Category Archives: Religion

Jesus’ Parable: Light under the Basket

Introduction

Recently Jimmy Fallon shared that France is sending another Statue of Liberty to the United States.  I had not heard that in the news, so off I went to double check the reference, and sure enough, there it was in news reports from NPR, CNN, New York Times, Washington Post and other news sources.  Granted, Fallon was including the story as part of his opening monologue and was able to put the news into a humorous twist, but the news reports provide the details:

“The smaller statue, based on the original 1878 plaster model by the sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, was installed just outside the museum’s entrance in 2011. This statue was cast using a 3-D scan of another model in Paris, the news release said. It will be exhibited on Ellis Island from July 1-5, facing its much bigger sibling on Liberty Island. Then, it will be moved to the French ambassador’s residence in Washington, where it will be on display from July 14, France’s Bastille Day, until 2031.”

Today is this country’s birthday, it is 245 years old, and France gave us the first Statue of Liberty 135 years ago; the statue represents the values this country has long held for the people who have journeyed into this country and today, we can read the words inscribed on the tablet that speak to not only the immigrants who have made the trip to be Americans, but also to all Americans whether native or multi-generational citizens.

The inscription is the concluding lines of the poem “The New Colossus” created by Emma Lazarus:

. . .  ‘Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!'”

As Americans we celebrate our freedoms, but with freedom comes responsibility.  Our founding fathers understood the significance of respecting one’s freedoms and include them in the documents that serve as the very foundations of our country: 

From the preamble of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

From the preamble of the US Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The challenges to the choice of words has expanded as our culture evolves through the centuries.  Through the shifts in our society we know that the historical use of “men” is now “humans” in every shape, size, culture, gender, age–each human has all the legal rights of any other human.

Our Bible has provided us the same foundation for us to love one another unconditionally.  We have watched the language be adapted through the various translations as we work to assure the value of each human, as we strive to treat one another with grace, respect, compassion, and love.

John Wesley, this denominations founder, was an activist for the individual.  He stepped out of the cathedral and went to the streets to do all he could to share God’s love in any way he could.  He focused on sharing God’s message, but he added to that the very actions that demonstrated that Christians do love one another.  

Today, the rule has not changed.  The methods of serving one another now have global reach, but the work we have to do is as critical right here in our own community as it is anywhere the connectional church can reach.  

I ask you to join with me in repeating the social creed which is reviewed every four years and remains part of the United Methodist’s doctrine 

We believe in God, Creator of the world; and in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of creation. We believe in the Holy Spirit, through whom we acknowledge God’s gifts, and we repent of our sin in misusing these gifts to idolatrous ends.

We affirm the natural world as God’s handiwork and dedicate ourselves to its preservation, enhancement, and faithful use by humankind.

We joyfully receive for ourselves and others the blessings of community, sexuality, marriage, and the family.

We commit ourselves to the rights of men, women, children, youth, young adults, the aging, and people with disabilities; to improvement of the quality of life; and to the rights and dignity of all persons.

We believe in the right and duty of persons to work for the glory of God and the good of themselves and others and in the protection of their welfare in so doing; in the rights to property as a trust from God, collective bargaining, and responsible consumption; and in the elimination of economic and social distress.

We dedicate ourselves to peace throughout the world, to the rule of justice and law among nations, and to individual freedom for all people of the world.

We believe in the present and final triumph of God’s Word in human affairs and gladly accept our commission to manifest the life of the gospel in the world. Amen.

As we prepare to review how we take the parable, “Light under the Basket,”

I hope you have your favorite translation of the Bible, but maybe more importantly your notetaking supplies.  We need to consider how we, as Americans, but more importantly as Christians live as the light in today’s culture.  Please join in an opening prayer:

Dear loving Father, 

As we look to the Statue of Liberty,

we see the raised torch lighting the way

for those seeking a new life in a new world.

Yet we know you are the light

and we are the way that you shine

right here in our community.

Be with us, speak to us, guide us

as we seek to shine brightly 

in all the ways we can.  –Amen

The Message

As we focus on Jesus’ parables, we learn how we can live our faith in community with each other.  This week’s scriptures have shared various ways light is used as a symbol as we tackled the parable, “Light under the Basket,” Matthew 5:14-16. 

The first three gospels are considered the synoptic gospels.  The message presented in each of them is written for a different audience, and yet they agree on the theme:  we are the light of Christ and we must not hide the light.

The scripture from Matthew was written to the Jewish people.  The language is specific for those who were familiar with the Law of Mosses, with the prophecy, the expectations for the Messiah, and now how they are to live their faith openly.  

14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

As Americans we are free to be the light in our communities.  There is nothing that prohibits us from seeing the needs of one another and finding a way to be God’s light in the world.

John Wesley was an activist in his lifetime–his understanding of God’s love for us led him to love all individuals not just those who were members of the Church of England.  He stepped into the streets, into the coal mining communities, to do whatever he could to take God’s message to them.  He started working to feed and to address the medical needs of those people.  He was God’s light in a dark world.

In Manfred Marquardt’s book, John Wesley’s Social Ethics, Wesley’s standards for social ethics are based on his understanding of God’s grace which is given to all people at birth.  Marquardt states

[Wesley] attributed to everyone the possibility of responsible action.  . . . The Christian has been given biblical commandments to guide moral behavior.  However, because of historical conditions . . . the commandments vary in their applicability.  . . .[and] in light of the ethical demands of a new situation, to see standards that can provide a basis for ethical action in different social settings.” (p.103)

Being the light of Christ in the world is how we share God’s love.  We receive his love unconditionally and he asks us to love one another unconditionally, too.  Jesus uses the parable to strengthen the disciples’ confidence to go out and serve one another in love–to be the light.  The question is how do we shine our light.  

In the Life Application Study Bible, one of the notes outlines six ways that we fail to shine our light:

“Can you hide a city that is sitting on top of a hill?  Its light at night can be seen for miles.  If we live for Christ, we will glow like lights, showing others what Christ is like. . . . “  (p. 1652)

I challenge us to consider in our own lives and as a church whether we are the light in our community.  There is no reason for us to hide as Americans, either.  We are free to be the light and to let it shine.

Let’s stop and ask these questions:

Q.  Are you quiet when you should speak up?

A.  As a church, we tackle difficult topics.  In Missouri, the conference has identified topics that are addressed by the social justice mission:  [insert the icons]

Missouri Social Justice programs:

  • Disaster Response
  • Festival of Sharing
  • Journey 4 Justice
  • Next Generation Ministries
  • Open Hearts, Open Books
  • Planting Academy
  • Restorative Justice Ministries
  • Rural Missouri Connection
  • Soul Connections
  • Special Advance Giving

Global Social Justice programs:           

  • Global Connect
  • Haiti Water Plus
  • Mozambique Initiative
  • Ludhiana Christian Medical College and Hospital
  • Imagine No Malaria

Q.  Do you just go along with the crowd?

A.  We try to teach our youngsters not to just go with the crowd, but in our adult lives do we just go along with the crowd?  

Q.  Do you deny the light, do you deny God?

A.  This particular question is personal.  How well do we openly share about our faith?  Do we testify that God is part of our life.

Q.  Do let sin dim your light?

A.  When we sin, do we go to God and ask forgiveness?  Do we find ways to change our lives so we sin no more?  Do we seek help?  Do we join small groups so we can be held accountable and continue to grow in our faith journey?

Q.  Do you explain your light to others; do you explain God to others?

A.  Confirmation Class.  Do you serve as a mentor for a confirmand?  Do you encourage your children to be learn more about faith?  Do you just show up for service and then go home without learning more or volunteering to teach/to lead others in their faith journeys?

Q.  Do you ignore the needs of others from the rest of the world?

A.  Monthly Disciple Gifts:  Jamaica Medical Mission, Open Hands, Open Books,

UMCOR, CROP Walk, Heifer International, Survival House, Undies Sunday no in July and five more months to complete the calendar year.

As Methodists, we agree to support our local congregation.  We are asked two questions:

  1. As members of Christ’s universal Church, will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries?
  2. As members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gift, and your service?

We must honestly reflect upon our behaviors as Christians asking ourselves if we are the light of Christ not hidden under a basket.  

If we agree to the two membership questions, we are being the light of Christ.

If we honor our Christian responsibilities and try to actively serve as God’s hands and feet, then we are the light of Christ shining brightly from the hilltop.

We are fortunate to live in a country that legislates the freedom so we can be be the light of Christ.  Therefore, today, the Fourth of July, as citizens of the United States, we answer God’s call to be the light of Christ right here in our own church, in our own community.

As we close out our morning service, we will join in the sacrament of communion.  Communion is a uniting act of worship that all Christians, regardless of the denomination, use to affirm our belief that God has loved us so much that he gave his only son so we can be forgiven of our sins.  This is why we choose to shine our lights rather than hide them under the basket.

Please join me in a closing prayer:

Dear loving Father,

Thank you for all the freedoms we have

and for the grace you have given us.

May we find your light within us

so we may do all we can to shine that light

even on the darkest of days.  –Amen.

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Filed under Lifestyle, Religion

The Mustard Seed

Introduction

            Every Sunday as Pastor Peter begins the sermon, he invites you to prepare by having your Bible and note taking materials with you.  I had never considered suggesting this practice, especially right before delivering a sermon.  But I like it and you may have noticed I have adopted the same reminder.  

            The Bible provides us a foundation on which to build.  The words speak to us in new and different ways each time we read them.  Sometimes the words are quiet; yet, at other times they yell at us.  They are literature.  The lessons are historical, sometimes it reads like a novel, and other times it is like a how-to-manual, but the themes are timeless.

            Taking a lay speaking course led by Lovett Weems, right here at the university well over a decade ago, I was introduced to the quadrilateral.  This method of reading scripture makes so much sense to me.  John Wesley created the quadrilateral method of reading the Bible.  

The four parts of the quadrilateral (usually illustrated as a square) are (1) the Scripture ,which is the words as written, (2) tradition ,which is the historical and cultural context, (3) reason,which is one’s personal processing, cognitive evaluation of the words, and (4) experience which includes how one understands the application of the words throughout human history.

            Reading, studying, and reflecting on the scripture can speak to us in new and unexpected ways throughout our life.  Today we are reading one of my favorite parables, The Mustard Seed. I would identify it as one of the rocks in my faith foundation.  It connects me to my mom and my dad, it centers me when I become uncertain, and it guides me as I share God with others. 

. . . “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”  –Matthew 13:31-32, NRSV

Therefore, I hope you have your favorite translation of the Bible with you and those notetaking supplies ready.  Let us begin with prayer:

Dear God, author of our lives,

Open our ears to hear you speak to us through your words.

Open our minds to understand the lesson the words teach us.

Then guide us to transform our lives so we may live our faith openly.

–Amen

The message

            As you can tell by the screen, I have a collection of Bibles.  I am fascinated by the various ways scripture is presented.  I find that sometimes I need to understand the cultural setting for the words, so I check the Archeological Bible.  Maybe I read the words and feel confused by the structure of the language, so I turn to The Message.  I have even read a version that was the base of a British stage production entitled, The Word on the Street.  Each one speaks to me differently. 

I first became familiar with this study Bible when our cousin Merle gave a copy of it to my mom along with a note.  Mom was fighting cancer, and as she continued through the months, this Bible became her companion, and she would occasionally share something from it with me.  After her death, I opened this Bible and found some of her thoughts those final months.  The words spoke to her and they speak to me.  They speak to each of us through this earthly life.

            The parables served as one of Jesus’ methods to teach the disciples how to shift the culture away from the controlling laws created by the Jewish religious leaders.  The disciples asked Jesus how to grow in faith, so Jesus used parables to help them understand.

            What lesson, then, does the parable of the mustard seed have for us today?  Interestingly, there are two:  (1) the size of God’s kingdom and (2) the size of one’s faith necessary to be part of God’s kingdom.  When one starts reading scripture, then re-reading it, and even googling about the scripture, the message speaks to us in ways God knows we need–the Holy Spirit is at work as you discover the message of the scripture.

Let’s go back to the parable itself.  The Gospels have three different versions of which the Matthew version is the most familiar one.   But let’s look at Mark 4:30-32:

30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”  –NRSV

            Both Matthew and Mark focus on the theme of the kingdom of Heaven.  

Yet, the version in Luke 17:6, provides a different insight that turns the parable into a very personal message for each of us:  

The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

            For me, Luke’s version of the parable is a foundational piece of my faith. As a third grade Sunday school student, my mom and her best friend Jewel, were our teachers.  Somewhere during that year, they gave each of us a small gift–a mustard seed.  Mine was a mustard seed necklace which I still have.

            As I grew up, I found myself wondering if I had enough faith to go to heaven.  I would worry about this and try to figure out if I had enough faith.  I think that is a question that surfaces repeatedly during life, and we turn to scripture, we go to worship, we volunteer to do service, yet we wonder, over and over, if we have done enough for God to welcome us to heaven.

            Maybe you have never worried about this.  I know that there are times in our lives that we waiver.  We may have a bad day, or we witness someone who we think is much stronger in their faith than we are–and we ask ourselves again:  Do I have enough faith?  Is my faith strong enough?  

            Jesus used the mustard seed, one of the tiniest of seeds, to assure us that it only takes a little bit of faith, faith that really cannot be measured, to be included in God’s kingdom.  The key is that we live life faithfully. 

            Using the Life Application Study Bible, helps develop this one verse from the ancient agricultural reference into a lesson for today:

The disciples’ request was genuine, they wanted the faith necessary for such radical forgiveness.  But Jesus didn’t directly answer their question because the amount of faith is not as important as its genuineness.  What is faith?  It is complete trust and loyalty to God that results in a willingness to do his will.  Faith is not something we use to put on a show for others.  It is complete and humble obedience to God’s will, readiness to do whatever he calls us to do.  The amount of faith isn’t as important as the right kind of faith–faith in our all-powerful God.  (p.2243)

At times our lives can be so challenging, we falter.  We can get sucked in by others’ behaviors and we lose our direction.  Sometimes we can be swayed by the opinions and ideas of others, agreeing in conversation to ideas that really do not reflect our Christian beliefs.  And then we hear that inner thought that we messed up.  We send up a flash prayer to God and ask him to forgive us.  That should be enough to let go and let God take us back, but we worry.  Is that enough?

            Life has a way of pulling us away from God.  But faith, even the size of a mustard seed, is all it takes to return to God.  Those inner whispers that remind us of God’s law, of God’s grace and forgiveness, call us back.  We reaffirm our faith, we accept God’s forgiveness, and our faith grows a bit more.

            Jesus’ use of the mustard seed made sense to the disciples because they recognized the growing process of such a tiny seed.  Even though I grew up on the farm and understand, the study notes add to my understanding:

A mustard seed is small, but it is alive and growing.  Almost indivisible at first, the seed will begin to spread, first under the ground and then visibly.  Like a tiny seed, a small amount of genuine faith in God will take root and grow.  Although each change will be gradual and imperceptible, soon this faith will have produced major results that will uproot and destroy competing loyalties.  We don’t need more faith; a tiny seed of faith is enough if it is alive and growing.

            Today, you are here with us to worship together.  Your faith calls you to join in worship.  You continue to seek God, to use God’s law to order your life, and you use that faith in all that you do.  You are living that others may know Jesus. 

            You are today’s disciples, and you are planting seeds of faith in others.  As a church family, we are working together to expand God’s kingdom.  We are living our faith in our families, at our jobs, with our friends, and even when we are on summer vacation and traveling to the various ends of the earth.

            As we look ahead, we are committed to growing the faith of our next generations.  We are preparing for the confirmation class.  We are seeking to develop a quality program for the young families and their children with the Next Generation minister.  And as we do this, we know that each of you can share in this ministry by prayer, by mentoring, by greeting and by serving each other with Christian love.

            Jesus’ parables help us to build our faith, but also build our confidence that our faith includes us in God’s kingdom.  The versions of the parable in Matthew and Mark shift the theme to define God’s kingdom.  Today we have the advantage of global communication to know that God’s faithful are at work in all corners of the world.  Where God is at work through us, there is God’s kingdom.

            The mustard seed parable that Jesus used to teach his disciples still teaches us today.  We can grow our own faith through our practices of faith–reading scripture, attending worship, serving one another in any way that we can.  Our efforts then grow faith in others and God’s kingdom on earth expands.

            The symbol of the mustard seed has carried me through any number of challenges.  I wore it through high school, even for my senior picture; I wore it when I had to take college finals, and even now I find myself turning to it on days when I need a little faith strengthening.  Why I even find myself shopping for different mustard seed accessories because it reminds me to stay centered on God.  I even found a company, The Mustard Seed Accessories, but it has more tees than actual mustard seed items.

            But, I am wandering.  Let’s us close with confidence that we are God’s mustard seed.  We are planted, we are growing, and we will provide more seeds for others to plant and grow, too.  The googling led me to two more images–the mustard seed shrub in Israel and I also found that growing mustard seeds is also much closer to us than we might think.  

In fact, when I stumbled into this picture, I realized I had just pulled quite a bit of it out of my flower bed.  God’s kingdom is at our own hands.  We just need to cultivate our own faith and then live that faith openly and confidently so that others, too, may discover God’s grace and love. The parable is so small and yet so powerful:

The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

Use these words to strengthen your faith.  Use these words to guide you in spreading God’s love.  Join me in prayer:

Dear Father God, master gardener of faith,

Thank you for your words planted in our hearts.

May our mustard seeds of faith grow your kingdom.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God with us.  –Amen

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Filed under Nature, Religion

Handling a Cultural Shift

The Introduction

Today is one of those transitional days.  We are honoring our dads and their influences in our lives, and we are closing out spring and moving into true summer.  It is interesting how we mark our calendars and how pivotal days like today keep us connected to traditions and guides us through our lives.  If we seem so glued to our calendars, then how come things change?

Most of you know that I took a vacation–a pandemic-delayed vacation.  This trip was never one I had considered, but my close friend encouraged or pushed me to go to Disney World.  (It did not help that my daughter joined her efforts.)  

Still, this trip demonstrated to me that I had been unaware of a cultural shift that was playing out in front of me.  I had not been in a setting outside of our local community for well over two years, primarily because of the pandemic.  I had not stepped outside of my culture and looked at the larger, global culture until I spent these days people watching.

What did I see?  Certainly, I saw an environment that focused on fun, but I saw much more.  I saw families in an entirely new light.  The families came in all shapes, sizes, and cultures.  The stereotypical Midwest family image with which I grew up and worked around has become redefined; and after a week, I am glad to report that it is better than my own preset image.

One morning I woke up to a dream and a new insight because I realized that we are undergoing a cultural shift in defining the family, but maybe more specifically a shift in the roles of the 21st century parents. A cultural shift is nothing new, but the evolution can be so slow we fail to acknowledge it and then inadvertently do not understand it–maybe even fight it whether good or bad.

Today, I am going to share some of the evidence I witnessed and then relate it to how God is always present with us, even when we are in the midst of a cultural shift.

I suggest that you have your favorite Bible at hand as well as notetaking supplies.  You may need to make a note to read more details or to ask questions as we dig deeper into God’s presence during a cultural shift.  Let us ask God for understanding:

Dear Loving Father,

Open our minds to your wisdom preserved in scripture.

Open our hearts as we seek to understand your presence.

Open our eyes that we may see you in the lives of others.  –Amen

The Message

            Throughout these months of the pandemic, the term pod has become synonymous with that of family.  The CDC has encouraged us to stay within our close-knit family and friends.  Certainly, the family are those living under the same roof; but as the months of shutdown continued, the boundaries of our homes began to shift and the term pod became more common.  Pods grew to include close friends and then even our working peers.  Our culture shifted and is shifting.

            In the Bible, the first five books lay out the beginning history and even the laws that the Israelites were to follow as they managed the challenges of living faithfully among pagan followers.  The Israelites were those who followed God, lived by his laws, and worked together in maintaining that close relationship with God.

            In the selection from Deuteronomy 11:18-21 we read about the Laws of Moses, and these verses are just a small piece of the laws:

18 You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem[a] on your forehead. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 20 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.  –NRSV

            As the generations of the Israelites continued, the success of their faithfulness was challenged.  The culture was tribal and the laws that developed were to keep the tribes together and to define the various roles of those within the tribes.  

For instance, there are 11 tribes, and each one has a specific geographical location, but the 12th tribe is that of the Levites.  The Levites were the priests and could not hold property.  They lived to serve the other tribes in the practices of worship–which included the sacrifices and distribution of food from those sacrifices as outlined in the laws.

The tribal culture provided order for the people and the laws created became more and more specific, challenges to the culture came from other cultures’ attacks.  When the Israelites were overpowered by the pagan cultures, they were often taken in as slaves.  The challenge then became how to maintain the faithful God-centered culture while living among pagans.

In Daniel, we see a model of how to live faithfully even among the pagans: 

But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine; so he asked the palace master to allow him not to defile himself.  . . . 11 Then Daniel asked the guard . . . 12 “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations, and deal with your servants according to what you observe.”  –NRSV

Even though captured by King Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel remained faithful to his culture and led his friends Meshack, Shadrach and Abednego, demonstrating their culture’s diet is superior to that of even the pagan king’s personal diet.

Between these two Old Testament scriptures, we see how the ancient culture of the Israelites evolved.  No longer was the faithful bound by the tribal culture, now they could live their faith even among the pagans.  The culture was shifting, the faithful Israelites were adapting to new cultures while maintaining their own.

Of course, today’s cultural shift follows another shift outlined in the New Testament.  The global cultures continue to evolve as the influences from one culture meet other cultures.  As the travels of the ancient people continued to expand, the tribal culture and the ancient Law of Moses begin to evolve.  The evil influences become invasive and the Jewish religious leaders exercised control by adding more and more restrictive laws.  God saw a need to step in.

Jesus, God as man, is born and his purpose is to teach the people, not only the Jewish people, but all people, a new law: 

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.  –Matthew 7:12, NRSV

A cultural shift begins to evolve again.

As King David shared in Proverbs:  basic life instructions to preserve the God-centered culture of the Israelites:

1Listen, children, to a father’s instruction,
    and be attentive, that you may gain insight;
for I give you good precepts:
    do not forsake my teaching.  –Proverbs 4:1-2, NRSV

Now Jesus began teaching the new law of the faithful.  He lived his message teaching the disciples how to love one another, how to shift the culture away from the minute, excessive, restrictive laws the Jewish leaders had created over the generations.  One simple law encompasses all other laws:  love one another.

            The culture shifted.  In three short years of ministry, Jesus moved the faithful into a new structure for everybody.  The culture of the Israelites simplified as the global influences broke down geographical boundaries, peoples moved in and out of other cultures.  

            Today, we see how effective following Jesus’ one law has changed the global community.  What started as a movement in one small region along the Mediterranean Coast grew.  The faithful disciples continued Jesus’ work and the Christian faith expanded in all directions until it wrapped around this globe.

            So why do I believe we are in a cultural shift?  The pandemic has forced us to stop and re-evaluate our lives.  First, we lived within the geographical boundaries of our houses, then slowly expanded to our immediate neighbors, and grew into tight-knit pods of those with whom we live, eat, work, and play.  The boundaries were defined physically, but the human relationships defined the pods. 

We discovered that our faith family no longer was simply those who met once a week in a church sanctuary to worship together as we began worshipping with a global community through the internet.  

We redefined our definition of family as a pod.  Now a pod may have been a small group that maintained its connection through Zoom and then, thanks to masks and vaccinations, slowly became that close-knit pod meeting in person once more.  The faith community has evolved into a new culture, just as our families have.  

This brings me back to my vacation.  As we moved into the airports, we witnessed a culture shift.  Pods sat together.  Close inspection of the pods showed families, but also working teams, small groups such as a Christian school taking the seniors on a trip.  

The next step was to reach Disney World itself where I saw a new culture unfolding before my eyes.  I witnessed new family structures.  I watched parental roles shift.  I found hope.  I found compassion.  I found a world where Jesus’ commandment was being lived out each loving one another as they want to be loved.

“Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get.  –Matthew 7:12 from the Message translation

What proof did I have that our 21st century culture is living out the Golden Rule.  Well, the temperature on those days at Disney World averaged about 93 degrees.  We carried water bottles and all the travel blogs assured visitors would be able to get fresh water simply by asking.

            At one point, my friend asked a server for a glass of ice water–the reply was no, but she could go over to another line and ask for it over there.  Not wanting to disrupt that line, we found a spot around the corner and managed.  While sitting there, a young couple spotted us, came up and gave her a bottle of cold water.  They said they heard the server tell her no, so bought one for her, not knowing exactly where we had landed.  They sought us out, they paid it forward.  They loved as they wanted to be loved.

            The culture shifted.  There is a culture existing within a pandemic that does look out for one another.  There are young people being trained by parents and pods that are stepping forward to love one another as Jesus asks us to do.

            Today we are returning to life as we knew it pre-pandemic.  But I am confident that the pandemic did not suddenly, artificially impose a cultural shift.  As I walked the various parks, 

  • I saw generations loving one another.  (even using the circumstances to make the gender reveal)
  • I saw blended families loving one another.  
  • I saw multicultural families walking and laughing together.  
  • I saw mixed gender couples, even with children, walking freely among the masses without fear, without guilt.  
  • I saw strangers treating others as pod members standing in lines trying to manage fussy kids, and the newly-created friendships for the moment working together to make the vacation memorable.
  • I witnessed a cultural shift.

            How did this happen?  I firmly believe that the parables we have in the New Testament have taught us how to live God’s love for one another.  I believe that we have fathers who have discovered the value of being fully engaged in the teaching of Christian values to their families–another cultural shift.

            The fathers walking with their wives and the kids do not follow the stereotypes of fathers I grew to know.  The role of father is now as equal as that of the mothers.  The fathers carry the babies.  The fathers walk the kids to the restroom.  One father allowed his toddler daughter to put lipstick on him even though it missed and hit the cap.  Fathers play openly with the kids.

            Maybe my stereotypes are just mine, but I believe that when Jesus used the parables, he was trying to break stereotypes.  Jesus wanted us to see each other just as we see ourselves.  As I witnessed a shift in cultural stereotypes, I am reminded of the parable of the blind leading the blind:

“Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? 40 A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. 41 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 42 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.–Luke 6:39-42, NRSV  

Those days of walking around the various parks, watching the mingling of peoples, I found that my own stereotypes were making me blind to the cultural shifts that have continued to evolve even and maybe even assisted by a pandemic.

            In Matthew 15, the parable of the blind leading the blind is wrapped in the middle of another lesson from Jesus.  The restrictive laws for the Jewish diet were challenged when Jesus and his disciples broke some of the laws as they ate together.  The Jewish leaders were offended and challenged Jesus.  A cultural shift was needed, and it includes a warning for us yet today as we teach our next generation:

10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  . . . 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16 Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Today is Father’s Day, and as I have thought about the vacation and what I witnessed, I know that Jesus’ parables provide us with the very rules for establishing new cultural standards away from the name-calling, bullying, angry, hateful behaviors we have watched our pre-pandemic world had become.

            Maybe the pandemic slowed us down, forced us to reevaluate how we have been living, and showed us that we can raise our families to love one another and to love others outside our pod just as we want to live.  We must not continue leading by outdated laws, outdated stereotypes, instead we must be the leaders in our community showing those who are blind God’s love.  

We need to re-evaluate how we speak and act in front of our children–not just those in our homes, but to our community’s children.  We need to speak in words loaded with love, grace, and compassion.  We need to live our faith openly by our actions so future generations will model those same behaviors breaking stereotypes that restrict us from living in Christian community with each other.

Our culture is shifting, and God depends on us to teach one another in our families, in our pods, and across the globe the one commandment:  love one another as you want to be loved.

Even as Jesus led the ancient people in a cultural shift, we continue to use our Heavenly Father’s words to learn how to live out God’s one commandment through the parables.  In Proverbs, David goes on to clarify that a father’s–earthly and heavenly–instruction brings wisdom 

“Let your heart hold fast my words;
    keep my commandments, and live.
Get wisdom; get insight: do not forget, nor turn away
    from the words of my mouth.
Do not forsake her, and she will keep you;
    love her, and she will guard you.  –Proverbs 4:4-6, NRSV

            As we end today, think about the way cultures have shifted since the scriptures began sharing the story of God’s faithful.  The words share our Heavenly Father’s wisdom, and our earthly fathers, mothers and more help us keep God-centered even as the culture evolves–we are all part of God’s world.  Please join me in prayer:

Dear Omnipotent Father,

Guide each of us to follow Jesus’ teachings

so the words of our mouths speak love

   to one another.

Open our eyes to the world around us

so we may see your love in action.

Let each of us grow in faith

so we may be the agents of change,

teaching our children to love one another.

Let us be the agents of change

working to expand your kingdom

even here on earth.  –Amen

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Examining the Church Family 2021

Introduction

Last week we focused on the family of faith through a look at our parents–the mothers and the fathers.  Today, we are going to step away from the nucleus family and consider the aunts, uncles, and even cousins in our lives.  

Therefore, let’s begin getting to know our extended family.  Here is what I suspect you mentally picture (shared the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving artwork).  Admittedly this picture certainly does not reflect the true images most 21st Century family gatherings, in fact, a search for this picture shares some more contemporary versions.  These choices may more honestly show what happens around the table today (suggest googling the Rockwell image).

We have all grown up with very different versions of family and our holiday meals are ever evolving.  There is no formal definition or any way possible to provide all the variations of a huge family gathering.  Our mobile society and the dramatic changes our culture has absorbed cannot define family in one image.  Instead it is a myriad of images.  Check out this screen shot from a google search of this painting:

Each one of us can pull out family photos and sort through them to find images of family gatherings.  This time of year, the family reunions are beginning, along with summer barbecues or weekends at the lake that bring us all closer to those in our lives who have helped shape our faith journey.  Sometimes it can be for the negative and sometimes it is the positive.  Today, let’s consider who is our extended faith family even if it more than our aunts, uncles and cousins.  Then let’s think how we, too, are the aunts, uncles, and cousins of others.  Are we the extended faith family for others?

Before we begin, I suggest that you have your Bibles ready and some notetaking supplies.  Who knows, you may even want to draw out a family faith tree as we share this morning:

Let us pause, clear our minds, and begin with a prayer:

   Dear Heavenly Father, 

When you created man and woman,

      you began building faith families.

Today we know some have fond memories

     and some have painful memories of families.

Guide us to see the aunts, uncles and cousins

     who guide us in our faith journey.

Let us learn how to guide others

     along their journey, too.  

Open our hearts and minds

     to forgive, to thank, and to grow.  Amen.

The Message

The family who sits around our dinner tables are certainly the ones who have the most immediate influence on us.  We discussed the role of the nuclear family, our mothers and fathers, last week, today we expand that dinner table to those beyond the immediate household.  We consider our extended family including aunts, uncles and cousins who contributed to our faith journeys.

As I began reviewing scriptures, I was surprised to discover very few specific references to aunts, uncles, and cousins.  In fact, after googling “Biblical uncles” the first entry said there are only 19 references to uncles in the Bible.  Of course, I had to follow up with another google of “Biblical aunts” and learned from the same source that there are only three direct references to aunts.

The Old Testament references show how the tribal structure provided for the safety and the social welfare of families.  The very structure of the nuclear family shifted when someone needed protection or there was a death of a parent.  The influences of aunts, uncles, and cousins was an evolving process and not all influences were positive as the scriptures share the challenges families faced.  Still these ancient stories share the lessons in faith to guide us in our faith journeys.

Certainly, Genesis sets the groundwork for the stories of faith as it explains the origins of the family, but it also shows how human conflict can upset the relationships.  We recognize how temptations, greed and other sinful behaviors can disrupt one’s relationship with God.  Proverbs 11:29 puts it clearly:  

Those who bring trouble on their families inherit the wind.
    The fool will be a servant to the wise.  –NLT

The story about Jacob and his maternal uncle Laban is an example of a relationship with an uncle that began as a way to find safety and led to the creation of Jacob’s family:

12 And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman, and that he was Rebekah’s son; and she ran and told her father.

13 When Laban heard the news about his sister’s son Jacob, he ran to meet him; he embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house. Jacob told Laban all these things, 14 and Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!”   –Genesis 29:12-13, NRSV

The kinship is the framework for the story, but the faith model is that of Jacob, not the uncle.  Laban tricked Jacob into marrying the oldest daughter Leah after Jacob faithfully worked for him seven years to marry Rachel.  The story continues as Jacob agrees to work for Laban another seven years to have Rachel as a wife also.   

The extended family of faith may have set the stage for Jacob’s journey to continue, but the key message is his faith and reliance on God sustained him as he worked to have Rachel for a wife and also serves as the bridge for the ongoing story of the Israelites as God’s chosen ones.

Other Old Testament stories develop the faith journey of the Israelites.  One is the story of Joash and his uncle Jehoiada.  Jehoiada was one of the Levite priests who identified Joash as the age of seven to be the anointed king of the Israelites, protected him, trained him, and even found his wives as is summarized in 2 Chronicles 24:1-3: 

Joash was seven years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem forty years. His mother was Zibiah from Beersheba. Joash did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight throughout the lifetime of Jehoiada the priest. Jehoiada chose two wives for Joash, and he had sons and daughters.  –NLT

The story of Esther also shows how the family relationship can strengthen one’s resolve to remain true to God. Her biological family was Jewish; and when her parents died, her cousin Mordecai adopted her.  When it came time for the pagan king to find a queen, Mordecai positioned her to be among those from which the king would choose.  The king was pagan, and when he tried to destroy the Jewish people, Esther risked her life to intercede–which she did succeed in doing.

Shifting to the New Testament, the first reference in the gospel to extended family members, other than the genealogical list from Matthew, is the relationship of Mary to her kin Elizabeth.  We learn from the birth story that Elizabeth gives birth to John the Baptist the cousin to Jesus Christ.  

The support that Elizabeth provides Mary exemplifies the unconditional love that exists among members of an extended family.  There were no questions between these two women as to the peculiar nature of their pregnancies.  There was love.  There was trust.  Their faith in God gave them the strength to manage the circumstances of their two sons.

Scripture provides us examples of how the family of faith can guide and nurture us in our own faith journey.  I challenge each of you to stop for a moment and try listing those individuals in your life who guided you into your relationship with God and have influenced you to live your faith so that others witness it in your daily life.

My aunts and uncles included great-aunts and uncles and cousins who lived in close proximity:  my maternal grandparents lived about six miles away and my paternal grandparents left the farm about a mile and a half away moving into town eight miles away and my aunt and her family moved onto the farm.  A few other families whose farms were connected along the gravel roads between our farms became our ‘adopted’ cousins and also influenced my faith journey.

Most of these extended families were members of the Buell United Methodist Church or they attended church regularly in Montgomery or Bellflower.  This extended family demonstrated their faith in God by their habits, by the table grace before each meal, by the way they tilled the land and cared for the livestock, by the way they handled droughts, Army worms, financial difficulties, and relationships.  God was as much part of their daily life as the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter.

As you stop and remember those in your extended family, whether blood kin or not, you realize the person you are is made up of the influences from these individuals.  You are connected to the family of faith not only by their faith in God, but also by their love and their actions.  You also realize that your faith journey continues and you have added in the pieces of others you value in your life.  You, too, have “adopted aunts, uncles, and cousins” who make up your family of faith.

When Paul began his missionary work, he met strangers who became his extended family as they became believers in Jesus Christ.  These people became the founders of the church working side by side with Paul and others who heard the good news.  Two of his disciples were Timothy and Titus.  

He taught them how to continue in ministry even while he sat in prison.  We, too, have had teachers in our lives who guided us into the individuals we are, but Paul’s words to Titus list the very behaviors we are to learn, to practice, and to teach faith to future generations.

Today, stop and evaluate your own faith and behaviors.  Ask yourself, “Am I living my life in a way that I, too, am teaching others about the value of God in my life?  Am I someone else’s faith aunt, uncle or cousin?”

Hear these words from Paul as he teaches Titus:

As for you, Titus, promote the kind of living that reflects wholesome teaching. Teach the older men to exercise self-control, to be worthy of respect, and to live wisely. They must have sound faith and be filled with love and patience.

Similarly, teach the older women to live in a way that honors God. . . .  These older women must train the younger women to love their husbands and their children, to live wisely and be pure, to work in their homes, to do good, and to be submissive to their husbands. Then they will not bring shame on the word of God.

In the same way, encourage the young men to live wisely. And you yourself must be an example to them by doing good works of every kind. Let everything you do reflect the integrity and seriousness of your teaching. Teach the truth so that your teaching can’t be criticized. Then those who oppose us will be ashamed and have nothing bad to say about us . . .”  –NLT   

As summer begins, our kids get out of school, families begin to travel, and the CDC has allowed us to remove masks–if, you are fully vaccinated–especially while outside and away from crowds, we need to take some time to evaluate our faith journey.  What do we need to do to strengthen our own faith, but also, what do we need to do to guide others in their own faith journey?

Summer is a time of renewal and growth.  Take some time to read scripture, listen, and hear God speak to you.  Which of your faith family read scripture?  Which ones spoke to God?  Which aunts, uncle or cousin stepped out to serve one another?  Which ones, even outside your kinfolk, lived their faith openly making a difference in your life?

Use the coming season to strengthen your faith so you, too, live that others in your extended family may know Jesus Christ.

Join me in prayer:

Dear loving and guiding Father, 

Thank you for the stories and words of scripture

guiding us in the best ways to live a faith-filled life.

Thank you for the aunts, uncles and cousins

who have strengthened our own faith.

Thank you for those who have touched our lives

and made us the Christians we are by their example.

Speak to us so we, too, may help others

along their faith journeys.

Push us to answer your call to be disciples

doing all we can to share the good news

that Christ died to take away our sin

and lead us into a life eternal.  –Amen

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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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