Stay Within the Margins

I remember in school, especially the early years when I was learning to write that it was important to stay in the margins on the notebook paper.  I don’t know if I understood what the word “margins” meant, but I did recognize I was not supposed to write past the vertical lines that went down the side of the paper.  Sometimes these lines were even a different color than the lines you wrote on.  I didn’t question it because that was the rule.  Somebody knew better than me so I didn’t cross the margin lines.

As I grew up older into my days of youth, I also learned there were margins in life that I shouldn’t cross as they could be places of trouble and danger.  Thus, there were parts of downtown that I should avoid and certain kinds of people who could be dangerous.  There were no red lines painted across town as warnings, but I had been conditioned to know where the margins were and to stay safely behind them.  Some places and some people simply could not be trusted.  Margins kept me in my place and others in their place.

In the days of Jesus, margins had been established in the Jewish religion that were there to keep you right with God and keep you from getting involved with those who might somehow affect your relationship with God.  So there were margins.  Margins between Jews and Gentiles, men and women, clean and unclean, healthy and infirmed, righteous and sinners.  These clear distinctions were there to guide you as you journeyed through your life.

But then Jesus showed up and didn’t pay attention to the margins.  Now Jesus knew the margins that existed, he just refused to write the story of his life within the margins.  As a result, Jesus crossed the margins and entered into encounters with women, Gentiles, the sick, the unclean, and even the sinners as they had been labeled.  Jesus simply disregarded the historical markers that had been set up over generations.  And as we can imagine, not everybody was happy with Jesus, but especially those who sought to maintain the margins.  Thus, Jesus was constantly condemned for going to the wrong places and hanging out with the wrong people.  Didn’t Jesus know that if he lived outside the margins then it meant he was saying that those people on the other side of the margins were equal to those who stayed on the right side of the margins?  Jesus’ answer was yes.  That is exactly what he was saying.

For Jesus, in the Kingdom of God, there are no margins or boundaries or borders that separate people into categories of worth and value.  Rather, Jesus saw the infinite worth of every individual even those who had been written off by society.  Jesus would not live within the margins because he knew that God’s love had no margins.  God’s love could not be sectioned off like a city block.  Rather God’s love was lavish and flowed in every direction.  Every person mattered to Jesus.  But he also knew that some lives didn’t matter as much in his day, and as a result, he stepped beyond the margins to where the forgotten and ignored had been left for so long.  And when those inside the margins began to say, “what about us” Jesus responded, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (Matthew 9: 12).  Like a medic on the battlefield, Jesus saw the greatest need and that is where he went.  Those on the margins needed a friend and the good news of God’s love right then, right there.

God invites us to live outside the margins of our world.  It is so easy to grow comfortable and complacent in the safety of the margins with others just like ourselves.  It is easy to think that if those people on the other side of the margins would just get their lives together they would be welcomed where we are.  This is not the way of Jesus nor should it be the way of his followers.  Like Jesus, we are called to cross the margins, work to remove the boundaries that have been there so long, and offer God’s love and grace to all people.

Unlike teachers who checked our papers to see if we stayed within the margins and graded us accordingly when we stand before God at the judgment, God will not look for a nice, tidy, safe life story, but a story that was willing to be lived outside the margins where the greatest needs were.  For when we minister to the “least of these” we will have ministered unto Jesus himself.  (Matthew 25: 40)  I am guilty at times of staying safe behind the margins.  However, I pray every day that God will give me a greater vision to see the world as God sees it; a wide-open world where there are no margins, but only people to be loved.

 

 

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My Kingdom Come

At times in my life, I have thought to myself, “I just wish Jesus would do what I want him to do.”  Most of us as followers of Jesus struggle between living in the Kingdom of God and our kingdoms.  It seems we can do our best at times trying to get God to do what we think is best, or as Frank Sinatra might sing, “My Way.”  Although we pray as Christians in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,” we often do so as long as God’s way doesn’t interfere with what we know best.

On the night when Jesus was arrested in the garden, we are told in Matthew’s Gospel that one of Jesus’ disciples drew his sword, swung wildly at Jesus’ enemies, and cut off the ear of a servant.  Immediately Jesus responded in what had to be a tense situation.  In Matthew 26: 52-54 we read, “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”  Jesus’ disciple was eager to take control of the situation, make his move, dictate the action, and bring about his desired result.  This disciple had a plan, Jesus just needed to get on board.

We all have plans for our lives.  We all think we know what is best.  I know that I am quick to act, much like the disciple, sword drawn, and make my will be done.  Hopefully, Jesus will get the “point” and join me in what I know for sure is the best way forward.  “Just follow me Jesus and I’ll show you the way.”

We live in a tension between the Kingdom of God and our futile attempts to take charge, call the shots, and carry out our plans.  Jesus calls us back to himself at such times.  This is what Jesus did with his disciple.  Jesus commands his disciple to put away his sword.  Jesus also tells him that he can do the very thing the disciple wanted to do by calling down twelve legions of angels.  Instead, Jesus tells the disciple that the scriptures will be fulfilled and must happen in this way.  Jesus had submitted to living out God’s will even when there might have been an easier way.  Jesus had early on surrendered to God’s will and Jesus would be faithful to God’s Kingdom.

Every day we must surrender to God’s will.  It is a challenge as our kingdoms will always want to take charge.  But as Jesus told the disciple, we must trust in God’s will and way.  In Proverbs 3: 5-6 we read, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”  We have to trust in the way of God’s Kingdom.  Even when we are tempted to take over, we must let go and trust in the One who is Lord over all things.  God’s way will always be better than my way.  I just have to put my Kingdom away and trust that God is up to the task of leading the way forward.

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A New Normal: It’s Not Just About Me

As we now find ourselves several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, hopefully, we have learned some lessons along the way.  With the world turned upside down, our lives altered, and uncertainty the daily norm, these days have been fertile ground for growth in our lives.  What have we realized about ourselves, others, and life in the midst of a global pandemic?  What insights do we have now that perhaps we didn’t consider much prior to everything?

One of the lessons that I have learned or at least have been reminded of is how we are all interconnected.  Our actions and behaviors affect other people’s lives.  With the COVID virus being so contagious how we live can have huge implications on other people.  Hence, through it all, I have chosen to wear a mask and do my best to practice social distancing in order to protect those around me; family, friends, and strangers.  While there are some who feel as though things like “wearing a mask” is some kind of a violation of their freedom, I see it as an act of compassion toward others.  If my doing something might benefit another person, it just seems that it is the right thing to do.  This is especially true as followers of Jesus who taught us that loving our neighbor was one of the greatest commandments.  The apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi would speak to us of this truth when he wrote, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2: 3-4) Paul simply reminded us that we are called to live lives that place the interests and needs of others above ourselves.  In fact, as Christians, we shouldn’t even need government authorities to ask us to do it; we should have already been leading by example.  I wear a mask during these days because Jesus would have worn a mask.

Mr. Rogers, who knew a little about being a good neighbor, once said, “The underlying message of the Neighborhood is that if somebody cares about you, it’s possible that you’ll care about others. ‘You are special, and so is your neighbor’ – that part is essential: that you’re not the only special person in the world. The person you happen to be with at the moment is loved, too.”  COVID-19 has reminded me that I’m not the only person in my neighborhood.  As Christians, we have a responsibility to those around us, not just because our government instructs us, but because our Lord has already told us the way to live in this world: love one another.

Hopefully, when all is said and done with COVID-19, we will not forget the lessons that we have learned and live our lives spreading a little more love to those around us and considering the needs of others before our own.  That’s the kind of living that makes a difference in the world every day.  Or as Albert Einstein would say, “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”  Maybe this will be the new normal.

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Finding Peace in the Pieces

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Sometimes life falls apart.  Yet, you did not need me to tell you this.  We have all had those experiences which cause life to become broken; a death with its grief, sickness, unemployment, family division, depression, and disappointment which only begin the list of such things that can shatter a life.  We can suddenly find ourselves standing over the pieces of our broken lives wondering how we can ever begin to put it back together.

When life leaves us standing in the rubble it is easy for despair to settle into our hearts.  Hopelessness can find fertile soil to grow during these times and bitterness can harden our hearts.  The question becomes then how can we keep from surrendering to hopelessness and giving into bitterness?  How can we find peace in the broken pieces of our lives?  The great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen said it this way,

Our life is full of brokenness – broken relationships, broken promises, broken expectations. How can we live with that brokenness without becoming bitter and resentful except by returning again and again to God’s faithful presence in our lives?

The key to finding peace in the pieces is to realize that God stands in the pieces with us.  God does not scatter when we shatter, but rather God remains with us no matter what our situation looks like.  God never tosses in the towel or considers it hopeless but God can take our broken pieces and bring forth something new.  Trusting then in God allows us to have peace even in the pieces of brokenness.  The prophet Isaiah would confess, “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast because they trust in you.”  (Isaiah 26:3)  When we keep our minds focused on God, even in the messiness of life, we can be grounded in the message of God’s peace.

As Jesus prepared to leave his disciples, he realized that they were troubled about what their future looked like.  Thus, in John’s Gospel Jesus tells his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)  The future seems uncertain most days for most people as we wonder what tomorrow holds.  In faith, we hold on to God’s peace, or rather it holds on to us and reminds us that we are not alone.  Indeed, life sometimes falls to pieces.  God, however, never does.  God’s peace is solid, unbreakable, and eternal.  God’s peace can always be found in life’s broken pieces.

End Road Work: Journeying with Jesus

You’re driving down the road when suddenly you see the orange sign which reads, “Road Work Ahead.”  At that moment you realize your journey is about to change.  You will have to slow down your speed, perhaps merge into one lane, drive on a rough road, or even come to a complete standstill.  The next part of your journey will be guided by orange cones and barrels that direct you.  However, eventually, you will see the final orange sign that says, “End Road Work.”  Your traveling will return to how you began.

Our lives are often described as a journey.  From the moment we are born to our last breath on this earth we are on a journey through life.  Where life takes us, we do not know.  What our journey will be like is an unknown and each day can bring totally different experiences; some good and some not so good.  Life is a journey.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  Journeys begin and journeys end.  It is the in-between time that our lives are lived.  It is during this journey that we are shaped, molded, and develop as individuals.  How we will look at the end of the journey only God knows.

Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi states, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6) As followers of Jesus, God is always shaping us into persons that reflect his son.  Paul would also write in his letter to the Corinthians, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18) In our journey with God, God is working to bring us to the place we need to be and to become the people God desires.  And God’s desire is that we look and live like Jesus.  It is, indeed, the journey of a lifetime that only finds its completion when we went enter into God’s heaven.                                                                      end-road-work-construction-works-260nw-1429712777

That is where the sign will say, “End Road Work” or as Jesus promised, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25:21)

The joy of our Lord is our ultimate destination.  It will be a joy that has no end and where we will experience the reward of a life journeying with our Lord.  But until that time, God is working on us.  Even when the journey is difficult, we can have faith and assurance that God is still in control.  One step at a time, this is what God asks of us.  In each moment and in each experience let God take the lead.  And when God takes the lead, we can make the journey because it is in God’s hands.

 

 

Words Matter

Research shows the average person speaks at least 7,000 words a day, with many speaking much more than that.  And most of the time, we don’t think about the words that come out of our mouths.  They are just part of our daily conversations.  However, there are also those times in which we are reminded to choose our words carefully.  Words can make a difference in others as well as ourselves.  Words can heal and words can hurt.  Words can build up and words can tear down.  Words can bring hope as well as communicate despair. There is power in the spoken word.

The words we choose to use often reveal much about who we are.  In Matthew 12:34 Jesus says, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”  What Jesus meant is that often the words we choose to use are a good indicator of what our hearts look like.  If we use words that are hateful, demeaning, judgmental, or just plain ugly, then they come forth from hearts that are the same.  The words we speak often reveal our character.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to love Jesus with all our hearts.  As a result, our relationship with Jesus should be the source of the words we choose.  We can’t claim Jesus as Lord of our hearts while still spewing words that speak the opposite.  The Apostle Paul would write, “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)  Our words are called to give grace to others.  Graceful words which seek to build others up, not tear them down.  Words that lift people’s spirits, not drag them down.  Words with affirm the worth of persons, and not degrades them.  Graceful words demonstrate hearts that have surrendered to Jesus Christ.  Thus, excusing the negativity that some people speak as “oh, that’s just the way they are” is not a valid excuse.  This is especially true for those who follow Jesus.

Hence, in everything we speak we should ask ourselves, “would Jesus say it?”  If we ask that question before we speak, then some of our words and conversations might look a lot different.  I wish that I could confess that I have always chosen the words that would please my Lord.  My sin still seems to control my tongue sometimes.  Yet, every day I pray that my words may be acceptable to my Lord.

My words matter.  Your words matter.  The words we choose to use reveal something about where our hearts are.  May we all be better at choosing our words, whether spoken or posted on social media.  May our words be saturated with God’s grace so when we speak others experience this grace.  There’s already enough garbage spoken in the world, let us commit to speak grace.

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Finding God in the Equation

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

No More Tears

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

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

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

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

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

 

Guidelines Moving Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking Points

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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All The Lonely People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Mourn with Those Who Mourn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Kingdom of God is at Hand

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

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

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

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

 

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A Long Way From Eden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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This is My Story, This is My Song

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

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

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

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Photo by franpics on Pexels.com‘s World.

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

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

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

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

 

Just Breathe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Larger Than Life

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

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

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

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Photo by Marius Venter on Pexels.com

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

Softly and Tenderly

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

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

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

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

 

Be Still

As a child growing up, I was not one who could sit still very long.  I needed to be moving or some part of my body moving.  So to sit beside me in church worship wasScreen-Shot-2019-05-31-at-5.14.43-PM a challenge for my parents.  Even today as a pastor, sitting in pulpit furniture, my legs are in motion a lot.  Ask my wife Jennifer, how many times I have kicked her sitting beside her.  Sometimes I wonder if this why God called me to preach, so I could at least be up moving during worship.

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

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

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

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

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

Following Jesus, Yet Leaving the Church Behind

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

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

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

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

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

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