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?

A Strange – Idiosyncratic Way of Looking at Things

One of my favorite novels is Les Misérables written by Victor Hugo. Hopefully, you are familiar enough with the story that I can just jump right in – but in case you aren’t – let les mis roseme give you a quick summary. The novel is about a whole lot of people – actually – but it follows the life of a man named Jean Valjean. The story is set in France – thus the name Jean Valjean – and it takes place in the 1830’s – ish. But – Jean Valjean spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. When he is released, he is sent away from prison with his parole papers by a man named Javert – who basically haunts Jean Valjean throughout the novel. Javert is all law – no grace – sort of character.

Jean Valjean tries to move his life forward but because he’s a convict – he can’t get anything going in his life at all. That is until he meets the Bishop of Digne – a man the people called Bienvenu (which means welcome in French). When Jean Valjean meets Bishop Bienvenu – the bishop opens his home to him, feeds him, and gives him a place to sleep and to rest. He treats him with dignity and kindness.

Jean Valjean returns that kindness by stealing the bishop’s silver cutlery in the middle of the night. Jean Valjean flees from the bishop’s house with a sack full of silver.

The next morning, however, the local police bring Jean Valjean back to the bishop’s house. They had arrested him because he looked as if he was running after having committed a crime – which he had of course. When they caught Jean Valjean, he told the police the bishop had given him the silver. So they take him to the Bishop.

The Bishop makes a bee-line when he sees Jean Valjean and the police. And the bishop says, “Ah, there you are! Am I glad to see you! But, heavens! I gave you the candlesticks, too, you know; they are made of silver like the rest and you can get two hundred francs for them, easily. Why didn’t you take them with the cutlery?”

Of course, Jean Valjean is speechless. He was expecting to be condemned. He was after all a convict – a bad man by some accounts and he was guilty – but here is the bishop rescuing him and keeping him from going back to prison. Jean Valjean. The bishop then tells the police to let Jean Valjean go – and they do.

Then the bishop says something to Jean Valjean that changes the man’s life forever – in fact – the entirety of the novel – in my view – hinges on this moment. The bishop says, “Don’t forget don’t ever forget, that you promised me to use this silver to make an honest man of yourself.”

Now Jean Valjean – has no memory of ever making such a promise – he is just stunned with what’s happening – and then the Bishop says – one of the best lines in all of literature, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to the evil but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you; I am taking it away from black thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I am giving it to God.”

What’s amazing is just how stunned Jean Valjean is. In fact, in the next scene, Valjean leaves the Bishop and the city and just runs as if he is still on the run. For the first time in Jean Valjean’s life- he’s encountered grace – and he’s rocked by that – he’s stunned.

But the reader isn’t shocked. Victor Hugo dedicates the first part of the novel to the Bishop. By the time the reader gets to this encounter between the Bishop and Jean Valjean – the reader is ready for the Bishop to do what he did – and they know why the bishop did what he did; he did it because that’s what Christians do.

In fact, in the first part of the novel, Hugo’s Bishop takes the bulk of his salary and uses it to provide for the needs of others, using very little of it for himself. He takes his own money and makes sure that people have food, medicine, and able to pay their bills. Hugo’s bishop uses his means to help orphans and widows. He gave up his large house provided for him by the church so that the hospital could use it. Over and over, the Bishop of Digne did things for the people of his community. He sacrificed and took risks. After showing all of the ways the Bishop served his community,  Hugo said of the Bishop, “As you can see, he has a strange, idiosyncratic way of looking at things. I suspect he got it from the Gospel.”

I love that line so much because I’d like for it to be true of me (okay granted I’m a little peculiar on my own but humor me for a bit longer). I think there is something to be said about the way Hugo’s Bishop saw the world and the people around him. It seems to me that his perspective on this was deeply Christian in a way that I haven’t quite mastered yet. I mean, he wasn’t overly concerned with himself and recognized that he could live on very little so that others could have what they needed. And, he took in someone that no one else would – because he saw it as something that Jesus called him to do. Now that sort of thing is exactly why Hugo said the Bishop had a “strange, idiosyncratic way of looking at things” and that he got it from the Gospel.

And that’s true, you know? The Gospel gives a strange shape a Christian worldview because it calls us to love God and love neighbor in specific sorts of ways. For instance, the gospel calls Christians to think of others as more significant than themselves. Well, how does that play out in a pandemic? The gospel also calls Christians to pray without ceasing and to actually believe that God hears us when we pray and answers our prayers. The gospel calls Christians to trust God in all our circumstances which means that we are able to take risks to make sure that the needs of others are being met – even if we have to sacrifice to do it. The gospel also calls us to lament over the broken things of the world and yet to do so not as people without hope – because our hope is built on Jesus  – and thus we acknowledge our mortality but we also hold out for eternal life through Christ. And the gospel calls us to offer grace to others.

I’ve been at this Christian thing for a while now – working on three decades and so I’d like to say that I’m pretty good at all those things listed above – but I’d be lying if I did. That’s why I wish that line about Hugo’s Bishop was true of me. Because the truth is, they’ve been true about a lot of Christian folks throughout the ages. In fact, I think about the number of pastors like André Trocmé and other Christians who helped to hide Jews during World War II. I think of Christians who helped during the Civil Rights movement. Those folks had the right sort of strange – idiosyncratic view of the world that was linked to the gospel. Granted, I know this pandemic is nothing like those events but it does afford a unique opportunity to live out the Gospel.

And, and before you think that I’ve based all of this on some imaginative character made up by Hugo, there is something that you need to know about Victor Hugo’s Bishop in Les -Mgr-de-MiollisMisérables. Hugo developed the character of the Bishop of Digne from the life of a man named Charles-Francois-Melchior-Bienvenu de Miollis who was the actual Bishop of Digne. He was known for his simple lifestyle and his attention to the poorest members of his community – his devotion to Jesus; and, the real-life Bishop actually welcomed and helped a convict who had been imprisoned for 5 years for stealing a loaf of bread (Rose 1195). I suppose folks may have said that he had a strange, idiosyncratic way of looking at things and I suppose he may have gotten it from the Gospel.

 

 

Letters and Tellers: A Practical Idea For Christian Folks For Such A Time As This

I’ve been thinking a lot about letters lately. In fact, I’ve been writing letters over the last bit because I think getting a hand-written letter from someone these Lost-art-of-letter-writingdays may be a good way to encourage others. After all, when was the last time you received a hand-written letter or card from someone? How’d it make you feel? Did it cheer you up? Did it mean more than – well – say a form letter from the IRS?

Letters have been floating around my mind because I, like a lot of pastors and church folks, are trying to figure out how to be Christian – how to be the church – for such a time as this. Granted, we hope that soon we will get back to normal, but we really don’t know if that will happen or when. So, in the interim, I’m trying to figure out practical things that I can do or not do, in order to do what God would have us do during this unique and strange time.

And so, I write letters and notes and try to let people know that God loves them, and they can see God’s love most clearly in the person of Jesus. I find that putting that truth down in a letter to friends and family encourages me and I hope it encourages them, too. But I think there is something else that Christian folks can do that goes beyond letter writing as a means of encouragement.

You know, one of the things that have made people anxious these days is the amount and type of information that is being passed around. Ordinarily, I’m not one that spends a ton of time on social media and generally, there are only a handful of news sites that I visit. https___blogs-images.forbes.com_brantpinvidic_files_2019_01_585c0d571600002400bdf381But, over the last month, I have clocked more hours on social media and visited more news sites than I ever have. More than a few times, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things but also a bit troubled. From one site to another or one post to another or one person to another, the information changes and at times it is contradictory of what’s being communicated by experts, and at other times it is just not accurate and quite frankly, that’s not good. In fact, in some cases, it could be disastrous and hurtful to a lot of folks.

So, today I’ve added another thing to my list of what it means to be Christian for such a time as this (or anytime actually): do the work of discerning. In other words, check your source and make sure what you are passing on is accurate, truthful, and helpful. If the source seems dubious – don’t send it forward. If you hear something from someone who really isn’t an expert – who isn’t connected to the issue – it’s probably best to shelve it and not send it forward or repeat it or believe it.

In fact, it may be time for a lot of Christian folks to take a page from the Bereans. In Acts 17:10–12 Paul and Silas were in Berea. When they got there they found folks who, as Luke says in Acts, were “more noble” than other folks Paul and Silas had dealt with because “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see Acts+17+those+Noble+Bereansif these things were so.” In other words, they did the work of discerning whether the things they were being told were truth – were right – were accurate based on a solid source. And after they did the work of discerning – then and only then – did “Many of them therefore believe.” I think that’s something practical that a lot of us should take to heart; Christians ought to do the work of discerning whether or not something is true, whether it is right, before we believing it or passing it on as truth.

Charles Spurgeon was quoted as saying, “discernment is not a matter of simply telling the difference between what is right and wrong; rather, discernment is the difference between right and almost right.” We are to be truth-tellers which means we need to be discerning and at times a bit skeptical; we need to ask questions. After all, as part of whatspurgeon it means to share the Gospel, we bear witness to the Truth the Way and the Life but if we push falsehood forward – even with good intent – even unknowingly because we haven’t done the work ourselves of checking the source – it doesn’t bode well for us or for those in our community and in this case, it could cause great harm.

I know, I sound a bit preachy but, well, I am a pastor by calling and we pastors can be a bit preachy at times. And, I know that sounding preaching can come off as judgmental. But, at the risk of sounding preaching and judgemental, I want to appeal to all anyone who professes faith in Jesus (the way, the Truth, and the life) to be more noble and do the work of discerning; examine everything to make sure that it is true, accurate, and helpful before putting attaching your name, your reputation, and your witness to it.

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Danger! Danger!

These are dangerous times but perhaps not for the reason that first comes to mind. I mean – the first thing that pops into our mind is all the news, the data, and the concerns regarding COVID-19. And unless you’ve been living under a rock – which at this point may not be such a bad idea –unless you live completely off the grid – these are dangerous times to be out and about. After all, until a few weeks ago, I don’t think I had ever even heard the phrase community spread or community transmission.

Yes, there is danger in the air, but the viral danger isn’t the sort of danger that I am concerned about at the moment.

discouragedThese are dangerous times because it is easy to become discouraged. A lot of people are spending more time locked away at home than – well – maybe ever. And, a lot of people aren’t really around a lot of other people – at all – which can lead to being self-consumed – which can lead us to be discouraged when we are our only company. And, when you spend so much of your time in a confined space, even with lots of projects to do, well, discouragement can pop up unexpectedly. And, add to that, there is so much information going on around us that it is a challenge to know what is what and what to believe and what’s right. There is a lot of unknown – really – and we just aren’t used to that. We are used to getting accurate information at Google Speed. But if you Google COVID-19, you are going to get a ton of information and different models that predict different dates for peaks – and a lot of other information and it – just – well – at the end the day – who knows. We just don’t really know for sure – and we aren’t used to that – and that can be discouraging.

Well, this morning, I was reading in Philippians 2:1-11. If you can, look at it. That text is powerful in and of itself, but it becomes all the more powerful and timely when you considered the context out of which Paul wrote. I’ve mentioned this before, but it is philippians-bibleworth noting again. When Paul wrote this letter to his friends in Philippi, he was not free to move about the city. He had a stay at home order, too. He was imprisoned for advancing the Gospel and found himself in chains and under constant guard.

It is important to realize that – like a lot of prisoners – Paul was waiting for his case to be heard. While Paul trusted the Lord, he didn’t know the outcome. He didn’t know what was going to happen next. Can you imagine the stress of that? I’ll bet you can because in some ways that is exactly what we are facing. We don’t know how long this is going to last. There are a lot of unknowns – even if the stay-at-home order is lifted – we don’t know what impact that will have on the spread of the virus. While we may not have literal chains on us like Paul did, we still can still relate to the stress of staying put and not knowing what is next.

Those days in prison were dangerous days for Paul and not simply because of the obvious. A danger for Paul, like us, was the danger of being consumed by the circumstances and so self-consumed that discouragement set in. But you know what Paul did? He wrote to the people of Philippi. Oh, and did you know that the people of Philippi – Paul’s friends – did you know one of the reasons that Paul wrote to them was because they were concerned about the health of their friend Epaphroditus? Did you know he also wrote to encourage them?

Isn’t that amazing? Paul is in no position to encourage anyone – right? He’s in a bad situation. If anyone has the right to sulk right down and to be discouraged, it is Paul, but he just can’t do that.

Do you know why Paul doesn’t just sulk down into discouragement? It isn’t because he’s some super saint. It isn’t because he’s ignoring reality. It is because he isn’t focused on himself – he’s focused on Jesus and focused on encouraging others – and he sees his life as part of God’s mission in the world.

First, according to what he said to the Philippians, Paul didn’t ignore his circumstances; he just saw them through the prism of the person, word, and work of Jesus. He looked at how Jesus poured himself out for others. Paul didn’t sulk down into discouragement because he was thinking Jesus and then he was able to think of others as more significant than himself – because that’s what Jesus did.

Paul wrote, “[1] So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, [2] complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. [3] Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. [4] Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. [5] Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, [6] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, [7] but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. [8] And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. [9] Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, [10] so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, [11] and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:1-11 ESV).

That’s the first part of digging out of or staying away from the pit of discouragement: thinking of Jesus and encouraging others. I mean, the very fact that Paul – who is in the midst of some crummy circumstances – can write a letter that points to Jesus and is filled with encouragement for others – a joyful letter – a letter that isn’t all woe is me – is evident that he is looking beyond himself to Jesus and to others. That, my friends, is what I think is the first step in protecting ourselves from the danger of discouragement: look to Jesus and look to build up others.

But there is probably a second step too. I think Paul also saw his life as being part of God’s mission to advance the Gospel, which meant his circumstances – no matter what they were – were also part of God’s plan and purpose. Now, you’d think that being imprisoned, wearing chains, and under constant guard would have been some sort of dead-end and major discouragement. But Paul didn’t see it that way. In fact, the way he saw things maybe something for us to consider.

Get this – Paul saw being imprisoned, in chains, and under constant guard as an opportunity to advance the Gospel. In fact, he told the Philippians, “[12] I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, [13] so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. [14] And most of the brothers and sisters, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Philippians 1:12–14).

Here are a few questions for you, have you considered that a stay-at-home order is an opportunity for you to advance God’s kingdom and purposes? Paul was imprisoned and yet he said his circumstances had “really served to advance the gospel.” In your circumstances, it is possible for you to advance the gospel – right where you are. It is also possible for you to be an encouragement for others without ever leaving your home. You can do what Paul did.

cropped-fountain-pen.jpgYou can write a letter, too. You can write to people and just tell them you are praying for them and remind that God loves them and they can best see His love for them in the person of Jesus. You can call them and tell them that. You can send them an email. You can post it on Facebook, or Twitter – or Snapchat. You too can dig out and protect yourself from discouragement by looking to Jesus and encouraging others and advancing the Gospel.

These are dangerous times indeed. But God’s people thrive in dangerous times because we understand that no matter the circumstances, God’s kingdom and the message of His deep and abiding love are on the move.

May the Lord richly bless you this day. May you remember that God loves you and He’s made that love known to you through His Son, through His Spirit, through His word, and through the fellowship we have with one another. He sends us into the world with this blessing: Now may the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face to shine upon. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you His shalom.

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