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Religion

Why Do We Suffer? Buddhism vs. Christianity

The current prevailing philosophy in our western world is that everyone's opinion is equal and no one is wrong or even less good. I am free to enjoy my religion (so far) as long as I don't impose it on you or let it provoke me to “hate speech.” The only absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth. Since we are surrounded by so many prompts to affirm and celebrate diversity, it is easy to get so used to focusing on what we have in common that we might be tempted to accept the general notion that there really isn't much difference between Christianity and the religions around us. After all, don't we all want peace and harmony and brotherly love? Doesn't meditation provide the same freedom from stress and problems that people have formerly sought through prayer? Can't we all just seek the good of man and leave one another to whatever spoke of the wheel might be followed to get to the God/god in the hub? Recently, I conversed with some Buddhists who claimed that I could be a Christian and still practice Buddhist philosophy. I studied about how Buddhism started as a quest by Siddharta Buddha around 4 BC to relieve suffering in this world. I was intrigued to note that there are some similarities between the two religions, and I began to understand why some people might think that they are essentially alike. Buddhism and Christianity are similar in their view that suffering is going to happen and that people need to be prepared with their manner of dealing with it. They are similar in their promotion of a lack of attachment to material things so that the loss will be less difficult. They are similar in many of their ethics regarding people’s actions and attitudes in life. But they are very different in their way of handling the suffering that comes, and in the meaning of that suffering. Therein all surface similarities take a wide fork in the road, to different destinations. Let's take the “Four Noble Truths of Buddhism” as a format on which to compare and contrast these two viewpoints on suffering. In brief form, they state: 1. Suffering is our existence. 2. Suffering is caused by craving, wanting or desirousness. 3. Freedom from suffering can be secured. 4. The way out of suffering is to follow the path. 1. Is suffering our existence? In order to conclude that suffering is our existence, the Buddha employed a wide view, which included not only tragedies and grief, but daily sadness, old age, sickness, association with the unpleasant, and all forms of mental and physical sufferings as well. He also included such ideas as imperfection, impermanence, insubstantiality, and a lack of lasting satisfaction. He believed that everyone suffers it, and must become truly aware of that suffering before anything can be done about it. If there is no lasting satisfaction, it is no wonder that he said suffering is our existence! Christians are taught to expect suffering to be a part of our lives, but there is also joy, peace, and comfort. Jesus spoke of his upcoming suffering in Luke 9:22 and then followed with the words, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (9:23). By this he meant that his followers would indeed suffer in this world as they followed him. In Matthew 5 he told his disciples that they would mourn and that they would be persecuted for righteousness' sake. Hebrews chapter 11 tells of many peoples’ suffering, and the faith which caused them to continue. And 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 talks of being "hard-pressed," "perplexed," "persecuted," and "struck down." Both religions involve people looking out at the world and beholding the misery to be found there and describing it. But what is the cause of this suffering? 2. Is suffering caused by craving, wanting, or desirousness? The Buddha taught that the cause of suffering was found in craving, wanting or desirousness. By this he did not mean just wanting something that is possible or needed, but wanting what is impossible for one to have. He described it as a "wish to possess wholly, to cling to," as something that we want "to remain as it is at that moment" (Adrienne Howley, The Naked Buddha). We want people we love to stay the same, for no one to ever die or be sick, and for any good thing we have to always be with us. This leads us to feelings of greed, hatred, passion, aggression, and ignorance. We want what we want when we want it. Instead, the Buddha taught that we need to accept the truth of impermanence. If we do not expect it, we do not miss it. Howley explains that "nothing can make us joyful in the face of sorrow,” but states that being aware of this truth will reduce the pain, because the craving and clinging cause more pain than the loss itself does. Otherwise, we may suffer loss and continue on in blaming, anger, and hatred for whomever brought about our loss; it might even lead to war or personal wars of jealousy and envy. He taught that the attachment itself is the cause of suffering in this life. The Bible expresses somewhat similar views regarding our attachments and cravings. But the underlying cause for suffering in the world is completely different. In Matthew 6:19 Jesus says, "Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven." Colossians 3:1-2a implores followers to, "Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things." James 4:1 asks, "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight." From all of these verses, we see that the Christian faith leads us to realize that our attachments to "things" can lead us to suffering. If we desire our brother's possessions, we will be unhappy and also ungrateful for what we do have. If we are attached to our goods and they are stolen, we will feel loss. If we become really envious, we may even fight someone else to get what we want. But while our actions are the cause which leads to the effect of suffering, the Bible leads us back a step further into the cause behind this step in the process of suffering. Romans 3 teaches us that "there is no one who does good, not even one" and states that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (3:12,23). There will be no sinless thinking this side of heaven. Throughout the Old Testament there were many admonitions to follow God's path in order to be blessed, and examples of being punished because of not obeying God. We see that it was because of their sin that they acted in rebellion against God's commandments, and they brought suffering upon themselves. We should also note that the groups that Israel conquered and destroyed were receiving the result of their sins against God as well (Psalm 2). But Christians also know from the Book of Job that God allows His people to suffer for reasons other than their sins. Satan, the deceiver, contributed to the suffering by coming to God and receiving permission to afflict Job in terrible ways. This test to discover whether Job would be faithful was limited by the hand of God. The Book of James explains this testing well in 1:2-4: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." The Heidelberg Catechism explains it thus: God's providence is His almighty and ever present power, whereby, as with His hand, He still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things, come not by chance but by His fatherly hand (Lord's Day 10). So we see then that the Buddhist understands the cause of suffering to arise from peoples' attitudes and actions. The Christian will agree that one's cravings and actions can sometimes be the cause of the suffering. But the Christian sees it as arising either because those attitudes and actions are sinful, or as a test brought upon him/her by God for His higher purposes. It is no wonder that Howley states that "nothing can make us joyful in the face of sorrow" because there is no comfort from God for the Buddhist. 3. Can freedom from suffering be secured? The Buddha's aim in teaching us about suffering was not to deny that there is beauty and joy in everyday life, but rather to show us how to be happy right now and in the very next moment of this existence. Howley states that, "If it weren't for a third noble truth, we'd create a god or demon and blame our suffering on that." Instead, she says that Buddhism leads us to become truly aware of the real condition of existence: "Enjoy what you have now but accept that is already changing. Do no harm to living beings, including yourself. Learn to control your mind by being aware of things as they are, now." The similarity with Christianity is that the Bible always implores people to take an accurate and honest look at what is truly happening. But the interpretation of what is truly happening is entirely different! Note the words of the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 5:8-10: Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. Christians are admonished to control ourselves, and to be aware. We are to watch for the temptations that can come from the devil, and resist them and him, which we learn from other passages is done by regular prayer, Bible reading, and worshipping as a community. We see also that we will suffer, but that after "a little while" God will restore us. Jesus promised in John 17:5-15 that after he left, he would send the "Counselor," who is the Holy Spirit who would lead us into truth, convict men of sin, and provide comfort as well. There is an anticipation built up throughout the progression of the Four Noble Truths. We now know the nature of the problem of suffering, and truly, we are eager to find out just exactly what we must do in order to solve it. 4. Which is the path that leads us out of suffering? The Fourth Noble Truth presents an eightfold path as the way out of suffering. In summary, this path promotes "right views, aims, speech, action, livelihood, perseverance, mindfulness, and meditation." Mindfulness is the awareness I spoke of, and meditation will be discussed in the next section. Perseverance is just as it says. The first five are further expressed in the Buddha's "Five Precepts" which were against "lying, stealing, killing, unnatural sexual activity and intoxication." It is important to note that these steps and precepts are not considered by Buddhists to be commandments, but rather they are guidelines for beginning a life free from unnecessary suffering. It is thought that we can live happier lives by understanding, not by obeying rules or believing that help comes from "out there" or "up there." They are given as advice which can be used or ignored; but one must take responsibility for the consequences of one's actions. Most Christians can easily see that this path and these precepts correspond to our Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Commandments. And the Precept regarding intoxication is covered in the list of sinful activities in Galatians 5:19-21 as "drunkenness." Furthermore, Peter tells us in 1 Peter 3:8-9b to "...live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing...." And in 1 Peter 3:10 we read “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech.” Clearly, this last verse is the same as number three, “Right Speech.” So there is some agreement between Buddhists and Christians, therefore, as to how one should interact with other people. Both would agree that there will be less suffering encountered in this lifetime when one lives in harmony with others, and both even agree to a great degree on the description of that harmony. Does this then mean that the two religions are similar? In their very essence, they are not. Buddhists look within themselves to find their ease, and do not look to a "god" to provide for them in any way. Christians look to the God who is the Creator of the universe, for our care. We believe he is personally involved with each of us, for "all creatures are so completely in His hand that without His will they cannot so much as move" (Heidelberg Catechism LD 10). The Buddha taught his followers to escape suffering while Jesus showed us the way to go through it. If the Buddhists are right, there is no God to help us; and from the Christian's viewpoint, the Buddhists are just trying to get by as best as they can because they do not want to bow before Almighty God. Ravi Zacharias has stated, "Buddhism is a well-thought through belief that is bereft of God. More accurately, it is a philosophy of how one can be good without God, pulling oneself up by one's own moral bootstraps" (Lotus and the Cross: Jesus Talks With Buddha). The Buddha said, "Be a light to yourselves," but Jesus said, "I am the light of the world" (John 9:5). Meditation or Prayer? Furthermore, Buddhism teaches that one can overcome suffering by right meditation. Buddhist meditation is not a “trance,” but rather a time of becoming more aware of what is going on in your mind. It is a time of not being distracted by other things. The word bhavana actually means development or “culture” as in mental development or mental yoga. This “insight meditation” deals with our bodies, feelings, sensations, the mind, and moral and intellectual subjects. Buddhist meditation develops control of one's own mind. This is very important because as Howley states: “where the mind goes, the body tends to follow. A controlled mind can be directed skillfully while an uncontrolled mind chatters like a ‘drunken monkey’ and its misperceptions lead to unskillful behavior and unnecessary suffering.” Thoughts and actions in Buddhism are divided into those which are skillful and those which are unskillful. Skillful ones are those which are the most useful and beneficial, and the least harmful. Karma is the word which describes the accumulated effect of actions. Since they do not believe in sinfulness or commands, this terminology represents the strongest persuasion for our compliance to that which will benefit ourself. With insightful meditation, we move away from our problem temporarily, by reaching deep within ourself, examining the issue carefully, determining how to deal with it, and then putting it behind ourself. There is simply no point to "hanging on" to what was desired since that causes suffering. When the Bible speaks of meditation, this is not what it means. Meditation in Scripture is on Scripture: it is looking at what God has to say about life and thinking it through so that one might learn to think God's thoughts after Him. And Christianity promotes prayer. Prayer is addressed to God the Father through His son Jesus Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Heidelberg Catechism explains that Christians "address God as Our Father – To awaken in us at the very beginning of our prayer that childlike reverence and trust toward God which should be basic to our prayer (LD 46). Christians pray for Him to be glorified and honored in all of our words, thoughts and actions. We ask for His will to be done and for all of our needs to be provided, our sins to be forgiven, and for strength to fight temptation and the evil one. We conclude by joyfully stating, "For Yours is the kingdom and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen." As Ravi Zacharias has written, “Prayer is a constant reminder that the human being is not autonomous...there are cardinal differences between one who prays and one who meditates. One looks beyond and the other looks within." Conclusion A Christian is a person who has realized that he is sinful in and of himself, and he cannot come to God directly because of that sin. Therefore, through God's Word, he realizes that he needs a Savior. Christians believe that within all men is the knowledge of a Being higher than themselves who created the intricate yet vast universe and all within it, who knows all and is all powerful. We do not believe that we can handle all of life by looking into our sinful selves, nor that we were left to do so by an impersonal Creator. Rather we rejoice in the love that sought us, bought us, and keeps us in His care. We trust His decisions, even when we are suffering, knowing that He has a purpose in that suffering. Unlike the Buddhist nun, who claims that, “nothing can make us joyful in the face of sorrow,” we are able to experience a sense of peace, and even joy in accepting God's will. James 1:2 encourages us to “consider it pure joy...whenever you face trials of any kind,” and 1 Peter 1:6 states “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials." It was also mentioned before that 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 spoke of suffering – but it also speaks of God's strength being applied: We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. This is seen by the Christian as a true "letting go" of a situation, but it involves a total trust in God rather than the Buddhist's "true awareness of the real condition of existence" (Howley). There is great benefit in understanding God's providence, because as Lord's Day 10 of the Heidelberg Catechism states: We can be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and with a view to the future we can have a firm confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from His love; for all creatures are so completely in His hand that without His will they cannot so much as move. This is the Christian's response to suffering. At first sight, some might consider that the Buddha and the Christ taught very similar concepts which can be happily used by all people to ease their sufferings. It might even look like meditation and prayer are quite alike, since both seem to be "mind activities." Even the medical societies are promoting Yoga and meditation for one's health, although a recent study showed no real improvement in health in those who tried it. Before I studied about Buddhism, I did not realize that it is really the underlying philosophy of so many self-improvement techniques seen all around us. It is simply not acceptable to view Jesus Christ as just another great teacher similar to the Buddha, for Jesus claimed to be the Son of God who came to save people from their sins. So either He was who He claimed to be, or he was a lunatic not worthy to be followed, for He claimed to be the Son of God. He stated, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Christians believe that suffering can only be ended by coming into a right relationship with God, and this can only be done through Jesus Christ. Suffering ends because it is faced with God's strength and comfort here in this world, and it ends ultimately when one enters Heaven after death. The Apostle Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:5 of those who come "having a form of godliness, but denying its power." Buddhists attempt to bring themselves out of suffering by a type of righteous living, without connecting themselves to the God who created them. In other words, they seek to provide their own salvation from suffering. Therefore, there is very little similarity between Buddhism and Christianity on the topic of suffering....

Soup and Buns

Do not worry...

Cheer up, ye saints of God, there’s nothing to worry about! Nothing to make you feel afraid, nothing to make you doubt. Remember Jesus never fails, so why not trust Him and shout – You’ll be sorry you worried at all tomorrow morning. I have often sung this little chorus to remind myself not to worry. But it is hard not to worry about ourselves and our loved ones. We face ill health, accidents, fear of pain, career problems, loss of income, fear of poverty, and worries about all sorts of other sufferings! Dr. Richard Gaffin preached a very good sermon on the topic of worry. He began with the very familiar Matthew 6:25-34, which says, in part: “…do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?... For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” Why do we worry? Is it normal? Is it a solution, a part of life, a coping mechanism? 3 that lead to worry Let’s think about these three words: forgetfulness, pride, and ingratitude. We worry because we forget who our God is. He is the Creator of heaven and earth. He is our Father. “He loves me so much that I do not doubt He will provide whatever I need for body and soul. He desires to do so because He is my loving Father; He is able to do so because He is Almighty God” (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 9). But why do we forget? We forget because our pride gets in the way. We look at life as a circle where we are the center. We ask ourselves: what are my needs, and my desires? We develop a level of expectation as to what we want to have. This pride sets us on a spiral of desire that leads to frustration and anger when we do not get what we want, and worry is one of the results. What do we worry about? All worrying is about suffering and loss. We do not want anything to happen that we consider “negative.” In every instance, it comes down to being concerned that our desires will not be satisfied. That’s a pretty harsh way to look at a devastating loss, though, isn’t it? But when we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” we acknowledge that our place is as the clay in the Potter’s hands. We forget that He loves us, and instead we fear that He might not give us what we want. We fear He will decide differently and we will not like it. Humbly... The way to be free from worry is to humble ourselves before God. This is, as Dr. Gaffin preached, a “distinctly Christian contrast to the unrealistic outcome of pride.” When we are humble, we see ourselves exactly as we should be, as we are. A humble Christian sees that the God with the mighty arm will work things out. Then we can be free of worry, and stop acting like the unbelievers. But we forget because we do not spend much time in prayer. Our pride shuts us up inside of ourselves, making our prayer superficial. But prayer is where God reminds us where our hope and faith are. It is a means of grace that He has provided. It is the opportunity to cast ourselves on our God and to be taken lovingly in His arms. He allows us to leave the matter with Him. Still, we forget and become ungrateful. We are no better than the Israelites, as we often forget all that God has done for us. Unbelievers have every reason to worry because they “bear the wrath of God.” Those who fear death end up fearing life also. They cannot teach us how to live. We, however, as God’s people have the deepest source of genuine thankfulness, and no good reason to worry. Conclusion Now, there is also a difference between genuine constructive concern and counterproductive worrying, and we must prayerfully ask our Lord to help us to discern that difference. A pain in the chest should cause concern and provoke a visit to the doctor if not an emergency call. And it is our normal human response to feel afraid or sad or grief-stricken at given times. But the definition of worry is: “to torment oneself with, or suffer from, disturbing thoughts; fret.” We must leave the “what ifs….” with the Lord. It is the humble, prayerful, thankful Christian who can be free from worry....

Church history

Rome's Catacombs art was created to encourage fellow Christians

Imagine a vast, underground series of zigzagging passageways covering an area several miles in length, 590 acres in size. Ponder the amount of work that was required to dig down between 2 and 60 feet deep into volcanic tuff rock in order to create these passageways and the loculi (burial niches) that lined the sides of them. In an ancient time period when graveyards were not permitted within the city limits of Rome, the catacombs were created for the burial of Christians, Jews, and some pagan individuals. The catacombs are thought to have held between four and seven million graves. Between 40 and 60 multi-level burial chambers connected by numerous tunnels have been discovered just outside of Rome.  Narrow steps go down as many as four stories, leading to passages that are about 8 feet high and 3 or 4 feet. The burial niches were carved into the walls and are generally 16-24 inches high and 45-60 inches long. And it is here, in these catacombs, where we can find the earliest known examples of Christian artwork. During the second century, the traditions of the Romans and Etruscans favored cremation, but the Christians, believing in the bodily resurrection of the dead, thought that bodies of the deceased should be buried, as was the described manner within the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Because of that, and because it was inexpensive, Christians dug these catacombs, generally beginning on the property of one of the Christians, digging downward and then branching out in many directions. Imagine starting such a project in your back yard! The Christians definitely expanded the number of catacombs, and were known to hold funeral services in small chapel-like rooms, similar to how people hold graveside services today. WHAT WAS THE EARLIEST CHRISTIAN ARTWORK LIKE? We can learn a lot about the people who expressed their faith artistically in the catacombs. It is especially uplifting to note the particular themes and symbols that were chosen, as well as noticing those that were not. This fresco painting of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3) is found in the Priscilla catacombs in Rome and is dated to around the third and century. It is also interesting to consider that whereas some religions, such as the pagan worship in Egypt, provided artwork within their burial places for the use of the deceased along the way to the afterlife, Christians provided artwork for the encouragement of the living who would visit the catacombs. Christians’ souls were already in Heaven, but the bodies awaited the great resurrection at the day of judgment. The types of artwork found in the catacombs include fresco paintings (paintings done on wet plaster), Greek and Latin inscriptions, carved stone burial boxes (sarcophagi), and statues. Some of the artwork is simple and amateurish, but in other cases it’s clear Christians hired professional artists to decorate the graves of their loved ones with the purpose of advancing the message of Christ. The people who could afford it placed the body of a loved one in a stone sarcophagus that was most often decorated, but those who were poor simply bound the body up in linen. It was then placed in the loculi– the burial niche – and the niche was sealed with a slab that bore the name, age and date of the person’s death. Catacombs historians state that there are three themes that are seen throughout the catacombs' artwork: resurrection, salvation, and baptism, which Andrew Shubin in Early Christian Imagery in the Catacombs of Priscilla refers to as the "three core tenets of Christianity." Another catacomb art historian, Gregory S. Athnos, states that: Every story in catacomb art is a tale of deliverance, a tale of the powerlessness of death and the certainty of the resurrection. God delivers us from the consequences of death situations and gives us life instead. In our view of the history of Christian art it appears the crucifixion of Jesus holds the highest place." A French Catholic cultural historian, Frederic Ozanam, sums up the topics depicted in this early Christian artwork thus: In these figures of Noah in the Ark, Moses striking the rock, Job on the dunghill, the Miracle of Cana, the feeding of the five thousand, Lazarus leaving the tomb, and most prominent – Daniel in the lions' den, Jonah cast out by the whale, the three Children in the furnace. All these are types of martyrdom – martyrdom by beasts, water, and fire, but all symbolical of triumphant martyrdom such as is necessary to depict in order to maintain courage and console grief. And, amazingly he points out the following: We see no trace of contemporary persecutions, no representation of the butchery of the Christians, nothing bloodthirsty, nothing which could rouse hatred or vengeance, nothing but pictures of pardon, hope, and love. A fish carving from the Domitilla Catacombs in Rome, dated to around second or third century AD. The letters below spell fish in Greek (ichthys) and can also be used to form an acronym of the phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” In this regard, Athnos points out that he saw "no crosses in the catacombs – no symbols of death. Rather, he saw symbols of the Resurrection such as the Phoenix, a bird which came back to life, and the fish, which speaks of God’s provision and sustenance, as well as a reference to Jesus’ calling his disciples to follow Him and become fishers of men. Other researchers describe pictures of a dove, representing the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to dwell within Christians and bring them guidance, wisdom, peace, comfort, and joy. Another frequent symbol was the anchor, representing hope in Jesus as expressed in Hebrews 6:19, “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” Although Athnos saw no crosses, other researchers point out that when the anchor is turned upside down, the Greek letter TAU was formed and the T represented the shape of the cross, promising salvation through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Last of all, the symbol of a peacock was adopted for use by early Christians. It had long been a symbol of eternal life for other cultures, who feared death and their unknown future; Christians improved on it, believing that the victory of Christ’s resurrection canceled the obscurity of death. One subject that was frequently repeated in statuary was that of the Good Shepherd. The Old Testament book of Psalms, Chapter 23, begins with, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” The Psalmist describes how this good shepherd watches over his sheep by taking them to green pastures with quiet, not frightening, streams of water, and providing comfort for them in every dangerous situation. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Jesus announced Himself in John 10:11-18 as the Good Shepherd who would lay down His life for His sheep; this reference would have brought Psalm 23 to His disciples’ minds. It brought great comfort to the souls of early Christians to believe in Christ as their good shepherd. There were also pictures found of the Virgin Mary, of a person praying in Orant style (arms uplifted), and of the disciples and other early saints and martyrs of the Christian faith. These, too, served to encourage the living by referencing the power and love of God and the witness of other believers. There are also depictions of Jesus performing His many miracles, but these aren’t the earliest pictures, as the first Christian arts were seemingly more reluctant to depict Him than later ones. DID CHRISTIANS HIDE IN THE CATACOMBS? A catacomb fresco painting of Samson with the jawbone of a donkey (Judges 15). Photo credit: Isogood_patrick / Shutterstock.com Many of us have heard references to the Roman persecution of Christians which took place during the first three centuries after Christ. Ministers have often called on us to imagine the difficulties which led many Christians to hide from the Romans down inside of the catacombs. However, some modern historians dispute whether the catacombs were used as a hiding place, and one source even questioned whether there really was a great persecution! These writers call the ideas tradition, myth or a romanticizing of what actually occurred. Note the following arguments and responses: OBJECTION: There is no visible evidence that suggests that Christians hid there from the Romans. RESPONSE: People who were generally very poor, on the run, and hiding for their lives would be careful not to leave any trace of their whereabouts. OBJECTION: The stench from the rotting bodies would have made it a difficult place to exist and it would have been an unpleasant place to live. RESPONSE: Each grave was sealed with stone, and it was cold down there, so it was unlikely that there would be a stench; besides, people who are running for their lives might not be so concerned about the comforts of life. There is at least one known location in the catacombs that still shows blood, where a Christian was killed, proving that there was at least one person who hid there. OBJECTION: The catacombs were a public place well-known to the Romans, so they would not have provided a good hiding place. RESPONSE: Since the passageways are very long, irregular, and complicated, it would be difficult to find people there even if the soldiers knew they were in there somewhere. OBJECTION: Christians were willing to die as martyrs for their Lord Jesus Christ, so why would they want to hide? RESPONSE: While Christians were (and should still be) willing to die for Christ, that doesn’t mean we seek death! The Apostle Paul sneaked out of the city of Damascus to avoid being killed by an angry group of Jewish leaders (Acts chapter 9) and like him, if Christians can avoid death while staying true to Christ, then we should. Also consider, since the artwork was intended to encourage people who were living in dangerous circumstances, those who painted and sculpted it did expect that it would be viewed by others; this lends credence to the idea that some Christians would be coming there sometime. CONCLUSION The catacombs outside of Rome served as an extensive underground burial location around the second century. The Christians who dug some of them held funeral services within the small chapels there, and some hid there to avoid persecution. They expressed their faith in salvation through Jesus Christ by painting or sculpting symbols of Christianity and references to carefully chosen Biblical accounts that would particularly instill courage, faith, hope, and trust within those who viewed them. Hebrews 12 sums up the encouragement that the early Christians passed on to others through their artwork in the catacombs: Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. BIBLIOGRAPHY All online resources were last accessed on April 15, 2015. Gregory S. Athnos’ The Art of the Roman Catacombs: Themes of Deliverance in the Age of Persecution (Outskirts Press, 2011) Middletown Bible Church’s “The Catacombs and the Cloisters.” Jay King’s “Throwing Christians to the Lions: Fact and Legend.” Suny Oneonta School of Art & Humanities “Early Christian Art.” J. Maresca’s The Catacombs of Rome(Documentary, 42 minutes, 2002). Frederic Ozanam’s “The Christian Art of the Catacombs” as published in the Fall 1993 issue of The Dawson Newsletter. Christine Quigley’s Skulls and Skeletons: Human Bone Collections and Accumulations (McFarland and Company, Inc., 2001). Rick Steves' Rick Steves Europe “Rome, Italy: Catacombs and Appian Way.” Andrew Shubin’s “Early Christian Imagery in the Catacombs of Priscilla." This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue under the title "Artwork in Rome’s Catacombs: Early Christian art was created to encourage fellow Christians." ...

Christian education

Do what the guru says? Public schools are spiritual too.

If I've ever wondered why we spend so much effort on our Christian education, it's become clearer recently, since I've been doing some substitute teaching in several of Michigan's public schools. Hop, stop…and don’t ask any questions Some of the reasons are obvious. While the Bible can’t be read in these schools, I’ve observed a fifth-grade teacher reading to her class from a horoscope book every morning. Others are harder to spot, but important too. Recently, one of the early elementary schools here performed Cows in the Kitchen, a musical folktale about a family that is very noisy. So the parents go to the wise man on the mountain – the Guru – who tells them to bring various animals into their home. When it becomes intolerable, he tells them to remove the animals and thus they learn to appreciate having only their family’s noise within. At one point the Kindergarten kids sing: Do what the Guru says Do what the Guru says Do what the Guru says What he says to do. Hop – we hop. Stop – we stop. We will do what he says to do. All in fun? Certainly, to the 5-year-olds it was. But consider this: these children haven’t been told where true wisdom can be found, and they haven’t been told about the only One to whom such unquestioning obedience is actually due. What we have here are children deliberately starved of any spiritual direction, told to sing a little ditty about blindly following the directions of a mere man. Public school spirituality I’ve also run across numerous public school districts that have adopted Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People / Kids as their core value system for their students. While many aspects of the 7 Habits could be combined with Scripture as a list of “how to act” (plan ahead, be diligent, consider others first, work together), the poster for Habit #7 “Sharpen the Saw” features an Asian woman in the well-recognized yoga lotus position, and the text under the “Soul” section reads: The Spiritual Dimension Meditate keep a journal take in quality media These are all good ideas but this spiritual dimension doesn’t even mention a “higher being” let alone God. While the entire 7 Habits system may seem beneficial for giving non-Christians something to use to manage the kids’ behavior, it emphasizes the great abilities of the individual person, and it ends up being a value system that has “a form of godliness, but denies its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). The contrast Other Michigan schools are considering adding yoga to their elementary curriculum as well, according to a National Public Radio newscast, in an effort to help students de-stress. I saw this in one Detroit-area school. A class of 25 4thgraders was escorted to the gymnasium for their yoga lesson. When the CD player wouldn’t work the teacher repeatedly yelled loudly at the students to sit still and be quiet. (It seemed a bit ironic.) One girl sat off to the side on a chair. “My parents don’t allow me to take yoga,” she said sadly. The question that remained unanswered was whether her parents realized that she was required to sit in the gym for 30 minutes while the others participated. Contrast this with a recent Christian school’s spring concert that included the entire school – including Kindergartners – singing: Give thanks with a grateful heart, give thanks to the Holy One Give thanks because He’s given Jesus Christ our Lord And now, let the poor say, ‘I am rich’, let the weak say ‘I am strong’ Because of what the Lord has done for us – Give thanks The point is, that with a great teacher, a young child learns not only to respect, but to love that teacher and accept everything that she or he has to say. While the students may be able to learn their 3 R’s in the public school, they will always, always be influenced by the life philosophy of their teacher as well. We are so very blessed to have schools and teachers who will point our children to God....

Assorted

Reformed Harmony: a new tool promotes friendship…and sometimes marriage

"We’ll love you until somebody else does.” This light-hearted, rather amusing slogan belongs to the Facebook phenomenon known as Reformed Harmony (hereafter RH). It is a group of Reformed Christian singles over the age of 18, including members in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, who have been introduced to one another through the technology of the Internet. It is considered by Facebook to be one of the most active sites that they have. It started as a joke 4 years ago with about 30 people, and currently brings together approximately 1,100 people from the USA, Canada, and around the world. FRIENDSHIPS, FELLOWSHIP, AND GLORIFYING GOD “RH exists,” as former member and Administrator (or Admin) Sarah Wolfe of Florida stated, “to provide friendship and fellowship to Reformed Christian singles over 18 and to glorify God.” Despite the name “Harmony,” which immediately evokes thoughts of the well-known dating website e-Harmony, Wolfe noted: The group is not a dating site. You are not there to “sell” yourself or impress anybody. You don’t just browse through available people - it’s about friendship and fellowship and supporting each other. She adds: “it’s wonderful and a blessing when two people meet on RH and get married, but it’s not by any means the only reason.” She knows of people whose deep friendships have led them to join a friend’s church or even move to another city to become roommates and build stronger godly relationships that encourage them to serve the Lord. Some find themselves in very small and isolated Reformed communities, leaving them floundering socially, even while surrounded by excellent preaching and a few families who love them. Even those who are surrounded by hundreds of other Reformed singles, sometimes find it difficult to actually connect on a deeper level. They feel too old to attend Youth Conferences and Bible Study weekends. So how can they meet like-minded Christian singles? Members of RH revel in the fact that they can find other Reformed Christian singles who are serious about their faith in Christ. Joe Tenney, of Virginia, was an Admin until he married in October 2018. He encountered singles who had bought into the devastating view that they really haven’t started their lives until they get married. He said: Our identity is not wrapped up in who we marry - it’s wrapped up in Christ, and we are all promised the wedding of Christ and the Church. In a lot of ways, RH is kind of a foolish thing, but sometimes God uses foolish things. RH accidentally hit a niche and became something that has filled a need: a safe, healthy community where people can work out their issues and hurts. No church started it; the Lord in His grace allowed this kind of ridiculous group to form that’s been used to help so many people. “Loneliness is one of the forefront struggles of single Christians in their 20s,” states Taylor DeSoto, of Phoenix, Arizona, one of the original brains and organizers of RH. And Tenney told of specific members who overcame depression and of some who returned to worshipping in church as a result of participating in RH. POSSIBLY FINDING YOUR BELOVED Some people do find their spouses through RH, as well as friendship. DeSoto states that, “While many RCS may put the thought aside verbally, the brutal reality is that getting married is definitely on their minds.” DeSoto adds: There’s just not the pool of Reformed Christians in local Reformed churches that maybe there used to be, so people end up marrying non-Reformed Christians and then having to teach them. Or arguing about the differences, one might add. DeSoto met his wife Laura, of Johnstown PA, through RH. They held “structured Skype dates” for three months, were engaged for three months, and then married. Both are in their mid-20s. The “structured” dates were partly the idea of Laura’s father, Rev. Bob McKelvey, an Orthodox Presbyterian minister in Pennsylvania. (Please see this list of 10 questions DeSoto suggested on RH that couples discuss when they are seriously considering one another.) Sarah Wolfe is another who was blessed to meet her spouse on RH. She joined this Facebook page fairly early in its 4-year history and became one of the Admins. She enjoyed building quality friendships for two years and then she hit it off with her husband David, of California, who actually met her online on his very first day on RH! The twain did meet. Both in their early 30s, their discussions grew from “Hi, welcome to RH” in April 2017 to deep chats about important subjects, to daily conversations, phone calls, and visits. They were engaged in November of 2017, married in January of 2018, and are now expecting their first child. RH statistics show that in the 4 years of its existence, thus far 85 couples have met through RH and married. The Wolfes count three couples in their own congregation. Some of the marriages have been within “local” distances, but many have crossed state and even international lines, with some people either moving to or from the United Kingdom, Netherlands, or Australia. Some couples are in their 40s or 50s, though the majority are younger. DeSoto says that most seem to prefer shorter engagement periods. He believes this works out well because the couple spends more time getting to know each other well on numerous topics and it’s more intentional than if they were local and just dating to a baseball game or dinner. HOW DID IT ALL BEGIN? So how did the group first get started? There’s a Facebook group online called Reformed Pub that was started in 2013. It’s described on its page as The place to be when you want to kick back, have a beer, and talk about the important things in life with like-minded brothers and sisters... but above all we want to see God glorified through Jesus’ name being lifted high. As of March 2019, it has nearly 21,000 members worldwide. In January 2015, a large number of single members decided to post personal ads as a joke, some of which were described as “over the top.” After a few days, the Admins suggested to these single members that perhaps they should go and make their own group. A member named J. T. Hoover took the initiative to start the group as a light-hearted endeavor, and about 30 single people joined. For the first few months, it was called Reformed Pub Harmony. Taylor DeSoto reached out to several of the Admins with his ideas, asking to be on the Admin team, and permission was granted. About 6 months later, differences of opinion with Reformed Pub regarding rules and procedures arose, and so Reformed Harmony became its own organism around December 2015. DeSoto believes he’s the one who came up with their slogan: “We’ll love you until somebody else does.” He devised many of the rules, and in many other ways shaped the culture of the group. There were often themed posts for each day, and members were encouraged to post info about themselves, to help people interact and get to know one another. Once people started meeting and getting married, the enrollment increased a lot. About 50 marriages happened within the first two years. Membership grew from 200 in the first year to 600 by the end of the second year. At 4 years, there are now approximately 1,100 members. One RH rule is that, upon marriage, the couple ceases to be members of RH. But many continue to nourish the deep friendships that they built there, but now communicating outside of RH. Admins are single members as well, to protect existing marriages. It’s not a good idea, for instance, for single women to be contacting married men with their concerns. GROUP "HANGOUTS" RH quickly expanded to include Google Hangout chat groups. These chat groups involve a member inviting others to join in on a separate discussion group on any number of shared interests, from political and theological topics to interests in food or movies. Sometimes groups are formed by geographical proximity. It is in these smaller groups that people really get to know one another as they share their thoughts and experiences. Member Laurel Bareman of Washington says: I’ve enjoyed the way the discussions have really challenged me to think about my beliefs. I’ve seen the diversity that exists among churches/peoples in the Reformed faith. RH has brought home how diverse and broad the spectrum of Reformed is. There is a solid foundation of people our age who seek to honor the Lord and follow Him. RH has provided fellowship and friendship and been a great blessing to my life. If you are seeking the fellowship and friendship, just like with a local church, you will get what you give. You have to be involved with the discussions, go to some Meetups, be involved in group chats, and put effort into it. Some people have questioned whether RH interferes with church membership. On the contrary, Sarah Wolfe stated: RH has never intended in any way to take the place of one’s own church. It’s not a church, and people don’t treat it as if it was. Women can be in leadership here too because it’s just a website. There is constant exhortation to go to your own pastor and elders, and to seek to serve in your local church.” Meetups can be organized around shared interests...including hiking! MEETING OFFLINE, IN PERSON Face-to-face “Meetups” have been a part of RH from the very beginning. Any member of RH can plan one just by setting the dates, and organizing activities, food, and sometimes lodging for those who come from afar. Meetups have been held in British Columbia, Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, New York City, California, Colorado, Washington State, and other places. It’s a “Y’all come!” sort of gathering that draws anywhere from 5 to 80 people, mostly from the USA and Canada. It’s a whole lot of fun mixed with Bible devotions and getting to know other believers. My son, Kevin Bratcher, attended his first Meetup in Phoenix, AZ with some trepidation. About 30 people were expected, of whom he had interacted with about 5 online. He said: I discovered that while we had many different backgrounds, the sense of family and fellowship was so clear to everyone there. I had hours-long conversations with people I'd never talked to before, played games, joined a local charity event with several friends, and left with a profound sense of awe and gratefulness at the common connection we had.” He added: Later Meetups reinforced these emotions, particularly when I attended them with the express intent of only making friends. Wherever you go - whether it's splitting an Airbnb with 5 men you haven't met for a conference in Atlanta, or piling 60 people into a couple homes in Seattle, or just a handful of folks for a retreat in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone . . . you’re at home with family. Wolfe hosted three Meetups in her Florida home and attended one in New York City. Bareman said that she loved both Meetups she attended, discovering that the people she’d interacted with online “were even more amazing that I thought they would be.” She has found it to be affordable travel too, sharing costs with others. Helping to plan the Meetup with a new RH friend was a lot of fun for her and it helped to cement the friendship. Scott Vander Molen describes an RH Meetup thus: It’s like a foretaste of what life will be like on the new earth. Everyone is so welcoming and accepting of each other for who they are. You can really feel the Christian love and by the end of the weekend you feel very close to your new friends. My RH friends have really helped me to improve my attitude towards women and marriage; I’ve learned that our focus should be on friendship, and the relationship will come when God decides that it should. I had to learn that important lesson before I could find contentment in my singleness and truly be ready for marriage.” He met his fiancée Mary – who lives in South Africa – in 2018, and he adds that “RH has been a tremendous blessing to me.” A FEW CONCERNS On an average day in January 2019, there were 98 notifications on RH. These are comments that people have posted on various topics, and sometimes there are even more. If we let it, Facebook could end up taking up a lot of time, causing us to neglect service opportunities, or family, or the existing friendships in your life; but that’s a choice. To deal with the flood of RH comments some members change their Facebook settings to ensure they don’t get notified every time someone says something – instead, they can go to the RH page when desired. Sometimes there are arguments in the group, and some members shared that they didn’t want to find themselves stressing out over Internet discussions with people they didn’t even know; it didn’t seem to be a very good use of their time. Sometimes referred to as “dumpster fires,” these are the most controversial discussions, and usually draw the most comments. Some people enjoy the debates; others do not. And just like with any group, there can be silliness and pettiness, with people saying things it would have been better that they not say. And there’s a wide circle within the title of “Reformed”, so there may be differences of belief on issues such as baptism, creation, and even eschatology. That means that at times the Admins have their work cut out for them, with Wolfe describing her Administrator role as being like a part-time job. Admins will discourage guys who keep messaging any and every girl they find attractive even though the girls are not really interacting back. As Wolfe put it, “RH is not a meat market!” There are rules as to what can and cannot be posted, and members told me they feel that the Admins do a great job of stopping inappropriate posts. Early on, it was arranged that there would always be female Admins as well, because female members might feel more comfortable reporting problems to them, and sometimes even seeking counsel. When problems happen, Admins will usually begin by advising those with the problem post to stop their bad behavior, and then, if the person does not comply, he or she will be removed from membership. There was a situation, for instance, where a man was very actively pursuing two women at once without either of them knowing about the other. When it was discovered, the Admins removed him and informed the women. In another serious situation, they even contacted the member’s elders and family to report what had taken place. CONCLUSION Reformed Harmony is a connecting tool that helps Reformed Christian singles to locate like-minded people who love the Lord as sincerely as they do. Once they have found these folks, they can put in the effort necessary to build deep friendships. And for approximately 200 individuals thus far (counting currently engaged couples as well), God has used it to bring together men and women to marry and establish homes that seek to further His Kingdom. If you are single and want more information, open up a Facebook account and just type in “Reformed Harmony” in the search bar. Sharon L. Bratcher is the author of the devotional book “Soup and Buns: Nourishment From God’s Word for Your Daily Struggles” and “Bible Overview for Young Children, 2-year lesson plans.”Contact her for information at sharoncopy@gmail.com. ...

Dating

10 questions to discuss when “interviewing” someone for marriage

These 10 questions were crafted for Reformed Harmony by Taylor DeSoto, with the hope that they could provide guidance for prospective couples to get to know one another more deeply. He encourages singles to keep their emotions low at the outset, until compatibility on the most meaningful levels has been established. The questions are reprinted below with DeSoto’s permission, and my commentary accompanies them in the brackets. 1. When did you know your sin and misery and when did you feel the love of Christ in your life? 2. What are the core tenets of your theology? What are the secondary tenets of your theology? (Which issues are important to you, or not?) 3. What political views do you hold?  (Do you have strong views regarding political parties, poverty, abortion, the environment, or list any other topic important to you). 4. How do you view the husband-wife relationship regarding headship, chores, division of labor? 5. What are you passionate about? What are your hobbies? How do you spend your time? 6. How is your relationship with your parents and family? Do you want your parents to be involved in our relationship? 7. How do you serve your church as a single person?  (This is geared to rooting out the people who don’t go to or participate in church in a meaningful way. DeSoto believes that if you are not serving your church while you are single, then you are not going to serve it as a married person OR serve your family). 8. Do you hope to have children, and how many? How do you want to raise them - what type of schooling or catechism? Do you believe in the baptism of infants? 9. What are your deal breakers in a relationship? This covers everything - where to live, job to have, smoking, drinking alcohol, sports - he encourages people to make a list. 10. How do you want to manage finances when married? This includes views on spending money, finances, credit/debt, and how to share assets. DeSoto adds that an eleventh question could be: May I contact your pastor if I want to? This may seem extreme, but if you are going to live with this person for the rest of your life, his or her character should be known objectively, as well as possible. And if you have nothing to hide, why would it bother you?...

Assorted

When we have to parent our parents: help and hope for caregivers

Paul pulled the car into the driveway. “Okay, Dad, now stay there and I’ll come around and help you out of the car.” “Okay.” Paul put the car into Park, turned off the lights, and opened the door. He rounded the back of the car planning to open the passenger side back door to retrieve Dad’s walker. But there was Dad, door open, lying face down in the gravel already. Paul was not amused.  **** Aging parents want to be independent. They want to continue living the way that they always have. They don’t want any help from strangers, and they certainly don’t want to give up their beautiful home and move into “one of those places.” What they want...may be impossible. What they have to choose between...is sometimes a choice too impossible for them to make. Dealing with one’s aging parents is like walking barefoot down a long series of gravel roads branching in every direction. It’s painful, uncomfortable, and confusing. Sometimes suddenly, and sometimes over a period of a couple of years, offspring are thrust into the position of having to parent their parents. It’s a role reversal that doesn’t please anyone. **** “You are NOT my mother - I am YOUR mother!” Mom yelled angrily. “I know that,” Susan said. “Then STOP bossing me around all the time!” Mom shouted. Susan sat down hard on the dining room chair and put her head in her hands. “You need to take your medicine now, Mom. Please?” **** The coming months, or years, will at times strain the relationships between the siblings, their spouses, and the aging parents. Who will help them? How often? Should someone quit a job to do so? Cancel a vacation? Who will pay the bills? Who will make the decisions that they won’t like? For those who know very little about medicine, caregiving, diseases, Alzheimer’s, or even the best way to deal with a doctor’s visit, it may be even harder. In 2018, it’s very common to hear both the aging and their younger family members say that parents really don’t want to live any longer if they cannot live independently as they used to. They would rather die. They don’t want to be a burden. Our culture has become so health-and-happiness oriented that the Right To Die (or euthanasia) movement grows stronger every year, not only in the Netherlands but here in Canada and the United States as well. It seems that the general public can see no purpose for an imperfect human being to exist. So when is it time to step in and step up? Each case will differ but according to one doctor, Mark Sawka, everyone always waits too long to make their decisions. Usually, by the time the senior citizens move into independent living, it should have been done sooner, and by the time they move to assisted living, they would have benefited greatly from going there sooner than that. We all want to maintain the status quo, keeping life as much like it has been as possible. Many older folks do not want to “face the music,” accepting their new limitations, and being grateful for what they are still able to enjoy. **** “Mom, you have fallen several times lately. We are worried about you living here in this house by yourself. Please...you can come and live with Susan and me, or you can go and live with Betty and Randall. Either of us would be happy to have you,” Paul said gently. “Oh, no, I could never do that. I won’t be a burden, and I don’t want to move away from my home.” Paul and Betty exchanged glances. What Mom didn’t understand is that since her children lived 3 hours away, she was being much more of a burden by living in her own home than she would be living with one of them. **** “Dad,” Susan began. “Your balance is not good. Your eyesight is nearly gone, you need constant help with your hearing aid, and to be honest, you need help with everyday things like bathing and dressing.” “Naw, I don’t need any help.” “Yes, you do, Dad.” “Mum can help me, can’t you, Mum?” Mom nodded her head, but had a weary and wary look about her. She was 82, used a walker, and took about 15 prescriptions a day, mostly to deal with back and shoulder pain. “I can help you if you stop being so stubborn!” Mom said. Susan tried again. “You either have to move into an apartment where people can help you, or you have to have people come to your house and help you here.” “I don’t want anybody coming into our house. I don’t need any other help.” “What if Paul and I moved in with you?” Susan offered. “No. Now you know that wouldn’t work. We would all end up fighting with each other. It’s hard enough for two of us to decide things, let alone having four opinions in the house,” Dad said. “Okay, then can we get some help through the Senior Citizens agency in town?” “We’re staying in our own home. And we don’t need any help,” Dad said with finality. Three lessons to learn  The first lesson to learn is that the best way to make your way through it is to view caregiving as a ministry given to you by God, instead of as the burden that your parents never wanted to be. There will have to be a lot of Scripture reading and prayer for patience and guidance. In her book entitled Ambushed by Grace: Help and Hope on the Caregiving Journey, Shelly Beach says: When I began caregiving six years ago, I did not expect to embark upon a journey of grace. I expected to learn of service and sacrifice, to explore new facets of patience and tolerance, love and forgiveness, but I did not expect to be changed at the core of my being. I did not know then what I know now — that caregiving, by the power of God ’s grace, can be a work of redemption powerful enough to reverberate into the hearts of those around us…. To make caregiving simply a task is a distortion of its purpose; rather, it is a divine appointment, a redemptive encounter, and an act of worship…. It wasn’t until I learned to relinquish my stride to His, to abandon control of my direction, and to match the rhythm of my pace to His that I discovered He was carrying me like a child standing upon her father’s shoes, clinging to his legs as she stared into his face, waiting for the next step. The second lesson is that none of this is going to be easy. It is very difficult to explain to your dad that he simply must let a staff member (read: stranger) help him to bathe, or tell your mother that she definitely must quit driving. It is difficult for siblings who have grown apart to mesh their ideas and agree on a plan of action. It is exhausting to add to one’s already busy work and home schedule the long days of research, packing and moving, doctors’ visits, cleaning, searching for lost dentures and wedding rings, meetings, and regular visits to these loved ones. **** “Mom, you drove 15 miles past your apartment building the other day and couldn’t find your way back. And last week you turned the wrong way and ended up going ten miles in another direction. You need to stop driving and give up your car.” “I need my car. I can still drive just fine.” “What if you have an accident?” “If I die I’ll go to Heaven, and that’s fine with me.” “Yeah, well, what if you crash into another car and hurt a woman and her baby, what then?” “I haven’t crashed into anybody and I’m not going to.” ****             The third lesson is that there is a lot of critical information that one or more of you must learn. Information such as: What is your parents’ financial situation? Is Assisted Living an option (at anywhere from $3000-10,000 per month!) or will they move in with someone or have someone move in with them? Or, how do you find an affordable assisted living apartment that will give your rapidly declining father all of the care that he requires and let your parents live together in more than one room? How many days will the insurance company or social benefits pay for your parent to stay in rehab, and will he be released earlier if he doesn’t cooperate in physical therapy? When should you contact the patient advocate in the hospital to intervene when your parent is not being treated well, discharged from the hospital as promised, or given the correct medication? How do you sign up for financial assistance from the various government or social agencies? For example, in the U.S. the Veteran’s Administration may send a monthly check if your parent served in the Armed Forces during a war. This research and application may take many hours, but it is well worth it. How do you accurately and safely hook up an IV with Vancomycin antibiotic to a port in your mother’s arm every single day for 8 weeks, or give your father his daily insulin shot? What is the purpose of the medications that they are taking? Four recommendations I will leave you with four recommendations. The first would be to read. Read books such as the aforementioned book by Shelly Beach and The Overwhelmed Woman’s Guide to Caring for Aging Parents, by Julie-Allyson Ieron. You may also find encouragement in John Calvin’s Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life. Second, contact people who have gone through this and ask a multitude of questions. Ask for one of them to be a prayer partner. It’s helpful if you know someone in the medical field who is able and willing to be consulted on occasion. Third, it's very important to involve all siblings in decision-making, even those that are reluctant to participate. They will have opinions. If possible, encourage everyone to be involved in the care, whether it is hands-on, financial assistance, regular visits, letters in the mail and regular phone calls, doing research online, shopping, or driving a parent to one of many doctors’ appointments. It is often the case that some step forward quickly and others hang back hoping not to have to do very much. Clear communication, understanding on all sides, and forgiveness may prevent anger and bitterness from occurring. Finally, encourage your parents in their faith in God as they live out these difficult days, and give them love in every way that you can. Remember that these loving parents cared for you when you were young, and it was not always convenient, exciting, or fun to do so. This ministry may go on for numerous years, but someday they will be gone, and you will miss them. This is your opportunity to be used by God to serve them. Conclusion Shelly Beach writes: Caregiving teaches us to see what is precious and valuable in life. It teaches us what it means to live out commitment and honor. It gives us the opportunity to love someone better who we may have struggled to love in the past. It gives us the opportunity to demonstrate God is sufficient and that He is a God who redeems. Caregiving is the hardest work we will ever do because it demands that we love as Christ loved, sacrificing our time, our jobs, our commitments, our friendships, and our health, while standing against the tide of culture.…It is a call to suffer, to sacrifice, and to serve. It is a call to abandonment and tears, to hardships and difficulties. It is a glorious call to be conformed to the image of Christ and join the God of the universe in ministering grace and mercy to one of His image bearers. There will be difficult terrain ahead, and you will likely feel fear and dread about walking this road. Remember that God is sovereign and in control of all parts of life, including this next part which can not be avoided. This, too, is part of His will. Unlike our culture around us, we who follow Jesus Christ can know that God has promised to care for us all of our lives – even as we watch our parents get old and feeble, and then walk that path ourselves. If He didn’t have a purpose for them to still be here on the earth, He wouldn’t have left them here. Your caring for them, in whatever way you are involved, is a part of that purpose. Sharon L. Bratcher is the author of Soup and Buns: Nourishment From God’s Word for Your Daily Struggles which is available by emailing sharoncopy@gmail.com....

Soup and Buns

If only there was a way to avoid life's traffic jams...

Mile after long mile, the cars on the eastbound turnpike lined up because of a multi-vehicle accident. Initially, I was glad to be traveling westbound and spared from being the storyteller with the tale of the “terrible Christmas Eve traffic jam.” After eight miles of vehicles, traffic on the other side became normal. I was alarmed that there were no signs of the “jam” on the eastbound. Unknowing drivers were getting on the turnpike completely unaware of the mess that was just ahead. I had endured one of those jams recently, and I desperately wanted to pull over near the toll booth and wave my arms at those about to enter. I wished for poster board and markers, and I felt willing to give an hour of my time just to stand nearby and warn people: “Don’t get on the eastbound! There’s a terrible traffic jam and you may get stuck for hours!” So many people were going to be inconvenienced and upset. If only there was a place to safely and legally do this! Would they even believe me? Would they change their minds? I expressed my concern to the toll taker when I arrived: “Isn’t there some way that you could warn the drivers not to get onto the eastbound turnpike?” With little concern, he shrugged, “They should listen to the traffic report on the radio.” Full of good advice In a similar manner, those of us with a few years behind us watch as young people make decisions that affect their entire future. We have learned from both our good and our bad decisions and we feel certain that “if they would just listen, it would save them a lot of heartache!” “Study hard!” we say. “Finish your degree!” “Don’t quit that job until you secure another!” “Don’t waste money!” “Don’t date anyone who won’t make a good mate!” “Wait until marriage to have sex.” We are full of advice on every subject! As we move along the road, our expertise increases: we buy homes and vehicles and learn from the blessings and difficulties. We marry and have children and learn which methods and philosophies work and which do not. But will they listen? We and our friends and acquaintances have been down the road. Wouldn’t it be ridiculous for us to make a poster board sign and stand up to warn those who are coming? Some are headed for trouble! If only there was a way to persuasively warn them. Would they even believe us? Would they change their minds? Will they listen to the “reports” that could warn them? The Apostle Paul tells us in Titus 2:1-8 that the older men and the older women are supposed to teach the younger men and the younger women how to think and behave. They are to be an example. The older men should be “temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.” The older women should be “reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.” Seek them out The Church needs Titus 2 men and women...and a wise young person will find “Titus 2” people to learn from. My first course in “Mothering 101” came from watching my Mom with my little brother Mark. I learned a lot of essentials, and was therefore less nervous about raising children than a lot of other women that I met. I spent time with two mothers in our church, watching them carefully as they loved and disciplined their children, and shared with me their strategies and reasons. These were life lessons – what to do in this and that situation, and how to apply God’s Word to everyday life. Books on “wife-ing” and mothering provided “Titus 2” people to learn from as well. I started out with Linda Dillow’s Creative Counterpart and Edith Schaeffer’s What Is A Family? and moved along to the excellent books on the family from Canon Press by Doug and Nancy Wilson and Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Ted Tripp and Age of Opportunity by his brother Paul Tripp. I avoided a lot of traffic jams because of the advice I received from those who had been down the road before me. The young do well to listen. And those of us who are older will do well when we teach and exemplify Truth to the young. “Exhort the young men to be sober-minded… a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, sound speech that cannot be condemned, that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say of you.” – Titus 2:6-8 Sharon L. Bratcher is the author of “Soup and Buns,” and a “Bible Overview for Young Children” curriculum. She can be reached at sharoncopy@gmail.com....

Christian education

On public schools: evangelism is not discipleship

A few years ago, at a Ligonier Conference, Pastor Voddie Baucham was asked what he would say to parents who were weighing the option of homeschooling or Christian schooling over against using the public schools. The hope was, in using the public system, that their children’s Christian faith would be a “witness and influence” in this unbelieving culture. Baucham’s response was profound. "I think they're making a categorical error….All of a sudden we went from a discussion about education, which is discipleship, to a discussion about evangelism in spite of negative discipleship. And so, we've got two completely separate categories there…. So what we’ve got do is, we’ve got to talk about those things properly.” He went on to explain: “When somebody asks me that question that way, they're telling me that they don't want to answer the most important question. And they've created a false argument between two separate categories that are being held up in competition against one another when they are absolutely not. Because, if they ask me, ‘Should I give my child a Christ-honoring education’ or ‘Should I have my child be an influence on people who are unbelievers” - Yes! Why do we assume that the only way a child can have an impact and influence on unbelievers is if they give up on a Christ-honoring, Christ-centered education? So, I think there's a categorical error in the question.” The impact starts so young As a public school substitute teacher in the Detroit, Michigan area, I have worked in more than 30 schools. While I have been impressed with the teachers’ and staff’s dedication, I find constant reminders that the children are in no way learning about God or Jesus Christ. He has been replaced by Nature in Science class, ignored in Mathematics, barely noticed in History and Literature, and severely criticized in Psychology and Sociology. Recently I was teaching a lovable group of Kindergarteners about the symbols of the USA: the flag, the eagle, and the Statue of Liberty. I defined freedom for them, mentioning that in our country everyone can pray to God the way that we want to, get the type of job we prefer, and travel where we want to without the government telling us that we cannot. A sweet, smiling, dark-haired girl raised her little hand, eager to add info to my list. She said, “And in the United States, when you grow up, if you’re a boy, you can marry a girl or a boy, and if you’re a girl, you can marry a boy or a girl! In some places you can’t do that, but in the United States we can marry who we want to.” She was quite excited. I was stunned. Factually, she was correct, so there was nothing I could say in that setting. I changed the subject and moved on. But I shouldn’t have been shocked. The public schools, colleges, and universities follow the current cultural norm wherever it leads, and that, without question, includes teaching kids that 2 Moms or 2 Dads is entirely normal, even desirable. By the time this 5-year-old is 18, she won’t have any room left in her “open” mind to think anything else. Conclusion At the same Ligonier Conference, R.C. Sproul added his own thoughts to Voddie Baucham’s, speaking to the economic cost of Christian school tuition: “The biggest illusion is that sending your kids to the government school is free. It's the most costly thing you could ever do.” While we are still free to do so, we need to renew our dedication to Christ-centered, Christ-honoring education, whether inside a brick and mortar building or as a consortium of homeschoolers who aid one another. How might we all sacrifice more to ensure that all of our children will learn His truth? “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” – Deut. 6:6-7 Sharon L. Bratcher is the author of “Soup and Buns,” and a “Bible Overview for Young Children” curriculum. She can be reached at sharoncopy@gmail.com. https://youtu.be/5pMJJRqLA90?t=42m28s...

Assorted

The gift of sleep: it's good for what ails you

Early to bed is a spiritual discipline You may have said it yourself at some time, “I can get by with only 5-6 hours of sleep a night. It’s no problem.” And, like many of us, what you meant was that even though your workload (including studies and family needs in that category) led to late nights and early mornings, you found that you were still clear-headed enough to drive, to do your job, and maybe even maintain patience and good humor – probably while bolstering yourself with some amount of caffeine. But according to Dr. Archibald D. Hart, Ph.D., we are not “getting by” even though we think we are. Hart has lectured around the world about his three decades of study on the topic of sleep, and in 2010 he published the results of his extensive studies in a book entitled Sleep: It Does a Family Good. Why sleep? Why do we need sleep? Our bodies were made to have a "sleep cycle" and a "wake cycle." During the sleep cycle, energy is restored, and all of the cells in the body rejuvenate. Adrenal and other glands, muscles, and proteins, all rejuvenate. Hart says, “Since proteins are the building blocks needed for cell growth and for repair of damage from factors like stress and ultraviolet rays, deep sleep rejuvenates us.” In children and young adults, there is a release of growth hormones as well. And during the deepest part of sleep, Hart writes, ...the brain processes information, like problems and new learning, and grows new connections accordingly. It synthesizes information learned through the waking hours. It saves newly learned information into long-term memory. Modern outlook Unfortunately, many of us have adopted the modern notion that sleep is expendable. There is just so much to do during the day to take care of our financial, family, emotional, and leisure needs (and desires) that jokes like “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” are often quipped. We brag about getting by, and we really do not think that we are causing any lasting damage. Add to that Proverbs 24:33-34, which says, " A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” Thus, Hart says, “we tend to associate sleeping long with laziness” and with not being a good steward of our time. It sets the stage for viewing sleep as a necessity, but not a priority. But isn’t it likely that Proverbs is talking about excessive amounts of sleep that keep a person from doing his job at all? This passage seems to relate more to laziness than to speaking against getting a full night of rest. Hart says that, “God has designed sleep into us as a fundamental need, as fundamental as eating food and breathing air.” He might as well be quoting Psalm 127: 2, which says, "It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep." Based on polls which have been done during the past few decades by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), about 70 million Americans (and likely Canadians as well) suffer from some sort of sleep disorder or sleep deprivation. Hart says, “Every year there are more than 30,000 deaths from car accidents linked to sleepiness, and more than three million disabling injuries from sleep-related accidents.” He adds that, “Sleep deficits have been implicated in many major public catastrophes, including the Exxon Valdez and the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger,” as well as the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Peach Bottom. Hart explains that, “Our sleep loss can affect how we crouch, stoop, push or pull large objects, handle small objects, write with a pen, learn new things, remember old things, gain weight, and walk up stairs.” He adds that sleep-deprived people are more irritable and negative, less joyful, lighthearted and happy, and have more memory problems. They are at higher risks for accidents and divorce and “disordered social relationships” and show a dramatic reduction in creativity and productivity.  Hart says, “A major study reports that reduced sleep carries a greater mortality risk than smoking, high blood pressure and heart disease. Take a moment for that to sink in.” It makes sense: if you cannot cope as well, your stress level will increase, elevating your blood pressure, and disrupting your sleep even more. A 2006 article in The Institute of Medicine associates sleep loss with hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attacks, and strokes. The Rev. John Piper says in When I Don’t Desire God, For me, adequate sleep is not just a matter of staying healthy. It’s a matter of staying in the ministry – I’m tempted to say it’s a matter of persevering as a Christian. I know it is irrational that my future should look so bleak when I get only four or five hours of sleep several nights in a row. But rational or irrational, that is a fact. And I must live within the limits of fact. Therefore we must watch the changes in our bodies. Damage to the family is noted when Hart points out that the whole family suffers when babies and small children don’t get enough sleep, but it also suffers when mother and father choose to stay up and read or watch a television show instead of getting the sleep that their bodies need.  Hart says that, “It’s well known that child sleeplessness can also lead to an increased risk of depression and anxiety in mothers, and a reciprocal loss of love feelings toward the child.” Sleeplessness with a newborn doesn’t last forever, but it can continue to plague children, especially those with learning disabilities, stress and ADHD. What can be done? Hart’s statistics suggest that everyone needs to be in bed for 9 hours in order to get 8 hours of sleep per night and he tells many stories about people whose lives improve when they move towards or attain this standard, or, don’t. Sometimes when an otherwise healthy-as-an-ox person dies at an early age, sleep deprivation has been found to be a contributing factor. So, if God has made our bodies a temple of the Holy Spirit, and instructed us to take care of them as best we can, and if it is true that we need sleep for our cells to rejuvenate and our brains to function well, then we might all examine our lives to see how we might improve in this area. Hart starts from the standpoint of a family that has bought into the modern notion, and gives a number of suggestions as to how we can improve our lives by sleeping more. When Hart first desired to change his pattern, I feared that taking more time to sleep would mean less time for my work…but I went ahead and took the plunge. My secretary rearranged my appointments to start later in the morning after I had spent the first few hours reaping the benefits of a good night’s sleep and then getting some writing done. It only took a few days to convince me of the two principles I have followed ever since. First, getting to bed earlier, and as a consequence getting more sleep, works wonders for my brain. Second, creative tasks are best accomplished earlier in the day, rather than later. He was amazed to discover that his efficiency and productivity increased. “The time I lost by adding more sleep time was more than compensated for by my being able to work and write more efficiently. I made far fewer mistakes. My ideas came more easily. I completed my tasks faster.” How to make changes Hart’s “Simple Sleep Test” asks whether you fall asleep within half an hour of going to bed, whether you can fall back asleep if disturbed, and whether you feel refreshed, not headachy, in the morning and not in need of a nap by noon. If you can't answer yes to those questions, then Hart suggests there is room for improvement, and offers some helpful hints. For the first week, add 15 minutes of sleep time to your normal sleep, either in the evening or the morning.  Even if you don’t get more sleep, you are training your body and brain to adapt to the new schedule.  “At the end of the week, evaluate your level of tiredness upon awakening, energy, efficiency, alertness, mental acuity, reduced daytime tiredness and your general feeling of well-being.” For the second week, add a second 15 minutes to your sleep. Evaluate. Do the same in the third week and so on until you have achieved 9 hours of bedtime, evaluating all along the way. As Hart says, “Now you will have a better idea of what amount of sleep your body and mind really need. If the benefits peaked at eight and a half hours, then stick with that for a while.” Hart’s main point is that “The family that sleeps well, lives well.” He knows that it will be difficult to get the entire family on board with sleeping more, but he presents the benefits that will result from doing so. It is imperative that parents step up to the plate and take control of their family’s sleeping habits. Our children are facing enormous increases in their general stimulation. They are forced to multitask in ways that undermine effective learning, and they generally have too much excitement in their lives. Hart encourages families to determine what their biggest challenges are. He lists stress, anxiety/worry, depression and caffeine as the top four “Sleep Killers.” He says that “Caffeine is a two-edged sword – it both overcomes and causes our sleeplessness.” If caffeine is necessary for your day, then it has become an addiction, and while it might help you function in your wake cycle, you are losing out on all the rejuvenation needed in your sleep cycle. Beyond 2 or 3 cups a day is discouraged by doctors, and don’t even get Hart started on the topic of energy drinks.  He also suggests ways to deal with overactive minds, arguments, and too-much-screen-time as well. Some good news Hart describes the various stages of sleep and includes some questionnaires to help readers figure themselves out. His suggested 9 hours includes not just the time you are zonked-out in REM sleep, but even when you are lying restfully and those “light sleep” times when you may think that you are actually still awake. One piece of good news was this: we sleep in cycles of about one and a half hours and our dream sleep comes at or near the end of each cycle. What this means is that if we remember waking up a few times during the night, that’s not a problem – as long as we go back to sleep, we still “get credit” for all of that sleep time. He also says that if we lose sleep during the night and take a nap later that also gives us credit for the 9 hours that are needed. He finds this particularly helpful when he travels overseas. He also describes how to build up one’s sleep bank ahead of time so that the jetlag won’t overwhelm. Conclusion The subtitle to Dr. Archibald D. Hart’s book is “How busy families can overcome sleep deprivation.” Once a problem has been identified, there are ways, even in our overly-busy lives, that we can work to fix the problem and improve on the overall health of ourselves, our families, and our communities. It seems that Hart has well described one of them. And Rev. John Piper has the best comments of all regarding our need for sleep: Sleep is a daily reminder from God that we are not God. “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4). But Israel will. For we are not God. Once a day God sends us to bed like patients with a sickness. The sickness is a chronic tendency to think we are in control and that our work is indispensable. To cure us of this disease God turns us into helpless sacks of sand once a day. How humiliating to the self-made corporate executive that he has to give up all control and become as limp as a suckling infant every day. Sleep is a parable that God is God and we are mere men. God handles the world quite nicely while a hemisphere sleeps. Sleep is like a broken record that comes around with the same message every day: Man is not sovereign. Man is not sovereign. Man is not sovereign. Don’t let the lesson be lost on you. God wants to be trusted as the great worker who never tires and never sleeps. He is not nearly so impressed with our late nights and early mornings as he is with the peaceful trust that casts all anxieties on him and sleeps. Good night!...

Parenting

Teaching small fries to take notes, sing psalms, and speak to God

When your child is old enough to write... When your child learns to write he is ready to begin taking sermon notes. Say, what? Let's say that little George is 4 or 5 or 6 years old and he knows how to write his name and how to write all of his letters. Now he can get started! All you need is a regular notebook (or half size) and a pen or pencil. Before you go to church you should talk with him about the worship service, and how important it is to be quiet and still and to listen to God's Word being preached. Hopefully he has already been sitting in church for awhile and has become accustomed to obeying in this manner. Explain to him that he is old enough now to begin taking sermon notes! As you listen to the sermon, write in the notebook a simple sentence that you have just heard the minister say. Remember to write it in the type of lettering that little George will be able to read, in the size that he is used to. Then hand it to George and tell him to copy it. If he is a beginner, he will take awhile to do so. When he hands it back to you, smile, and listen to the sermon for a moment, and write another sentence. He needs to remember not to have a conversation about it. Let George complete this second one as well. Depending on the age and patience of your child, you can decide whether to have him write 5 sentences, or 10, or more. As he improves, he will be quicker and will accomplish more. He may keep it up throughout, or he may tire. I usually found it beneficial to "push" my child to do just one more after he said he was getting tired of it. This helped him to develop endurance. After the service, take the notebook home. If you will take a few moments to read it over when he is present, and to show it to your spouse, he will see that this is important to you and it will help him to strive to do it well. If he is able, you might even have him read it as a part of your family Bible reading time. This activity teaches him to take notes, because as he gets older you will ask him to listen and write down parts of sentences that he hears. It doesn't matter if he gets all of the words - just that he is listening and getting some of them. Eventually he will progress to where he can find the main points and summarize them, but that's a long way off. This activity also gives him something very worthwhile to do during worship. It is directly involved with the worship, as opposed to just being a toy, a page to color, or a series of "o's" to fill in, in his bulletin. It says to him that he is worshipping too, not just being forced to sit quietly for his parents' sake. It says to him that he is capable of taking sermon notes, just like the "big people" do. It also helps if he sees those older than him participating in this way. As his notebook progresses you could use it during the week to help him remember what he learned on Sunday. If you are enthusiastic, he will be also. When your child is old enough to sing... When your child is old enough to sing a song he is old enough to learn psalms and hymns. Little George is capable of picking up any song that he hears. So if you regularly sing words of praise to the Lord in your home and in your car, he will soon know all of the words as well. Good quality music that truly honors the Lord is just as fitting for children as it is for adults. They do not need off-key vegetables to get their attention. You might teach your children the psalms and hymns by methodically going through your church songbook and learning to sing all of the first stanzas. What a wonderful preparation to be ready for whichever ones the minister thinks fit best with his sermons for that day! Another way that you can assist your child in worship is by finding out ahead of time, if possible, which hymns or psalms will be sung next Sunday. Then you can sing that one at home a few times so that it becomes familiar to him. If it's one that was unfamiliar to you this could benefit everyone and improve the musical part of the worship of our Lord. If enough people are interested in knowing ahead of time perhaps you could ask the minister if he could email the titles or page numbers to the congregation by Thursday or Friday of each week. All of this serves to teach our children that what happens on Sunday is important and that it is not a Sunday-only activity. Preparing for worship and reflecting on it afterwards bring it to the forefront and promote our spiritual growth. Again, a little enthusiasm goes a long way. When your child is old enough to read... When your child is old enough to read he can begin reading the Bible. What an excitement it is for little George to help read one of the Bible verses at a family Bible reading time. Maybe he can only identify half or two-thirds of the words, but he is sure trying. Soon he will want to be able to read the other words too, and that will encourage him to learn the rest of his phonics. What a goal! Historically, most schools were started so that people would be able to read God's Word. George will appreciate that he too is included in the Bible study. He also won't need to fuss for attention if he is already included in taking a turn. When your child is old enough to speak... When your child is old enough to speak he can pray. He might repeat after Mom or Dad, or he might add his own simple words of thanks and request. But he should not even be able to remember a time when he did not pray several times every day. Worship is the central, most important thing that we do in our entire week. It is the time that we humbly come to confess our sins, give our thanks, sing of His glory, ask for help, and learn of His grace. When we teach our children right from the start how to worship, we accomplish the most important task that we must do. Sharon L. Bratcher has a book with 45 of her RP articles in it, and a 2-year lesson plan entitled “Bible Overview for Young Children” ages 2-6 and 6-9. For information on these, contact sharoncopy@gmail.com. This article first appeared in the Dec. 2006 issue, under the title "Sermon notes, and songs, for small fries."...

Soup and Buns

Finding the right words: use what you've received

During the Spring of 2004 my husband Dennis lay in the Intensive Care Unit at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. Surgery had led to his inclusion in “the 10% who develop complications,” leaving me both bewildered and overwhelmed. As day followed day with little improvement, I thought, “what if I lose him?” I prayed. I read my Bible. And others shared God’s words of comfort. An assignment Each time a brother or sister in the Lord called or sent a card with a verse on it, it became a blessed assignment for my day. These were the verses that I meditated on day and night. I probably could have found them myself – I have often been the one who shared verses with others – but my emotions were raw, my body was worn out with weeping and my mind was occasionally confused. The blessed assignment for the day directed my soul to a specific passage of Scripture which the Holy Spirit then used to comfort me. It employed my mind, leaving no idle room for despair. It assured me that we were not alone, for others cared about us. All of this infused me with strength. My mother searched for a suitable card and sent one to me that included her “favorite” Psalm 46. It arrived during a difficult time and I carried it around with me for several days. When worry began, I read it. When despair appeared, I read it. When fear tried to strangle, I read it. God was my refuge and strength, a very present help in my trouble. I was comforted and I lost the fear. When it returned again, I prayed Psalm 46 once again. During the 29 days that he was hospitalized, I met others who came quite frequently to the ICU waiting room. Three women feared for the lives of their sons. Two men were there often to visit their wives, Betty and Nina. I didn’t know anyone’s background or beliefs, but at times I offered to read my card to them and to pray. God’s Word does not go out in vain, and the Holy Spirit used those instances as He would. One evening I read Psalm 46 with Betty’s family as she lay dying in the next room. Nina’s husband invited me to come daily to read the Bible, pray, and sing to her. Nina had been in ICU for over 3 months, and she was eager to know the Lord. We both enjoyed the 15-20 minute visits. As it says in 2 Cor. 1:3-4, our Lord is: "the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God." Never before were these words so clear to me. I was weak and gained strength and then shared that strength with others. Calvin concludes Many people wonder what to do to encourage someone in difficult times. Some hesitate, afraid to err, or certain that “others have it covered.” Sometimes we are just so busy with our own schedules and goals that we don’t make the time to encourage. John Calvin says in his excellent Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life: We should seek the good of other believers. How extremely difficult it is for you dutifully to seek the advantage of your neighbor, unless you quit all selfish considerations and almost forget yourself. How can you perform the duties which Paul teaches to be works of love, unless you renounce yourself and devote yourself wholly to others? (see 1 Cor. 13). If this be all that is demanded, that we do not seek our own, yet we must not exert little pressure on our own nature which is so strongly inclined to love self exclusively and does not easily permit us to neglect self and our own affairs. Let us rather seek the profit of others, and even voluntarily give up our rights for the sake of others. Scripture urges and warns us that whatever favors we may have obtained from the Lord we have received them as a trust on condition that they should be applied to the common benefit of the church. Who do you know in your church or family or neighborhood that is undergoing trials right now? Calvin continues: Let this be our rule for goodwill and helpfulness that whenever we are able to assist others we should behave as stewards who must some day give an account of ourselves…. For we must not first of all try to promote the good of others by seeking our own, but we must prefer the profit of others. With just a few minutes of time, some paper and ink and perhaps a stamp, you will be, as an old prayer states, “an instrument of God’s peace.” Let us go and “comfort with the comfort with which we have been comforted by God.” This article first appeared in the October 2005 issue. Sharon L. Bratcher's "Soup and Buns" book includes 45 of her RP articles. For information contact sharoncopy@gmail.com....

Science - Creation/Evolution

Biomimicry recognizes the genius (but not the Genius) behind the wonders of creation

Earlier this month, Vox media reported on the discipline of biomimicry, which encourages engineering teams to include a biologist to help them solve problems by seeing what already works well in the natural world. It’s a return to copying designs that the Creator put into place thousands of years ago. In Christophe Hawbursin’s Vox article “The man-made world is horribly designed. But copying nature helps.” the illustration he gives of how biomimicry helps is the Japanese Shinkansen Bullet Train. At 170 mph, whenever it exited a tunnel, it caused a sonic boom that annoyed people up to 400 meters away. To get a quieter, faster, and more efficient train, an engineering team was created, headed by Ejii Nakatsu, who was also an avid birdwatcher. It turns out that bird connection was key – the team based components of the redesigned bullet train on characteristics of three different birds: The owl: the pantograph – the rig that connects the train to the electric wires above – was modeled after the owl’s feathers, reducing noise by using similar serrations and curvature The Adelie penguin: the penguin’s smooth body inspired the pantograph’s supporting shaft to provide lower wind resistance The kingfisher: the kingfisher’s unique no-splash beak was copied for the front of the engine By copying designs from creation, the new train became 10% faster, 15% more efficient, and the decibel level was significantly lowered. Other examples of biomimicry include studying sharkskin to learn to repel bacteria, and studying the self-organization of ants to enable autonomous cars to communicate with one another. Biomimicry also studies the eco-system to create a circular economy where there are no wasteful byproducts. And recently, scientists have begun a website at AskNature.org where people all over the world can match problems with solutions advised by “nature.” There is an irony in how Janine Benyus, the author who popularized the term biomimicry, recognizes that the design found in Creation far exceeds that of Mankind’s best minds. And yet she doesn’t see a better Mind behind any of it, choosing instead to credit these wonders to mindless evolution working over the last 3.8 billions years. As the apostle Paul might put it, she worships and serves “created things rather the Creator” (Rom. 1:25). But for Christians, how wonderful it is to be reminded of just how much humans can learn from the genius of our God who declared all the creatures He made “good.”   Sharon L. Bratcher has a book with 45 of her RP articles in it, and a 2-year lesson plan entitled “Bible Overview for Young Children” ages 2-6 and 6-9. For information on these, contact sharoncopy@gmail.com....

Parenting

Is Cleanliness next to Godliness?

My goal is to have every room of my house neat and clean at the same time. But I do not believe that “cleanliness is next to godliness,” although it is one of its outworkings. When John Wesley mentioned that famous line in his sermon, he was encouraging people to remember to bathe and to wash their clothing before they came to worship the Lord on Sundays. Well, that’s a standard I can easily maintain. I think women are constantly looking for balance in our housekeeping. As Shirley Conran notes in her book Superwoman: “Housework expands to however much time you have to do it, plus fifteen minutes.” And I have often quipped, “All of life is maintenance.” Indeed, it often seems that if we’re not maintaining clothing, houses, children, ourselves, our garden, or our car, we are maintaining our school, our church or our relationships. Much is done with joy, and some is done from duty, but at times it comes from embarrassment or false guilt. That's why I have a sign in my kitchen that states: “A house should be clean enough to be healthy, and messy enough to be happy.” But who decides what is “enough?” No extra time One would think that with all of our time-saving devices, that a homemaker’s job would be much easier than it used to be… and to some extent it is. But some historians have suggested that vacuum cleaners and washing machines did not diminish our “time spent” on household chores. Rather, the standards of cleanliness increased so that frequency replaced difficulty in these chores. For example, instead of carrying a rug outside to beat it twice a year, and living with a bit of dirt in-between, one could just vacuum it. Since vacuuming was so much easier, it was possible to keep the rug looking perfect all the time by simply vacuuming every single day! Instead of washing once a week, the washer made it easy and possible to do more loads more often. Soon the idea of wearing a garment more than a day or two became loathsome. Instead of having a standard of “fairly clean,” we moved up to a standard of “perfection” wherein any deviation from the best became cause for embarrassment. Cleanliness is important, of course. Keeping the level of germs down in one’s bathroom and kitchen can generally lead to better health. But we need to be careful that we don’t get caught up in the cycle of pride, embarrassment and frenzy that causes homemakers to worry constantly about what others are going to think about our level of housekeeping. For most women, receiving visitors is “report card time.” There is a tendency to fear failure, sometimes accompanied by anger at those who mess up “our” household. It’s as though someone scribbled on our research paper on the day that it was due. There is also a tendency to become so occupied with one’s household maintenance that more important things in life get by-passed. I read about some missionaries who took their usual habits of cleanliness to Africa when they served there. The local Christians were appalled at the amount of time these westerners spent caring for their material possessions – why, it seemed that they treated them like idols! The missionaries were always washing their belongings and their vehicles, and it was quite a concern to the church members. They were concerned that all of this caretaking might eat into the many hours that should be spent in fellowship, in Bible study, and in visiting the sick and reaching out to others with the gospel. What about Mary and Martha, anyway? Maybe the Apostle Paul’s words “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6) apply to over-maintenance as well! Balance On the one hand I think we need to cut each other a break and not judge anyone else’s housekeeping. After all, we’re not visiting the house, we’re visiting the people. And we need to cut ourselves a break by realizing that, as Conran says, “The real purpose of maintaining a home is to provide a pleasant environment for living – so live!” And here’s where the balance comes in. A house isn’t supposed to look like a magazine ad, but it would be best if everyone didn’t trip over piles of stuff. You need never apologize for a project-related mess that you or your children are in the midst of creating, but keeping materials orderly in between projects will prevent wasted time and frustration from searching for them later. Good stewardship includes taking care of our possessions. But either extreme can result in our being weighed down by our material possessions and being less useful to God’s kingdom. If possessions become a weight, either way, that hold us back from the activities that God is most pleased with, then it is worth reconsidering how much time we spend on our “maintenance” and why. As we ponder what is “enough,” we might analyze how much of our cleanliness is godliness. 45 of Sharon’s articles have been collected in Soup and Buns: Nourishment from God’s Word for Your Daily Struggles. $10 (US)/book plus shipping. To buy a copy contact sharoncopy@gmail.com....

Parenting

What’s the purpose of family devotions?

A mother-to-be asked two of my adult children how we did our family devotions and what they appreciated about them. To my horror, they described how “most of the time” they just complied as expected – singing, being quiet, and looking as if they were listening intently. They added that they had pretty much sat through church services the same way. And there I sat, thinking that we had done a “good job” overall, but discovering that the kids were often just tuning it all out and biding their time until they were freed. I shouldn't have been surprised. Many parents, including us, remember the fruitful times of good singing, contemplation, long discussions, and prayer. But they also remember flying through the format – bing, bang, bong – done, only because they were supposed to. If the dinner conversation unfortunately ended up including arguments, or sibling rivalry, one of the sinful selves may even have shouted: “Settle down - we have to read the BIBLE!”  Was it still worthwhile to “read and pray”? Well, if we wait until life is perfect, we’ll never read or pray, because we sinners do get out of sorts. Teaching children by example to quiet themselves, and then reading a short amount of Scripture and praying for forgiveness and strength, is exactly what is needed to get everyone back on track.  How do we really teach love for God? The purpose of family devotions is to glorify God together. Psalm 63 says, O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. We ourselves must first love God and express that love and honor to God verbally, and by our actions throughout the day. So if we’re not patient and we shout angrily over small matters, we won’t teach them to use self-control. If we don’t ask forgiveness, we won’t teach them to ask for it. Family devotions should demonstrate that love of God. We must genuinely glorify Him when we read, pray, and sing, and not just rattle off words. Four suggestions Worship is the most important thing we do every week and we should treat it as such. How can we do that? Here are four suggestions            1. A new setting can help with attention Consider letting young children leave the table when they are finished and then re-convening in the living room for devotions. This can provide a helpful transition, instead of taxing their patience – and yours – and making everyone want to rush through devotions and just get it over with. It’s also a more comfortable setting, snuggling together on the sofa or chair, away from dirty plates, silverware, and cups that could be spilled. Pre-bedtime might also be an opportunity when children will be happy to give attention to Bible stories and learning to pray. 2. Be a study buddy Work together on your child’s Bible or catechism memorization, or review what they wrote down in their simple sermon notes on Sunday. 3. Plan ahead If you can, find out the texts, songs, and Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day portion for next Sunday. Then use family devotions time to read and practice everything in preparation for worship. 4. Get involvement When the kids can read, let them take turns reading the text and choosing songs so they understand that it’s not just Dad or Mom who can or should do this.   Sharon L. Bratcher has a book with 45 of her RP articles in it, and a 2-year lesson plan entitled “Bible Overview for Young Children” ages 2-6 and 6-9. For information on these, contact sharoncopy@gmail.com. 
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Parenting

Parenting: many approaches - only one set of guiding principles

Empty threats – that's what they are called – and some are more ridiculous than others. I once overheard an employee at Target, a young mother, telling her co-worker: He keeps hitting Steven all the time. So the next time he punches Steven in the face, I'm gonna say, "Robert, next time you punch Steven in the face, I'm going to punch YOU in the face." ...Of course, you can't really punch a 4 year old in the face, so I never would. That's extreme, but then there are also the more common variety that we're likely to hear at church, or at school, or coming out of our own mouths: "If you don’t get into the car right now, I’m going to leave without you." "You'd better stop crying. This restaurant doesn't allow any crying, so if you cry they're going to kick us out of here." "If you don't stop fighting back there I am turning this car around and we are not going anywhere." Empty threats can seem effective, at least in the short-term. But is "effective" the measure by which we evaluate our parenting approach? We all need parenting help There are strong differences of opinion regarding the discipline of children, and not all techniques work for all kids, even in the same family. We do have to consider the different ages and personalities of different children, so what works with one child may not be a good approach for another. But we also know that all approaches are not equal. That's because some techniques and methods align with what God has revealed in his Word, and some run at right angles to what God has said. So we need to seek out the scriptural principals of discipline, and we need to hear what God says about love and kindness, and then make this foundational for all of our interactions with these small brothers and sisters in Christ. And, in addition to these scriptural principles, we can also seek out tried and tested methods from older, godly parents. God puts us in a community so we can learn from one another (Prov. 15:22). Finally, there are excellent Christian books on the topic of parenting. We need to read such books because of our own sinfulness, which we too often overlook when we are frustrated with our disobedient children. It is way too easy to justify our own behavior, and prayerfully reading through these books will help us analyze where and when we are a part of the cause. For instance, if we scream in anger because our children have gotten angry with one another for the tenth time in the day, we teach them that screaming in anger is the proper response to a frustrating situation, even though that is not our intention. If we force them to endure a shopping trip without regard for their hunger, thirst, fatigue, and need for movement, we are more to blame for their meltdown than they are. We must plan wisely for delays and not expect them to have more patience than we do. If we fail to educate them as to what they will soon encounter and the specific behavior that is expected (because they do not know good behavior by instinct) then we are not helping them to behave properly. Most children love their parents and feel grateful whether they say it out loud or not. They need our love and acceptance and they struggle with the constant tension between wanting to please us and, like all of us, wanting to follow their own sinful nature. They are sinners and they will behave badly. Sometimes we forget to apply our Bible beliefs to the situation and realize that “There is none who does good, there is not even one” (Romans 3:12). Or, as it says in the Heidelberg Catechism Lord's Day 2, “ have a natural tendency to hate God and neighbor.” In communion One of the very best of the books available is Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Ted Tripp. Tripp explains that there is a “circle of God’s favor.” When a child is, from love and gratitude to God, being obedient, he or she is in this circle. When a child strays outside of this "circle of favor" the parents’ job is to pull the child back inside. If he lies, we must teach him not to lie. If he throws a selfish tantrum or punches his brother in the face, we must teach him that this is not acceptable behavior. We may not abuse him, but we must find an effective way to influence him to end that behavior. When discipline is needed, Tripp says we should start with a statement giving the reason for the punishment, then give the punishment, and then remind them why they were punished (preferably when everyone is calm). Then comes repentance. Their “Sorry, dad” may or may not be sincere, but the pattern will be established. Last of all, there must be forgiveness and restoration, just as our Lord gives to us. This usually includes a hug and a statement, but most importantly: the freedom from having the sin mentioned again (Psalm 103:12: "as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us"). Here we must squelch our own anger rather than sin by constantly bringing up their wrongs, or humiliating them by relating the deeds to other people, especially within their hearing. We ruin our child’s good name when we tell about his sins, and if we tell the child he is a “brat” or a bad boy, even jokingly, we reinforce to him that we do not have higher expectations. As far as specific punishment methods go, some use a careful spanking (a slap on the hand or thigh for a toddler – their bottom has too many layers to feel the sting! – or a few spanks on the bottom for someone already potty-trained). Others use a time-out location, which, to be effective, requires a timer and constant monitoring by the parent, especially when it is first being established. But to be effective it must be a true punishment to the child. For example, if they think time-outs are no big deal, then something that is a big deal to them must be substituted. Anticipation Parents should, with experience, be able to steer their children clear of situations that might otherwise lead to the need for discipline. For example, inexperienced parents tend to overestimate the amount of noise stimulation that a young child can handle, even for “fun” times like DisneyWorld or an overcrowded family get-together. As we learn how much our children can handle, we can, when we see them being overwhelmed, remove them from these situations. (Ephesians 6:4 is relevant here; these are both examples of parents heeding the instruction for "fathers not provoke your children to anger...") Another example: we can take a suggestion from Dr. Raymond Moore of Home Grown Kids who always used this rule of thumb for birthday parties – the number of guests at the party should not exceed the child’s age. Adults tend to think more is better, but a young child will do better to have a couple of play dates than one big bash. Only truth Empty threats should never, ever be made. They are ineffective when smart children realize their parents are not serious. These threats may even cause a rebellious child to disobey just to see whether we really meant what we said. They can also be counter-productive to the fellowship goals of your family. Would you really cancel Christmas or attendance at a friend’s birthday party because of a child’s disobedient behavior? That would punish people outside of your family as well. Should you frighten your children, as some have with threats of abandonment ("Come now or I'm leaving without you!") leading them to experience fear and lack of assurance of your love and acceptance, and therefore desperate to please you? Children take our words very literally. Our goal is to teach them about sin and repentance and forgiveness by modeling it, not to beat them physically or emotionally into subjection to us. An awesome and brief task It is important to plan our system of discipline ahead of time so that mom and dad will both know what they are going to do when their kids behave badly. You need a plan, and a backup plan and perhaps even a third plan for the stubborn. Don't let disobedience surprise you. Don't let it make you angry as though it were a direct attack on you. God has called us to teach our children to do what is right, and that task exceeds any housework or leisure goals that we might have had for the day. Pray for patience, because your effective plan may need a hundred applications! I overheard a conversation at 11 pm in a restaurant parking lot between a father and his sobbing three-year-old. He yelled at her to “Stop crying and behave” inside the restaurant. It was tempting to intervene and point out that he was being selfish – caring more for his social goals than he did for the welfare of his little girl, who pretty obviously needed to be home in bed. “Children are a gift from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward” (Psalm 127:3). Though it feels like we will always be raising and disciplining them, it is less than a third of our lifetime that we have this privilege. Something to keep in mind. 45 of Sharon’s articles have been collected in Soup and Buns: Nourishment from God’s Word for Your Daily Struggles. $10 (US)/book plus shipping. To buy a copy contact sharoncopy@gmail.com....