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.

A Prayer of Faith

Habakkuk 3:17-19
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer's;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

By Chuck Griffin

Monday, we looked at how the prophet Habakkuk wrestled with his era’s version of the problem of evil, the questions that arise about God when bad people seem to prosper. The context was very different from our own—God’s chosen people were overrun by brutal conquerors—but the frustration and confusion expressed by the prophet were similar to what we might experience today.

We stopped at Habakkuk 2:1, the point where the prophet took a stand, seemingly demanding answers.

And God answered. Rooting the vision he offered Habakkuk in a seemingly distant but certain end to the divine plan, God asserted that the “righteous shall live by faithfulness.” He also assured Habakkuk that our perception of right and wrong is correct. Those who build wealth out of their own strength and corruption, making idols of objects in this world, will fail, although the patience of the righteous will be required.

It was enough to launch Habakkuk into prayer. We might even say song, as the third chapter has embedded in it instructions that there be musical accompaniment.

Habakkuk shows us the right attitude to maintain, even when the answers aren’t at first satisfying. He declared the greatness of God, poetically recounting the actions of the one who is clearly over all creation.

And even in pain, with all around him seeming lost, the prophet made it clear that God would continue to be worthy of honor and worship. “I will take joy in the God of my salvation,” he said (3:18).

How blessed are we that we have seen so much of God’s great plan play out! With the coming of Christ, we see how the cross marks the end of sin and death, even if we must wait patiently for Christ’s work to come to full fruition.

We will tread the high places.

Dear Lord, when we experience our own times of woe, help us to have the faith and perseverance of Habakkuk, trusting in the end of your plan to come. Amen.

God in Art: Man of Sorrows

“Christ Carrying the Cross,” El Greco, circa 1580.

Having exited the Christmas season, let’s take a few moments to meditate on where the Christian story takes us as we move through winter and into spring. In between his birth and the moment depicted above, Jesus revealed much about God’s plan for humanity, including how the promise of salvation would be fulfilled.

Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

Epiphany 2022

Matthew 2:1-12 (NLT)

By Chuck Griffin

Gerard David, Adoration of the Kings, National Gallery, London, circa 1515

I hope I’m not overplaying the Epiphany by spending two days on the subject. To me, it seems appropriate. Throughout much of Christian history, the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany was a much bigger deal than celebrating Christmas.

From that alone, we should assume the story associated with it, the story of the Wise Men, is important.  So what does the story tell us about God?

We receive little detail about these men chasing a “star” in search of a newborn king, a star no one else seems to have noticed. Tradition has led us to think of three wise men, but the Bible doesn’t give us an exact number.

Today, let’s simply consider some odd facts. As mentioned yesterday, an event in a tiny village was communicated via the stars and planets. We also should note that these wise men likely would not have understood God the way a Jew did, and yet God drew them into the story of his ultimate intervention in history.

It seems the big lesson God gives us in this story is how surprising he can be as he tries to shower us in grace and save us from sin. He not only will meet us where we are, he will work through our current practices to change us. (Methodists call this “prevenient grace,” the love God tries to show us even before we acknowledge who God is.)

When I think of the wise men seeing Christ’s birth registered in the sky, I also think of all the stories I’ve heard of nonbelievers discovering God in unlikely places: in bars, in prison, in dive hotels—any of those locations or moments where we might wrongly think God is not present.

The story peaks in a happy way. God led the wise men on from their visit with Herod, and there was the baby, just as promised. They gave Jesus gifts. What a joy that must have been, to give the Christ child a gift! And even better, they were able to kneel before him.

Was it worship? Translators debate how to deal with the word describing their act. We kneel in worship, but the wise men also would have been likely to kneel before a king.

We can say for certain that the moment marked a dawning awareness. These wise men would have understood God was working in the world in powerful ways, and that they had been drawn into the plan. They even would continue to hear from God in dreams, protecting the child and themselves in the process.

These wise men, these magi, were a foreshadowing of the purpose behind Jesus’ work on the cross decades later, and the church’s Holy Spirit-inspired work today. God truly calls to all people, regardless of their location or circumstances. After all, “For God so loved the world … .”

Lord, in 2022, may we with great joy worship the Christ. Thank you for the revelations about Jesus that we receive through Scripture and experience in our hearts. May we give him our gift of faithfulness, made possible by your Holy Spirit. 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.

Scripturally Gentle

Hebrews 10:10-18 (NRSV)

By Chuck Griffin

As Christians, we’re always trying to fully absorb the idea that God came among us in flesh to save us from the deadly power of sin.

With the Christmas season drawing near, I also couldn’t help but think of the humble birth of our Savior, cradled and softly placed in a feeding trough as his first bed. There is so much tenderness in that scene, a moment of beauty in the midst of what too often is a horror story, the ongoing story of people disconnected from God.

As traditional Christians, we so want to focus on the beauty of salvation, but we simultaneously want to be vigilant against the damage sin has wrought and continues to cause. The world has trouble understanding the nuanced message we offer; even followers of Christ sometimes struggle with how to offer that message.

At the extreme edges of our faith, some want to ignore the danger of sin, while others legalistically limit the possibilities of grace. Both edges can at times exhibit a surprising amount of anger.

To be successful in our basic mission, traditionalists need to carry with them an attitude rooted in how God is at work in the world. A phrase popped into my head recently: Scripturally gentle. Like Jesus, we need to be scripturally gentle, openly discussing the terrible danger of sin while preaching the power of grace.

It is not judgmental to share with others the warnings God has given us about certain behaviors. Those biblical revelations from God about what counts as sin need to be declared for all to hear. These should be gentle declarations, however, tempered constantly with the Good News that God offers redemption from sin through Jesus Christ.

Jesus gives us great examples of how to live as scripturally gentle people. One of my favorites is in John 8:3-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus. In short, there is sin present in the community, and the legalists want to use the situation as a harsh test. Jesus reminds those present that they all are in need of grace, and the woman’s would-be executioners drift away. Jesus then says to the rescued sinner, “Go your own way, and from now on do not sin again,” pointing her toward a process Methodists call sanctification.

The traditional Methodism I discovered and fell in love with as a young adult has long been filled with scripturally gentle people, setting it apart as a movement within the Kingdom of God. This middle way will continue, even if it has to happen under a new denominational name.

We offer the world an attractive, biblical way to live in faith, and God will bless this approach until the day we see Christ in full.

Lord, thank you for guidance and grace. May the two work hand-in-hand in our lives so we can become holy responses to your great gift of eternal life. Amen.

Surely, Surely

Isaiah 12:2 (NRSV)
Surely God is my salvation;
    I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
    he has become my salvation.

By Chuck Griffin

I often default toward using longer texts in these devotions, especially if I can chase meaning in a well-developed Bible story. But sometimes a single verse offers us so much, drawing us into a more meditative place.

The first word is enough to dwell on for a while. “Surely.” Other translations go with “behold,” as if the certainty of the salvation being declared is visibly before the prophet, or another positive affirmation like “indeed.” Did Isaiah have a full vision of Jesus Christ?

How powerfully can I affirm that salvation is mine? Does my conviction rise and fall with my circumstances? Do I stand like an oak or bend like a reed?

How often does fear creep in?

Our faith is strongest, of course, when a being untainted by sin places it in us. The power to do anything, even believe, flows first from God. Faith should never involve a struggle; instead, it is an ongoing surrender.

Take time today to settle into this one verse, and see what it says to you.

Lord, wash over us so our faith never fails. 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.

Those Wonderful Sheepdogs

Psalm 16

A psalm of David.

Keep me safe, O God,
    for I have come to you for refuge.

I said to the Lord, “You are my Master!
    Every good thing I have comes from you.”
The godly people in the land
    are my true heroes!
    I take pleasure in them!
Troubles multiply for those who chase after other gods.
    I will not take part in their sacrifices of blood
    or even speak the names of their gods.

Lord, you alone are my inheritance, my cup of blessing.
    You guard all that is mine.
The land you have given me is a pleasant land.
    What a wonderful inheritance!

I will bless the Lord who guides me;
    even at night my heart instructs me.
I know the Lord is always with me.
    I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me.

No wonder my heart is glad, and I rejoice.
    My body rests in safety.
For you will not leave my soul among the dead
    or allow your holy one to rot in the grave.
You will show me the way of life,
    granting me the joy of your presence
    and the pleasures of living with you forever.

By Chuck Griffin

God is our ultimate protector. When we believe in Jesus Christ as Savior, we are protected even as we experience death, carried into eternal life by God’s great plan. The final verses of today’s psalm are a prophecy of that plan, revealing how it culminates in the resurrection of Jesus.

A desire for safety in this earthly life and the idea that godly people can be heroes are two other concepts that come together in this psalm. And as I write this devotion knowing it will be published on Veterans Day, I cannot help but think of those who took time out of their lives to serve the United States of America in a military role to protect us.

I give particular thanks for those who take on such difficult roles while clinging to godliness, the pursuit of what God would have them do.

Sometimes you hear certain people described as having “sheepdog” personalities—friendly, gentle and loyal, but a force to be reckoned with when evil threatens. Many such people are naturally drawn to military service. I love the way the sheepdogs fit into the pastoral image of the Great Shepherd, the one responsible for the flock as a whole.

A good sheepdog becomes an extension of the shepherd’s hand, sensitive to the call of the master and following commands without allowing fear to get in the way. What a comfort sheepdogs should be to the flock!

Think of the sheepdogs around you today and offer them words of affection and thanks. Let them know they are loved and welcomed among us. We need their experiences and attitudes in the midst of our churches.

Lord, pour a special blessing out today on those who have chosen to form that thin line protecting us from disaster. Amen.

Praise

Psalm 113       (NRSV)

Praise the Lord!
Praise, O servants of the Lord;
    praise the name of the Lord.

Blessed be the name of the Lord
    from this time on and forevermore.
From the rising of the sun to its setting
    the name of the Lord is to be praised.
The Lord is high above all nations,
    and his glory above the heavens.

Who is like the Lord our God,
    who is seated on high,
who looks far down
    on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust,
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
    with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home,
    making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the Lord!

By John Grimm

We can praise the Lord.  This psalm from the Hebrew people is not only for the Jews.  It is for all people!  Learning to have joy in our lives, as Paul instructs, comes from praising the Lord.  Thankfully, the first Church Council in Jerusalem, as described in Acts, has extraordinarily little limiting Gentiles who place faith in Jesus Christ.  Thankfully, as we read this psalm, we can see no infringement upon the Jewish law, ceremonial or otherwise. 

It is knowing the Lord is our God that gives us the ability and the insight to praise him.  No one else is seated on high, for this life is not about who is the king of the mountain.  The Lord our God not only looks down from heaven, but he is also involved in life on earth by removing the poor and needy from squalor.  Do we remember the times we were poor, and the Lord raised us up?  Do we remember the times we were needy, and God removed us from the ash heap?  These are reasons we praise God.

Maybe we do not have those memories.  Maybe we are the princes of God’s people.  Knowing and seeing the Lord lift others from squalor gives us reason to praise.  Thanking God for the changed welfare of another person is appropriate.  It is then that we see God has expanded our lives to include those who are not like us.

There are barren women, and barren couples, today.  Knowing the Lord can and does place children in the lives of barren people is a praise.  Even though someone is barren does not mean others bar them from participating in life.  It is a joy for barren women, and couples, to lovingly teach and encourage children to know the Lord.  Again, this opportunity is reason to praise the Lord.

Yes, we can praise the Lord.  He is our God.  Who knows, maybe someone who hears us giving praise to the Lord will make the Lord their God!

We praise God, for you have worked in our lives.  You can see from heaven and can assist us here on earth.  Thank you for lifting us from squalor.  Thank you for allowing even the princes of the earth to see your work on earth.  It is through the name of Jesus Christ that we know you as our God.  Amen.