Be Ready!

5-9 So don’t lose a minute in building on what you’ve been given, complementing your basic faith with good character, spiritual understanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love, each dimension fitting into and developing the others. With these qualities active and growing in your lives, no grass will grow under your feet, no day will pass without its reward as you mature in your experience of our Master Jesus. Without these qualities you can’t see what’s right before you, oblivious that your old sinful life has been wiped off the books.

2 Peter 1:5-9 (The Message–emphasis added)
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Do you plan for emergencies? Most people have some basic idea or plan for expected circumstances; a first-aid kit for home accidents; a small store of food or water; perhaps a generator in case of a power outage… But how many of us have a plan for the unexpected? Not just a vague idea of “what if…” but a plan. Some people have a stock of toilet paper and bottled water for their house or apartment, but no plan for what to do if they need to evacuate or relocate due to a flood or hurricane, or if they lose electricity for more than three days due to a storm, or if their building should catch fire.

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On September 11, 2001, when airplanes flew into the Twin Towers in New York City, several thousand people had to be quickly evacuated from the burning buildings. There were some plans in place; most had been misplaced or forgotten. And the chaos and confusion led to mixed messages– “stay put and wait for help…”,” don’t use the elevators…”,”get out as quickly as possible…”,” the stairways are unsafe…” But the vice president for corporate security at Dean Witter/Morgan Stanley, Richard Cyril Rescorla, was prepared for the worst. He had been planning and rehearsing for years after the failed attacks in 1993. He quickly implemented his detailed plans, ushering hundreds out of offices and into the stairwells, where they descended to safety in spite of the smoke and panic. He went back several times, checking to see who else needed help and guidance. Regardless of where they worked or who they were, Rescorla came with calm reassurance and authority, sending them into the path of rescue workers who could then offer greater assistance. Rescorla himself never made it safety– as he kept going up to get others out, he became trapped and perished when the towers fell. However, his years of planning, and his dedicated efforts on that fateful day saved the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of people. (See more here: https://www.911memorial.org/connect/blog/recognizing-war-hero-who-led-wtc-survivors-safety-911 )

We may not be called on to face another disastrous day like 9/11, but we are called to be alert and ready as we follow Christ. Those who followed Christ during His earthly ministry were called disciples. The name comes from the same root as discipline. They literally “walked” with Christ. They went where He went; they ate what He ate; they slept where He slept; they did whatever He asked them to do. If we seek to follow Christ, we must be ready to live lives of alert discipline. This comes after we take our first steps of Faith, and build on our character and understanding of God’s will. Our actions should not just be spontaneously “good” in the short-term, but patterned on the need to be prepared for the kind of challenges and trials we should expect to face. Just as Jesus was prepared for those who came to challenge Him with trick questions and false accusations, we need to be prepared to be challenged, rejected, and subjected to persecution. And we need to be prepared to respond, not with haughty complacency, outraged panic, or defensive tantrums, but with calm confidence and compassion.

The Apostle Peter, earlier in his letters, urges believers to be ready to give an answer (or a reason) for the hope that they have in Christ. (1 Peter 3:15) And this should not be a knee-jerk reaction to being challenged, or a snide commentary on doctrinal matters. We should be ready to be witnesses for the Majesty, Power, Grace, and Love of God as it has been experienced in our life and the lives of those around us. God never asked us to be His defense lawyers. He asks us to be faithful witnesses–not just of the facts about Him, but about our relationship WITH Him.

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We also need to be prepared to be relocated or evacuated from lives of comfort, complacency, and expectation, in order to GO into the world and spread the Gospel. We will not all be called to be “missionaries” in the traditional understanding of the word, but we ARE all called to be on mission– to be ready to share our hope, our resources, our time, and our love– with others, near and far.

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Today, I pray that God would continue to teach me as I live in obedience…that I would be alert and ready to speak, to walk, and to serve where and when and how HE sends. May I be ready to usher many others to safety as I share and live out the Gospel of Christ!

Fishers of Men

Earlier this week, my husband and I went fishing. As we were enjoying our time on the lake, and catching a few fish, I was reminded of the old song I learned in Sunday School:
“I will make you “fishers of men”…if you follow me.” Jesus said these words to His early followers, who were fishermen by trade (see Matthew 4:19). But what does it mean to be a “fisher of men?”

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The primary meaning is that we have a commission– found in Matthew 28:19: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations..” We are to go and “catch” men and women, taking them out of the sinful lifestyles we see around us, and bringing them into the Kingdom of God, much as fishermen take fish out of a lake or sea and bring them into the boat. But what practical implications can we take from the practice of fishing, that might help us as we carry out our spiritual commission?

  • First we much go where the “fish” are, and actively work to catch them. I can go to the lake, dip my toes in the water, even get into a boat and go sailing, and never catch a fish. The fish will not jump into my boat, or jump out of the water into a net. I must make an effort. I can follow Christ, and go to church every Sunday, participate in many spiritual activities, even pray every day, but if I never interact with lost and hurting people I am unlikely to become a “fisher of men.”
  • Next, we must recognize that we won’t “catch” all the fish! I know some Christians who become discouraged and depressed if they go out for one day of “evangelizing” and don’t make converts. They give up after one negative or unsuccessful encounter. “I’m not an evangelist.” “I can’t share the gospel– I just don’t have what it takes…” Imagine if fishermen responded that way– “I cast out three times, and never got a fish– I give up!” This is especially discouraging because our Great Commission is not to “convert” everyone; not just to go out and “catch” men and women with a hook or a net, but to make disciples. It is a process, but it comes with risks and no guaranteed “return” on our investment. Some “fish” are not ready to be caught. Some are meant for other fishermen. This should not lead us to be apathetic about lost neighbors or relatives, but it should remind us that we are God’s witnesses, not His SWAT team. Even Jesus didn’t “convert” everyone He met! But He did love them!
  • Third, and closely related, we must expect resistance. It is not natural for most people to respond immediately to the Good News of the Gospel. After all, it involves admitting our need for salvation, and submitting to the will of God. Fish that are taken from the water will die! And we must “die” to our selves and our selfish nature if we are to become Disciples of Christ.
  • Finally (and this is a bit of a stretch of the analogy, but bear with me…), we must have the right bait. This is not to say that the Gospel is inadequate or insufficient for the task. Rather, that we are not meant to hit people over the head with only our words– even when they come from Scripture! We do not create disciples by offering a bare hook. People are hungry– hungry for answers; hungry for hope; hungry for peace; and hungry for love. The Gospel lives in US– WE need to offer more than just the words of the Gospel–we need to LIVE the Gospel! To offer only condemnation or smug arrogance makes a mockery of the very Gospel we are supposed to share. Likewise, we do not create disciples by offering a shiny but “fake” gospel of easy answers and “cheap” grace without truth or repentance. It may hook a few desperate or gullible people for a moment, but once again, it is not our mission to merely “hook” people.
FISHERMAN#3/OK, 5/30/01, 3:52 PM, 8C, 8808×10935 (0+505), 150%, FISH, 1/10 s, R120.4, G94.7, B105.7

David and I enjoy fishing– we enjoy spending time in God’s beautiful nature; we enjoy the quiet and peace; and we enjoy the challenge of finding where the fish are “biting” on a particular morning. And I’m so glad that Jesus gave us such wonderful analogies and word-pictures to help us understand His love for us and His plan for spreading the Good News. Finally, I’m glad that I’ve been taken from the “lake” of sin and given new life by the great “Fisher of Men!” I pray that I can help others find and follow Christ, as well.

Saint Patrick’s Breastplate

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow, I am reprinting one of his prayers, called St. Patrick’s Breastplate. For more on this and other prayers attributed to St. Patrick, see https://slife.org/saint-patricks-prayers/.

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St. Patrick (also known as Padraig or Padrig) lived in the fifth century during the last of the Roman era in Britain. Held as a slave in Ireland as a young man, he escaped and returned to his home. However, he felt called to return to the land of his captivity as a missionary. Today, he is celebrated for his efforts to bring the Good News of Christianity to the very people who had enslaved him. The following prayer is attributed to St. Patrick. It is as relevant today as it was over 1500 years ago:

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.

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I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me;
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s hosts to save me
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a multitude.

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Christ shield me today
Against wounding
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

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I arise today
Through the mighty strength
Of the Lord of creation.

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Go! Tell! Witness! Believe!

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.

Luke 2:15-17 (ESV)

Go! Tell It on the Mountain! The ancient prophets foretold it. The Angels brought the news to the shepherds, who told it to their neighbors: Jesus, the Christ, is born! He is here among us! God in the flesh! What amazing and glorious news! This same Jesus told parables, shared prophecies, and spoke the Truth– and taught His disciples to do the same! Through the centuries, witnesses have spoken words of hope, healing, and salvation to the next generation, taking the Word as they spread throughout the world.

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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

 
John 1:1; 14
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“Good Christian, fear, for sinners here the silent Word is pleading..”

What Child is This?

Jesus, who spoke the universe into existence, came into His own creation in silence as a newborn baby. The angels announced His coming; the shepherds spoke of Him; the Wise Men came to honor Him. But His arrival was just the beginning. In His ministry, He would speak words that echo through the centuries– words of hope; words of warning; words of life and salvation. And He challenges us to speak as well– to share the Gospel; to be His witnesses to the uttermost parts of the earth (see Acts 1:8).

Our words matter. Our words have power– power to build up, and power to destroy. We have opportunities each day to speak Truth, Hope, Joy, Peace, Compassion, Love…or to stay silent. And we must be careful to speak the truth– even when it is inconvenient, unpopular, or risky. We must not compromise by speaking pleasant platitudes or ignoring danger. Truth is not always pleasant–Jesus’s words were not always welcomed; not always comforting. But they brought healing where it was most needed, and hope where there was darkness.

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And more than words must go out into the world– Jesus didn’t sit in a comfortable corner of a bistro waiting for the hurting and hopeless to come to Him and hear His words. He climbed mountains and crossed lakes; He traveled from town to town; He shared meals and participated in the Synagogue services; He touched lepers and spoke to outcasts. Today, we have amazing opportunities to spread the Good News–technology and media; the ability to meet others in person (COVID permitting!) or via Zoom or Skype or even cell phone; and, in many places, the freedom to speak without fear.

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 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16 (NIV)
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The Word came down at Christmas. Let’s make sure the Word goes out this Christmas– the Savior has arrived! He is Christ, the Lord! Joy! Peace! Hope! Celebration! Go! Tell it on the mountaintops and in the valleys and across the seas!

The Right Time

But when the right time finally came, God sent his own Son. He came as the son of a human mother and lived under the Jewish Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might become God’s children

Galatians 4:4-5 (Good News Translation– emphasis added)

At just the right time Christ died for ungodly people. He died for us when we had no power of our own.

Romans 5:6 (New International Reader’s Version–emphasis added)

Do you ever wonder at God’s timing throughout the Bible? Why did He take the Israelites up to the edge of the Red Sea and THEN send the entire Egyptian army after them? Why did He allow Haman to trick the king into signing an edict that would wipe out the Jews and THEN send Esther to try to save them? Why did Jesus wait until Lazarus was dead to visit His sick friend? Or God’s timing in our own lives? Why didn’t He make it possible to get the job I wanted when I first applied, instead of nearly a year later? Why is life so stressful all at once? Why does God seem to give me wisdom AFTER I’ve messed up? And yet, God’s timing is perfect. Not that it seems that way–in fact, it often seems like God is not paying attention to timing at all.

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Even in Christ’s birth, it seems like the timing couldn’t have been worse–Joseph and Mary forced to travel far from home, only to find that there was no room anywhere for them to rest. And then– THEN–the labor pains began! It was cold, dark, filthy, lonely, and frightening. And not just that evening: the Romans ruled a significant portion of the world with an iron fist. Jews were not forbidden from worshipping God, but they were heavily taxed, regulated, and watched over by their invaders. This newest census was just another part of the bureaucracy and endless government red tape. It seems like it would be the worst timing ever for Emmanuel to appear.

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And yet, Scripture says it was “just the right time” for Christ to come. So what can we discover about this “right time?”

  • God had been silent for 400 years before this– almost exactly the same amount of time the Israelites had been in captivity in Egypt before God sent Moses to lead them out. Coincidence? I’m not so sure…God uses patterns to illustrate concepts. Just as the Israelites had been slaves to the Egyptians, so all of us were slaves to Sin and Death. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” John 3:14 (New American Standard Bible)
  • The prophets made hundreds of statements about where and how Emmanuel would be born– some seemed completely contradictory; yet they were all fulfilled exactly. Again, this wasn’t a coincidence– God orchestrated events over centuries until it was “the right time” for them to all come to pass. Only God could have coordinated it all–the census, the genealogy of Jesus, Joseph’s hometown, Mary’s contractions coming THAT night in THAT cattle shed, instead of on the road somewhere, or in a private room where the shepherds couldn’t visit…
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  • The Jewish people had been in exile off and on throughout the centuries; under Rome, even though they were conquered, most of the Jews who had returned to their homeland were still living there, much as they had centuries before. That wasn’t the case four or five hundred years before– it isn’t even the case today– more Jewish people live outside of Israel than in it!
  • Rome had established its rule over most of the Western World– and with it, they had established a system of roads, common currency, and a complex legal system. All of this played vital roles in the advent of the Savior– from His birth, through His ministry, and even in His trial, death, and the spreading of the Gospel. Before them, the Greeks had established cities and trading centers that would form the basis of the first missionary trips of the Apostle Paul. And they had created a “common” language in which this Good News was first written and spread. Just a few hundred years earlier, the spread of Christianity through letters and traveling ministers would have been much slower, less efficient, and more dangerous. Just a few hundred years later, the Roman Empire would be in shambles; travel would require going through regions separated by differing languages and governments.
  • To me, one of the most fascinating things to imagine is what it might be like if Christ had not come until our own time. First, there would be no Christianity, and none of the work of Christians over the centuries would have been done. But even if we imagine that all of history had unfolded and the present was much as it is, Christ’s birth would not have happened in the same way. Bethlehem would not be under the rule of Rome. In fact, Israel might not even exist; as it is, it exists in hot contention between the Jews, the Palestinians, and their close neighbors in the Middle East. There would be no census, and no need for Joseph and Mary to travel– and certainly not by donkey! There might be “no room at the inn,” but Joseph and Mary would be sent to a homeless shelter, filled with other hapless travelers. The shepherds, seeing angels, might still be filled with fright– mistaking them for missiles! Even so, it would only take minutes for a team of journalists to arrive with cameras, microphones, and commentary! The message of the angels would be dubbed “false” information or “fake news”, as would most of the prophecies about His arrival. “Fact checkers” would “kill” the story, and Mary, Joseph, and all the shepherds and wise men would be “cancelled” or receive threats.
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Or not–I can only speculate. But I can say with confidence that God’s timing, even when it seems odd or “wrong” by our limited perspective, is perfect and worthy of our praise. All that seems “odd” or “wrong” about Christ’s coming when, where, or how He did, is just our limited perspective, and our tendency to doubt whatever we don’t understand.

Emmanuel came! He came at “just the right time” to fulfill all the promises and complete His ministry on Earth. Everything happened just as God designed it. And over two thousand years later, we still “Rejoice!” We sing songs, celebrate, and worship. We breathe in Hope, we give gifts, and we cherish the story of Christmas in hundreds of different ways.

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This same God has a plan for us today. Throughout our lives, He sends blessings, allows struggles, and patiently stands by, offering help and hope to each of us. There is not a single detail of our lives that escapes His notice or is beyond His capacity or willingness to restore, transform, redeem, or renew.

Emmanuel– God WITH us–at “just the right time!”

Freedom and Blueberries

My husband and I went blueberry picking earlier this week. The local blueberries are at the peak of their freshness and flavor. Our friends have a farm, complete with a blueberry patch, where you can buy farm fresh blueberries by the box, or you can pick your own and pay by the pound. We went early in the morning, while the dew was still on the berries. The day promised to be hot and muggy, but not until we had finished our labors among the bushes. We saw butterflies and heard the happy chirping of birds nearby; otherwise, it was quiet and we focused on gently rolling dark, sweet berries into our hands and dropping them into our buckets. We picked a little over 12 pounds of berries (enough for several pies!) in a little over an hour–a good harvest at a leisurely pace.

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I love visiting the blueberry patch. It brings back wonderful memories of visits with my mom and grandma, my sister, my husband, and even my oldest nephews. I love the feel of the berries as I gently pull them off the bush and as they roll into the bucket. I love the feel of the bucket pulling as it fills with fruit. I love measuring out the berries for pies or cobbler or just making sure we have several quarts frozen for later use.

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I’ve been picking blueberries for years. I’ve picked from several different farms in several different locations all around the area. Some years, the berries are huge. Other years, they are small and tend toward sour (still good for pies and baked goods, but not as tasty to eat by the handfull!) In all those years, I took for granted the wonderful freedom of being able to enjoy this activity. This year was different.

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There were two reasons for the difference. First, this was the year after COVID kept many people from enjoying “normal” activities– even outdoors–throughout most of the world. Even the ability to pick berries was limited by social distancing mandates and fears of catching COVID from other pickers or from touching the same bucket or being in the same weighing area as someone else. This year, I knew what it was NOT to be able to do something I considered to routine.

Secondly, we’ve been talking about freedom lately at church– the freedom we enjoy as citizens of America, but more importantly, the Freedom we enjoy as citizens of God’s Kingdom. As citizens of this country, our friends have the freedom to own their farm and grow whatever crops they choose. They also have the freedom and the opportunity to sell their produce as they see fit– commercially to stores or privately at a farm stand, or as U-Pick. They have the freedom to set their own prices and hours. And we have the freedom to choose from many such farms to purchase delicious, fresh fruit–and even to select the fruit ourselves! I had always accepted this as a “given.” But many people have never had this incredible opportunity, and I am so thankful for the many years I have enjoyed it!

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That’s an amazing thing– and I have spent a lifetime taking it for granted. But even more amazing is the Freedom I have through Christ. I am free to choose my attitude and behavior each day. I am empowered by the Holy Spirit to make the kind of choices I would not make in my own selfish mindset. I am free to live without the painful load of guilt and regret over the past– not because it didn’t happen or doesn’t have consequences, but because it no longer defines who I am or who I can be. Just like picking the plump, juicy blueberries from the bush, I can harvest the Fruit of the Spirit; I can have a life filled with Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-control! (Galatians 5:22-23) Just like being able to store up delicious fruit for the coming months, I can do what is required to please God– to act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with (my) God (Micah 6:8 paraphrased). Just like choosing which farm I will visit, I can seek out opportunities to reach out to people near and far with the incredible Gospel of Christ– in word AND in action.

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Who knew blueberries could be so powerful and so liberating! Thank you, Father, for blueberries. And thank you for the blessing of Freedom through Jesus Christ!

God Alone Knows..

There is a quote, often attributed to the late great apologist, Ravi Zacharias, that I keep posted on my refrigerator. The actual author appears to be another great apologist, Edward Musgrave (E.M.) Blakelock, an Australian who lived in the 20th century. The quote goes like this:

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God alone knows how to humble you without humiliating you, and how to exalt you without flattering you.

E. M. Blakelock

It is at once a simple and extremely profound statement. God knows us so well, He knows exactly those areas in which we tend toward pride and disobedience. But unlike our accuser, Satan, God doesn’t stand around saying, “AHA! AHA!” and pointing out our faults with glee. His loving discipline will cause us to be confronted with our errors–and our own pride and failure to obey may cause us to be humiliated by others–but God’s purpose is to bring us to repentance and transformation, not shame and dishonor. God wants us to learn from our mistakes, not be imprisoned by them.

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In the same way, God knows our strengths and glories in our wise use of His gifts. But He loves us far to much to flatter us and lead us to improper pride. If we go there, we do so led by our own temptation. God may choose to do great things around us, for us, even through us– but they are God’s great deeds, and we are blessed to be part of the process.

One of Satan’s greatest lies is that we must be “like God”– knowing good and evil, and able to always choose the right course in our own power and wisdom. Such thinking leads us to wonder if God will be unable or unwilling to forgive us– that we must never falter, totter, or doubt. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23 NIV). But that is NOT the Good News of the Gospel– merely that reality of our lost state. Guilt without remedy is hopeless and dead! Such a picture places God in the place of prosecutor. But God is both our just judge (rather than an unforgiving one), and our faithful advocate!

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God WILL humble us; and He WILL exalt us according to His wisdom. But God is more concerned about our ultimate well-being and redemption than in our temporary feelings.

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My prayer for today is two-fold– first, that I would seek God’s opinion and His just judgment, so that I can confess, repent, and adjust my heart accordingly. Second, I would pray that I might seek to see others as God does; that my love for others would cause me to encourage and admonish with pure love, and not selfish ambition or spite.

I Can Do All Things..

I know many Christians who cite Philippians 4:13 as their favorite verse: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” And while this is a powerful verse, and holds great promise, I think it has been misused and taken out of context too often in recent years.

The Apostle Paul wrote this– from a prison cell as he awaited trial and a likely sentence of death! And this thought is a summary statement. It follows a list of circumstances in which Paul had experienced needs, and questions, and setbacks, and lack of provision.

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In this season of “sheltering in place,” I have a new appreciation for Paul’s letter. I am not in jail, but there are many restrictions (temporary, but seemingly endless) on where I can go and what activities I can pursue in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. I cannot “do all things” in any normal sense. My family could not gather for Mother’s Day this year. We cannot have friends over for a meal, or take our grandchildren to the movies, or meet together for a traditional church service on Sundays. I cannot open my little shop to customers. I can’t go and get a haircut or hang out at the bakery or coffee shop.

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And there are others who are struggling, not just with restrictions, but with increased expectations. They cannot “do all things” to help a dying patient, or stop the spread of infection in their nursing home or hospital ward. They cannot answer frenzied questions about timelines and protocols. They cannot work effectively from home and still be available to their children as both parent and surrogate teacher. Or, they cannot meet the needs of their students without face-to-face interaction.

But Paul is not talking about the mere completion of a worldly task, or achieving a personal goal. Paul isn’t suggesting that he (or anyone else) can do anything and everything he might want to do or that others might wish him to do. He has just finished talking about times of lack, of wants and needs and facing uncertainties. Paul did not (even with Christ’s help) skip lightly around Asia Minor, making friends and influencing people.

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So what DID he do? What did he mean by “all things?”

Paul speaks often throughout his letter of “running a race.” Paul learned that in all circumstances, with whatever resources, whatever restrictions, and whatever obstacles, he could “run” his race. Under persecution or in times of great success; in times of plenty, or in times of hunger; in prison or on the road (or seas); in Jewish synagogues or Greek amphitheaters; alone or in crowds– Paul could worship God. He could proclaim the Gospel. He could spread the love and grace of Christ Jesus. If he couldn’t travel, he could still speak. If he couldn’t speak, he could write. If he couldn’t write, he could pray. He could do “all things” that were necessary to accomplish his one goal– to run the race; to finish strong; to live a life of purpose and worship.

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May we do the same today, through Christ, who gives us strength. I may not be able to gather with friends, but I have the blessing of being able to call, or e-mail, or IM, or send encouragement. I can still write this blog. I can still pray– in fact I have more time to do so! I can do “all things” that will fulfill my purpose and bring honor to God. And so can you. What a privilege–no matter where we are or what our circumstances!

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On a Cold Winter’s Night…

One of the great classic Christmas carols, “The First Noel,” describes the night of Christ’s birth as a “cold winter’s night, that was so deep.”

It is dreamy and dramatic to think of Jesus coming into a cold, dark, dreary (and even snowy) world, bringing angels, glorious stars, kings bearing expensive gifts, and joyous songs.

In the past two posts, we’ve looked at Jesus as the Light of the World, and the Word of God; we’ve looked at Advent as a time of darkness and silence, in anticipation of the coming light and the Gospel. The idea that the world before the Birth of the Savior was cold continues the pattern of absence. Darkness does not exist independently. Neither does silence or cold. Each is the absence of something else– Light, sound, warmth–and it can only be known by the degree to which its opposite is reduced, distant, or absent.
In contrast, the light, sound, or warmth is made more evident in contrast with its opposite–we may not notice a slight difference in lighting on a sunny day, or a slight difference in temperature; but a candle in a dark room, or a whisper in a silent auditorium has a dramatic effect.

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We don’t actually know the exact date of Jesus’ birth, and while December falls during winter, that doesn’t always mean a cold night in every part of the world. If shepherds were watching their flocks in fields just outside of Bethlehem, it is not likely that the temperatures were below freezing, or that there was snow and ice all around. The Middle East is not known for icy winters, after all. Nighttime generally brings colder temperatures, and it may be close to freezing by the middle of the night if you have no fire or protection from the wind, but a “cold winter’s night” is more likely to be found in Minnesota or Finland, not in Bethlehem, and usually in the middle of winter– January– rather than the beginning of the season.

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However, just like the darkness and silence, the cold of that first Christmas was spiritual in nature. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+1%3A9-12&version=ESV). Jesus entered a frigid world– a world of closed-off people, suspicious, oppressed, angry, sick, and world-weary. Hatred can be cold, but colder still is apathy and disdain and hopelessness. The world of Advent is a world desperate for the light and heat and sound of God’s love– not because God is absent, but because people have moved so far away from Him. The light becomes dimmer, the songs become a series of indistinct noises, and the cold and damp of night creep into our souls. Today, even with the hope and light of the Gospel story, we take our focus off of the true light of the world, and the true source of warmth and love, and too often focus on the lesser warmth of a new jacket, or the glittering lights of a shopping center, or the strident sounds of greed and envy.

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Jesus may not have come in the cold of midwinter. But He came into a world of cold hearts as a helpless baby in a strange and unwelcoming land. And he was wrapped in rags and placed in a feeding trough– the warmest place that could be found. But even in this tiny, shivering baby, there was the warmth of Pure Love. And it was felt by all who came in contact with Him– shepherds rejoiced, Mary pondered, Wise Men knelt in adoration.

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I love seeing candles and firesides at Christmas time– I love coming into a warm house, full of laughter and love, or singing carols on a cold night, and being invited inside to share the warmth. I love fellowship at church, and sharing a hug and a smile with those I meet. Imagine the warmth of God with us–All of the warmth and life of being wrapped in the arms of Grace, and held by the nail-scarred hands, never to be cold or alone ever again. Can you feel it? Can you anticipate it? Imagine passing that on to someone who has never known such warmth…on a cold winter’s night…

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I Love to Tell the Story

I’ve mentioned this before, but many of my childhood memories of church revolve around old hymns, sung with more gusto than musicality– joyful noises, just not always faithful to the notes. But they were faithful to the Word, and the Worship of Christ. I will always be grateful for that heritage.

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In the more informal services on Sunday nights or Wednesday nights before we settled in for prayer, the worship leader would often ask for members of the congregation to call out the number of any random hymn. We would (attempt) to sing it, often a capella, just the first verse, or maybe the first and last. It gave people a chance to sing an old favorite, or a hymn we hadn’t sung in awhile. Sometimes, a brave soul would find a “new” hymn– one no one (or almost no one) had ever heard. Occasionally, the evening church hour would revolve solely around this worship model– a hymn-sing service. It’s a dying practice, and one that deserves to be preserved. My church has done it a few times over the past years, a local chapel does it once a month, and Bible Study Fellowship in our area begins with hymn-sing every week. It’s a great way to learn old hymns, long-forgotten choruses, and treasured truths of doctrine set to music.

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But I digress. As a child, I liked this spontaneous activity, except for one thing. I knew that if Mr. Teeter opened the hymnal and started to clear his throat, that he would suggest the same hymn he always picked. It never seemed to vary– ever. Mr. Teeter was one of the older men of the church. He was in his seventies, short, with wisps of white hair, wise and twinkling eyes, and a big, red nose like a strawberry, which he often blew–loudly–into his pristine white handkerchief. He always came to church in a suit, complete with a hat, which had its own special spot on the hat rack in the entryway. I could not imagine him any other way. And every time he had the opportunity, he would choose to have us all sing, “I Love to Tell the Story.”

I wasn’t much impressed with the song. It seemed old-fashioned. It was simple. It had no soaring musical passages– sometimes, it even sounded whiny to my young ears. I dreaded the thought that we would sing it (yet) again. I would try to get my hand up and choose another hymn, any other hymn, before Mr. Teeter could clear his throat. I did not understand why he never seemed to want to sing other hymns– I knew he liked “Standing on the Promises,” “Blessed Assurance,” even “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms!” But, while he could be stalled for one or two other numbers, he would eventually call out the dreaded number, and we would sing at least one verse. It’s not that I hated the song, and I certainly had respect for Mr. Teeter, but I just couldn’t figure out why THIS song? Why EVERY time?

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Just a couple of years before his death, Mr. Teeter gave his salvation story in front of the church. Many of us had never known about his wild early years; his drinking or his rebellion against his family and the church. Many of us assumed he had always lived a quiet, rather pious life. He radiated the peace and wisdom of a man who walked daily with his God. And then, he told of his fascination with this old hymn. He liked the very simplicity of it–his life wasn’t based on some grand theological argument, or a complicated list of heroic actions he had achieved to win his salvation. His life–his born-again, wonderful, eternal life– was because someone had told him an old, old story, he had believed it, and that had made all the difference. That simple old story has been the same since the beginning– God made the world, mankind sinned and fell short of God’s glory, God sent His Son to pay the price of that fall, and Jesus’ death and resurrection allows anyone who believes to be adopted as a son or daughter of God. And though Mr. Teeter knew the old story inside and out, and lived it, he never tired of it. He was “hungering and thirsting” to hear it again!

Whenever I hear this song now (or suggest it), I think of Mr. Teeter singing with saints and angels, his quiet voice full of emotion, his eyes filling with tears of gratitude and worship, as he gets his request–“and when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song, ’twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long. I love to tell the story; ’twill be my theme in glory to tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love!”

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