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Falling Away from the Faith Once Received

I recently learned that a church I formerly pastored has issued a new policy statement wherein the body said its unity was not based on an “adherence to a particular set of doctrinal beliefs.” They’ve chosen, instead, to embrace “a broad diversity” of opinions on scriptural interpretation and have expunged their Statement of Beliefs from their website. I continue to hear stories of other churches capitulating to the culture, embracing that which is not of God, and falling away from the faith once received. Heartbreaking devolution.

An article on Open the Bible succinctly delineates why sound doctrine is so important…”Sound doctrine will reflect God’s intent for His Word. It will judge the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12); be useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16); thoroughly equip us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17); be a lamp for our feet and a light for our path (Psalm 119:105); keep us on the path of purity (Psalm 119:9); give understanding to the simple (Psalm 119:130); and grow our salvation (1 Peter 2:2). Paul speaks of and warns about unsound doctrine in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, which says, ‘For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.’

“But, does it really matter what we believe as long as we believe in Jesus Christ? The quick answer: Yes. Because our faith is based on an incredibly specific message, modifying or distorting it can have detrimental and eternal impact. The gospel is the basis for our salvation, therefore we need to ‘watch [our] life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers’ (1 Timothy 4:16). Essentially what Paul is urging here is, ‘If you don’t pay attention to your life or what doctrine says, you will lose yourself and anyone who hears what you say.’

“Consider this generation of media overload coming at us left and right. Perhaps now, more than ever, we must watch carefully for doctrine that scratches ‘itching ears.’ Scripture warns that many false prophets have gone into the world (1 John 4:1) and are inevitable, so it’s critical to understand what false doctrine looks like and how we can respond.”

https://www.christianpost.com/news/third-of-evangelical-pastors-say-people-can-get-heaven-just-by-being-good.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=facebook&fbclid=IwAR2VMyndMV12Skw4UKU45LMlCYc9KzoTgVSQj3YbrilAtzIs_8p0Py0aAq0

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Against Liberal Theology

Delighted to wake this day to a request to review this book for the Africanus Journal. As must be clearly evident from many of my posts, Progressive Christianity is currently one of my greatest concerns; this topic is right up my alley as a former professor of apologetics!!

How far can you wander from classic, creedal orthodoxy and still be considered “Christian”? That’s Roger E. Olson’s query as he examines the liberal theology that’s permeated mainline and progressive circles. Sifting through its central beliefs, relationship to classic liberalism, and how it connects with and contradicts traditional faith, Olson warns against passive acceptance without careful consideration of the consequences. [Source: ChristianBook]

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Unforgiveness: A Loose Cannon Below Decks Redux

The first sermon I ever preached was based on the passage in this entry. Over the years, as I’ve grown in my understanding of this scripture, this core issue of the faith, this key to living a life of peace and hope, I’ve added to it. This is the most recent iteration.

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Colossians 3:12-13:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

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Quatrevingt_treizeFrench author Victor Hugo, best known for Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was also the author of the novel, 93, (Quatrevingt-Treize). The book is centered on the year 1793, Year Two of the French Republic, which saw the execution of Louis XVI.

In a chapter entitled, “Tormentum Belli,” which Hugo translates in the text as “war machine,” is the story of the corvette Claymore. The author tells us that the three-masted, square-rigged warship was in rough seas when suddenly an awful noise arose from below decks. Hugo tells us: “a frightful thing had happened.”

The vessel was equipped with thirty carronades, short smoothbore cast iron cannons able to fire large shot at short range. These had been fastened below deck by triple chains and the hatches above had been shut. Now, one of these cannons had broken loose and had become something akin to what Hugo calls an “indescribable supernatural beast,” rolling, pitching, rushing, and crashing into the ship’s sides. “Nothing more terrible can happen to a vessel in open sea and under full sail,” Hugo reports, for a loose cannon is “a battering-ram . . . [that] has the bounds of a panther, the weight of an elephant, the agility of a mouse, the obstinacy of an axe, the unexpectedness of the surge, the rapidity of lightning, the deafness of the tomb. It weighs ten thousand pounds and, it rebounds like a child’s ball.”

“How to control this enormous brute of bronze?” Hugo asks. “How to fetter this monstrous mechanism for wrecking a ship? . . . The horrible cannon flings itself about, advances, recoils, strikes to the right, strikes to the left. . . crushes men like flies.”

The whole ship was now in awful tumult as the cannon, which is said to have appeared to the crew as owning “a soul filled with rage and hatred,” tears apart the insides of the ship. Hugo tells us that often it is true that more dangerous to a ship is a loose cannon inside than a storm outside. And what is true of ships is also true of human beings. A loose cannon inside is more dangerous than a storm outside.

God’s Word invites us to go “below decks” for a look at the turmoil that can result when the cannon that is unforgiveness gets loose. And it is in the Word that we will find the help needed for taming this “beast,” this “battering ram” that—left uncontrolled—can wreak devastating havoc.

51FT3YfKAhL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgPerhaps we might begin our consideration of unforgiveness by looking at what acts can set the cannon loose. Author Lewis Smedes suggests these may be summarized as acts of disloyalty and acts of betrayal. Now, I’ve wrestled with whether that summary is sufficient. Disloyalty may sometimes be confused with honest dissent, and the saddest thing about betrayal is that it never comes from our enemies. So what about our enemies? Well, they fit under this summary as well for enemies are only revealed as enemies when they behave like enemies and their revelation as such may come at us like a betrayal.

Words like treachery, abandonment, double-dealing, forsaking, infidelity, letting down and back-stabbing are attached to acts of disloyalty and betrayal and these also capture the nature of the hurting involved:

When your spouse has an affair with your best friend.

When your mother or father fails to show up at your wedding or at a banquet at which you’re honored with a hard-earned award.

When you fully dedicate yourself for years to doing your very best work at your place of employment and a new manager moves into play and tosses you out on your ear.

When a tornado or a hurricane or other natural disaster sweeps through leaving your house in runs. When you return only to discover that looters have taken everything that was left that wasn’t nailed down.

When you’re diagnosed with cancer.

When you commit a colossal blunder or fail to follow through on a promise to a dear and trusting friend or when you speak a word you believe needs to be spoken and it’s received as an attack.

When your loved one contracts a debilitating illness that lingers on for years or when that loved one is unexpectedly taken in death in the blink of an eye.

When a gunman walks in and shoots a roomful of folks gathered for a Bible Study.

When faced with these challenges of life, we may feel betrayed by the spouse, the parent, the friend, the authority figure, the neighbor, our bodies, ourselves, God.

Bitterness. Bitterness is what you get when you leave anger out to rot. It’s what results when injury is added to injury. It begins to root when you go to bed angry, when somebody rubs you the wrong way and the rubbing turns to chafing. It grows in the fertile fields of jealousy, abuse, and vengeance. It hangs in the air. It’s heard in the “us and them,” in the “you did this to me,” in the “he said, she said,” in the “I can’t forgive myself for . . . ” You fill in the blanks.

Anger is a natural reaction to injury real or imagined. Bitterness, resentment, revengeful actions, and unforgiveness are the sins that grow out of unresolved, unhealthy anger. The antidote for these sins is forgiveness.

But who should we forgive? What should we forgive? When should we forgive? Why should we forgive? How do we forgive? Must we forgive the one who keeps sinning against us in the same way over and over? Must we forgive the unrepentant? And really—before we touch on those questions and we can only touch on them as I’m trying to keep this message to under five hours—what is forgiveness anyway? We throw that word around, but we may have radically different ideas on how to define it. And what does it mean to forgive as the Lord has forgiven us?

We’re helped toward a deeper understanding of unforgiveness through a story told by Jesus about a king who one day decides to settle accounts with his servants.

In Matthew 18, verses 21 to 35, we find our Lord sharing a parable about an unmerciful servant, an unforgiving individual. The passage begins with a question from the apostle Peter. “Master,” he asks, “how many times must I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?” Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.”

Jesus then relates the kingdom of God to a king squaring accounts with his servants. One man is brought before him. His debt? 10,000 talents which is the contemporary equivalent of about a hundred thousand dollars. This man was hopelessly enslaved to debt! Since he was unable to pay, the king ordered the man, his wife, children and everything be owned, be sold to repay the debt.

Ever been in debt? In debt now? Can you remember—or do you now know—the fear, the worry? Things can look pretty bleak, can’t they? Our passage is telling us that unforgiven sin is like those unpaid debts. They weigh heavily upon us whether we’re talking about a little sin, a great big sin, or a great many sins. Each of us, like the debtors in the text, must settle accounts with the king, God Almighty Himself for all sins are sins against God.

Well, the king, in our parable, calls his subjects before him and the one who owes the thousands pleads for the king to have patience and promises that he will repay the debt in full.  The king is moved to mercy and erases the debt!

One point of the parable is that God is like that merciful king and He is willing and able to cancel impossible debts. He is willing and able to forgive. As Stephen M. Crotts notes in his exposition on this passage, the Greek word for forgiveness may also be translated “let loose.”

“It’s like a terrible knot that suddenly gives and is completely untied. It’s like a horrible bondage from which there is sudden release.”

And what does this free man now do? He goes out and happens upon a man who owes him the equivalent of a measly few bucks. He grabs him by the throat and demands he “pay up!” And when the debtor says he can’t and asks for patience, the man throws him into debtors’ prison and folks who witness this go and tell the king.

What does the king do? He brings the man back, chastises him for his unforgiveness and says, “Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?”  Then he has the man tossed in jail where he will sit until the debt is paid. The point of the parable is clear. If God forgives us, we must forgive others. We must forgive as—because—the Lord forgave us.

But those of us who frequent church services know this—at least on some level—don’t we? So why do we see so little forgiveness in Christian circles when repentance and forgiveness are the very foundations of our faith? Amazing grace is what saves wretches such as we all. We, who have turned to Christ for salvation, have been the beneficiaries of amazing grace, amazing love. We’ve been set free. And yet too often we hold one another hostage with our own unforgiveness.

In an older issue of Leadership Journal, I found an article on grace and redemption entitled, “Going to Hell with Ted Haggard.”

The writer, Michael Cheshire, recalls sitting in a sports bar in Denver with a close atheist friend. During lunch, the latter pointed at a TV screen on the wall that was set to a channel recapping Haggard’s fall in a sex and drugs scandal. As he did, he said, “That is the reason I will not become a Christian. Many of the things you say make sense, Mike, but that’s what keeps me away.”

Cheshire assumed his friend was referring to Haggard’s hypocrisy but he was wrong. His friend laughed and said, “Michael, you just proved my point. See, that guy said sorry a long time ago. Even his wife and kids stayed and forgave him, but all you Christians still seem to hate him. You guys can’t forgive him and let him back into your good graces. Every time you talk to me about God, you explain that he wants to forgive me. But that guy failed while he was one of you, and most of you are still vicious to him.”

Then Cheshire says his friend uttered words that left him reeling: “You Christians eat your own. Always have. Always will.”

That prompted Cheshire to investigate what was being said about Haggard in Christian circles. Most folks with whom he spoke shut down and demanded he drop the subject while others dismissed as foolish or silly his question, “Why can’t God still use Ted?”

As he lived within close proximity of Haggard, Cheshire contacted him to see if he would be willing to meet with him and a couple of the people from his staff.  Cheshire found Haggard to be brutally honest about his failures, filled with a wealth of wisdom, deeply caring and pastoral. He learned that Haggard now had a growing church in the very city that knew him and knew about his failures. And God was causing that church to grow.

When some other Christians learned that Cheshire had reached out to Ted, they said they would distance themselves from him if he continued to do so. Several people in his church said they would leave. He was told that his “voice as a pastor and author would be tarnished” if he continued to spend time with him.

Cheshire concluded: “It would do some Christians good to stay home one weekend and watch the entire DVD collection of HBO’s Band of Brothers. Marinate in it. Take notes. Write down words like loyalty, friendship and sacrifice. Understand the phrase: never leave a fallen man behind.”

Where was the love? Where was the forgiveness?

In his wrap up, Cheshire wrote: “The Ted Haggard issue reminds me of a scene in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Huck is told that if he doesn’t turn in his friend, a runaway slave named Jim, he will surely burn in hell. So, one day Huck, not wanting to lose his soul to Satan, writes a letter to Jim’s owner telling her of Jim’s whereabouts. After folding the letter, he starts to think about what his friend has meant to him, how Jim took the night watch so he could sleep, how they laughed and survived together . . . Huck realizes that it’s either Jim’s friendship or hell. Then the great Mark Twain writes such wonderful words of resolve. Huck rips the paper and says, ‘Alright then, I guess I’ll go to hell.’”

And Cheshire decides that “if being Ted’s friend causes some to hate and reject me—alright then, I guess I’ll go to hell.”

You might recall here the chastisement Jesus received from the teachers of the law, the Pharisees, who disapproved of Him having a meal with sinners and tax collectors. How could He do such a thing, they asked His disciples.

In our passage from Colossians, we read: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

51zoZJQZV4L._SX352_BO1,204,203,200_In my library is a book entitled, The Sunflower. It’s a story, written by Simon Wiesenthal, a man with whom you may be familiar. He was well known and well regarded for his activities in bringing Nazi war criminals to justice.

In the book, Wiesenthal tells us that he was a prisoner in the Maut-haus-en concentration camp in Poland. One day he was assigned to clean out rubbish from a barn that the Nazis had improvised into a hospital for wounded soldiers. Toward evening a nurse took Wiesenthal by the hand and led him to a young SS trooper. The soldier’s face was bandaged with rags yellow-stained with ointment or pus; his eyes tucked behind the gauze. He was perhaps 21 years of age. He groped for Wiesenthal’s hand and held it tight. He said he had to talk to a Jew; he could not die before he had confessed the sins he had committed against helpless Jews, and he had to be forgiven by a Jew before he died. So, he told Wiesenthal a horrible story of how his battalion had gunned down Jewish parents and children who were trying to escape from a house set afire by the SS troopers.

Wiesenthal listened to the dying man’s story, first the story of what he referenced as his blameless youth, and then the story of his participation in evil. As the man spoke, Wiesenthal’s thoughts drifted to the graves of the Nazi soldiers that he had seen nearby. Each one was decorated with a sunflower and so each one was visited by butterflies. Wiesenthal believed his place of interment would be different: a mass grave, where corpses would be piled on top of him. No sunflower for him. No butterflies for him.

In the end, Wiesenthal jerked his hand away from the soldier and walked out of the barn: No word was spoken. No forgiveness was given. Wiesenthal would not, could not, forgive. But he was not sure he did the right thing.

And some 30 years later he related the story in the book, The Sunflower, and he ended his tale with a question: “What would you have done?” Ten eminent persons contributed their answers in the original release, and when the book was reprinted ten years later, the responses of another 36 were included. Among these were Christian and Jewish theologians, writers, philosophers, and survivors of genocide; a dissident who spent 20 years in a Chinese prison; a son of Holocaust survivors; a former Nazi; the 14th Dalai Lama; and Dith Pran, a war correspondent for The New York Times who was starved and tortured by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Most said Wiesenthal was right; he should not have forgiven the man; it would not have been fair. Why should a man who gave his will to the doing of monumental evil expect a quick word of forgiveness on his death-bed? What right had Wiesenthal to forgive the man for the sins he had committed against others? “Let the SS trooper go to hell,” said one respondent.

Now, there is a great deal more to the story and I would commend the book to you for its powerful wrestling with the themes of justice and forgiveness. But, for our purposes here, I want to acknowledge simply that many of us, truth be told, feel the same way when we or our loved ones are sinned against in far less horrible ways.

As Lewis Smedes rightly notes: “To the guilty, forgiveness comes as amazing grace. To the offended, forgiving may sound like outrageous injustice. A straight-line moral sense tells most people that the guilty ought to pay their dues: Forgiving is for suckers.”

So . . . What is the answer to the unfairness of forgiving? It can only be that forgiving is, after all, a better way to fairness. First, forgiveness creates a new possibility of fairness by releasing us from the unfair past. If we do not forgive, our only recourse is revenge . . . and revenge never evens the score, for alienated people never keep score of wrongs by the same mathematics. Forgiveness takes us off the escalator of revenge so that we can stop the chain of incremented wrongs.

Forgiveness brings fairness to the forgiver. It is the hurting person who most feels the burden of unfairness, but he only condemns himself if he refuses to forgive. Forgiving is the only way to stop the cycle of unfair pain turning in your memory and in your gut.

Forgiving is not forgetting. Forgiving is not excusing. Forgiving is not smoothing things over. Forgiving is, what Smedes calls, “spiritual surgery.” When you forgive someone, you slice away the wrong from the person who did it. You recreate that person in your thoughts. God does it this way too: He releases us from sin as a parent washes dirt from a child’s face, or as a person takes a burden off your back, lays it on a goat and sends it into the wilderness never to be seen again. (There you have the origin of the word, scapegoat.)

Mining the scriptures we discover more than 100 references to the concept of forgiveness and the first thing to remember from all of these is that forgiveness is God-initiated.

In Colossians 2:13 and 14, Paul writes: “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code . . . He took it away, nailing it to the cross.”

Forgiveness is offered graciously and readily by God.

In the gospel of Luke, we find the story of the Prodigal Son who, having squandered his inheritance, returns home seeking forgiveness and finds there the open and loving arms of his father who welcomes him with great celebration.” So it is with our heavenly Father.

To receive forgiveness, we must desire forgiveness and honestly, wholeheartedly repent. This done, there is to be no limit to forgiveness. In the 17th chapter of Luke, verse 4, Jesus tells His disciples that, “if your brother sins, rebuke him and, if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” And, as we’ve noted, in Matthew 18:22, Christ carries this further by saying that even seven times is not enough, but seventy times seven.” But what if there is no repentance?

One of Jesus’ central teachings is that we love our enemies, pray for them, and do good to those who have hurt us. Interesting isn’t it, how many of us can read the Gospels over and over and miss that point. We might get the theology but not the graciousness that Jesus taught and exemplified. And you know, it’s astonishing how our view of a person can change when we begin to muster up some love for them, when we begin to pray for them, when we consider how we might do them good.

And you know something else? How much repentance do you suppose there was in the hearts of those who stood by the Cross while Jesus hung there? There was a complete absence of repentance in the hearts of the sinners who put our Savior on that Cross. But what did Jesus pray: “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Often, those who have hurt us don’t even think they’ve done anything wrong. Probably, nine out of ten of the people I’ve have had to forgive don’t think they did anything wrong to me (which suggests that I, too, have probably hurt people without knowing).

Now, please don’t mistake what I’m saying here. I’m not a Universalist. I don’t believe Jesus’s forgiveness extends to those who remain unrepentant, those who refuse to come to Jesus for salvation.

In praying “Father, forgive them,” Jesus revealed His infinite mercy; He still loved them and would forgive them if only they would humble themselves and repent. Now here’s a crucial point:

When it comes to our relationship with God, repenting and asking for forgiveness are aspects of believing. We know that the forgiveness of Christ can’t help us unless we lay hold of it by faith. The same thing cannot be said about our human forgiveness. We offer our forgiveness to others purely in response to the grace we have already received from the Lord. If we are not willing to forgive, it is an indication that we have not fully understood or experienced the grace of being forgiven. This is true regardless of the “offender’s” attitude towards his or her actions. [Source: Focus on the Family: Forgiving the Unrepentant]

We should note as well that Jesus’ prayer “Father, forgive them” was answered in the lives of many people. The Roman centurion at the foot of the cross, upon seeing how Jesus died, exclaimed, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” One of the two thieves crucified with Jesus exercised faith in Christ, who promised him paradise. A member of the Sanhedrin publicly aligned himself with Jesus. And, a little over a month later, three thousand people in Jerusalem were saved in one day as the church began. On the cross Jesus provided forgiveness for all those who would ever believe in Him. Jesus paid the penalty for the sins that we commit in our ignorance, and even the ones we’ve committed deliberately. When we are born again we, too, become an answer to Jesus’ prayer “Father, forgive them.” [Source: Got Questions]

In our passage from Colossians, we find the commandment to forgive: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Be clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Be willing to forgive. Create the climate for forgiveness.

71ZRN2XHMZL._SX295_BO1,204,203,200_So why, when forgiveness is at the very heart of the Gospel, do we see so little forgiveness even, and perhaps most sadly, within the church community? David Augsburger, in his book The Freedom of Forgiveness, offers us some clues. He says forgiveness is rare because it is hard. It is the hardest thing in the universe. It is hard because it is costly. The one who forgives, he says, pays a tremendous price—the price of the evil he or she forgives.

Forgiveness is costly because it is substitutional and this substitution was perfectly expressed in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ substituted himself for us, bearing His own wrath, His own indignation at our sin. That’s what forgiveness costs. The sinner either bears his own guilt—that’s cold justice—or the one sinned against may absorb what the second party did—that’s forgiveness. And that’s what God did in Christ on Calvary.

Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

Forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness is costly because it demands that kind of substitution, not the literal substitution of our physical lives on a cross but the willingness to relieve others of the burden of their sins against us as we reach out to them with loving and forgiving spirits.

God paid the immeasurable cost of our forgiveness. How can we hesitate to pay the infinitely smaller cost of forgiving our brother or sister—or our enemy?”

You will know you are moving in forgiveness when you no longer need to rerun over and over again the hurt you suffered, when you no longer need to punish those who hurt you by rehashing the details over and over again with whomever will listen.

You will know you are moving in forgiveness when you no longer have daily conversations, battles in your head, with those who hurt you.

You will know you are moving in forgiveness when you find yourself praying that those who hurt you will be blessed and will no longer have to suffer for the evil they did to you or to others.

Forgiveness can be a very slow process and, while we may come a long way in forgiveness, we may well find vestiges of bitterness many years post injury. C.S. Lewis learned how long the process of forgiving can take. He tells the story of a teacher he had as a boy. He hated what he described as “that sadistic person” most of his life but, a few months before his death, he wrote to a friend: “Do you know, only a few weeks ago, I realized that I had at last forgiven the cruel schoolmaster who so darkened my childhood. I had been trying to do it for years.”

With attention to prayer and with the help of God, eventually we can forgive. The Lord works the miracle in us as we yield to His transforming power.

And though this will make this entry a tad longer, it needs to be said, that it is most often true that the ones we have the hardest time forgiving are ourselves.

Everett Worthington, in his Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free From the Past, notes that when you attempt to forgive someone else for an offense, you are adopting the viewpoint of the forgiver. The wrongdoer, of course, is someone other than yourself. However, when you try to forgive yourself, you have to operate from two points of view— both forgiver and wrongdoer, and it’s hard to bounce back and forth from one perspective to the other. We’re with our own selves and our own thoughts all the time. We can’t get away from ourselves and we have insider information about who we really are. We know we’re capable of repeating the same wrongs. We also know that, as much as we profess love for God, we are like Paul who wrote: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

But we must extend that forgiveness to ourselves and seek it from others. There is a marvelous example of the desire for forgiveness in Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “The Capitol of the World.”

In this, a father traveled to Madrid to find his son Paco who had left the family farm after a misunderstanding. Keep in mind here that the name Paco is a very popular name in Spain. Well, the father, in hopes of reconnecting with his son, placed an ad in the newspaper which read, “Paco, meet me at noon Tuesday in the newspaper office. All is forgiven. Signed, your father.”

Hemingway reports there were 800 young men named Paco who arrived that Tuesday and stood in line, each one waiting to see if the man might be his father who had granted him forgiveness. 800 Pacos! How many of us, if such an ad had been placed at certain times in our lives, an ad that carried our name, wouldn’t have leapt at the opportunity for reconciliation with our own fathers.

Well, our heavenly Father offers that opportunity today. It is as though He has placed that same ad—the newspaper is the Bible—and when we answer and stand before Him, He is there like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son, ready to offer unmerited forgiveness—the gift of forgiveness. He delights in enfolding each of His repentant children in His loving arms.

Have you called on God to forgive you? Your debt is impossible to pay, you know. Have you faced God and told him you’re helplessly a debtor to sin and have you prayed for mercy? You can be let loose from your sins in Jesus!

And God’s ready forgiveness stands also as an example for us in our relationships with others: forgive as the Lord forgave you.

If you’re harboring unforgiveness, harboring grudges and hatred, you’re playing with dynamite. You’re playing with fire. Just like the loose cannon in Victor Hugo’s story, unforgiveness can crash around inside tearing your guts out, terrorizing your mind, tormenting you!

In Victor Hugo’s story, the loose cannon had to be brought under control and chained so that it couldn’t do any more damage.

Right now, why not ask Jesus to take you below decks? Tell him that you are willing to forgive, willing to go with Him to take care of all the troubling things within. Tell Jesus you’re willing. Ask Him to give you power, power to repent, power to turn from your sins, power to say you’re sorry, power to forgive.

PRAYER OF RESPONSE

Gracious and Loving God, I want to serve you and honor you with my very life, and so I do pray that you might reveal to me those corners and cabinets, those closets of sin, that require cleansing and renewal. I confess my unworthiness before you and give thanks for your mercy which calls me from death to life, from lostness to salvation. I thank you for your love that knows no bounds, for your love that never lets me go. As I sit here quietly before you, I ask that you might hear me and might speak to me in the deepest recesses of my heart as I pray for the power to do that which is pleasing in your sight. Clothe me, Lord, with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience and grow in me, please, a forgiving spirit grateful for the forgiveness extended to me. Open my eyes that I may see more. Open my heart that what I see may bring me to humility before you and to deeper worship of you, my great Savior, my giving Savior, my loving Savior, my forgiving Savior through whom I live and move and have my being, the One through whom I pray. Amen

ONE MORE STORY TO SHARE:

One day, I was rudely awakened—from a very sound sleep —at 4:45 in the morning—by a ruckus being raised just outside my window. A Walker Coonhound had begun signaling that he’d treed some creature a few yards from our cottage. I could barely see the dog in the pre-dawn light, but I could make out that he was attempting to burrow his way under a barbed wire fence that serves as a line of demarcation between the RV park at which we’ve been staying and the property that adjoins.

After a good bit of digging, the hound shimmied his way through and began circling the tree and vocalizing (think of an insistent and deep carrying voice like a clear ringing bugle, punctuated by sharp chopping sounds). He kept circling and vocalizing for nine hours, driving me nearly out of my mind, making it quite the challenge for me to focus on my writing assignments. Animal Control had been called and two officers finally arrived just after 2 in the afternoon; the canine then escaped into the brush. The hound returned just before 10 that night and started vocalizing again.

By this time, however, Larry, a neighbor vacationing from West Virginia had returned to his RV after a day of sailing. Larry is a man one who has run hunting dogs and now, at 10 in the evening, he heard the hound, went to his truck, started it up, slammed the tailgate down, and yelled, “Load up, boy!” The dog immediately came running and leapt up onto the bed of the truck. Larry gave the malnourished animal a bowl of food, found the owner’s contact information on the dog’s collar and placed a call. A man came by to collect the animal and told Larry the dog had been missing for three weeks. The owner was relieved to have his dog back in his possession; Larry told us the man had probably paid between $10,000 and $20,000 for the dog. Evidenced by the insistently wagging tail, it was clear the hound was equally relieved and delighted to see his human.

Ok. So why am I telling you this story? I was astonished at the tenacity of this animal, and my husband and I learned from Larry that a well-trained hound will keep signaling and signalling, persisting until its master responds. This little guy was hoarse and exhausted after a day of calling out, but he never lost heart. He persisted. And his master responded.

I learned SO much through my hours of listening to the tenacious dog. A friend observed, “that’s why they call it ‘dogged perseverance.'” She also recalled the words of Martin Luther: “Oh, if I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat!”

If you’re having trouble forgiving, if you’re having trouble of any kind, if you have no troubles at all, persist in prayer, pray the way the dog watches the meat.

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Reproductive Rights are Not the Issue

A recent report on National Public Radio spoke about the “fight for reproductive rights.” Reproductive rights are not the issue in the argument over abortion. By the time a new life has begun within a woman’s womb, reproduction has already taken place. The issue is whether the new individual—the pre-born—has rights, whether the child, growing inside his or her mother, should be protected against harm, against murder. We have laws against killing persons we can see and hear. Why not protect the ones we cannot see, the ones we cannot hear?

Some years ago, I came across an article filled with the most monstrous ideas delivered in the most casually cavalier manner. The title: “So what if abortion ends a life?”

In this piece, Mary Elizabeth Williams shared her belief that “life starts at conception” but she added, “that hasn’t stopped me one iota from being pro-choice…Here’s the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal. That’s a difficult thing for liberals like me to talk about, lest we wind up looking like death-panel-loving, kill-your-grandma-and-your-precious-baby storm troopers. Yet a fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always…the fetus is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing.”

A seared conscience. A heart of stone. Sixty-three million abortions since Roe v. Wade. Sixty-three million.

In Roe v. Wade, the state of Texas argued that “the fetus is a ‘person’ within the language and meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.” To which Justice Harry Blackmun responded, “If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment.” But Blackmun didn’t recognize that personhood; his findings were erroneous. Roe v. Wade should be held null and void as to the rights and interests of pre-born persons.

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Welcome Happy Morning!

1408f557ef81ec73fff34aa55dea906b-rimg-w550-h320-gmirJohn 20:1-18; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8

Welcome Happy Morning, age to age shall say. Hell today is vanquished, Heaven is won today. Lo! The dead is living, God forevermore; Him, their true Creator, all His works adore. Come then, true and faithful, Now fulfill Thy Word! Tis Thine own third morning, Rise O Buried Lord! Show Thy face in brightness. Bid the nations see. Bring again our daylight; Day returns with Thee. Welcome happy morning, age to age shall say; Hell today is vanquished. Heaven is won today. Amen.

The lyrics of this hymn I just shared with you were written in the sixth century by Venantius Fortunatus – truly from age to age it is the same. We do welcome that happy morning when Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Jesus was acknowledged then as Conqueror of Sin, Death and Satan as He is today, as He always will be. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. He is the risen Lord, eternal Lord.

You know it really surprises me that so many people spend so much time and effort and energy chasing after the temporary, pondering the inconsequential. In truth, much of the world focuses its attention on the fleeting while putting off thoughts of eternal destiny — ultimate consequences — when really the first priority of our thinking ought to be eternity and how eternity informs the momentary. We’re here for just a blinking of an eye and then something happens to us. Death and eternity. We can’t avoid death any more than we can avoid eternity – they don’t go away simply because we choose not to think about them. We need to plan ahead and not go so willy nilly about life. Eternity is a long time. So let me ask you a question this morning: How and where will you be spending eternity? If you truly are a Christian, can you be certain – are you certain that you have put your faith in a reliable place, in a reliable person?

The Bible tells us that everyone has sinned and has fallen short of the glory of God and that the wages of sin – what is earned through sin – is death. If there is no atonement for sin, what is earned is an eternity of separation from God.

The perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ is the only basis on which we can come into a saving relationship with the living God. There is no other way for Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” By Jesus.

Mt. Rubidoux, Riverside, California, Easter Morning at 6 o'clock. Two thousand people holding services. From 1870-1925?
Mt. Rubidoux, Riverside, California, Easter Morning at 6 o’clock. Two thousand people holding services. From 1870-1925?

Suppose the entire human race lined up on the West Coast with one objective – to get to Hawaii. We’ll equate their goal with God’s standard of righteousness. The gun is fired and all the swimmers jump in. As we look out over the ocean, we see the most moral one of all – an individual always doing his best, trying to adhere to the highest moral standards – yet he would be the first to admit his imperfection and sinfulness. But he’s out there in the water 75 miles from shore. Next we see a college student. She does cheat on her exams a little and goes on a binge every now and then but she’s not a complete reprobate. She’s gotten about 10 miles out. The mass murderer is drowning a few yards off shore. Scattered about in the water between the two extremes of the spectrum, we see the rest of the human race. As we look from the mass murderer to the tremendously moral man, we can see the difference. It’s an enormous difference. But what’s the difference in terms of Hawaii. Everyone will drown.

A set of swimming instructions won’t help at this point. We need somebody to take us to Hawaii. This is where Jesus comes in. If you can live a life that is absolutely perfect in thought, word and deed, you can make it to heaven on your own steam. But no mere human being has ever done or ever will do this. All the other religions of the world are essentially sets of swimming instructions, suggested codes of ethics, patterns for living. But humankind’s basic problem is not a matter of knowing how we ought to live; it’s lacking the power to live as we ought. The good news of Christianity is that Jesus Christ does for us what we cannot possibly do for ourselves. Through Him alone are we reconciled with God, given His righteousness and enabled to have a personal relationship with Him in His very presence.

And how did He accomplish all of this? By going to the cross and taking upon Himself the punishment for sins that was rightfully due to us. And how do we appropriate His righteousness? By admitting and repenting of our sin, accepting Christ’s sacrifice in our place and living lives of service and gratitude for what the Lord has done.

But how do we know that Jesus – who claimed to be the Messiah, the Savior, God enfleshed – how do we know that He wasn’t some lunatic or that He wasn’t a liar? The crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension are either elements in the world’s greatest hoax –or the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension are the most important events ever for humankind.

So what do we have for proof of the claims of Jesus?

Well, first there are the prophecies all fulfilled in Jesus – written hundreds of years before Jesus appeared on earth, prophecies recorded for us in, what we call, the Old Testament. Detailed prophecies referring to the place and time of His birth in – specifically – Bethlehem. His birth by a virgin. His ministry in Galilee. His roles as prophet, priest and king. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem astride a donkey. His betrayal by a friend. We have to the penny the amount of money for which He would be betrayed. We have the prophecies that the money would be returned for a potters’ field, that false witnesses would come forward to accuse the Messiah. We have accountings, hundreds of years before they occurred, of all the incidents surrounding His death – that He would be mocked and spat upon; that His hands and feet would be pierced; that He would be given gall and vinegar to drink; that soldiers would cast lots for His clothes; that Jesus would pray for those who were crucifying Him; that not a bone of His would be broken; that He would be buried with the rich; that He would rise from the dead and ascend into heaven.

Then we have the witnesses to the resurrected Jesus: from 1st Corinthians 15 and elsewhere, we learn that Jesus, after His resurrection, appeared to Mary Magdalene, to Peter, to several women as they ran from the tomb, to two disciples on the Emmaus Road, to 10 disciples in the Upper Room, to seven men at the Sea of Galilee, to 11 disciples on a mountain, to more than 500 people at one time

And then there are the details surrounding the crucifixion: Jesus was sentenced to death by the Roman Empire. Death by crucifixion, the most horrific, painful means of execution ever devised. But first, as I noted last week, Pontius Pilate had Him scourged. And, as you’ll recall, in this form of punishment, the prisoner was tied to a post with his back bent and a whip with long leather straps studded with sharp pieces of bone, rocks, lead pellets and glass was used on Him. With each lash, the whip would wrap around the body, stripping off pieces of flesh. Roman beatings could be so severe that bones and organs were left exposed. By the time they got through beating Him, Jesus’ body may well have been barely recognizable.

They jammed on His head a crown of thorns and then beat Him on the head repeatedly with a staff. Then they led Him away to be crucified. John tells us that Jesus – battered, whipped, dehydrated, exhausted from a sleepless night — carried His own cross as they headed out of Jerusalem. But, with His condition weakened by the torture, the soldiers took a man from the crowd and had him carry the cross for the remaining steps to the place of crucifixion.

Then on the skull-shaped hill, Golgotha, Jesus, naked and already in unimaginable pain, was nailed to a cross through His ankle and heel bones. And He remained on that cross for six hours.

The following events at the site of the crucifixion help verify that Jesus was dead:

  • The Roman soldiers did not break Jesus’ legs, because they “saw that He was already dead” (Jn. 19:33).
  • The soldiers plunged a spear into Jesus’ side, and from it came both water and blood (Jn. 19:34). Medical experts say that if He were not already dead, this in itself would have killed Him. Others have concluded that the pouring out of water and blood from His side was proof that Jesus was no longer alive.
  • When Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body of Christ so he and Nicodemus could bury Him, Pontius Pilate ordered a centurion to verify that Jesus was dead (Mk. 15:43-45). The Roman governor would not release the body to Joseph until the centurion was certain that all signs of life were gone. You can be sure that an officer in the Roman army would not make a mistake about an important matter like this in his report to such a high official as Pilate.
  • Joseph and Nicodemus prepared the body for burial according to Jewish custom. This included wrapping it “in a clean linen cloth” (Mt. 27:59), anointing the body with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes” (Jn. 19:39), and placing it “in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock” (Mk. 15:46). It seems obvious that any sign of life would have been detected by these bereaved friends. Surely they would not have buried a breathing Jesus.
  • The Pharisees and chief priests met with Pilate to discuss what had occurred. They made such remarks as “while He was still alive” (Mt. 27:63). Soldiers were ordered to secure the grave with a seal. In addition, guards were placed on duty to prevent the disciples from coming to “steal Him away” (v.64). The Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities knew beyond doubt that Jesus was dead.

After His body was wrapped, it was placed in a rock cave before which a huge stone was rolled. Geologists from Georgia Tech went to Jerusalem some years ago to study just how large this stone had to have been to cover the four and a half to five foot doorway that would have been standard at the time. The stone, they estimated, would have weighted 1 ½ to 2 tons. This stone would have been sealed with clay and stamped with the Roman signet. To mess with a Roman seal was punishable by death, by crucifixion. The tomb was heavily guarded – remember, this was the Roman Empire – the most well-trained fighting machine that has ever walked the earth. Because of the stature of Jesus, the controversy surrounding Him, we can surmise there would have been a pretty substantial detail guarding Him. Again, well-armed, well-trained. And they themselves would have been beaten, set afire, or executed if they failed in their duty.

Could the disciples have eluded the guards – the well-trained fighting machine who would faced death for this? Could the guards have slept through or allowed the disciples to remove the two ton stone, unwrap the 100 pounds of graveclothes, fold them up neatly, lift the body and carry it away? Come on!

And then there is the witness of the disciples. They had dedicated the better part of three years to following Jesus. In the hours after Jesus’ death, they were probably asking themselves if they all hadn’t made just a huge mistake. Even though Jesus had told them He would die, they’d just never gotten it. They hadn’t understood; they hadn’t bargained on the cross. And so they were in hiding, fearing for their lives. But, then something happened to change them overnight into bold, fearless proclaimers of the name Jesus. So bold, so fearless, so determined to spread the word, that we’re here today to talk about what they did, what they saw 2,000 years ago. So bold, so fearless, so changed – that they were willing to give their own lives so that we might know their Jesus.

They had been so afraid they had been cowering behind doors but then – on the third day after the crucifixion – John tells us one of the women who had followed Jesus made her way to the tomb. Mary Magdalene had left behind her life of sin for a new life as a disciple of Jesus. She believed Him. She loved Him. And then He died on the cross.

Mary witnessed His death and she was there when His lifeless body was taken down and placed in the tomb. And so she returned to the tomb early in the morning on the third day and found, to her amazement and fear, that the stone had been rolled away.

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Easter_Morning_-_WGA8289
Easter Morning by Caspar David Friedrich, 1828-1835.

She responded by running to tell the disciples. Her announcement to Peter and John was like a pistol shot that started the race to the tomb. And so the proud, impulsive fisherman and the one known as the beloved disciple, made for the tomb. From the outside, one could see the body was not there. Mary had probably seen that. But from the inside of the tomb, a person might be able to receive a great insight. That insight is the key in all of this: the realization that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.

Understand that Mary didn’t know that in those initial moments outside the tomb. What she said was: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb.” When she said, “they,” she probably meant the Romans had taken the body.

But, as we’ve noted, that was an incorrect assumption. After all that had occurred, the last thing the authorities wanted was to see a missing Jesus whose disappearance would be certain to stir up the people again. And Mary knew the disciples hadn’t taken Him. They’d been in hiding, afraid to show their faces. And a simply human Jesus couldn’t have emerged from the tomb on His own. Remember what He had endured.

So, if the authorities hadn’t done it and the disciples hadn’t done it, and a merely human Jesus hadn’t done it, how had the stone been moved, the guard foiled and a dead Jesus come out of the tomb? Well, let’s see.

Verse 4 in John’s gospel tells us that John reached the tomb. Imagine the scene: He and Peter had been running and have arrived huffing and puffing. But John stops short – he peeks into the tomb but he doesn’t cross the line. Instead, he squints to try to see inside.

We can sympathize with him. There is something about walking into a tomb – we avert our eyes, we pull back. It’s a region to which we defer and give respect. But, while John hesitated, Peter crossed the line. He went right into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there as had John from the outside.

This gospel writer, John, now uses four Greek words all translated “saw.” Mary and John “saw” at a glance (the word used for their seeing is blephei). Peter “saw”  (the-o-rei), carefully examining the details, theorizing.

Peter noted that the cloth that had wrapped Jesus’ head was separate from the other grave clothes. It even had a rolled-up appearance. The Greek word suggests it was coiled or rolled as though the head around which it was wrapped had suddenly dematerialized and vanished. Peter saw all this like a detective, examining the details, looking for clues. He was trying to figure out what “they” had done with the body when “they” had taken it. He was puzzled that they would leave the grave clothes.

Then John went into the tomb. Again, he “saw” but this time the Greek word used is eiden, a physical seeing, a mental understanding, a spiritual knowing. While Mary and John had initially just looked, while Peter was theorizing, John now had a flash of insight.

Verse 8 says John saw and believed. What did he believe? He believed that Jesus rose from the dead. He understood that Jesus was not carried away by some weird soldiers who had taken the trouble to unwind and rewind the grave clothes. John had crossed the line. Faith is going across the line, seeing, believing, and then acting on that belief. John believed what he believed based on what he saw in the tomb. Only later did the disciples come to understand from scripture why Jesus had to follow this route. The point here is that they didn’t make up a story of resurrection to fit a preconceived understanding of scriptural prophecy. Jesus had been explaining to them that these prophecies had to be fulfilled in Him but, as scripture tells us again and again and, as we’re reminded in our passage from John, the disciples were slow to understand.

It is interesting to note how each of these words about seeing has moved into the English language. Blephei is found in words particularly relating to the eyelids, that which covers the eyes. Theorei lends it base to words that speak about speculations, untested assumptions, abstract reasoning. And eidon has made its way into the language in words such as eidetic, defined as that which is marked by extraordinarily detailed and vivid recall of visual images.

It’s clear that all of the disciples came to this eidetic way of seeing because nothing less — no fictional story, no hoax — could possibly account for the changes that occurred within them.

Take, for instance, the transformation of Thomas. Of all the disciples, he seemed the least likely to be convinced. His pessimism was first revealed earlier, when Jesus mentioned His plans to go to Bethany where Lazarus had just died. Thomas had suggested to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (Jn. 11:16). Although this statement suggests a degree of courage, it also implies that Thomas was resigned to martyrdom. If that was his typical response, it is no wonder he responded to the disciples’ claim that they had seen Jesus after His death by saying, “Unless I see . . . I will not believe” (Jn. 20:25). Does this sound like someone who is willing to rekindle the anger of the Roman officials by claiming that Jesus was alive if He really wasn’t?

Now look at Thomas a week after the crucifixion. In the upper room, surrounded by his 10 friends who had already seen Jesus, he saw the Savior face to face. Finally, Thomas was convinced. His statement, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20:28) is the ultimate proclamation of belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Here was victory that could be won only through hard evidence. It’s the only thing that could have changed this skeptic into a believer.

No, the disciples were not the type of men who could have lived a lie as far-reaching as one that claimed a dead man wasn’t dead anymore. They might have misunderstood Jesus on occasion, but they were basically honest men. They had no reason to devise such a scheme, and they didn’t have the courage it would take to defend such a bald-faced lie. Peter would never have been hanged upside down for a trumped-up story. Mark would not have been dragged through the streets to his death if he had been defending fiction. James would not have been beheaded for a falsehood. Thomas wouldn’t have been pierced with a lance for a lie. Yet history tells us that these men each died in these horrific ways. What a testimony to the truth of their claims! They were willing to die for the One who overcame death for them–and for us!

So this day we celebrate – this happy morning – calls us to the tomb to confront the reality of death and to make a decision about what kind of relationship we want to have with death. We are asked to decide whether we will allow eternal death to have a grip on us or whether we will, instead, embrace the eternal life that is offered to us only by the resurrected Jesus Christ.

Finally, let us walk once more by the tomb. John and Peter have gone off to ponder the questions and Mary remains at the tomb sobbing and sobbing. But, as she looks into the tomb again, she sees two angels now seated where Jesus’ body had been.

And they ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Her reply was the same she had given to Peter and John just moments earlier, “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put Him.”

Then she sensed someone else near her. She turned and saw a man whom she assumed was the gardener. And He asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”

Perhaps she couldn’t see clearly through her tears, perhaps her grief and fear kept her from seeing, but, initially, we’re told she failed to recognize that the one to whom she was speaking was the risen Jesus. Finally, He called her by name as He does each of His disciples and she felt a pull on her heart. She knew this was Jesus, alive and standing before her.

Then Jesus said a surprising thing: “Do not hold onto me for I have not yet returned (or ascended to the Father). Perhaps this was Jesus’ way of telling Mary that her life could never return to what it was. Mary would have to let go of the incarnated Jesus so that He might complete His work and send the Comforter, the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Mary would also have to let go of death, of sin, of all that bound her. She would have to truly trust the risen Lord. That’s something we all need to remember on this Resurrection Sunday. There are some things we just can’t hold on to. Many of us have perhaps remained entombed for years, wearing death and sin like graveclothes – bound by regrets, anger, unresolved guilt, fears. These must be stripped away in order for us to fully display the light that will draw others unto Jesus.

We who have welcomed Jesus as Savior can leave the tomb; we can let it go to claim the abundant life that Jesus has for us now. Jesus Christ is alive and new life is available to everyone who calls on His name.

While tears of joy were streaming down Mary’s face, Jesus told, “Go to my brothers and say to them ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary left the tomb to share the good news. “I have seen (in the Greek, e-o-raka) the Lord,” she said. This fourth Greek word for seeing has a similar meaning to another – eureka – which has come directly into the English language and is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as the word “used to express triumph upon the discovery of something.” In the case of Mary, the something was not a something, but a someone. Mary had discovered the risen Lord Jesus Christ. And because this risen Lord had conquered death, Mary had discovered new hope, new meaning, new life. Well, more accurately, these had been given to her for salvation is the gift of God. We receive not of our own efforts so that no one can boast. My most fervent prayer this morning is that we all might see as Mary saw on that first Resurrection morning.

That we might really see – not a simple blephei kind of seeing (at a glance); not a theorei kind of seeing (speculation) and not even an eiden kind of seeing (identification) but that we might be filled with the full triumph of discovery as the eyes of our hearts comprehend that in this day we have been confronted with the reality of death and it’s alright because Jesus has conquered death. Jesus has risen from the dead and that makes a difference for us now.

Easter Morning. Chromolithograph by Mary Theresa Hart from 1861-1897.
Easter Morning. Chromolithograph by Mary Theresa Hart from 1861-1897.

Welcome Happy Morning, age to age shall say. Hell today is vanquished, Heaven is won today. Lo! The dead is living, God forevermore; Him, their true Creator, all His works adore. Come then, true and faithful, Now fulfill Thy Word! Tis Thine own third morning, Rise O Buried Lord! Show Thy face in brightness. Bid the nations see. Bring again our daylight; Day returns with Thee. Welcome happy morning, age to age shall say; Hell today is vanquished. Heaven is won today. Amen.

And all God’s people said Amen!

NOTE: I composed this from notes compiled over a number of years. Attributions may not be complete. Sources include: Paul E. Little’s How to Give Away Your Faith.

Featured image: Easter Procession by Illarion Pryanishnikov, 1893.

 

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From Acclamation to Crucifixion

Mark 11:1-11 and Matthew 27:45-61

Palm Sunday, also called Passion Sunday, is the day on which we recall Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem; it is also the day on which we recount the sufferings of our Lord Jesus in the week that followed. This Holy Week began with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem where He was met with great rejoicing, great honor, and great praise.

As Jesus approached the city, He knew full well what lay ahead of Him for Jesus, fully God, had come in the flesh so that He might take upon Himself the punishment rightfully due to sinful humankind.

Before His arrest, He had foretold that one of His own disciples would betray Him. He had predicted the suffering that He would undergo at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law. And He had warned His disciples He would meet His death but, three days later, would be raised from the dead.

Before He went to the cross, Jesus used the image of the instrument of His death to instruct His followers in the need for being willing to bear the cross for Him, being willing to suffer and perhaps to die, in obedience to Him but always with the realization that eternal glory was in store for those who would submit themselves to God.

As Jesus neared the villages of Bethphage (bait-fuh-gee) and Bethany (Baith-a-nee) on the eastern boundary of Jerusalem, He knew it was time for Him to be revealed as the Messiah. Messiah translates into English “Anointed One.” He was the One for whom the people had been waiting. But some in the crowd didn’t understand who He was because they had been hoping for a Savior who would overcome earthly enemies and reign as an earthly king. Others rightly understood that Jesus—in the Hebrew “Yeshuah” (which means Savior)—was the Messiah to Whom what we now know as the Old Testament had pointed. With his work on the cross, Jesus—Prophet, Priest and King—would be victor over the enemies of sin, death and Satan.

Jesus was the answer to more than 300 Biblical prophecies/promises that were all fulfilled in Him.

Hundreds of years before He came, the prophets Micah and Isaiah predicted the Messiah would be born of a virgin in the village of Bethlehem and that He would come from the tribe of Judah and the line of King David.

Zechariah, prophesying more than 500 years before the coming of Christ, wrote that the Messiah would be sold for 30 pieces of silver, and it was for this amount that Judas Iscariot handed over Jesus. Zechariah also predicted the money would be returned for a potters’ field, a burial place for foreigners. And it was.

And, as Isaiah foretold, Jesus was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and He was crucified with sinners. Isaiah had said the hands and feet of the Messiah would be pierced, He would be mocked and insulted, He would be given gall and vinegar to drink, He would pray for His enemies, His side would be pierced, soldiers would cast lots to see who would get His clothes, not a bone of His would be broken, and He would be buried with the rich. All these prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus.

And all this suffering—the prophets foretold—would be necessary so the Messiah might take upon Himself our sins and, in so doing, accept the grievous penalty for them. The prophets also foretold that Christ’s resurrection and ascension into heaven would guarantee eternal life to all those who would believe and accept what the Savior had done for them on the cross.

One other prophecy was offered by Zechariah and it is this that leads us into our passage from Mark. In the ninth chapter of the book of Zechariah, the prophet wrote: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, daughter of Jerusalem! See your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

And this prophecy was fulfilled as Jesus asked His disciples to procure such a colt that He might enter the city—the city of His destiny—not on foot, as would be expected of a pilgrim and not on a horse, a mighty steed, as a warrior, but on a lowly donkey, as a man of peace.

On the colt—and we are told in the gospel of Matthew that it was the colt of a donkey—the disciples placed cloaks to create a sort of saddle for Jesus. As a token of homage to Him, cloaks and leafy palm branches were spread on the road before Him.

Happy-palm-sunday-clipart-images-for-Kids2-1

The words of praise the people then offered are recorded in Mark’s gospel and in like passages in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. “Hosanna?! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” The word Hosanna is a Hebrew exclamation that translates “Save Now!” It was an appeal to God to save the Israelite people now that the Messiah had appeared among them. The words “He Who Comes” is the title by which the Messiah was denoted. “Save us now, Messiah!”

And so, on what has come to be known as Palm Sunday, Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. On the following Sunday, He would make His triumphal resurrection from the dead.

In between, there would be a full week. On Monday, He would cleanse the temple of the moneychangers and, in that same temple, He would heal the blind and the lame and He would instruct His disciples on the power of faith.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, He would share a number of parables, teach about the Greatest Commandment, tell about the events that would signal the end time, and describe the final judgment.

Wednesday would close with Mary’s anointing of Him with oil and with Judas’ promise to the authorities to betray Jesus.

On Thursday, there would be the preparation of the Passover meal, the washing of the disciples’ feet, the designation of the traitor, the Last Supper, the parable of the true vine, the promise of the Holy Spirit.

And then there would be the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Gethsemane” translates from the Hebrew: oil press. John’s language in his gospel suggests it was a walled garden, and Luke tells us it was located on the slope of the Mount of Olives.

The symbolism in all of this is astonishing. In Jesus’ day, olive oil took the place of butter and cooking fat and so was crucial in a person’s diet. Oil was used as fuel for lamps. It was also used in healing. Further, in religious life, those consecrated to God’s service were anointed with oil. The prophet, the priest, and the king were all anointed with oil in ceremonies of consecration. Jesus, the anointed One, gathered up into Himself the triple function of prophet, priest and king and this Messiah, who fed the multitudes, who brought light into the darkness, and who healed in body, mind and spirit—this Messiah came to the Garden of Gethsemane and prepared to undo the damage done by the inhabitants of the first garden.

So, just as the Bread of Life was born in Bethlehem, which translates to the English, “House of Bread,” and was placed in a feeding trough, so now on the night of His betrayal, the Anointed One is found at Gethsemane, in the oil press, on the Mount of Olives.

Jesus knew what was coming. He could have run. Instead He prayed and He waited and He made a request of His disciples. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” They fell asleep.

Luke 22:44 tells us that as Jesus anguished over what was coming, His sweat was like drops of blood falling on the ground. The medical term for this, “hemohidrosis” has been seen in patients who have experienced extreme stress or shock to their systems. The capillaries around the sweat pores become fragile and leak blood into the sweat.

The fully human Jesus knelt in prayer and anguished over what lay ahead of Him. The fully human Jesus would know every excruciating lash of the whip and the piercing pain of the crown of thorns. This Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was fully God and fully human. Now, e may not understand how this is possible but to appreciate the magnitude of what Jesus did, we need to accept it.

He was fully present on the cross but beyond the horror of the cross, Jesus knew even more awaited Him. He, the sinless One, who had existed from all eternity, pure, unspotted, holy, knew that He would redeem us from the curse of the law by taking all our filthy sins upon Himself that they might be crucified with Him on the cross.

After this time in Gethsemane, there would be His arrest, His healing of the High Priest’s servant, and the desertion of His disciples.

On Friday, Jesus would appear before Caiaphas (kay-a-fus), the high priest, then before the entire Sanhedrin (the highest judicial and ecclesiastical council of the ancient Jewish nation composed of 71 members). Then He would be before Pilate, Herod and Pilate again.

Judas, filled with remorse and self-loathing over his betrayal of Jesus, committed suicide. Pontius Pilate, responding to the cries of the crowd to crucify Jesus, approved the death sentence and then tried to wash his hands of the whole affair.

But before sending Him off to be crucified, Pontius Pilate had Jesus scourged. In this form of punishment, the prisoner was tied to a post with his back bent and a whip with long leather thongs studded with sharp pieces of bone, rocks, lead pellets and glass was used. With each lash, the whip would wrap around the body, stripping off pieces of flesh. Roman beatings could be so severe that bones and organs were left exposed. By the time they got through beating Him, Jesus’ body may well have been barely recognizable. The pain from being struck with this instrument—up to 39 times from the neck to the knees–was so severe that men died under it or broke with loss of their senses. But Jesus retained His consciousness throughout.

Then Matthew, in chapter 27, beginning at verse 27, records the preparation for Christ’s crucifixion. The Roman guard—about 200 men—took Jesus into the barracks at the Fortress of Antonia (an-toe-nia) and began to mock Him. They stripped Him of His clothing and put a scarlet robe on Him, the color symbolizing power and kingship. On His head, they put a crown of woven thorns. In His hand, a staff to symbolize a scepter. Then the guards knelt before Him: “Hail, King of the Jews!”

They spat on Him and took the staff and struck Him again and again on the head and then they led Him away to be crucified. John tells us that Jesus—battered, whipped, dehydrated, exhausted from a sleepless night–carried His own cross as they headed out of Jerusalem. But, with His condition weakened by the torture, Jesus stumbled under the load. And the soldiers took a man—a North African—from the crowd—Simon of Cyrene—and ordered him to carry Jesus’ cross. Jesus followed until the 650-yard journey from the fortress of Antonia (An-toe-nia) to the place of crucifixion was completed.

That place of crucifixion was the skull-shaped hill called Golgotha. There Jesus, naked and already in unimaginable pain, was nailed to a cross.

Jesus was crucified at about nine o’clock in the morning. Our passage from Matthew refers to the sixth to the ninth hours (which, in our reckoning would be from noon to 3 o’clock) and in those three hours, darkness came over the land.

C. Truman Davis provides a physician’s description of what would have happened on the cross. He tells us that the soldier who nailed Jesus to the cross would have looked for the depression at the front of the wrist and through that would have driven the heavy, square, wrought-iron nail. The soldier would then have moved to the other side and driven the nail into the other wrist careful not to pull the arms too tightly but to allow for movement.

Jesus’ left foot would then have been pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, the nail would have been driven through the heels.

Then Davis imagines: Jesus slowly sags down with more weight on the nails in the wrists. Then as He pushes Himself upward to avoid this stretching torment, He places His full weight on the nail through His feet. Again there is the searing agony of the nail tearing through the nerves between the bones of the feet. At this point, as the arms fatigue, great waves of cramps sweep over the muscles, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push Himself upward. Hanging by his arms, the pectoral muscles in his chest are paralyzed and the intercostal muscles by His ribcage are unable to function. Jesus fights to raise Himself in order to get even one short breath. Finally, carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the blood stream and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically, He is able to push Himself upward to exhale and bring in oxygen. It was probably during these periods that He uttered the seven short sentences recorded throughout the gospels:

The first, looking down at the Roman soldiers throwing dice for His seamless garment, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

The second, to the penitent thief, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

The third, looking down at the terrified, grief-stricken John—the beloved Apostle—Jesus says to him, “Behold your mother.” Then, looking to His mother Mary, “Woman, behold your son.”

The fourth cry harkens back to the first words of the 22nd Psalm, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani (sa-voke-tanee),” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Hours of limitless pain, cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, searing pain where tissue is torn from His lacerated back as He moves up and down against the rough timber. Then another agony begins. A terrible crushing pain deep in the chest as the pericardium (the double walled sac that contains the heart) slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart.

We are reminded in this of the 22nd Psalm, the 14th verse: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.”

It is now almost over. The loss of tissue fluids has reached a critical level; the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into the tissue; the tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. The markedly dehydrated tissues send their flood of stimuli to the brain.

Jesus gasps His fifth cry, “I thirst.”  This recalls another verse from the prophetic 22nd Psalm: “My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth, you lay me in the dust of death.”

Someone runs to get a sponge filled with drugged wine, puts it on a stick and offers it to Jesus to drink. He refuses it. Some continue to mock Him. And then perhaps Jesus feels the chill of death creeping through His body and He speaks the sixth of His words from the cross: “It is finished.”

His mission of atonement has been completed. He can allow Himself to die. With one last surge of strength, He once again presses His torn feet against the nail, straightens His legs, takes a deeper breath, and utters His seventh and last cry, “Father! Into your hands I commit my spirit.”

At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom signifying the fact that, at that moment, Christ had made it possible for believers to go directly into God’s presence. The earth shook, the rocks split, the tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.

Finally, when the centurion and the others with him saw all of this, they realized what they had done and they were terrified. He must have been the Son of God! And those of His followers who had not deserted, watched from a distance.

As evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, accompanied by Nicodemus—we’re told by the gospel writer John—dared to go to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus. Can you see them working together to take Him down and to wrap Him gently in a clean linen cloth? Placing Him in the tomb? And can you see the two women—Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of the apostles James and John–outside the tomb?

Well, this is where we find ourselves as we approach Holy Week. Over these days, if you dip your bread into oil or eat an olive, think as you do of Jesus pouring Himself out in grief on the Mount of Olives—in Gethsemane–the oil press—as He looked toward the cross. As you receive a palm branch in worship, give thanks to the One who went to the cross for you and praise Him—our Prophet, Priest and King, our Savior, our Lord.

If you happen to pass a field where donkeys are grazing, think of the Man of Peace riding triumphantly into Jerusalem. Imagine yourself in the throng, laying your tributes at His feet. Place yourself at the Last Supper, in the Garden of Gethsemane, listen to His teaching, walk with Him through these days. May we not slumber on through this time but rather read and read again the gospel accounts of Holy Week. As you are able, as your strength permits, spend time fasting, feasting only on the Word of God and praying.

Take a few moments to contemplate the great love of our Lord that sent Him to the cross for the remission of our sins.

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Telling Bob About the Pastorate

Matthew 4:1-11 and 2 Timothy 4:1-5

When, at the end of 2021, I was nearing the end of a pastorate in New Hampshire, I wanted to prepare the congregation for the next chapter in their life together. On one Sunday, I stressed the need for the church to mobilize in ministries of compassion; the following Sunday I shared the message that follows.

What to offer today? A mere 66 books, only about 800,000 God-breathed words to consider!! Narratives. Prophecies. Poems. Gospels. Epistles. And then, I felt led to Bob. Now, I’ve often drawn from my years as a professor of evangelism and renewal and director of a doctoral program centered on the Renewal of the Church for Mission. In those capacities, I often served as a pastor to pastors or as a pastor to those preparing to enter the pastorate.

And, over the years, many dear ones have asked me to speak at their ordination services and installations. As I am here this morning praying the Lord will lead a Bible-honoring, Christ-centered, well-educated, experienced minister to lead this church, I thought it appropriate to return to a message I delivered at a service for one of my Master of Divinity students. In the bulletin this morning, you’ll see pictured a sampling of what those called to the pastorate may be called upon to do in the local church. I have filled all those roles and more in my years as a minister.

Now, Bob was one who’d been in several of my classes, and I’d even invited him to participate in a doctoral level course that I taught in Washington, D.C. Some years ago, he accepted a call to lead a church in upstate New York, and I was called upon to share key lessons from the Word on the responsibilities of the pastor; I was charged to bring a charge to him on the day of his installation.

I took a three-part approach. First, I looked to the passage in the Bible that has been called “the handbook for ministers.” Then I considered the temptations that face the pastor, and I concluded with an examination of what it means to be a servant leader, an under-shepherd of Christ leading according to the example set by Jesus. In creating the message, I built upon the reflections of other writers on these themes and passages that have ministered to me and have taken up residence in my heart.

One last bit of introduction, before we turn to the Word…a question that was once posed to me that still prompts a shake of the head, a moan and a good laugh: “I know pastors work on Sunday mornings but what do they do the rest of the week?” In the next few minutes, I’ll convey a bit about what we do the rest of the week as I speak to Bob, to Bob’s congregation, to you, and to myself.

First Timothy 4 (and that’s not a mistake, I do mean First Timothy 4) has been referred to and has served as a “handbook for ministers.” The chapter provides practical instruction for the one called to pastor the local church. The task: preach the Word, practice the Word, progress in the Word.

This passage, as rendered into contemporary language in The Message by Eugene Peterson, reads this way:

The Spirit makes it clear that as time goes on, some are going to give up on the faith and chase after demonic illusions put forth by professional liars . . . [But] you’ve been raised on the Message of the faith and have followed sound teaching. Now pass on this counsel to the Christians here, and you’ll be a good servant of Jesus. Stay clear of silly stories that get dressed up as religion. Exercise daily in God—no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever. You can count on this. Take it to heart. This is why we’ve thrown ourselves into this venture so totally. We’re banking on the living God, the Savior.

Get the word out. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity. Stay at your post reading Scripture, giving counsel, teaching. And that special gift of ministry you were given when the leaders of the church laid hands on you and prayed—keep that dusted off and in use.

Cultivate these things. Immerse yourself in them. The people will all see you mature right before their eyes! Keep a firm grasp on both your character and your teaching. Don’t be diverted. Just keep at it. Both you and those who hear you will experience salvation.

Now, let’s bring alongside of this a portion of Paul’s message in 2nd Timothy 4 where he writes: “I can’t impress this on you too strongly. God is looking over your shoulder…so proclaim the Message with intensity, keep on your watch. Challenge, warn and urge your people. Don’t give up. Just keep it simple. You’re going to find that there will be times when people will have no stomach for solid teaching but will fill up on spiritual junk food—catchy opinions that tickle their fancy. They’ll turn their backs on truth and chase mirages. But you—keep your eye on what you’re doing; accept the hard times along with the good; keep the message alive; do a thorough job as God’s servant.”

In both passages—1st Timothy 4 and 2nd Timothy 4—Paul addresses two of the great dangers within the church today: apathy and apostasy. Apathy might be defined, in the context of the faith, as unfaithfulness to the faith, a lack of concern, a lack of interest in the faith. Apostasy is an abandonment of the faith, a turning from the faith to a lie.

Both are all too commonly found in many who profess to be Christians today, and there is a great need for preachers who will boldly and unashamedly preach the Word without compromise. I hear too often today of folks who are in churches where the Bible is held in the hand and used as a prop, or where entertainment is the word of the day, or where messages are preached each week that are all fluff and no substance, barely milk and certainly not meat. Paul was instructing Timothy to set forth a banquet, and this is a word for all of us who preach today.

Over time, you must work out an entire Biblical menu, drawing from the Old Testament and the New. Doing book studies; character studies; thematic studies; offering sermons that address specific theological questions; messages that focus on special occasions or times of the year. You must make certain the messages preached are drawn out of the Word, are faithful to the Word, and offer practical applications to contemporary realities.

But it is not enough simply to preach. As Paul reminds us, we must also practice what we preach. Practice the Word. Your first call is to faithfulness to the Lord and to His Word. Immersion in the Word will spill out in faithful living and teaching. Commitment to the work of the Holy Spirit will be seen in your concern for the spread of the Gospel. It will be demonstrated in your concern not only for the welfare of your local community but for your region, your country, your continent, your world. Always keep your ministry of prayer and ministry in the Word first. Listen to the Lord and the rest of your responsibilities will be clearly laid out for you.

You are also called to progress in the Word, to mature in it, to be cultivated in it, to grow in it, to live in it, to move forward in and through and for it. Know there will be temptations along the way to be diverted from your call. We draw lessons about what these temptations might entail from what Jesus experienced when He was taken into the wild for the Test. There were three parts to the test as we see set forth in Matthew, chapter 4.

These temptations of Christ speak to the temptations that face the pastor and, really, for that matter, all of us.

First there is the Maturity Test—The Test of Pain and Pleasure. When you are empty, hurting or confused, will you trust God to meet your needs or will you rush to satisfy them yourself?

Will you be as those who look to the fountain of living water or as those who dig for themselves cracked cisterns that cannot hold water? Will you trust in the Lord and walk in His light or will you try to live by your own light, try to warm yourself by your own fire?

Remember, your Heavenly Father knows all your needs and He will give you all you need from day to day if you live for Him and make the Kingdom of God your primary concern. This we are promised in Matthew, chapter 6.

Then there is the Integrity Test—The Test of Popularity and Praise

Will you use your abilities to serve God and others or to gain praise for yourself? Keep in mind the lesson from the story of Rehoboam from 2nd Chronicles 12. At the height of his popularity and power, he abandoned the Lord, the people followed him in that sin, and the Lord then abandoned them to their enemies. Remember also Proverbs 27:21: “A person is tested by the praise he or she receives.”

One of the first times I heard myself referred to as “The Reverend” was over a loud speaker in an airport. A limousine driver had come to collect me to bring me to a television studio where I was to create a film for the Billy Graham Association. And when one of my first books was released, and when I started doing radio interviews and appearing on TV, I was treated like a rock star wherever I went—with crowds clustering and clambering to get near me. This happened even at Gordon-Conwell, my alma mater. I liked that. It scared me that I liked that, and I pulled back to make sure my head was on straight, and I was redirecting the praise to the One worthy of all praise and glory.

To resist temptation, we are told to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. If we do, we’re told in Galatians 5, we won’t need to look for honors or popularity and when the Lord blesses, we won’t be tempted to think we achieved everything under own power. Keep in mind that you will never please all the people all the time, and you’re not meant to. We’re to focus on Jesus. In 1 Peter 5, we are told to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God and, in His good time, He will lift us up.

The third test is the Priorities Test—The Test of Prosperity and Possessions. Do you, will you, value possessions on earth more than treasures in heaven?

In Matthew 16:26, the question is asked: “What good will it be for a person if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” And in 1st Timothy 6:18 to 19, we are instructed to use our money to do good, to give generously to those in need, always being ready to share with others whatever God has given us. By doing this, we are storing up real treasure for ourselves in heaven and living a fruitful Christian life here as well.

Trust in the Lord. Humble yourself before Him. Keep your priorities straight. And then lead like Jesus. Bosses boss. Dictators dictate. Servants serve. The pastor is called to servant leadership. In Luke 22, verse 26, we read: “The one who serves you best will be your leader.”

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will need to set an example, following the example that Jesus set. In John 13, we read the words of Jesus: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” In 1st Peter 5:3, the one called to lead is told not to lord it over others. Instead, to come alongside and lead by good example in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will need to challenge folks with a greater purpose. The popularity of Rick Warren’s book on the purpose-driven life drives home the great desire in peoples’ hearts for purpose, for meaning. We only grow when we’re challenged. God is at work in His people to will and to act according to His good purpose. We have each been made for His purpose. We have each been called according to His purpose. We must work according to God’s agenda and beware of substituting our own agendas for the Lord’s.

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will need to affirm folks for their potential and you’ll need to be patient as each will grow as the Lord brings the increase. Remember Proverbs 12:25: A word of encouragement does wonders.

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will need to trust folks with responsibility. Luke 16:10 reads: “Whoever can be trusted with a little, can also be trusted with a lot” and in 1st Corinthians 13:7 we’re told that if you love folks, you’ll believe in them and expect the best of them. If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will offer folks honest feedback, helpful correction, using only helpful words for the building up of others according to their needs.

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will be open with folks, honest with them. You’ll look to folks as friends, you’ll love them and you’ll pray for them. You will let folks minister to you. If all goes as it should, you will become pastor of your church one person at a time. And when you find yourself introduced by one in your family of faith not as simply the pastor of the church I attend but rather— with a special inflection and tone—as “my pastor”—that precious gift will fill your soul with a joy that you will treasure always. The pastor has the honor of being present in the most intimate moments of people’s lives: at births, at marriages, at crucial turning points, as an individual breathes a last breath. What a privilege it is to be admitted to such moments! These are the treasures of the pastor.

What tears down the pastor, weighs down the pastor, and can ultimately burn out, chew up and kill the pastor are manufactured crises, perpetuated dramas, pettiness, nitpicking, infighting, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the stirring up of dissension, discouraging words, negativity and impatience. Warnings and chastisements against these are found throughout scripture. Beware of these, walk carefully through them, pray for wisdom and the strength of the Lord to use them for forward (rather than backward) movement, and pray that you will behave honorably when you encounter them.

I might interject here that, as an interim pastor, my experience with this congregation was entirely different from anything I’d known before. Very little was asked of me here—though I offered to do more—so what I’ll share now about the life of a pastor comes from the years prior to my season with you.

One of the burdens of the pastorate is the guilt we can carry because we’re not given the gift of omnipresence. In any given week, there will be personal and family crises needing your attention, folks in the hospital or recuperating at home, homebound or folks in nursing homes urging you to visit. You’ll have a sermon to research and craft and Sunday services to prepare; committee and board meetings to attend; materials to select; short term and long range planning to do. You’ll have a budget line to watch; stewardship to promote. You’ll have dedications, believer’s baptisms, weddings, funerals and other events at which you will officiate.

There’ll be a website to update, advertising to consider, staff to nurture and protect (in one church I pastored, I had a paid staff of seven. If this church grows in number, it may one day have a staff of that size). There will be a building to maintain (I was the clerk of the works in renovating ¾ of another church complex). There will be community and regional contacts to make and keep, classes to teach, phone calls to make, emails to write, a community to reach; mediation to perform. You will be a prophetic voice against the evils of the day. You will need to discern which causes to champion. And there will be seemingly endless adminis-trivia calling for your attention every day of every week.

As you attend to all these responsibilities, you must make the effort to maintain a healthy home life, paying attention to your family. You must make time for fun. You must rest. You must keep a Sabbath.

And, in the middle of all of this, there will always be folks who are certain they know far better than you how you should do your work. Some of these will not approach you directly but will attempt to make end runs around you. You will need the patience of Job! At times, you may become so enmeshed, so all-encompassed in the doing of the work that you may begin to lose sight of your first priority: the being, the being in a deep and ever deepening relationship with the Lord. Put the brakes on when that happens and get yourself back on track.

Several years ago, Vernon Grounds addressed a gathering of pastors at a conference in Massachusetts. In his message, he looked to 1st Samuel 12:23 where these words are written: “As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you.”

When he finished his presentation, I looked around the room and every pastor—myself included—appeared to have been cut to the heart by his message. If you remember nothing else from what I’ve shared today, remember this: Prayerlessness is a sin. It is disobedience to the will of God. Luke 18, verse 1, records that Jesus told His disciples that they should pray and not give up. Throughout the scriptures, we are told that prayer ought to be the habit, the rule, the discipline of our lives.

Prayerlessness is contempt for the fellowship of God. If we don’t have time for fellowship with God, we’re serving something wrong. In Rev. 3:20, we’re told that the Lord stands at the door and knocks and comes to anyone who will invite Him in. Sometimes we behave towards God as though we believe Him to be at our beck and call. We expect to press a button and have Him do our will. That’s disrespectful.

Prayerlessness is indifference to the purpose of God. We say we want to be molded in the image of Jesus. Well, Jesus, during His time on earth, prayed. And what is He doing now? Interceding on our behalf.

Prayer is a struggle, a battle on three fronts. Prayer is not always a matter of pure delight. It is a struggle with the physical. With our restlessness, our drowsiness. It is a struggle with the mental. Lack of concentration, a truant imagination. It is a struggle with the spiritual. Remember Ephesians 6. We are not engaged in a struggle with just flesh and blood but are wrestling with the powers of darkness. The enemy uses emotional, physical and spiritual weapons to battle against us. But Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint on his or her knees. So…get on your knees. If you’ve got bad knees, then get on your knees in your heart.

Be concerned about your prayer life. Pray about your prayerlessness and ask the Holy Spirit to revive you in prayer. Give a thought to when you can best give your undivided attention to God. The times may vary. Perhaps you’ll pray while you walk or when you’re in the car. Perhaps you’ll pray on your knees or prone before God. Perhaps you’ll get up earlier or stay up later when the house is quiet. Do whatever helps.

Be disciplined. With the Holy Spirit’s enablement, keep at it. Pray for the grace to be consistent in prayer. Someone once said that “ruts of routine serve as God’s grooves of grace.” Remember that today you are becoming what you will be the rest of your life. You’re laying the groundwork today for the Christian you’ll be tomorrow. If you have some lack, attend to it today. Teach us to pray, Lord.

Keep before you this prayer: as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for the dear ones who make up my family of faith. And if you want your church to grow in every way, encourage your folks to pray.

I ended my message to Bob and his congregation with a prayer that his family of faith might serve as a beacon of light in the place where the Lord had planted them. I prayed that Bob might serve faithfully and well, keeping his priorities straight and the Lord the Lord. I ended with the benediction from Numbers 6:25: May the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

What I’ve presented this morning is that to which I have aspired and that to which your settled pastor should aspire. He or she should want to be a Christ-honoring, Bible-centered, faithful and faith-filled pastor, and I pray you will call a person called to and skilled in leading a church.

May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

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On the Road with Mac and Molly

Having just learned that my podcast, On the Road with Mac and Molly, was chosen by a London-based Magazine as one of the 20 best of 2021—alongside programs from ABC News, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and Harper’s Magazine—I looked back at the original write up for the show. Here it is:

In the second year of our marriage — my husband Gene and I (with our toddler Brooke in tow) took — what turned out to be — a glorious two month motor trip across Canada and Alaska — starting in Quebec and winding up in British Columbia. I still smile as I think of Gene shaving in our motor home’s rear view mirror on a cool morning by a pristine lake in Yukon Territory. I still cherish the extraordinary kindness of a farmer in Saskatchewan who rescued us from a ditch when our vehicle slid down an embankment. I still fill up with awe as I recall the staggering beauty of the Canadian Rockies. I still feel the excitement of the chuck wagon races at the Calgary Stampede, still ooh at the kick of the kitsch in Dawson’s Creek, still savor the aroma of Montreal’s culinary delights, still cherish my familial connections to Nova Scotia, still marvel at the enduring culture and artistry of the Tlingit, still delight in the metropolitan flair of Ottawa, Canada’s capitol city.

Two years prior to this journey, Gene and I made our way — in a Chevy Blazer — across the United States stopping to applaud the precise timing of Old Faithful at Yellowstone, to laugh at the delightful antics of the black-tailed prairie dogs near Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, to estimate the miles to the next grain silo on the Great Plains, to marvel at all the wares (a jackalope?) on offer at Wall Drug . . . another wonderful adventure!

Now we’ve auctioned our home and most of the contents and are making the final preparations to hit the road again but — this time — in a truck with a 38-foot fifth wheel trailer and with Mac and Molly, our sibling pair of four-year-old Old English Sheepdogs, along for the ride. With no specific itinerary, we’ll travel about the United States and Canada reporting from the well-traveled thoroughfares and lightly-traveled lanes on the joys and challenges of sharing the open road with two-hundred-plus-pounds of dog.

We’ll give you a heads up on what’s dog-friendly along the way and we’ll seek out the usual and the unusual, the celebrated and the hidden. We’ll report on fascinating places and events, intriguing trends, creative artists, unusual hobbyists, hard workers, odd jobbers, cutting-edge technology and old-time pleasures. Listeners may expect the light-hearted and the serious, entertainment, information, insights, passion, a fresh eye . . . all depending on the subject matter for each particular show. So come along as we head off . . . On the Road with Mac and Molly!
https://www.petliferadio.com/ontheroad.html

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“If I didn’t forgive them, I would never be free”

Yesterday was the eighth anniversary of the passing of Nelson Mandela. As remembrances came across my computer screen, I was reminded of a visit to Zimbabwe some years ago where I had the privilege of hearing him speak. Robert Mugabe was also on the platform that day and I remember being struck by the great difference in the receptions afforded the two men. While Mugabe was greeted with polite (faint) applause, the room filled with ululations and other expressions of appreciation and admiration as Mandela stepped to the podium. Mandela, on that day, praised the missionaries who had been so influential in his walk with Christ and he insisted he would not have been the man he was if not for his faith. I pray that followers of Christ who are reading this today might honor Mandela (and, more importantly, the God he served), by celebrating what Christ has done for us and by working each day for justice, peace, forgiveness, and righteousness wherever the Lord calls us.

Mandela famously said, “I knew, as I walked from prison, if I didn’t forgive them, I would never be free.”

If there is anyone reading this today who has not met Jesus, I pray you might take note of how a walk with Christ may transform your life as it did Mandela’s. I pray you might invite Jesus into your life, celebrate your first Christmas with great joy, and know the all-surpassing peace of the Lord all your days.

Image: Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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The Light

From 46 years ago comes a story about the power of light. Darrel Dore was working on an oil rig one day in the Gulf of Mexico when suddenly it began to wobble. Before too long it tipped to one side and crashed into the water. Darrel found himself trapped inside a room on the rig. As the rig sank deeper and deeper into the sea, the lights went out and the room where Darrel was trapped began filling with water. Thrashing about in the darkness, Darrel made a life-saving discovery: a huge air bubble was forming in the corner of the room. He kept his head inside that bubble of air and prayed that someone would find him.

As he prayed, Darrel knew he wasn’t alone; he felt the presence of Christ there with him. For 22 hours, the presence of the Lord comforted Darrel, but at the same time Darrel knew that the oxygen supply inside the bubble was slowly giving out. Soon he would be dead.

Then Darrel saw a tiny star of light shimmering in the pitch‑black water. Was it real or, after 22 hours, was he beginning to hallucinate? Darrel squinted to see. The light seemed to grow brighter. He squinted again. He wasn’t hallucinating. The light was real. It was coming from the helmet of a diver who was coming to rescue him. His long nightmare was over. His rescue was at hand.

This true story helps us understand Christmas. Sin had wobbled our world, tipped it to one side, and sent it crashing into the waters of spiritual disaster.  Darkness was everywhere.  The human race was drowning in sin, facing certain spiritual death. Then people turned to God.  They prayed in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “O Lord, you are angry and we are sinful, all of us have become unclean…Save and deliver us.”

They prayed.

And they waited for the One promised to them: The Messiah. Then, when the night seemed darkest, something remarkable happened: a star appeared in the sky heralding the arrival of the Light of the world.

Into the darkness came the Light. The Savior appeared, Jesus, the Light of the world.

Perhaps we all have stories of how precious is light when all is dark about us. Luci Swindoll tells about a friend who, along with six strangers, was caught in a stalled elevator during a power failure. Fear was quickly turning to panic. But then Luci’s friend remembered that she had a tiny flashlight in her purse. When she turned it on, the fear in the elevator dissipated. For forty‑five minutes, these strangers sat around the light and talked, laughed, and even sang. The light brought comfort when they needed it the most.

And just when the world most needed God’s light, a baby was born in Bethlehem, translated from the Hebrew (House of Bread). And this child, Jesus (whose name means Savior) was wrapped in swaddling cloths and placed in a manger (a feeding trough). The Bread of Life. The Light of the World.

The great truth of Christmas, the great message of Christmas, the great promise of Christmas, the great joy of Christmas, is all wrapped up in one word, Emmanuel… which means God with us God is always with us! The true Light is with us. The Light of Bethlehem is with us and, as we have received Christ, that Light is in us and shines through us.

Let’s recall again, as folks do this time each year, the events that occurred in Bethlehem when the Messiah—the Light—came into the world.

A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all people should take part in a census. Everyone returned to his or her own hometown to be registered. Joseph and Mary went from Nazareth south to Bethlehem. Joseph was from that town, the city of David, and while they were there, Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Luke tells us there were shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks. Luke writes, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today, in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

You can visit the place where it is believed the shepherds were that night. It is a vast pasture area still today where shepherds still take their sheep there to feed. You can stand in those fields and see Bethlehem in the distance. In that place, the shepherds were surprised and terrified as “the glory of the Lord shone around them.”

But in Psalm 27, we read that, The LORD is our light and our salvation — so why should we be afraid? The Lord is our stronghold of our lives so we need not be afraid. In Isaiah 41 we are urged not to be afraid, for He is with us. He is our God. He will strengthen us. He will help us. He will uphold us with His victorious right hand. And in Isaiah 51, we are told that sorrow and mourning will disappear, and that those who follow the Lord will be overcome with joy and gladness.

The light of Bethlehem still shines on us.

One of my prayers this season is that we might all be surprised again by the light, surprised by the joy, surprised by the blessings, surprised by Christmas! That we might not just let the passages sit on us and fall off us but that we might take them in and be illuminated by them in a new way, in a startling way, in a joy-filled, light-filled way. I pray also that we might carry Christmas with us all through the year.

Some years ago, when I was pastoring a church in Pennsylvania, I suggested that folks leave out or up some reminder of Christmas all year round. One woman told me that she and her family had decided to leave out their nativity scene—I think it was probably a Fisher Price set. Her little daughter, Lilah, called the figures in the set her “guys” and she would often walk around carrying her Jesus. She spent so much time holding on to him that a lot of his features rubbed off. Would that we all would keep Jesus so close, that we would all hold Him so tight, that lots of Jesus would rub off on us!

We can learn so much from children in their simple, yet profound, expressions of faith. Sometimes, in the rush of the world, we forget to hold on to Jesus. Each year at Christmas, the church in Pennsylvania had a live nativity on the property, complete with barn animals. Then one year, I suggested we put that display on a flatbed truck and take it on the road for the city’s Christmas parade. We gathered all our folks and lined up at the starting point, but then it dawned on us: we were missing the baby Jesus. We came up with the last-ditch idea of using my knitted gloves bundled up under the swaddling clothes as stand in for Jesus, but then one father of young children [bless his heart!) saved the day—running home and arriving back in the nick of time with a baby doll. In all our careful preparations, it wasn’t until we looked at the empty manger, until we looked at our Mary’s empty arms, that we realized how desperately we needed our Jesus. How’s that for profundity? Too often, we do the very same thing at Christmas – leaving Jesus behind.

I must note that our presence in the parade—our nativity scene—turned out to be the only true Christmas presence in the sea of marching bands; beauty queens; antique cars; politicians; clowns; storybook, movie and TV characters; floats advertising local businesses; and—of course—Santa. I must say, however, our nativity scene rivaled Santa in popularity. People all along the route literally squealed with delight when they saw us…and old and young yelled, “Look, it’s Jesus!! It’s the baby Jesus!!”

A dear friend, Tom Graffagnino, who is an author, poet and visual artist, wrote a lament that aptly summarizes what’s happened to many contemporary celebrations of Christmas:

Christmas now means TV Specials,
Hopeful Fridays in the black.
Sleighs and reindeer on the rooftops…
Santas with their bulging sacks.

We’ve got busy elves and grinches,
We hear workshop “Ho-Ho-Ho’s!”
Deca-dancing through the malls, sir…
Where there’s more wind yet to sow.

Huge parades in front of Macy’s
Have a Hollywoodish spin.
Talking heads all reading prompters,
Pantomiming stars with grins.

Giant Garfields floating by us…
Frosty blow-ups on the lawn.
Nonsense from the Tow’r of Babel,
That just babbles on and on.

There are bowl games in the offing,
And, O, my!…They bring us Joy!
Celebrations in the end zone…
Barbie dolls and tinker toys.

Yes, we covet Golden Calves, son,
That our neighbors bought this year.
In the meantime, we’re quite certain
That there is no God to fear.

* * *

Is it really any wonder
That, my friend, we’ve lost our way?
We’ve lost sight, and now we wander
Blind in fog of 50 Grays.

* * *

Truth appeared in flesh before us,
True Light dwelt in time and space.
Now we scoff our way through Target…
And ignore Amazing Grace.

Ah, but still, the Light shines. The light of Christ never stops shining. Our parents and grandparents saw the Light’s glow in the darkest hours of the depression. Our soldiers have seen the Light’s glow even on distant battlefields. The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. The Light shines in prison camps. The Light shines in hospital rooms and funeral parlors. The Light shines amidst poverty and the Light shines into sunken rooms on oil rigs. The Light shines in every manner of heartache and hardship. Nothing can stop the Light of God’s love for humankind from penetrating the darkness.

As John declares so beautifully in verses 4 and 5 in the first chapter of his gospel, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of humankind. The Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” Jesus is the Light of the world. That Light cannot be extinguished.

Let this light of joy give you courage. This was the message of the angel for the shepherds, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all the people.”

Do not be afraid. Why? Because of this good news of great joy. What is the antidote to fear? The opposite of fear, the antidote to fear, the cure of fear, is joy. The joy of Christmas will keep you from being afraid. A deep, profound trust in the gift of Bethlehem will keep you from being afraid.

Armed with the joy of Christmas, this light of joy shining around you, you can stand against anything and everything that would threaten you. Courage means we know who we are, in spite of everything we face, and we can face even those things which threaten to destroy us.

In December 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, the German army surrounded some Americans in the village of Bastogne. The German commander sent a message ordering the Americans to surrender. The American commander sent back a one-word message, “Nuts!” It was one of the greatest responses of military history.

That is the message of Christmas for every Herod and every heartache and every hatred and every hardship and everything that would destroy you — Nuts! Or, as the angel put it, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all people.”

Let the light of Christmas give you courage. The Savior—the Light of the World, the Author of Joy, is your best gift at Christmas. He has come to save the world and He has come to save you.

As you travel about in this season, look at all the lights strung to illuminate the darkness and ponder the beauty of it all, ponder what the world would be without Light and remember that we have the privilege of sharing the Light. That’s our job when we leave this place. Let the light of Christ shine through you. Let this light give you courage. This was the message of the angel for the shepherds, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy!”

Prepare Him room and receive the joy that illuminates the world.

Perhaps you might wish to lift this prayer:

Gracious God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we come to You, the faithful One, who stands with us in and through all things. We rejoice this Advent season in the sure and steadfast hope that is ours in Jesus the Lord. As we draw closer to Christmas, keep us growing ever stronger in mind and spirit. Enable us to walk each day in holiness and purity. May our lives express such devotion to the faith that has claimed us that there would be about us no wavering testimony but instead a witness of love that will be clearly understood by all we encounter. Lord, make us shine like the stars. May we do everything without complaining or arguing as we hold out the Word of Life. May we be glad and rejoice in You.

May we hold on tight to you, Jesus, and may Your Holy Spirit fill us to the brim. May we rejoice in your Presence and walk in Your Light. In the name of the Savior we pray. Amen

In closing, I’d like to share one more poem by Tom Graffagnino:

He’s the Reason for the season,
He’s the Reason for them all…
He’s the Truth, the Living Water,
Spring of Hope beyond The Fall.

He’s the Reason there’s a harvest,
He’s the Firstfruit, He’s the Seed,
He’s the Word the Father’s sowing
Through the Bride…the Bread we need.

He’s the Light of dawn we long for,
Justice truly…and the Scale.
He’s the Shepherd by still water,
He’s the Truth beyond the veil.

He’s the Reason there is reason,
And the Reason there is Good,
He’s the Reason why you ought not,
And the Reason why you should.

He’s the Reason for amazement,
He’s the Reason why there’s awe….
He’s the Reason why we trembled
At the sunset that we saw.

He’s the Reason that now Heaven
Is a place that we may be…
And the reason, friend, is simple:
It’s a place called Calvary.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And now unto Him, who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you without blemish before the presence of His glory with rejoicing, to the only God, our Savior, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord before all time, now, and for evermore. Amen.

Image: Unsplash

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Dog Chapel

On the desk in my study is an Atlas Obscura calendar that captures the sensation of wanderlust in 365 days of color photographs, unique facts, and unexpected adventures. I was delighted to find today’s page dedicated to the extraordinary Dog Chapel in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. The structure was built by internationally-known author and folk artist Stephen Huneck to celebrate the relationship between human and hound. The interior walls are covered in handwritten notes and photographs of cherished dogs and other animals that have passed on, and tables offer treats for canine visitors. A sign outside reads: “Welcome all creeds, all breeds. No dogmas allowed.”

My husband, Gene, and I visited this remarkable place with Mac and Molly, our sibling pair of Old English Sheepdogs. In a podcast (the link for which I’m sharing here), I take you on a tour of the chapel, recall a romp with our M&M, take a peak at what’s on offer in Huneck’s adjacent art gallery, and wrap it all up in an interview with Huneck’s widow Gwen. Take a listen!!

https://www.petliferadio.com/ontheroad_player6.htm

Lady Dog Walker by Stephen Huneck.
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Nomadic Touchpoints in Nomadland

SO grateful for our years as nomads in Nomadland!!

My husband, Gene, and I found many touchpoints in this movie to bring us back to our days on the road. Like the central character, Fern, we lived in the Badlands, ate and shopped at Wall Drug, walked with bison and crocs, marveled at the mud nests of the cliff swallows, felt the wind in our hair as we ambled along the shores of the Pacific Ocean, bathed in lakes and streams, danced in raucous bars, stood next to the great Sequoias, and looked through telescopes at Jupiter and other astral phenomena.

We spent many a glorious evening under the stars by countless campfires, sitting with an astonishing assortment of folk: helicopter loggers, a gold panner, moonshiners, survivalists, musicians, a man who worked for years as a prison guard at the supermax Pelican Bay, a veteran who’d served as a tunnel rat in Vietnam, a veterinarian who only made house calls, a knitwear designer… All widened our horizons and became cherished companions along the way. We didn’t refer to ourselves as “houseless,” as does Fern, in this film; rather, we thought of our Carriage Cameo as our “not-attached-to-the-land” home.

We traveled through all the states seen in the film—South Dakota, Nevada, Arizona, Nebraska, and California—and the remaining 44 as well (I also made a side trip to Hawaii; the RV couldn’t take us there). We served as workcampers, park hosts, visitor specialists at national parks…about the only thing we didn’t do was work for Amazon.

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Less Grumbling, More Gratitude

This message is centered on gratitude, on thankfulness, on the need for us to focus on the positives in our lives, rather than—what we might think of as—the negatives.

I have a couple of stories to share. But we begin first with Philippians, chapter 4, where we read: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. And remember 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…And the God of peace will be with you.”

First story.

When our first grandchild, Katherine, was born, our daughter Brooke went in search of a second-hand dresser that she could paint for her. At a used furniture shop, Brooke located a two-drawer piece that she thought would work. She painted it all white and then applied a bright yellow to the drawers. In white letters over the yellow, she put the words to a song I had sung to her when she was a little girl: “you are my sunshine, my only sunshine.”

Katherine is now 10 years old. Two weeks ago, Brooke purchased a new dresser for Katherine, and the old sunshiny one was taken to a local transfer station where Brooke hoped other parents would find it and bring it home for their child or children.

But then, recently, Brooke and Andrew happened to take their youngest boy, four-year-old Gaelen, to the local fire station where there was to be a safety demonstration.

The department had created a simulation of, a model of a child’s room with a bed, stuffed animals, clothing, a lamp, and a toy chest. And there, in the middle of it all, was Katherine’s dresser. The firefighters had found the piece at the transfer station and probably realized the personalized, painted dresser would increase the impact they were hoping to achieve.

Brooke was stunned, shocked, floored…and overcome with heartbreak. She had to leave. She couldn’t bear to see the dresser go up in flames. And she called me immediately because, she said, she knew I would understand. And I did. And I cried with her. So much family history, so much love, so much caring, so much emotion, was in that dresser.

Now, why do I tell you this story in a message about gratitude? Because her heartbreak, my heartbreak, came from a place of love and gratitude. Neither of us could have cared as much—as we did—about that falling-apart, rickety, broken-down dresser if we hadn’t been invested in it, if we hadn’t been grateful for all the blessings it had seen. We couldn’t be heartbroken at its loss, if we hadn’t stored up in our hearts and minds and spirits the memories represented by that dresser. Now, we had a choice. We could stay in that place of heartbreak, and lament the passing of the years, or we could turn to refocus and reframe the moment to give thanks for the blessings the Lord had bestowed upon us over those years.

Gratitude pumps oxygen into our souls and helps us refocus and reframe our days so we can experience more joy and more peace.  Did you happen to notice in the passage from Philippians how anxiety is linked to how we think, where we put our focus. Too often we quote only verses 6 and 7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” We don’t go on to verse 8: “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…And the God of peace will be with you.”

I have a confession to make.

Over some months, not all that long ago, I had allowed myself to become so depleted, so discouraged, so drained of energy, so focused on what was wrong, so discontented, that I had become a grumbler. I had become SO worn out, so worn down… I’d become a chronic groaner, a chronic complainer, filled to the brim, filled to the grim, with ingratitude. A grumbling machine.

But then one day, the Lord began to work in me an increasing awareness of my sin of ingratitude, and then He hit me between the eyes with the words of speaker at a conference I attended. I was reminded through these words that ingratitude is one of the great malaises of our society. Ingratitude is a form of idolatry. Some folks believe it’s the real root of all evil, the failure to give God thanks, and it’s tied to what we notice. Do we center on the flaws, the negatives, the missing, on what we think is not quite right? Are we plagued by a spirit of entitlement? Ingratitude can arise when we don’t get the respect, or the money, or the valuing that we think we deserve.

Years ago, author Paul Tournier observed that ‘no gift can bring joy to the one who [believes he] has a right to everything.’ While there is a healthy interpretation of entitlement that is tied to a sense of dignity and equality, when it is exaggerated, it brings continual dissatisfaction and an inability to be thankful for anything. If we think we deserve the gifts and blessings we have received, it is easy for us to become greedy for more benefits and to overlook the needs of others. We may cultivate a capacity not to notice when ‘our benefit has come at someone else’s expense.’ Dissatisfaction as a way of life is encouraged by a consumerist culture that feeds notions of entitlement. We want more, and we want better—better bodies, newer cars, bigger churches, more beautiful homes, finer coffee—a cycle of generalized dissatisfaction fuels envy, striving, and buying.”

Ingratitude can be tied to envy: wanting what someone has and not wanting them to have it. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “Envy is sorrow for another’s good.” Henri Nouwen suggests we can only appreciate God’s goodness to others when we appreciate His goodness to us.

And you know what?  Ingratitude is contagious. It can spread and become terribly destructive.

So…what’s the cure? Gratitude. Focusing on the immeasurable goodness of God’s grace. Reframing our lives to center on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Strengthening practices of gratitude. Articulating our blessings. Beginning and ending each day with moments of thankfulness. Modeling thankfulness. Writing notes of affirmation and encouragement. Working to become more adept at celebrating what is good. Catching people at being a gift, and telling them, “You have been God’s grace to me.” Every night at dinner, sharing that for which you’re grateful. Each and every one of these acts adds to a reservoir of grace.

Now, gratitude doesn’t displace lament. There are experiences in our lives that can bring on sadness, disappointment, anger, frustration. But we are helped when times are tough in remembering that we are secure in the Lord. That God is still good, God is still with us, even when, especially when, times are tough. And even lament has elements of hope, promise and grace.

In a recent Streams in the Desert devotional guide was the following poem by Annie Johnson Flint:

They are HIS billows, whether they go o’er us,
Hiding His face in smothering spray and foam;
Or smooth and sparkling, spread a path before us,
And to our haven, bear us safely home.

They are HIS billows, whether for our succor
He walks across them, stilling all our fear;
Or to our cry there comes no aid nor answer,
And in the lonely silence none is near.

They are HIS billows, whether we are toiling
Through tempest-driven waves that never cease,
While deep to deep, with clamor, loud is calling;
Or at His word they hush themselves in peace.

They are HIS billows, whether He divides them,
Making us walk dryshod where seas had flowed;
Or lets tumultuous breakers surge about us,
Rushing unchecked across our only road.

They are HIS billows, and He brings us through them;
So He has promised, so His love will do.
Keeping and leading, guiding and upholding,
To His sure harbor, He will bring us through.

Author and pastor Rick Warren has suggested that, in happy moments, we praise God. In difficult moments, we seek God. In quiet moments, we worship God. In painful moments, we trust God. In every moment, we thank God.

From G.K. Chesterton we have this, “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or you take them with gratitude.”

“To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything He has given us—and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him.”—Thomas Merton

God’s grace can appear like a blinding flash of lightning, splitting the sky on a dark night. Our gratitude is the thundering response.

The English poet George Herbert was born at the end of the 16th century into a powerful English family. His father held an aristocratic title and sat in Parliament. The son, who was educated at Cambridge and became a favorite of England’s King James I, seemed destined to a life of wealth, prestige, and political prominence before he decided to take orders as an Anglican priest in his mid-thirties. For three years, he labored as a country parson in a tiny parish southwest of London, before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of thirty-nine. “Gratefulness” is part of a collection of poems by Herbert that was published shortly after his death.

He wrote in part:

“Thou that hast given so much to me, give one thing more, a grateful heart.
I cry, and cry again; And in no quiet canst thou be, till I, a thankful heart obtain of thee: Not thankful, when it pleaseth me; As if thy blessings had spare days:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be Thy praise.”

Hear the Word of the Lord:

Psalm 107:8—Thank God for His marvelous love, for His mercy and wonderful works on our behalf.

First Corinthians 1:4—I thank my God always on your behalf for the grace of God which has been given to you through Jesus Christ.

First Thessalonians 5:16-18—Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4— Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…(And remember) 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…And the God of peace will be with you.”

From writer Mariel Davenport comes our closing story about resting thankfully in the Lord:

Closing the day as a family, lying on my youngest son’s bed and saying our good-night prayers, my son decided out of the blue that he wanted to pray tonight. This is a rare occurrence for him, especially at bedtime, as he tends to do more wiggling than praying; so we were thrilled at this opportunity to peek into his young heart.

“Thank you, Jesus,” he began, “for my brother, my mommy, my daddy, my house, my friends…oh, and thank you especially for my bunk bed. And, thank you, Jesus, for my toys and for the roof on our house and for our neighbor friends we played with today. Thank you also, for my covers, our food and plates, my cats…” My sweet son must have thanked Jesus for 10 solid minutes! He’s the one who never wants to pray when we do family devotions or bedtime prayers. It was like he was catching up with God. I smiled at the thought.

We finally kissed him and his precious big brother ‘good-night.’ We gently closed the door behind us and left the room.

Not even three minutes passed and we thought we heard our boys calling us, so my husband went to check on them. Everything was fine, but to his surprise our youngest was already sound asleep! My husband examined him closely, and sure enough the little guy was out. He had unloaded on Jesus and now was peacefully off to dreamland!

As I pondered his approach, Psalm 55:22 rolled over in my mind. “Cast your cares on the Lord and He will sustain you…” My young son had the faith to pour his little heart out to God in thanksgiving, for even the smallest treasures, and now could rest secure in the love of the Father. I wondered why I often fail to do the same.

Why do we allow the spirit of discontentment to rob us of true thankful rest in the Father’s care? Why do we focus too often on what we lack rather than what we have? This little one was able (for the moment) to glance around at his life and overflow in thankfulness for a God who abundantly provides.

Colossians 2:6-7 urges believers to do the same, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him, rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” What a beautiful example of this was demonstrated in living color through this little boy. He had absorbed the blessings around him to the point he could no longer contain them in his little heart. He spilled over with thankfulness and that thankfulness unveiled the lack of thankfulness in my own weary soul.

Too often, burdened by the cares of the world and life in general, we can focus on the negative rather than pouring out words of praise and thanksgiving to our God. Based on the example of this little one, I am seeking to empty pitchers of praise before the feet of my Heavenly Father.

In this season of Thanksgiving,  let’s be sure our focus is on praise and the positive, let us allow our own often weary hearts to be led by a child as we thank our faithful God for the many blessings around us… both big and small. Then we can rest peacefully in His care!