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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This Little Light of Mine…

John 1:4-5 American Standard Version (ASV)
 4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness [a]apprehended it not.

Footnotes:John 1:5 Or, overcame.

via http://www.biblegateway.com
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I love words. But sometimes, it can be frustrating to find just the right word to express a complex idea. I’m sure the Apostle John felt the struggle as he began writing his Gospel account of the life of Christ. How can mere words describe the arrival of GOD– creator and ruler of the universe– into a darkened and sin-filled world, come to live among and serve the very lost souls He would die to save? John, of all the Gospel writers, uses the most visual metaphors to describe the Advent of Jesus (many of which he heard from the lips of Christ Himself)– He was the “Light of the World”, the “Bread of Life”, the “Living Water,” the “Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and the “Good Shepherd.”

But right away, the phrase John uses to talk about the “Light of the Life” causes modern English scholars confusion. John says that the light “shineth”, or “shines” in the darkness and the darkness “comprehended” (or apprehended, or understood, or overcame) it not. The phrase is simply too big for one word, or idea. The Greek word comes closer to expressing a dual idea, but even it can’t wrap up the totality of such an event.

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Consider–This Jesus, one with God from the beginning, and the “Word” of creation, spoke light into existence. Where there was darkness, He exploded– light upon light– stars and galaxies of light! Even on the darkest night we will ever know, there are millions of lights spread out across the vastness of space, including our own sun, even unseen on the other side of the planet. Darkness can never “comprehend”, let alone “overcome” the existence of light in our world.

Moreover, when we see physical light piercing the darkness, we are aware of it, but we rarely comprehend, or understand it. Whether we are blinded by a flash of light, or compelled to seek out a single hint of light in a darkened tunnel, it is not obvious at first glance (and sometimes even after diligent study) the source or scope of the light. It may be a candle, or a set of glaring headlights, or the glint of reflected light in a mirror. It could be a distant star, a satellite, or a street light shrouded in fog.

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But in a spiritual sense, it is even more true that “Light has come into the world” (John 3:19), and it “shines” in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood, or apprehended, or overcome it. Jesus came as an infant to His own chosen people, people who were longing for the advent of their Messiah. But few of them recognized Him. They didn’t understand– even Jesus’ closest friends didn’t “get it” at first. And some of them tried their best to “overcome” and “apprehend” the Gospel message– zealous religious leaders like Saul tried to stop the “light” of Jesus’ message and all those who trusted in it. Saul had to be “blinded” by a light on his way to Damascus, so that he could finally “see” Christ (Acts 9).

And the light is still shining in the darkness– as followers of Christ, we are to reflect God’s love and grace to those around us. Many of them will not comprehend; many will try to overcome or even destroy the message we bring. Our light may seem small and insignificant. It may seem like we are surrounded by the vast darkness of space, or shrouded in fog. But the light of Christ cannot be extinguished, or rationalized out of existence, or contained. All the words ever spoken, written, or thought throughout all the ages of mankind cannot compare to the power of God’s “Word”, who spoke worlds into being in an instant, and yet entered His own creation with a soft cry of an infant in the middle of a dark night so long ago.

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This is the “little light of mine”, and of yours if you are a follower of Christ. It pierces through the darkness of despair, hatred, addiction, injustice, greed, oppression, malice, rebellion, war, grief, loss, disease, and sin.

This season, as we anticipate the Advent, let us remember the greatness of the tiniest of lights, and the triumph of that light over the vast darkness. It is easy to get distracted by the twinkling of a thousand artificial and commercial lights this season, or blinded by the soot and smog and clouds of gloom and pain that surrounds us. It’s so important that we keep shining; continue reflecting the true light that only comes from the “Light of the World”

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“This little Light of mine–I’m gonna let it shine!
This little Light of mine– I’m gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, Let it shine!”

Great Is Thy Faithfulness

I generally write on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday each week. I missed Friday of last week and Monday of this week. I got busy with holidays and housework and mundane things. I was not faithful in my writing.

God is never unfaithful. There is never a day when the sun doesn’t rise, when the ocean waves don’t roll, when gravity suddenly stops, or when God stops answering prayer.

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There may be days when we don’t “see” God, or feel His presence; days when we don’t understand the way He works or why He chooses to answer, “No,” to our heart’s desire. But there is never a time when He simply stops caring, or takes His hand away from creation or removes Himself from all contact, leaving us alone and without hope.

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life…” (John 14:6 a) and the writer of Hebrews said, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, yes, and forever.” (Heb. 13:8) We never have to worry or wonder about God’s Spirit leaving us, or disappearing; we don’t have to consider that God will suddenly change His character or that His love will grow cold.

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People will ultimately disappoint us–in small or big ways, or at surprising moments–not always because they are vicious or unfeeling. Most of the time, they will let us down because not one of us is perfect. We get tired, cranky, sick, or forgetful. We get delayed, distracted, or depressed. But God is Love, and “Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8a). God is sovereign and eternally unchanging.

So even when I fall short, I can call out to God for forgiveness, and strength to begin again. I can come to Him in confidence, assurance, and hope, knowing that His Grace is boundless, His love is limitless, and His arms are always open wide to receive me. All I have to do is run to Him and accept Him for who He is– My Faithful Redeemer, My Lord, and My Heavenly Father.

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And in this pursuit of Prayer, and daily walk with Him, my goal is to become more like Him– including being more faithful.

This is My Father’s World

Yesterday, in our Bible Fellowship class at church, we continued our series on a Christian view of “Hot” topics: we focused on Environmental issues.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” (Psalm 24:1) KJV

Our environment can become a politically and emotionally charged subject. How should we as Christians, view our environment, our environmental impact, and our attitudes toward dire reports about climate change, extinction rates, emissions, pollution, habitat reduction, natural resources, and energy needs?

The Bible gives us guidelines, warnings, and even hope!

  • Ultimately, the fate of the world does not rest on my shoulders, or yours, or our generation’s…This is MY FATHER’S world. He created it, He inhabits it, and He has a plan for it. That does not give me an excuse to ignore the problems facing our planet. It does not give me the right or the privilege of passing the problems along to someone else, where action can and should be taken. But it does remind me that God has not left us alone and helpless to stop an environmental apocalypse left to us by previous generations and accelerated by our own.
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  • GOD created the heavens and the Earth. God, who knows the end from the beginning. God designed our planet, our atmosphere, our universe. What even the best of our scientists know about our planet is infinitely smaller than what God knows, and what even the boldest plans of man propose are nothing to the power of God to heal and restore. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to be concerned about things that are happening– but we can’t let our concerns turn to despair and doubt. When the nation of Israel first entered the promised land, God gave them a list of blessings and curses. (Deuteronomy, chapter 28) If they obeyed, they would be blessed. If they were disobedient, they would be cursed. Many of these blessings and curses relate directly to the land and weather. God is still in control of nature, but this leads me to…
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  • God gave stewardship of the Earth to mankind. We are to be the daily caretakers of God’s Earth. That there are so many problems with our environment shows that mankind as a whole has failed to obey God in this matter. We are not under the direct blessings and curses that came to Israel in the promised land, but there is still a correlation–as Sin proliferates, so does death and destruction– including that of the world around us. That doesn’t give me the right to point the finger at others and justify my own disobedience because “at least I don’t…,” or “at least I do…”
    God expects me to act in ways that protect, preserve, or develop the environment to benefit those around me and give glory to Him. This includes the way I interact with the land, water, air, plants, animals, and other people. It includes the actions I take to destroy harmful plants and animals; to protect the soil and water; to dispose of waste; to eat; to build, or heat, or cool buildings; what I eat and drink and wear. It even includes being informed about second-hand resources that I buy and use, and whether or not those resources are being stewarded well by others. This doesn’t mean becoming an environmental Pharisee– publicly calling out all my neighbors who still use plastic bags or buy products from “that” company. And it doesn’t mean I must become a vegan, or a homesteader or give up my computer or cell phone. But what can I do to become a better steward?
  • Is it possible that my attitude toward the environment is coming from a lack of exposure to both the environment itself and its maker? Am I spending more time reading about climate change than I am spending in the climate itself? Have I thanked God for the world He created? Do I take the time to notice the beauty in a blade of grass, or the colors in a sunset, or the mystery of running water, and marvel at God’s handiwork? How would my view of Nature change if I developed my relationship with its maker?
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  • Lastly, I need to engage with others to find ways we all can become better stewards– not (necessarily) by bashing people over the head with statistics and mandates, but getting the facts– not just the hype or the denials–and sharing practical ideas.

I don’t have to save the world– that is God’s job; He’s the only one who can. But I CAN do my part to protect, preserve, develop, and enjoy all the beauty He created. And in doing so, I pray that I can help others see the One who loved us all enough to create such a beautiful home!

Love Lifted Me

I love you, Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
    my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
    my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise,
    and I have been saved from my enemies.
The cords of death entangled me;
    the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
The cords of the grave coiled around me;
    the snares of death confronted me.
In my distress I called to the Lord;
    I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
    my cry came before him, into his ears.
The earth trembled and quaked,
    and the foundations of the mountains shook;
    they trembled because he was angry.
Smoke rose from his nostrils;
    consuming fire came from his mouth,
    burning coals blazed out of it.
He parted the heavens and came down;
    dark clouds were under his feet.
10 He mounted the cherubim and flew;
    he soared on the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—
    the dark rain clouds of the sky.
12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
    with hailstones and bolts of lightning.
13 The Lord thundered from heaven;
    the voice of the Most High resounded.
14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy,
    with great bolts of lightning he routed them.
15 The valleys of the sea were exposed
    and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at your rebuke, Lord,
    at the blast of breath from your nostrils.
16 He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
    he drew me out of deep waters.
17 He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
    from my foes, who were too strong for me.
18 They confronted me in the day of my disaster,
    but the Lord was my support.
19 He brought me out into a spacious place;
    he rescued me because he delighted in me
.

Psalm 18:1-19 NIV (taken from biblegateway.com)
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I grew up hearing hymns– lots of them. My mother and grandmother and aunt all played the piano or organ for church, and often practiced during the week. My father led the congregational singing sometimes, and my grandfather taught himself to play many musical instruments, and used hymns to become familiar with the chords, notes, and fingerings of the instrument du jour. The congregation at our small church sang with more gusto than musical talent, but we sang during the Sunday morning service, the Sunday evening service, the Wednesday evening service, and at any special occasion.

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Two things happened as a result of this: one not-so-good, and one very good thing. The not-so-good thing was that I became somewhat inured to the songs and lyrics– I knew what the songs said, but I didn’t really understand or internalize the truths they contained. However, the very good thing was that the hymns stuck in my memory– years later they came back like the best of friends to comfort me, challenge me, and remind me of sacred realities in the midst of mundane frustrations and worldly confusions.

This old hymn, neglected, out-dated, and seldom sung in our current services, was my lullaby growing up. My mother would sing it over and over as she rocked me to sleep, often running out of verses and words and just humming or filling in with “la, la la, la,” until she reached the chorus.
“Love lifted me. Love lifted me. When nothing else could help, Love lifted me.”

As a young child, I experienced the loving arms of my dear mother lifting me to her lap and rocking me for what seemed like hours until I drifted off to sleep. As a teen, I scoffed at the lyrics a bit–what need had I to be lifted and helped, when I was invincible and young and ready to conquer the world. As an adult, this old hymn came back with power and comfort when my own efforts and life’s stormy circumstances left me with little hope and lots of confusion, doubt, and regret. It reminds me that help and hope can be found even in the raging storms of grief, depression, oppression, and pain. “When nothing else could help…” God could, and did! He can and will!

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“Love lifted me”–such a simple phrase, and by itself not a solid foundation for hope and victory. In fact, there are many popular songs that speak of love lifting a person up, making one feel buoyant and hopeful, joyful or young. But this song speaks of a different and everlasting, all-powerful love– the Love of Christ. And it doesn’t just lift us up from one pleasant place to another. It reaches down into the depths of sin, despair, and even death to lift us up beyond all hope, beyond any strength or effort we could generate or receive from any other source. And this great Love reaches down to lift me–even me! It does not belong only to the elite, the wealthy, the beautiful people, the gifted or the powerful. In fact, this love is especially close and available to those who have done nothing to deserve it; those who have been bypassed and ignored and left to drown in their own shame and sorrow.

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Love. Lifted. Me! My prayer is that this same Love will surround you today, lifting you up, and helping you, just as it helps me and brings me life and hope, to the Glory of Christ our Savior.

Panic, Prayer, Praise, Peace!

Philippians 4:6 New International Version (NIV)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+4%3A6&version=NIV

I hope that today will be filled with peace, joy, and blessing for anyone reading this. But I know that today will bring bad news for some, pain for others, and hardship for many. Life is filled with struggle, disappointment, failures, and loss. Our first reaction is often to worry, which can lead to more worry, and a sense of urgency, even panic. In many cases, we have neither the resources nor the wisdom to overcome our struggles–even sustained effort or a “lucky break” may leave us without much hope. And the more we worry, the less we accomplish. But telling ourselves (or others) to simply “stop worrying” doesn’t banish worry; sometimes it increases it! Now we worry about worrying too much, or we find new things to worry about.

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But there is a time-honored and proven pattern that can help. Jesus spoke of it in His “Sermon on the Mount.” In Matthew 6, He gives us this advice:

“So do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or “What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Matthew 6:31-34 (NIV)
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The Apostle Paul expanded on this in his letter to the Philippian believers. He told them to be anxious for nothing–that regardless of our situation or circumstances, we should not panic, but pray (seek God’s grace, righteousness, wisdom, and help). But more than that, we should present all of our prayers, petitions, and requests with thanksgiving and praise!

This is not the same as pretending that our struggles don’t exist, or that they are not important, or that we are glad about the pain, uncertainty, or hardship that they bring. Instead it is lifting our eyes to Heaven and finding that God is bigger than it all; that His grace, His strength, His wisdom is sufficient for the next step– for today’s worries–for today’s battles and burdens.

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This doesn’t happen naturally or automatically–we must seek, pray, pursue righteousness, ask for help, and continue to stand firm. There are some who point to the words of Jesus, or of Paul as a kind of “magic formula.” If we repeat a few promises from the Bible, or if we pray certain prayers, or convince ourselves and others that we have “enough” faith, God is obligated to change our circumstances and give us the resolution or relief we want. God is not primarily interested in our relief– He is interested in our redemption, our renewal, and our eternal reality. In following this pattern of turning our panic into prayer, and our prayer into praise, He promises that we will experience His peace. Our panic will be transformed–even if our situation stays the same; even if it gets worse before it gets better!

So how do we practice this pattern; how do we train for this transformation?

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Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Start by seeking God with abandon–pursue Him with your whole heart– thank Him for who He is, and for all He has done. It can be helpful to review some of the names of God–I AM, Almighty, Creator, Lord, King of Kings.. Or read a Psalm or find a song that reminds you of God’s character and power. Think of the times when God has been faithful in your own past.
  • Find something about your situation for which you can be thankful– genuinely thankful. Years ago, when I was young and single, I was laid off from my first full-time job after nine months. Was I worried? Yes! Where would I find another job? How would I pay my bills? But I resolved to start being thankful about all I had learned on the job– I had met new people, learned new skills, purchased a car…God knew my needs for the future, and even though I had to wait another eight months before I found a full-time job, I was able to find temporary work and interview for other jobs in the meantime. And I had friends and family who offered good advice and encouragement along the way. I know some situations are more painful and perplexing than the loss of a job. When I my father died, nothing made the pain less, but I could thank God for Dad’s life and the time we had with him. This is NOT easy, nor is it meant to be…It may not happen for days, or weeks–don’t give up!
  • Cry out to God– in praise, but also in petition, pain, confusion, confession, and raw emotion. God wants a real relationship with us, and that includes walking with us in the “valley of the shadow of death.” We don’t have to fear evil, or worry about the future, not because it holds no danger or dread, but because we never have to walk alone and defenseless!
  • Remember this is a pattern to follow, not a pill to swallow–none of this comes easy, and God’s peace is not an instant “fix.” Instead, it is a growing conviction that God is who He says He is– faithful, loving, victorious, eternal, and sovereign. Such peace defies our panic and erodes our worry, leaving us ready to face the battles before us, and move forward through the struggles.
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It is not will power or a change of circumstances that brings incomprehensible peace. It is not magic– it is Majesty!

The Truth Hurts

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+16%3A33&version=NLT

One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” The title character begins the story as a young, beautiful, wealthy, and spoiled young woman. She falls in love with the young farm boy who works for her father. The young man leaves to make his fortune, but word comes that he has been captured and killed by pirates. In utter despair, the young woman allows herself to become engaged to a spoiled and wicked prince. She has allowed her grief to consume her, and she cares nothing for the prince, his wealth or power, or even her own future. Before she can be married to the prince, she is kidnapped by villains, and “rescued” by a mysterious pirate. Instead of being grateful, she curses the pirate, telling him that he could never understand her great loss and pain. His answer, harsh, glib, but to the point, is to say that “life is pain, Princess. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”

There are certain truths in life that we would avoid if we could– death, pain, sorrow, grief, suffering, and Sin–we don’t want to hear the harsh reality of our situation. We don’t want to suffer or hurt at all; much less to discover that our suffering is commonplace or universal. Everyone will taste death; everyone will face pain and grief and suffering in this life. Everyone will suffer as a result of Sin– our individual actions have consequences, as do the cumulative actions of our culture, our ancestors, and the entire human race. This is a harsh truth, but it IS the truth.

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There are four common techniques we tend to use to avoid facing harsh truths– denial or avoidance, anger, bargaining, and depression or despair. Many people know these terms from the Kubler-Ross studies on patients with terminal illnesses and the five “stages” she identified as they came to terms with their impending death. https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/ The fifth “stage” was acceptance. The five stages have been applied commonly to other forms of grieving and loss, including the loss of a loved one or the break-up of a marriage. While most of us go through some or all of these stages when we face suffering, we don’t all go through them the same way or even in the same order.

Many of us live in avoidance and denial– rushing headlong into meaningless pleasure, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, staying busy with the pursuit of wealth or power. Others wrap themselves in anger– blaming everyone else for their pain, seeking revenge, driving away those who want to help. Still others try to bargain– seeking to avoid death by trying every new diet or fitness routine, or trying to be righteous enough to earn a supernatural blessing or “good karma.” And many wallow in depression and despair, lost in the swamp and mist, sinking into a pit of their own feelings.

These reactions are normal and human. Harsh truths hurt– they shock us, overwhelm us, shatter our trust, even shake our faith. But they ARE true. What is also true is that God has not left us without resources, even for the harshest realities we face. Even when we are in despair, or angry, or in denial, God can give us peace and strength to go on.

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God isn’t “selling something” to make the pain go away or make our life “trouble-proof.”  Jesus never offered a comfortable life to His followers. In fact, He promised that our lives would be filled with trouble and pain and sorrow!  Christians who claim that they never face fear, or failure, fury or frustration, loss and sorrow– they are “selling” a false gospel.  Jesus faced and conquered death on a cross! He could have avoided it– He could have been angry at those who betrayed Him–He could have stayed buried in despair and failure.  But He arose! We don’t worship someone who has never wept, or faced betrayal or loss. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)– if anyone knows the harsh truth, it is the one who IS Truth!  And this Truth hurts– He hurts to see us grieving; He hurts when we reject Him to go our own way; He hurts even as He allows us to hurt.

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Faith, prayer, worship, promises– these are not God’s way of helping us escape the reality of harsh truths.  They are His tools for helping us to overcome and be victorious in the face of trials and setbacks, grief and pain, even death!  As Princess Buttercup discovers in “The Princess Bride”– “Death cannot stop true love!” And it cannot stop the Truth that IS Love!

…And Grace My Fears Relieved…

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

timelesstruths.org
Amazing Grace, lyrics by John Newton

As I write this, a massive hurricane looms in the Atlantic Ocean, devastating the Bahamas, and threatening several major cities along the southeastern coast of the United States. There is much fear, danger, and distress for people living in these areas, for their families, and for compassionate people watching helplessly from a distance. What can anyone DO in the face of such raw power and destruction? What hope or comfort can we offer?

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There are many questions we cannot answer in times like this– we can offer no definitive explanation why hurricanes form, how they behave, why they change courses, grow, shrink, or when or where they will make landfall. There are many actions we cannot take– we can’t stop a hurricane, or shift its course, weaken it or make it go away (though scientists and others have been trying for decades). We cannot provide immediate “fixes” for the damage that hurricanes (or other weather emergencies) leave behind.. roads and houses take time to rebuild; fields and forests must be replanted; families must heal and grieve.

What we can offer seems, on the surface, to be insufficient and condescending– we offer prayers, reassurance that God sees and knows and cares, we say, “trust in God and His promises.” And many sneer at such “gifts. God doesn’t promise to steer the hurricanes away from our loved ones, or our own villages or cities or islands. God doesn’t promise that we won’t experience disaster, fear, pain, or grief. God doesn’t promise us days of sunshine with never a cloud, or storm or loss.

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What God DOES promise is Grace– not comfort, not ease, not happiness– something mysterious, undeserved, and unexpected. God’s grace is sufficient– it is enough– through ANY and EVERY circumstance when we ask for it. ENOUGH–never lacking, never too much for us to use, but just right for His good purpose and our best interest in learning to know Him.

Grace doesn’t take away the storms of life; it allows us to experience victory in, through, and in spite of the storms. Grace makes us strong enough, brave enough, wise enough, healthy enough, kind enough, rich enough, and “good enough” to get to the next step in our journey. It may fall short of what we expect, or envy, or dream of for ourselves, but it is never too little to be useful. God’s economy is not about bigger and better, grander or “more.” Because “More” is never “enough”– there is never enough money to buy a longer life; there is never enough strength to defeat heartache and loneliness; never enough goodness to eradicate the injustices of a hundred wicked generations. Bad things will happen. Loved ones will be wounded or killed. Homes and roads and villages will be destroyed. But God is faithful to comfort us, strengthen us, sustain us, and give us a new vision, a new hope, and a new life. Only God is big enough, rich enough, strong enough, and wise enough to do “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+3%3A20-21&version=NKJV. The amazing part is that He sends us the Grace we need to be part of the unfolding story–just what we need, just when we need it most– not because of anything we have done, but because of His great compassion.

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Grace doesn’t take away the storms of life– this may seem unfair and cruel. God, even a loving God– allows us to weather storms, even to be broken and crushed by them. But God also brings blessing, renewal, healing, comfort, hope, and a renewed sense of purpose, compassion, and vision. These things often come only after the storm. Storms can bring us to a point of fear and despair, or to faith and dependence. Grace is a gift–God won’t force us to acknowledge or accept His Grace. We can choose to tremble at the storm’s approach, or rage, or try to run away. But God’s offer means we never have to face the storm alone.

Grace won’t take away the storms in our lives– and it won’t make us foolishly fearless in the face of hurricanes. But it can relieve our fears and give us the courage and wisdom to face even the fiercest trials in life; even the fiercest storms that rage. And isn’t that an Amazing hope?! Our prayers may seem small; our hope may seem insignificant– because we are not “enough” . But we serve a God and pray to a God who holds the future in His hand. Our prayers are held in the same hands– our faith is in the one who is more than “enough” to face the storm and relieve our fears.

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Hannah and the Priests

The story of Hannah in 1 Samuel is filled with priests. Her husband, Elkanah, is of the priestly class, and regularly goes to Shiloh to offer sacrifices. Chapter one quickly mentions Hophni and Phinehas who were the resident priests there. And of course, there is Eli, their father, the High Priest at that time. Hannah has access to counselors, spiritual guidance, and men whose ancestral calling is to bring people closer to God. Yet none of them can bring Hannah out of her anguish and offer comfort.

Hophni and Phinehas are noticeably absent in this story. The mention of their names calls attention to this absence. They were supposed to be the acting priests, but they don’t interact in any way with the grieving Hannah, or her husband, Elkanah. Further reading reveals that they were very wicked and due to be judged for abusing their priestly role. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+2%3A12-36&version=NIV

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Eli himself is an indifferent priest. The first mention of him is as the father of the wicked Hophni and Phinehas. Next, we find him sitting in a chair at the doorstep of the tabernacle. He is not serving; he is not overseeing; he is not doing anything. When he first observes Hannah, he jumps to a wrong and judgmental conclusion– that she is drunk and raving. He doesn’t go over to see if he’s right in his assumption. In fact, there is no mention in the passage that he ever rises from his chair.
We might gloss over this passage, without grasping the importance of this detail. Nowhere in the long lists of a priest’s duties was there an option of sitting at the door and just watching people go in and out. The priests all had duties– some were in charge of the sacrifice (as Elkanah sometimes was). Others were in charge of the lamps, the incense, the care of the utensils and tools, offering prayers, singing, playing instruments, reading from the books of the law, and keeping the tabernacle clean and in good repair. None of them required sitting. Eli isn’t busy doing the work of the Lord; he is literally sitting down on the job.
In short, Eli is not a spiritual giant– he offers a standard blessing after Hannah pleads her case for not being a drunken disturber of the peace, but he doesn’t offer much in the way of true comfort or counseling. His first words to her are to “Go in peace.” The blessing seems to be almost an afterthought. Still, Hannah goes away encouraged, and comes back the next day to worship before returning home.

What can we learn from this encounter and these details in Hannah’s story?

One possible reaction is to become critical and dismissive of the clergy. I think this is the wrong reaction, but I want to address it in this context, because it can keep us from finding help and blessing if we let it. I know countless people who have walked away from the church because of one disappointing encounter with a minister, pastor’s wife, deacon, or fellow parishioner. Eli was not a stellar example of Israel’s priesthood; he was a flawed human. He had rebellious sons, and was likely depressed or anguished over his own troubles. Yet, he was still faithful to turn Hannah’s attention to the One who is always able to bring comfort and strength. Hannah could have chosen to focus on his rude and judgmental assumption about her, but she chose to focus on the hope he was able to offer.
I have gotten dismissive, even bad, advice from people in the church. I have been hurt, judged, and ignored by those who are supposed to be serving God. But just as God provides grace to cover our own failures and mis-steps, He asks us to extend forgiveness and grace to those–even those who serve Him.*

Having said that, I think there is a warning here for those who serve the Lord. Eli ends his days in tragic fashion, his family legacy in ruins, because of some of the details we glimpse even in this short passage about Hannah. Eventually, her son, Samuel, will be tasked with the job of delivering the fullness of God’s judgment against Eli and his sons. Eli’s priesthood was not a cushy position of sitting at the door of God’s tabernacle enjoying an afternoon breeze. He was in charge of setting the tone of reverence and worship for the nation. His sons were corrupt; everyone knew it, including Eli, but nothing was done about it. He sat there, and let evil happen around him.
Church workers, pastors, and priests who do evil and abuse their positions may get away with it for awhile, but God will not hold them guiltless. Nor will he hold those guiltless who cover up or deny the guilt of those around them. No matter how high the position, no matter how much “good” they have done, unless they repent of their actions, they will face God’s wrath over their evil acts.

Finally, we need to see Hannah’s response. Regardless of how evil the sons of Eli were, or how spineless Eli was as a parent and a High Priest, Hannah found faith– not in the priests– but in the God they served. She had seen the dedication of her husband, Elkanah. He served God with reverence, and he served his family with love and honor. She saw that Eli, even sitting down on the job, was still aware that hope and healing come from the Almighty.

Hannah’s response to Eli, and the God he served so imperfectly, deserves another look– one we will take in the next post.

I pray that today, we will be grateful to God for the faithful servants he sends into our lives, and for his grace when we or others “sit down” on the job of serving others and showing Him the reverence He deserves.

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