Category: Life

Honestly – Just Smile

-honestyI like honesty, most people do. I like it when I know that someone is telling me the straight truth and I don’t have to wonder how it has been nuanced in order to fit the moment or to serve their purpose or agenda. I’m sure you know what I mean. For instance, just how adept have you become at scrutinizing every bit of data, every bit of news coverage dealing with COVID-19?

Frankly, I think most people like it when someone just says how it is and doesn’t try to get one past them or try to tell them what they want to hear. An honest, straightforward answer is always the best. We may not like it but it is what it is and we can deal with that. I like it when someone is simply honest about how things really are – and that’s especially true when it comes to figuring out how to live as a follower of Christ in a very strange world.

Well, this morning, I opened up A Guide to Prayer For Ministers and Other Servants and came across a quote from Mother Teressa where she just tells it like it is. She doesn’t try Mother Teresato nuance the truth; she just lays it out there.

“Some people came to Calcutta, and before leaving, they begged me: ‘Tell us something that will help us to live our lives better.’ And I said, ‘Smile at each other; smile at your wife, smile at your husband, smile at your children, smile at each other – it doesn’t matter who it is – and that will help you to grow up in greater love for each other.’ And then one of them asked me: ‘Are you married?’ and I said: ‘Yes, and I find it difficult sometimes to smile at Jesus.’ And it is true, Jesus can be very demanding also, and it is at those times when he is so demanding that to give him a big smile is very beautiful’” (A Gift of God by Mother Teresa).

I love the fact that Mother Teresa described her calling and vows to serve Jesus like marriage vows. Marriage vows are understood as sacred and they bear significant theological weight in the eyes of God and the church. They are incredibly serious as they indicate a lifelong commitment to a deep and abiding relationship. But I also love the fact that she is honest about that relationship; it is demanding and sometimes it is difficult to smile at Jesus.

The fact that Mother Terresa admits that following Jesus is demanding and that it is sometimes difficult to smile at him is an encouragement for me. I know a number of Christian folks who beat themselves up a lot because they can’t seem to get things going in the right direction for very long. One minute they are praying and the next minute they are yelling at their son or daughter – and then they feel terrible and wonder how Christian can they really be. Or, one minute they are reading the Bible and the next they are engrossed in some sort of argument. One minute they are singing along with a worship song on the radio and the next minute they are offering a salute to a driver that cut them off. You get the idea.

The fact is following Jesus demands a lot out of us and somedays, some moments, are better than others – and that’s okay because it is in those most demanding moments when aren’t getting it right, that we just need to smile at ourselves because it is in those moments that we realize just how dependent we are on Jesus – and that’s a good thing.

I think a lot of Christian folks have a misconception about spiritual maturity and it can lead to frustration and discouragement. Spiritual maturity isn’t like physical/emotional maturity. For example, a goal of parenting is helping a child to grow in maturity so that when they reach a certain age they can be independent, self-reliant adults. But that’s not the case for spiritual maturity.

growing-upUnlike physical maturity, the goal of spiritual maturity isn’t independence but greater dependence – not on self but on God. If at any moment a person starts to think of themselves as independent  – as if they don’t need God to help them to work through an issue (think sin) – well then they are headed in the wrong direction. Growing in faith doesn’t make a person less dependent on God it makes them more dependent – largely because the longer a person walks with Christ the more aware they become of Christ’s demands on their lives (think holiness) and their own – well – humanness or perhaps sinfulness. But, the longer I walk with Christ the more I realize just how engrained some things are in my life and the more I realize how much I need the Lord to help me. Truth is, I don’t need Jesus less – I need him more and I came to realize that the more I realize the demands that come with the call of Christ.

The longer a person walks with Christ, the more dependent they become on Him to help them.

Yes, I know, that sounds a bit counterintuitive – but my hope is that it encourages you. It does me – believe me – it encourages me to realize that as the demands that Christ puts on me grow, and the more those demands show the glaring mess of my heart and soul, well, the more dependent I am on the Lord to help me and the greater his promise to never leave me nor forsake me becomes. That’s one of the reasons that the only thing I can really ever boast about is that I belong to the Lord and that He knows me.

Without a doubt, the call of Christ is challenging and the life of a Christian is a demanding life. I mean, we are supposed to live out of the law of love; we are to strive to be Christ-like – which sometimes means turning the other cheek and sometimes it means speaking up against injustice, and sometimes it means smiling at the people we are social distancing with when on the inside I want to say a more than a few choice words…but in all of that living life as it really is – the demand of Christ on our lives is very real – and the truth is – honest – it can be quite tough – and sometimes all we can do is smile because we know God loves us and He knows who we are and He knows we need Him in order for us to live in a way that is pleasing to him.

So today I want to encourage you to smile – but I’d encourage you to smile at the demands that Christ has put on your life – and smile at your inability to pull it off without Jesus’ help – and smile at your family and at yourself and be honest about how much you need the Lord to help you.

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A Small Word With A Huge Meaning

word nerdI am an unashamed word nerd. In fact, I probably spend way too much time thinking about words and how best to string them together to convey meaning. It is one of the reasons why I read – it is to see how others create images and understandings with words. I love words.

In fact, I love words so much that I have favorites. I will not bore you with my top ten or top one hundred favorite words but I will share with you one very small word that has a huge meaning and one that just might change your life. It is the Hebrew word hesed.

If you’ve read any part of the Bible – especially the Psalms – you’ve come across the word hesed somewhere around 250 times. The thing about hesed is that it presents a challenge to translate because we don’t have a one-to-one word exchange for hesed in English. So, translators have done their best to try and capture what hesed means in order to convey the full weight of that small word. For instance, if have you read Psalm 136 you’ve read hesed like this – [1] Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love (hesed) endures forever. [2] Give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love (hesed) endures forever. [3] Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love (hesed) endures forever.”

But what on earth does steadfast love mean exactly? In church circles, we’ve heard that phrase associated with God a lot – but have you ever really given it much thought? You see the challenge with the word hesed is that in Hebrew the word conveys to very powerful ideas: love and loyalty/devotion. We just don’t have a word in English that conveys the depth and connection between those two words and so translators have stuck with steadfast love or loyal love to convey the meaning of hesed.

But hesed, for such a small word, has a huge meaning. The psalmist of Psalm 136 must have thought so because he repeated it throughout the entire Psalm. I’ve only put the first three verses here but there are 26 in all. We find steadfast love/loyal love (hesed) as part of a refrain in Psalm 136 – which tells us that it was probably a Psalm that had sort of a response element to it. What I mean is that the worship leader would say something and then the people would respond “for his steadfast love/loyal love (hesed) endures forever.” It is that phrase that runs the entire gamut – the entire 26 verses of Psalm 136 – and it is a word that again was used over 250 times in the Old Testament. If I know anything about the way words work in the Bible, I know if it is used a lot it is an important word that usually has a huge meaning and here the psalmist is saying something about God’s steadfast or loyal love. Let me see if I can unpack it a little bit.

Today is Mother’s Day – and so it is appropriate that we talked about hesed – because when we think about our mom – or at least the idea of mom – at some point we land on the idea of love and loyalty. I’ll bet right now there is some mother opening a card that says something to the effect of “thank you for standing by me no matter what – I love you Mom!” As imperfect as a mother may have been – all of us understand the idea of how steadfast or loyal a mother’s love is – or should be – for her children – no matter what they do – right? In the good times and the not so good times, mom is there – right?

Love and loyalty are mingled together in the Hebrew word hesed and that idea is sprinkled throughout the OT and in Psalm 136 in particular. In fact, in Psalm 136, as one theologian pointed out, we get a very broad picture of God’s hesed for his people. The psalmist calls on people to give God thanks because out of His hesed (love and loyalty) he created all things. He calls on people to give God thanks because out of His hesed, He redeemed them, rescued them, protected them, stood by them in the lowest times – even bad times of their own making – God’s hesed endures forever. And forever – like the late great Prince once said – forever is a mighty long time.

Before I go much further, I want to tell you about one other place in the OT that the word hesed is used. In Exodus 34, Moses, we are told, encounters God. In their exchange, God tells Moses somethings about himself and God used the word hesed to describe himself – and he wanted that passed along so that everyone would know. God’s love for humanity is a hesed sort of love. In Exodus 34:6–8 it says, “The LORD passed before him (Moses) and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (hesed – loyal love) and faithfulness, [7] keeping steadfast love (hesed – loyal love) for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…”

All of this means, of course, that God’s love for you and for me is a hesed sort of love; it is a love of devotion and loyalty. It isn’t fickle. It doesn’t wane. Of course, the greatest way humanity has ever witnessed the hesed of God is through the cross – through Jesus. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that at any point in time since the Garden of Eden has humanity ever been good enough to merit God’s love. And yet, as Paul wrote in Romans, God demonstrated his love (hesed perhaps?) for us in that while we were still sinners (read enemies of God), Christ died for us.”

Let that sink in for a moment – and add this to it. You are the object of God’s hesed. You are the object of God’s love and loyalty. If you have placed your faith in Jesus, you can give God thanks that His hesed for you endures forever. I’d like to encourage you to take some time – this Mother’s Day – and every day – to be reminded that you are the object of God’s love and loyalty – God’s love and devotion – and that love and devotion doesn’t wane for you – even when you blow it. I’d like to encourage you to start each day and end each day speaking the refrain of Psalm 136 to yourself – and claiming for your family, friends, and yourself – that God’s steadfast love for you and your children – and all those who have put their trust int he Lord – endures forever. 

Hesed is a small word that has a huge meaning that may just change your life.

Hesed

 

It Ain’t Over Til God Says It’s Over

As I have said before, I am a Yankee fan – what’s not to love? Right? I mean all those championships – the history – the lore – and the storied players.

yankees_2048xNow, I do like a lot of the recent Yankee Greats – like Aaron Judge – Mariano Rivera – and Derrick Jetter – of course – but I’m partial to some of the all-time Yankee Greats like Mickey Mantle, Joe Dimaggio, Roger Maris, Lou Gehrig, and of course the great Yogi Berra.

Did you know that Yogi Berra played 18 seasons as a Yankee and won 10 World Series as a player? He went to 21 World Series in his career. He won 3 more World Series as a coach. And he is only one of 6 MLB players to be the American League Most Valuable Player Award three times. He provided anti-aircraft cover on a boat during the Normandy Invasion on D-Day.

You may or may not have known all that about Yogi Berra – but I’ll betta you did know he was known for his Yogi-isms – or those colorful sayings – some of which have just folded right into our vernacular.

yogi sayingsFor instance, and I love these, he once quipped, “Baseball,” he said, “is 90% mental, the other half is physical.” Once he explained to someone why he no longer went to a restaurant, he said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Of course, there was the famous, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Yogi was once invited to be the guest of honor at a banquet. He was given the chance to speak and he said, “Thank you for making this day necessary.” And then in the early 1960’s he witnessed Mantle and Maris repeatedly hit back to back home runs and he said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Berra was also reported to have said, “You can observe a lot by watching;” “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t go to yours;” “I really didn’t say everything I said.”

But perhaps my favorite saying – and one I hear more often than any of others – is, “It 2015-Topps-Yogi-Berra-Famous-Quotes-It-Aint-Overain’t over till it’s over.”

I like that one – a lot – because it can apply to so many things: sports, long-boring movies, classes, lectures, oh and sermons – good grief the torture some people go through when the sermon just keeps going on – (I’d like to ask forgiveness of all the people who had to endure so many of my sermons…).

But you know, that saying can be applied to people, too. If I have learned anything at all from eavesdropping on Jesus – anything at all from reading the Gospels – anything at all from being a pastor – I can attest to the fact that a person’s story – well – “It ain’t over till God says it’s over.”

What I mean is that – often – perhaps too often – we can be pretty quick to write someone off – and perhaps worse – we can be pretty quick to write ourselves off, too – as if the things we did or said or didn’t do when it counted were the end all be all – as if a person can’t change – but if Yogi Berra’s right – and I think he is – it ain’t over till God says it’s over.

I say that because of an account between Jesus and a woman in Samaria that is found in the Gospel of John. It is a rather long text – it is John 4:1-45. I’ll leave it to you to find it in your Bible or search it up on esv.org. But I’d encourage you to read it because it will help you to get to know Jesus again – or – perhaps even for the first time.

Jesus_and_the_Samaritan_Woman by Paolo Cagliari At any rate, let me surmise the text. Right after Jesus had a late-night conversation with an important leader/professor type – a man named Nicodemus – Jesus and his disciples took a trip out to the countryside – and then headed on to Galilee. They decided to go through Samaria – which was rare because most of the time Jewish people avoided Samaritans.

In a nutshell, Jews and Samaritans didn’t like each other because way back in the 580’s BC the Babylonians conquered Judah and destroyed everything – including the temple. They carried the best and brightest people to Babylon. So – when you think of the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and Daniel – that’s the time frame – and those are the sort of people that got carried away to Babylon. Those folks who were carried off – longed to return to Jerusalem and they held on to their faith.

But there were other folks who didn’t get carried off to Babylon – and the Babylonians actually brought some other people that they conquered to Judah – to the region of Samaria. And remember – Samaria had been conquered by the Assyrians as well. The History-of-Tisha-BAv-_Historic Tisha B'Av painting depicting the Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (By Francesco Hayez)Jews who remained in the region – intermarried with these folks – which was not something that folks in Babylon were apt to do. And the folks who remained and intermarried also continued on with some elements of the Jewish faith but not all – and they sort of mixed and mingled that as well.

So – when the Jews began to pour back into Jerusalem – which was about 400 years before the birth of Jesus – they had an immediate disliking for the Samaritans and vice-versa Samaritans. There were a few times when they attacked one other. At any rate, they sort of tolerated one another – as long as people stayed within their lane. The simple fact is – the Jews wrote the Samaritans off – like Gentiles – and the Samaritans wrote the Jews off. They just didn’t like each other – and they often avoided each other and avoided their region.

But – Jesus and his disciples didn’t avoid the region of Samaria on their way to Galilee. They went right through it and in fact when they got into Samaria – John tells us that Jesus was thirsty – and tired – so they stopped by a well around noon – when it was apparently pretty hot. In fact, John says that Jesus was weary. Now, most of the time, people didn’t go to the well at noon. They went in the early morning or evening to get water for the day – but when Jesus and his disciples stop at the well – there is a woman there and Jesus asks her to give him some water.

Look – that’s a significant thing on two counts. First – she’s a Samaritan and – second – she’s a woman – and men just really didn’t speak to women and Jews didn’t speak to Samaritans. Clearly, the woman is a bit freaked out on both counts so she asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans”). It is a legit question for all the reasons I’ve already given you, well, at least it would be a legit question except for the fact that she has no idea she’s talking to Jesus. He tells her that if she knew who she was talking to, she’d be asking him for living water.

Of course, she doesn’t understand; she thinks he’s talking about water from the well – but he’s talking about the sort of water that quenches a spiritual thirst which is a deeper more profound thing than physical thirst. The sort of thirst that Jesus is talking about has to do with the void of the human heart and soul – the thing that so many people try to plug up, deny, ignore, or fill with the wrong things.

I mean – sometimes – often really – people plug things into their lives to fill up a gap in their heart/soul/lives. It can be all sorts of things. I’ve known people to fill up the gap with exercise – which sounds like a good thing – until it becomes an obsession.

I remember a scene in one of my favorite westerns – Tombstone. In the film, Doc Holiday and Wyat Earp are talking about an outlaw named Johnny Ringo. Earp asks Holiday tombstonewhat makes a man like Ringo. Holiday says, “Johnny Ringo has a great big hole in the center of him. He can never kill enough, steal, enough, or inflict enough pain to fill it.” I think Holiday is onto something; I think a lot of folks have a great big hole in the center of them and they try to fill it with all sorts of stuff – and those are the things that lead people to write others and even themselves off – as being too far gone – as being too far – as if their stories were over…but then we come to this conversation with Jesus and the woman.

Now granted, the woman of Samaria isn’t killing and stealing like Johnny Ringo – but we find out in our text that she is filling up the gap in her life with relationships. That’s a pretty modern gap filler when you think about – that’s a connecting point to the story of the Bible – it speaks to our issues.

Anyway – at one point in the conversation, Jesus asks her to go and get her husband. She tells him she doesn’t have a husband – to which Jesus says, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband.” Now, I know, in our day the notion of relationships is a bit different – and that number of men in her life may not be so surprising but it was scandalous in those days; I’d be so bold as to say if we are being honest with ourselves – even by today’s standards the number relationships and the type of relationships raise the eyebrow; at any rate, we can tell that something is going on with this woman.

In those days, she would probably have been a marked person – written off – first – to the Jews because she’s a Samaritan – but even perhaps within her own community because of her relationships. Even today, in some religious circles – in some social circles – well – she’d be written off, too. By what she said about not having a husband, it seems she may have been a bit ashamed as well. She may have written herself off, too.

But not Jesus; he didn’t write her off. He didn’t cast her aside. He wasn’t finished with her. God wasn’t done with her story and it wasn’t going to be over until He said it was over.

If you read John 4:1-45, you’ll notice that the conversation Jesus had with this woman made an impact. So much so that she became an evangelist – that’s right – an evangelist – and went to her village and told everyone to come to meet Jesus. That’s an amazing thing, especially when you realize that Samaritans were largely written off by people who should have known better than to write anyone off (that may be a lesson for some – even today). In fact, John wrote, “many Samaritans believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony.”

So there it is – a woman that most people would have written off meets Jesus – her life is transformed when she gets to know Jesus – so – she goes to a group of people that a lot of folks would have written off – and they too are transformed when they get to know Jesus.

I can’t emphasize it enough; a person that a lot of folks would have written off meets Jesus and her life is changed forever.

Jesus – I believe – is the key to that lock. And, like I’ve suggested before, it is good to get to know Jesus because when you do you may be surprised – first – that he hasn’t written you off and second – he hasn’t written off some other folks as well. Nothing that a person has done can keep their lives from being changed by Jesus – nothing. That’s a real encouragement to me for a lot of reasons. In fact, in our family – we often say – his (or my) story isn’t over till God says it is over.

God is in the business of transforming people; get to know Jesus (again or for the first time) and you’ll see what I mean.

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A Beautiful Liturgy

One of the best parts of being a pastor is getting to spend time with people and getting to hear their stories. I’ve been in ministry for quite a while and I’ve had the chance to sit with all sorts of dear, dear people. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned simply by sitting coffeedown over a cup of coffee, keeping my mouth shut, and listening – especially to people who have more to offer than I ever will. A case in point was one of the most amazing women I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.

Ria, who was born in Germany in 1908, was 99 years old when I met her. She was a member of the church I was serving at the time but she could no longer attend services due to a fall she’d taken some years before – so I went to her home to visit. Ria, a rather petite woman, met me at the door – not with a warm handshake – but with a huge smile, a hug, and a kiss on each cheek. I had been told by others at the church that I could expect such a greeting from Ria and I could expect to be blessed beyond anything I could imagine. They were not wrong.

I sat down in Ria’s living room where we sipped on tea and ate a few cookies. After a few minutes, I noticed what I thought were framed photographs on the wall. Then I realized they were not photographs at all – they were intricate needlepoints. I had only ever seen this tapestry type work in museums. I immediately asked her about it and she told me she had learned it from her grandmother and her mother -growing up in Germany. I asked her if she still did that sort of work – and then she held up her hands and said, “Oh – no – not for a long-time now.” Her hands had been ravaged by rheumatoid arthritis. “But,” she said – grinning widely and holding up her thumb and index finger, “I still have these two fingers so I can hold a pen and do my crossword puzzles. The Lord has been goodt to me.”

I couldn’t help but smile at how joyful she was – even as I realized how painful her hands must be. But I was also intrigued by Ria and I asked her to tell me about growing up in Germany – how she came to be in the states.

Ria was born on a farm in Germany just a few years before the start of WWI. She was about 8 when one of her brothers went off to war – but never returned. She remembered how her family farm was impacted during the war but also how difficult life was in Germany after the war. But, she said, we were a Christian family and we saw the ways God took care of us – even in the very bad times – and so, she said again with that German accent – “the Lord was goodt to them.”

She told me how she met her husband, what a godly, Christan man – and a skilled machinist – a “tool and dye” man that he was. They had a happy beginning, she said, but, things in her country were volatile and strange. Even during their courtship – the Nazis had begun their rise to power. At one point, her husband – who had been a solider – was pressured to join the Nazi party  (one of those would you like to join the Nazi party – or would you like to join the Nazi party requests) but his Christian convictions just wouldn’t allow him to do it.  But they knew what that meant. They realized they had to leave their home and their country in order to keep from being forced to become something they could not become – or worse – so they fled to Holland and were taken in by another Christian family that they knew.

They had only been there a short while before the Nazis came to Holland and they were forced to go into hiding for quite some time. Eventually, she said, they were able to make the lord's been good to meit out of Holland to the US – to Birmingham – where they had some connections. In all of this, she said again, “the Lord was goodt to us.”

However, within the first few months of living in Birmingham, her husband died. Ria found herself a widow, in a foreign country, where she knew very few people, and she didn’t speak English. She couldn’t go back to Germany – the Nazis were in power and her family told her it was best not safe to return. Can you imagine how she must have felt?

But – she said – “the Lord was goodt to me” – because through the little church that she and her husband had started attending – she was able to find work as a caretaker. It turns out that two brothers that attended the church-owned and operated a pharmacy and their mother needed some help. And, as it turns out, their mother had also immigrated to the US many years before from Germany. Ria said, their mother became like a mother to her. One of the brothers began helping Ria learn English and, after a few years, the two of them married.

Ria said, “God gave me a new family. The Lord was goodt to me.” She said they had a wonderful life together but were never able to have children – but they enjoyed being together for many years before her second husband passed away. Ria never married again – and at 99 – she had been a widow for over forty years – but – Ria said again – “the Lord has been goodt to me.”

The Lord’s Been Good To Me

I sat with Ria for a long time that day and visited her as often as I could after that – and called her when I couldn’t get by to see her. To be honest, it was more for me than for Ria because she was so joyful and the joy that she had was even more profound after I heard her story. Almost every time I saw her, I heard her say at least once “the Lord has been goodt to me.” She had a life of trials but she didn’t seem them as reasons to complain or to be bitter or to feel sorry for herself. She didn’t whine. Instead, she was joyful and she had a beautiful liturgy – “the Lord has been good to me.”

I aspire to be more like Ria. To me, she was the epitome of Christian joy. I thought about Ria the other day when I read Psalm 94. If you’ve ever read that Psalm you’ll know it begins with a rather harsh beginning – far removed from what may be considered joy. The psalmist wrote, “[1] O LORD, God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, shine forth! [2] Rise up, O judge of the earth; repay to the proud what they deserve! [3] O LORD, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult? [4] They pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast. [5] They crush your people, O LORD, and afflict your heritage.” Whew – man – that’s a doozy of a text. It is clear that the psalmist is going through some sort of trial – some tough days – and he’s not happy.

But then toward the end of Psalm 94, the psalmist says something that made me think of Ria: “[19] When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations brought joy to my soul.” In other words, when concerns, worries, anxieties over issues and trials bear heavy on my heart, God’s comforts cause my soul to delight to be joyful.

In Psalm 94, the psalmist recounts the reality of his world – and there are some major issues – he’s got some trials – but in the middle of all that, he says, “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations brought joy to my soul.” And that’s the thing I keep finding as I read through the Bible and encounter texts that speak of joy.

Often in the Bible, whenever you find people going through trials – you often find some mention of joy; trials and joy are often coupled in the Bible. In fact, in the book of James – in the New Testament – he says to “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds (ESV James 1:2).  Of course, the reason for that is because that’s often where faith in Christ matures.

I think that’s what Ria was doing every time she said, “the Lord’s been goodt to me.” It truly was a beautiful liturgy – especially once I knew her trials. I realized later that she recounted all of those things that God had done for her even as she acknowledged how hard things were; she never lost sight of how God had seen her through it. In other words, she focused on God’s consolations  – as the Psalmist said – and in doing so she found joy in things that others would have only found self-pity and bitterness – and her joy was contagious.

There is something to be said about recalling the way that God’s actions in our lives and in the Bible bring us consolation or comfort. In another Psalm – Ps 103 – David – the psalmist – wrote, “Bless the Lord oh my soul and all that is within me bless his holy name – bless the Lord oh my soul and forget not his benefits.” Then David lists them – and his list are those consolations that Ps 94 mentions and the very things that helped Ria that framed Ria’s beautiful liturgy. David said, “bless the Lord – who healed your disease, who redeemed you, who crowns your life with love and mercy…” On and on, David lists the things that God has done and in doing so he reminds us of God’s comforts and consolation.

You know, Ria was 101 when she passed away and that was in 2009 – but she left a legacy. I mean, here I am in 2020 and I always think of Ria when I think of joy. But when I think of her, I also remember her trials – because he trials and her joy go hand in hand. It was through her trials that she saw God at work – and when other trials came – she was joyful because she drew comfort from all that God had already done in her life.

I still smile when I think of that dear woman – who loved Jesus – holding up her thumb and index finger and saying “the Lord has been goodt to me” with a huge smile and a gleam in her eye. She will always be remembered – by those who knew her – as joyful. She saw her trials and considered them from the perspective that God is sovereign and He isn’t going to let anything into our lives that aren’t for our good and his glory. That may not be such an easy thing to swallow all the time because we do go through various trials – and they are not pleasant – but nevertheless, we can be joyful if we remember God’s comforts and the benefits of belonging to Him.

My prayer for you today – and for me – is the beautiful liturgy – one that is so full of joy – may prayer is that it will be yours  – as it was Ria’s. That you will see whatever trial you are facing through the grid that you if you have placed your trust in Jesus – that you belong – body and soul – to him – and that is the greatest comfort in life and in death – so much so that come what may – we can say – “Lord has been goodt to you.”

 

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When It is Okay to Eavesdrop

A few weeks ago – well – before the pandemic – Sherry and I went out to eat. It was date night – just the two of us. We settled into our table and started talking. Apparently, the couple next to us were regulars and so when the waiter arrived they started chatting at some length about something that was going on in our community.

To be fair – to me mostly – it would have been impossible for anyone to ignore. It isn’t that they were being loud they were just close – by today’s standards – they were not social distancing. But it was also impossible to ignore because – unbeknownst to the couple or the waiter – they were talking about something that I not only knew something about – it was something that I was personally involved with and at the very center of. For a while, Sherry and I just listened but then Sherry smiled at me and I quietly asked her, “Do I say something?”

What would you have done at that moment? Would you have said something – especially when they got the details wrong?

Well – I did. I’d probably do it again. Actually, we had a very good conversation and I learned a lot about them and I was able to give them accurate details.

Look, I know it is rude to intentionally eavesdrop, but the thing is – sometimes it is next to impossible not to hear other people’s conversations. And sometimes it is okay to eaves-drop because we can learn a lot when we do.

Last week, I asked a question in one of our devotionals. I asked, how well do you know Jesus – and – I asked you not to answer that question too quickly. And, I asked you to really think through how you know what you know about Jesus. Today, I want to reemphasize that question and at the same time offer you some practical insights on getting to know Jesus – perhaps for the first time – perhaps again. I want to encourage you to eavesdrop.

Yes – that’s right. I want to encourage you to eavesdrop of Jesus’ conversations. Doing so will no doubt help you to know Jesus better as you listen in to what Jesus said to all sorts of people.

For instance, throughout the Gospel of John Jesus has a number of conversations with all sorts of people – and they are remarkable. I’d like to invite you to engage your imagination for a minute and place yourself in the first century – and you are just right there – right alongside of Jesus – and you are allowed to be within ear-shot of the conversations He’s having with people. Doing so will allow you to learn a lot about Jesus and yourself, too. For instance, in John’s Gospel, Jesus had conversations with a man named Nicodemus. That conversation takes place in John 3:1-21.

Here’s what we know about Nicodemus. He is a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, and considered The teacher of Israel. And this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is the first real discourse that John records – which means – at least from John’s perspective the conversation is important – which makes it all the more important to listen to.

This conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus happens under the cover of darkness – which is unusual. Maybe they met that way for privacy – so they wouldn’t be interrupted – or maybe Nicodemus really didn’t want to be seen with Jesus – it was risky to be seen with Jesus. After all, how would it look for him – for Nicodemus – to be seen talking and asking questions of an untrained rabbi when he – Nicodemus – was of such high regard.

At any rate, when they begin talking Nicodemus starts off by calling Jesus “rabbi.” At first “Rabbi” seems like a nice greeting, calling him teacher despite not having the credentials. But then Nicodemus says something about how they have judged Jesus’ ministry to date. In other words, Nicodemus is taking a superior high-road and his remark about rabbi is more of a put-down, a condescension rather than praise.

Jesus overlooks that offense and gets right to the point. It is as if Jesus knows exactly what is on Nicodemus’ mind. Jesus tells him that unless a person is “born again” they cannot see the kingdom of God. Now it is important to recognize that few people had the sort of credentials that Nicodemus had. He’s not only a devout, orthodox Jew, but he’s also a ruler – a Pharisee – a leading teacher in all of Israel. If anyone’s place should have been secure – by virtue of their position, credentials, etc., – it should have been Nicodemus. But here is Jesus speaking directly to the matter and telling him he needed a spiritual rebirth – and one that he couldn’t make happen on his own.

Jesus rocks Nicodemus by telling him he needed to be “born from above” or “again.” He needed a spiritual re-birth – a renewal – something that came not from himself but from God alone. It seems to have shaken Nicodemus to the core – and truth be told – it may shake up a few of us, too.

You see, there are a lot of folks who still think that their relationship with God is up to them. I’ve met folks who have said they’ve worked things out with the man upstairs – as if coming to God was something that is on our terms, something to which they actually contribute – rather than an aspect of grace and faith in Christ alone.

In this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus is letting Nicodemus know – and us by default – that keeping rules and traditions, acts of piety, knowing the scriptures verbatim, how often you attend church – etc., etc., are of no avail on their own. One of my favorite professors in the world is a man named Jerram Barrs. Jerram helps to clarify what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus. Barrs wrote, “Jesus is trying to tell Nicodemus that entrance into God’s kingdom cannot be had simply by being born as an Israelite; nor can he gain entry to the kingdom by being a teacher of God’s Word, by his obedience to the commandments of the law, or even by seeking entry. Instead, entrance to the kingdom requires a mysterious new beginning to life. Nicodemus needs a radical renewal which seems impossible for one to accomplish oneself” (Learning Evangelism from Jesus).

Of course, Nicodemus is rocked by what Jesus says because he follows it up by asking Jesus to explain because – well the idea of being born again was as foreign to him as it might be to us. It is understandable that Nicodemus wouldn’t get it because it seems to cut against our idea of pulling ourselves up – or being good enough on our own – or being able to contribute somehow some way to our own place with God. But truth is, “Only that life which has its origin in the work of God’s Spirit can enter God’s presence.”

When you read John 3:1-22, and I hope you will, you’ll discover that the story of Nicodemus sort of fades to black, as it were. At one point Jesus and Nicodemus are talking and then Jesus and his disciples are on the road. There isn’t any sort of closure with Nicodemus. We don’t have a huge ending with Nicodemus on his knees praying – or walking down an aisle giving his life to Jesus. The conversation just ends.

It seems as if Nicodemus just went his way at some point. But probably not before hearing Jesus say, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Did you realize that Jesus was probably talking to Nicodemus when he said that? I think that’s significant – don’t you?

At any rate, that night Nicodemus must have just gone home but I don’t think he just pushed his conversation with Jesus to the side. I think Nicodemus must have kept turning Jesus’ words over and over in his mind. I think the notion that a person needs a spiritual rebirth that can only happen by God’s action in their life must have hit a chord with him. He must have kept thinking about it. Maybe we should, too.

I’m confident that Nicodemus kept thinking about what Jesus said for two reasons. Later in John’s Gospel, Nicodemus defends Jesus – and not just to Joe Q. Public. Nicodemus stands before the most powerful people in his community – among his colleagues. Nicodemus stood before the Sanhedrin – before other teachers, and rulers, and Pharisees, and he defended Jesus – at a time that the Sanhedrin was trying to arrest Jesus. That’s not a small deal at all.

Have you ever stood up for someone like that? Have you ever considered it? You know the risks involved. You know what it will cost you. Nicodemus took a risk – one that he must have known could cost him dearly. How willing are you to take a stand for someone else? You certainly aren’t gone to take a stand for someone you don’t think is on the up and up. So, that conversation under the cover of darkness must have stayed with Nicodemus – don’t you think?

And then there is a second event that shows that Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus stayed with him. After Jesus’ death on the cross, his body was taken down. It is important Jesus and Nicodemusto note that His disciples had scattered and two men – after receiving permission from Pilate – took care of Jesus’ body and gave him a proper burial. One of them was Joseph of Arimathea and the other was Nicodemus. Nicodemus brought 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes for Jesus (John 7:50-52; 19:38-40). I think that’s significant – don’t you?

Look I don’t know what happened to Nicodemus – I don’t know if he became a life-long follower of Jesus after the resurrection or not – all I know for sure is that He had this one conversation with Jesus and then he defends him in front of people who want to destroy Jesus – and then he publically goes and makes sure that Jesus has a proper burial. It is amazing to consider that after one conversation with Jesus, Nicodemus takes such huge risks and Nicodemus had a lot to lose. There is something about that conversation he had with Jesus that I think just might be worth eavesdropping on – don’t you?

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For Such A Dangerous Journey As This

This week we received some news here in Tennessee. As of April 27th, which is tomorrow, the economy will begin to reopen. Restaurants, shops, dental offices, and other venues will be opening this week. However, that news didn’t come with huge Screen Shot 2020-04-26 at 1.48.34 PMparades and fanfare – with balloons and a ticker-tape parade. That news came with warnings and guides for how those businesses will be allowed to open. The news was received with varying degrees of relief and confusion and uncertainty because we all know the virus isn’t gone.

What we want to hear is that the virus has been eradicated – that we have a vaccine that will protect us – and we no longer must be too concerned – at least no more concerned than we are about the flu. But I’m afraid those days are not here yet and perhaps they will not be for a while and perhaps they never will be here. What many people want is the assurance that we are protected from the dangers of the virus. But we really haven’t been offered that because a 100% assurance that we are protected from the virus doesn’t exist.

All of us know that we aren’t just dealing with a virus; we are dealing with a massive downturn in our economy – a downturn that has long-term implications. Thousands of people are out of work and as a result, many are unable to pay their bills, buy food, etc. The longer things stay shut-down the more difficult it is going to be to recover. As it is, even now the recovery will take a long time.

And, even as things open – there is no guarantee that our economy will not slip further. After all, open restaurants and shops, etc.,  are only as good as the number of customers, clients, and patients that show up. We are almost assuredly going to see an uptick in cases, which will most likely have an economic as well as societal impact. But, perhaps opening and allowing more folks to work will at least help to alleviate some of the economic hardships. But again, there isn’t a 100% assurance in that either.

What people long for – what they want – is an assurance that we are going to be okay – protected – kept safe. But we do not have that – not that we ever really did – but now we know it is for certain. Instead of assurances, the people of Tennessee (and very soon everyone else) are being invited on a dangerous journey into a very new reality but it is a journey that we must take – whether we want to or not. It is just the way it is. We have to start learning to live with this virus but – there is not much comfort in that at all.

However, the truth is, this dangerous journey is just the sort of journey God’s people are prepared to take; in fact, God’s people are prepared for such a time as this; God’s people are prepared to step into the breach of this dangerous journey.

If you, like me, profess faith in Jesus – you may not feel like you are prepared to step into the breach or be part of a dangerous journey but the Bible says otherwise. There are stories throughout the Bible that point to the fact that God calls His people to dangerous journeys all the time and it is in those moments when our faith grows deeper and it bears fruit as we bear witness to the love and faithfulness of God.

There isn’t anything new about God’s people taking a dangerous journey; the Bible makes that clear. In both the Old and New Testaments those dangerous journeys were sometimes quite literal – meaning the people had to step into the world and move across a wilderness where they faced hardships, bandits, enemies in battle, pestilence, and famine, etc. God called Abraham to pick up everything and start walking toward a promised land. He and his family faced all sorts of things along the way. Sometimes the Bible describes dangerous journeys that were spiritual and physical.

I think of Paul – when he was on the road to Damascus and he came to terms with Jesus – and he was taken on a deep, spiritual, and physical journey. His life was transformed by it. Paul literally went on dangerous journeys and faced shipwrecks, jail, and all sorts of hardships. But in it all, God was present.

And sometimes the dangerous journeys in the Bible were the result of something that someone did and sometimes it was because of something someone else did, and sometimes it was all the above. I think about the fact that God’s people wandered in a wilderness for 40 years. I think of all the dangerous things they endured. But God was always present.

Every time God’s people were on a dangerous journey – every time they stepped into those journey – they had only one assurance – God was with them. Daniel faced lions because He had the assurance that God was with him. Stephen faced being stoned, because he knew God was with him.

David faced Goliath because he knew God was with him on his dangerous journey. David – the giant killer – the king of ancient Israel – wrote a lot of psalms – not all of them – but a lot. And in one of his most famous psalms, Psalm 23, David wrote, “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.”

Did you notice that David said, “even though”? Did you notice that he said he wouldn’t fear because God was with him? He didn’t say anything about not dealing with death or even dying. He said he wouldn’t fear because God is with him. That’s a constant theme that runs through all of the Bible.

We’d like to think that because we are God’s people that we are immune to the dangers of the world. But the truth is, God calls His people to take dangerous journeys and the only assurance they have is that He is with them. Turns out that’s all we need. God often calls us to take dangerous journeys even though it could mean trouble or even death for us. But we need not fear; we can face those dangers because we have the assurance that God is with us. That’s the only assurance we have and the only one we need.

Of course, David isn’t the psalmist to make that observation. Within the Psalms there are a group of psalms known as the Ascent Psalms (Psalm 120-134). David wrote a few of them and they were often used by people on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In other words, they were used by people on a journey – a God-ordained journey – a journey that was often dangerous – used by people who needed an assurance that they were going to be okay, safe, protected from danger.

These psalms are called Psalms of Ascent because they were sung or prayed or spoken as people ascended to Jerusalem for a festival or for worship. Jerusalem sits on a hill and the temple is at the height of the hill – thus people would ascend. The people and priests would sing or pray these psalms as they journeyed and as they made the climb.

But here’s the thing, the journey to Jerusalem wasn’t necessarily an easy go. There were dangers on the journey and God’s people weren’t immune from those dangers. But they were still called by God to go on the journey. Just because it was dangerous didn’t mean they were exempt from going where God had called them to go. But these Psalms of Ascent reminded them that they were always assured of God’s presence on the dangerous journey. A case in point is Psalm 121.

Psalm 121– A Song of Ascents. [1] I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? [2] My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. [3] He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. [4] Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. [5] The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. [6] The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. [7] The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. [8] The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore. (ESV)

In verse one, the psalmist makes the point that he looks to the hills. That can have a couple of different meanings. First, remember they had to travel up to Jerusalem. As they looked to the hills – they knew the ultimate end of their journey was at the temple – and at the temple is where God and humanity met. So, there was that. A second idea though is best captured in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.

If you know the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25–37. In that parable, Jesus said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.” There are two things to notice from that parable. First, the man had to go downhill. Second, the journey was dangerous. It really didn’t matter if you were going up the hill or down the hill; people in Jesus’ day knew that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was dangerous; they knew there were bandits.

But, they knew that they had to go through danger in order to get to Jerusalem – which represented for them the place where God and humanity met. They also knew that God called his people to worship and they were on a God-ordained journey that often leads them into danger. So, as people went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem on their God-ordained journey into danger they looked to the hills and asked, where does my help come from? The answer to that question, their assurance in the midst of a dangerous journey is in God.

The rest of that psalm continues to focus the people of God on the fact that they are better equipped than anyone to take a dangerous journey. First, they are assured of the only thing they need. They know they are doing as the Lord would have them to do and they know that He is with them. They know that he is attentive to them because He doesn’t sleep nor slumber; God is active in their lives and attentive. The psalmist also uses the language of keep – which means to watch over, and protect. And ultimately, God will keep their lives – from this time and forever.

And, though Psalm 121 doesn’t directly name Him, we know that God will keep His people because we have placed our faith in Jesus – who has promised to never leave us or forsake us. But Jesus never promised that we wouldn’t be called to take a dangerous journey. In fact, he promised the opposite. In John 16:33 Jesus told his disciples that they could expect dangerous times – “tribulation” he called it. But, they should take heart – have courage and be at peace because Christ has overcome the world. In other words, the only assurance that we have in this world is that Christ is with us and it is the only assurance that we need.

You see, God’s people are made for such a time as this because we don’t need the same sort of assurances that others do. Our communities are going to open up. They have to. They need to. It is a dangerous journey we are being asked to take. And God’s people are the best-equipped people to take that journey because the only assurance we need is that one we already have: God is with us.

While we take the recommended steps like wearing makes, washing our hands, and social distancing, we are nevertheless assured that we can step into anything because we belong to the Lord and nothing can take us from His hand – not even a virus, not even death. We are assured He is with us for this time and forevermore. Be strong and courageous – God is with us.

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Getting To Know Jesus Again…Another Practical Idea For Such A Time As This

Like many people, I’ve spent the last few days pondering over the news regarding the need to re-open for economics sake and the data regarding testing and cases of COVID-19. Tennessee is about to re-open; in fact, some counties are planning to re-open even before the state does (Hawkins County for example); the news that TN will re-open has led to confusion, frustration, relief – and – well – a whole range of emotions, speculation, and questions. In fact, over the last few days, I’ve spent some time responding to questions from folks within my community and the churches that I serve.

I understand the range of responses because I feel the topsy-turvy nature of our days as well. But, to be honest, I don’t want to be overwhelmed by the knowns or unknowns or by the different perspectives that keep circulating like bits of paper and dust in a tornado. But it is difficult not to get sucked up into the whirlwind – especially when it is all around us and impacting every part of our lives. And so, I’m trying to use at least a portion of my tiny brain to come up with practical ideas for Christian folks for such a time as this. Last week I mentioned writing letters – like Paul did; I also mentioned being like the Bereans and really making sure that the information we pass along is solid before endorsing it. Today, I’d like to take a different tack altogether. I’d like to ask you to consider a question – a very important question and one that I think may help give shape to the way we live in the days ahead and one that may help in our topsy-turvy world.

How well do you know Jesus? Before you rush to answer that question, I’d like to ask you to sit with it just for a few minutes and really think about it. It might even be good to consider how you know what you know about Jesus. I say that because of a question and answer series that comes out of three of the four Gospels.

In Matthew (16:13–16), Mark (8:27–29), and Luke (9:18–20), Jesus asked his closest friends – the folks he had spent an incredible amount of time with – “Who do people say that I am?” Bear in mind that Jesus and his friends had been in a variety of places together – they had traveled – and they had encountered any number of people. In fact, the Gospels consistently say that large crowds were drawn to Jesus and rightly so. So – it isn’t difficult to surmise that Jesus’ friends had heard people talking about him from within the crowd.
But the folks in the crowds had all sorts of ideas about Jesus. In fact, when Jesus’ friends answered him they, in essence, said it depends on who you ask. Some of the folks said he was like John the Baptist and others said like Elijah, and others simply thought he was like “one of the prophets of old has risen.” I get that, don’t you?

The folks in the crowds had been around Jesus but they really didn’t know him – not really. So, they were just trying to answer the question based on what they thought they knew. They got their answer based on things they had heard and perhaps what they had experienced, and they came up with the idea that Jesus was a great prophet. There really isn’t anything wrong with that answer. Jesus was a great prophet – it just not the whole answer – which is why Jesus’ follow up question to his closest friends is so important.

Jesus asked his friend, “who do you say that I am?” Of course, Simon Peter is the one to chime in first and his answer sounds spot on, “you are the Christ – the Son of God.” Wow! Bang! Spot on! Even Jesus commends Peter for getting it right. And all is good and right, except it’s not – at least not yet. Not too long after affirming the Jesus is the Christ, Peter actually tries to rebuke Jesus when Jesus talks about the fact that He will suffer and die.

In Matthew 16:21–23 it says, “[21] From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. [22] And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” [23] But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (ESV).

But I thought Peter knew Jesus. After all, he said the right thing just moments before. How is it that Jesus is now putting Peter in his place? Well, without getting in the weeds too much, Peter – like a lot of others in his day – had expectations about the Son of God – about the Messiah – that were formed more out of culture and context than out of reality. Peter – like many others – probably expected Jesus to lead them in overthrowing the Romans – and establishing some sort of kingdom like David or even like Moses. What’s strange is how often Jesus tried to tell his disciples what he was about – and they still missed it. Turns out, even the ones who should have known Him best were clouded by what they thought they knew.

So, even Peter, a person who had spent a lot of time with Jesus, who’d seen and heard him first hand, even Peter was a bit wonky. And, it wasn’t until Peter’s world went topsy-turvy that he came to know Jesus. Remember? Peter had some ideas about who Jesus was but it was only after Peter denied Jesus three times and saw Jesus suffer and even suffered himself that he recognized how much he needed Jesus and for who Jesus really is.

So, I’d like to invite you again to consider the question again: how well do you know Jesus? And what are you basing what you know about Jesus on? I’m asking because a lot of us, like Peter and like folks in the crowd have ideas about Jesus that may not have the full picture of who He is. And the thing is, it is usually not until the world around us is topsy-turvy that a solid understanding of who Jesus can come to the forefront of our lives. Again, how well do you know Jesus?