Trajectory

Paul’s Letter to Philemon

By Chuck Griffin

A few years ago on television, there was a show where a fictional senator and president discussed their discomfort with Christianity. The senator, played by Alan Alda, said, “I couldn’t believe there was a God who had no penalty for slavery. The Bible has no problem with slavery at all.”

Like all good fiction, this show dealt with ideas that trouble real people. Why doesn’t God say in the Bible, “Followers of Christ, it is wrong to own another person!”

The Apostle Paul’s words to an early Christian named Philemon are worth examining if we’re concerned about how effectively the Bible influences society. Philemon was a slave owner. Onesimus, his slave, had run away to Paul, converting to Christianity in the process. Paul then sent Onesimus back to Philemon. 

Paul’s decision to send a slave back to his master hardly seems to condemn slavery. But Paul also gave Onesimus a letter to take to Philemon. And the content of that subtle letter is so powerful that we now call it a book of the Bible.

The official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society, 1795, Josiah Wedgwood.

Nowhere in the letter will you find Paul saying, “End slavery now!” There’s one obvious reason. Such a direct attack on a central feature of the society in which early Christians lived would have invited terrible punishment.

Instead, Paul uses gentle coercion to change the situation. First, he speaks lovingly of the slave owner’s faith, found under Paul’s pastoral guidance.

Then Paul speaks of the slave’s faith, calling him “my child” and asking the master to receive the slave as a brother. The implication is obvious—how do you enslave and punish a beloved brother or sister?

As the television senator noted, there is no outright rejection of slavery in the letter to Philemon or anywhere else in the Bible. But we must learn to think of the Bible as more than a rule book from ancient history. It often works like a launching pad for ideas, ideas that God has shot like rockets through time so people are changed.

Now, we do have to be careful; some people would take a concept like scriptural trajectory and use it to argue the Bible says whatever they want it to say. We have to be certain that we go in the direction God first sent us. Otherwise, we will spin north, south, east and west until we finally hit the ground like an experimental missile.

God used Paul and his little letter to change the world dramatically over several centuries. Certainly, Paul wanted to free Onesimus from slavery. But more importantly, he wanted to free Philemon from any anger he might have been feeling toward his escaped slave and the wrongheaded notions that allowed the enslavement to occur.

If Paul had simply issued a rule for Philemon to follow, he never would have gotten to the heart of the matter. Was the Holy Spirit really changing Philemon? Could this slave owner find himself capable of loving Onesimus as a Christian brother?

And that brings us to the deepest lesson from the letter to Philemon. Christians change the world by changing hearts, not by rigorous rule making. Once hearts are changed, the rules for living become obvious and begin to fall in place.

Dear Lord, help us see the true trajectory of your great plan so we may conform ourselves to the holiness you offer your creation. Amen.

The Heart of Justice

Psalm 72:1-5 (NLT)
A psalm of Solomon.
Give your love of justice to the king, O God,
    and righteousness to the king’s son.
Help him judge your people in the right way;
    let the poor always be treated fairly.
May the mountains yield prosperity for all,
    and may the hills be fruitful.
Help him to defend the poor,
    to rescue the children of the needy,
    and to crush their oppressors.
May they fear you as long as the sun shines,
    as long as the moon remains in the sky.
    Yes, forever!

By Chuck Griffin

Justice was a byword for 2021, and it will continue to be an important concept for this year, as it has been for thousands of years.

When the above psalm was written, kings and princes were lifelong arbiters of justice, which is bound tightly to other concepts like equality and fairness. In modern times in a democracy, we still vest certain people—presidents, governors and judges, for example—with a similar power. The major difference between ancient kingdoms and modern democracies is that directly or indirectly, the citizenry can now revoke that power in nonviolent ways if it is abused.

Justice has its constants, however, regardless of the era. Psalm 72 points out an important one, a truth spanning thousands of years. Justice has a source. Justice springs forth from the very nature of God. His will defines what is just and unjust, and it also is part of God’s will that justice be done.

Be it a king, prince, governor or judge, it has always been the prayer of godly people that the justice-givers root their task in a studied understanding of who God is.

God seeks to make people free. As Christians should understand, Christ went to the cross to give us freedom from the sins that bound us as they caused us to treat each other unjustly. Accordingly, those charged with providing justice in this world need to ask if they are making the people around them more free.

God asks that we live now as a people who believe he will provide a full and complete kind of justice one day. Right will be declared right, and wrong will be declared wrong, but at the same time, tremendous mercy and grace will be available for those who took time to seek the forgiveness made possible by Jesus’ sacrifice.

It should be our hope that today’s justice-givers incorporate appropriate measures of grace in their decisions, while remembering that victims of injustice crave restoration and renewal.

It’s a tough job. I admire those who take it on; I also pray they humbly keep in mind their roles as temporary conduits of what flows eternally from our maker.

Dear Lord, may justice be done in 2022, and may those charged with its provision be blessed by your guidance. Amen.

A Prayer for the New Year

Lord, join our hearts with your Spirit as we pray for 2022.
No matter what happens, we give all glory to you.
     We know the hard work has been done for us on the cross.
May the pandemic end.
May the church in America and beyond find renewal,
     spreading word of salvation in new ways.
May our nation be blessed and shine more brightly as a beacon for you.
May our communities be safe places for the resident and the stranger.
May our hearts grow in holiness as we study your word
     and make our lives more prayerful.
It is in the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

Checking In

My apologies for the lack of devotions these last couple of mornings. Pastoral duties sometimes become demanding, making it difficult to find time to write something thoughtful.

Now is a good time to mention that Methodist Life welcomes submissions from new writers and artists. We tend to work from the daily lectionary readings, but I personally deviate from those texts from time to time, and submissions do not have to be built around them. As editor, all I ask is that you represent traditional Christianity well while not minding some editing when necessary. If you want to submit something, send it to chuck@methodist.life.

For your consideration today, I offer you an article I wrote for the Jonesborough Herald and Tribune while pastor of Fairview United Methodist Church more than a decade ago.


Heart Wide Open

By Chuck Griffin

How open are you to God’s influence?

Most of us who call ourselves Christian would like to think we are very open. And indeed, a lot of Christians allow God to influence them in ways that change their lives dramatically.

Often, you run into Christians who have given up careers and financial security to serve God.

Occasionally, you meet people who for long periods of time give up the comfort and familiarity of home to serve others in far-away places. For example, I once met a missionary who had gone to Papua New Guinea as a young woman in the early 1970s. She had felt God calling her to translate the New Testament for a tribe of people who speak an obscure language.

By 2005, she had finished the work. I met her while she was in Kentucky, a much older woman saying a last good-bye to her relatives. She loved the tribal people so much that she had decided to live with them the rest of her life.

Rarely, you meet people who face death to follow God’s lead. Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, falls in this category.

Stoning was the punishment of the day for a poor, unwed pregnant girl, which is how her neighbors would have viewed Mary. To follow God while facing such dire circumstances required a heart wide open to God’s influence.

God chose Mary, it seems, because she had the right soul for the job. She was young, perhaps as young as 14, but Scripture records in the first chapter of Luke her remarkable understanding of the meaning of Christ’s coming.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” Mary said. She was rejoicing with her much older cousin Elizabeth, who carried in her womb John the Baptist, the prophet who would announce the coming of Jesus’ ministry in adulthood.

As Mary continued in her rejoicing, she laid out the radical mission of Christ. He brings mercy to those who believe and follow God. He scatters the proud. He brings down the powerful. He lifts up the lowly and the hungry. He does all of this as a fulfillment of a promise made to the world through Abraham long ago.

And of course, we now understand that Jesus grew up to accomplish this radical realignment of power through his death on the cross, a sacrifice designed to break the grip of sin.

Governments and armies still seem to have power, but none can help you establish a relationship with God. At best, they can keep the relationship freely available.

If you believe, really believe, in the saving work of Christ, it becomes more difficult each day to see your place in the world in secular ways. How open are you to God’s influence?

The answer has a lot to do with how much of this world you’re willing to risk while knowing a better world is guaranteed.

A Growing List

2 Peter 1:2-11 (NLT)

May God give you more and more grace and peace as you grow in your knowledge of God and Jesus our Lord.

By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires.

In view of all this, make every effort to respond to God’s promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone.

The more you grow like this, the more productive and useful you will be in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But those who fail to develop in this way are shortsighted or blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their old sins.

So, dear brothers and sisters, work hard to prove that you really are among those God has called and chosen. Do these things, and you will never fall away. Then God will give you a grand entrance into the eternal Kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

By Chuck Griffin

At the core of the above passage is a spiritual to-do list, a way to grow as a Christian. Each item is strengthened by something else on the list, with the ultimate goal of experiencing a strong, unshakable faith.

Moral excellence, or goodness, undergirds great faith and has to do with whether we choose what God would choose in the same circumstances. But how do we know how to choose?

Well, knowledge helps to prop up moral excellence. The Lord has revealed much to us in the Holy Bible, even if it does sometimes take a little effort and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to tease the information out. What a gift: thousands of years of holy revelation at our fingertips!

Why do we fail to dig out what we need? We have trouble staying focused. We lack self-control. The painful distractions and immediate pleasures of this world draw us away from the rich rewards available to us in the Bible and through direct contact with God in prayer.

Patient endurance marks the beginning of self-control. We see the fiery darts of the enemy coming at us, but regardless of whether and where they stick, we know we can keep moving forward as Christians because God is with us. And if we find ourselves passing through Vanity Fair, we don’t slow down, for we know our real destination.

If that previous paragraph was confusing, I just went all “Pilgrim’s Progress” on you. If you haven’t read it, you really should try it.

Godliness supports endurance, of course. This is a little different from the “goodness” or “moral excellence” that develops down the road in this spiritual journey. At this stage, there is a simple desire to please God, springing from the warmth that is felt when in fellowship with other Christians.

And the beginning of all of this is love. We understand true love when we first comprehend what God has done for us. “For God so loved the world … .” We didn’t deserve God’s love; maybe those around us should receive love regardless of what they deserve, too.

And don’t miss the promise Peter made: “Do these things, and you will never fall away. Then God will give you a grand entrance into the eternal Kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Seems to me like we have a to-do list worth doing.

Lord, thank you for the guidance Peter and other conduits of your holy word offer us. May we grow as we live the lives of disciples. Amen.

Confusing to Satan

Philippians 1:12-19 (NRSV)

I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.

Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.

By Chuck Griffin

The words of Paul we find in Romans 8:28, “All things work together for good for those who love God,” were more than just an idea to the apostle. He saw them come true in his own tribulations.

Paul suffered mightily during his service to the Lord, and by the time he was writing to the church at Philippi, he was in prison. And yet, he was able to observe the effect his faithfulness continued to have on those around him, even those charged with keeping him imprisoned.

It’s a story repeated throughout the history of the church. Some who are against Christ attack those who stand for Christ, and the faith exhibited by those brave, Spirit-filled Christians makes strong disciples out of weak ones and believers out of skeptics. Somewhere in their minds, these witnesses to the suffering look at those under attack and think to themselves, “I want what they have.”

These moments surely send Satan into a frenzy. Just when he thinks he has those Christians where he wants them—just when they should be in despair—the Holy Spirit works through them, and he loses more of his minions to the dawning Kingdom of Heaven.

Even those who preach Christ with wrongheaded motives can end up doing good. The growing presence of the kingdom is inexorable. It will not be stopped, and it continues to creep into the world in the oddest ways.

Well, Jesus did tell us the kingdom would be like yeast, eventually permeating the whole loaf.

Lord and Savior, work your way more deeply into our lives so we may withstand any time of trial and draw others to you. Amen.

Living a Lie

Revelation 22:12-16 (NRSV)

“See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”


By Chuck Griffin

If you were in church last Sunday, you probably picked up on the fact that we are now in the season of Advent, which begins a new church year. With our minds on Christmas, Advent can seem like an odd church season.

For one thing, we begin the church year like people who read the last few pages of a novel before starting the first chapter. Advent is about the end of a great story, one we will spend the rest of the church year hearing and exploring through its cycle of readings.

The ending is pretty straightforward: Jesus Christ will return. Justice will become a visible reality, and the Messiah who died for all will reward those who stand with him and reject those who rejected him.

Today’s text from Revelation references “everyone who loves and practices falsehood,” saying they will be excluded from God’s presence, where the gift of eternal life awaits. Another translation, the New Living Translation, describes these people as those “who love to live a lie.”

Christians do occasionally stray from living as true disciples. We forget what Jesus Christ did to restore us as children of God. We live as if there is no truth to the story.

Usually, we snap back to reality as defined by God, the maker of all that is real. We resume that effort to live as he would have us live. We conform our lives to God’s will out of gratitude for the great gift we have been given.

Like Lent, the church season preceding Easter, Advent is a good time to ask ourselves what lies we might be living and how we can return to the truth. Recognizing our errors and turning from them amount to what we call repentance; growing in truth and love then becomes a powerful work God’s Spirit can perform in us.

Eventually, we may be so blessed that we can show the truth to those who have never known anything but life as a lie.

Lord, reveal where we lie to ourselves, and show us how the truth really does set us and others free. Amen.

A Josiah Moment

2 Kings 22:11-20 (NLT)

By Chuck Griffin

It’s always a shock to discover we’ve strayed from the Lord’s plan.

In today’s Bible passage, we hear how a young, good king, King Josiah, was introduced to the basics of how his people were supposed to be living, via a rediscovered Book of the Law. A proper understanding of how God was to be worshiped had been lost during the reign of prior evil kings, men who allowed paganism to creep into the land.

When Josiah realized how far his flock had strayed from their very reason to exist, he grieved so powerfully that he tore his clothes. Disaster loomed large. Fortunately, there still were priests and prophets in the land, and the king learned that God’s just response to the rampant unholiness would be delayed until Josiah’s righteous reign had ended.

We live under an expanded, improved version of the plan, of course. Strict adherence to the law was the closest the Israelites could come to establishing a relationship with God. We live in the time after Jesus Christ, knowing that his willingness to die in our place for our sins now makes that relationship possible. All we have to do is believe, allowing God’s Spirit to go to work in our lives.

And yet, we stray.

In many ways, we can be like those ancient children of God, called to serve and worship but distracted to the point of forgetting who God is. One generation fails to adequately tell great truths to the next generation. The shiny things of the world and the worries of the world begin to dominate our thinking.

God’s call on us is powerful, though. It breaks through, and we can have a Josiah moment, grieving for ourselves individually and the people around us collectively. Dawning awareness of how wonderful it is to be in communion with God is an exciting and wonderful experience to have.

I have experienced such a moment in a big way in my life, and I continue to experience similar little moments as I exist with one foot in a time-bound world and the other in eternity. Let’s grieve over what we lose when we take our eyes off God, but let’s rejoice at how God offers to restore us when we lock our eyes on the throne once again.

Lord, help us to keep our eyes eternally fixed on you, and with your guidance and strength, may our lives be conformed to your will. Amen.

God in Art: Last Words

Sunday’s sermon at Holston View United Methodist Church will be “Last Words,” based on 2 Samuel 23:1-7. We also will be acknowledging Thanksgiving, and yes, the two concepts will tie together.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, is remembered in part for his last words, “The best of all is, God is with us.” He actually said the phrase twice before dying. The second time, we are told, he raised his hand and waved it in triumph. Below is a book engraving of his passing, artist unknown. (If you can help me find a proper attribution, please pass it along.)

Lord, may we always sense that you are with us. Amen.

Children of the Aramean

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

By Chuck Griffin

When we think of Old Testament texts on giving, our minds often go to the tithe, the giving of 10 percent of the harvest or income to support what would eventually become the work of the temple, work that included care for the poor. Today’s Deuteronomy text really doesn’t take us into the concept of the tithe, however.

What we hear is a recitation, a declaration of what God had done to help his chosen people. From a practical perspective, the offering brought to the altar was a mere token, but theologically it was huge. The head of a family was acknowledging that all he had truly came from God.

I believe in hard work. I believe in the idea that if we are to succeed in life, there is a need to use our bodies and minds to the best of our abilities.

But at the same time, as people who acknowledge we were made by God and saved from sinful brokenness by God, we have to be the first to say we are dependent on God.

If we think about it, we do owe everything to God, even if we’ve done all we can to succeed. If we’re intelligent enough to make the right choices, it’s because God made us so. If we have been able to succeed through hard physical labor, it is because God at some point graced us with healthy bodies.

And we can never forget that there is at least some randomness in how well we do or don’t do in life. If we’re not careful, we will simply stumble into success and then start thinking we are brilliant.

A good Jew acknowledged these truths with his recitation and offering. We do much the same when we declare ourselves followers of Christ—for example, if we recite the Apostles’ Creed in worship. We declare God Creator. We then retell the story of Christ’s life, sacrifice and resurrection, following that with the story of God continuing to work in the world up to this very day through the Holy Spirit.

That true understanding—that perspective regarding who God is and who we are—should shape every nook and cranny of our lives. For many, that deepest, hardest to reach cranny is where we store our attitude about income and possessions.

As I said before, this text isn’t really about tithing. Tithing was a powerful Old Testament concept, of course, but a text like we have today shows us that tithing was just a beginning point, a rule designed to lead a person to a right way of relating to God through our income and possessions.

John Wesley preached that God provides for the roof over our heads, food, and other basic needs, allowing us to ensure the well-being of our families and even a business we may operate. Beyond those provisions, everything we are given counts as riches, and they have been given to us to use “to the glory of God.” Often, this means using our riches to help those who are less blessed materially, playing a role in God’s provision for people’s basic needs.

Even for a tither, this is a concept that requires thought. It forces a reassessment of every decision we make regarding how we handle our income and possessions, simply because we learn to say, “It’s not really mine, anyway.”

If you find this idea a little daunting, be encouraged. Look back to today’s verses; notice how our little scene at the altar closes. There is celebration in the house of God, the kind of joy to be shared even with the dependent and disenfranchised people among us.

I wonder what we miss when we fail to embrace such a powerful attitude about income and possessions.

Lord, give us the spiritual strength to turn every aspect of our lives over to you, and may the celebration that follows be most rewarding. Amen.