Category Archives: Religion

How gluttony becomes a sin

Good morning, Church Family, I am Susan Smith, the associate pastor and I know you are all as tired of the cold and snow as I am, but we are looking forward to Spring like weather this week.  

Sadly, though a quick google search reveals the behaviors of people partying with drinks in hand and an old phrase comes to mind:  They are just gluttons for punishment

Today we are looking at the sin of gluttony.  The word itself gets caught in your throat as you say it, and chances are that when you say it pictures pop up in your mind that show wild beach parties, office parties where the alcohol flows freely, or possibly an image of a patron going through a buffet line with two plates piled high.

How easy it is to feel self-righteous when we think about gluttonous behaviors of others.  We don’t do that do we?  Or do we have gluttony in our lives?

As we begin looking closely at gluttony and how it is a sin that we accept in our daily lives, let’s take a moment to collect ourselves.  Grab your Bibles, your note supplies, and join me with a prayer:

Dear Lord God our Father,

Quiet our minds from all that floods us–the weather, the pandemic, our relationships, and our daily lives.  Open our ears to your whispers as we reflect on our lives and how easy it is to sin.  Open our hearts to forgive ourselves so we can heal and transform our lives so we may truly live a Christ-centered life.  In your name we pray, amen.

Typically the subject of gluttony does not pop up in our daily conversation therefore let’s begin with looking at what our culture defines as gluttony

“Gluttony is the habit of eating and drinking too much.”  Such a simple definition.  Now remember I am a retired English teacher and one of my personal interests is to understand the background of a word so I go to an online etymological dictionary.

There I found a few interesting pieces to share:

  • Glutton first was used in early 13th century and evolved from an Old French word meaning “one who eats and drinks to excess”.
  • Glutton is related to the term ‘scoundrel’ which is a general term of abuse in Modern French.
  • Glutton evolved from the Latin term gluttonem meaning overeater

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, when I hear the term gluttony it triggers an old cliché, “Glutton for punishment.”  And from the entry in that etymological dictionary there is another point to learn about that phrase.  The old phrase we use in casual conversation moves the original definition of glutton referring to eating and drinking and expanded it to anything to excess.  That broadens gluttony to an entirely different mindset–anything to excess.

Gluttony is a behavior that separates us from God–and that is the sin.  Gluttony is a behavior that takes over our personal discipline and puts self before God–and that is the sin.

I am not trying to guilt trip any of you into saying that you are sinful, I am just trying to establish why gluttony is considered one of the deadly sins.  Honestly, I have long struggled understanding gluttony as a sin and wondered why anyone would say that overeating is a sin as I have always battled weight.  Isn’t overeating the trigger for gaining weight?

Using the Life Application Study Bible, I turned to the back and looked up gluttony.  Here I found a slightly different definition for gluttony that helped guide me to better understanding how a behavior can slide into sin:  one given habitually to greedy and voracious eating and drinking.

During the Ash Wednesday service, the message focused on pride as a sin that can easily become accepted as okay in our daily lives.  Still pride, like gluttony, becomes sin when it separates us from God.  When anything, not just eating and drinking, takes over our willpower and interrupts the very disciplines that keep us connected to God, we slip into a sinful pattern of behaviors.

John Wesley created methods to keep believers connected to God thereby avoiding sin.  He believed we should follow practices that held us accountable for our behaviors.  

When developing a personal relationship with God, Wesley felt it was essential to read scripture and pray daily.  He believed that one should attend worship regularly, to fast, and to maintain healthy living–remember he even wrote a health manual.  He also developed small groups in which members were accountable about their faith to each other: sharing faith within that group but also openly with others.

As I continued studying gluttony, I returned to my concordance.  There I found  only three references to gluttony:  Proverbs 23:20, Matthew 11:19, and Titus 1:12.  Not only just three references but three verses.

First, I noticed only one was in the Old Testament, Proverbs 23:20:  

“Do not be among winebibbers, or among gluttonous eaters of meat.”

In all the various definitions this is the first reference to the type of foods that are included in gluttony.  The reference to winebibbers is more familiar as we think of the definitions referring to drinking too much which we now usually refer alcoholic beverages.  But, the old Jewish laws were very particular about what one could eat.

Matthew 11:19:

“. . . the son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!. . . “

In this verse’s reference to gluttony is even in reference to Jesus himself.  No longer bound by the ancient Law of Moses, Jesus ate and drank with even those who were not Jewish, who were not living under the Law of Moses.  

The act of eating and drinking is not gluttony, and in this story, Jesus’ behaviors among tax collectors and sinners becomes a model for Christian living.  There is no separation from God in the practice of eating, drinking and sharing with others.  The sin is when gluttony causes us to break our relationship with God, to turn our actions into those that cause pain and loss of one’s Christian disciplines as Wesley defined with the acts of piety.  

The third reference to the term glutton is also found in Paul’s letter to Titus who was left to serve in Crete. 

Titus 1:12–“it was one of them, their very own prophet who said, “Cretans are always liars, icious brutes, and lazy gluttons.”

Paul was warning Titus to be alert to the motives of those pretending to be Christians in order to get “more money, business, or a sense of power” as the study notes in Life Application Study Bible notes (p. 2717):

These three references to gluttony in the Bible builds up our understanding how gluttony can interfere in our lives even in today’s culture.  As we take the next few weeks to reflect on how well we are living our Christian faith publicly and privately, we need to consider how gluttony can creep into our lives and disrupt our relationship with God.

I admit.  I myself had to work with scripture and spend some time thinking about how gluttony could be sinful.  Then I started going through my own history and I discovered that gluttony is not always about eating and drinking too much.  Gluttony is anything that separates me from God.  Anything–not just food and drink.  Anything.

My stash of yarn.  Oh oh, I began to realize that knitting could be contributing to a shift in my Christian discipline. I am tactile and love natural fibers.  I struggle with so many new fabrics that have only synthetic fibers.  As I began knitting, I discovered a passion for looking at, touching, and purchasing various types of yarn.  In the knitting world, the yarn that one purchases and puts away for future projects is known as a stash.  

Every time I went into a store that had yarn, I was pulled to walk through the aisles looking and touching them imagining them knitted into a scarf or a wrap or a baby blanket.  The yarn was beautiful, it was ‘calling’ me.  I began searching for yarn shops, just to go look, and would come home with sale items or a skein that was so beautiful or soft that surely I could find a way to use it.

The truth is out now.  But I also have to tell you the rest of the story.  I had to stop and reflect on my pull to yarns.  I realized I could justify it because I bought it on sale, or I knew it was a color so-and-so would like, or it was a yarn that was difficult to find such as bamboo or silk, or it was given to me.  I could justify the purchases, what I did not realize is that it was causing me to make unhealthy choices in relation to how I was using my resources.

This shifts the discussion about gluttony as a behavior to how it becomes sinful.  Anything we do to excess, anything that becomes such a habit that we lose our focus on God can turn into a sin.  As we continue into Lent as the season for personal Christian reflection, we have the perfect opportunity to consider if we have a form of gluttony that is separating us from God.

Another example that I think many of us can relate to is our fascination with our favorite sports team’s swag.  As we watched and cheered for the Chiefs these last few months, we found ourselves drawn to those tee shirts, the team’s swag, and the memorabilia.  In fact I have the “Run it back” flag still flying outside my front door.

Team spirit seems so innocent, good fun.  What could be wrong with a new tee shirt?  But consider those fans who place team spirit into an entire lifestyle, not just for themselves, but for our entire family.  The news shares their stories and the pictures.  We recognize these fans as ‘superfans’, but God knows everything.  God knows whether they are superfans or whether they have stepped over the line and the mania reaches a sinful level separating them from God, possibly even destroying their own family relationships 

Today, February 21, we stop and review what is controlling our lives.  Have we maintained the very practices that Wesley developed to guide us in growing stronger in our faith?  

  • Are we reading scripture, studying it, reflecting or meditating on it, discussing it with others?
  • Are we in conversation with God through formal and informal prayers?
  • Are we fasting, which is a discipline that subtracts or adds in a change to our daily routine for a set timeframe such as Lent?
  • Are we attending worship services regularly?
  • Are we living a healthy lifestyle?
  • Are we sharing our faith with others?

During the week, our pastor suggested a reading from the gospel of John.  He broke the passage of John 4:1-45 into three readings which includes the story of the Woman at the Well.  The middle section, verses 31-38 speaks to how our true nourishment comes from God:

“Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving[a] wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

This scripture teaches us that nothing is more satisfying or fulfilling than our relationship with God.  Jesus tells the disciples that he does not need food because it is God that takes care of him:  

Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. . . “

Then he asks them that they, too have work to do using the metaphor of planting and harvesting:

“. . . But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.  The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life . . .I sent you to reap . . .

God created us, he loves us, he waits for us, and he grants us grace for when we sin.  Our lives are filled with influences and interests that capture our attention and can easily step in between God and us. Let us carefully consider whether we need to make adjustments in our lives to reconnect or to strengthen our relationship with God.  

And God sends us out to reap.  We are called to share our faith with others just as Wesley asks us to do.  We are to avoid the gluttonous behaviors that get between us and God, but also we are to step out and help others to find that God is the food that satisfies the souls. 

Let us use this Lenten season to reset our practices, define our priorities, and rebuild the relationship with God so we can be disciples of Christ, so that we may live that others may know Jesus.  We know the joy of God’s grace and mercy.  We anticipate the life of salvation that leads to eternal life.  Let us be gluttonous with God’s love.

Will you join me in a personal prayer:

Dear patient and loving God, I know that I have been weak and allowed this world to step between you and me.  Speak to me, guide me, and forgive me as I work to listen and to strengthen my faith in you.  It is through your grace, through your son Jesus Christ, and with the Holy Spirit, I pray, amen.

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Yes, 2021 arrived, now a few musings for a new year

For a week, I have thought about how to look at 2021.  One challenge that showed up in my inbox was to identify one word for the new year. 

Immediately one popped up:  Resilience.  Why?  Think about the history of our country.  How many times has a challenge presented itself and the very principles that established this country sustained it for over 200 years.

Think about the history of Christianity, even it began with the resilience of the Jewish faithful who endured challenge after challenge without all the technology and global interaction or support available today.

Resilience.  

One word to guide my thinking in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of governmental change, in the midst of economic challenges, not to mention just the issue of the life challenges of growing older or recovering from a medical challenge or even loneliness we endure with the pandemic.

Resilience is essential for all of us.  Interestingly this is a trait, quality, life skill that is ignored in our educational system.  We need to teach resilience to our students, to the future generations.

There typically is not a set curriculum for teaching resilience, but it can be developed.  In literature, selections can be read and discussed using the word resilience as a connecting theme.

In all classes, resilience can be taught in how to manage difficult lessons, disappoint grades, life challenges like absences due to illness or to circumstances beyond the student’s control. Each failure becomes an opportunity to develop resilience whether in a classroom, in a personal relationship, in a family, in a neighborhood, in a community, or even in a country.

Resilience.

Personally, my belief in Jesus Christ and participating in a Christian community provides me the strength and even the skills needed to be resilient.  I just pray that my children and their families have come to know resilience in their lives, too, as they have witnessed in mine and their extended families.

We may be looking at 2021 through cracked lenses right now, but with resilience we will take the world as we see it and do whatever we can to make it better.

Isn’t that what Jesus would do?

Isn’t that what our founding fathers would do?

Isn’t that what the Greatest Generation would do?

We have an opportunity to take something that has challenged our very inner beings, our sense of safety, our sense of identity, and make a difference.

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, called his faithful to love one another by doing all we can do for all we can whenever we can for as long as we can.  This is how we become resilient as individuals, as a faith community, as global citizens.

My word for 2021:  Resilience.

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Christmas Day musings 2020:

An exercise in stream of conscious writing

When I woke up at 4:30 this morning, I could not help but remember how many times as a kid that 4:30 did not seem so early for Christmas morning.  This time I did not run to the living room to see what Santa had brought.  This time I laid in vws and started thinking about a range of things.

Now it is six hours later, I have fixed a Christmas morning brunch, started sourdough bread, and am just generally relaxed.  Christmas no longer resembles the ones from my childhood.  Circumstances have forced Christmas to be refocused.

The Upper Room devotional reaffirmed this may be a natural transition in our lives as we age (at least I translated that from the narrative), but I had to remember this was written at least a year ago–before the pandemic.  Here is the final statement in this reflection:

“For a long time, Christmas was just an annual tradition with to-do lists and performances. This year, I experienced Christmas from another perspective as I let myself come as a person longing to see the Savior.”

In the midst of the pandemic, we have been called to change our patterns of behavior.  We are to stay away from our annual family gatherings–and some easily add up to over 20.  We wear masks wherever we go, even into the bank lobbies.  And we stay home.  

I cannot imagine how this year’s experience is going to transform our lives as we move forward, but it must.  We must all refocus our values; to put our faith in God first, our family next, and then we can begin developing our individual goals, passions, bucket lists, and so on.

Personally, I cannot seem to think ahead right now.  We have become fixated on the immediate situation of the pandemic with no defined end in sight.  Yes, we need to get vaccinated, but it is not yet readily available.  Instead, masks, social distancing, and washing hands become our norm–not bad but good habits, really.

Oddly, as I had to face a quarantine before Christmas, I could not help but compare it to an experience when I was in 6th grade.  I had the lead role in our elementary Christmas play, and I got German measles–my brother and myself.

Two weeks we were at home.  We had a hide-a-bed sofa in the front room.  Mom pulled it out and we stayed there most of the time.  There were some behaviors that had to change then too.

For instance, at that time the medical field thought we should not use our eyes much so the lights were dimmed, no TV watching (it was fairly new in our household and it was only on in the evenings–after supper), and no one could come around because it was so contagious.  We even had a doctor who made a house call and we lived 8 miles out of town.

For two weeks before Christmas, we were confined to the house on the farm.  Mom read us a book.  We ate meals on that hide-a-bed sofa, stayed in our pajamas, and waited for the measles to go away.  And they did.  The doctor gave us the ok on Christmas Eve to go out.

Dad took us shopping in town.  I can remember vividly going to Ben Franklin to Christmas shop.  I can’t remember what we got except for one thing–the Brach’s Christmas star chocolates from the bulk candy counter.  Odd that that stands out over any other shopping we did.

Yes, I had missed my star role in the Christmas play.  My brother and I had two weeks off school.  It was a very different Christmas, but we had the old-fashioned measles healed just in time for Christmas.

This year I got out of quarantine one week before Christmas Day.  We did not get to shop very much.  I did not get to bake like I usually do.  We did not have social gatherings.  We have not even gone to see Christmas lights.  Why I did not even put up the Christmas tree!

  • A year ago, I would never have expected our year to be transformed like it has been.  
  • A year ago, I would have never thought I would miss participating in our church’s Advent and Christmas Eve services.  
  • A year ago, I never dreamed getting COVID-19 would change my Christmas routines.
  • A year from now, I hope to have the vaccine.  
  • A year from now, I hope my values remain focused on the reason for the season–the birth of Jesus Christ who taught us how to love one another.

A year from now . . . well who can tell.  I just hope we can preserve some of the positives that can protect us from losing the focus on our values:  faith, family, and friends.

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Blue Christmas thoughts

All the world seems excited to celebrate Christmas with family and friends, holiday traditions, and the excitement of Christmas, but for others the holiday season is a struggle. 

The reasons for feeling blue in the midst of all the holiday hype ranges from the loss of a spouse, family member, empty nest syndrome, health diagnosis, distance, loneliness and the list grows.

Churches have acknowledged that Advent and Christmas can be difficult and lead to depression, therefore, a Blue Christmas worship service has developed to help those struggling.  

According to the UMC Discipleship website, “There is a growing attentiveness to the needs of people who are blue at Christmas.  Increasing numbers of churches are creating sacred space for people living through dark times.  Such services are reflective, accepting where we really are, and holding out healing and hope.”

The Blue Christmas worship is typically offered on the Winter Solstice which is Monday, December 21, the shortest day of the year.  According to the world clock, our latitude indicates that there will be only about 9 hours and 28 minutes of daylight.

Admittedly I struggle, especially after the loss of my mother and a divorce all at once–and that was almost 30 years ago.  Still, I had young kids and we powered through the life changes and celebrated as if nothing had changed.  

Life hands us challenges consistently, and we muster through.  That does not mean we honestly feel happy, we just ride the current that pushes us forward.  How do we do it?  With our faith in God.

On Monday, stop and reflect on how your faith sustains you throughout the wide range of life challenges.  Take a few moments and consider not only how you manage, but those around you who struggle during the season. 

When churches provide a Blue Christmas service, the most common reference in the Bible is to the story of Job.  Remember how he maintained his faith despite all the challenges he endured.  His friends kept thinking that he must have been doing something, sinning, that was causing God to punish him.

Yet Job lived faithfully throughout every challenge thrown at him.  He was able to fend off the negative pressure from his friends.  He trusted God.  In the end, he was restored to the wealth and the success he had experienced before the challenges.  His life was a living testimony to his friends how faith in God carries us out of the darkness and into the light.

Christmas is filled with the symbolism of light and maybe that is why we love the candles and all the light displays inside and outside our homes during these short days.  Adam Hamilton speaks to the light of Christ in his book Incarnation:

“Darkness is most often (but not always) associated with evil, adversity, ignorance, despair, gloom, and even death.  Light, on the other hand, is usually associated in scripture with God, goodness, joy, knowledge, hope, and life.” (p. 124)

Hamilton goes on to explain two forms of darkness, which during these shortest days of the year, seem to lend towards the second form he refers to as existential or situational darkness “. . . associated with grief, sadness or despair, or the feelings of being lost or unloved.” (p.126)

As December 21 gives way to the 22nd and then Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, look to the light.  Know that God is the light and he pulls out of our darkness–even during a pandemic.

Hamilton defines Christmas as light: “Christmas is the celebration of light piercing our darkness, God’s light coming to us to enlighten our lives.” (p. 130)

The concept of the incarnation, God as human, is one of the most compelling arguments to celebrate Christmas.  God loves us so much that he walked along side of us as the man Jesus Christ.  He experienced all the life challenges we do, even the most horrific as he died on the cross so that we may believe in him and know that he is with us.

Hamilton challenges us to walk in God’s light and to share that light:

“Jesus is God’s Word to us.  In that Word, we see not only the love of God, but the light of God illuminating our moral and existential darkness.  Our task is to accept that light, to allow it to illuminate our lives, to walk in this light, and to then share this light with others.”  (p.136)

I chose light even on the shortest, darkest day of the year.  I know the challenges of darkness, but I look toward the light.  Maybe that is why the words of John speak to me:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  –John 1:1-5

Please join me in prayer, not only for yourself but for all those feeling blue during this Advent season.

Dear Lord, our father and our light, thank you for shining bright even in the darkest of days.  Guide us and enlighten our heaviness of spirit as we look to your glory and celebrate the birth of your son, Jesus Christ.  –Amen.

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A Summer with the Psalms

The Literature in the Psalms

     Two years ago, I spent a summer with books.  Notice I did not say I spent a summer with the psalms.  

     For over 12 years, I had read almost nothing except seminary resources, followed the lectionary readings at least three times which is really nine years, and of course the Bible. 

     Even as I finished up my teaching career and continued in ministry, virtually all my reading was centered on preparing for sermons and course of study assignments.  Leisure reading just did not fit into my cramped calendar.

     As I stepped away from the pulpit, I started reading again.  I think I was starved.  During that summer, I think I read something like a dozen books.  I read fiction primarily.  I was starved.

     Among my reading choices were a series about the Yada Yada Prayer Group in which one character repeatedly referenced the praying the Psalms.  I also read a fiction book about the biblical character Sarah–fascinating.  But I also added in the Chronicles of Narnia which I had never read

     C. S. Lewis captured me and after conversations with others, I read his book Mere Christianity.  I became hooked on his thinking so as we began preparing for this summer’s series on the psalms, I searched out another of his books, Reflections on the Psalms.  In his introduction, he writes: 

Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.  They must be read as poems if they are to be understood. . . “(p.3)

     As we begin today’s reflection on the Psalms, I hope you have your Bible handy and are ready to take notes.  We are students of God’s words and today we study the Psalms.  Please join me in prayer:

Dear Lord, you are our teacher, and you have gifted your faithful with words to guide us in our life journeys.  Open our minds today through the words of the psalms so we may understand your grace, your love, and your promises.  Amen.

     Throughout my own educational experience, I never understood the significance of reading the introductions, the preface, or the forwards of books.  Oddly enough, one of the first instructors in the Course of Study through St. Paul’s School of Theology, emphasized that reading these introductory words to the texts was important in order for us to begin understanding the context that follows.

     Since then, I have made an effort to do just that.  Sometimes it seems pretty tedious, other times it reveals insights that crack open the mind to a completely new concept or author’s point of view that deeply affects the understanding of the material found in the text.  

     Reading C. S. Lewis’s introductions provides a frame of reference from which he writes.  For instance, in his introductions he explains not only who he is, but how he hopes to share his understanding of scripture:

“This is not a work of scholarship.  I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist.  I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself. . . . (p. 1)”

What Lewis does not say about who he is can be found in the biographical information on the book’s flap:

He was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University until 1954, when he was unanimously elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. . .” 

Lewis was gifted, but he chose to write humbly in an effort to explain what many might say is unexplainable–God is real and is part of our daily lives.

     This week’s scripture readings began with Psalm 62 which is subtitled “A Song of Trust in God Alone.”  For those familiar with our hymns, that triggers a recognition of an often-repeated phrase, “God alone is . . . “  

     Even last week as we talked about Psalm 42 and how it was transformed into the contemporary hymn, “As the Deer” written by Martin Nystrom, we can find the repetition of these phrases:   

You alone are my heart’s desire. . . 

You alone are my strength, my shield. . . 

The psalms we read and learn are deep inside our memory to rely on in difficult times or when we are under stress:  

     For God alone my soul waits in silence;

         from him comes my salvation.

     He alone is my rock and my salvation,

        my fortress; I shall never be shaken.  (Psalms 62:1-2)

These words lead Katharina von Schlegel, in 1752, to write another hymn we often turn to in difficult times:  

Be still, my soul:  the Lord is on your side.

Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;        

Leave to your God to order and provide;

In every change God faithful will remain.

Be still, my soul:  your best, your heavenly friend

Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.  (UMH #534)

We need these words.  We need to know that as difficult as times can get, we are not in this journey alone.  We are accompanied by God.

     This summer we are experiencing challenges that we think no one else has ever had to experience before.  But, the parallels are there in history.  Our grandparents and great-grandparents knew of infectious outbreaks that changed the lives of many.  In the earliest years of the 20th century there was the Spanish Flu, during the mid-1900s there was polio, and now we have COVID-19

     Circumstances that surround the pandemic are creating additional havoc in our lives.  Families deal with the loss of their loved ones.  Jobs are lost.  Incomes are lost.  Future plans are put on hold.  And no one can predict how the effects are going to impact their lives physically, financially, emotionally or even spiritually.   We need God.  We need the words of the psalms.

     Do you remember that Lewis was a literature professor?  Well, in his introduction he shares a couple of insights into studying the psalms as literature.  One point he makes is repetition is a way to emphasize a point the author/poet wants to make.  As we read the psalms this is one truth that develops very clearly.  

      Consider the symbolism of the rock that we find in the palms as well as in other scripture.  In Psalm 62, rock is mentioned four times.  The rock is salvation and refuge.  The rock is mighty.  God is our rock.  Repetition of one word can impress on the reader/listener the value of that symbol.

     Now look at Psalm 40:2, also from this week’s readings: 

He drew me up from the desolate pit,

      out of the miry bog,

And set my feet upon a rock,

     making my steps secure.

The repetition cannot be ignored, and of course these words trigger the recognition of another favorite hymn,s My Hope Is Built: [

My hope is built on nothing less

than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ the solid rock I stand,

All other ground is sinking sand;

All other ground is sinking sand.  (UMH #368)

Even though this hymn is not based on the psalms, it is based on the same symbolism.  It is an image, a literary device, that is carried throughout scripture.  It becomes the rock foundation for our faith.

     Lewis’ second literature lesson is about parallelism.  As a language teacher, my first reaction is to think about teaching students how to write sentence with parallel structure, but Lewis is analyzing literature and defines parallelism as “. . . the practice of saying the same thing twice in different words.” (p.4)

     Lewis uses other examples to explain parallelism as he continues to share:

“. . . ‘Parallelism’ is the characteristically Hebrew form [of creating a pattern as in the arts, painting, dance, music, literature.  . . . Parallelism] is either a wonderful piece of luck or a wise provision of God’s, that poetry which was to be turned into all languages should have as its chief formal characteristic one that does not disappear (as mere metre does) in translation.” (p.4-5)

Lewis saw the repetition and the parallelism that remained as a means of emphasizing God’s message through scripture–despite translations.

                  Each of the psalms we read strengthens us.  We find ourselves facing the same human challenges as those in the ancient scriptures. We hear God in the words that have translated into the words we sing even today.  The psalms are meant to be sung and/or to be prayed in as many ways as we want as we confront the reality of our earthly challenges.

                  One of the contemporary hymns that speaks to me is titled, “10,000 Reasons.”  The lyrics were written by Matt Redman and the music was written by his friend Jonas Myrin.  Redman says he takes inspiration from Psalm 103: 

Bless the Lord, oh my soul,

and all that is within me,

bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul

and do not forget all his benefits–

who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the Pit,

who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies you with good as long as you live

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.(v.1-5)

Written in 2011, within one hour, the psalm echoes through the words.  The literature of the hymn keeps the listener centered on God through repetition and parallelism.  The theme of the psalms never waivers regardless of the translation: 

                  Bless the Lord, oh my soul

                  Oh my soul, worship his holy name

                  Sing like never before,

                  Oh my soul I’ll worship your holy name.

                  The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning.

                  It’s time to sing your song again

                  Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me

                  Let me be singing when the evening comes. . . . 

                  You’re rich in love and you’re slow to anger

                  Your name is great and your heart is kind

For all your goodness, I will keep on singing

Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find.

And on that day when my strength is failing

The end draws near and my time has come

Still my soul will sing your praise unending

Ten thousand years and then forevermore. . . .

     Today we close with the words of the ancient psalms echoing in the lyrics of our hymns today.  We join in worship and include them in our liturgy as a way to learn, to remember, and to grow in our faith.  

     The reality is that we need the repetition the poets, the artists, the lyricists use to seal in our long-term memory and our inner soul, the words of God.  We hear the prayers for help, the hymns of praise and thanksgiving, the wisdom of the faithful guiding us to a solid foundation, a rock foundation in our faith.

     There are indeed 10,000 reasons to read the psalms this summer and then reread them in the seasons ahead.  Reread them in various translations and discover the solid, rock foundation of God’s words.

     Eugene Peterson shares two pieces of Psalm 62 in his devotional, Praying with the Psalms.  

For God alone my soul waits in silence; 

                  from him comes my salvation.

He alone is my rock and my salvation,

                  my fortress; I shall never be shaken.”  (Psalms 62:1-2, MSG)

In his second daily devotion he selects one more verse from the psalm:

Trust in him at all times, O people;

pour out your heart before him;

                  God is a refuge for us.  (Psalms 62:8, MSG)

He adds to these scriptures these two brief statements: 

Silence sinks a shaft to bedrock.  It is the soul’s means for descending through the gravel of rebellion and doubt to the solid, quiet reality of God’s word.  . . . The soul careens from side to side seeking a way to completion.  On one side is the anarchic freedom of lawless. . .on the other the secure wealth of the rich.  But the alternatives are ditches, not highways.  The Lord himself is the way to wholeness. (May 2-3)

Please join me in prayer:

Dear Heavenly Father, 

You are our rock, our foundation, our refuge.

In the words you give your faithful

We find reassurance, solace, and strength.

Thank you for all those who know you

And find ways to share your message

 So others can be strengthened

In their relationship with you,

Assuring them of salvation

And life eternal in your kingdom.  

–Selah, forever, amen.

A Summer with the Psalms:

The Literature in the Psalms

     Two years ago, I spent a summer with books.  Notice I did not say I spent a summer with the psalms.  

     For over 12 years, I had read almost nothing except seminary resources, followed the lectionary readings at least three times which is really nine years, and of course the Bible. 

     Even as I finished up my teaching career and continued in ministry, virtually all my reading was centered on preparing for sermons and course of study assignments.  Leisure reading just did not fit into my cramped calendar.

     As I stepped away from the pulpit, I started reading again.  I think I was starved.  During that summer, I think I read something like a dozen books.  I read fiction primarily.  I was starved.

     Among my reading choices were a series about the Yada Yada Prayer Group in which one character repeatedly referenced the praying the Psalms.  I also read a fiction book about the biblical character Sarah–fascinating.  But I also added in the Chronicles of Narnia which I had never read

     C. S. Lewis captured me and after conversations with others, I read his book Mere Christianity.  I became hooked on his thinking so as we began preparing for this summer’s series on the psalms, I searched out another of his books, Reflections on the Psalms.  In his introduction, he writes: 

Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.  They must be read as poems if they are to be understood. . . “(p.3)

     As we begin today’s reflection on the Psalms, I hope you have your Bible handy and are ready to take notes.  We are students of God’s words and today we study the Psalms.  Please join me in prayer:

Dear Lord, you are our teacher, and you have gifted your faithful with words to guide us in our life journeys.  Open our minds today through the words of the psalms so we may understand your grace, your love, and your promises.  Amen.

     Throughout my own educational experience, I never understood the significance of reading the introductions, the preface, or the forwards of books.  Oddly enough, one of the first instructors in the Course of Study through St. Paul’s School of Theology, emphasized that reading these introductory words to the texts was important in order for us to begin understanding the context that follows.

     Since then, I have made an effort to do just that.  Sometimes it seems pretty tedious, other times it reveals insights that crack open the mind to a completely new concept or author’s point of view that deeply affects the understanding of the material found in the text.  

     Reading C. S. Lewis’s introductions provides a frame of reference from which he writes.  For instance, in his introductions he explains not only who he is, but how he hopes to share his understanding of scripture:

“This is not a work of scholarship.  I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist.  I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself. . . . (p. 1)”

What Lewis does not say about who he is can be found in the biographical information on the book’s flap:

He was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University until 1954, when he was unanimously elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. . .” 

Lewis was gifted, but he chose to write humbly in an effort to explain what many might say is unexplainable–God is real and is part of our daily lives.

     This week’s scripture readings began with Psalm 62 which is subtitled “A Song of Trust in God Alone.”  For those familiar with our hymns, that triggers a recognition of an often-repeated phrase, “God alone is . . . “  

     Even last week as we talked about Psalm 42 and how it was transformed into the contemporary hymn, “As the Deer” written by Martin Nystrom, we can find the repetition of these phrases:   

You alone are my heart’s desire. . . 

You alone are my strength, my shield. . . 

The psalms we read and learn are deep inside our memory to rely on in difficult times or when we are under stress:  

     For God alone my soul waits in silence;

         from him comes my salvation.

     He alone is my rock and my salvation,

        my fortress; I shall never be shaken.  (Psalms 62:1-2)

These words lead Katharina von Schlegel, in 1752, to write another hymn we often turn to in difficult times:  

Be still, my soul:  the Lord is on your side.

Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;        

Leave to your God to order and provide;

In every change God faithful will remain.

Be still, my soul:  your best, your heavenly friend

Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.  (UMH #534)

We need these words.  We need to know that as difficult as times can get, we are not in this journey alone.  We are accompanied by God.

     This summer we are experiencing challenges that we think no one else has ever had to experience before.  But, the parallels are there in history.  Our grandparents and great-grandparents knew of infectious outbreaks that changed the lives of many.  In the earliest years of the 20th century there was the Spanish Flu, during the mid-1900s there was polio, and now we have COVID-19

     Circumstances that surround the pandemic are creating additional havoc in our lives.  Families deal with the loss of their loved ones.  Jobs are lost.  Incomes are lost.  Future plans are put on hold.  And no one can predict how the effects are going to impact their lives physically, financially, emotionally or even spiritually.   We need God.  We need the words of the psalms.

     Do you remember that Lewis was a literature professor?  Well, in his introduction he shares a couple of insights into studying the psalms as literature.  One point he makes is repetition is a way to emphasize a point the author/poet wants to make.  As we read the psalms this is one truth that develops very clearly.  

      Consider the symbolism of the rock that we find in the palms as well as in other scripture.  In Psalm 62, rock is mentioned four times.  The rock is salvation and refuge.  The rock is mighty.  God is our rock.  Repetition of one word can impress on the reader/listener the value of that symbol.

     Now look at Psalm 40:2, also from this week’s readings: 

He drew me up from the desolate pit,

      out of the miry bog,

And set my feet upon a rock,

     making my steps secure.

The repetition cannot be ignored, and of course these words trigger the recognition of another favorite hymn,s My Hope Is Built: [

My hope is built on nothing less

than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ the solid rock I stand,

All other ground is sinking sand;

All other ground is sinking sand.  (UMH #368)

Even though this hymn is not based on the psalms, it is based on the same symbolism.  It is an image, a literary device, that is carried throughout scripture.  It becomes the rock foundation for our faith.

     Lewis’ second literature lesson is about parallelism.  As a language teacher, my first reaction is to think about teaching students how to write sentence with parallel structure, but Lewis is analyzing literature and defines parallelism as “. . . the practice of saying the same thing twice in different words.” (p.4)

     Lewis uses other examples to explain parallelism as he continues to share:

“. . . ‘Parallelism’ is the characteristically Hebrew form [of creating a pattern as in the arts, painting, dance, music, literature.  . . . Parallelism] is either a wonderful piece of luck or a wise provision of God’s, that poetry which was to be turned into all languages should have as its chief formal characteristic one that does not disappear (as mere metre does) in translation.” (p.4-5)

Lewis saw the repetition and the parallelism that remained as a means of emphasizing God’s message through scripture–despite translations.

                  Each of the psalms we read strengthens us.  We find ourselves facing the same human challenges as those in the ancient scriptures. We hear God in the words that have translated into the words we sing even today.  The psalms are meant to be sung and/or to be prayed in as many ways as we want as we confront the reality of our earthly challenges.

                  One of the contemporary hymns that speaks to me is titled, “10,000 Reasons.”  The lyrics were written by Matt Redman and the music was written by his friend Jonas Myrin.  Redman says he takes inspiration from Psalm 103: 

Bless the Lord, oh my soul,

and all that is within me,

bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul

and do not forget all his benefits–

who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the Pit,

who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies you with good as long as you live

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.(v.1-5)

Written in 2011, within one hour, the psalm echoes through the words.  The literature of the hymn keeps the listener centered on God through repetition and parallelism.  The theme of the psalms never waivers regardless of the translation: 

                  Bless the Lord, oh my soul

                  Oh my soul, worship his holy name

                  Sing like never before,

                  Oh my soul I’ll worship your holy name.

                  The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning.

                  It’s time to sing your song again

                  Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me

                  Let me be singing when the evening comes. . . . 

                  You’re rich in love and you’re slow to anger

                  Your name is great and your heart is kind

For all your goodness, I will keep on singing

Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find.

And on that day when my strength is failing

The end draws near and my time has come

Still my soul will sing your praise unending

Ten thousand years and then forevermore. . . .

     Today we close with the words of the ancient psalms echoing in the lyrics of our hymns today.  We join in worship and include them in our liturgy as a way to learn, to remember, and to grow in our faith.  

     The reality is that we need the repetition the poets, the artists, the lyricists use to seal in our long-term memory and our inner soul, the words of God.  We hear the prayers for help, the hymns of praise and thanksgiving, the wisdom of the faithful guiding us to a solid foundation, a rock foundation in our faith.

     There are indeed 10,000 reasons to read the psalms this summer and then reread them in the seasons ahead.  Reread them in various translations and discover the solid, rock foundation of God’s words.

     Eugene Peterson shares two pieces of Psalm 62 in his devotional, Praying with the Psalms.  

For God alone my soul waits in silence; 

                  from him comes my salvation.

He alone is my rock and my salvation,

                  my fortress; I shall never be shaken.”  (Psalms 62:1-2, MSG)

In his second daily devotion he selects one more verse from the psalm:

Trust in him at all times, O people;

pour out your heart before him;

                  God is a refuge for us.  (Psalms 62:8, MSG)

He adds to these scriptures these two brief statements: 

Silence sinks a shaft to bedrock.  It is the soul’s means for descending through the gravel of rebellion and doubt to the solid, quiet reality of God’s word.  . . . The soul careens from side to side seeking a way to completion.  On one side is the anarchic freedom of lawless. . .on the other the secure wealth of the rich.  But the alternatives are ditches, not highways.  The Lord himself is the way to wholeness. (May 2-3)

Please join me in prayer:

Dear Heavenly Father, 

You are our rock, our foundation, our refuge.

In the words you give your faithful

We find reassurance, solace, and strength.

Thank you for all those who know you

And find ways to share your message

 So others can be strengthened

In their relationship with you,

Assuring them of salvation

And life eternal in your kingdom.  

–Selah, forever, amen.

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Psalm 42: Prayers for help

Hello, Friends,

     I know I am way behind sharing with you, but these past months have greatly altered our daily lives.  After I started working with the local UMC, my time use has shifted.  Anyway, I will continue to share whenever I can, and today is the sermon I gave on July 19.  Hope you are all well and know you are in my prayers even when I do not connect every week.

                                                      Susan

Summer with the Psalms:

Psalm 42–Prayers for help

     Growing up in the 1960s, music seemed to fill my world.  Mom and Dad sang in the church choir, so my brother and I sang in the choirs throughout our school years.  We wore those little white robes, too.  

     We also took piano lessons from Mrs. Updyke, who lived in Wellsville.  My cousins and I would even carpool from our Buell farms and have to sit on the front porch while we would wait through the half hour lessons one at a time.

     This was the time when the world seemed filled with strife–Vietnam and race riots filled the evening news.  And we farmed, so we had the typical ups and downs of drought, Army worms, weeds, and the flies that seemed to swarm the cattle constantly.

     Troubles are simply part of our life and music seemed to soothe the days.  And music changed a great deal during those years between World War II and the 1970s:  from big band music to the advent of rock and roll, from steel guitars of country to electric guitars of heavy metal.

     What did I pick?  Even though my very first cassette was Jimi Hendrix, I quickly settled into easy listening; and Simon & Garfunkel rose to the top of my listening.  Music lifts our spirits and are our prayers for help.  The psalms, with which we are spending our summer, are the ancient hymns filled with praise and prayers.  Please join me in prayer: 

Dear God, 

     When time gets tough and we seem lost,

     You are there.  

     When we feel alone, 

     You are there.  

     Open our hearts to your words,

    Knowing you are always there.  –Amen

                  Spending the summer with the psalms is spending the summer with music.  If there was ever a time we need to sing, it is now–and ironically that is one of the very things we are asked not to do during public worship for fear of spreading COVID-19.  That puts us in a bit of a predicament as the psalms were the earliest hymns of the Israelites, but we read them today and can ‘hear’ the lyrics in our minds.

     Therefore, since we can’t even reach out and pick up a hymnal while sitting in our pews, let me share words from one of its introductory pages which lists the directions for singing written by John Wesley in 1761.  The first one reads, “Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.” 

     That line reflects what we know about Jesus and his knowledge of the psalms.  Even as a pre-teen, when he stayed behind in the temple “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”  (Luke 2:46) 

     Jesus learned and used the psalms in his ministry.  We need to follow his example and know the psalms well enough that we can turn to them when we face difficult times.  As Pastor Peter began this sermon series, he provided the daily scripture readings aligned to the six themes found in the psalms.

     Our first week focused on the wisdom psalms and the second week centered on the hymns of praise.  This week’s theme is prayers for help.  The human condition, as explained through various sources, simply means dealing with the positives and the negatives which are experienced throughout one’s life.  Knowing the psalms, provides us the words we need to manage the positives and negatives that pop up in our lives.  

     Just like when we were kids and we fell and scraped our knees, we turn to our parents for comfort, for wiping away the tears, for cleaning up the torn skin, and for assurance that we are going to be ok.  Turning to the psalms is going to our Father for comfort.  

As a deer longs for flowing streams,

     so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,

    for the living God. (Psalm 42:1-2)

Words comfort us and for me these first two verses make my heart sing, because I am immediately taken back to my childhood on the farm.  The words trigger connections to my mom who loved the deer, the birds, the trees, the wildflowers and all nature.  These are my comfort images, so to speak.

     Throughout history, psalms have provided God’s people the words to express what ails them.  Psalm 42 was transformed into a hymn that is now included in numerous hymnals of various denominations including the Faith We Sing hymnal usually found in our pews–number 2025 to be exact.

     Marty Nystrom, a music graduate from Oral Roberts University, transformed this psalm in 1984 into the modern hymn we now use.  The opening words:

                  As the deer pants for the water

                  So my soul longs after You

                  You alone are my heart’s desire

                  And I long to worship You . . . 

This hymn and Psalm 42 have become connected to my own spiritual life because it takes me close to my own family experiences and Mom’s passion for the deer.  I see deer, and I hear these opening words of the psalm and the hymn.  I know the meaning of God’s presence in my life just like the deer turn to water for their sustenance.

      We must deal with the reality of life and it can exhaust us, physically and mentally.  Using the psalms can direct our energies to stay focused on God, to talk with God, and to trust God.  Psalm 3 tells us this:  

                  But you, O Lord, are a shield around me,

     My glory, and the one who lifts up my head. . . 

                  I lie down and sleep;

      I wake again, for the Lord sustains me.

When we are challenged with an ongoing issue, the days can be drained of any joy that we typically experience.  The sunshine can be clouded when we are facing a long-term problem.

     On the farm, there is always the looming concern of a drought.  The days, the weeks, and the months without rain can drain a farmer’s resolve and even love for nature.  Watching the crops struggle, wither, and fail makes an entire lifestyle difficult as it effects the land, the livestock, and even the soil itself. 

     Getting up each morning, knowing that there is nothing one can do to effect a positive change can destroy not just the farmer, but his entire family and even a community.  Trusting God is the shield. Does not that trigger another familiar hymn?  

“Trust and obey, for there’s no other way

To be happy in Jesus,

But to trust and obey.” ( UMH #467) 

Trusting God makes it possible to lie down, sleep and wake again happy.

     Turning to the psalms guides us to find comfort and assurance in challenging times.  Even as a drought looms ahead of us even today, we know that the cycles of life continue.  The dry days may seem to last forever, but rain will once again soften the soil:

                  O God, you are my God, I seek you,

                       My soul thirsts for you;

                  My flesh faints for you,

                        As in a dry and wary land where

there is no water.

                  So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,

                       Beholding your power and glory.

                  Because your steadfast love is better than life,

                       My lips will praise you.

                  . . . for you have been my help,

                       And in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.  

[Psalm 63:1, 3 & 7]

These are the words David wrote while in the wilderness.  The trials of the ancient world are the same as those today.  The words build us up, give us confidence as we continue to manage the daily challenges.  

     In more recent history, but not specifically the last century, the challenges of the American slaves reflects how the psalms provided them the spiritual prayers and the comfort of a relationship with God.  Do you recognize these words?  

                  Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen;

                  Nobody knows but Jesus.

                  Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen; 

                  Glory hallelujah.

                  Sometimes I’m up; sometimes I’m down;

                  Oh yes, Lord.

                  Sometimes I’m almost to the ground; 

                  Oh yes, Lord.

                  Although You see me goin’ along,

                  Oh yes, Lord.

                  I have my troubles here below;

                  Oh yes, Lord.

                  What makes old Satan hate me so?

                  Oh yes, Lord.

                  He got me once and let me go;

                  Oh yes, Lord.

                  Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen;

                  Nobody knows but Jesus.

                  Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen; 

                  Glory hallelujah.

How many times have you thought the very same thing?  How many times have you turned to this hymn in your soul and sang it out loud?

     Turning to Psalm 34, we hear David teach us how to use the psalms and even how to teach the psalms as a way to deliver or to keep us from trouble

                  Come, O children, listen to me;

                       I will teach you the fear [respect] of the Lord.

                  Which of you desires life,

                       and covers many days to enjoy good?

                  Keep your tongue from evil,

                       and your lips from speaking deceit.

                  Depart from evil, and do good;

                       seek peace, and pursue it. (Psalms 34:11-14)

The psalms we study are filled hymns of praise and prayers for deliverance.  We are the 2020 version of humanity and there is the common reality of the human condition that exists since the beginning of humanity.  We experience the positives and the negatives of our earthly experience, and we can rely on these ancient words to keep us grounded in faith.

     Just as the American slaves lived through trying times, we all live through trying times.  Rely on the words of the psalms to guide us.  Rely on the lyrics of the hymns to deliver us from troubles and from our enemies.  David knew how difficult it is to defend one’s self:  

                  How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?

                       How long will you hide your face from me?

                  How long must I bear pain in my soul,

                       And have sorrow in my heart all day long?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?  

(Psalm 13:1-2)

Yet his words continue to show that remaining faithful will lead to triumph over the troubles and even over one’s enemies:  [

                  But I trusted in your steadfast love;

                       my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

                  I will sing to the Lord,

                       Because he has dealt bountifully with me. 

(Psalm 13:5-6)

     Spend time with the psalms, look up your favorite hymns, and listen to the music of our times knowing that we are never alone.  This is the final direction for singing that Wesley shared

Above all sing spiritually.  Have an eye to God in every word you sing.  Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature.  In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven. (UMH p. vii)

Today our troubles and our enemies are looming all around us.  Spending time with the psalms and with our hymns lifts us up and keeps us grounded.

     In closing, I cannot ignore another set of lyrics that surface

                  When you’re weary, feeling small

                  When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all, all

                  I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough

                  And friends just can’t be found

                  Like a bridge over troubled water

                  I will lay me down. . . 

                  I will comfort you.

These words from Simon and Garfunkel may never have been written in our ancient psalms or be found in our pew hymnals, but the lyrics are a prayer and God will be our bridge over troubled waters.  We long for God, especially when we are down and out, when we are on the street, when darkness closes in on us.

     As we close today, let us return to Psalm 42, but this time from Eugene Peterson’s 

                  A white-tailed deer drinks from the creek;

                  I want to drink God, deep draughts of God.

                  I’m thirsty for God alive. . . . 

                  “Why am I walking around in tears,

                       harassed by enemies?”  

                  They’re out for the kill, these

                       tormentors with their obscenities,

                  Taunting day after day,

                       “Where is this God of yours?”

                  Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul?

                       Why are you crying the blues?

                  Fix my eyes on God–

                       Soon I’ll be praising again.

                  He puts a smile on my face.

                       He’s my God.

Let us close with this as our prayer:

                  Dear Lord, our God,

                  Thank you for the words of the psalms

                  Thank you for the words of the hymns

                       we sing today.

                  Thank you for these bridges

                      that carry us over troubled waters.

                  Let us sing out loud,

                       fixing our eyes on you.

                  Let our words be your words

                       so others may hear you speak.  –Amen.

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Learning from the New Testament couple Priscilla & Aquilla

Growing up in the Methodist Church in Montgomery City, my world was expanded by the people with whom our family worshiped.  I would like to introduce you to Burt and Beth.  My mental picture of them is watching Burt open the car door outside the church, reach in for Beth as she stood up.  He then walked her into church with his hand cupped around her elbow.

[Insert slide of Burt and Beth.]

            Beth had polio as a young woman in the 1950s.  She was left with a limp, but she always stood up straight as an arrow with the brightest eyes penetrating you with her smile.  He was a dairy farmer, so his mornings began very early, even before church on Sundays, but he never missed church and he was always there beside Beth.  

            This strong couple demonstrated love of God, love of family, and love of neighbors throughout their life of personal challenges.  They were among my personal role models much like Pricilla and Aquilla were role models in the churches Paul established during his missionary trips around the Mediterranean Sea.

            I am Susan Smith, the associate pastor of the Warrensburg First United Methodist Church, and I invite you to make sure you have a Bible, a pen or pencil and paper handy so you can follow along with the scriptures, make notes or even jot down a reminder to share questions or stories of your own later on as a comment or post to our Facebook page.  Please join me in prayer.

            Dear Lord,

                 As we take this moment to pause and clear our minds,

                 We ask that you open our hearts and minds 

                 To the lessons we learn from your servants Priscilla and Aquilla.

                 May we, too, grow in our faith and our love for each other

     So our lives reflect your love for one another.  –Amen

            Then Paul arrives in their community.  

A group of people on a bed

Description automatically generated            Let’s meet Pricilla and Aquilla by stepping back into those first years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Life was so very different without all the technology we now have.  The business of living was labor intensive, and the needs of the community were met by skilled craftsmen.  Aquilla was trained as a tentmaker, and where he lived along the Mediterranean Sea, he filled a demand as people needed his skill to make and to repair the sails for the boats or the tents for their homes.  Priscilla joined him working as a tentmaker, too.

[Insert slide of the three working on tents]

The couple were faithful Jews, and they listened to Paul.  They heard the good news.  Soon they were devoted new Christians.  They quickly developed a special bond with Paul because he too was a trained tent maker, which we learn in Acts 18:1-3: [Insert slide of verses.]

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together—by trade they were tentmakers.

            Even as a missionary, Paul would work in the community in which he was preaching.  The three of them became co-workers with Paul even living with them while in Corinth.  Can you imagine how close they became working, living and worshiping together?

A picture containing text, map

Description automatically generated            The book of Acts, written by Luke, shares the story of Paul meeting Priscilla and Aquilla on his second missionary journey.  

[Insert slide of Paul’s second journey.]

During Paul’s year and a half in Corinth, the Jewish people became upset over his teachings causing problems in the temple, so much so that the Jewish leaders took the issue to the Roman proconsul Gallio.  Gallio dismissed it saying it was an internal problem.  The turmoil becomes unsafe, so Paul decides to leave for Ephesus–Priscilla and Aquilla go with him.

            Consider this.  You are well-established in a community where there is plenty of work providing a good income.  Why would you suddenly decide to get up and leave it?  Priscilla and Aquilla were called to continue in ministry with Paul and they had protected him in the midst of the Jewish riots.  He no longer taught in the synagogue but began a house church next door to Priscilla and Aquilla.

A sculpture of a person

Description automatically generated            When Paul decided to leave Corinth, the couple decided to follow Paul to Ephesus.  What a decision to make!   But Priscilla and Aquilla, partners in life, did just that.  This decision exemplifies the qualities of the couple not only as disciples, but as a Christian couple who follow God’s call to serve.

[Insert slide of the busts.]

            Following Paul reminds me of today’s missionaries.  As I shared about Beth and Burt, we also had members of our community that went to India to serve as missionaries.  Even though I am struggling to remember their names, I remember wondering how in the world could they get up and leave for India.  Their boys were basically my age, they were residents in my hometown, and they were fellow church members.  But they, like Priscilla and Aquilla, left to serve God in ministry.

            And then there is Priscilla herself, one of the strong women listed in the New Testament as disciples of Christ.  The references to her always place her first and always with Aquilla.  Based on how she is always listed first, scholars believed she was from a higher social status than Aquilla which was out of the ordinary for ancient times; and another difference for the couple was that they had no children.  Priscilla does not follow the stereotypical roles for ancient women.  Yet Priscilla worked and worshipped alongside her husband as an equal, not in a subservient role.  She became a leading teacher in Christianity, a strong woman serving as a disciple.  Priscilla broke the stereotypes of her culture.

            Finally, consider Priscilla and Aquilla as teachers.  Reading in Romans 12:6-8: [Insert slide of verses.] 

We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

we know that Paul must have identified the skills that these two had, and especially Priscilla as indicated by the placement of her name in relation to Aquilla’s.  When the couple followed Paul to Ephesus, they resumed their trade as tentmakers and as faithful disciples.  Their home became a church meeting place.  They were leaders in the faith community, and there they met Apollos.

            Apollos was a gifted speaker and was spreading the news that he learned from John the Baptist’s preaching and prophesying, but he did not know of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Therefore Apolloa, while developing a following, did not know the fulfillment of John’s prophecy.  

            Luke shares the story of Apollos’ ministry and how it developed through the mentoring of Priscilla and Aquilla in Acts 18:24-26: [Insert slide of verses.]

24 Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.

            Priscilla and Aquilla were able to take Apollos and teach him the about Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection.  Their gifts transformed one man’s ministry and the growth of the church continued as is recorded in Acts 18:28: [Insert slide with verse.]

28 for he [Apollos] powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus.

            Priscilla and Aquilla are a team.  They demonstrate to us today that faith can bind us together enriching our lives, especially our daily lives working together.  Luke refers to strong women in his gospel and in Acts, emphasizing their strength for leadership in ministry.  The fact that this married couple are referenced repeatedly in Paul’s letters indicates the level of his friendship with them and that the different churches also recognized their leadership.

            Priscilla defied the stereotypical role of women in the ancient culture, but her strength and her spiritual gifts placed her in a leadership role within the early church.  Today’s culture may have lifted the social barriers for women leaders in faith, but Priscilla’s story is one for us to preserve and model.

            Consider the image I have of Beth and Burt growing up.  I can add others to the list of strong women of faith in my life; and when I do, I realize their spouses were important to their leadership, too.  I can add my own mom and dad to models of spiritually-focused leaders.  I can stop and look around me today, too, and know that here in Warrensburg I have been blessed with other models of faith:  Mary Belle and Paul, June and Tom, Ruth and Harold, Nan and Bill are just a few to mention.

            And what about today’s generations?  They are present, too.  Look around and spot the faith leaders you know.  I recognize several:  Beth and Bryan, Kim and Dan, Krystle and Brain are just three faith-filled couples.  The church continues thanks to the leaders of our church.  The couples gain strength together and we see the future of God in their lives.

Amanda, Kaylie, Neal, and Alyssa            In closing, today, I would like to share one more story of a strong couple leading in discipleship.  Just like I watched Beth and Burt growing up managing to put aside the trials of a pandemic, I am watching a new generation.  My cousin Neal married a young woman who also is a teacher.  They are living in quarantine just like the rest of us, but they have a vulnerable daughter who was born with Downs Syndrome just a few years ago.  Meet Amanda, Kaylee, Neal and Alyssa.  [Insert picture of family.]  

            Despite the challenges that all of us face in our lifetime, without faith we falter.  With faith, we strengthen.  Amanda has grown in faith and uses the platform of Facebook to chronicle the life of her daughter and her big sister growing in faith.  She testifies how God supports her and the family through all the medical and educational challenges they face.  She is Priscilla.  Neal is Aquilla.  

            Are you living your life in a manner that shares the good news?  Are you modeling your faith life and your daily life after Priscilla and Aquila?  Are others watching you and seeing that God has been with you, is with you, and will always be with you?

A close up of a sign

Description automatically generated            Just remember–you are strong.  During this pandemic, we live with uncertainty, but we turn to those strong teachers in our lives to discover our own strength.  My cousin sent a message through Facebook that I want to share with you: [Insert sidewalk chalk screen.]  Her daughter Alyssa is the artist: “God will shower us with his comfort through Christ.”

Let us close in prayer:

Dear Lord, 

Thank you for all the strong women

     you have shared with us through scripture

     and throughout our lives.  

Thank you for all the disciples,

     both men and women,

     who worked to teach us about Jesus.

Thank you for all the Priscilla and Aquilla couples

      you have placed in our lives

     so we may know you personally.  –Amen

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Surprising times challenge faith, Redefine today’s lifestyle, goals

How many times do we experience something in our lives and we cannot believe what just happened?  Maybe it was a near accident, maybe it was a health issue, maybe it was a work achievement.  Afterwards, we just walk away and marvel at the outcome.

Maybe we are in the midst of another amazing experience.  I know that the coronavirus has forced our daily lives to come grinding to a halt, wait a bit, and now we are trying to restart.  And that restarting process is almost more frightening than the shutdown has been.

None of us can predict what the future will look like, but one thing for sure it is will never be the same.  And I am not sure, but I am betting we have learned valuable lessons and should not even consider returning to life as usual.

As an observer, I am witnessing major lifestyle changes that I believe demonstrate a hunger for healthier balances in our priorities.  In my neighborhood, I watch families out walking together.  Not just one family, but a variety of families, some walking through the neighborhood just to add more steps in their walk.   I see pets with their owners that I never recognized before.  

Having been an at-risk teacher, I knew broken family units and the resulting damage more than I saw family units who supported one another in all types of endeavors.  Watching the family units join together for time outdoors without all the fanfare associated with sports is a heart-warming experience.

This pandemic is forcing family units to redefine themselves.  The stay-at-home orders have made the decision for many that society seemed to want but battled against due to the cultural expectations of two adults working away from the home while the kids were in school or in a day-care setting.

A spinoff adjustment has been to the work force.  Maybe the first evidence of needed/forced change was in education.  All the sudden schools closed their doors.  With many schools that literally closed down the school year after just three quarters, not the typical four.

This abrupt change not only forced the students to stay home, but it forced schools to rethink how to teach.  It placed the onus on the parents to see that their children continued in their studies while the teachers scrambled to find ways to provide instruction away from the classroom.

Education must place the needs of the students before anything else.  I will never forget attending an ASCD regional meeting and listening to the head of Iowa’s state education department.  Instead of worrying about how to hold teachers and districts accountable to a process or a set of standards, he said they had only one guideline:  What is best for the student?

Notice, it is student, not studentS.  Education as we know it is education for the masses.  If a student could not fit into the norm, then they failed.  If they were excelling and failing, they likely were bored with school and needed to accelerate rather than ‘fit into the norm.’  

The stay-at-home directive has shifted the methods of education to one-on-one instruction.  The Zoom meetings can be refined to individual tutorials or small groups or to a full class.  The younger students seem to be adapting well as they sit in front of the camera and talk one-to-one with the teacher.  They are learning.

And between the Zoom sessions, the parents are there tutoring the kids.  They are providing the encouragement, connecting with the teachers right alongside their children.  Many parents are learning their students interests and talents for the first time and discovering ways to enrich their educational experience on their own.

Granted, for many young people, the stay-at-home directive has had the complete opposite.  They are forced into a home where abuse, addictions, and hunger exist.  For these students, there is no education, there is only fear and danger.

How does our culture handle the pandemic crisis for these at-risk students?  These are the students who need the daily sanctuary of school so now is the time to redesign the educational system to meet the critical needs of the at-risk who cannot depend on a family structure to nurture them into adulthood.

Where does a society turn to find new direction?  

The pandemic protocols are forcing all institutions to reassess their basic foundational beliefs.  The hospitals are rewriting how they treat patients–and they are treating them in solitude without the very critical emotional support of family and friends. 

Business are learning that work can be more productive if workers are at home, away from the office.  Work weeks are being redefined by work production.  Priorities are readjusted to support the families with children in the home.

Hopefully businesses are learning that the almighty dollar is no longer the guiding principle.  Now the guiding principle is protecting the human assets of the company.  Valuing the employees above the profit margin will lead to a healthier society.

Our society was at-risk when the coronavirus started its race around the world.  Our sense of elitism blinded us to the reality and the risks that were stretching across the oceans to reach us.  We were so busy finding the easiest way to amass wealth.  We were sacrificing the foundational principles that created our culture.

The one constant in my life, and I expect in many lives is my faith.  I know that the history of mankind has experienced pandemics before.  I know that change is a guarantee.  But as I have lived, experienced, and studied history, the one common thread throughout all cultures is faith.

My faith system is based on the principles of Jesus Christ who as the son of man and the son of God walked among the human race demonstrating and teaching how to live in harmony with one another.

One simple rule:  Love on another as we want to be loved.

Now, in the midst of stay-at-home directives, of social distancing, of economic crisis, this one principle can guide us through the storm.  Love one another as you want to be loved.

True, the sudden changes in our society even affect the way we do church.  We cannot open the sanctuaries to host a worship service in the same manner we were accustomed to doing.  We cannot sing our hymns together; now we must don a mask.  We cannot pass the communion cup or break off a piece from the main loaf of bread.  We cannot find our favorite seat next a dear friend.  

What the church can do is to teach, to worship, to serve one another in any way that it can so all may know Jesus.  We can give whatever we can to assure that others have the basic necessities in life–food, clothing and shelter.  We can reach out to one another through phone calls, hand-written notes, texts, emails, or any other viral means of communication.

We do not know what tomorrow will look like, but I am confident that with faith in God and in living the life Jesus modeled for us, we will discover that life does not have to be what always has been.  We will find that being the church is doing all the good we can in any way we can for whomever we can, whenever we can.

Let’s keep the focus on the positives this pandemic can provide.  Let’s follow the recommendations of the scientists, the specialists, and the doctors.  Let’s allow families to be families first.  Let’s redesign our world so put God first, then we put loving one another like we want to be loved.

Schools will continue, but education will be different.  

Businesses will continue, but the design and the workforce will be different.

Government will remember that it is for the people and by the people.

And churches will be an active force meeting the needs of one another through one principle:  Love one another as you want to be loved.  

Let’s leave the past in the past and surge forward to a new and better world.

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Life during the pandemic: The pain of it all hits home But look at all the good, too

     Today is Palm Sunday.  And today I will sit in my living room and watch the service on Facebook.  I will be watching the work of our tech team, our pastor, our music team, and myself.  

     We worked this week, reporting to the sanctuary at different times, to video tape all the elements of the service to be pieced together and posted to our Facebook page this morning–scheduled to air at 9:30 AM.  

     We had to cancel the order for the palms that traditionally are handed out during the service, added to the kids’ time, and laid on the altar.  Not using them this year.  Granted there are several pastors and churches and craft-lovers who are finding dozens of ways to share the palms in new and different ways, but the pandemic protocols has taken away the traditions, the normalcy, the human touch. 

     There is pain in these days.  We are feeling the emotional pain of change.  We are feeling the numbing sense of loneliness.  We are feeling disheveled without the usual daily routines–not to mention the fear of even being infected by COVID-19.

      But as real as the pain is during this insanity, there are so many new and exciting experiences, changes, and inventions developing as a direct result of the forced restrictions in our lives.

     First, look at what is happening to our churches, switching almost instantly to streaming worship services through Facebook, the YouTube channel, or their own web pages.  The skills were not already in place for many, but we learn and grow.

     Second, schools suddenly lost the classrooms.  Teachers cannot depend on the one-on-one contact in person, now they are learning how to use the virtual resources to do the same thing.  This is probably more difficult for the elementary teachers, but I remember how I needed help with high school math.  Losing the contact with the teachers is forcing educators to rethink virtually every facet of teaching.

     Consider our family structures, too.  Our culture finds households dependent on two incomes, we encourage mothers to be professionals in the work force.  This has led our society to step away from the core family roles.  Now families are forced to restructure what their daily family life is, especially since so many have been sent home to work or forcing them into unemployment.

     The list grows of all the ways the pandemic is forcing us to create new ways to manage our lives.  Oddly enough, there is so much good that is developing from this crisis.

     Sadly, the forced changes do create pain.  Yesterday I felt that pain personally.  As our state shut down, I had to make a decision.  I had to decide whether I could do something I felt passionate about doing to support my own family, or whether I had to close the door and become one step more isolated.

     I am amazed how a virus can spread completely around the globe and affect me so personally even when I still have no contact with someone infected or have no health issues.  

     My roles clash–wife, mother, grandmother, teacher, and pastor–when decisions have to be made under these conditions.  It is personally painful today; but I am part of a community that has grown from the 1970s rural world of family farms to a global community where influences from the farthest reaches of the globe can be delivered right to your own door.

     This morning, after hours of tears and misery from submitting to another restriction separating me from the very grandmother, teacher role I loved, I have gotten up, fed the pets, taken a shower and dressed for a full day–makeup and hair, too.  The weather has improved, the trees are leafing out, and it is a new day.

     In a few moments, I will switch over from the news, open Facebook on the smart TV, and join in Palm Sunday worship.  The good is winning over the pain.  The changes are going to force new normal patterns in our life.  We witness the outpouring of love as our communities rally to support one another through the drive-by parades, the chalk talk on the walks, and the list grows.  

     The pandemic restrictions may be in place, but I believe the good will erase the pain. 

Please join me in prayer:

Dear Heavenly Father,

We may be in a winter of our human history,

But we are in the spring of your glorious world.

Let us look forward to the new world

As we struggle to manage under the virus.

Help us to see how we are all suffering 

And know we are never alone.

Thank you for strengthening our resolve,

For sharing in our pain,

For opening our mind to new ideas,

And for our family and friends

doing all they can to comfort and care for us.

Help us with our patience as this season passes

And a new season erupts before us.

Help us to join in the new and push aside the old.

Let us carry forth the lessons we learn

So the future remains welcoming and exciting.

We can do this with all the grace and mercy

You show us as modeled by your son Jesus Christ,

It is in your name, God our Father,

And in your son’s name, Jesus Christ,

And through the Holy Spirit, we pray.  Amen.

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Guess What I Saw!

Today is truly spring, and yesterday I discovered it at a time I really needed to find a breath of fresh air:

A picture containing grass, outdoor, sitting, small

Description automatically generated

I did not plant this jonquil here.  It is actually coming up with some wild onion that I have had before and cannot seem to get rid of.  

So I was genuinely surprised to discover this flower blooming in the midst of the cedar mulch under the deck. 

I needed this harbinger of spring because earlier that morning I had made the trek to Walmart in order to get my usual supplies.  I knew there were issues with stocking, but still what I found was a shock.  

There was no cereal except for less than a case of a couple of brands.  Only one box or two of instant oatmeal.

There was no rice!

There were very few cans of vegetables.

There was no toilet paper as I had heard and discovered from other outings the weekend before.

Finding items was a challenge because not only is our local Walmart managing the pandemic, it is also going through a major remodel, so everything is everywhere.

I left shaken.  

Throughout history humanity has faced crisis; we are not different.  And there really is no reason we should feel protected from a global pandemic as the world comes right into our homes if by no other means than videos. 

Then today, we took a long drive down to Truman Lake because it was sunny and pleasant.  We would not interact with other people just by taking a drive, so why not?

The fishermen were still out on their boats despite the near freezing temperatures.  The Sonic was delivering meals to the car windows as always.  And there were cars, well more pickups and SUVs, on the road.

The small towns were ironically the same as they always appear.  Even the little mom & pop restaurants seemed to be doing their normal lunch hour business.  I almost felt like we were outside of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) parameters.

We all need to look for the little reminders that God’s world is filled with his glory.  We need to see all the spring flowers popping out from the mud and grime of the wet, cold winter.  We need to see the families outside in their yards–together.  We need to hear the peepers as they announce spring.

And we all must realize that humanity is going to continue even though the going is extremely trying right now.

We must return to God’s scriptures and the story of how he joined us on earth as Jesus Christ, son of man and son of God.  

Easter may not be what we expect this year.  There may not be any worship service to attend.  The Easter outfits may not get to be worn on April 12 as planned.  The Easter Bunny may have to wait a bit before families and friends can get together.

But the good news is that God is good all the time and all the time God is good.  We just need to look for the good.  We need to hear how all the communities are finding new and inventive ways to love one another.  We need to consider what we can do, too.  

This Sunday, March 22, and the coming Sundays our churches are joining forces to fill the social media with church services.  There may be more people “in church” this week than ever before thanks to the technology and the social media that has developed.

Sharing the good news will be a breath of fresh air along the airwaves right alongside the news broadcasts.  Share with others in any way that you can the story of Jesus Christ.

Open up the computers, the tablets, the cell phones, and even the smart TVs and find the worship service of your own church or maybe someone else’s.  You can visit as many as you want this week and during the coming weeks.

I think the on-line church service and devotionals is much like finding the jonquil blooming in the most unexpected place in my yard.  May the services open up your heart and you experience the renewal of faith this first spring Sunday.

Please join me in prayer:

Dear God, 

Thank you for the gift of spring.

Be with your children around this world

     struggling with the angst filling today’s world.

Let us join together in worship

     in any way we can, wherever we can

     so we may experience 

     the joy of Christian community.

Guide us as we continue to move forward

     through these uncertain times.

     heal those who are sick;

     protect those who rush to their aid;

     and show us new and wonderful ways

     of loving one another 

     so all may experience the transformation 

     that comes when we accept Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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