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.

Stress Test

A stress test, also called an exercise stress test, shows how your heart works during physical activity. Because exercise makes your heart pump harder and faster, an exercise stress test can reveal problems with blood flow within your heart. A stress test usually involves walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike your heart rhythm, blood pressure and breathing are monitored. Or you’ll receive a drug that mimics the effects of exercise. Whichever way it is done, the issue is how strong is your heart?

Jesus was under a lot of stress. For forty days he was in the wilderness alone, tempted by Satan. The Gospels tell us that immediately after his baptism, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tested. Whether Jesus knew what was awaiting or not, we do not know. Jesus was hungry and tired from fasting when the devil tempted Jesus to abandon God’s plan for his life and to take matters into his own hands. Three times Satan sought to derail God’s plan for Jesus’ life by tempting Jesus to choose an easier path. Yet, with each temptation, Jesus stood firm in his conviction that he would be faithful to God’s will, even if doing so would me suffering to accomplish it. 

As followers of Jesus, we too encounter the same temptation to choose other than God’s will for our lives. From the first couple in the Garden of Eden to the present, Satan tempts us to forsake God’s will for our lives and to chart our own course a part from God’s influence. More often than not, we fall for the lie, and seek to live our lives on our own terms. Yet, our track record is not too great when it comes to choosing to live apart from God. One read of a daily newspaper will remind us of the mess we make when we succumb to Satan’s message of going it alone.

This is not a one and done decision. Every day, indeed, every moment, we have to choose to live out God’s will and reject the temptation to live otherwise. When the people of Israel were about to enter The Promised Land for the very first time, Joshua challenged them in Joshua 24:14 with these words: “Choose this day whom you will serve. God will not impose his will on anyone. Each person is given the freedom to choose and make this decision on their own. Jesus would be faithful to God’s will his entire life. Indeed, Jesus is the only one to ever get it completely right. 

However, even though we daily stumble in our sinfulness, we must continue to seek to live out God’s will for our lives. Some days we will get it right and other days we will fall woefully short. Yet, even in our falling, God’s grace will continue to give us the opportunity to choose his will again. So, on the days we fall short we ask for forgiveness and try it again. The key is to never give up trying. Each moment we can decide whom we will serve. Choosing God’s way can be stressful at times, but in the long run it will make all the difference in our lives, for now and for eternity. A heart anchored in Jesus Christ will stand the stresses of living in this world with its myriad of temptations because when our hearts are in Jesus Christ, then God’s grace will flow through our veins.

It Only Takes a Spark

During this winter season, I have enjoyed starting a fire in the fireplace each evening after work. Not only for the heat, but also for the warm orange and yellow flames that seem to dance around on, under, and around the logs. Once the fire starts, I am able to keep it going throughout the night by just adding more wood. 

Several days ago, an online ZOOM meeting prevented me from adding more wood. In time, the fire I had begun died out. The fireplace grew dark. After the meeting was over, I decided not to try to start it again. However, a few hours later, the fire that had died, or at least I had thought had died, was ablaze again. It surprised me because I had just assumed that there was no life left in it. Somewhere amid the ashes there had obviously been a spark that I did not see.

During the life and ministry of Jesus, he had a way of seeing the spark in individuals that other people did not see. Over and over again in the gospels, Jesus encountered individuals who others had written off as good as dead or hopeless. Whether it was because of some sin in their lives, like the woman caught in adultery, or because of some disease such as leprosy that had left them unclean, Jesus saw beneath these ashes. Jesus knew that with God’s love these individual lives could burn brightly again. Jesus saw the possibility of new life in those that other had written off.

In our modern society, we are guilty at times of writing people off as beyond hope, helpless, worthless, and lifeless. For multiple reasons we just assume that there is really no chance for their lives to improve or be restored. With such a conclusion reached, we then just ignore them or forget about them. They are left isolated and alone in the ashes. 

As Christians, we are called to see others as Jesus saw them. We have to look beyond the ashes of other’s lives and realize that no person is beyond reigniting by the love of God. God’s love is able to fan into flames the lives we often judge as being without hope. So often, a person is just a spark away from become a burning flame alive in God’s Spirit. God’s love is able to take the darkest life and bring forth new life and light to his glory. Indeed, with God’s love, it only takes a spark.

Lane Ends, Merge Right

One of the road signs you sometimes encounter when driving your car is one which reads “left or right lane ends ahead.” Two lanes will soon become one lane. What drives me crazy is when people don’t merge until the very end. Even though the sign says merge, they go to the last possible second to move over, trying to squeeze in. If they had only merged when they first saw the sign, then they would not be in this position of having to squeeze end at the very last moment. The decision for me is, do I let them merge in front of me, or do I speed up to keep them out. Will I be gracious or not?

In the scriptures, God is described as a God of grace. In Psalm 86:15 we read, But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. While we may ignore, anger, and disappoint God, God refuses to give up on us. God does not cut us off, but God offers grace and mercy to us even in our stubborn sinfulness. While we may push a situation to the limits, and even when the lane is about to end, God’s grace is limitless. The Psalmist would also confess: “You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer. (Psalm 4:1) God makes room for us, even at the last moment. God lets us merge into His abundant love and mercy.

In the sending of God’s son, Jesus, into the world, God’s grace paved a new lane for us to come home. In Jesus, God invited us to merge over, receive his grace, experience his love, and live in his presence. No longer would we have to travel the road alone, but God came to travel with us. God’s grace opens the way for us to new life and abundant life. God doesn’t promise us the perfect life, but rather a life where we live with the assurance that God travels with us. Someone once said, “we are not on a journey to God, but we are on a journey with God.” We don’t arrive to God at the end of the road, but God is on the road with us.

Regardless of where we might be on life’s journey, we can trust that our God continues to go with us. God continues to invite us to merge into his grace and to trust him with the road before us. And even when we push life to the limits, God will always make room for those who choose to merge into him. God will not force the merge, but God, out of his grace, provides the room for us to do so ourselves. Yet, we don’t have to wait till the last moment. We can merge into God’s grace anytime.  So, what are waiting for?  God is making room for all of us to merge.

Your Final Answer

When the game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, premiered on ABC on August 16, 1999, it quickly became a hit. Television viewers across the nation tuned in each episode to see if contestants could answer 14 multiple-choice questions. If all 14 questions could be answered, then the contestant went home with one million dollars. Most contestants did not get that far. Yet, when someone did complete the challenge, everyone celebrated. 

With each question, the audience watched as the contestant talked through the four possible answers. Viewers were able to witness them ponder each choice. Sometimes they could use a “lifeline” to get help from the audience or friends or family members. Once they came to a decision, the host would ask them one last time, “Is that your final answer?” Right or wrong, they had to affirm that a decision was made.

We make a lot of decisions every day. Many are inconsequential that go unnoticed; what to wear, what to eat for breakfast, etc. We make a decision and then move on. Yet, there are those times when a decision stops us in our tracks. The decision that we make will have huge implications for our lives, such as who we marry, our occupation, where we live, etc. Such decisions are not easily made but often take time and much thought. And if you are a person of faith, it might take a lot of prayer.

In the book of Joshua, the people of Israel were preparing to enter the long awaited Promised Land. After their miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel had finally arrived at their new home. Joshua, their new leader, challenged the people as they prepared to enter. The people were entering a land where they would be tempted to follow other gods rather than the God who had delivered them. Joshua calls for the people to make a decision. In Joshua 24: 14-15, we read, “But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” This would be Joshua’s final answer. Now the people had to decide whom they would follow.

When Jesus began his earthly ministry, he called people to follow him. Jesus never forced or compelled anyone to do so. Jesus simply invited. Jesus offered an invitation and allowed people the opportunity to choose. Some like Matthew quit the work they were doing and walked off the job to follow Jesus. Like the rich young ruler, others walked away from Jesus’ invitation deciding to live his life apart from the Lord.

Each of us must give a final answer to Jesus’ invitation to follow him. Jesus calls us to step away from our lives and enter a relationship with him whereby our lives are now founded, guided, and directed by this relationship. We surrender control of our lives over to our Lord so that every decision we make in life is now made under his influence. We make decisions about our lives that will strengthen this relationship and glorify God. And while we may make our initial decision to follow Jesus, we must still decide every day whom we will serve. When we say yes to Jesus, then we enter the promised land of real life. Hence, every day we must respond to Joshua’s statement to the Israelites, “choose this day whom you will serve.” What will our answer be?

Our Daily Diet

The proverbial saying “You are what you eat “is the notion that you need to eat good food to be fit and healthy. Your daily diet of food consumption will affect your body and impact the overall health of your body. If your diet is healthy, then the assumed conclusion is that your body will be healthy. Some people can maintain a lifestyle with this philosophy, while for many, we still tend to eat things at times that we know are not good for us. For folks like this, that bag of chips or box of doughnuts are hard to pass by. Nevertheless, maintaining a healthy diet is the goal of most individuals.

However, one’s diet is not only what you eat. It is what you watch, what you listen to, what you read, who you hang out with, and the like. Like the food we consume, these outside influences have a way of shaping our lives, informing our daily living, and affecting who we are. As a people of faith and followers of Jesus, we should be mindful of what we take in daily, because these outside influences can often run contrary to the way of Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote of these concerns in his letter to the Corinthians where he stated, Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your bodies. (1 Corinthian 6: 19-20) 

When we enter into a relationship with God, our bodies become temples of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit now dwells in us and should be evident by the kind of lives we live. The more we open ourselves up to God’s Spirit in our lives, then the greater our lives will honor God. Similarly, if we continue to consume those things that are contrary to God’s will and make them a part of our daily diet, then our lives will not match the lives we confess to belong to God. 

Thus, it is vital that we daily evaluate our diet of what we bring into our lives. We should recommit ourselves to those things that honor God and rid those things that bring dishonor. This daily diet check will keep us attuned to God’s will for our lives and grow and develop our faith. By focusing on the things of God, then our lives will reflect these things to others. In Philippians 4:8, we read these words from Paul: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” We become what we take in, what we focus on, and what we live out in our daily living.  Hence, we should consider our daily diet for our relationship with God and with one another.  Are we consuming, processing, and growing in a way that honors God.  We are what we eat in more ways than one.

A Mouth Full

One of the lessons that my parents taught me was not to talk with my mouth full. When eating, I should swallow my food before beginning to speak as no one wants to see food chewed while the person is talking. Talking while eating can lead to food accidentally falling out of your mouth as you talk, which most of us would rather not see.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus speaks about our lives as being either being a good tree or a bad tree and that a person is known by the fruit in their lives. Likewise, a good tree does not bear bad fruit, and a bad tree does not bear good fruit. For Jesus, what is in a person’s heart will eventually rise to the surface of a person’s life in their words and their deeds. Thus, Jesus concludes, For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. (Luke 6:45) According to Jesus, our choice and use of words say a lot about what our hearts are full of. Simply put, words matter.

In sports, we often use the phrase “trash talking” when it comes to competition. Trash talk is defined as saying insulting things, especially to an opponent in a contest or a game. In the spirit of competition, players on opposite teams try to hype their ability or pull down their opposition’s ability. It is usually good-natured fun. The problem, however, is when trash-talking is part of our daily conversation. When we use words to degrade, humiliate, or shame another person, we reveal our hearts’ nature. Whether calling people names, using derogatory labels, or merely bad mouthing another person, such word choice demonstrates the deeper parts of who we are. Our word choice reflects our character and cannot be separated. Nor can we justify ours or someone else’s word choice by simply saying that’s just the way they talk. For as Jesus says, “our mouths speak what our hearts are full of.”

As followers of Jesus, our choice of words should demonstrate our relationship with Jesus. We cannot claim to live in a relationship with our Lord but then use hurtful words to others. In everything we say, whether in conversation, on social media, or any other outlet, we should ask ourselves, “world Jesus say it?” At times, I know that Jesus must be disappointed in the words that come from my mouth because they do not match the one who supposedly lives in my heart. Words indeed matter whether they are coming from our mouths or another. 

As a follower of Jesus, we should preface everything we say with the prayer of the psalmist who said, Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14) God’s grace should filter everything we say. And when we filter our words with God’s grace, then our words will demonstrate the nature of our hearts. Otherwise, we are just trash talking, and this is not the way of our Lord. Our words matter to God, and our words should matter to us as well.

Stable Time

We live by the clock. That is, time matters. As the clock hands turn so do our lives. Time let us know what we are supposed to be doing at any moment: it’s time to wake up, it’s lunchtime, time for work, time for my doctor’s appointment, time for my show on television, time to go to church. We make a lot of plans based on the time so when the time comes, we will know what we are to do.

There are also uncertain times in our lives. These are those moments when everything that is predictable is thrown out the window. Something happens which throws our timing off. It could be a sudden illness or death, a crisis within our families, a loss of a job, a wrecked relationship, and the like. In these moments life can descend into chaos and the very ground beneath our feet seems to be shaking. Often at these times, we are uncertain of what to do next as we are simply trying to hold on.

God knew that the time was right to send Jesus into the world at Christmas. The Apostle Paul would write in Galatians 4: 4, But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman.” God has chosen the time to enter into our world and bring peace to our troubled times. Jesus is God’s response to the uncertainty and chaos that often leads us gasping for air. In Bethlehem’s manger God offered to us “stable time.”Born in a stable for animals, God came to bring hope to our lives. The birth of Jesus is God’s way of anchoring us to his presence so that when our times are troubled and uncertain, we can trust that God is with us. 

The psalmist would write, “But I trust in you, Lord; I say, You are my God. My times are in your hands.” (Psalm 31:14-15) In Jesus, God extends His hand to us and invites us to take hold of it. God offers us His presence to us for all time. Regardless of what time it is in our lives, we can live with the assurance that God is holding us in His hands. Just as Mary and Joseph cradled the newborn Jesus in their arms, God desires to cradle us in his love and grace. There is no time now in which we are separated from our Lord. Jesus is with us all the time. Hence, we can live in stable time even when the times are uncertain. It’s Christmas time and this makes the difference for all time.

We live by the clock. That is, time matters. As the clock hands turn so do our lives. Time let us know what we are supposed to be doing at any moment: it’s time to wake up, it’s lunchtime, time for work, time for my doctor’s appointment, time for my show on television, time to go to church. We make a lot of plans based on the time so when the time comes, we will know what we are to do.

There are also uncertain times in our lives. These are those moments when everything that is predictable is thrown out the window. Something happens which throws our timing off. It could be a sudden illness or death, a crisis within our families, a loss of a job, a wrecked relationship, and the like. In these moments life can descend into chaos and the very ground beneath our feet seems to be shaking. Often at these times, we are uncertain of what to do next as we are simply trying to hold on.

God knew that the time was right to send Jesus into the world at Christmas. The Apostle Paul would write in Galatians 4: 4, But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman.” God has chosen the time to enter into our world and bring peace to our troubled times. Jesus is God’s response to the uncertainty and chaos that often leads us gasping for air. In Bethlehem’s manger God offered to us “stable time.”Born in a stable for animals, God came to bring hope to our lives. The birth of Jesus is God’s way of anchoring us to his presence so that when our times are troubled and uncertain, we can trust that God is with us. 

The psalmist would write, But I trust in you, Lord; I say, You are my God. My times are in your hands.” (Psalm 31:14-15) In Jesus, God extends His hand to us and invites us to take hold of it. God offers us His presence to us for all time. Regardless of what time it is in our lives, we can live with the assurance that God is holding us in His hands. Just as Mary and Joseph cradled the newborn Jesus in their arms, God desires to cradle us in his love and grace. There is no time now in which we are separated from our Lord. Jesus is with us all the time. Hence, we can live in stable time even when the times are uncertain. It’s Christmas time and this makes the difference for all time.

The psalmist would write, “But I trust in you, Lord; I say, You are my God. My times are in your hands.” (Psalm 31:14-15) In Jesus, God extends His hand to us and invites us to take hold of it. God offers us His presence to us for all time. Regardless of what time it is in our lives, we can live with the assurance that God is holding us in His hands. Just as Mary and Joseph cradled the newborn Jesus in their arms, God desires to cradle us in his love and grace. There is no time now in which we are separated from our Lord. Jesus is with us all the time. Hence, we can live in stable time even when the times are uncertain. It’s Christmas time and this makes the difference for all time.

Ordinary Days

In the Christmas story, as told by the Gospel of Luke, we learn of shepherds who were in the fields watching over their sheep at night when angelic messengers informed them of Jesus’s birth. When the workday began for them, I doubt any of them imagined that the day would turn out the way it did. Most of us don’t go about our daily activities, thinking today might be the day of a divine interruption. We tend to focus on the tasks at hand and not what God might be up to.

However, it just seems that God has a way of stepping into ordinary days and transforming them into something extraordinary. God is always working behind the scenes to bring about His will and purposes for our lives and our world. While we are caught up in the rhythms of day to day life, God is actively seeking to create in our lives extraordinary moments where we experience God in surprising ways. God is always stepping into our lives to awaken us to His presence.

We might not experience an angelic encounter as the shepherds did, but God makes himself known to us every day in various ways. We might encounter God in the smile of a child, the hearty laugh of a friend, a falling tear of someone we love, the orange sky of a sunrise, the melody of a song, or a silent night of contemplative thought. God is always reaching out to us to make Himself known with a message of good news, just as God did with the shepherds.

The challenge for us is, will we take time to notice these divine interruptions? The shepherds paid attention. They left the fields and their sheep and traveled to Bethlehem to see what the angels had told them about. They would not let this moment pass them by. They would extraordinarily experience God’s presence. We, too, can experience God in meaningful ways when we receive His divine interruptions with open hearts and lives. When we open ourselves up to God’s revelations, then our lives will be changed, renewed, and recreated. These shepherds would never be the same again. So, let us pay attention to those moments when God has something to share with us, and when we do, we will never be the same.

Over the Hills and Through the Woods

“Over the River and Through the Woods” was originally published in 1844 as a poem written by Lydia Maria Child. The poem was published in Child’s book of poems Flowers for ChildrenVolume 2, and was originally titled “The New-England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day.” In time, Child’s poem was set to music by an unknown composer, and over the years many children have grown up singing the song in school or community holiday programs. The familiar lyrics state, “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go. The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifted snow.” The family in the story is on their way to grandma’s house for a family gathering. Although there is drifting snow, they are willing to travel the distance.

We learn in the Gospels that Joseph and Mary traveled from the town of Nazareth to the town of Bethlehem for the Roman census. Because Joseph belonged to the line of David, Bethlehem would be where he would register for the census. This would not be an easy journey. Most scholars believe that they would have had to travel about 90 miles to the stable where Jesus was born. Mary was nine months pregnant at the time. Thus, a stressful and challenging journey was even more so. 

There are times in our lives in which our journey becomes challenging. We can find ourselves traveling through life on cruise control, when all of sudden something happens that causes our journey to become difficult. An unexpected sickness or death, a financial crisis, depression and sadness, family division, and the like can disrupt our travel plans. Life can become difficult in the blink of an eye. It is often during these times that we wonder if we can continue on. We can feel overwhelmed and exhausted.

We can only wonder what the trip was like for Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. Their lives had been turned upside down from an unexpected pregnancy. Now, they were on the road realizing that any moment a baby could be born. What did they talk about as they traveled? What was their emotional state? We simply do not have answers for these questions as the Bible does not tell us. Yet, while in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to give birth and Jesus was born. Despite the challenges and difficulties of getting there, God’s plan would be fulfilled.

In our lives, we can trust in God’s plan. While life can leave us wondering at times about the future, we can trust that God will bring us to the place we need to be. Likewise, in God’s time, God can bring forth new life and birth new hope into our lives. We do not journey alone. With each step we make, our God walks with us along the way.