Too Stressed from Rest…

Confession time once again…I’m ready for this “Stay-at-Home” order to be lifted. I think I’m suffering from what “experts” (ugh! THAT word!) are calling “quarantine fatigue.” Basically, that just means one is tired of staying home. I’m tired of staying home and I work in an “essential” business and go to the office almost every day. But, I just want to go to the Mexican restaurant and have chips and salsa. I want to go to the movie. I want to go see my grandchildren play spring sports. I want to go to Dillard’s and buy my wife a Mother’s Day gift.

That’s a lot of “I” statements, and I’m sure there are some of you teeing up to pounce on me for my selfishness, but according to research done using cell phone data, I’m not the only one who has quarantine fatigue. More and more people are venturing out to beaches, parks and other places to break the monotony of quarantine. It’s interesting that the pandemic created one crisis. Now the quarantine is creating another. Apparently, people who are quarantined get bored, lonely and restless. Makes me wonder: Are we stressed from all this rest?

I’m not a simpleton. I know there are countless reasons we are stressed during this time. Many elderly are stressed because of the overwhelming impact the Coronavirus has on their demographic. Many small business owners are stressed by the potential loss of their livelihood. Many others are stressed from their lay-off from work, and many others are stressed by the financial impact the pandemic is having on their lives. But, stressed from rest, now that’s interesting.

Psalm 23

Quarantine fatigue puts me to pondering the 23rd Psalm. Psalm 23 must be the most-loved, most read and most quoted of all the Psalms. This psalm is called the Shepherd”s Psalm because it portrays God as a good Shepherd, who cares for and looks after his flock. The Psalm is attributed to King David. If anyone was qualified to describe God in this manner, it was David who had been a shepherd before he became a king. How often David must have gazed up at the heavens on a star-filled night whilst watching over his father’s sheep and pondered the very nature of God! Surely he must have pondered how much God was just like a shepherd. His years of shepherding had taught him a few things, and as he contemplated the shepherd’s work, he found a fitting description of what God does for his people.

There are a number of things David notes in this Psalm. The opening sentence really says all that needs to be said: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The NIV says, “I shall not be in want,” and the NLT says, “I have everything I need.” Everything that comes after the first sentence is unpacking what the Psalmist means by having everything he needs. Because we’re in the midst of a quarantine, and folks are even stressing from resting, my mind is captured by one idea David centers on—rest.

Man in a Hurry

We don’t often rest well in the 24/7/365 culture we were living in pre-pandemic. Rest is almost a forgotten art, but rest is integral to our human existence. We can’t wind the rubber band tighter and tighter. The tension has to be released, or sooner or later the rubber band will snap. When it snaps it will lead us to a mental failure, a moral failure or severe chronic health conditions. We’re seeing the same thing happen with quarantine fatigue.

I used to use a lot of Andy Griffith illustrations in my sermons. There’s one episode of the Andy Griffith Show that illustrates how we live most of our lives. The episode is entitled “Man in a Hurry,” and it’s about a business man from Raleigh (Mr. Tucker, I think is his name) whose car breaks down on Sunday. Of course, Wally, the owner of the filling station, isn’t available on Sunday, so Mr. Tucker convinces Gomer to try to fix the car. The man finds it imperative to get to Charlotte. No amount of coaxing will encourage the man to rest, relax, take it easy until Monday morning when Wally will be back and willing to fix his car.

He’s a man in a hurry. At one point, Mr. Tucker says, “You people are living in another world. This is the 20th century. Don’t you realize that? The whole world is living in a desperate space age. Men are orbiting the earth. International television has been developed, and here, a whole town is standing still because two old women’s feet fall asleep!” Barney just looks at Andy and asks, “I wonder what causes that?” That desperate need to be on the run was broadcast in 1963—that’s the year I was born, folks. Things have only gotten worse since.

Rest

We need rest, and the Psalmist says that’s exactly what the shepherd offers his sheep. “He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul.” You know how it is, right? Living life with all these balls juggling in the air—you’ve got the work ball, the family ball, the church ball, the society ball. We run frantically around trying to keep all the balls juggling at the same time.

Take a look at one of those balls—the work ball. The average American works 47 hours per week. We can’t wait to get to the weekend, right? But then, we don’t rest because we have to keep the family ball in the air. There’s laundry to be done. The yard needs mowing. The hedges need trimming. The roof needs fixing. The kids have ball games. Juggle, juggle, juggle. Then, on March 17th, all that stopped. We were  forced to stop juggling the balls–to put them down, as it were. And now, we’re stressed about that, too. Ain’t life funny?

If we’re not resting, it might be a good indication we’re not following the Shepherd.  Even when we’ve been given the gift of time to rest, and the rest is stressing us, it’s a good indication we’re not following because the Shepherd makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters. HE does it. He does it because rest is part of God’s nature. God worked for six days and He rested. God looked on the seventh day and saw that it was “very good.” The work was complete. And God built that rhythm into life. God didn’t need to rest because He was weary from the work. God rested because the creation was complete. It was whole.

Yeah, we had to go and mess it up. But, we can rest because we are complete in the Shepherd. We find wholeness in our relationship with the shepherd, and I remind us that wholeness is really the definition behind this little thing we call salvation.

Rest comes as a result of contentment. Sheep rest when they are content. Phillip Keller in his great book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, says there are four things that create discontent in sheep: 1) fear, 2) friction, 3) parasites, and 4) hunger. The sheep are able to rest when the shepherd addresses each one of those circumstances.

So, what are we afraid of? We can acknowledge there is much that promotes fear in the pandemic. Let’s name those fears. Where are the places of friction in our lives? All the memes on social media about home-schooling and drunk teachers are funny for a reason. Is it in a relationship? No doubt, the quarantine has caused a number of couples to deal with issues that have long been buried. What are the parasites that are drawing the life out of us? What are we hungry for (besides Mexican food)?  We find meaning, purpose and value in life when we depend on the Shepherd, not when we depend upon ourselves–even in a quarantine.

Finding Stillness

Rest doesn’t come easily or automatically for us. We must cultivate the art. May I offer some suggestions to aid cultivation?

  1. Block out time–even with an abundance on the calendar–to rest. Hopefully, you’ve established a routine even for the quarantine. Include intentional times of disconnect from the routine to stop and connect with the Shepherd.
  2. Don’t take yourself (or others) too seriously. There are things that are serious, but they are far fewer in number than we imagine.
  3. Laugh out loud every day at something. I didn’t say laugh at someone. That can be destructive. But, the wisdom writer of Proverbs says, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine” (Proverbs 17:22).
  4. Embrace the gift God is giving us to change the things in our lives that need changing. God is giving us the opportunity to reassess our priorities by learning what we can live without.

Rest is part of God’s provision for our lives. In the midst of quarantine fatigue, it seems a good time to be reminded that rest is part of the “all I need” the Good Shepherd provides. Perhaps that’s our greatest need. Maybe it’s why that’s where David started his greatest song.

Until next time, keep looking up…

This “Crazy” Life (Or, 5 Characteristics of Crazy Faith)…

What do you do when life gets crazy? When you are worn out, tired, discouraged, when things have not gone well, when you are, if not at the end of your rope, pretty close to the end – what do you do? What do I do? I eat! I am a stress eater. Sometimes it is somethings sweet. Other times it is a salty, full of comforting carbs snack – but when I’m at the edge or walking into the house at the end of long day I want food – whether I am hungry or not. I just want to eat, to fill myself up with something that will keep me from having to deal with the emptiness stress often causes. Yes, I walk into the house and say to Vanessa, “Let’s go get something to eat!”crazy faith

I confess to you my way of dealing with stress, not so you will tell me, “You don’t have to worry about your weight, Pastor,” but so you will think about what you do. Some people smoke, others drink or even take drugs, people zone out in front of a computer, or stay so busy they don’t have to think about it or go into denial mode, pretending it is okay when it really isn’t! Life gets crazy for all of us, and when we experience emptiness, or feel drained or overwhelmed, the temptation is to fill ourselves up with things that we think will bring us comfort. Many times they do, but often it is only a temporary fix or escape. May I offer an invitation to fill ourselves up with what truly comforts, not just as a temporary fix, but in a way that brings us a new lease on life. It is an invitation to fill ourselves up with God because it is the Lord who answers us and delivers us from all our fears, who hears us and saves us when life gets crazy.

Life was crazy for David…literally! Psalm 34 is a tangible testimony to David’s crazy life. Here’s the context of the psalm: David was running from King Saul. As a young man, he had been pulled from his father’s pastures and anointed as King of Israel. The only problem with that scenario was Saul was still king. David, through his great gift of music, and the ingenuity he employed to defeat the giant Goliath, eventually made it into King Saul’s court, and the Bible says that when David played music, it soothed the soul of King Saul, who battled his own mental instability. Long story short. Saul became jealous of David, and in a couple of fits of jealousy, tried to kill David. David had to run for his life. The first stop on his journey was in Philistia, which is the home of the Philistines. You remember the Philistines? Yeah, Goliath was a Philistine. These are David’s archenemies. David’s crazy life just got crazier. David arrives in Gath and encounters King Achish. Some of the king’s servants tell Achish, “Hey, this is David from Israel. Haven’t you heard they wrote a song about him? Goes like this: ‘Saul has killed his thousands, but David his ten thousands’.” So, David, on the run from one crazy king, and in the presence of his enemy, gets afraid. Makes sense to me. What does David do? Decides to mimic the behavior he’s seen in Saul. 1 Samuel 21:13 says David changed his behavior and “pretended to be insane.” Achish said, “Don’t I have enough of my own madmen? I don’t need one from Israel. Get him out of here.” And, David was sent packing, delivered from the hand of his enemies. Pretty crazy, huh?

It would be real easy for me to say the lesson for us is “When life gets crazy, get crazy with it,” but I don’t think that’s what David experienced. After all, he only pretended to be insane. Instead, I think the lesson is “Though people think we’re crazy, we’re still going to praise God!” That’s the message of David’s song. To the world, the life of faith can seem pretty crazy.

 

Crazy faith actually speaks and acts in a way that reflects the freedom God gives us, that reflects our trust in God so that we can actually become people who do good rather than evil—so that we can actually survive the craziness of this life. We don’t break the bad habits in our lives by simply sitting down and wishing them away. We break the bad habits by changing our behavior, by reaching for a carrot instead of catfish, by walking out of the store without buying the latest fashion and instead tithing to help do good, by turning off the television or computer and reading Scripture and then talking to God in prayer, or actually being quiet to hear God speak back. Yeah, I know. Crazy, right?

Perhaps if we trusted the Lord to fill us up when we were tired, exhausted, discouraged, we would discover the energy and power of God’s spirit, and actually be able to do more – not just to keep busy, but to change the world so that others could rejoice in God because they have experienced being rescued, they have experienced being heard, they have experienced being fed.

We live in a world where we are bombarded with advertisements and invitations to fill ourselves, to fill our lives with all kinds of stuff, believing these things, this “whatever” will make me truly happy. But we also live in a world which depletes us, making us wonder if we are successful or valuable. It takes crazy faith to sing praise when we can’t make sense of our lives. It takes crazy faith to trust when the world is caving in on us. It takes crazy faith to believe that God will provide all we need when it feels like we need it all. It takes crazy faith to hear the voice of God in the midst of all things that clamor for our attention and that drain us of our energy. David had crazy faith. He believed God even when his life was crazy.

Don’t think because your life is crazy that God can’t use you. Look at how he used David’s crazy life. God’s been using crazy for a long time. God uses crazy when crazy is all he’s got. It’s crazy that God used a murderer named Moses to deliver his people from Egyptian bondage. It’s crazy that God used a donkey to speak to Balaam. It’s crazy that God would use a Pharisee named Paul to change the world. It’s crazy that God would take a man named Peter, who denied Jesus not once, not twice, but three times, and use him as the first leader of his church.

It takes crazy faith to believe that God would put on human flesh, be born as a baby, grow up as a man, be crucified for the sins of the world, and three days later rise up from the grave. The world says that’s crazy! What’s even crazier is that God offers through His Son, Jesus, the opportunity for us to be reconciled to Him, simply by believing. I don’t have to jump through a bunch of hoops. I don’t have to do so many sacrifices. I don’t even have to pray a prayer in a particular way. All I have to do is accept and believe, and that’s crazy. It’s crazy, but it’s true. I know this sounds crazy, but God wants to use you…you with your life going crazy…you with your brokenness…you with your doubt…you with your confusion…you with your hunger. He wants to use you. He wants to use me, and I can tell you, that’s crazy, but when crazy is all he’s got, that’s what he’ll use.

Let me leave with five characteristics of “crazy faith”:

  1. Crazy faith doesn’t have God in a box.
  2. Crazy faith doesn’t always follow the “rules.”
  3. Crazy faith isn’t shackled by the fear of failure.
  4. Crazy faith believes it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask permission.
  5. Crazy faith is driven by passion, not success.

Perhaps I’ll unpack those in my next blog.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Closet Space…

I love old homes. They have character, charm and history, and they have high ceilings. Most old homes have front porches, too. I love front porches. For all the warmth, charm and character old homes have, they often leave a lot to be desired. For one thing, the floors creak when you walk. For another, the wind whistles through the windows, and of course, in the winter the heat gets trapped up in those high ceilings, and that makes the home cold. When we lived in Kentucky, the church there had a fantastic, old parsonage (100 years old). Five bedrooms—the largest parsonage we ever lived in. With four children, it was great! There was one thing about that old parsonage, though, that we never quite got used to—no closets. Well, there were closets. They were just small. The upstairs closets particularly weren’t really closets at all. They were really just the crawl space between the wall and the slanted roof on the house. You had to duck to walk in the “closet.”old place

That’s the thing about old houses. Most were built in a time when life was less crowded with stuff. People didn’t need big closets. Now, one of the primary selling points of a home is its closet space. We want lots of closets so we can store our stuff. There’s stuff we put in those closets that we forget about. Sometimes we put stuff in the closet because we don’t know what else to do with it. So, we just keep needing bigger and bigger closets.

Every one of us has a closet we’d as soon forget, though. Like all our other closets, it too, has gotten bigger and fuller. It’s the closet where we keep all our skeletons. We all have skeletons in our closets. They are not pretty, and we’re afraid someone will find out, and finding out, will judge or condemn us. We all have those skeletons, and they’re there just waiting to destroy us. Actually, it’s the fear of being found out that is destroying us.

The Psalmist David had one of those closets, too. David writes a sad, sad song  with Psalm 51 as a result of a prophet named Nathan showing up to remind him of a few skeletons David was hiding. This song was a reminder to David of a very sad time in his life, but it’s also a song of hope in the grace and forgiveness of God.

Let me offer a little reminder of David’s life to set the context of the song. David was a young shepherd boy tapped from the pastures of his father’s flock to be anointed king over all Israel. David was described in scripture as “a man after God’s own heart.” David had battled and defeated the giant Goliath, and won many other victories over his enemies. There was a time in his life when he was at the pinnacle of his success. He had reunited the divided nation of Israel. He returned the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, and he was making plans for building a glorious Temple for God. Things were going very well for David. So well, in fact, that David no longer felt it necessary to go out to do battle with his army. Samuel tells us in 2nd Samuel 11 it “was the time of year when kings went to war, David sent Joab and the Israelite army to destroy the Ammonites.” It was during that time that David, arising from an afternoon nap, strolled out onto the palace roof outside his bedroom and beheld a beautiful woman. His passion rose within him, and blinded by his own pride, success and position, David believed he could have anything he wanted—including another man’s wife.

Let me make a long story short—David slept with this beautiful woman named Bathsheba. She became pregnant. David tried to cover the affair up, but failed. David even had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah (one of his best soldiers) killed. Adultery (which this day and age, seems to be the only sexual sin frowned upon), lying, conspiracy, murder—yes, David was filling that closet full of skeletons, and here comes Nathan throwing open the door.

Nathan learned what David had done, and at the Lord’s urging, confronted David. I want you think about the courage it took for Nathan to confront David. David was king, for heaven’s sake! Nathan was risking his life. Accountability always involves risk. The right thing to do is always costly.

Nathan confronted David by telling him a story about a rich man and a poor man. The rich man had many sheep and other livestock, but the poor man only had one little sheep that he held in his arms, and became the family pet. The rich man had a visitor from out of town, and rather than taking a sheep from his own flock, went and took the poor man’s sheep. David became enraged and demanded that the person who did this must die after repaying the poor man four times over what he had taken. Nathan looked intently at David and said, “You da’ man!” The title of this sad song tells us Nathan’s confrontation led David to write what has become perhaps the world’s most famous confession. What David discovered was that rather than being destroyed by all those skeletons, he found cleansing and renewal when the closet got cleaned out.

Confession is hardly ever practiced by Protestant Christians anymore, but I believe there is redemptive power in hearing someone say to us, “Your sins are forgiven.” I suspect we don’t practice confession because we believe someone would be shocked to hear us confess to some sin or shortcoming. We probably see it as no one’s business, and perhaps that’s how David saw it, too. Could it also be that we’ve come to see the church as a fellowship of “saints” rather than what it really is—a fellowship of sinners, and we see ourselves as the only one who has not taken what Richard Foster called “the high road to heaven?” As David discovers, confession is redemptive, and redemption is good for the soul.

Guilt, especially unresolved guilt, will destroy us. Listen to David’s plea in verse 3—“my shameful deeds haunt me day and night.” To overcome sin in our lives, we have to move from guilt to grace. Grace heals and transforms us. Confession is the bridge that gets us from guilt to grace. There are basically four types of guilt. First, civil guilt is that guilt that comes because we have driven over the speed limit, or run a red light. It is objective. We’re guilty whether we ever get caught or not. Secondly, theological guilt comes from breaking one of God’s commandments, and it, too is objective. We may or may not feel remorse, but if we have broken one of the commandments, we’re guilty. The Apostle Paul speaks of our theological guilt in Romans 3:23—“for we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard.”

Thirdly, psychological guilt is the guilt we feel, and it is the guilt that can be most damaging to our emotions. It’s the guilt from which we find the most difficulty healing, and it may or may not be linked to either civil or theological guilt. It may not even be linked to anything real. Psychological guilt is perceived guilt. Some people carry it from childhood, never realizing they carry a burden on their shoulders that doesn’t belong to them. Adults who grew up in broken homes often carry this type of guilt. Victims of spousal abuse carry this guilt. People who have lost loved ones go through this type of guilt. Psychological guilt is so destructive precisely because it is often not attached to anything tangible. That makes it almost impossible to deal with, and often times requires professional therapy.

Finally, there is true guilt. True guilt gave rise to David’s song. True guilt can lead to constructive sorrow. Constructive sorrow is healthy because it prompts us that we’ve done something wrong. It moves us to confession so we can begin to resolve the effects the brokenness causes. True guilt is like warning lights on our car. We had an old Plymouth mini-van when we were in seminary, and the “check engine” light used to come on all the time. The owner’s manual said take it to the nearest dealer and have it checked. It may signal a minor problem, or it may indicate a major breakdown. Either way, the light indicates something is wrong. True guilt acts the same way, and constructive sorrow moves us to repentance and confession, and ultimately to grace. Grace is what we’re all searching for. So you see, confession is the bridge that can carry us from guilt to grace, and it is in God’s grace that we find forgiveness. The Apostle John tells us, “But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrong” (1 John 1:9). When we experience God’s forgiveness, we find the joy missing in our lives restored. That was David’s plea in this song. Look again at verse 12—“Restore to me again the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you.” That plea was answered when Nathan, upon hearing David’s confession, uttered the words, “Yes, but the Lord has forgiven you.” What awesome words to hear!

My friend, God in Jesus Christ has taken away all our sin. David sang, “Purify me from my sin, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” That’s exactly what Christ has done through the power of his cross. He’s washed our sins away. We don’t have to be slaves to sin, or to guilt anymore. Go over to that closet, throw open that door and start throwing out those skeletons, and you might discover confession is not such a sad song after all.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Long Songs and Love Affairs…

Don McLean’s 1971 hit American Pie is a long song. It goes on for over 8 ½ minutes telling the story of “the day the music died.” 

Let’s call American Pie one of the longest songs to become a hit and receive regular airplay on U. S. radio stations, because generally, we don’t sit still for long songs. American Pie pales in comparison to the length of some other songs, though. Pink Floyd is known for some rather lengthy songs: Dark Side of the Moon runs almost 43 minutes, and Echoes coming in at just under 24 minutes are but two. Neither of those compare with Longplayer, though. Longplayer is a one thousand year long musical composition. It began playing at midnight on the 31st of December 1999, and will continue to play without repetition until the last moment of 2999, at which point it will complete its cycle and begin again. Conceived and composed by Jem Finer, it was originally produced as an Artangel commission, and is now in the care of the Longplayer Trust. Longplayer can be heard in the lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf, London, where it has been playing since it began. It can also be heard at several other listening posts around the world, and globally via a live stream on the Internet.[1] I’ve listened to it. It’s actually very weird! But, I suppose a 1,000 year-long song should be weird.

I mention these long songs because of Psalm 119. Psalm 119 goes for 176 verses, making it the longest chapter in the entire bible. Here’s what’s interesting about the 119th Psalm: There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. There are 22 stanzas to the 119th Psalm. Each stanza of this song coincides with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. For example, the first stanza represents the letter aleph, and all eight verses of the first stanza begin with the Hebrew letter aleph. Likewise, the second letter beth begins the second stanza, and all eight verses of the second stanza begin with the Hebrew letter beth. That pattern continues through all twenty-two stanzas.

heart wordsOh, that the English language could capture the pain-staking labor of love that is the 119th Psalm! It truly expresses the love affair the author has with God’s word. In these 176 verses, the author (whom many commentators believe to be David) magnifies God’s word, praises God’s word, thanks God for it, describes it and asks God to continue to use it in his life. The Psalm is also a testimony to the knowledge the author has of God’s word. We’ve said the best songs are those written out of the writer’s own experience. Luke Bryan, reigning Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year, recently said, “I like to hunt, fish, ride around on my farm, build a big bonfire and drink some beers — and that’s what I sing about. It’s what I know.” Well, that may be what Luke Bryan knows, but the Psalmist knows God’s word, and the advice he offers was not wishful thinking on his part. He had lived it, believed it, practiced it and had seen the benefits throughout his life. He was simply trying to communicate that value to others, and he chose to do it through the longest song in the Hebrew hymnbook.

So, what is the value in having a love affair with God’s word? If we took the time to survey the entire Psalm we would hear the Psalmist tell us there is no more rewarding endeavor, and no exercise pays greater spiritual dividends than reading, and dare I say, memorizing God’s word. Here’s what we’d find through these 176 verses:

  • Our prayer life strengthened,
  • Our ability to share our faith sharper and more effective,
  • People would seek us out for advice,
  • Our attitude and our outlook would be transformed,
  • Our mind would be more alert and observant (might cure a little of our ADHD),
  • Our confidence and assurance would be enhanced, and most of all
  • Our faith would be solidified.

Every one of these traits of the spiritual life are addressed by the Psalmist, but I especially like verses 9 – 16:

How can a young person stay pure?
    By obeying your word.
10 I have tried hard to find you—
    don’t let me wander from your commands.
11 I have hidden your word in my heart,
    that I might not sin against you.
12 I praise you, O Lord;
    teach me your decrees.
13 I have recited aloud
    all the regulations you have given us.
14 I have rejoiced in your laws
    as much as in riches.
15 I will study your commandments
    and reflect on your ways.
16 I will delight in your decrees
    and not forget your word.

Verse 11 is especially telling: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” Knowing God’s word can keep us from falling to temptation. What do I mean?

Jesus is our example. Matthew records after Jesus’ baptism, he went into the wilderness for forty days, and during those forty days, Satan came to tempt Jesus on three different occasions. Once, he came when Jesus was hungry and said, “Turn these stones to bread.” Jesus replied by quoting Deuteronomy 4:3: “No! People need more than bread for life; they must feed on every word of God.” Jesus quoted scripture when facing temptation. Another time, Satan came and challenged Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the Temple. Satan even quoted scripture in an attempt to deceive Jesus (Yes! There’s a correct way and an incorrect way to interpret scripture), but Jesus responded with his own quotation of scripture, again from Deuteronomy 6:16: “The Scriptures also say, ‘Do not tempt the Lord your God’.” In the third instance, Satan took Jesus to the top of a high mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the earth, and said “I’ll give you all these if you will bow down and worship me.” Once more, Jesus answered from Deuteronomy 6:13: “Get out of here, Satan. For the Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the Lord your God; serve him only’.” Jesus was prepared to meet every temptation because he had “hidden” God’s word in his heart. When temptation came, he went to the Word.

Notice, though that hiding God’s word in our hearts is more than simple Bible memorization. Hiding God’s word in our hearts means to have his word live within us and transform us in the process. The written word becomes the living word, and it breathes life into our weak mortal bodies. The Holy Spirit works through the written word to transform it into the living word as he moves in our old, dead spirit, and the word becomes a source of life and strength.

Many years ago in a Moscow theater, matinee idol Alexander Rostovzev was converted while playing the role of Jesus in a sacrilegious play entitled Christ in a Tuxedo. He was supposed to read two verses from the Sermon on the Mount, remove his gown, and cry out, “Give me my tuxedo and top hat!” But as he read the words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,” he began to tremble. Instead of following the script, he kept reading from Matthew 5, ignoring the coughs, calls, and foot-stamping of his fellow actors. Finally, recalling a verse he had learned in his childhood in a Russian Orthodox church, he cried, “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom!” (Luke 23:42). Before the curtain could be lowered, Rostovzev had trusted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior.[2] The written word had become the living word in Rostovzev’s life, and so it may in ours, as well.

So, here are some simple ways to begin to hide God’s word in our hearts.

  • Read the Bible every day, even if it’s only one verse.It’s better to learn a little bit perfectly than to learn a lot poorly. The New Living Translation is one I’ve found that is easier to read.
  • Join a Bible study group.
  • Start memorizing verses.

Isn’t it time to begin a love affair with God’s word? Can we hide God’s word deep in our hearts, and let the Holy Spirit breathe into our spirit so it becomes the living word so that we can live the kind of life God is calling us to lead—a life of holiness, even when we face temptation. I remind us that God is not calling us to lead a happy life. God is calling us to lead a holy life. Perhaps then, our lives will reflect the deep, abiding love affair about which the Psalmist sang.

Until next time, keep looking up…

[1] http://www.funtrivia.com/askft/Question108744.html

[2] https://bible.org/illustration/romans-1017

May I Have Your Attention Please…

Malcolm Gladwell, in 2000, debuted his first book entitled The Tipping Point. In that book, Gladwell defines the tipping point as “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate.” The tipping point is that moment of critical mass, the threshold of something new, or dare I say, the boiling point.

your attention pleaseThe boiling point might not be a good metaphor to employ  as we celebrate 239 years as a nation. I was listening to a podcast from a church researcher this week who stated that sociologically we have seen more cultural change in the past two years than we have in the previous 200 years.[1] We know change creates anxiety, and the rapid rate of change over the past two years has left us with no little amount of anxiety, even in the church. I confess my own anxiety as a pastor who leads a congregation, knowing that our congregations can hold as equally diverse opinions on social issues, political issues and theological issues as the broader population at large. And, I am pastor to everyone, and I want to be pastor to everyone. We hold in tension the diversity for the sake of the unity of the body of Christ. May I say, it’s a daunting task.

So, what do we do in these changing times? How do we deal with such great diversity? How do we respond in this culture that seems to be so divided? May I offer this advice: Praise God.

That’s exactly what the psalmist did in Psalm 33. Psalm 33 is a hymn of praise to God that celebrates God’s righteous character, creative power and sovereignty. These are all God’s qualities that make Him the only reliable foundation for hope and trust. With this psalm, the psalmist sets the tone of worship and reverence for the people of God, and we would do well to note that reverence in the face of changing and challenging times, whether as a nation, as a church, or as individuals who are facing our own transitions in life, that God is where our hope lies. Our praise must reflect our reverence for God, our dependence upon God, and our hope in God.psalm-33-18

Sometimes I think we’ve lost a bit of reverence for God. Verse 18 says, “But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear Him.” The word “fear” in the Bible means “to tremble.” It is used in connection with 3 experiences: 1) To tremble with the thought of being punished by a holy God for our sins, 2) To tremble at the sight of the mighty acts of God, and 3) To tremble with joy at the knowledge that people were being saved. Fear in this sense is simple reverence.

One of the cultural shifts that gives me greatest concern is the growing lack of respect we see. We see a lack of respect for our leaders. We see a lack of respect for the diversity of one another’s opinions. Name-calling and hateful speech show an utter lack of respect. I’m doing a Facebook fast for the simple reason that I became tired of scrolling through my news feed only to encounter post after post of disparaging comments and articles aimed at destroying the humanity of others. It’s not limited to for/against. The name calling and hateful speech comes from both directions. I remind us all that Christ died for all people, and our Methodist doctrine teaches us that all persons are persons of sacred worth. I fear our lack of respect for one another finds its roots in our lack of respect and reverence for God.

We have sought to bring God down to our level. We like to refer to him as “the Man upstairs,” or the “guy in the sky.” It’s almost impossible to have reverence and respect for Jesus when you want him to wear a tuxedo t-shirt! The psalmist reminds us that praise exalts God to the proper place. The Bible says He is the Holy One—El Shaddi (Almighty One)—Alpha and Omega—Creator of the Universe—Everlasting Father. Jesus will always be my Savior. Jesus will be my Lord. Jesus will be a friend who sticks closer than a brother. Jesus will always be King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but he is not now, nor will he ever be my “homeboy.” That is simply too irreverent a reference for the one who saved me and sustains me.

I love the way Jude closes his short letter with deep reverence: “To the only God and Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forever more! Amen.” The Hebrews would not even pronounce the name of God, but in our culture we’ve developed short-hand for our irreverence—OMG! Yes, I’m guilty! That, too, points to my own need of God’s grace. We’re all in need of God’s grace in our lives. That ought to be a reminder to us to be patient with those with whom we disagree. Respect for others means we can disagree without being disagreeable. I believe our respect for one another will come as we reclaim our reverence for God.

Yes, I know that won’t end all the name-calling and such, and yes, I know it makes me sound like a stodgy old fool, but let’s start there and see where it leads us. You never know. It just might raise the level of our conversation.

Until next time, keep looking up…

[1] Podcast, Rainer on Leadership, “How Church Culture Changes,” www.thomrainer.com, July 2, 2015.

Because I’m Happy…

minion stuartDo you remember the “minions?” They are the adorable yellow little helpers for Gru in the films Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2. They’ve shown up in advertising, television programs and music since those two movies, and now, on July 10th, is the debut of their own movie entitled simply, Minions. I mention the minions because one of the more popular connections with them is The Happy Song by Pharrel Williams. It’s an incredibly uplifting number that was the theme song for Despicable Me 2.  Watch it here:

 

The Happy Song is an incredibly happy, fun song that seeks to communicate the attitude we all should have as we go through life—no matter what happens, we should be happy. If we have a “happy” attitude, everything will look bright and sunny and better than it really is. While attitude may be 90% of life’s battle, a happy attitude will not always color the circumstances of life because as we define happiness, it is too dependent upon what happens to us.

In contrast, as we survey Psalm 1, we find what I like to call “The Original Happy Song.”

Psalm 1

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked!
    They are like chaff
    that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

The First Psalm opens up with the phrase translated “blessed is the man.” The Hebrew word is esher, and is often translated as an interjection that says, “Happy is the man!” The New Living Translation says, “Oh the joys of those…!” This is a holy moment, and David seems to be overwhelmed with joy as he shouts this great truth in song. We need to be aware, too, that as David sings, this is the opening song of the Hebrew hymnbook. He’s writing a sacred song to a sacred people. The tune would not be on the top ten iTunes playlist. This is a song for those who desire to know God. What David says, in essence, is that if you want to discover happiness, live this way. Live this way, not that way, and you will find happiness. It’s the first instruction given to the faith community in their life of worship.

It’s interesting that Jesus started in the same place David started. You remember how Jesus began his ministry? He gathered his disciples on a hillside in Galilee, sat them down, and in the Beatitudes, gave them the keys to a happy life: “Blessed (happy) are the meek, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” Live this way, and you’ll find happiness. Jesus and David on the same page. That’s probably not an accident. It’s probably not an accident, either, that like David does in this first psalm, Jesus talked about trees, well, more specifically, vines and branches, and he also talked about a path, as does David in Psalm 1. In the same message in which Jesus preached about happiness, he closes that message with this admonition: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7: 13 – 14 NIV). Compare that to David’s, “For the Lord watches over the path of the godly, but the path of the wicked leads to destruction” (verse 6).

Both David and Jesus tell us there’s a way for people of faith to live their lives to discover the fullness of God’s salvation. It includes both positive and negative behavior. Don’t do that. Do this. There’s a right way to live, and a wrong way to live.

Here’s a point to ponder today: There are two different roads in life, and no matter how much we don’t like to talk about it, not every road leads to the same place. It might be time to ask, “Which road am I on?”

Until next time, keep looking up…

Dealing with Difficulties…

psalm 46Henry David Thoreau once said every writer’s duty was to give “first and last, a simple and sincere account of their own life.” Most songwriters take that philosophy to heart, too. That’s certainly true with Taylor Swift. Almost all her songs have to do with break-ups with former boyfriends. I don’t want to diminish the pain felt by a teenager who endures a break-up—after all, pain is pain no matter the source, but the truth is that many great songs have been written out of the depth of painful experiences. It’s true of the great hymn of the church—A Mighty Fortress is Our God.

Martin Luther, the great reformer, penned the hymn in the 1520’s after the Diet of Worms at which he was charged with heresy, ex-communicated from the church and declared an outlaw. He lived the rest of his life in hiding. Through his trials and tribulations, Luther would proclaim, “A mighty fortress is our God…” Luther would take his famous hymn from another whose life had known hardship, the psalmist who penned Psalm 46.

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
    God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.  Selah

Psalm 46 is a song of radical trust in the face of overwhelming threat. The author never clarifies the nature of the threat, but reading the psalm it would indicate that is was likely a political threat, or possibly even in the midst of a war. One commentator speculates this was another of David’s psalms and was written at the time of the Assyrian invasion of Judah to give hope and assurance of God’s presence, protection and provision in the face of the invasion.

We Americans have our own illustration of that which the psalmist sang. We call it 9-11, and most of us here remember that date, don’t we? We remember where we were and what we were doing on that day. Even on the evening, we opened our churches and held prayer meetings, and it didn’t matter what pastors planned to preach that following Sunday, it was changed so that words of comfort and hope could be spoken. There were countless sermons that called on this 46th Psalm to bring words of comfort and hope to people whose foundation had been shaken. Politically, our world has been shaken. We don’t know quite what to do with it.

Culturally, too, we feel the ground shaking around us. There are some significant cultural shifts taking place in this world. They are happening so quickly it’s like the earth is shifting underneath our feet and we can’t seem to get our footing solidly underneath us before the next shift is taking place. Technology has hastened much of that shift. The changing of societal norms has hastened that shift. We scratch our heads dealing with one cultural earthquake, and before we can figure out how to deal with that one, the next one is already overwhelming us. From same-sex marriage to climate change to immigration reform to the disintegration of the family to the legalization of drugs we’re faced daily with questions and more questions, and we’re not sure we like all the answers.

Individually, too, we can feel the earth move under our feet. We get the word from the doctor—“It’s cancer”—and the mountain crumbles. Our marriage fails and we wonder what happened. We lose a child tragically and there seems to be no reason to live. We lose our job and we’re left to wonder how we’ll manage to feed the kids and pay the mortgage. We lose again the battle with some addiction and we just get tired. All we want to do is give up the fight. Our interior lives can be shaken by the brokenness of our own sin. And, the ground shakes, the earth quakes, the mountains crumble, and we need hope. What do we do? We do exactly what the psalmist did. We cry out to God. We put our trust in him.

I see three truths the psalmist acknowledges that allowed him to put his trust in God. The first truth the psalmist acknowledged is this: God is real. The psalmist begins, “God is…” I’ve been a pastor for almost 25 years, and the one thing I’ve learned is the more I learn about God the more I discover I don’t know about God. The closer I get to God, the more questions I have about God. That does not, however, cause me to doubt the existence of God. William Murray says, “Humanism or atheism is a wonderful philosophy of life as long as you are big, strong, and between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. But watch out if you are in a lifeboat and there are others who are younger, bigger, or smarter.”

We live much of our lives as what Craig Groeschel calls Christian athiests. Christian athiests are those who believe God exists but live their lives as though He doesn’t. We’re like the atheist in London making a speech at Hyde Park who said, “My hatred of religion is inherited; my grandfather was an atheist; my father was an atheist; and, thank God, I’m an atheist, too.” When we live as Christian atheists, we wander away from God. We foster violence in movies, television and music. We become obsessed with lust. We allow greed to possess us. We kill unborn children for the sake of convenience. And, when the ground shakes beneath our feet, we tremble in fear and live with the anxiety. but, when we believe God is real, we find God is our refuge and strength. We don’t live in fear. I love how the psalmist says it in verse 10: “Be still, and know that I am God.” We hear the words “be still,” and immediately we think of getting quiet. We think of solitude and silence. There is an element in that, but the Hebrew literally means “cease and desist”—stop what you’re doing. It’s like God is speaking to two fighting children and says, “Stop that!” Stop what you’re doing. Stop being afraid. Stop worrying. Trust me. Acknowledge that I am.

I wish I could prove God is real. I would want to point to the beach to prove God is real. I lay at the beach, especially at night, and I see the stars spread across the vast universe and I think, “This couldn’t just happen!” I hear the waves roaring and beating against the shore, and it reminds me of God’s majesty and power. The apostle Paul said creation was the best evidence of God’s existence. He wrote, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen” (Rom. 1:20). I lie there and I know it’s the sun and moon and gravity all working together, but I consider the fact that the earth is the perfect distance from the sun to support life. If we were any farther away from the sun, we would freeze; if we were even slightly closer to it, we would burn up. It’s obvious (to me, anyway) that God is real. I would also point to babies and beetles, to the bible and to the fact that the church exists. I would point to Jesus, and to my relationship with him, but it would all be pointless if I proved he were real because then it wouldn’t be faith. By faith, we acknowledge that God is real, and though our whole world crumbles around us, we will not be afraid.

The second thing I see the psalmist acknowledge is that God is present—always! We experience tragedy in our lives, or in our culture, or in our nation and we ask, “Where was God?” Where was God on 9/11? Where was God at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Where was God in my cancer? Where is God in all this cultural upheaval? The same place he was in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were rebelling. God was present waiting to cover their sin. Was He really present? Couldn’t He have stopped it before it began? Oh, it is not a matter of whether or not He could have. It is a matter of our choice. But, He was there!

God was with Joseph when he was rotting in jail – ever present. (Gen 37-50) If ever anyone’s world came crashing down, it was Joseph’s. Yet with all his hardships, problems and abuse, Joseph was able to honestly say, “You meant it for harm, but God meant it for good.” God was there when his brothers sold him into slavery, and God was there when Potiphar’s wife accused him of rape, and God was even there as he languished in prison. Every step of the way, God was able to take Joseph’s circumstances and mold him ever more closely into the man he would one day become. He was there all the time, though I am sure Joseph must have wondered at times where God was, in the end all knew well He was there all the time.

We could go on and on and tell of experiences such as Moses (Ex. 1-4) on the backside of the desert – being prepared for greater service. Or, Samson (Jud 14-16) groping in darkness – being strengthened in his hour of weakness. Or, Peter & John (Acts 3-5) beaten for preaching the Gospel – being given greater opportunities for sharing the good news of Christ. Or Paul (Acts 14-28) being stoned, shipwrecked and imprisoned – yet being assured that all things work together for good to them who love God.

“Where was God?” The same place He was on a Friday when His own son’s life was being taken from Him. Ever present – Jesus was God in the flesh, enduring the pain for the benefit of others. And even the Father didn’t flee the scene. Even Jesus felt forsaken, and asked God why His presence wasn’t felt. But God was present, and sin ran its course, and that is always a most ugly scene! Where was God when His Son hung dying on the cross? Didn’t He know? Shouldn’t Jesus have been able to come down from that cross? Couldn’t the Father have prevented it? Was He helpless? Didn’t He care?

Of course, He knew! Of course He could have stopped it! And, Of course He cared! The Father knew it was happening, could have stopped it, but He didn’t. And, aren’t we glad! There was a greater good to be accomplished by the suffering and death of Jesus. Through the suffering of One, many would be made whole. Through the sacrifice of One, many would have their sins forgiven. Through the death of One, many would be made alive.

God is ever present, even when the world comes crashing down around us.

One final thing to acknowledge, briefly—God is in control. That knowledge should enable us to see our circumstances in the light of eternity. Sometimes, life is like being in a waiting room. You know there’s something wrong but you’re not quite sure what it is. You just want to see the doctor and find out what’s wrong so you can get it fixed. A waiting room can be an unpleasant and unhappy place. You want this to be over and not have to wait any more. It is all you can do to obey the scripture that says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).

Jill Briscoe says, “I remember a time when I was waiting for soon to become now. I went down in Oconomowoc to a little lake where we live, and I sat there very early in the morning, praying, pleading with God that my soon would become now. ‘God, I cannot see you working. What about all these prayers that people are praying? This is a terrible situation. What are you doing about it?’ God said to me, ‘Any fish in that lake?’ I looked at the lake, which was like glass, and I said, ‘Sure. Of course there are fish there.’ ‘How do you know? Do you have to see fish jump to believe they’re there, Jill?’ I remember sitting there for a long time until I could say to God, ‘If I never see a fish jump, I will believe they’re there and active. If I never see you answer a prayer, I will believe.’ We all have a choice when trouble comes knocking at our door. We can curse God and die, or we can trust God and grow.”

Whatever circumstance you’re facing—God’s got it. Whatever our culture is facing—God’s got it! Whatever our church is facing—God’s got it! Let’s put our trust in Him. Let’s live obediently to Him! Let’s be faithful, come what may. That’s the song the psalmist is singing. If we sing it, too, we’ll discover that God is actually writing a song from our lives, taking the good and making it better, and taking the bad and working it for good, and in the end, it’ll be a sweet, sweet song of faith and hope.

Until next time, keep looking up…