3 Reasons Sexual Activity is Not Essential To Being Human (Christian perspective): 

  1. The Church Fathers are nearly unanimous in understanding that in paradise, before the fall, sexual intercourse was unknown. It is first mentioned after the fall. 
  2. In eternity, when we will be more human than ever, sexual activity is not necessary. We will experience a union with God, our spouses, and others that will transcend anything we could imagine on earth. There will be no marriage or physical union, yet real oneness will be experienced. 
  3. Jesus, John the Forerunner, Paul, Mary (according to Church tradition), many Bible characters and saints never engaged in sexual intercourse. Jesus was a perfect human being. A few others have come close. Most were celibate. 

This sounds totally foreign to us who live in a sex-dominated culture. We are inundated with messages that sexual activity is normal. It’s OK to engage in sex as early as you can and as long as you can. To limit its practice is to be narrow-minded, odd, and, worst of all, “goody-goody.” 

The multimillion dollar male enhancement industry is a global phenomenon made possible by internet e-commerce. Worldwide market data for the industry is unavailable, but 2008 sales were estimated in excess of $100 million U.S. (Male Enhancement Blog) 

Most moderns see less sexual activity and/or sexual desire as a problem. The solutions? See your doctor. Try this lubricant or pill. Set up an appointment with a therapist. You must stay sexually active as long as you’re alive.

Even as I wrote this post, I realized I’ve been deeply influenced by these messages and away from a Christian perspective. I keep using the term “sexual intercourse” when the term I need to be using is “marital intercourse.” According to God, the Church, and the Bible writers, proper sexual activity is always marital intercourse. 
 
3 Fundamental (& Traditional) Purposes of Marital Intercourse 
  1. Tame the passions – In 1 Cor. 7 Paul teaches us to escape lustful temptation through conjugal union in marriage. Since the man usually has the “hotter flame,” the wife is the one who cools him in the intimacy of marital intercourse. This is God’s design.   
  2. Create life – Procreation is passing on the image of God to another human being and is not just physical. Married couples can birth eternal human beings. To “be fruitful and increase” (Gen. 1.28; though there is debate as to the exact meaning), is foundational for most married couples.  
  3. Promote marital unity – Marital intercourse demonstrates and solidifies a strengthening bond of sacred companionship and friendship to enable humans to make it through this life  Described in Proverbs 5.15-23, beautiful intercourse nourishes a spirit of friendship and harmony in marriage. 

How do these fundamental purposes apply in various stages of life? 

  • In young couples (20-40), #1 is often the dominate purpose followed closely by #2,  then #3.
  • In middle-aged couples (40-60) – #1 and #3 may be the purposes that dominate.
  • In older couples (60+) – #3 purpose will dominate with #1 always in the picture.    

Christian Marriage

Marriage is a Christian reality not secular. In Ephesians 5.22-33, marriage is described as “a great ‘mystery.’” Mystery is the same word as “sacrament” leading the traditional church to understand marriage as a sacrament infused by and infusing God’s grace. This is no trivial matter. In the marital relationship, God is pictured and seen in his sacrificial love for humanity through Jesus Christ. Only the crucifixion provides a more powerful picture. 

Dr. Josiah Trenham, pastor, scholar, and author of Marriage and Virginity according to St. John Chrysostom, says that a “husband and wife living together [is] the 

tangible expression of the gospel. The husband represents the self-denying love of Christ pouring himself out for the salvation of his bride, the Church, his wife, and the woman functions as the humble church. This is the most profound tangible expression of the gospel. People should be able to look at Christian couples and say, ‘Wow! There is a God who loves humanity; and a humanity/church that loves God.'”

Ancient writers, old age, and sexuality 

Please indulge me. Let me pass on to you a “revelation” about these matters that was introduced to me a few years ago and continues to play out in my life.

The purpose in getting older is to help you live more deeply in union with Christ and to prepare you for eternity where you’ll live together with God forever.

Aging, even with all its challenges and “malfunctions,” is to be celebrated as a struggle to become like Christ. 

This reality emerges from a patristic understanding of the resurrected state and thus the nature of the body in the afterlife. A Patristic worldview on the nature of the resurrected state and transformation of the human body has practical implications for all Christians. Here I quote Dr. Trenham: 

Here [on earth, currently] many are seeking a “Viagra condition,” and doing all they can do, at great expense, to avoid the effects of the aging process…I have counseled an ailing and aging parishioner who is poignantly frustrated at the growing number of impediments he faces as he nears death. When I suggested to him that perhaps these very bodily impediments were actually gracious blessings bestowed by God to enable him to calm his bodily passions, detach himself from the world, and ready himself for a successful transition from this life to the next (and therefore should be embraced and plumbed wholeheartedly for all the grace inherent in them), his countenance was transformed and his whole perspective on what was happening to his body changed.

The Christian perspective on aging is reflected beautifully in Kontakion 9 of the Akathist Hymn for the Repose of the Departed

Bless swiftly passing time; every hour, every moment bringeth eternity nearer to us. A new sorrow; a new gray hair are heralds of the world to come, they are witnesses of earthly corruption, they proclaim that all passeth away, that the eternal Kingdom draweth nigh, where there are neither tears nor sighing but the joyful song: Alleluia! 

Preparation for the next life includes a lessening of the sexual passions and physical “performance.” This reality can be grudgingly tolerated, passively accepted, or positively embraced. What begins as a thoughtful choice becomes a transformational heart and mind attitude that morphs and develops over time. This is all preparatory for the next life where there is no marital intercourse even though we will experience a “oneness” only tantalizingly known in earthly marriage.

You can embrace getting older or keep worshiping youth. But, it’s wiser and healthier to understand that your physical limits are happening because God desires you to become less attached to the things of the earth and to make the transition to the next life. Your physical limitations are actually freeing you to become a fuller human being already experiencing the Kingdom of God. 

Dr. Trenham reminds us:

This is the natural process of infertility. So get ready. Dispossess yourself, set your life in order. Spend your last years really seeking the Lord. Positively give up the earthly pleasures of sexual union knowing that a greater pleasure of eternal union with our spouse and with Christ in heaven is coming.

 

Preparation Through Moderation and Regulation.

Moderation: Just as it is necessary to be moderate with food consumption, so with sexual activity. Enjoy your sexual meal times yet include sexual fasting days as well. Follow a personal rule of “no sex” days. Use these days to focus on prayer and communion with God. St. Paul encourages this in 1 Corinthians 7.5: “Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” 

Regulation: Regulate your sexual activities. Monitor how your body is functioning and allow it to guide you. You need to be in control of your “urges” not the other way around. Clement of Alexandria (150-215AD) writes about regulating human activities which is applied to marriage by Dr. Trenham: 

Christian marriage is to be characterized by a sexuality both reasonable and disciplined. One need not separate those whom God has joined together in order for self-discipline to exist. Marriage is “disciplined pleasure,” and as such is harmless. Chastity, which ought to exist in marriage, is the body’s holy robe. Clement’s pedagogical goal was not to eradicate the things which came naturally to men, but to regulate them for holiness. (Marriage and Virginity, p. 47)

I hope you’ll gain a fresh perspective on aging as a Christian from this post. Now you have a few more reasons to celebrate getting older (besides “Senior discounts”). 

How have you struggled with the aging process? How do the realities I highlight give you a different perspective? Please, share your thoughts below. 

Dr. K  

Hope For Those Wanting To Know “How To” Pray

Brief Instructions on a Prayer Rule

I sit on the veranda overlooking the Caribbean ocean fitfully sobbing. As a 16 year old kid, I’m alone confronting my own contemptuous selfishness, flush with shame. My parents are fully confident that God wants us serving Him in Jamaica. I’m far-removed from such certainty. But as I read “How to Pray” by R. A. Torrey, the rottenness of my rebellion, self-centeredness, and stubbornness overwhelms me. Thus the brokenhearted tears. I am a mess and don’t know the extent of it.

Now, 46 years later, as I look back at that crucially formative time, I see God’s handprint all over. Three realities introduced there mark me for life – solitude, repentance, and prayer. It’s too bad that I practically ignore those realities for most of my life. Now, thanks to the grace of God, I’m trying to make up for lost time (if that’s even possible). 

So here’s a question coming out of my own life experience. How is it that we can go through our entire Christian life and never learn how to competently communicate with God? I use the words “how to” on purpose because I believe that is our main problem. We know the Bible includes exhortations to pray. We’ve studied Jesus’ prayer for His disciples. We’ve heard dozens of sermons about prayer. We may have even read some books on the subject. We know that we should pray, need to pray, want to get answers to prayer, feel guilty when we don’t pray with or for others, and should “pray without ceasing.”

Yet, prayer remains a mystery without any kind of solving involved. Our hearts clamor to know God more deeply. Yet we are ignorant of the practice of prayer in that process. We know we’re “supposed to” pray but we struggle with “how to” pray. 

Part of the problem is that we’ve ignored a solid, time-tested “how to” of prayer the Church has practiced for centuries while inventing innovative, hit-or-miss methods of self-expression and individualistic credo. Prayer is no longer seen as abiding communion with God. Prayer is more like verbally rubbing the magic lamp so the genie-god will appear to give us what we wish for. 

The best “how to” for prayer that I’ve experienced over the last decade is a “rule of prayer.” A prayer rule, thoughtfully and wisely established, can transform your relationship with God and your own heart. Real communion with God is possible when you include components such as:

  • Morning liturgical prayers
  • Psalms
  • Scripture readings
  • Silence/stillness
  • Intercessory prayers 
  • Prayers throughout the day 
  • Evening prayers 

A prayer rule need not be lengthy or complicated. In fact, it must be simple and doable. Those knowledgable of a prayer rule all say the same. Begin small and let it grow over time, if at all. The important thing is consistency and true communion. 

15-20 minutes in the morning, prayers throughout the day, and 5-10 minutes in the evening = prayer rule. Most of us have 20-30 minutes every day to devote to prayer if our desire for God is great enough. 

In my next post, I’ll get more specific about what might be included in a rule of prayer.

In the meantime, ask God to help you establish a prayer rule for yourself and ask Him “how to” do it. 

Dr. K 

Sharing The Secret To Resonant Communion With God

Freedom Is Found Within A Rule

Wouldn’t it be great if you could organize an everyday prayer habit? Given the choice between a sporadic, sketchy prayer routine and a vibrant, vital one, most Christians would choose the latter. Yet, many Christians do not know how to establish a vibrant, vital prayer routine or maybe fear the idea of organized prayer. Most are familiar with “daily devotions,” “morning quiet time,” or “Bible study.”  However, they’ve never been challenged to organize a daily “prayer rule” to enhance their relationship with God. I offer up that challenge.

 

The idea of a rule for Christian prayer has been around for centuries. It is how the Church prays whether liturgically or personally. The concept of personal “spontaneous” prayers is a relatively modern one. Though spontaneity may be beneficial in communion with God, it should not be the totality of your prayer life. A prayer rule provides the foundation and framing upon which resonant communion with God is built. 

Perhaps the reason so many Christians struggle in prayer is because they think they need to make up their own prayers every time they pray. This becomes difficult to sustain as they find themselves either at loss as to what to say or stuck saying the same inane words over and over again. 

These frustrations with prayer can be eliminated by establishing a prayer rule. 

Meaning of Rule

The English word “canon” comes from the Greek κανών, meaning “rule” or “measuring stick.” 

By establishing a prayer “rule” you set up a personal “canon” – a list of prayers you say daily at set times and, if possible, at set places. This rule becomes the guiding authority for communion with God. It also provides a “measuring stick” to size up the scope of your prayer life. 

You may defensively react to such notions. Any idea of putting “rules” on prayer seems legalistic or restraining. Yet, it’s actually freeing. 

Like rules for any activity, a prayer rule sets you free to engage God with genuine attentiveness. Can you imagine playing basketball without rules? It would be a chaotic mess with every player doing whatever he/she wants just as long as the ball goes through the hoop. It would cease to be a basketball game and resemble a 5-on-5, free-for-all, full contact fight. For any activity, rules are a must.

I am not advocating that a set of rules be placed on how you pray, though some guidance is usually good. I’m suggesting that you establish a set way of praying into which you enter daily. For example, a prayer rule may include certain liturgical prayers, silence, intercessory prayers, psalms, prayers of thanksgiving or praying at certain times during the day. 

You are free then to enter what has already been established as good and fruitful rather than “winging it,” making it up as you go hoping something good will result. 

Over the next couple weeks, my posts will help you establish a prayer rule. I hope you’ll take  up the challenge to commune with God using a prayer rule. 

Dr. K 

 

What the 5 “Solas” Really Mean

Looking At The Flip Side

The Reformation has powerfully impacted Christianity. Some think that’s a good thing. Others believe it is a disaster. Many understand that, as beneficial as the Reformation was in its time, there are unintended consequences that adversely affected the Church then and continue to do so today. 

It is often pointed out that there are five main tenets to the Reformation. I’ve listed them below with some unintended consequences from my own perspective. 

  • Sola Fide: Faith alone – I don’t need to put forth any effort to experience salvation and its fullness. 
  • Solus Christus: Christ alone – I don’t need the Church. It’s Jesus and me. 
  • Sola Scriptura: Scripture alone – I don’t need Tradition, creeds, councils, or personal experience. The Bible alone, and my or my group’s interpretation of it, is the only authority I need. 
  • Soli Deo Gloria: Glory to God alone – I don’t need saints, hierarchy, images, or priest/clergy. I believe that to honor anyone else is to dishonor God.   
  • Sola Gratia: Grace alone – I don’t need sacraments, means, or method. Grace is seen as a created substance isolated from anything material, physical, or experiential.  

And, here are some unintended consequences to the Reformation: 

  1. I don’t need church history, organized religion, dogmatic doctrine, or any spiritual authority over me. 
  2. I am an autonomous self, able to determine for myself what I will believe (or not), what I will do (or not), how I will decide, whom I will follow, and when all this will take place. 
  3. I see church as optional. I need faith, Christ, scripture, God’s glory, and grace but I don’t need the Church. How could it be that the reformers missed the claim of “Sola Ecclesia?” Of course, they could not make that claim since they were opposing the one church they knew. Centuries of church divisions, theological battles, “fresh” truth claims, and re-awakenings have not healed the church’s brokenness or purified her operation. Since it’s not what I think it should be, I can reject it. 

I doubt what I write here will be received well by many of you. But, I want to challenge your thinking about these matters. 

I’m sure the reformers were devout, smart, and articulate men – to be admired for many reasons. However, the consequences of their actions and beliefs are difficult to deal with today.

At least for some of us. 

Dr. K 

A Second-Look At A Popular “Doctrine” That Clouds Spiritual Reality

Positional Righteousness Re-Examined

Does this make sense to you? Why do I need to make any effort to move forward spiritually when God sees me as perfectly righteous in Jesus Christ? Since I’m perfect in Christ, why would I struggle to pray, fast, love my neighbor, or give to the poor? This highlights another de-motivating idea (along with “faith alone”) that has entrenched itself into the belief systems of many evangelicals. It goes something like this: Since the Christian is declared and seen by God as perfectly righteous in Christ, it is not necessary to exercise any effort or engage any means to become like Christ. Here is another example of a theological idea interfering with actual spiritual reality. 

Here are some common phrases to describe what I’m talking about: 

“Imputed righteousness” – Protestant Christian doctrine that a sinner is accounted righteous by God purely by God’s grace through faith in Christ, and thus all depends on Christ’s merit and worthiness, rather that on one’s own merit and worthiness. It is a concept in Christian theology that proposes that the “righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers – that is, treated as if it were theirs through faith.” It is on the basis of this “alien” (i.e. from the outside) righteousness that God accepts humans. 

“Positional righteousness” – A Christian is in perfect standing before God in Christ. The believer is just as perfect as Christ in the Father’s sight. 

“Positional sanctification” – God declares a Christian to be absolutely holy the moment he/she believes in Jesus Christ. When God looks at a Christian, He sees the righteousness and holiness of Christ. 

Nowhere in scripture are Christians actually told to identify themselves as righteous because God sees them that way.  A few scripture passages (Philippians 3.8-9, Romans 5.17, 1 Corinthians 1.30, Ephesians 1.6) are interpreted with this notion in mind. However, this direct teaching is absent from scripture.

Why Is This Popular? 

Many cling to this teaching in order to convince themselves that, despite their unrighteous thoughts, behavior, and attitudes, they are actually righteous.

Many cling to this teaching because it seems logical. I am in Christ and He is righteous so that makes me righteous. Yet, Jesus is also love, kindness, peace, humble, wise, patient, gentle, meek, wonder-working, prayerful, and rightfully authoritative. Are you automatically all of those since you’re in Christ? No one speaks of “positional humility” (I am humble because Christ is humble) because we know better. Why then, positional righteousness? 

Key Passage 

2 Corinthians 5.21: For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (Unfortunately, the KJV mis-translates the Greek word genometha (might become) as “be made” – “that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.”)

Reasons to believe this verse does NOT support “positional righteousness:”

  1. The verse, in context, is speaking of the apostles not Christians in general.
  2. There is no mention of faith here as the hinge that makes us righteous.
  3. Imputation is not mentioned. Yet, the verse is often interpreted that our sin is laid on Him and by faith His righteousness is imputed to us. 
  4. When God took on flesh, He was made “to be sin for us.” This is not just a reference to the cross but to all of his earthly life from birth to death. 
  5. The phrase “that we might become” seems to speak of an ongoing process not a past, accomplished fact. 

In other words, if taken at face value, the verse is teaching that because Christ took sin upon himself, humans may become righteous. 

Remove a theological agenda and the verse reads:

For us, sinless Christ became like sinful man, so that sinful man might become like sinless God.

This is in agreement with Gregory of Nazianzen (329-390) who wrote: “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” Jesus assumed human flesh, soul, and mind so that all that makes us human might be redeemed and healed.

He also wrote:

Let us seek to be like Christ, because Christ also became like us: to become gods through him since he himself, through us, became a man. He took the worst upon himself to make us a gift of the best.

Jesus became like you so that you might become like Him. 

Does that reality light a fire of desire in your heart? Does who Jesus is and what He did give you hope and drive to become like Him? 

Believing in positional righteousness does not inspire or give hope. But, Jesus does. 

Why is this so difficult to grasp? I’ll touch on that in my next post. 

Dr. K