Names in a letter

Concluding his letter to the Roman believers, Paul writes (Romans 16:1 – 16) about his beloved brothers and sisters in Christ by name:

Phoebe, a deaconess, possible the carrier of Paul’s very letter to Rome.

Priscilla and Aquila, a couple who risked their lives for Paul, inseparable in their marriage and ministry. They had a church that met in their house and you can’t imagine that no-one had heard of them. A mama and papa hen with a heaving nest of chicks.

The household of Aristobulus, from which we may infer that there were a bunch of Christians in this man’s household, but not Aristobulus himself. If so, he was almost certainly the subject of an army of loving prayer warriors on their knees for his salvation.

Rufus, a man chosen in the Lord. Not too many guys with the name Rufus out there. Perhaps its old fashioned and currently only the choice of hipsters for their children. But Paul knew Rufus and he was known to the Lord as well.

A lot of people get a mention. Enough names that if Paul were accepting an award at the Oscars, the band would begin playing their musical cue for him to start wrapping things up. Paul could probably have crammed in some more names, but he goes on to mention brothers and sisters whose lives and service may not otherwise be noted by historians, but were noticed by him: Herodian (a relative), Tryphena and Tryphosa (who worked hard in the Lord), Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, Olympas and all the saints with him.

I doubt I would ever be in the same position as Paul, looking back on years of ministry of having established numerous churches in faraway places and looking now to Christians battling it out in the belly of the beast, writing an epistle and encouraging them as a spiritual mentor.

Nobody writes actual letters anymore. If, however, I ever had to pen a letter to Believers, somewhere I would mention those I had thought about, those who had made an impression on me.

Although, in this thought-experiment, I wouldn’t be constrained by a point of time or local geography.

Seasoned and solid saints like John Martin, Cliffy Rutter, John Schultz, Granny Louise.

Pastors at whose feet I have been taught: Noel, Pedro, Wolfie, Mark.

A list of years in the making, of Christians who have built into my life whether personally, lyrically or electronically: Brian, R.C. Sproul, Louie Giglio, Steven Curtis Chapman, Chris Tomlin, Aaron Shus.

Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh, Iranian believers whose testimony I listened to recently, and took me into Evin prison with those persecuted for their faith.

Captive In Iran

Philip Yancy and J.I. Packer who opened up my mind to see God in unexpected places and with systematic focus.

As Paul had impacted the lives of Christians, so others had impacted his life. This is why we gather together. This is why we need church.

Straight line

In the build-up to Easter, seems like every year there are reminders of the human condition. Incidents that are like the proverbial indiscretion in the drinking water (to make reference to a not so subtle Afrikaans idiom).

I can draw a straight line from Adam’s fall in the Garden of Eden to the news this past week: a Syrian immigrant arrested for going on a rampage and killing ten in Boulder, Colorado; two teens who were taken into custody for jacking the car of a man working as an über driver in D.C, driving off with him holding on and crashing, with the driver succumbing to his injuries; Islamic militants launching attacks in Mozambique with the intent to cause death, and succeeding, taking lives including that of a young South African.

Of course there wouldn’t be all kittens and rainbows just prior to Easter, and maybe I notice it more, but it seems like the craziness ticks up just a notch.

Draw a line back in time from these deaths and it terminates at the fall of man.

A lie.

An ambition to be like God, knowing good and evil.

A bite of forbidden fruit.

A realisation that innocence is dead.

A judgement.

A line from one of my favourite poems: things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

From one sin, many millions: rampaging killers, spouse abusers, callous teens, unholy warriors, political leaders with lying tongues and cold hearts, wannabe dictators, habitual swindlers.

An illustration of why Good Friday was necessary.

I think back to Adam’s fall:

A realisation that innocence is dead. Trying to imagine what it would have been like. Thinking of a time you received shocking news and its like reality and unreality merge, things don’t compute and your ears resonate with a high-pitched humming and all words fail except the worst ones.

The morning after where the sun didn’t shine as it once did. Food is just sustenance instead of a delight of tastes. There’s a chill in the air that wasn’t there before.

I can just imagine. And realizing nakedness, knowing that the authentic man cannot walk the earth anymore, things must be hidden because there is shame.

God sacrificing an animal to make a cover for Adam & Eve’s nakedness.

Sacrifice as a payment for sin. A system that emerges pointing the way to a cross.

A straight line that connects me to both, the fall of Adam and the sacrifice of Christ.

A straight line, and a new creation – a new man.

His body and blood, broken and poured out for us.


In the 15th chapter of Romans, Paul is writing to the church, explaining how his being a minister to the Gentiles was entirely God’s grace, and that those who believed because of his preaching would be his offering back to God.

Paul then says in the next verse “…I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God” (15:17, NIV). Other translations have that Paul has reason to be enthusiastic (NLT), or reason to be proud (RSV), or proud (The Message). The idea is that Paul writes that he has a reason to boast about what God has done though him among the Gentiles.

This may seem to be a square peg in a round hole. Doesn’t God reject the proud? Isn’t boasting wrong?

People boast in the things that will give them attention: wealth, strength, power, virility, talent.

If I could presume to put myself in his shoes, Paul’s view of himself and his service to God was likely formed by his life, the mistakes that he made (zealously persecuting Christ), the knowledge how sinful his flesh was, the power of God’s grace.

All of that taught him that his accomplishments and things that he could boast in were worth nothing. It wasn’t just an intellectual exercise, Paul learned the hard way that boasting in himself was futile.

When writing to the Philippians, Paul listed his pedigree only to immediately discard it as worthless:

Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee, persecuting the church, a faultless follower of the Law. Garbage.

He wants to be found in Christ, that’s all.

Paul knew his place. He hadn’t at the beginning. An encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, a long time of solitude thereafter, embracing the idea that he had been totally and zealously mistaken, facing intense opposition from his fellow Jews, physical attacks, the thorn in his flesh…Paul learned the hard way that there was nothing he could boast about, except in what Christ had done and was doing through him.

I’m not there yet. I like to cultivate my brand as being a somewhat clever, adequately cultured, witty bloke, fun at parties involving Trivial Pursuit.

Paul had no concern for that. I doubt a Paul transported by an accidental time machine to our age would have a social media footprint or be interested in politics, wokeness, entertainment, TikTok or funny cat videos.

Paul may have come across as serious, always talking about Christ, and what Christ had done through him.

Paul wrote to the church in Rome that “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.” (15:20, NIV)

Again, it wasn’t to boast about himself, that he Paul had established a church on his own, but to turn that into an offering that was pleasing to God.

So what was the Roman church to Paul? If he hadn’t established it, why did he want to go there so earnestly? From Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, Paul had ‘fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ’. (15:19, NIV).

Paul had been a busy bee, he had done a ton of work in the region establishing churches, he had almost certainly heard of individual Christians in Rome and maybe it was time to do some encouraging.

Minister to the Gentiles

I like how Paul draws our attention in Romans 15 to the idea that putting our attention on the God of hope, means that the differences between us (as human beings) become trivial.

Paul writes that God remembered his promises to the Jews and also intended that the Gentiles would be in a position to praise.

God’s intent was always that both Jews and Gentiles would hope in Messiah, and that in believing there would be one body of Believers who sing praises.

Where we find ourselves in 2021 is a malicious media movement trying to emphasise the differences between people because its good for ratings and click-bait, and back in Paul’s day he’s referring to the major difference is his time – Jews and Gentiles – and writing that we should look at God, and these differences are nothing.

Paul was exactly the right type of guy to make this point. A zealous Jew, who after having been saved still had a deep love for his people, and yet God – in what may have seemed an irony from Paul’s point of view – called Paul as an apostle to the Gentiles.

Paul stood at the crux of two worlds and pointed out that both needed Christ. In the light of salvation, in the light of needing Christ, all people are the same.

When we consume stories in the media highlighting the differences between the sexes, the races, positions on the political spectrum, its all trivial.

In Paul’s day, some Rabbis were in the habit of a morning prayer that was popular. “According to William Barclay, in that prayer the Jewish man would thank God that he was not born a Gentile, a slave, or a woman. Paul takes each of these categories and shows them to be equal in Jesus.”

Galatians Chapter 3

In the light of Christ, Paul writes that the differences between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave or free, are irrelevant.

I would also like to add the the differences hyped between races are also trivial.

Looking to the God of hope gives us the correct perspective.

Watching over

The human race has been at war for millennia and whenever nations and kingdoms have established a professional base of soldiers, they have developed a code.

One of the consistent ones is that soldiers on guard duty are in a pile of trouble if they leave their post without being relieved or fall asleep.

We see this at Jesus’ resurrection. An angel appears in frightening, ethereal splendour and ‘The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.’ (Matthew 28:4, NIV)

Some of the soldiers on guard duty then conspired with the Jewish elders to craft a narrative and admit to their commander that they fell asleep while on watch and let the body of Christ be stolen.

They would have been in serious trouble but received a promise from the elders that they would intervene and keep the soldiers out of as much trouble as possible.

A certain amount of trouble would have been inevitable. The soldiers would have been punished, but they were paid ‘a large sum of money’ by the elders.

Compensation. For their trouble and the going rate for a false report.

Watchfulness is a discipline. And discipline is a constant in a professional unit. Falling asleep on duty is labelled a dereliction of duty according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The guys in the US Marines are pretty gung-ho about the code that they serve by and following orders. Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise starred in a little movie about that a while back.

I was thinking about this by contrast this past week.

The Lord is watching over the Psalmist. Watching over Israel. Watching over us, His children.

The keeper of Israel or the single soul.

He never falls asleep on duty.

As for me and my house

A lot of people put stock in the idea that things come in threes. Good things, bad things. I must confess that when twos happen, I expect a three.

Its not often that things truly happen in threes. This past week, the people of New Zealand experienced three earthquakes affecting their island, with the last measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale.

A cursory search of the internet seems to debunk the idea that things truly happen in threes.

Basically, as human beings we look for patterns to assign meaning to randomness. The term coined for this is apophenia. And you get the impression if we resort to this type of thing too often we stray into the realm of believing conspiracy theories. Or Bible codes with hidden meanings.

I’ll buy that.

But what are the odds that this past week, while navigating through the internet and social media, that I simply happened across the same verse? No less than three times. Precisely three times.

Random events may have synchronicity but no message. Bad things that happen in threes may make me feel unfortunate, or good things that happen in threes may make me feel fortunate.

The same verse three times is less likely to be randomness. But if it is, its still Scripture, all of which is God-breathed and useful.

I was strolling down memory lane with Carman songs and re-discovered one that I really liked: ‘Serve the Lord’.

Then I’m listening to this guy named Joshua Aaron, and he has a song about Joshua’s exhortation to Israel, to choose whom they will serve, but as for Joshua, he and his family are going to serve the Lord.

Really, I wasn’t looking specifically for this verse. And then I see on Instagram that Chris Tomlin and Pat Barrett have just put out a song: ‘As for for me (and my house).’

Is this random? Just perhaps. On the other hand, there is nothing more fundamental than choosing as a family to serve the Lord.

And this week, we had an evening Bible study. And it was very good.

Vault of my heart

What does it mean to hide God’s word in your heart?

Its one of my favourite verses in the longest psalm, Psalm 119. Its all about the vitality of God’s word and how essential it is for us to read it and live by it. 176 verses of reminding in case you forgot.

But hide it in my heart? How am I to do that? I like the way The Message gives me a fresh perspective because I dig idioms: “I’ve banked your promises in the vault of my heart so I won’t sin myself bankrupt.”

The wording reminds me of Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to lay up treasures for ourselves in heaven, where neither thieves, nor rust can touch them.

Because of my connection to the world, my own sin, and other fallen people, circumstances and words can infiltrate deep inside me and eat away at the things that I’ve thought were untouchable. I need to internalise Scripture so deeply that nothing can touch that sacred place where I study it and it seeps through my skin and into my bones.

Once Scripture is part of me so deeply and fundamentally that its as good as part of my DNA, then I can draw on it to fight against sin. The Psalmist hid Scripture in his heart and he used it to resist sin.

Jesus was obviously immersed in Scripture, quoting it constantly. In fact, he quoted the book of Deuteronomy a lot. He quoted it when he was in the desert facing barrages of temptation from the enemy:

Man does not live on bread alone…
…Don’t put God to the test…
…Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.

Man does not live on bread alone…God humbles his people so that they will realise that they need God’s word more than anything else.

Don’t put God to the test…don’t doubt Him, or His love and concern for us. Kind of a refutation of Depeche Mode’s ‘blasphemous rumours’ (your 80’s cultural reference out of left field for the day).

Fear the Lord your God and serve Him only…He’s done it all for us so we should honour Him. Our way of life should be all about him.

I can’t just keep Scripture in the vault of my heart and keep it locked away. I find that when the vault stays locked for a while and I don’t venture inside to review Scriptural treasures, I’m more vulnerable to sin.
Sin: a game of whack-a-mole.

Scripture: a wooden hammer with heft that fits into my hand. Batter-up.

Patience, or Hall monitors

Still in Romans, peeps. Now in the 15th chapter and Paul’s pen is dripping with ink, theology soaking into the page, and practical directives spreading out into the margins.


That’s what happens when the writing of your epistle is inspired by the Holy Spirit.


Verse 1:”We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.” Why do I need to do that? Can’t I just leave the weak to their own thing?


Verse 2: ” Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.” Okay, I see what Paul is saying, I’m not a guy in isolation, but I’m connected and interconnected with my Christian brothers. I don’t often feel like it though. Like Monday is not a good day.

Verse 3: “For even Christ did not please himself…” Totally selfless. I’ll never get there on my own. I’m as full of selfishness as the air in my lungs. I gulp it in and breathe it out. It reaches to the farthest capillaries in my extremities. You can smell it on my breath.


From what Paul is writing here, I can infer that there is a direct proportion between my level of maturity and the patience that I do (or don’t) show.


Mature Christians are supposed to be immersed in Scripture and trending in the direction of more endurance and patience. Which results in the mature Christian showing that patience with his or her more legalistic brothers or sisters.


Verses 4 and 5: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.


May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had…”


Subjectively, it feels as though I have less patience as I get older. But then, there are different types of patience. A sign that I need to read more Scripture? I think so.


My impatience is never more obviously on display than when it comes to people who are legalistic about masks, social distancing, and other regulations, which to me don’t seem at all reasonable.


There are certain of my Christian brothers and sisters who take what the government says literally and seriously, neither of which I do. It remains difficult for me not to become impatient with the culture of hall monitoring that has emerged.


In verses 6 through 7, another reason becomes clear as to why the more mature Believer should be less selfish: because of unity, all of us praising God with one voice.


Verse 7:”Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”


Christ accepted me in love. I should not do any less for my fellow Believers. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians describes what love is like, as well as not like:


What it is like:

  • Patient
  • Kind


What it is not like:

  • Envious
  • Boastful
  • Proud
  • Dishonourable
  • Self-seeking
  • Easily angered
  • Keeping a record of past wrongs
  • Delighting in evil


What it does:

  • Rejoices with the truth
  • Protects
  • Trusts
  • Hopes
  • Perseveres


These are the things that Paul is writing about in Romans…patience, perseverance.


The Christian has so much freedom, as Paul says: all things are permissible, but…


Not everything is beneficial.


Not everything is constructive.


If freedom is like a car, I’m one of those who wants to put my foot on the gas until it mashes the floor, but Paul writes that I have to moderate my acceleration. I have the freedom, but the road isn’t only mine.


We have a problem with selfishness, a default setting that wreaks havoc. Even the Christian is easily swayed by that most natural of human settings.


Its literally stunning how selfless Christ was, doing nothing on his own, listening to and submitting to the Father, seeking to glorify the Father, making it pretty obvious that by contrast I don’t measure up.


We need to spend more time in Scripture in the example of the early church who devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2: 42) which led to a quiet revolution and transformed them into a community I want to get to.


Acknowledgement to February 2020 sermon by Pastor Skip Heitzig:

Having a heart

Lyrics from a Michael W. Smith song give meat and bones to an idea whose bare bones lie in front of me as I walk the hound:


“Guarded and cynical now

Can’t help but wondering how

My heart evolved into

A rock beating inside of me” (Missing Person)


I like to think I’m a caring person. I cry to ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘Passion of the Christ’. I love my family, but I realise while walking the dog that I care about a few people but have largely grown apathetic about others.


I’m not talking about people dying, because who doesn’t care about that? I can’t really categorise it by socio-economics or politics, but I realise that I don’t feel in touch with the human race in general.


Perhaps part of it is seeing less of people, feeling more isolated. Part of this horribly mangled lockdown that we are all mandated to participate in.


Like Michael W. Smith (saying Michael Smith while leaving out the W. is as awkward as saying Samuel Jackson without the L.) writes: how did it happen that he’s become uncaring like this?


My heart is literally like a rock beating inside of me.


I have to perform an internal diagnostic, right there while walking the dog. Is my heart isolated from God too?


I suddenly want to know by feeling. I know my connection to God, and can cite Scripture as proof. But I want to feel what I know.


I want to feel moved, feel connected to Him. After all, it’s the easiest thing in the world to morph into a Pharisee, being legalistic but basically like a tomb.


I think of that passage in Ezekiel where God promises to give Israel a heart of flesh in place of their heart of stone.


Basically, God is talking to his people, how they were expelled from the land and the land kind of misses the people and animals being on it. Almost like the land is lonely.


Because God is serious with zeal for His Name, He had to get the Children of Israel to leave, but it is equally true that because He is serious with zeal for His name, that he has to bring them back. But not before some changes are made.


They needed to be changed: restored, cleansed, with a new heart (of flesh) and filled with the Holy Spirit.


I think of John Donne’s poem asking that God would ‘batter [his] heart’ because until then God had been so gentle with him and he realised God had to break him down to build him up properly.


I realise that the human heart is partly understandable, but largely mysterious, and even more obstinate when it comes to change. But that it cannot resist a holy and beneficial invasion from God who knows it, and even more incredibly the individuality of each one separately.


So, 2021 picked up right where 2020 left off, and things did not improve. I wasn’t lulled for one moment into thinking things would get better, but whatever the prize for that prognostication is, I don’t want it.

Earlier this week I had to go to the local constabulary to get a document attested to and on walking into the reception area was confronted with framed photos of smiling government ministers, which really annoyed me and didn’t help things.

I haven’t been skating above things like Marty McFly on his hoverboard, I’ve hit the dirt, lost perspective.

Each day is a waking nightmare of police overreach, stamping of the constitution underfoot and diktat. But I don’t need to tell you that dear Reader. You too are drowning and I’m describing the water.

This week I was reading through the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John. Wondering whether people are like sheep in the sense that they are gullible, or because their rump is delicious for the wolf to bite down into (I’m pretty certain of who the sheep and who the wolves are).

The wolves in this chapter represent enemies of Christ who attempt to kill and scatter his flock. In general, I look around and foolishly read the news and see wolving and sheeping going on all the time.

There are a lot of wolves in the world. Regretfully, too many people in positions of power easily bare their lupine fangs. Their wolfishness is not the context of John 10 though.

But the Christian is described as being part of a flock of sheep, defenceless but for the Shepherd.

Being a suburbanite, I had to look up what sheep are really like, beyond the taste of lamb chops, Christmas lunch and Shaun the sheep on Wallice and Gromit.

Sheep apparently have poor eyesight, specifically poor depth perception. So, if a sheep ever had to wonder into a forest, he would not be able to see the wood for the trees. Literally.

They compensate for this by having excellent hearing. Sheep are more intelligent than their unfortunate reputation for stupidity and can recognise up to 50 faces and presumably, voices.

Jesus was spot-on when he remarked that his sheep follow him ‘because they know his voice.’ The context of John 10 is the sheep not following the fakes and phonies but the real shepherd.

My depth perception is off . There is crazy stuff happening all around, smiling wolves, the darkest valley. But I have a Good Shepherd.

I will fear no evil, for my Shepherd is with me.

“Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.” (Psalm 23:6 NIV)