How Can This Be?

“Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be since I am a virgin?’” (Luke 1:34)

         Life is full of questions about things that we do not understand.  Whether it is a student in school wrestling with Algebra, a stranded motorist looking under their car on the side of the road, a worried father looking over the family finances, or a grieving individual trying to come to terms with someone’s unexpected death, we spend a lot of life asking questions.  Who, what, where, when, and how are often the first word in many of our thoughts and statements.

         When Mary was told by Gabriel that she was to conceive a child in her womb, her first response was, “how can this be, since I am a virgin?”  Mary might not have known anything about algebra, but she knew basic biology.  Virgins don’t have babies.  She and Joseph had not yet sexually been together, so conception seemed impossible.  The math just did not add up.  She is left only with a question, “How can this be?”

         The process of discernment itself is filled with questions.  When you are trying to discern God’s will for your life or for your church, it might seem like you have more questions than answers about the future.  Questions that sometimes seem impossible to answer.  However, discernment by nature begins with questions. As we wrestle with God’s will for our future, there are many unknowns that must be addressed.  Answers to these unknowns do not necessarily come easy or quickly.  Discernment takes time.  Although you will have to ultimately come to some decision, rushing toward an answer can be disastrous.  Just as Mary’s pregnancy would take nine months to be fulfilled, and there would be many questions along the way, so is it in our own lives.  Discerning God’s will means sometimes waiting on the answers to be born.

Prayer:  Give us, Lord, the courage to ask the right questions and the patience for you to answer.

Conceived

And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. (Luke 1:31)

How many times have you heard someone in church say from the pulpit, “Let’s stand and sing,” and then offer a hymn number for you to join the singing?  It is an invitation to participate in the worship of God.  Although we might not be the best singers, we join voices with others to offer our praise.  We are now part of worship.

Mary would have a big part in God’s story of salvation.  The angel Gabriel tells her that she will conceive in her womb, bear a son, and name him Jesus.  The miraculous birth of Jesus would require Mary’s womb, her physical and emotional energy, and her entire life.  Mary would not be a bystander, but she would participate in God’s great work. 

When we are seeking God’s will for our individual lives or our life as a church, God invites us to participate in the process.  While seeking God’s will does require trusting in God, it also means actively seeking God’s direction through prayer, reflection, meditation, scripture, and conversation with others.  God desires to conceive in us His will rather than force us into a plan which we have no say.  God invites us into a dialogue with Himself so that we might understand what it means to be his vessel in the world. 

When we participate in God’s will, then miracles happen.  In Ephesians 3:20, the Apostle Paul writes, “Now to Him who is able to do so much more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us.” God can do wonders in and through us, and he invites us to join Him in the birth of something new.

Prayer:  Lord, help us to discern your will by actively seeking your direction for our lives in prayer, scripture, reflection, and conversation.

Do Not Be Afraid

December 3

Luke 1:30

The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

         I have always liked scary movies.  There is something about watching individuals face something they are afraid of.  It might be a monster, ghost, or some other entity that leaves them fighting for survival.  Scary movies have a lot in common, like dark rooms, screams, running from something or someone, and dire situations.  While watching such movies, I wonder how they are going to get out of the situation, for fear can cause you to react in a variety of ways.  What do we do when we are fearful?

         There is a lot of fear in the Bible.  In fact, the phrase “do not be afraid” or some form of it is used quite often by God when addressing humanity.  Whether it was Moses and the people of Israel standing before the Red Sea with Pharoah’s army chasing them down or Mary standing before the angel Gabriel, fear rises in the hearts of God’s people often.  Hence, God is often speaking words of assurance to them.  

         God knows that our world can be a scary place.  Life can turn dark in the blink of an eye and leave us shivering in fear of the darkness.  No person is immune from such experiences.  People with faith in God and people who don’t even believe in God encounter dark times.  It is a given in a broken and sinful world. Fear happens.

         Gabriel must have seen it in Mary’s eyes as he immediately tells her not to be afraid and reminds us again that she is favored.  Gabriel sought to reassure her that even though the future seemed scary, she did not need to fear this future.  She need not fear because she could step into that future believing that God was still in control.  

         We, too, step into uncertain futures.  Fearful experiences can be just over the horizon, unbeknown to us.  We never know what tomorrow might bring.  But we do know who holds our tomorrows.  Regardless of life’s fearful times, God is still upon God’s throne.  The prophet Jeremiah would remind an exiled and fearful people of this truth when he said, “For I know the plans I have for you says the Lord.  Plans for your welfare and for harm.  To give you a future and a hope.”  (Jeremiah 29:11) Mary would have a future and hope.  So do we.  Yes, there will be fearful times, and we will be afraid.  Yet through it all, God continues to remind us, “Do not be afraid.”

Prayer:  Lord, life can be scary.  Help me trust in you when I am afraid and to live not in fear but in faith as Mary did.

Perplexed

Luke 1:29

But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

Sometimes life leaves our heads spinning and stomachs turning.  Some experience or event has caught us off guard, and we are left “shell shocked.”  We don’t know if we are coming or going. Such times can seem overwhelming to us as we ponder how we can go forward.

         After Gabriel’s promise of God’s grace and presence, Mary is perplexed by his greeting.  What did it all mean?  The word perplexed in the original language means to “agitate.”  Now when I think of something agitating, I immediately think of a washing machine.  Once the clothes are loaded and the tank is filled with water, then the machine begins to agitate.  The agitator inside turns the water and the clothes while pulling the clothing down deeper into the water.  This goes on for some time until the cycle shifts, the agitation stops, and water the drains.

         I imagine Mary felt like an article of clothing in a washing machine. She is perplexed as life has suddenly begun to agitate in the most unexpected way.  Luke tells us she begins to ponder what kind of greeting she has just received.  What will it mean for her life going forward?  So many questions were now swirling around inside of her.

         We, too, sometimes find ourselves in situations where we feel as though we are tossing and turning and neck-deep in water.  How often have we agitated all night while trying to sleep because something weighed heavy on our hearts and minds?  Sleepless nights can show up anytime as we wrestle with what to do next in our lives.

         Discerning God’s will for our lives is not always clear-cut.  More often than not, we will have to do some agitating.  Biblically we might call it wrestling with God like Jacob did that night in the wilderness in the book of Genesis.  Discernment may lead us to question a lot of things, even God.  We may be entangled in doubt and fear as we seek to make sense out of our lives.  Yet, we do not need to feel guilty.  Discerning God’s will can be complicated.  The good news is that God doesn’t mind that we wrestle with him.  In fact, wrestling with God often leads to an even stronger faith. 

         Mary would need strong faith as she moved forward in God’s plan to redeem the world through her. God has a plan for our lives as well, and it takes faith to learn what that plan is.  Like Mary, we can trust that God has thought things through, even as we begin to discern what God is asking.

Prayer:  Lord, show us the way even as we find ourselves perplexed in what you are doing.

The Lord is With You

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. (Luke 1: 26-28)

When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary for the first time, it must have been an overwhelming experience.  When a divine messenger shows up on your doorstep, how do you respond?  I can imagine that Mary was stunned by such an angelic visit.  Did she look like the proverbial “deer in the headlights” as God’s messenger greeted her? Where do you even begin with such an experience?

         According to Luke, after Gabriel appears to Mary, his first words to her are, “Greetings, favored one! (notice the exclamation point) The Lord is with you.”  After the hello, Gabriel presents to Mary two profound truths:  Favored one and the Lord is with you.  Mary is addressed as a “favored one.”  The Greek word used literally means to endow with grace.  Gabriel’s first word is a blessing.  Mary is a recipient of God’s grace.  Grace would be the theme of Mary’s story.  God had chosen her and, out of God’s love, blessed her.  God’s grace is a gift.  It cannot be earned by anything we do.  God freely offers it to us.  The only other use of the word “favored” is found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where he writes, “To the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” (Ephesians 1:6) Each of us, like Mary, are living lives that have been offered God’s grace.  God knows that we cannot make it on our own.  Whether we are facing a crisis or the need for a decision to be made about our lives, God’s grace is available to us.  Whenever we seek to discern God’s will for our lives, we begin with God’s grace.  If we begin with God, then we can trust that God will show us the way.

         Not only is Mary favored by God, but Gabriel promises to her that God is with her. Mary would not journey alone as she went forward after this encounter.  God would be present with her from that moment on.  Likewise, in our lives, we can trust that God goes with us.  The meaning of the name given to Jesus of Immanuel tells us just this: “God with us.”  We do not live our lives apart from God’s presence.  We are never separated from God’s love.  Regardless of where we are on life’s journey, God will be present with us.  The infant Jesus would only lie in a manger for a brief time.  But for everyone who trusts in God’s promise, our hearts and our lives become his permanent dwelling.  Jesus makes his home in us.

         Mary still had a lot of questions for her angelic visitor, as the story will show. God’s grace would show her the way through all her doubts and fears.  We, too, can be led by God’s grace as we place our faith in Jesus.  God’s grace will always show us the way.

Prayer:  Thank you, God, for entering our lives and offering us your grace.  Your favor rests upon us, and we are truly blessed.  Amen

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.