COMFORT ZONES

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.  Isaiah 40:1  (KJV)

 

I’ve just returned from a mission trip to Uganda and am chuckling over the many ways “newbies” confess to being pushed beyond their comfort zones:  eating grasshoppers as a seasonal delicacy; participating in vibrant church services exceeding four hours; navigating treacherous Kampala (the capital) traffic with thousands of vehicles and few road rules; sweating through days of work with no air conditioning; and extravagant demonstrations of Christian faithfulness.  These “comfort zones” are usually defined with possessives: my, mine or our.

Yes, more and more we identify comfort as a state of personal entitlement and are disenchanted with those who make us uncomfortable.  Think of college campuses where students must have safe zones and where topics that trigger angst among fragile students are to be avoided at all costs.  Even in public discourse, we tend to shy away from anything that challenges our status quo or that would cause us to entertain new or unpleasant viewpoints.  Political correctness is the order of the day with the exception that PC goes only one way; dissenters are labeled with phobias or worse.  So much for comfort…

A cursory glance at a Bible concordance listing God’s view of comfort mostly flips our selfish comfort on its head.  God speaks of comfort residing in him (Isa. 61:2), in his forgiveness (Isa. 40:2), in his touch (Luke 8:48), in the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:31), in the Word (Romans 15:4), and so on. It’s all about him.   Comfort resides in being surrendered to the lordship of Jesus Christ, his will, and his glory.  It’s not about us.

What an excellent opportunity we have during the holidays to enjoy the comfort of our Father as he guides us through the minefields of difficult relations, command performances, mandatory attendance, last-minute shopping, and all the other aspects of Western Christmas traditions.  Will we retreat to the need for safe spaces rather than moving into God’s grace as we encounter people and events that are not of our choosing?  Will we avoid those annoyances that typically ruffle our feathers or will we see how God’s comfort can stretch us to move in his love and Spirit and out of our egocentricity?

May God’s Spirit constantly provoke us each time we begin to say, “I’m not comfortable with…” or “I’m only comfortable when…”   Seems like a great gift this Christmas time would be to get us all out of our comfort zones and into God’s comfort.

 

Father, thank you for your infinite patience with us.  Grace us to trust you in all circumstances.  In Jesus’ name.  AMEN.

HATE TALK

Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.  Ephesians 4:29  (NLT)

“Let everything you say be good and helpful…” sets a really high bar for us, doesn’t it?  We are not even to tease others in a way that might be misconstrued or hurtful.  And I don’t think sarcasm falls under the “good and helpful” rule.

These past several months we’ve all heard language that fell far short of being “good and helpful.”  In fact, much of the rhetoric has been abusive and destructive.  We’ve been through a difficult election cycle, and now we are all picking up the pieces left behind from words.  People are being assaulted and property damaged because of words.

Isn’t it interesting that in every generation, in every era, the words of Jesus continue to ring true.  He said, “…I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”  Couldn’t that also apply to the person who’s spewing invectives?  When someone is criticizing or lambasting or verbally abusing us, can we just turn the other cheek?  “A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare”  (Prov. 15:1).

I don’t think Jesus is advocating “lying down and letting an enemy walk over you” (Isa. 51:23), but he’s telling us we don’t need to initiate destructive conversations, and we certainly don’t need to perpetuate them.  One of the best ways to terminate negative discussion is to politely excuse oneself saying, This is not good for either one of us.  That’s a positive way of turning the other cheek.  (Not very macho, but you can’t easily argue with someone’s backside.)

When we engage or get sucked into destructive conversation, we move out of God’s peace and blessing (I Pet. 3:9-11, Lk. 6:45, Eph. 5:4).  We open ourselves up to fiery attacks and can easily be wounded in the process.

It is said that during World War II enemy soldiers would taunt GI’s in their foxholes.  As long as the GI’s stayed in place, they couldn’t be touched, but if they stuck their heads out to respond, they were easily picked off.  Isn’t the same true of us?  When we stay in God’s protective grace, shielded by his love, we are safe.  When we are tempted to respond in kind to provocation, we become an easy target.

It’s time to use our words to bring peace and love rather than stirring up strife or stoking the fires of resentment.  Just one word  “fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”  This is a good time to bite our tongues, overrule our egos, and instead “let our words be an encouragement to those who hear them.”

Father, our tongues really can be set on fire by hell.  Help us to, as much as lies within us, live at peace with all people.  Move us beyond our egocentric attitudes, our need to be right, and our desire to strike back.  We want to be more like Jesus and that includes bridling our tongues.  Fill us with your love so that what comes forth really does bless and encourage our hearers.  In Jesus’ name.  AMEN.

IN GOD WE TRUST*

Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD…  Psalm 33:12  (NIV)

 

During the Civil War, there was an increase in “religious sentiment,” perhaps comparable to what we experienced right after the tragedy of 9/11.  Suffering tends to makes us look outside ourselves to see what God might be doing or saying and how we might respond.

And so it was that when our country was going through the most divisive time in its history, Rev. M. R. Watkinson from Pennsylvania wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase asking that “Almighty God” be somehow recognized on our currency.  After all, from ancient times gods and rulers had their place of honor on the coinage of the land.  Why shouldn’t the United States acknowledge God’s rightful role in our national affairs?

Secretary Chase responded by instructing the Director of the Mint to prepare a motto, saying, No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins.  Once the design was approved, it went to Congress, and the Act adding Chase’s notation passed in April 22, 1864.  Eventually, this saying was added to our paper currency.  On July 30, 1956, a Joint Resolution of the 84th Congress and approved by the President declared IN GOD WE TRUST the national motto of the United States.

On November 8, 2016, our country experienced a gut-wrenching upheaval as the results of our national election were announced.  For days analysts and pundits have tried to determine what happened.  Did anyone really anticipate the historic event that has provoked rioting among some citizens and hope among others?  And yet, we are one nation under God.

Did you take notice that in the late 19th Century one man, Rev. Watkinson, was compelled to act after having felt “our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters?”  One man moved by God did what he could to make a difference in our country.  And now our national motto is IN GOD WE TRUST.

Let us, as good citizens of our beloved country and members of the Church, continue to rise in prayer on behalf of our nation:  for healing, for repentance, for spiritual renewal.  And let us pray for all our leaders that we would be established in righteousness (I Timothy 2:1-4, Romans 13:1).

 

Father, your grace has brought us safe thus far.  You established us as a nation for your purposes and have seen us through “many dangers, toils, and snares.”  In thanksgiving for your love and your grace, we ask you to forgive us for not loving our neighbors as ourselves and for choosing our own ways instead of yours; heal us; unite us in your love; be with all our leaders and give them wisdom to govern this great nation.  IN GOD WE TRUST.  AMEN.

 

* Information gathered from https://www.treasury.gov

PERSONAL OR PRIVATE?

I will come and proclaim your mighty acts, Sovereign LORD; I will proclaim your righteous deeds, yours alone.  Psalm 71:16

 

Have you ever heard people talk about religion as being a private matter?  That it’s not something to be discussed openly?  In an era where sexual encounters, annual incomes, delicate health issues, and so many other topics are common fodder for public consumption, do you find it curious that people say religion is private?

Or are we confusing private with personal?  Repeatedly, throughout the Gospels, people approached Jesus with personal matters.  Consider the man who was born blind (John 9:1-12), or the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-16), or the woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8:43-48), the paralytic man (Mark 2:1-12) or the multitudes who came with numerous personal needs.  They certainly weren’t deterred from making their personal needs matters of public notice.  They didn’t hide them under a cloak of privacy.

The man whose eyes were opened shared his personal story unashamedly with neighbors, Pharisees, and his family.  He shared the experience that had forever altered his life with anyone who asked.  Even though it cost his expulsion from the temple, he proclaimed God’s grace.  The ten lepers raced off, happy to be cured while one man even returned to say thanks.  In many instances, Jesus told those who were healed to tell their personal experiences to the priests.  (Perhaps they, too, needed reminders of God’s kindness.) And many other stories are recorded of Jesus’ deep compassion and ministry to each individual who approached him.

Could it be that we don’t recognize God’s intervention in our lives?  Or perhaps we haven’t had a personal experience with God?  Could it be that we are too concerned about political correctness to share God’s grace with those who might desperately be searching for someone to love and heal them?  Could privacy be a manifestation of pride when personal experience might be the very antidote for a hurting soul?

 

Father, move us out of our self-centered privacy so that we are ready and open to share our personal experience of you whenever you give us occasion.  In Jesus’ name.  AMEN.

SALTY LANGUAGE

Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.  Colossians 4:6  (NIV)

 

In Sunday school as we looked at this passage, someone commented that “salty language” often evokes strident, even painful comment.  But actually, at the time this phrase was used by Paul, the Greeks employed it to refer to “witty, charming discourse.”  Oh, how I wish all my conversations could be characterized like that.

Have you ever said anything you wish you could retract?  Are you familiar with the old (probably now considered barbaric) custom of washing a child’s mouth out with soap when he/she said something unacceptable?  Wouldn’t it be lovely if changing our conversation were that simple, but, instead, the origin of those harmful words is the heart and the mind.  Jesus said, “It is what comes from within that defiles you.”

A friend told me about a fishing trip where a group of friends had gone out in a boat with their pastor.  One of the men accidentally stuck a hook into his finger and automatically let out some spicy expletive.  Remembering that the pastor was with them, he looked up sheepishly and said, “Oh, thank God, tomorrow is Sunday.”  What was inside had made its way out.

In Ephesians (4:29 LB) Paul encourages us not to “use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.”  Remember the old saying that you know what’s in a tea bag when it’s put in hot water?  I think this is what Jesus is talking about:  “…whatever is in your heart determines what you say”  (Matt. 12:34 LB).

Our tongue can be a real challenge, especially if we’re trying to control it through our own efforts apart from God’s transforming grace.  As we grow to be more and more like Jesus, our words, attitudes, and behaviors will also become more like him.  And what comes out will be “seasoned with salt.”

 

Change my heart, O God.  In Jesus’ name I pray.  AMEN.

DESPERATE DEPENDENCE

…in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh…  II Corinthians 12:7

 

Have you ever felt plagued by a “thorn in the flesh?”  Paul refers to his thorn as a messenger of Satan.  Scholars debate as to whether the thorn was a physical affliction or a difficult person.  Whatever it was, apparently it was enough of a bother that Paul asked God three times to remove it.

I’ve been fascinated to discover that so many people whom I consider real giants have “thorns” of one kind or another.  As a young person, I was sometimes intimidated in the presence of those giants, thinking them so far superior with super-hero powers and X-ray vision.  As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned that we all tend to have “thorns,” brokenness, and areas of imperfection where God is still working and where we still need him.

Look at what God says to Paul in this passage.  Paul has desperately prayed for divine intervention, and God has refused.  He tells Paul that this thorn is for his good.  Paul has been so blessed with divine revelation that his thorn is needed to keep him balanced and free of pride.  Even so, Paul isn’t above spouting off his spiritual credentials (Phil. 3) or reminding the soldiers and sailors during the storm at sea that I told you so (Acts 23).

God told Paul that his thorn was sent to keep him dependent on his Lord and move him away from spiritual arrogance.  His inadequacy and weakness, his desperation, would cause him to cry out to God for the grace that only God could provide.  God’s grace would prove to be sufficient and his power would be made perfect in Paul’s weakness.  Paul’s response?   Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me (II Cor. 12:9).

Can we see that these thorns are intentionally placed in our lives to create desperate dependence on a Father who is waiting to lavish grace upon us and to draw us even closer in our loving relationship with him?  Can we thank him for the thorns?  Everything God provides is given to grow us and to bring him glory.  Accept the thorns, let them be covered with grace, and allow God to weave something beautiful from them.

 

Father, we fear and dislike distress and any sort of suffering.  Give us your eyes to see that you have a purpose in all things.  Even the little oyster produces beauty by  embracing the irritant in its life.  Give us that kind of grace.  In Jesus’ name.  AMEN.

FORGIVING 490 TIMES

 

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.  Matthew 18:21, 22  (KJV)

I don’t know about you, but injustice is the most difficult thing for me to forgive–when someone thoughtlessly (or with premeditation) harms someone else, and the injury isn’t deserved.  There seems to be a lot of injustice going around the world just now, so much so that we are all affected.

How is it possible to ever forgive the perpetrators of all the griefs that they inflict?  I absolutely cannot, but Jesus can.  I tend to look at the suffering through the lens of my own humanity.  I could never…  I would never… do so and so… forgetting that I’m already identified with all those who like sheep have gone astray (Isaiah 53:6), and that all my goodness is nothing better than dirty, filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

One of my favorite bishops says that unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting your enemy to die.  Unforgiveness gnaws away at us, diminishes our quality of life, makes us bitter, and eventually destroys us.  The spiritual cost is huge.  Jesus said, Father, “Forgive us our sins as we have forgiven those who sin against us.”  (Matthew 6:12 LB)  If God forgives us in proportion and in the same way as we forgive others, we could be in a lot of trouble.

So, how do we pull this off?  We do it by an act of the will.  Forgiveness is not an emotion.  It’s a behavior.  Jesus told us we would be obedient if we love him (John 14:15).  When Peter impulsively suggested that one should perhaps forgive an offense up to seven times, Jesus shocked him by saying seventy times seven.  That’s 490 times of forgiving just one offending person.

If we love Jesus, we will forgive – just as he has forgiven us.  We will decide to forgive based on Jesus’ words, not on the repentance of the other person or on his worthiness, and we find God’s grace in us empowers us to forgive.  I once heard Archbishop Tutu say that we are obligated to forgive, but the one being forgiven cannot receive forgiveness until he has repented.  It’s really not up to us to hang on to our grievances.  Jesus didn’t with us, thank God.

Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  In Jesus’ name.  AMEN.

GOD’S AMAZING LOVE

 

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.  Lamentations 3:22  (NRS)

 

Reading about Rahab in the book of Joshua this morning, I am again amazed at God’s mercy.  Rahab was a prostitute whose house was built into the wall of Jericho, that city famous for its walls that came tumbling down.  Spies had been sent to reconnoiter the city prior to an attack by the Israelites.   Of all the houses they could have visited, God led them to Rahab’s.  She welcomed them and hid them from her own townspeople because she knew God was with the Israelites.  In return she and all her family were spared and assimilated into the conquering Israelite nation.  Not only that, but she eventually married a man from the tribe of Judah and became the great grandmother of beloved King David.

 

And then there were Abraham and Isaac (who both had a tendency to tell untruths in tight spots), prideful Joseph, cowardly Gideon, and fearful disciples.  Peter denied his best Friend three times and came back to be a leader and founder of the Christian Church.  God’s love and forgiveness transformed his flawed children when they turned to him.

 

One of the great Father-Love stories in the Bible is that of the Prodigal Son who brought pain, grief, humiliation, and loss to his family.  When all the community (and especially his own brother) would ostracize him, his loving father has apparently been waiting for a sign of his return.  When he finally sees him trudging down that familiar path, he doesn’t wait, bitterly expecting the boy to come groveling.  Instead, he runs to welcome him home.  The boy’s betrayal and repentance are understood by his father’s love with celebration for his return.

 

Again, we read about the shepherd who has a large flock of sheep and leaves them when he discovers that one is lost.  He is willing to give his life for that one lost sheep, and he’s overjoyed when the lost is found.  He’s so happy, he puts him on his shoulders and carries him all the way home. What profound love.

 

I suspect we’ve all been unfaithful or disobedient or thoughtless or rebellious at one time or another, and yet, while everyone else looks at our bad (sinful) behavior, God sees our hearts (I Sam. 16:7).  He sees our desire to please and follow him even as our human nature pulls us in other directions.  And he rescues us and gives us grace to repent and be changed.  Talk about love…

 

Father, your love has been abounding.  Cause us to accept all you have done for and in us through Jesus Christ and not look back.  May our identity increasingly be in you and your glorious plan for us that you may be honored.  In Jesus’ name.  AMEN.

NO CONVENIENT TIMES

 

My times are in your hands…  Psalm 31:15 (NIV)

 

When I was newly-returned to university, I struggled to balance parenting, two jobs, and college requirements.  It took all the energy and grace I had to address each responsibility in a fairly adequate manner and still ensure my own spiritual and mental health.

 

And then one of my children had a minor crisis in school – just as I was preparing for a mid-term exam.  I worked with elementary teachers to resolve the issue, and then I spoke to my university professor.  I wanted to see if my mid-term could be delayed a while so that I could take these challenges one at a time.  That made perfect sense to me.

 

She said something I’ve never forgotten.  “Marthe, you will find that life doesn’t stop to make allowances for crises.  There are no convenient times for problems.  It all flows together.  It’s up to you to handle everything as it comes.  She didn’t tell me how to do it, but essentially she was saying that I couldn’t postpone the exam until I was ready, and that I wouldn’t be able to slow down time for my convenience.

 

This was possibly one of the best lessons I learned in that Early Childhood Development class.  Life comes at you fast, and the only way we can stay poised and at peace with the stresses that make up every single day is to invite Christ into every situation.  We ask for his guidance, wisdom, and grace.  We ask for help in prioritizing the issues.  And it works.  We can’t manage or control the circumstances that intrude into our lives, but with Christ’s help, we can manage ourselves with regards to the circumstances. It works.

 

Thank you very much, Dr. Waldron.

 

Sweet Lord, you see the end from the beginning, and nothing ever takes you by surprise.  Help us to remember that if we’ve asked you to be Lord, we must act accordingly. Forgive us if we complain about the overload.  You know exactly what we can bear and are there to carry the load when we can’t.  Thank you.  AMEN.

RECONCILIATION

Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. Matthew 5:23, 24

Walking with Jesus is not for sissies. Nor is it for narcissists. Jesus calls us to crucifixion and requires that we take his demands seriously. In this Matthew passage he asks us to immediately stop our worship of him if there’s an issue with someone else. We have to be the ones taking the initiative to make peace in a circumstance in which we possibly had no control. It really seems unfair.

I once heard a preacher say that God tasks the person who has the most faith with the responsibility of being the peacemaker. Simply put, God is the one who looks into our hearts and instantly recognizes whether or not Jesus is Lord there. He recalls how malleable we have been in his hands and how amenable we are to trusting his ways. And then he calls us to dealing with unfairness, with misinterpretation, and even with wrongs that we may have unknowingly provoked.

God looks in our hearts and knows if we are willing to obey without counting the cost in humiliation or misunderstanding. He knows that taking up the cross and dying to the flesh can only be done by one who walks with him and who knows how to access his measureless grace. And God requires that sort of sacrifice from the one who wants to grow in him.

My mom once told me of a quarrel that she’d had with my dad. Apparently, they were in the car going somewhere – she couldn’t recall where they were going or what the disagreement involved, but she remembered the tension. She said she was prompted to reach over and give my dad a mint, but she resisted. Again, the prompting came, and again she resisted. Finally, she took a gulp of grace and reached across the seat to offer the mint. The tension was broken; the atmosphere was changed. But she had to make the first move.

Father, help us to trust you to give us what we need in our daily relationships with those around us. Give us grace to be peacemakers even when we think we are without fault. Remind us that you are constantly reaching out to us to draw us to yourself, even when we least deserve it. In Jesus’ name. AMEN.