## Finding God in the Equation

At some point in school, I remember learning long division in math. In math, long division is a method used for dividing large numbers into groups or parts. Long division helps in breaking the division problem into a sequence of easier steps. Just like all division problems, a large number, which is the dividend, is divided by another number, which is called the divisor, to give a result called the quotient and sometimes a remainder.

Upon seeing the problem, you know that there will be several steps to come to a final answer.  Now in today’s world, we can easily find the answer to such a math problem by simply using a calculator or asking Siri or Google for the answer.  These programs will do the work for us and just leave us with the answer.  Just like that, the problem is solved.

Life is full of problems.  However, answers are not always easy to come by.  Problems can be complex, painful, and difficult to find an answer.  We can struggle to find a resolution to the problem.  All of us have experienced those times where sleepless nights are followed by uneasy days where we are not certain how things might turn out.  These can be fearful times.  Sometimes in fear, we retreat from the problem, deny that exists, or try to change the subject.  Problems do not go away.  M. Scott Peck was an American psychiatrist and best-selling author who wrote the book The Road Less Traveled.  Peck once wrote, “Problems must be worked through or else they remain, forever a barrier to the growth and development of the spirit.”

To grow as individuals and as people we have to face our issues and problems or we end up stuck in the same place and never move forward.  These problems take thought, time, and deliberate action.  And as people of faith, we must face our problems in light of God’s love and presence.  Oswald Chambers in his classic devotional, My Utmost for His Highest, writes “All worry is caused by calculating without God.”  When we leave God out of the problems in our lives we will never come to a complete answer.  We might have an answer, but it will always end up not bringing us the resolution we desire.

Facing our problems requires faith and fortitude.  Prayer must always be accompanied by an action to help create the end result that God desires for our lives.  Prayer and action require hard work on our part.  And when we are faithful to this calling, God will guide us to the answer that we need regardless of how long it takes.  And God’s answer will always be the best answer for our lives.  As the apostle Paul would remind us in scripture, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)  God has a purpose for our lives and God is the answer for all.

## No More Tears

As long as I can remember Johnson and Johnson have advertised their Baby Shampoo as “no more tears.”  According to Johnson and Johnson, “This baby shampoo’s No More Tears formula cleanses gently and rinses easily, leaving your baby’s hair soft, shiny, manageable and clean while smelling baby-fresh.”  Having raised two children, I can remember the bath times where keeping the shampoo out of their eyes was always a goal.  As adults, we’ve all had that experience of getting shampoo in our eyes and feeling the immediate burn in our eyes.  Indeed, it can sting.

Life stings sometimes.  We learn pretty soon in life that some of our experiences can sting and cause our eyes to tear up.  The irritants are many:  sickness, death, anxiety, uncertainty, fear, failure, rejection, disappointment; just to name a few.  Life can suddenly bring us to a place where our eyes water and the tears roll.  The French Enlightenment writer Voltaire said, “Tears are the silent language of grief.”  The dictionary defines grief as “deep sorrow.”

Deep sorrow.  These two words together even seem heavy written on the page.  And when the pages of our hearts are filled with deep sorrow, the pages can be difficult to turn.  When we are stuck in some form of grief brought on by the trials of this world, we are often wonder if this is simply the sad tale of human life that has no end.

In the Book of Revelation, the apostle John, while a prisoner on the Isle of Patmos, received visions of God that recognized the pain of the present but with an eye looking to a future of hope, peace, and life.  In John’s vision of the Christian’s final destination, he recorded these words, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21: 3-4) God promises that when all is said and done that God has prepared a place for us with God where every tear will be wiped away.  There will be no more tears.  Imagine that; no more tears.

Our faith does not promise us a tearless life, but it does point us toward a tearless eternity.  This truth does not ignore the difficulties of this life but reminds us that when all is said and done there will be “no more tears.”  This is the hope we hold to when the tears of this life fall.  With this hope within us, we can then reach out to others who find themselves in deep sorrow and offer them the compassion, kindness, and presence of Jesus who wept himself when he witnessed the deep sorrow of friends.  We must be willing to step into the sorrow and pain of other people’s lives with God’s love in Jesus Christ. Sorrow can be deep, but God’s love will always be deeper.  Tears now will one day give way to a life of “no more tears.”

## Guidelines Moving Forward

We hear and read a lot about guidelines for living as we continue to live amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone has guidelines about how to return to life: schools, businesses, sports, church, etc. These guidelines are offered as a way of living that will offer the best way forward while the COVID-19 virus is still around. The list of do’s and don’ts can be quite long and detailed.

In the days of Jesus, the Jews lived under strict guidelines. While most people are familiar with the Ten Commandments, Jews also followed over 600 laws and rules from what they could eat, wear, do on the Sabbath, etc. In the Gospels, Jesus was often challenged by the religious leaders on his understanding of the law and the commandments. In Matthew 22: 34-40 we read:

“When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

For Jesus, the best way to live one’s life is by loving God and by loving others. If we focus our lives on loving God and loving those around us, then we will be truly following the way of our Lord. These commandments cannot be separated. That is, we cannot love God but then hate our neighbor. The apostle John would write in the letter that bears his name, (1 John 4:20) We don’t get to choose between the two.

Indeed, one of the best ways to see what a person’s relationship with God is like is to see how they treat others. Our words and actions toward others reveal our character as a person of faith. When we grounded in a relationship with God through Jesus, then there should be a natural flow of our relationship into the lives of others. Likewise, when we love others then we are demonstrating how much we love our Lord.

Well until there is a vaccine or cure for COVID-19 it is probably best to follow the guidelines. We don’t want to spread the virus if we can help it. And when it comes to living out our faith, we also want to follow our Lord’s guidelines, so that God’s contagious love can be shared with all people. One day the virus will be gone. God’s love, however, is eternal.

## Breaking Points

Have you ever reached your breaking point?  The dictionary defines a breaking point this way, ” the point at which a situation becomes critical.”  It is usually at our breaking points that our emotions are released as well as the physical tensions in our body.  At some point, we all reach a place where our frustrations mount to such a level that the spill out around us.

I’m not sure if people are comfortable saying that Jesus ever reached a breaking point in his life, but it does appear that divine frustration peaked when Jesus began to overturn tables in the Jerusalem Temple.  All four gospels record the dramatic event.

During the season of Passover, first-century Jews came from around the world to offer sacrifices to the Lord.  It was impossible to bring sacrificial animals over such distances, so they could be purchased in Jerusalem for a price.  Besides, the temple tax required its currency so money changers were there to carry out the transaction.  While these practices were needed then became a hot spot for sin.  Pilgrims paid exorbitant rates to change money, and sellers exploited those in poverty, overcharging for the poor man’s offerings.  To add to mix, these transactions took place in the Court of the Gentiles, the place where non-Jews came to pray.  Worship for them was nearly impossible.  While everyone was welcomed to the temple, everyone was not treated the same.

This is the scene that Jesus stepped into when he suddenly began to turn over tables and chairs as money and people went flying in every direction.  Jesus was upset.  Beyond upset, he had reached his breaking point.  For Jesus, the situation had become critical and a statement had to be made.  And indeed, the powers that were would be disturbed by Jesus’ actions.  In Mark’s Gospel, we read, “And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.” (Mark 11: 18-19)  They knew that Jesus had to be dealt with.  Silencing his voice, even if it meant killing him would be their chosen response.  It is highly unlikely that every religious leader felt this way, but perhaps their unwillingness to challenge the chief priest and their silence helped lead to Jesus’ death.

When Jesus was dying upon the cross, he looked at those who had orchestrated his death and those who were carrying out their act and prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Of all the words Jesus could have hurled down at his enemies he offered forgiveness; which is simply love and mercy combined.  Jesus was again at a breaking point as he felt his life slipping away.  But unlike the temple where angrily turned over tables, Jesus now lovingly turned the other cheek and finished his life with the same driving force that guided his entire life; love.  Jesus would say in Luke’s Gospel: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27)

Jesus knew that at the moment of his death that it was only love which could change the sin and death-filled world in which we live.  Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”  Even in Jesus’ frustration with the unjust temple practices of this day which turned a house of prayer for all people a den of thieves for some people, Jesus never stepped off his foundation of love.  Rather, he gave his life away in love for all.

## All The Lonely People

Sometimes in life, you can be in a room crowded with people, yet feel all alone.  Sometimes you can sit at a table for a meal with others, yet feel all alone.  Sometimes you can worship in your church and hear the gospel preached, yet feel all alone. Loneliness can be a difficult place to live.  Mother Teresa once wrote, “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”

Many people live in the poverty of loneliness.  They feel isolated and alone.  And while they may daily connect with other individuals, it is only on the surface.  There is a deep loneliness that they just cannot seem to break free from.  As a result, depression can settle in as loneliness closest friend and leave the individual struggling to find their way in the world.

In Psalm 102 we read:  “I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert. I lie awake and am like a sparrow alone on the housetop” (Psalm 102:6-7).  The psalmist confesses that even in the places he should feel at home, he is alone.  This individual’s struggle is played out daily in the lives of people who feel as though in a world of many, they are all by themselves.

Many experiences can bring us to these lonely times:  death and grief, sin and shame, anxiety and fear, broken relationships, and others can lead us down paths where we find ourselves wondering if we were no longer, would anybody even notice.  Would anybody miss me?  Would anybody care?  Indeed, Mother Teresa was right.  Loneliness is a terrible poverty.

The challenge becomes how do I rise out of this poverty of loneliness.  The greater poet, Maya Angelou, spoke of rising out of her loneliness.  She said, “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”  Music indeed has a way of lifting our souls from many of life’s difficult experiences.

When I reflect on my faith I realize that God is quite the songwriter.  The lyrics of scripture remind us over and over again that we are never alone.  Nowhere is this truer than in the life of Jesus.  As Jesus prepared to leave his disciples he told them, “I will pray to the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever— the Spirit of truth … I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:16–18).  Jesus didn’t say come look for him, but that he would come looking for us.

Even in our most lonely moments, God is with us.  God is our refuge.  God is our strength.  All the lonely people have the assurance of the all-encompassing love of a God who will not let us go.

## Mourn with Those Who Mourn

The apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Rome spoke about the nature of genuine love.  He said many things with respect to this in Romans 12: 9-21.  However, the one I would highlight is in verse 15 where Paul writes, “mourn with those who mourn.”  Now the dictionary defines the word mourn as to feel or express sorrow or grief or to grieve or lament for the dead.  I guess most people when they think of mourning indeed think of death.

We have had a lot of death in our world lately.  For months now our news has reminded us every day of the death count of those who succumbed to COVID-19.  Our tears were still falling for these 100,000 + individuals in our nation when we witnessed on video the death of George Floyd on the streets of Minnesota by officers of the law.  The country was shocked by what they witnessed.  People decided to protest and rightly so.  Yet, then violence crept into peaceful protest as cities struggled through the nights.  With the rise of the sun, we saw the damage left behind and the livelihoods that were lost.

In the Bible, mourning is often associated with lament. A Lamentation is a prayer for help coming out of pain and is very common in the Bible.  A quick read of the book of Psalms sees that about 1/3 of the psalms are psalms of lament.

I find myself lamenting and mourning a lot recently, especially these last several days.  Paul tells us to mourn with those who are mourning.

So, as a Christian, I mourn with those who suffer any form of racism, discrimination whether violent or not.  African Americans have suffered greatly since the foundation of our country.  I mourn for those honest police officers who take seriously the oath to serve and protect but are all labeled for something they do not condone or participate in, but rather daily seek justice for all people.  I mourn for those who lost their businesses and who were just trying to make a living.  And I even mourn for those who killed George Floyd because their lives have been so darkened by sin they did not recognize right and wrong.  I mourn for myself, my own sinfulness, my own judgmentalism, my own lack of understanding of those around me.

So, we ask heartfelt questions: “How long, O Lord? Will you utterly forget me?” (Psalm 13:2), which implies: I am at the end of my rope, and I cannot hold on much longer; and, “Why, O Lord, do you stand aloof? Why hide in times of distress?” (Psalm 10:1), which implies: “I do not understand what is going on; this makes no sense. How long? Why?” These are not requests for information, but cries of pain. (Franciscan Media)

There are a lot of hurting people in our world.  As a follower of Jesus, I am called to stand with them in their pain.  Elie Wiesel in his book Night, which tells of his experience in a Nazi concentration camp writes, “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.”   We are all mourning.  We all need one another.  And we need God to help us through mourning’s darkness.

## The Kingdom of God is at Hand

When Jesus began his public ministry, he came unified around one mission:  The Kingdom of God.  God’s Kingdom, God’s Rule, and God’s Powerful Presence had entered the world of the first century Jews and things were going to be different.  The people of Israel had been longing for a deliverer to come and rescue them from their lives under Roman rule.  Something had to give, the people had had enough, and a messianic figure like Jesus was just the person they needed.  They waited with anticipation when Jesus would make his move and once and for all defeat the hated Roman authorities.  You can almost imagine some of the Jewish population sharpening up their swords in a battle that was yet to come.  And when Jesus started flipping over tables and chairs in the Jewish temple then the fuse had been lit.  It wouldn’t be long until Jesus called out the zealots of his following to fight to the finish.

So, on the night that Jesus was arrested by armed guards, one of Jesus’ followers grabbed his sword, wildly swung it, and struck the servant of the high priest cutting off his ear.  I can imagine blood that flowed from the head of a severed ear.  Before another sword was drawn or another person injured, Jesus turned to his followers and said, “Put your sword back in its place.  For all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”  Jesus could have easily brought down the armies of heaven at his word to defend him, but instead, he remained faithful to the message of the Kingdom which said, “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, and lay down your life for your friends.”  With that, the disciples ran.  It was not the fight speech they had hoped for.

Jesus now stood alone.  The Kingdom of God stood face to face with the kingdoms of the world.  The Prince of Peace would now encounter the violence of the worldly, political kingdom of Rome.  Sham trials would turn into, real beatings, and ultimately into a violent death on a wooden cross.  Yet, through it all, Jesus remained faithful to the teaching of the Kingdom:  Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute, turn the other cheek, forgive one another, serve rather than be served, sacrifice for others, and in all things give glory to God in heaven.  For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is never about oneself, but for others. So, Jesus reminds us in Matthew’s Gospel to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and visit those in prison.  For Jesus, these actions demonstrate the King we follow and the Kingdom we live in.

The world today needs to know the message of the Kingdom of God.  As Christians and as the church we must bear witness to its teachings in our words and through our actions.  We bring for not a message of death and destruction but one life and healing.  Our world is in shambles and as the church, our witness is needed more now than ever.  Our world is confused, broken, and hurting.  We must help bear the light of Christ in these dark times.  We must be a place of hope for hopeless, a place of welcome for the weary, a place of friendship for the forgotten, a place of love for those who are hated, and a place where all who are troubled and weary can come home.

## A Long Way From Eden

In the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy and her little dog Toto found themselves in the strange land of Oz she said to her furry companion, “I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore.”  Dorothy knew that she now stood in a place that was different than her home.

When God finished creating the Garden of Eden with its first two occupants, a couple named Adam and Eve, God looked at his newly created experiment and called it very good.  It was a paradise; a place where perfect harmony existed between humanity, creation, and God.  God’s hopes and dreams had become a reality and Eden was born. Yet as the story unfolded, sin soon exploded on the scene and left a devastating trail of debris.  Eden was shattered.  Adam and Eve’s relationship was broken, humanity’s relationship with creation was broken, and God’s heart was broken as Eden was no longer what God intended it to be.  With Eden now gone, the rest of the world cascaded into brokenness as Adam and Eve’s son, Cain, killed his younger brother Abel.

When God finds Cain he questions him.  In Genesis 4 we read, “Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.”  Where humanity now stood, it was a long way from Eden.

We are so far away from Eden in our world today.  This recent days we witnessed the horrible killing of George Floyd, a black resident of Minneapolis, Minnesota.  While in custody, a white officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck until he could no longer breathe.  The brutality of his death has been acknowledged by many Americans. The sin of racism is a constant reminder that we are a long way from Eden.  Wherever individuals are mistreated, oppressed, hated, abused, and killed because of their race, their blood cries out from the ground.  We can never be the people God created us to be as long as the sin of racism is not confessed and repented of.  Only then will we be able to change.

Racism is our national sin.  The sin of slavery continues to ripple through the systems of our nation:  economic, political, judicial, religious, etc.  We must also acknowledge its presence in our own lives.  The subtle whispers of racism can still be heard in our daily living.  Tragically, it takes the death of someone like George Floyd to remind us of this again. We cannot continue down our current path.  The further we move away from God’s design for our lives, then the greater the death and destruction that will follow.

The serpent continues to lead us away from God’s goodness.  Once again it has slithered through peaceful protests of George Floyd’s death to incite more hatred and violence.  Its message is always the same, hate.  Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this.  “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love…”

As Christians and as the church we must seek to work for justice and righteousness in our land for all people.  The Kingdom of God that Jesus came proclaiming was not simply some Eden-like wonderland beyond the clouds, but a radical transformation of the world in which we live.  “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  God’s kingdom cannot come on earth as long as we are okay with some of God’s children not being able to breathe.  God’s Kingdom cannot come as long as we choose violence to respond to the struggles in our world.

I hope I can do better.  I hope that I will pay attention to the serpent of racism and hate that slithers around in my own life leading me to abandon God’s good creation.  I am my brother’s keeper; red, yellow, black, or white.  We all have a place in Eden.

## This is My Story, This is My Song

Most Christians have their favorite hymns.  Growing up in church most people are introduced to the great hymns of the faith as children; even when they are too young to understand what they are singing about.  For years as a child, I thought the classic hymn, Amazing Grace, was a song about my great Aunt Grace that lived with my grandparents.  It just made sense.  Yet, over time, these great songs of faith do begin to make sense.  Not only that, but the lyrics also have a way of shaping the very faith we believe.  In fact, a good part of a person’s Christian theology is not learned from a weekly sermon, but from the repetitive singing of hymns.  One of my favorite actors, who was also a singer, Andy Griffith said it this way, “Hymns are companions for life travelers.”

In my office is a poster I designed that is simply a list of favorite lines from hymns that are special to me:

O though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.                                                                             This is My Father’s World

Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well with my soul.                                                                           It is Well, With My Soul

Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer, than all the angels heaven can boast.                                                               Fairest Lord Jesus

Perhaps one of my favorite lines is from Fanny Crosby’s Blessed Assurance which says, “Filled with his goodness, lost in his love,”  Could there be a more blessed state that to be filled with God’s goodness and lost in God’s love?  To be filled with God’s goodness means that life finds its meaning not in the offerings of the world, but in the gift of God’s grace that fills us completely, while worldly promises leave us hungry for more.  To be lost in God’s love means that regardless of where we are in life, even when we don’t know where we are, we are still surrounded by God’s love.  Hence, both our inner lives and our outer living are sustained by God.  God’s goodness and God’s love become the theme for our lives.  This is our story, this is our song.

So, let us keep singing even when life’s journey is uncertain.  For one thing is certain, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.  This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.

## Just Breathe

In July, I will enter my 30th year as the pastor of Pine Street Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.  In some ways, it seems like yesterday until I begin to remember all the people that I have had to say goodbye to because of their deaths.  Death is part of life and is something that we all encounter.  The waves of grief eventually roll upon the shores of all of our lives.

The last few years have been some of my hardest as significant individuals in my life have passed.  For many of these individuals, I was with them as they took their last breath which is a very sacred moment.  The God who gives us life is the same God who receives us in our deaths.  I knew that at the moment of these individuals’ deaths that they were immediately in the presence of God which was reason to rejoice.  Yet, I also knew they were gone from this earth and that I would no longer see them in my life.  But at those moments I bury that grief within so as to minister to the family.  The next few days are filled with visits with the family, funeral home visitation, and then the funeral.  Yet, so often before I have time to reflect on their passing, church life moves on and me with it.

A few weeks ago, I performed the funeral of one of my closes friends at church.  He was our last WWII veteran.  He passed away at the age of 94. Because of the COVID-19 virus, the funeral was attended by one nephew, a representative of the funeral home, my daughter who videotaped the service, and myself.  It was a graveside service in the pouring rain.

A week or so later, I carried my family’s 15-year-old dog, Annie, to put her to sleep as her health had deteriorated to a point that her life had little quality to it.  My wife and two grown children told her goodbye in the car.  The COVID-19 virus also meant that I would go in alone.  I held Annie as the veterinarian did what was necessary to ease her pain and let her sleep.  She died in my arms. The rest of the day was sad.  I slept a lot when I went home as we had been up the night before with Annie.

The following day, as I drove home from church by myself, I suddenly burst into tears while crossing a bridge over the James River.  I had not cried in a while for any of the close friends I had lost in the last few years.  Annie’s death has triggered something in me that caused me to release a couple of years of stored up emotions.  Hidden grief found a way to the surface.  Finally, I felt like I could breathe.

Every breath we take in our lives is a gift of God’s grace.  Indeed, when God created humanity the Bible teaches us that God put his breath into each of us.  Without this breath we would have never been raised out of the dust that God created us from.  In the book of Job, we read his confession, “In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.” (Job 12:5) That’s why we should live in gratitude with the breath in our lives and in the lives of those whom we love.

If you are reading this today, then you have breath in your lungs.  God has gifted you with another day.  Take time now to give thanks to God for the breath that fills your lungs.  Give thanks also for those individuals, living, and breathing, who bring joy into your daily life.  And then give thanks to those who took their last breath and now breathe the clean, fresh air of eternity.  The Psalmist would confess, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:6) So, take a deep breath, give thanks to the Lord, and then go live this day for the glory of God.

## Larger Than Life

We’ve probably all heard the phrase “larger than life”  when describing an individual. If you describe someone as larger than life, you mean that they have a very strong personality and behave in a way that makes people notice them.  There can hardly be a greater compliment than to call someone “larger than life.” That is why it is usually reserved for only the most noteworthy personalities, or else its impact would be somewhat lessened.

However, it does seem sometimes that life can loom very large.  It is during these times that life seems to bear down upon us, deplete our spirits, and sends us into hiding.   In the Old Testament, we read of the story of the prophet Elijah.  When life took a scary turn for Elijah, as King Ahab and Queen Jezebel wanted him dead, Elijah headed to the hills, found a cave, and went into hiding.  When God found Elijah hiding in the cave he called for him to come outside.  We read in 1 Kings 19, God say to Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain,” the Lord replied. “I want you to see me when I pass by.” All at once, a strong wind shook the mountain and shattered the rocks. But the Lord was not in the wind. Next, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. Finally, there was a gentle breeze, and when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his coat. He went out and stood at the entrance to the cave.”  You might say that God reminded Elijah that God himself is larger than life.

This is a good message for us to be reminded of as well.  I know there are times in my own life when life looms big that I find myself wanting to escape from the pressures around me.  When life comes at you from all sides, then it can make the strongest of us tremble in our boots.  Even in faith sometimes we can feel as though our backs are up against the wall.  For many people today it feels just like this. However, we just didn’t learn this lesson becasue of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Life has already taught us this lesson.

Yet in faith, we are reminded that our God is larger than life.  In 1 John 4:4, we read, “Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”  Regardless of what we face in our lives, God is always greater.  In faith, we hold onto this truth even when everything else around us looks differently.  Life can loom large, but God is greater.  Indeed, God is larger than life.

## Softly and Tenderly

If you grew up in the Baptist Church as I did, the hymn Softly and Tenderly was sung often.  The hymn was written by Will L. Thompson in 1880.  The familiar chorus reads:  “Come home, come home, Ye who are weary come home. Earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling, Calling, “O sinner come home”  The lyrics invite us to come home to God, especially those who are weary.

Weary.  This is a word I have heard a lot lately and have experienced myself.  After many weeks of dealing with the COVID-19 virus, if you are like me you are tired and weary and ready to come home.  For me, home is how life looked before the virus threw everything into disarray.   The dictionary defines weary as feeling or showing tiredness.  Perhaps we identify with the words of William Shakespeare, “O God, O God, how weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!”  Indeed, in our world, it is easy to find ourselves sinking into despair.

Yet, it is for the tired and weary that God sent Jesus to the world to bring home.  We remember Jesus’ words from Matthew’s Gospel:  “Come to me all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”  Rest.  God is not talking about a 15-minute power nap which I sometimes take, but rather the rest that God gives to us is one of renewal and refreshment.  That is, in our weariness, God brings new life to every situation that causes us to be weary.  When we feel like giving up, this is when God steps in to renew us with His life-giving presence.  The great Trappist monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton said, “By reading the scriptures I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed around me and with me. The sky seems to be a pure, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green. The whole world is charged with the glory of God and I feel fire and music under my feet.”

When we enter into the rest that God gives us, not only is our present renewed, but our future focus becomes one of life and abundant life.  In God’s rest, we who are weary can come home.  In Psalm 68:6 we read, “God gives the desolate a home to live in.”  If you are like me, this pandemic journey is leaving me weary at times.  However, let each of us remember that God is softly and tenderly calling us home.  A home where weary souls are renewed, broken spirits healed, and empty hearts filled with divine love.

## Be Still

As a child growing up, I was not one who could sit still very long.  I needed to be moving or some part of my body moving.  So to sit beside me in church worship was a challenge for my parents.  Even today as a pastor, sitting in pulpit furniture, my legs are in motion a lot.  Ask my wife Jennifer, how many times I have kicked her sitting beside her.  Sometimes I wonder if this why God called me to preach, so I could at least be up moving during worship.

In our modern society, which is one of ongoing motion, sitting still is not always an easy accomplishment.  There is always something to do, somewhere to go, somebody to text or email.  If the COVID-19 virus has done anything good it has caused us to slow down and sometimes even sit still.  But even now, we are growing impatient with not being able to do.

In Psalm 46:10 the writer states, “Be still and know that I am God.”  Now if you read that statement as is, without the verses around it, you then have a nice bumper sticker message, or greeting card verse, or even an online devotion.  However, when you read the verse in context, Psalm 46 describes life as spinning out of control.  The psalmist describes the situation this way, “though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”  It almost reads like a tsunami of destruction and death flooding the lives of God’s people.  The writer goes on to speak about the upheaval that wars and violence cause in our world.  The overall picture is not a good one; not good at all.

Yet, nestled in right in the middle of this cosmic mess is the message, “Be still and know that I am God.”  While the world may be spinning wildly around, the scripture calls for us to be still and know God.  We can’t calm the wildness of our world, but we can with God’s help calm the uncertainty, fears, and anxieties of our hearts.  We can live in a stormy world when we anchor ourselves in God’s presence.  God can give us an inner peace not based on our surrounding circumstances but by God surrounding us with God’s love.

As Jesus prepared his disciples for his death and future departure, he said to them, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”  The peace that God gives can withstand the storms of our lives, the uncertainties of our days, and the fears that encamp around us.  With God, we can settle down in an unsettling world.

There is a lot of advice good out there in regards to COVID-19 as we face these uncertain days.  But the best advice is found right here in Psalm 46:  “Be still and know that I am God.”  The best way to face the daily unsettling news is to settle down in God’s presence and know that God is still in control.

## Following Jesus, Yet Leaving the Church Behind

Because of the COVID-19 virus, it has been 8 weeks since my church has been able to gather together for worship or anything else.  Stay at home guidelines have been followed in order to keep the virus from spreading.  While I  hate not being able to gather with my church family, I think it is the right decision.  We’ve still conducted Sunday worship.  We tape the service early in the week and then make it available online on Sundays for people who would like to worship.  The good thing about it being online is that people who don’t usually attend church are tuning in.  Yet, for anyone who has made church foundational for their life, a computer screen is nothing like the real thing of being present with others during worship.

I miss the faces of my church family.  I didn’t realize how much spiritual energy I drew from those around me until suddenly we could not be together.  The handshakes, hugs, smiles, and conversations with my church family are like food for the soul.  After eight weeks I find myself hungry for that steady diet of worship, prayer, study, fellowship, and ministry.  I’m glad that Jesus called us to be a part of the body of Christ, the church.  Following Jesus all by myself just doesn’t work for me.

Over my years of pastoring a church, I have had people tell me that they believe in Jesus, but that they really don’t need the church.  In one way this statement is true.  We don’t need Jesus plus the church to be saved.  A personal relationship with Jesus is what makes us a Christian.  We even get baptized. However, when we fail to be a part of the body of Christ and a local church, we are missing out on the kind of life that God intends for us to live.  I often tell people it is like falling in love, marrying the one you love, but then choosing not to live with the one you just married.  You are married, but you are missing out on the joy of the relationship.

When we enter into a relationship with Jesus, he invites us to be a part of his family.  When we bypass a relationship with the family of God, then we are out there on our own trying to live faithfully for Jesus.  I don’t want to be a Lone Ranger kind of Christian.  I need my church family.  Perhaps this what the writer of Hebrews meant in Hebrews 10: 24-25 – “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

The day is approaching when we will be able to join together as a church family.  I can’t wait to be back with those who bring so much joy and meaningful relationships to my life.  The people of my church family are just like me:  fellow pilgrims journeying through this world as a follower of Jesus while trying to do the best to live for him.

As a Christian, COVID-19 has reminded me that I don’t want to follow Jesus alone and how much I need and love the family that walks with me.

## A Heavy Heart

During this time of the year, it is difficult to walk into stores such as Target and Walmart and not see huge displays of gifts for Valentine’s Day.  Everything from large stuffed animals, flowers, cards, and candy.  At one recent visit, I picked up a heart shaped box of chocolates weighing 5 pounds.  I thought to myself, that is what you call a heavy heart.

A heavy heart.  So often when we use the phrase a heavy heart it is accompanied by bad news.  For example, “it is with a heavy heart that I tell you that this person has died.”  The dictionary defines heavy heart this way: “in a sad or miserable state.” Undoubtedly, everyone has suffered from a heavy heart at some point in their lives. Hearts can become heavy for lots of reasons:  grief, fear, worry, depression, pain, uncertainty, and a host of other experiences that can weigh us down.  During these times the heaviness of our heart drains our living and leaves us wondering if we will ever feel good or happy again.  Someone once said, “When the heart is heavy and the soul is down, the eyes can only speak the language of tears.”

Every day we meet individuals who may be bearing a heavy heart.  Behind the smiles we see on people’s faces, there can be lives that are hurting and burdened by something. Sometimes that person is us.  As people of faith we are called to relate to others in ways that help relieve that heaviness.  In Proverbs 12:25  we read: “Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.”  Kindness towards others should be our response to everyone we meet.  We are called to treat people with kindness so that through our kind words and acts God’s love can be shared. God is truly the only one who can lift up our hearts when the world weighs them down.

Jesus would say, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

The apostle Paul would write in his letter to the Ephesians, “Be kind and tender-hearted to one another.” (Ephesians 4:32)  May we follow Paul’s advice and live with kind and tender hearts in a heavy-hearted world.

## A Broken Nativity

During the season of Advent there is always an emergence of people’s nativity sets in people’s homes.  These nativity displays can be very simple as well as very elaborate. Some are inexpensive and others can be quite expensive.  You also see nativity sets outside during the season; wooden ones, inflatable ones, and even live ones.

In our home, we usually display a nativity set that has been handed down by family. As a result, it has been damaged over the years.  With the set, there are a couple of three-legged sheep, a donkey with one ear, only two magi, and the rest of the figurines are chipped, or the paint is no longer where it used to be.  Yet even with the defects, it is special to our family regardless of its brokenness.

In all truthfulness however, it is probably a good example of those who gathered around the new born Jesus on the first Christmas as well as all of us who worship him today.  We all come to Jesus somewhat broken, bruised, and beaten up by life.  Some of it is a result of our sinful choices while others are just experiences that we go through that can leave us damaged.

As joyous and happy the Christmas season can be for many, there are also many who are hurting.  Over the course of the last year, their lives were disrupted by sickness or death, unemployment or financial struggles, family divisions, inner depression and despair just to name a few of the things that can break us.  In fact, there are no perfect lives at a nativity other than a newborn baby in a manger.  Perhaps this is why we are drawn towards Jesus.  Jesus represents hope for lives that have been damaged by life.  The Psalmist would confess, “The Lord is near the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.”  (Psalm 24:18) In Jesus God came to us to save us, free us, heal us, and lead us into a greater story.

The nativity tells a story.  It tells the story of how God loved us so much that he gave us his son as a gift to everyone who has been broken and beaten down by life.  We are all welcome to gather around the manger child who would one day die beaten and broken so that we might not ever have to suffer alone.  The coming of Jesus is our hope in our world, even in all its brokenness.

## Coming and Going

I think most people of faith have their favorite Bible verses that they turn to often for guidance, direction, and comfort.  For different reasons, a verse stands out to us, resonates with us, and speaks to us.  We may underline or highlight the verse or commit it to memory.

Psalm 121 speaks about God’s presence and help in our lives.  It teaches us that God never dozes off like we may in a Sunday sermon. One of my favorite verses is found in the last line of Psalm 121.  The writer confesses:

The Lord will keep your going out and your coming from this time on and for evermore.

Most of life is spent coming and going.  Now we may take long trips and vacations or see the world, but most of life is journeying simply from here to there.  We leave home and go to work, school, or church.  We stop by the grocery store to pick up a few things.  A trip to the doctor or the bank may find its way on our daily calendar. And if you are like me, you enjoy walking down your driveway to check for mail at your mailbox.  Yes, we spend a lot of time coming and going.

Then there are those times in which life gets chaotic.  There is too much to do or some unexpected event sends our lives into a whirlwind.  Often in such experiences we may remark to another person, “I don’t know if I am coming or going.”  Our lives are in such a state of disruption that our sense of direction is simply off.

The good news is that in all of our coming and going that the Lord keeps us.  The word keep literally means “to guard” in the Hebrew.  Regardless of what is going in our lives God is on guard duty.  God is watching over us with eyes of love and grace. John Newton who gave to us the words to the classic hymn Amazing Grace also once wrote, “If the Lord be with us, we have no cause of fear. His eye is upon us, His arm over us, His ear open to our prayer – His grace sufficient. His promise unchangeable.”

So today in our coming and going, God is with us.  When we don’t know if we are coming or going, God is with us.  And when we are simply stuck in place, God is with us.  God is on guard duty.  We are always and forever in God’s keep.

## Wardrobe Malfunction

I can remember a time when I never heard of the phrase “wardrobe malfunction.”  It is a relatively new phrase in our modern language. A wardrobe malfunction describes a clothing failure that accidentally or perhaps intentionally exposes a person’s intimate parts. It is different from deliberate incidents of indecent exposure or public flashing. Justin Timberlake first used the term when apologizing for the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime-show controversy during the 2004 Grammy Awards. The phrase “wardrobe malfunction” was in turn used by the media to refer to the incident and entered pop culture. There was a long history of such incidents before the term was coined and it has since become a common fashion faux pas.

The worst wardrobe malfunction I ever personally experienced was at a movie theater with my family; my wife and two daughters.  The movie had not yet started.  I stood up to take off my fleece pullover because I was getting warm.  Unbeknown to me when I pulled up my pullover it also pulled up my t-shirt underneath.  So, there I stood in the middle of the theater bare chested for everyone to see.  It wasn’t a pleasant sight at least for my daughters.

Sometimes as Christians we can suffer from a wardrobe malfunction with the way we conduct our lives.  The apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians described the wardrobe of a disciple of Jesus.  Paul writesm, ”

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3: 12-15)

However, it seems as Christians and the church that we regularly suffer from wardrobe malfunctions with our faith.  Rather than displaying the characteristics that Paul described, Christians are often seen as judgmental, intolerant, unforgiving, uncompassionate, and self-righteous.  We walk through the world claiming to be followers of Jesus, but our lives don’t look anything like Jesus.  Jesus lived a life that demonstrated the kind of wardrobe Paul spoke of.  As a result, Jesus was often condemned by the religious dress code keepers of the day as being blasphemous, a friend of sinners, and even of the devil.  As a result of his living, Jesus was ultimately stripped of his physical clothing and nailed naked to a cross.  Those who sought to put Jesus to death believed that they had ended this faddish lifestyle of Jesus.  Yet, when Jesus was resurrected on Easter Sunday, he rose clothed in the glory of God that does not fade, wear out, or go out of style.

The world around us is watching what we wear as Christians.  Are our lives modeled after Jesus or something else?  Do others see Jesus in us as we live our lives?  As each day begins, we should prayerfully consider what we wear out of the house.  And at the end of the day we should consider whether or not we lived like Jesus or did we suffer from a wardrobe malfunction? Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Let us commit ourselves to following the dress code of Jesus and as we do, the world will know from whom we get our style.

## What’s The Plan?

Someone once said, “If you want to make God laugh, then tell him your plans.”  The statement suggests that our plans, even our best laid out ones, cannot see the bigger picture of our lives in the way that God does.  Our vision for our lives is so limited. We can only see our lives at street level. God sees our lives from above and from a greater vantage point.

In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet shared this truth when God spoke to him, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  Jeremiah spoke these words to the people of Israel who felt that their lives were in total chaos and where nothing was certain, and the future was one of fear.

Sometimes in our lives, life can become chaotic and uncertain when our lives are not going the way that we planned them out.  Now God does not literally laugh at our lives in such a state, but God does seek to reassure us that He is still in control and that God can see further down the road than we ever could on this side of heaven. In faith we have to trust our lives to the one who gives us life, sustains our lives, and prepares a future for our lives.  Hence, regardless of how our lives may look at any given moment; good to go or seemingly falling apart, God is working out his will. Faith is learning to trust God in every area of lives.  The writer of Hebrews offers us this wonderful promise, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  God has a plan for each person’s life.  We are not driftlessly at sea, but God knows where we are headed, and as Jeremiah said we have “a future with a hope.”

## Decision Time

If you think about our lives, we spend a great deal of our time making decisions. From the moment we wake until we go to sleep we are constantly making decisions about things.  Some decisions we are conscious about while for others we simply make a decision without much thought.  Some decisions come easy while others we might agonize over.  Sometimes we just don’t know what to do.

Former First Lady, Michelle Obama, once said, “You can’t make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen.”  Indeed, every decision carry with it some risk.  I’m not sure you can be a 100 percent about many decisions in life.  For many decisions, we weigh them out, seeking to make the best one which does not necessarily mean the easiest one.

As a people of faith, however, we approach each decision in our lives in light of our relationship with God.  As Christians, we seek God out and seek to discern what God’s will is for our lives.  Again, this is not an easy task.  One scripture that I have found helpful over the years is Proverbs 3: 5-6 which reads:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths straight.

As people of faith, we must seek God’s guidance in each decision that we must make and trust in God to show us the right path.  Letting God and allowing God to lead does not come easy for us.  Surrendering over to God our entire lives can be difficult. However, in faith we can trust that God will seek to bring about his will for everything we do in life.  When we acknowledge God’s presence then we can trust in God to show us the way.  Ultimately any decision is an act of faith as there is rarely any decision that does not come with some doubt.  We have to trust God with our fears and anxieties knowing that whatever we choose God will remain faithful.  At some point we eventually have to let go and place everything in God’s hands.  As song writer and singer Carrie Underwood would remind us, “Jesus, take the wheel.”  God has a good sense of direction.  In faith, we just need to follow.