Taste and See

Perhaps one of the strangest symptoms of the COVID 19 virus has been the loss of taste. Some people who have contracted the virus lose their ability to taste. Indeed, it would be a strange sensation to put something in your mouth, and your taste buds do not respond to what is there. Eating and drinking would lose all their pleasure. Taste is important to us.

In Psalm 34, the psalmist writes, “taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8) The psalmist invites us to taste, that is, experience God as part of our lives. It is an invitation to join our lives with God’s presence. A presence, a taste, that is good. God desires to share in his goodness. God invites us to experience a life that is full, complete, and satisfying, the good life.

Yet, it is always up to us to choose to taste that which is offered to us by God. God will not force-feed us when it comes to a relationship with God. We can accept and receive or reject and turn away from God’s invitation. In Jesus, we experience God’s goodness and life. In Jesus, we can taste the very nature of God. To know Jesus is to know God. To taste the life that Jesus offers is to experience God. In the Gospels, Jesus often compared himself to bread and water and invited people to partake of the water and the bread of life, which would satisfy our thirsts and our hunger.

In our world, as in the day of Jesus, there are many things that invite us to taste and experience them with a promise of satisfaction and fulfillment. We are offered a daily taste menu of things that promise to provide us with the life we long for, a life of wealth, pleasures, fame, power, and the like. And while they may taste wonderful to us, we soon discover that they never seem to satisfy, so we begin long for something else. This is one of the themes in the parable of the prodigal son. The wayward son traveled to a distant country to taste the good life, only to lose everything. He ended up hungering for the same slop that he now fed pigs to for a living. He now lived with a bad taste in his mouth. Yet, as the story unfolds, realizing what he had thrown away when he left his father’s house, he decides to return to perhaps find a job as one of his father’s servants. Yet, when his father sees him coming home, he greets his lost son with hugs and kisses and throws a party complete with the best food and drink of his father. The prodigal son is invited once again to taste and see the father’s goodness.

We, too, are invited to taste and see God’s goodness. However, our tasting of God is not an end. We are now called to live our lives in such a way that creates God’s good taste for those around us. When people experience us, do they taste God’s goodness? In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, he states, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13) As followers of Jesus, we are called to make the world taste better by living Jesus’s kind of life. We are called to create the kind of taste the apostle Paul wrote about in his letter to the church at Galatia: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5: 22-23) We are invited to live tasty lives.

So, “taste and see that the Lord is good.” And having tasted, then go and live a life that creates the flavor of Jesus Christ so that all might experience the goodness of God.

The Gift of Forgiveness

Trying to find a Christmas gift for someone can be challenging at times. Some people are just hard to shop for. Choosing something to give them as a gift does not come easy for various reasons. We search for what we think will be a fitting present, but even the gift we finally decide on still leaves us with uncertainty. Do they need it, will they like it, is it their style are questions we try to answer? 

During the Christmas season, when a high emphasis is placed on family and friends, fun and fellowship, and togetherness, one can often observe a tremendous amount of stress and tension regarding the people in our lives. Wherever there are relationships, you can be sure that there are also hurt feelings, misunderstandings, animosity, and bitterness. Relationships are fragile things that can easily be broken over time in our lives. People stop talking to one another, ignore one another, and speak badly about someone to others. It happens in our families, friendship circles, workplaces, and even in our churches. Hence, singing “sleep in heavenly peace” is sometimes hard to find when there is no peace with the people in our lives when the Christmas season arrives.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus states in the Sermon on the Mount, So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Jesus instructed his followers that in bringing their gifts of offering to God in worship, remember that there is a broken relationship in their lives. They should first seek to reconcile this relationship by offering and receiving forgiveness. Forgiveness is God’s way of healing relationships that become broken in our lives.  Indeed, forgiveness is the gift God offered to all of humanity because of our sin.

This Christmas, we might want to think about offering the gift of forgiveness to others in our lives and receive forgiveness when offered to us. We don’t have to begin a new year weighed down by the broken relationships in our lives.  Instead, we can realize that life is too short to continue to cling to the unforgiveness in our lives.  We can let of bitterness and animosity and replace them with the gift of forgiveness.  And when forgiveness is offered and received, only then can we genuinely sleep and live in heavenly peace. Thus, perhaps before the big gift exchange of Christmas day, we might first seek to reconcile with people in our lives so that the joy of the gift-giving season finds its real meaning. 

Picture Perfect

The perfect life. What does it look like? Every individual imagines what life would be like for them if it were perfect. Maybe they would have plenty of wealth so that questions about how to pay for anything were irrelevant. Perhaps a life without illness, not even a runny nose. The perfect life could be one where every street is easy, and obstacles and detours are not part of getting around in the world—a world without anxieties, fears, or worries. Maybe the perfect life would be one of complete happiness where sadness has no home. 

However, it doesn’t take long to live in our world to realize that no such life exists. Whereas we may have security and ease in one part of our lives, other aspects of our lives can be in complete disarray. We might not have to worry about our finances, but our health is in dire jeopardy. We might have the perfect job, but our family life is a wreck. Perfection in our world is a hard commodity to come by.

C. S. Lewis, in his classic work, The Four Loves, writes, “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” Yet, this is just where we so often seek out our happiness and our perfect life, in that which does not last forever. In life, we constantly must come to terms with our losses. People whom we love die and leave this world. Our health falters along the way. Possessions we purchase with glee and cheer soon lose their luster. Relationships become broken. People disappoint us just as we disappoint others. The picture-perfect world we hope for cannot be found in our world. And when we do think we have found it, it is only a matter of time before our picture-perfect world is broken again.

I like to think that when God created the world that indeed everything was perfect. Our relationships with God, with one another, and with all of creation were one of peace and harmony. God’s good world was offered to all as the best gift of all. Yet, we spurned the gift and the giver in time as we sought to find perfect happiness in something or someone other than God. Sin entered the picture, distorted the image, cracked the glass, and broke the frame. Our picture-perfect world was now anything but perfect.

Life is now about living in an imperfect world but trusting in a perfect God. When we anchor our ultimate happiness in God, we discover the life we have always longed for. Not the perfect life, but a life that knows that regardless of the brokenness of life, the losses we face, and even the pain we endure, God’s perfect love, grace, and presence will not falter. We can trust in God’s goodness. As we read in Isaiah 54:10 – “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you.” While our lives may seem fragmented and broken at times, God is perfect in all God’s ways. We can trust in God in an imperfect world. We can trust that God is working to restore his broken creation to its perfect state. We hope that God will ultimately bring us the promise of the book of Revelation. “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”(Revelation 21: 3-4)

Until this day arrives, however, as a people of faith, we must do our part to bring a perfect heaven into an imperfect world. We pray as Jesus taught us to pray, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” God is seeking to make all things new. We must join with God in this great calling to move us closer and closer to a picture-perfect world.  And when get there by following the ways of Jesus, of living in love, grace, mercy, kindness, generosity, patience, and the other riches of a life abiding in God.  Jesus is the perfect picture of the kind of people we are called to be in our world.

Running Low on Patience

Not everyone has had the experience of their vehicle running out of gas. We may have driven on “Empty”, but we made it to the nearest gas station to refill the tank. Some of us, however, know the feeling of your vehicle starting to putter as every drop is used up by the engine. Without the gas, you are done traveling for now. Wherever the gas tank went completely empty, that’s where you are. All you can do now is wait to find gas somehow, whether it is you walking down the road to look for a station or a kind passerby stops and helps you out. Regardless, you will have to do some waiting.

In our society, we do not often tend to do well when it comes to waiting. In our fast paced, instantaneous culture, we are not accustomed to waiting too long for anything. If the wait becomes too long, we start to run out of patience. We may be impatient with our current situation, or we may lose patience with another person. And as we have seen, when patience runs out for an individual that individual can sometimes act out in some not so positive ways. We lose our tempers and tend to “show ourselves.”

As followers of Jesus, we are called to live lives that demonstrate patience. Patience in trying situations and patience with other people. Paul, the Apostle, in his letter to the church in Corinth wrote about God’s love, “Love is patient and kind.” (1 Corinthians 13:4) Christian love models itself after God’s love with overflows with patience towards each of us. In 2 Peter 3:9 we read, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you.” God knows that we are all works in progress. Our Christian journey is about growing more and more like Jesus. It is a progressive growth that takes time and dedication. Along the way, we stumble in sin, walk away from God’s desires, and find ourselves stuck and not making any progress. If God were not patient with us, we would be in some serious trouble. Yet, because God is loving, God is willing to wait and work with us. God is patient with us because God knows that time makes a big difference.

Patience is indeed a virtue in our lives. It doesn’t always come easy for us, but it should be a daily goal to live with the kind of love that demonstrates God’s kind of patience. Patience which is loving and affirming, encouraging, and forgiving, gentle and kind. In a world that seems to lack patience, Christians must model the better way of Jesus by living and relating to others as Jesus did. Jesus always saw individuals as worthy of his time, his attentiveness, and kindness. And he did it all out of his love for God and his love for others.

When we say yes to Jesus, we say yes to all of Jesus; even those aspects of Jesus’ life that we find challenging, like living with patience, and being patient with others. When we demonstrate patience in our lives it will cause others to take note because this is not the way the world operates. Hence, our patience with others can be a powerful witness to our God who is patient with all of us. Sometimes we can find ourselves running low on patience. It is then we need to stop and be refilled with the One who is patient with us. 

Photo by ROCKETMANN TEAM on Pexels.com

Salty Talk

I am one of those individuals who salt everything I eat, often before I have even tasted it. For me, salt just makes everything taste better. Seasoned food is something most people appreciate. For those who must eat a bland diet, the food is just not the same. Seasoned food makes a big difference.

In his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul encourages these new Christians to season their speech with salt. Paul invites his readers to let their speech be gracious. The dictionary defines gracious as, “courteous, kind, and pleasant.” (Colossians 4:6) Paul realized that words mattered and that our choice of words and the tone of our words can build others up as well as tear others down. Hence, Paul challenges Christians to speak with grace.

We need grace seasoned words in our society today. So much of our speech has become toxic, poisoning the streams of our conversations. Whether discussing politics, religion, issues of the day, and the like, we often choose words that lack grace. Rather, we opt to use words that divisive, negative, and destructive. Wars of words seem to break out daily in our families, businesses, schools, governing bodies, and even in our churches. In fact, it is perhaps most disturbing in the body of Christ because it stands in stark contrast to the way of Jesus and the way he calls his followers to live. A lot of what we say as Christians is lacking in grace.

However, words seasoned with grace tend to encourage, support, build up, and offer love to those who they are spoken to. Such words can be a healing force in a world where relationships are broken in so many ways. Words that are gracious will be forgiving and will seek to speak reconciliation among people. Such words seek to build bridges and not walls and will seek to unite rather than divide. Our words have power so we must use them wisely. 

Unfortunately, in our modern society, social media has allowed us to speak in ways that we might not ever speak in open, face to face conversation. By not having to look at others in the eyes we tend to become much more careless and callous in the words we use. Or we often post someone else’s words with little thought of what the person said. We look for words that “pack a punch” rather than extend a hand. And as far as I can tell, we as Christians tend to speak much like others who claim no relationship to Jesus. It is easy to lose our way in this war of words.

We must seek, however, to allow our words to be shaped by the way of Jesus. What we speak should bear witness to the one we claim has seasoned our lives with grace. Otherwise, our words sound and taste like the rest of the world. Seasoned in grace, however, our words can be healing force in the world’s daily conversations.  

Salt shaker with large and small salt on a black background ** Note: Visible grain at 100%, best at smaller sizes

Is There Any Good News?

How often do we ask these days, “Has anyone seen my phone?” Oh, how we tend to misplace them in our homes. We go to reach for it, and it is not where we thought we left it. After a moment or two, panic can set in as we don’t know how to go about life without it right beside us. Usually, after a search, it is found. It may be found nn the couch cushion, on a counter, in the bathroom, and the list of possible locations is endless. But it all begins with a question. “Has anyone seen my phone?”

It just seems like more than not; I find myself asking another question regularly: “Has anyone seen or heard any good news?” Every day it seems that we are met with a tsunami of bad news in our world. Our local and world headlines read like a litany of bad news filled with tragic events, human suffering, sorrow and sadness, and lost hope. When you add to that your struggles, bad news events, and times of uncertainty, it leaves you wondering if there is any good news out there? You may feel like you can’t take any more bad news.

In the book of Proverbs, the writer states in Proverbs 15:30, “The light of the eyes rejoices the heart, and good news refreshes the body.”  Good news refreshes the body.  According to the writer of this scripture, good news can refresh our lives by renewing our hope and faith in God’s goodwill for the world.  God is a God of good news.  This good news is most clearly seen in God sending his only son, Jesus, into the world.  When Jesus stepped onto the human scene, he brought God’s good news with him and in him.  The Gospel of Mark begins its story of Jesus this way: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”(Mark 1:1) And when Jesus began his active ministry, he proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14) Jesus was all about good news.  Good news which can transform individual lives and ultimately the entire world.  In a world filled with bad news, God stepped in and changed the world’s narrative.

Is there any good news out there?  Yes, there is.  The good news is anchored in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s response to the bad news headlines.  In Jesus, God infuses good news back into the world and into our lives.  We can now share in that good news in such a way that our lives are transformed and made new.  This good news refreshes, revives, rekindles, reshapes, renews, and remakes us.  Bad news will not be the final headline. Jesus is and always will be the story of the day.

Once we receive this good news and begin to follow Jesus, we must now live our lives in this new reality.  We are now called to be the “good news” in other people’s lives.  Our lives should be living reflections of the good news of Christ Jesus.  Our words and deeds should be reminders for all people to see that God’s good news is greater than any bad news they might find themselves in.  God can use us as instruments of his good news to bring hope into other people’s stories.  We cannot hoard the good news that God has shared with us, but we must live it out in our lives so that all people might read the headline of every day: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”  So, is there any good news?  Hopefully, the answer is yes as we become good news in Jesus Christ for all the world to see.

His Strength is Perfect

We are bombarded daily by advertisements of products that promise to do this or that for us. Such advertisements guarantee that their product is exactly what we are looking for and it would be foolish to pass up such an offer. However, most of us know that often these products fall short of how they were first presented. If you read reviews of customers, you will often find complaints that the product did not perform as promised.

The apostle Paul had a problem of some nature that troubled him his entire life. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul calls it a “thorn in the flesh.” Scholars debate over what this thorn was but there is no consensus. What we do know, however, is that Paul prayed to God repeatedly to remove it from his life. This “thorn” had brought discomfort, pain, and anxiety into Paul’s life. His desire was to live without it. Thus, he prayed to God to take it away.

God did respond to Paul’s prayer, but God did not remove the thorn that he prayed about. Paul records God’s response to his prayers is 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” We have all worn out our knees praying to God to change a situation in our lives and make right what we feel has gone wrong. Like Paul, we know what our thorns in the flesh are that daily torment us, sometimes leaving us down and out, exhausted, and weary. At times it feels as though we are living on empty, our spiritual gas tanks are dry, and we are uncertain how much more we can take.

In response to Paul’s prayer, God offers his grace. Grace, which God promises to be sufficient for his living with the thorn. While Paul would still struggle with the thorn in his flesh, God promised to Paul His grace, power, and strength. God strength would be perfect when Paul’s strength was gone. Paul would not have to live his life dependent upon his own strength alone, but God would be present with him to strengthen him to face whatever crisis came his way.

God offers this same promise to each of us. God does not promise us problem free lives, but God does promise to be present with us in the messiness of life with his grace; grace which is sufficient for our every need. God’s strength is perfect when our strength is gone. God carries us when we feel as though we cannot carry on. God’s strength lifts us up and enables us to press forward through whatever challenges we face. We simply must trust in God’s promise. 

Messy Church

I recently watched a video on YouTube that captured small children making messes in their homes and on themselves. They had gotten into something they were not supposed to and as a result created a mess for mom or dad to clean up. Some found bags of flour and spread it all over the floors. Others got into paint and decided to self-paint their bodies. Another child found it inviting to break open all the eggs on the floor and slide around in the busted yolks. Some took sharpies and drew on themselves or another small child that was with them. Nevertheless, by the time mom or dad discovered them, the mess had already been made. Small children can create a mess especially when left unattended.

The church of Jesus can also be a messy place at times. Not so much physical messes created by children, but the messes that are often the result of broken relationships, hurt feelings, poorly worded statements, animosity, jealousy, infighting, and even division. Indeed, relationships within the family of God can become messy at times. 

The Apostle Paul, who started many of the early churches, found himself writing letters to them at times to address the messy situations that some of the congregations found themselves in. Messes like moral lapses, false theology, division among the people, a lack of love and grace, and a forgotten forgiveness. Paul had to remind the people who they were as God’s people. They were called to be communities of love and grace, encouragement and support, and faithfulness to God and to one another. They were reminded that they were to live their lives in ways which emulated Jesus. 

However, 2000 years later, the church still gets it wrong at times. The church still has a way of creating its own messes in the life of the congregation. It happens because sin has not yet lost its grip on our lives. Churches can be messy even today. Church life can quickly get out of sorts and leave the membership on edge. For some the answer is to remove oneself from the mess; pack up their bags and head out on a journey of discovery for the perfect church. Unfortunately, for those who embark of this journey, they will always be disappointed as there are no perfect churches. The other option is to live among the messes and allow God’s grace to heal, renew, and restore the body. Such an option is fueled by a desire to help make the church the best it can be despite its shortcomings. This is what Paul sought to bring about in the lives of the church he communicated with, a unity grounded in a love of God and a love for one another. 

Although we often associate the words of 1 Corinthians 13 with wedding ceremonies, the words of Paul would written for the church and its fellowship of how to live and live as God’s people. 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8 reads,

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

Indeed, God’s love is the great remedy for the messy church. Love which leads us to forgive one another, live as a community of grace, speak words of kindness, exhibit compassion, and serve one another. If we live out of these values, then the messes that come our way will be met by a love which refuses to give up on the church. God’s love will always be greater than the messy church.

Forgiveness: The Last Word

We’ve all said things that didn’t come out the right way. What we intended to say sounded perhaps insensitive, harsh, or even rude. We’ve also had things said to us that hurt our feelings, made us upset, or left us harboring ill will toward the person who said it. Yet once something is spoken, good or bad, it can bounce around like the ball in a pinball game. Words and the tone of our words have a way of getting away from us.

If a stranger speaks the words, we might easily brush them off as there is no relationship involved. However, when a friend or family member is the source of the words, relationships can be damaged. As Christians, we are not immune. Over my 30 years of pastoring, I’ve seen how we can sometimes speak to one another in the church. We might not even realize it, but our words can create rifts within church friendships, just as in the secular world. We are only human and when we walk through the church’s door, we cannot step out of our sinfulness. Thus, as individual Christians, we should always be mindful of how we speak to one another, careful in our word choice, and sensitive about the tone we speak. This is a daily discipline that we all must work on.

Likewise, we must learn to let go of the animosity or bitterness that may arise because of someone’s words to us. In Proverbs 17: 9, we read, “Love prospers when a fault is forgiven, but dwelling on it separates close friends.” (NLT) We are all faulty creatures. Our words and our deeds are still stained with our human sinfulness. As Christians, we must seek to forgive one another’s faults rather than allow them to harbor in our hearts. When unforgiveness settles into the heart, it will inevitably lead to hardness against the person who wronged us. The writer of Proverbs says, “dwelling on it separates close friends.” Broken relationships within the church prevent the church from serving as agents of reconciliation in the world. If the good news of God’s forgiveness can’t work in the church, then how can we share it with the world.

When we act to forgive, however, love prospers. Forgiveness takes work. Letting go of unforgiveness can be challenging for the best of Christians. It is so much easier to hold on to grudges, separate ourselves from one another, and not acknowledge the relationships that need fixing in our lives. Yet, Jesus challenged us to live out his kind of forgiveness in the world. The Apostle Paul would write in his letter to the Colossians, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3: 13) Forgiveness should always be the last word for us as Christians, for in the end it is the only word that really matters.

Star Light, Star Bright: Choosing our Words

If you live in the city, it can be difficult to see stars at night compared to living out in a more remote area. The reason for this condition is the city’s light pollution. Light pollution is a side effect of industrial civilization. Its sources include building exterior and interior lighting, advertising, commercial properties, offices, factories, streetlights, and illuminated sporting venues. Because urban landscapes produce such a tremendous amount of light, it affects our ability to see the light of stars in the sky. Having moved out of downtown Richmond, Virginia, to just a few miles further out from the city center, I noticed the change. I see more stars.

In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, he writes, “Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.” (Philippians 2: 14-15) Paul encourages the early Christians to “shine like stars in the world.” Paul knew that if Christians were not careful, that they could lose their light. The world which Paul described as “crooked and perverse” could suffocate their light as followers of Jesus. In this particular setting, Paul was addressing the temptation to follow a pattern of murmuring and arguing. 

We live in a society that has become accustomed to murmuring and arguing. Our conversations about a host of subjects have turned negative, mean-spirited, and polluted with a vocabulary of anger, hate, and ugliness. The problem is that we allow ourselves to be dragged into this polluted stream of conversations for many of us as Christians. This has become even more evident during these days of the pandemic. Negativity has risen to the surface like a cesspool of waste, and polluted the landscape of our relationships in families, communities, workplaces, and the church. I have been amazed at the choice of words and tone of our conversations. Rather than living as children of God, blameless and innocent, we are as guilty as anyone else of the pollution. We have forgotten the scriptures which teach us, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4: 29) We seem much more content to tear one another down rather than in building one another up.

This is not to say that there will not be disagreements among individuals in any social setting. It would be naive to think we would always agree on everything. However, as followers of Jesus, I believe our Lord expects more than we have been doing. Each one of us needs to step back and examine our choice of vocabulary and our speech patterns. Are we shining like stars in the world, or have we lost our glow? Words matter. The tone of our words matters.  What we say and how we say it can have a huge impact on those who are recipients of the words we speak.

We were all taught early on by someone to think before we speak. The word THINK has also become a popular acronym for this very thing. Before speaking or commenting on anything, we should consider:

T: Is it true?

H: Is it helpful?

I: Is it inspiring?

N: Is it necessary? 

K: Is it kind?

If it doesn’t meet this standard, then it might not be worth saying anything at all. As the psalmist would state, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” (Psalm 141:3) As followers of Jesus, God has given us the Holy Spirit to keep watch. We might all want to do better and let the Spirit do its job. If we do, we might discover there is a lot more light in the sky than we ever realized.

Happily Ever After

For a majority of fairytales, the ending is often the same, “they lived happily ever after.”As the story comes to its end, the couple now joined together in their love are swept away into a life of everlasting happiness. At least, this is how the story is told. Yet, most of us probably have concluded that this is why these stories are called “fairytales.” We know that in the real world, happily ever after is not a reality. While we may share in happy moments and days, they don’t last forever. We can go from a mountaintop peak of happiness at one moment only to find ourselves trudging through a valley of despair the next. As much as we wish for a perfect world of happiness, we realize that it just does not exist. 

Gilda Radner, one of the first cast members of Saturday Night Live, died from cancer at the early age of 43.  She provided some of the hilarious characters on the show. She once wrote, “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end.”Indeed, life can be messy at times. Life doesn’t always fall into place like we had hope. Instead, we encounter disappointments, disillusionment, and defeat.

Throughout the book of Psalms, we read the prayers of people who faced times of trial and tribulation. In these readings, we see real people facing real struggles. Some have suggested that Psalm 88 might be the saddest. It ends this way, “You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88:18) For the writer, when they considered the closes person to them, it was darkness. 

At some point in each of our lives, darkness becomes a close neighbor. It moves in next door. Soon we find ourselves struggling with the new neighbor. How long will they be with us? How long will we be with them? There are no easy answers to such questions. Darkness can linger longer than we would like. 

However, darkness is not forever after. God’s light is eternal. And God’s light shines forth with the good news of hope. Hope can dispel the darkness and bring light into our most difficult days. In John 8:12, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Jesus steps into our lives as our neighbor, our friend. Jesus is our friend in the darkness. And in our darkness, Jesus’light can lead us through and out of the darkness. It may not happen instantaneously or quickly, but it will happen. Light will ultimately have the final word. Light will finally be ever after, and true joy will follow.

Joy is different than happiness.  Happiness is often a result of external events.  Joy originates from an inner confidence of faith and trust that sees the bigger picture of God working in our lives.  The scriptures teach that the “joy of the Lord is our strength.” (Psalm 28:7)  We can live in joy, even when the external circumstances are not producing happiness.  God’s joy gives us the strength to press forward through our current situation that God will bring us to a better day.  

Living on Empty

         When the Colonial Pipeline shut down this past week because of a cyber-attack, panic buying followed.  With the possibility of running out of gas both at the local station and in your own vehicle, people quickly lined up at the pumps in an effort to not end up on empty with no place to purchase gas and fill up.  Lines grew long and tempers grew short as people sought to fill up and not end up on empty.

         An empty gas tank is one thing but feeling empty on the inside of oneself is an entirely different struggle.  Experiences and situations have a way at times of draining us of life, leaving us feeling helpless, depleted, and defeated.  During these times we lack the energy and strength to face the day with confidence.  We may retreat into hiding, attempt to cover up our true selves, or give up all together.  These can be frightening times as we know we are running on fumes.  One more setback could leave us depleted for good.

         One passage of scripture that has brought me comfort in such times in my own life is found in the book of the Prophet Isaiah.  The people of Israel had been defeated by the nation of Babylon and many of its people had been literally uprooted from the land of Israel and carried off into exile in the nation of Babylon itself.  Hope was in short supply as they felt lost, abandoned, and without any kind of future.  They were living on empty. In Isaiah 40: 28-31, the prophet speaks these words of comfort to the people: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint,and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Isaiah reminds the people that their God is an endless source of life, strength, and hope.  Even though the strongest and youngest of humanity will at times become faint and weary, God however, will not.  God is an everlasting God and there is no limited supply of his power and presence.  When we find ourselves running on empty and turn to God we have the assurance that God will be there for us.  God will never run short of mercy, love, compassion, grace, strength, hope, and life.  These attributes of God are eternal and everlasting.  

         As a result, we know that God is able to refill us over and over again in an abundant supply of Godself.  Isaiah tells us that those who wait for the Lord will be renewed in their strength and they will mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they will walk and not be faint.  To wait means to trust in hope.  We can trust that our current situation of emptiness will not be the final verdict in our lives.  As we place our faith and hope in God, God will restore us.  We will soar like eagles on the winds of God’s Spirit to new heights. 

         Sometimes I feel as though I am living on empty and running on fumes.  It is at these points that I need to be reminded that God’s power and presence will not leave me stranded by the roadside, but that God will fill me once again as I trust and hope in God.  This is God’s promise to all us when we feel as though we are living on empty.

A New Song

Have you ever gotten a song stuck in your head? For whatever reason, you find yourself singing or humming a tune over and over again throughout the day. You may be engaged in another activity, but you keep replaying the song over and over again in your head. Often, you are not even conscious that you are singing it or humming it. Such songs are often called earworms. An earworm, sometimes referred to as a brainworm, sticky music, stuck song syndrome, or, most commonly after earworms, Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI), is a catchy and/or memorable piece of music or saying that continuously occupies a person’s mind even after it is no longer being played or spoken about.

Now there are a variety of solutions suggested to remove the song that is stuck in your head, including: chewing gum, listening to the entire song to break the loop, doing a puzzle, or stop fighting it, and it will eventually fade away. However, as most would admit, it is not always easy to get the song out of your head.

In the book of Psalms, the songbook of the Bible, we read,I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.  He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord.” (Psalm 40: 1-3) The psalmist describes a difficult time in their life when the only song in their life was one of grief, sorrow, suffering, and despair. Whatever brought upon these feelings had caused the psalmist to feel stuck. At one time or another, every individual feels as though they are stuck in life in a difficult situation. Each day in this “stuckness,” we repeat the same sad song over and over in our heads. We may wonder if the melody will ever change in our lives or if we will live out this tune for the rest of our days. At times like this, we can feel hopeless. 

However, the psalmist confesses that God lifted him out of this difficult time, drew him upout of his “stuckness” and put a new song in his mouth. The sad song would give way to a song of hope and joy. The repetitive tune of despair would be broken, and God would provide the psalmist a new song to live by. As Christians, this new song of God is offered to us in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God delivered the world a new tune to live by. Rather than having a song of sin and death stuck in our heads, God offered a new tune of grace and life. Grace and life would then become the lyrics of our lives. This new melody would finally place within us the song we were created to sing. 

We don’t have to settle for the song that we are currently singing. God offers to us a new song, created in God’s own heart and sung perfectly in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the song. The song of Jesus is ultimately the one that will make a difference in our lives by healing our past, sustaining the present, and instilling in us a future with hope.

One Thing After Another

Sometimes life piles up on you. You find yourself having to deal with several difficulties or stressful situations all at once. You resolve one problem only to have it followed by something else that is just as trying or even greater than what you just went through. It seems that you have to deal with one thing after another and never seem to get a break. When you think you can relax and breathe, then, “bam,” something else sideswipes your life. You are left feeling how much more you can take.

The Apostle Paul found himself facing many trying times throughout his life. As a missionary of the Gospel, Paul encountered various situations and events in his life that press down upon him. In his letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul recounts some of these experiences:  Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a flogging. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11: 24-28) Paul had to deal with one thing after another.

We could all develop our lists of trying times: sickness, financial difficulties, relationship problems, depression, work stresses, and the like. We often find ourselves juggling more than one situation at a time. We can easily find ourselves overwhelmed. We can also sink in despair, wondering how much more than we can take. Sometimes we might feel like giving up.

Paul prayed to God to help him through these difficulties. Paul spoke of his challenges as being like a thorn in his flesh. Paul writes that from God, he heard, My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10) Paul discovered that regardless of what he was facing at any time, that God’s grace was sufficient to help him through it. God’s grace doesn’t prevent difficulties from entering our lives, but God’s grace helps us navigate through our trials with the assurance that we are not alone. And when we live with an awareness of God’s presence, then we can experience God’s peace.

So, in faith, we can face one thing after another with confidence in the one God who loves us more than any other. Thus, even in our weakest moments, God makes us strong.

He Restores My Soul

For a time period in my life, I took up the hobby of furniture restoration. I did so mainly because I had received a couple of old furniture pieces out of my grandparents’ barns after they passed. These seemingly discarded pieces of furniture were found underneath a room full of boxes and bags, and other home items. The furniture was in pretty rough condition. Also, the pieces had been painted several times over the years. Their original look was hidden beneath the paint. 

I set out to restore them. Armed with paint stripper and scrapers, I tackled the individual pieces. Tackling them is what it took. It was not easy to strip the old paint off and then scrape the parts that didn’t come off with the paint stripper. I took sandpaper to help smooth out the wood to get it back to its natural finish. It didn’t take days but weeks to complete the restoration process. However, the end result was worth the hard work, patience, and time. These pieces are now prized possessions. 

The Twenty-Third Psalm is one of the more well-known scripture passages from the Bible. Even people outside the life of the Christian faith and Jewish faith are sometimes familiar with its words. Supposedly written by King David of Israel, the words of the Psalm have brought much comfort to individuals who found themselves struggling with trials and difficulties in their own lives. Each line of the Psalm speaks of God’s tender care, and compassion toward his children as a faithful shepherd is to their sheep.

Verse 3 of the Psalm states, “He restores my soul.” God is in the business of restoration. In the book of Genesis, the creation of the first person is described in this way, “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”(Genesis 2:7) With the breath and Spirit of God within us, we were transformed from creatures of dust to living souls. With God’s breath within us, life, as we know it,, came into existence. 

Yet, as the story of humanity unfolded, sin entered into to plotline and distorted God’s good creation. In time, humanity would find itself covered in layers of sinfulness, broken and weak, worn and weary, and a far distance from the original work of the Creator. However, rather than discarding his good yet sinful creation, God sought to restore us. God would not leave us in our sinful state, but God chose to return us to his original design. It would not be an easy fix. The Bible chronicles the story of God’s restorative work, which culminated in sending his son to complete the task. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was God’s plan of restoration. Jesus returns us to where God began. The apostle Paul spoke to this when he wrote, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, and see, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) God would not leave us in our sinful condition, but God chose to restore us through Jesus. God’s grace and love would make us like new again.

God’s restoring work is also an ongoing process. Each day God works in our lives to bring out his original work. By opening ourselves up to God’s Spirit, God continues to restore us. We are all a work in progress. And on this side of heaven, there will always be work to do. But in the end, it will be worth it all.

You Who Are Weary Come Home

The classic hymn, Softly and Tenderly, is sung often in Christian worship. In 1880 William L. Thompson penned the lyrics that have spoken to so many people over the years. The chorus says,Come home, come home; you who are weary come home; earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling, O sinner, come home!” In the Protestant revival tradition, this song is often recognized as an invitational hymn – a congregational hymn at the conclusion of the service that focused on those attending who may be called by the Holy Spirit to make either a profession of faith or a recommitment of one’s life.  Jesus invites those who are weary to come home.

We all get weary at times. It is impossible not to in the world in which we live. We are daily bombarded with situations, events, and experiences that can wear us down. These experiences may be family, work, friends, health, or financially related. The stress of these times can take a toll on us. We may feel so overwhelmed that we are unsure if we have the strength to keep going. 

Anne Brontë was an English novelist and poet and the youngest member of the Brontëliterary family. She was the daughter of Patrick Brontë, a poor Irish clergyman in the Church of England. Anne lived most of her life with her family at the parish of Haworth on the Yorkshire moors. Bronte once wrote, “Oh, I am very weary, though tears no longer flow; my eyes are tired of weeping. My heart is sick of woe.”The Psalmist writes a similar thought in Psalm 6:6: “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.”  Both statements describe weariness. 

What do we do in these times? Where do we go? The hymn offers us an invitation: come home. But where is home? Home is not a physical place but a loving presence, the presence of Christ Jesus. Jesus himself would say, “Come to me all who are weary and carrying heaven burdens and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) Jesus invites us in all our weariness to find rest in him. This rest is not an escape from the trials and struggles of life, nor a sugar coating of them, but an inner peace that allows us to face them in the strength of the Lord. The Apostle Paul, who found himself weary more than once, wrote, My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10) In our weariness, we rest not on our strength, but the Lord who is our strength.

We can all come home. In our weariness, we find a home in our Lord’s presence. God offers us his rest. We don’t have to carry the burdens of our lives all by ourselves. Our Lord is ready to take them upon himself and ready to receive us into his arms. We who are weary can come home.

Are We There Yet?

Most parents have heard the chorus rise from the back seat of their car when traveling with children, “Are we there yet?” Often children are eager to get to their destination as merely sitting and riding in a car for any length of time can feel like an eternity for them. Parents try to respond the best they can, saying things such as “not too much longer, we’re getting closer, or just a few more minutes,” even though none of their responses may be right. And if it is a long journey, mom and dad might have to become smart with their answers.

Sometimes as a preacher, people will say to me, “I wish I had your faith.” After years of hearing me preach a sermon each Sunday, they assume I have it all together when it comes to following Jesus, as though I have somehow arrived. Well, in all honesty, I’m still wandering and trying to figure it out myself. Each day I stumble over my sin, doubt, and fears regarding living in the world. I still have many more questions than answers. And while I may preach behind a large, sturdy, wooden pulpit each week, my faith is often shaky and uncertain. Am I there yet? Sometimes, I’m not even sure where there is.

To be honest, I am always somewhat skeptical of pulpits where the preacher seems to have all the answers, life is perfectly clear, doubts are a distant memory, and life makes complete sense. If faith is presented as all neat and tight and polished, I often wonder what I am not hearing. Truth be told, most of us realize that the faith journey is not a walk in the park but more like trudging through a swamp. Sometimes we get stuck and even sucked under. 

Perhaps the best-known Christian and preacher in the first century was the Apostle Paul. He traveled everywhere proclaiming the Gospel, wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else, was influential in early church decisions, and is credited with bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles. If you think about it, that’s pretty impressive. Yet, Paul knew, even with this resume, he had not arrived. Paul still wrestled with sin, claiming that even when he knew what the right thing to do was, he still chose sin. (Romans 7:15) And when he wrote to the church at Philippi, Paul confessed, Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. “Paul knew that he had not arrived but that he had to keep moving forward despite his failures, doubts, and fears.

Indeed, we are all wandering when it comes to our faith. None of us are where we need to be. We still wrestle with sin, give in to fear, and allow doubt to take hold of us. This does not mean that we are not good Christians; it just means that we are honest about our journey. We don’t have to have all the answers to feel that we are somehow a successful Christian. Instead, we acknowledge our shortcomings and then encourage one another along the way. Are we there yet? Not hardly. Will we get there? Yes. But it takes time, a lifetime. Nevertheless, we keep pressing on to the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Leaving Your Nets Behind

We’ve all probably had the experience of traveling away from home but leaving something behind that we meant to bring with us. It might be something as simple as your toothbrush, which can easily be replaced. It could be something much more significant, like leaving your passport behind when you are already at the airport preparing to leave for an international flight. Somethings you cannot leave behind. 

In the Gospels, we read the accounts of Jesus calling his first disciples. Some of Jesus’ followers were fishermen. In Matthew 4: 18-20 we read the calling of two brothers, Simon and Andrew: “As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. Immediately they left their nets and followed him. According to the Gospels, Simon and Andrew, upon hearing Jesus’ invitation to follow him, dropped their nets and immediately followed him. If we are to take these accounts at face value, Simon and Andrew dropped everything to follow Jesus: their livelihoods, their relationships with coworkers and family, and any sense of security. They seemed to leave everything behind.

Jesus still calls us to follow him in a life of discipleship. However, except missionaries who may travel to a foreign country, most of us are not walking away from everything in our lives when following Jesus. Yet, we are called to drop our nets and leave them behind. Now, these nets can symbolize anything that might get in the way of our commitment to Jesus Christ. We might have to leave behind certain attitudes or behaviors. For example, we can’t say yes to Jesus but then keep on living with prejudices about others who might be different than us. We can’t say yes to Jesus and continue riding the gossip train at work. We can’t say yes to Jesus and continue an addiction that is harmful to ourselves and others. No, when we follow Jesus, we have to leave our nets behind.

In inviting us to follow him, Jesus calls for us to make him first in our lives. We cannot regulate Jesus to a distant place in our lives and remain faithful to our calling. Nor can we continue to live in unrepentant sin or continue in sinful behaviors. Our nets must be dropped. While this is not always easy, it is the commitment we make to follow Jesus. Trying to follow Jesus and holding on to our nets can create a mess. The Apostle Paul addressed this issue in his letter to the Romans when he wrote, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Romans 12:1-2) Our sin can easily entangle us, hinder our Christian walk, and drag us down. Holding onto sin can only bring grief and sorrow. 

Dropping our nets must also be an everyday action. Each day we will be tempted to compromise our Christian walk by keeping our nets with us. Each morning as we begin a new day, we must seek to leave our nets behind. We all need to confess our sins daily so that Jesus can cleanse us and restore us. Otherwise, we stay entangled in our sin, and we stumble in our sinfulness. Yet, God’s grace is there to help us. We can’t leave our nets behind without God’s grace. Grace enables us to move freely as a follower of Jesus. 

We can still exchange our nets for God’s grace. And when God’s grace wraps itself around us, we discover a life that only God could give. 

Breaking News

It just seems that a day doesn’t go by that we don’t hear about breaking news. Whether it is the cable news on television, a report on the radio, or an alert on your smartphone, our lives are interrupted by some kind of breaking news. Breaking news is an old concept, codified by the Associated Press in 1906 when the wire wanted to designate “news of transcendent importance.” The AP used the term “FLASH.” Other news-breakers used “bulletin,” “alert.” Regardless of the term used, the news interrupts the present moment. 

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus begins his ministry with breaking news. In Mark 1:14-15 we read, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” When Jesus stepped onto the scene, he came bringing news that interrupted the daily narrative of the world. The narrative prior to Jesus was one of a broken world. Since the beginning, when sin entered the picture, the story of creation was one of sinfulness and death. It wasn’t that people were not happy, but there was a deeper brokenness beneath the surface of people’s lives. This brokenness had affected every part of creation: creation’s relationship to God and humanity’s relationship to one another. The good news of God’s original creation had been shattered by human sin. That was the story of the day.

Jesus called the people to repent and believe in the good news. Jesus’ call to repent was an invitation for us to turn away from our sin and back to God. Sin in its essence pulls us away from God and in a different direction than God desires. The words from the classic hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, echo this truth in its lyrics, “prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” We seem to simply be bent towards sin. Repentance is bending ourselves back in the right direction. While we must choose to allow this turning to take place, we cannot make that change without God’s grace. Knowing that we are accepted by God even in our sin, allows this turning to occur. Thus, we don’t have to run away from God, but we can run towards God.

This is why Jesus called us to also believe in this good news. Jesus came offering a narrative for our lives, not written in sin, but in grace; grace which accepts us, restores us, and loves us. This news shatters the previous headlines that dominated the world news. We who are prone to wander can return to God. Each of us as prodigal children can come home. We simply have to decide to return. This is the breaking news that can change us forever. May we not only hear it, but may we receive it. And in receiving this good news, we can live a new story.  That’s breaking news.

Going the Distance

Sometimes in our lives we embark on some kind of endeavor, but we just cannot finish it. For whatever reason, we run out of energy and are just too weary and tired to keep moving forward. We might throw in the proverbial “towel” and call it quits. Just as a boxer might try to go all ten rounds, the fight takes its toll, and the boxer’s manager indeed throws a towel into the rink saying, “no more.” What we might start in life, we don’t always finish. We just can’t go the distance.

Scholars believe that the ministry of Jesus lasted around three years. From his first sermon in Nazareth to his crucifixion on the cross, these three years were packed with highs and lows for Jesus and his disciples. There were miracles, healings, preaching, teaching as well as confrontation and strife among his followers, and exhausting episodes of intense ministry. Jesus, just as human as any of us, knew what it was like to be physically and emotionally tired at times. Yet, even with these same human limitations, Jesus persevered to the end.

In the Gospel of John, we encounter Jesus at the end of his public ministry with a short time before he will be crucified. The setting is the Last Supper. Jesus had gathered with his disciples for one last meal together. John 13: 1 states, Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. With the cross before him, John remarks that Jesus loved his disciples to the end. Throughout his three years with his disciples Jesus never wavered in his love for them. Even though there would be times in which they would disappoint and frustrate Jesus, he never stopped loving them. Rather, he would love them to the end.

This same truth can be spoken into each of our lives. Like the disciples, we live imperfect lives when it comes to our commitment to follow Jesus. We let Jesus down, disappoint him, and frustrate him just like the original twelve. Yet, Jesus never stops loving us. We can trust that even in our greatest failures as followers of Jesus, his love will always triumph. There is nothing that we can do that will make Jesus love us less. Even when we spurn his love, Jesus will give his love to us. Jesus’ love of you and me is not conditioned by anything we do or don’t do. Jesus simply loves us.

This is what makes the Gospel good news. In a world, where love is often conditioned by our actions, God’s unconditional love meets us where we are. The disciples gathered around Jesus had a mixed record when it came to their faithfulness to him. And in the coming days as Jesus would be arrested, crucified, and buried, they would continue to fail him. Yet, even then, Jesus would love them to end. God’s love will always go the distance. God’s love will never run out of energy for us, but God will be loving us until the end.