Sleeping in Momma’s Lap or Trembling in a Shower Stall?

Lynn and I have a little dog named Dollie. We adopted her six years ago from a shelter in Worcester, Massachusetts. But for several months last year, we also had custody of my eldest daughter’s little dog, named Ginger. They were both happy dogs, easy to manage, and a real delight to have in our home. But, during Florida’s rainy season, whenever the sky thickened with dark clouds, and we heard the crack of lightning and the rumble of thunder, Dollie would curl up on the sofa in “Momma’s” lap and go to sleep. But Ginger would suddenly disappear, and “Daddy” would find her trembling, hiding alone in the bathroom, behind the curtain in the shower stall.

The difference between Dollie and Ginger was that Dollie experienced peace in the midst of the storms, because she knew to whom she belonged, but Ginger did not. That reminds me of something King David of Israel once said.

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for YOU are with me,… (Psalm 23:4a NIV).”

If God is our Shepherd, we need not fear the trials of life, because He is present with us to keep us from harm. The apostle Paul put it another way,

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

‘For your sake we face death all day long;

we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:35-39 NIV

I would not wish the troubles I’ve faced in life on anyone, and I’d like to think no one would wish their troubles on me. Still, I am glad for what I have been troubled, for it has been in the darkest valleys I have experienced the almost palpable presence of my Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, who gave His life to make me His own. And there is nothing I’ve experienced in life that could possibly rival that. In times of trouble and danger, we can be content because the Shepherd in whom we trust, draws close to us and we are secure, protected, safe in Him. Is the LORD your Shepherd?

Do We Have a Need to be in Need?

I don’t know if you’ve thought about it, but have you ever considered that our basic needs are often the very things God uses to bring people to Jesus? The need for water brought the woman of Samaria to the Jacob’s Well, where she met Jesus one hot afternoon (John 4:4-7). The need for food brought the same crowd Jesus had fed by multiplying the five loaves and two fishes, to the other side of the Lake of Galilee the very next day to find Jesus (John 6:22-26). The need for health and healing brought huge crowds to Jesus from many places (Matthew 4:24-25).

There are those who might look to encounters like these in the Gospels and say, “See, God promises health, wealth and prosperity to those who come to Him.” But, that is far from what following Jesus is truly about. But that isn’t to say, that God doesn’t care about our basic needs. Indeed, He has promised to supply our needs, if we are generous with whatever resources He entrusts to us. It is to the generous but poor church of Philippi that Paul says, “And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19 NIV].” And that, I submit sometimes includes by the way, your need and mine to be in need. For if you never had a need, how would you know God could and would meet it, if you trusted Him to provide for it? I suspect that this is why the apostle Paul declared,

“I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:11-13 NIV

Perhaps Jesus might have had the same idea when He began the Sermon on the Mount, saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3 NIV).”

Our needs, rightly seen, are simply the opportunities God grants us to trust Him for what He has promised to grant us.

Is There a Well of Contentment?

Having devoted over a decade of my life to working with the elderly, I have seen far too many who nearing life’s end, feel their life had no meaning, no purpose or satisfaction. But the lack of contentment in life does not belong the elderly alone.

At just 27 years of age, Tara Condell, a well-traveled, educated young woman, highly regarded by her peers, ended her life suddenly by hanging herself in her West 10th Street apartment in New York City. But just before her death, she posted a suicide note on her personal website. I was struck by her words which I’ve heard in one form or another over the years.

“I have written this note several times in my head for over a decade, and this one finally feels right. No edits, no overthinking. I have accepted hope is nothing more than delayed disappointment, and I am just plain old-fashioned tired of feeling tired…”  [New York Post online, January 31, 2019]

It is easy for us to write off people who make the choice to end their lives because they are depressed and find no contentment in life, but if we’re honest about it, we live in a world filled with people who live their lives pretending that they are content when the reality is that they are simply going through the motions of life, existing with no hope for the future?

Yes, I have seen many sincere Christians struggle to find meaning , purpose and satisfaction in their lives as well. I do not judge them. I know my own frailties too well. Overdriven people and those who become socially isolated are vulnerable to depression. But, is there an antidote that can lift the heart and encourage us even as darkness knocks at the door? Is there a well of contentment from which we can drink?

David, the shepherd-king of Israel overcame the stresses and anxiety of warfare,  rejection, betrayal, and bereavement by drinking from the well of contentment, constantly remembering that in possessing God he had everything he really ever needed.The contentment David found in the turmoil of life is summed up in the first line of the most famous Psalm in the Bible, the 23rd Psalm. “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not lack.” 

The late James M. Boice, the famous scholar-pastor of Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church wrote:

“…If ever a psalm could stand almost on a single line, it is this one, and the line it can stand on is the first. In fact, it can stand on only part of a line, the part which says, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’” Boice, J. M. (2005). Psalms 1–41: An Expositional Commentary. pp. 206 ff

That single line reminds me of a poster which gave me a ray of hope during one dark period in my life. It said, “If you have money but you don’t have Christ, you have nothing, but if you have Christ and have no money, you have everything.” To a young pastor with a young family to support and little income, more years back than I care to admit, realizing that God had my back, not only gave me hope, but encouraged my faith to believe God would provide, and He did! The boast of David, is much more comprehensive and greater than that. To belong to the Lord and to be the object of His care is to have everything! Blessed are those who possessing Him by faith, know He possesses them!

The Call to Follow Jesus: Extraordinary or Ordinary?

He was the son of a wealthy Italian merchant. To describe him as a spoiled unmanageable rich kid is an understatement. He lived the wasteful wanton lifestyle of a rock star in his day, and like a rock star, he had his own posse,  a large band of equally spoiled adolescents who traveled and partied hard with him night after night.

But to the greater dismay of his father and his companions, he had a miraculous encounter with Jesus Christ, and his life was forever changed. He read in the Gospels that Jesus told His followers:

Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. Matthew 19:24

Take nothing for your journey, neither staves, nor scrip, neither bread, neither money; neither have two coats apiece.  Luke 9:3

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. Matthew 16:24

And so, taking these commandments of Christ as his “rule of life,” Francis abandoned his wealth, giving all but the clothes on his back away, and even that was taken from him by a thief, leaving him cold and naked and running into the forest for his life. Finally, he cut off the ties to his father, forsaking his inheritance, and set out to follow Jesus.

The radical call of Francis to take Christ’s command to give everything away and minister to the poor in order to serve Christ attracted many followers. They came from all over Europe joining him in what eventually became known as the Franciscan order. His radical commitment to Christ and doing the works of Christ marked his life from the day of his conversion until his death at 43 years of age. It is said that on his deathbed, he asked that all of his clothing be removed so that he could die naked in the same shameful way Jesus died.

There is something attractive about that, is there not, in a call to live heroically and to do something radical for God? I am of the opinion that it is actually easier to recruit people for something that is big, something that captures the imagination, than it is for something that is deemed ordinary in the Kingdom of God. And yet, I believe that while God may occasionally call on someone to do a great thing, it is not the first thing to which He calls anyone. In fact it is not to the extra-ordinarily great thing but to the ordinary business of living a holy life, a life devoted to God 24/7, that we as followers of Jesus have been called. Oswald Chambers put it this way,

“The sense of sacrifice appeals readily to a young Christian. Humanly speaking, the one thing that attracts to Jesus Christ is our sense of the heroic,…”                          […but then he says…]

“…the scrutiny of our Lord’s words suddenly brings this tide of enthusiasm to the test, ‘First be reconciled to thy brother’” [Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, “The ‘Go’ of Preparation,” September 24th].

How ordinary is that? In other words the primary call of God is not to do some great thing or to make some great sacrifice, but to live in right relationship with Him and with others. Then again, that sounds quite extraordinary does it not?

A Call to Serve Where?

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Matthew 18:19-20 NIV

What is it about God that He seemingly delights to send us where once we would not go? Many years ago I vowed never to pastor a certain small church in New England. Almost thirty years after making that vow, guess where God sent me? Now in “retirement” from that assignment, I find God has had other surprising assignments for me. Presently, I am serving as a transitional pastor in a small church, (yes, a very small church) one which I would never have considered years ago. It is a church that I once would have found easier to write off than to pursue a ministry of redevelopment. So, why God, why?

During my doctoral study at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, I was introduced to an old book written by one of the seminary’s founders, Adoniram Judson Gordon. One paragraph in that book transformed the way in which I now view ministry.

“Why not withdraw from the church which has become thus secularized and desecrated? To which we reply emphatically: Until the Holy Spirit withdraws we are not called upon to do so.  And He is infinitely patient, abiding still in His house so long as there are two or three who gather in Christ’s name to constitute a templum in templo, a sanctuary within a sanctuary, where He may find a home…So we strongly believe that a few Spirit-filled disciples are sufficient to save a church; that the Holy Ghost, acting through these, can and does bring back recovery and health to the entire body.” Gordon, How Christ Came to Church, p. 61

Does a gathering of two or three constitute a church within a church as Gordon implies? Has he ripped Matthew chapter 18 and verse 20 out of its context, one which focuses on the ministry of church discipline and restoration? Or has he correctly understood that if Christ promises His presence when the church is about the difficult business of church discipline, He is certainly present whenever two or more gather in His name for other matters as well? Does the Father not hear and promise to grant His favor whenever two or three agree and pray the mind of Christ concerning His church? I submit that if that two or three Spirit-filled disciples are present, there exists a real hope for renewal and life. And, my wife and I have found more than two or three where God has sent us. God has heard their prayers, and is about to do what no other can do! What better place to be and to serve than where God is working and has promised to work?

Can You Hear Me, Lord?

One Monday April morning almost a decade ago, 29 coal miners died deep underground in West Virginia following an explosion of coal dust and methane gas. For a while there was hope that four of the men had survived in a special chamber 1300 feet below the ground. Had they survived however, their calls for help would likely not have been heard without very special equipment designed to detect the faint sounds of tapping deep under the earth in response to the detonation of a prescribed number of charges of dynamite on the surface.  

Sometimes we are tempted to feel that calling out to God in the day of overwhelming trouble is about like that, almost totally ineffective. But I want to encourage you, because I believe that as never before, now is the time to call on God to bring spiritual renewal and healing to our lives, and to breathe fresh life into the churches of our nation.

Three thousand years ago, a great king who had faced the hostility of enemy forces, and betrayal by trusted friends and members of his own family, found God to be as close as the mention of His name. He put it this way:

“The LORD is near to all who call on Him, to all who call on Him in truth. He fulfills the desires of those who fear Him; He hears their cry and saves them.” Psalm 145:18-19 NIV

Whatever we face, there is never a worry that God will not hear us, if we call on Him. There is but one condition however. We must call on Him in truth. Jesus said:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6 NIV

The door of access to the Father’s throne is narrow, but that door is open to anyone and everyone who seeks it. The arms of Christ are opened wide to welcome all who come to Him in faith, and those who come to Him will have His ear!

“Wanna Get Away?”

I used to love those “Wanna get away” ads for Southwest Airline. Have you ever felt the need to get away from the noise and to have some “alone time” with God?

After high school, I attended Gordon College for a year or so, before transferring to Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University), where I eventually graduated. That year at Gordon was a challenging one for me for many reasons. One of them was sharing a dormitory room that freshman year with three other students. You can imagine the difficulty any of us had finding time to be alone.  

One of the things I liked to do when desperate for time to myself and my God, was to find my way to the old college chapel. If it was empty,  I would climb up to the old pipe organ, and begin playing hymns full organ! It would take me into heaven itself. The old chapel building no longer exists having been replaced by a much larger and nicer new one. I have no idea what became of the old organ, since it too has been replaced. But the old chapel and that organ was a refuge for me in those days. God spoke to me there, and I spoke to God.

That was more than fifty years ago, but I still find the need to get away to be alone with God. Sometimes it has been rising at an early hour finding refuge in a wicker chair on the lanai of our Florida home. Other times refuge is found on long morning walks around the neighborhood. I desperately need and covet those times with God. Jesus Himself felt the need for such times during His earthly ministry (Matthew 14:13 and 23).

The Desert Fathers of the early church may have taken solitude with God to extremes. But I think most Christians today are barely acquainted with the God they profess to know. Sometimes I’m convicted by my own superficial relationship with God. Does my heart beat with His? Do my thoughts resonate with the notions of God? Imagine the difference a life saturated with the fullness of God would mean to the hurting disillusioned people we encounter every day.

Just Suppose…

Just suppose… [It isn’t always wise to do this. But for a moment let’s make it an exception to the rule.]… so just suppose that you were God, and you wanted to send a message to human beings, but you knew that human beings weren’t very good at listening.  I’m told that at best we remember only about 20% of what we hear. The Scriptures tell us that for many centuries people largely ignored the messages God sent them, both in written form or spoken to them in the oracles of the prophets. I am reminded of the opening words to the epistle of Hebrews which declare,

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways,… Hebrews 1:1 TNIV

But they weren’t listening. So, suppose you are God, and you have Good News for people who are known to be unreceptive, news which could save them from disaster, the consequences of sin and moral self-destruction. More than that, this Good News would mean new life, peace, and joy if taken to heart, embraced and owned by faith.  You have a plan to save humanity, but human beings are not listening, and all previous efforts to communicate with them have gone ignored. How would you communicate the Good News to them? How would you do that?

  • Would you send supernatural messengers to tell them?

Angels perhaps?

  • Would you send ordinary folks to check out the story and bear witness?

Shepherds perhaps?

  • Would you send a sign in the skies for people to see?

A peculiar star perhaps?

  • Would you send scholars to verify the facts and correlate the data?

Persian Magi perhaps?

  • Would you condescend to the human condition and simply tell them yourself in the flesh?

God’s Son, Jesus Christ perhaps?

The amazing fact of history is that God did ALL those things! Does He get your attention? That is what Christmas is really about.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 ESV

A Christmas Question: Whom Do You Serve?

On Thursday of this past week, Will N. was sentenced to life in prison on charges related to molesting a teenager and child pornography. It was painful day for Will, who will spend his first of many Christmas days in jail, but what he suffers and will suffer to the end of his life, cannot be compared to the pain inflicted on the victims of his actions and their families. Sadly, the circle of pain extends to many I know who worked with him and for him over the past ten years as the transportation manager for our county’s school board. It was in that capacity I knew him, and yet again did not know him.

After retiring from a pastorate in New England four years ago, I worked part time for Will as a school bus driver and later as a transportation assistant. He struck me as professional and competent, kind and empathetic, a young man with great administrative potential. His oral presentations at our annual in-service trainings were spot on, and I personally encouraged him as a speaker, which just happens to be my “stock and trade.” But what I didn’t see was the evil to which he was enslaved, and willingly so.

Will led a double life, but eventually the true master of his life was exposed. I couldn’t help but remember the words of Bob Dylan,

You might be a rock ’n’ roll addict prancing on the stage
You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage
You may be a businessman or some high-degree thief
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

                  “Gotta Serve Somebody,”  Slow Train Coming Album, 1979

At some point in life, we all make a choice about for whom we will live. The outcome of our lives and the way in which we are remembered hinges on that decision. I suspect Will’s descent into a living hell was not sudden and deliberate, but involved a long series of compromises in the wrong direction. Still, at some point he chose the wrong master. Most of us will never be as bad as we could possibly be, but if we choose wrong, the potential is there. That is why Christ came into the world so long ago, to offer us a living hope and the ultimate antidote to sin and death.

At Christmas, we are presented with a choice. Serve the One who is called  “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6),”or serve a lesser god. That choice will ultimately be our reward or our ruin.

Choose well!

“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

“But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name.” John 1:12 KJV

Warmly Welcomed? Not!

10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

John 1:10-12 NIV

One crisp autumn day several years ago, a dear friend of my wife’s invited us out for dinner. We drove to a very fine restaurant located in the southern Berkshire’s, but our friend did not feel a reservation would be needed in advance. When we arrived, the parking lot was full, but we were in no hurry and we were expecting to spend a few hours together over an exceptionally fine dinner. We got out of the car, and walked past a group of friendly well-dressed people eating hors d’oeuvres. They told us just to “go on in” and as we were looking for the welcome desk, a waitress approached us offering something to drink. We asked for a table, but then were informed that this was a private party, a wedding reception actually, but we had no idea for whom. Embarrassed, we politely turned around and slinking out the door made our way to the car.

I wonder sometimes how Jesus Christ feels during the Advent season when we are presumably celebrating His birth. Does He feel like an unwelcomed visitor whose presence is merely an excuse for people to party and indulge themselves?  If Jesus were to enter your home or mine, and found us celebrating, would He be wondering, do I belong here, or do I even want to be here? It behooves us then, (I think) to take a step back, take a deep breath and ask ourselves, why we are celebrating, and to be sure that the celebrating is ultimately about Him. After all, the cliché is true, “He is the reason for the season!”