PROTECTED

For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. Psalm 91:11, 12

My brother was a Green Beret on the front lines the whole time he served in Viet Nam.  For us at home, it was a time of stress and vigil.  Every day our family prayed the 91st Psalm that promises protection from so many types of danger:  night terror, pestilence, lions and serpents, and even tripping on rocks.  And Jack would remind his platoon that people were praying for them.

We heard tales of close calls and firsthand reports of life in a war zone.  And we also heard tales of God’s faithfulness.  It was a joy and relief when Jack was delivered home safely after his tour of duty.

Often we look for “second meanings” in Scripture, as described by C. S. Lewis, and are aware that the dangers we encounter daily may be of a different nature than either of the Psalms mentioned above.  But these dangers can threaten us to the eternal peril of our spirits:  anxiety that God is preoccupied just when we need him; sleepless nights due to all sorts of worries; the hidden presence of Covid 19; and multiple insecurities.  THESE are the everyday enemies against which we most likely need protection.

Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) lived through the Black Plague and the Peasants’ Revolt spending much of her life in seclusion in a small cell (room) attached to one of the churches in Norwich.  Julian, to whom many came for counseling and prayer was known for writing, “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  Even though she lived through some of England and the world’s darkest times, her trust in God’s goodness brought assurance to those who sought her wisdom. 

Think of all the verses that God has provided for our encouragement in times like these: God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble (Ps. 46:1).  …my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation (II Sam. 22:3). You are my hiding place, you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance (Ps. 32:7).   Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me (Ps. 23:4).  And then, Ephesians 6:10-18 reminds us to put on God’s armor for protection from the enemy.

No matter what our circumstance, “His divine power has given us everything we need…” (II Peter 1:3).  God is faithful.  “The one who chose you can be trusted, and he will do this” (I Thess. 5:24).

Father, outside you, there is no place of safety.  Let us hide ourselves in you.  AMEN.

PECULIAR

 But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light…I Peter 2:9 KJV

Growing up, we often heard sermons that reminded us that, as Christians, we were peculiar.  In my childish mind, I was certain that referred to the list of “thou shalt nots” that informed our somewhat insulated lifestyle.  Not that we were ascetics, but we were different, maybe even peculiar.

To my unsophisticated thinking, those “differences” could be summed up in a list of activities that typically spilled over into social behaviors.  Another synonym for “peculiar,” I thought, was “odd.”  Yep, that’s what we were—odd.  It took years into adulthood for me to see what Peter really meant when he described followers of Jesus as “peculiar.”

One of the online entries defining “peculiar” is “particular” and “special.”  Now as I look out from my COVID shelter, I am thinking that God’s people really arepeculiar in the sense of unique and special.  Physical, emotional, financial, political—you name it—stressors are surrounding us with no certain end in sight.  Peter acknowledges the darkness that doesn’t seem to be vanishing.  And yet, these peculiar people I know rejoice, have hope, encourage and reach out to others, trust, and persevere “as seeing him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:27).  

Our missions fellowship has a friend, Sunday, who came from Uganda to visit and make presentations at our churches.  Sunday is the director of the Women’s Centre in northwest Nebbi and also the national facilitator of the Threads of Blessing micro enterprise ministry for women.  Sunday came to spend three weeks with us at beginning of March and got here in time to be locked out of her own country.  That was five months ago.

Sunday is one of those “peculiar” Christians.  Instead of whining about being stranded and worrying about the three small children she left at home with relatives, she patiently has trusted God to use her for his purposes.  She has quietly made small visits to mission supporters, made videos about her work, and spent weekends with our local feeding program.  When asked about being stuck here all this time, Sunday flashes her broad smile and says, “It’s okay.”  She trusts God with her family and with her time.  She is odd.

And we all can be peculiar, too.  We must seize this moment to glorify God through our trust, our love, our practical assistance, and whatever he would have us do and be.  We are called for such a time as this.

Father, make us unique in the sense that we are your hands and feet, joyously anticipating how we may serve you by serving others.  In Jesus’ name.  AMEN.

PAUL AND COVID

 

 

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.  Philippians 1:21

 

 

Our Bible class has just finished the book of Acts, and I’m a little sad to say goodbye to Paul.   We’ve traveled with him for weeks and over thousands of miles.  I’d like to bring Paul home to talk about COVID and the way it’s disorganizing our lives and bringing so much death.  I want his perspective.

 

I might begin with the boredom so many are feeling after being shut down with nothing to do and isolating for months.  Last night was eerily quiet, and there was such a sense of detachment.  Did Paul ever experience anything like that?  Umm, I see that he spent two years imprisoned in Rome, probably chained to a Praetorian guard.   He entertained everyone who came to see him (Acts 28:30), and it’s likely that he shared his faith with the rota of guards who stayed with him (Acts 28:16).  But how did he keep himself amused during those days of confinement?  Ah, he wrote letters—letters to the Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, and to Philemon.  That’s one way to handle quarantine.

 

Did he have to deal with fear?  Opening the Book, I see that he escaped from Damascus by hiding in a basket that was lowered over the city wall.  And he left a couple of places at night to avoid harm.  He was beaten and imprisoned at Philippi where there was an earthquake at the jail.  He was repeatedly threatened, and plots to kill him were hard to count.  Perhaps Paul was sometimes tempted to fear, but he wrote in a second letter to Timothy (1:7), “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power and love and a sound mind.”  While fear clouds judgment, a sound mind can inspire wisdom and prudent behavior.  I’m feeling more encouraged listening to Paul.

 

He was such a spiritual giant, hardship was probably easy for him, but I wonder if he ever experienced discouragement?  Then I read, We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair.  We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed” (II Corinthians 4:8). Paul confessed that “…life is worth nothing unless I use it for doing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus—the work of telling others the Good News about God’s mighty kindness and love” (Acts. 20:24).

 

More and more I get a picture of a man who knew whose he was and who he was, refusing to get tripped up in selfish thoughts of personal loss or injury.  He was “crucified with Christ and [he] no longer [lived], but Christ [lived] in [him]. The life [he] now [lived] in the body, [he lived] by faith in the Son of God, who loved [him] and gave himself for [Paul].  That Christ-centered, image-bearing life had set him free.

 

Paul wasn’t distracted by circumstances.  He didn’t allow himself to be diverted by persecution or peril but instead was prepared to share Christ with the Philippian jailer and his family, the angry mob trying to murder him in Jerusalem, the envious Jews in Asia, the Roman guards in Caesarea, or the frightened sailors on the cargo ship.  He was instant in season and out of season (II Tim. 4:2), ready always to present Christ and, if necessary, to die for him.  Essentially, Paul lived by faith in Jesus Christ who loved him and who gave himself for him.

 

That’s why Paul could have walked clear-eyed through COVID, unafraid of death, unconcerned about shutdowns or hardships, and totally unselfconscious.  He wasn’t just an itinerant preacher; he was a man who lived life from the inside out, wholly devoted to Jesus.  He would take whatever God brought and glorify him through it, rejoicing all the while.

 

Paul’s final words:  “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”  II Timothy 4:7

 

 

Father, make me to live always glorifying you, eyes fixed on you, keeping the faith.  In Jesus’ name.  AMEN.

 

 

 

 

KINGDOM COME

 

 

Jesus… answered, “The kingdom of God doesn’t come by counting the days on the calendar. Nor when someone says, ‘Look here!’ or, ‘There it is!’ And why? Because God’s kingdom is already among you.”  Luke 17:21 (MSG)

 

As a child I was bemused when preachers said, “If God’s purpose in saving you was taking you to heaven, you would have died at the altar.”  At the time, it seemed to me that most people I knew were content just to have a heavenly entrance pass.  That was enough.  Don’t ask for any further commitment, and don’t make us uncomfortable.  I was gratified as an adult to learn that there was so much more to being a Christian than just dying and going to heaven.  In fact, there was a unique life assignment offered to each one of Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus spoke often of the Kingdom of God and described it in terms of “righteousness, joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17) and not “heaven some day.”  And then he said that the Kingdom of God is HERE.  It’s not “pie in the sky bye and bye.”  So, as citizens of the Kingdom who have been given a mandate to go out and make disciples and to bear fruit, can you imagine a more opportune time than this to reflect the character and love of our King?

Think of all the ways we can fulfill the Great Commandment (loving God and our neighbor, Matt. 22:36-40) in these uncertain times.  Remembering that since we are now part of the Kingdom, we no longer belong to ourselves but are the King’s servants who humbly impart joy and peace to neighbors who may be caught up in the stress of the times.  We are open to creative ways to disperse laughter and hope to the anxious.  We are available to offer practical assistance in whatever ways we see because the Kingdom is NOW, and we are citizens of the Kingdom.

We can move out of that tiny, restrictive world called Self and into the Kingdom which exalts the King and in which we are called to love.  The time is now.  The Kingdom is here.

 

Father, open our eyes.  Who can we love; who can we comfort; who can we walk with today?  Show us, in Jesus’ name.  AMEN.

GENEROSITY

A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed. Proverbs 11:25

Have you noticed how, in the middle of this worst-case scenario, a wave of giving is being unleashed? It’s as if the eyes of our hearts are being opened to those around us, and we are asking how we can access our resources for our struggling neighbors. Books in little box libraries are being replaced with canned goods; housewives are sewing masks; musicians are live streaming to bring hope; ordinary folks are putting together care packages; communities are handing out bags of household necessities; business people are forgiving rents; and people are reaching into their pocketbooks to help.
No one, no government entity has mandated generosity. And yet, from our nation’s spiritual heritage, we see people looking for ways to demonstrate care. Businesses are posting messages of solidarity and encouragement. Children are stuffing toy animals in windows to signal joy to their friends who can’t get together to play. Cardboard signs are popping up in yards expressing gratitude for first responders, for the medical profession, for our grocers. People are setting up online help sites for those who may need assistance. Calls of concern and love are ringing people across the miles while notes and cards are being put in the mail. Neighbors are talking to each other—again—just as we did before air conditioning drove us all indoors.
Could it be that these kinder, more giving selves are springing from a well that’s been waiting to be rediscovered? From One who’s tried to waken us from our selfishness? Could it be that the One who gave first and who keeps on giving has been waiting for vehicles through which he might flow his love and himself? Ephesians (2:10) reminds us that we have been created for good works, for “such a time as this,” to glorify God and to demonstrate his love.
I love the whole Joseph story but especially the ending. After being so heartless and cruel to Joseph and experiencing his grace in return, the brothers fear that Joseph will exact revenge on the death of their father. Instead, Joseph responds in love, “You meant it for evil; God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). This pandemic is unmitigated evil, but hearts living, breathing, and reaching out in God’s love can use it for good.

 

Sovereign Father, turn evil into good through us as we give ourselves as instruments of your love. In Jesus’ name. AMEN.

SPRING

The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come… Song of Songs 2:11, 12

As an early childhood teacher, I looked forward to spring and introducing this season of new beginnings: bulbs emerging with bursts of color; trees displaying their glorious ensembles of multi-shaded green; and rainbows of flowers where we had seen months of gray. And in the fields and woods animals were introducing their newborn. Birds’ nests burst with tiny heads peeping over carefully constructed shelters. Spring.
And, of course, with spring we have the anticipation of Lent—that solemn time of introspection and penitence. It’s a time when we wait quietly allowing the Holy Spirit to search us and point out ways and opportunities to grow in our faith and love of our Lord. It’s a time to recognize where we’ve not yet responded to God’s call in our lives for repentance and for him to affect transformation in our most profound selves. Lent can be a season for renewal and restoration.
So, here we are at the springtime of our year, and we are confronted instead with death rather than life. The Virus has ushered in a solemnity that rarely occurs during Lent, but here it is. We couldn’t prepare for it, but it’s here. And yet, in our Pilgrim’s Progress, we’ve already met with numbers of difficulties on the way—and have found in retrospect that the lions have been chained while all the resources we’ve needed have been provided. Isn’t it still true now?
It’s Spring, and, yes, there’s an unseen enemy all about us, but hasn’t that always been? We have a different name for this one, but our strategy is not new. We exercise wisdom and prudence, heeding trusted authorities; our meals can provide proper nutrition; we engage daily with God’s creation and its healing powers; we set our minds on things above; and we love our family and neighbors in word and deed; and we continue to rely on our Lord and his Word.  We remain thankful, rejoicing always in him. Even in lockdown, we remember he is with us. We have everything we need.
Yes, the cross and death are everyday realities. But so is Easter, and Jesus will triumph.
Don’t worry. Aslan is on the move…

 

Father, in truth, our world is always full of contradictions: life and death; truth and lies; hope and despair. But you always triumph. Your sovereignty humbles us to rejoice in you and to live in praise and worship. Thank you for ultimate victory in Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

GREAT IS THY FAITHFULNESS

It is of the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness. The LORD is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him. Lamentations 3:22-24

“About six more months,” the doctor said when I asked about recovery from my hand surgery. And just as my second cast was removed and I could get back to the computer and writing, we learned about the corona virus. So, where will we as Christians, go with this latest and unprecedented challenge?
We can begin with gratitude, remembering always God’s great gift through his Son, Jesus Christ. We can cultivate and discipline ourselves in daily thanksgiving, determinedly opposed to the world’s deluge of criticism and fault-finding. “Who do you blame for the transmission of this virus in your community?” and “We’re waiting now for the lawsuits that will be filed,” were comments I heard today on the news—rather than gratitude for all those who are heroically serving in this time of global pandemic and the wisdom and expertise we experience in our beloved country.
We actively seek ways to serve. I know people who are sewing masks; others who are packaging and delivering groceries; some who are calling and checking on vulnerable people; and family members who are treating the ill in our community. We can intentionally block out time for prayer and meditation, specifically lifting up our leaders, first responders, caregivers, and those in trouble.
We can determine to be encouragers. When we hear fear or depression, we can acknowledge these very real feelings and guide the conversation into hope in Christ and his faithfulness. We don’t belittle or disparage temptations to negativity, for they are real and fed at large by the media and others whose faith is not yet strong. We pour out God’s love that flows through us and recognize occasions to minister in times like these.
We resist the temptation, as Fenelon says, to look forward to better days. We trust God’s sovereignty for the now and ask him to use these circumstances to refine and transform us. We live in the present as lights in an uncertain world, keeping our eyes focused on him, the author and finisher of our faith.
We stand, anchored in Christ who will never leave us, and allow him to work in and through us for his purpose in the Kingdom.
When this is all over and this current crisis ended, what and who will we be? Will we be stronger in the Lord and truer to our faith in him, grateful for his promised faithfulness? Or will we have missed all the opportunities he has provided for intimacy and a greater knowledge of himself?
It’s really our choice.

 

Father, never before have we had such unlimited possibilities for service and growth. Move our eyes from ourselves and stay them on you as we seek ways to share our faith and our hope, our energies and our love with fearful, anxious, and hurting people in our world and in our community. May we speak and sing of your faithfulness as we trust you through these difficult times. In Jesus’ name. AMEN.

BARNABAS

 

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the day approaching. Hebrews 10:24, 25

 

No, I’m not thinking of Fr. Timothy’s dog in Jan Karon’s “Mitford Series.” As delightful as I found big, shaggy Barnabas, I’m thinking of a saint with the same name who appears throughout Acts and in a couple of Paul’s letters.
The name Barnabas means “son of encouragement,” and that’s just what we find Barnabas doing at almost every sighting. For instance, Luke writes in Acts 4 that Barnabas was generous in selling a property he owned and bringing the proceeds to the apostles to apply to the needs of other believers. His example surely must have stirred others to follow his lead.
After Saul experienced his dramatic conversion on the Damascus road, he tried to join the disciples in Jerusalem, but they were all afraid of him. It was Barnabas who went to Saul and brought him into the closed group, telling them about Saul’s amazing encounter with the Lord and about his preaching afterwards. It was because of Barnabas’s courage that Saul (whose name was changed to Paul) was accepted by the church and freed to speak and teach about Jesus in Jerusalem.
Later, when the church at Jerusalem heard that Greeks in Antioch had believed and turned to the Lord upon hearing the Good News, whom did they send to encourage those new believers? Barnabas. And when he arrived, his faith and Spirit-filled life caused many more people to come to the Lord. But Barnabas didn’t stop there. He went to find Paul (who had gone to Tarsus) to come help disciple the new believers, and it was at Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians” (followers of Christ).
When Paul took his first missionary trip, the Holy Spirit directed that Barnabas accompany him. A bit later in the journey, young John Mark left the group and headed back home while Paul and Barnabas traveled extensively throughout Asia preaching and establishing new groups of disciples. Sometime after their return, Paul suggested to Barnabas that they make another trip to check on the fledgling churches, and Barnabas wanted to take John Mark. Scripture notes that they had a “sharp disagreement” wherein Paul refused to let Mark be part of the mission. It may be that Barnabas wanted to give Mark a second chance. Whatever it was that caused Mark to leave them earlier, Barnabas forgave him and invited him to go with him as they parted company with Paul on their second missionary voyage.
Notice the beautiful characteristics that identified Barnabas: generosity, trust, advocate, reconciler, encourager, “discipler”. Barnabas was the kind of person you would want with you when the chips were down. Everywhere he went, Barnabas seemed to radiate a deep-seated joy, confidence, and Jesus’ amazing love. He modeled redemption, just like his Lord. He was the saint who lived into his name.
If you had one call to make, you’d want it to be to Barnabas.

 

Father, make us Barnabases who go around lifting and cheering, affirming and encouraging because of who you are in us. In Jesus’ name. AMEN.

BECOMING

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. II Corinthians 3:18 (NIV)

You’ve probably heard the story that’s attributed to Michelangelo upon the completion of his masterpiece David. According to some accounts, the sculptor was asked how he created such a stunning work from a flawed piece of marble. His purported response, “It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.” A quaint tale but probably just an urban myth.
In our lives as disciples, we very well recognize the process that can be experienced any given day as God chips away at the matter that forms us and transforms us, “slowly by slowly” into that person he intended us to be from Creation. He’s making us into what Eugene Peterson calls “our true self” while Oswald Chambers says God is changing our individuality into personality.
Paul, especially, gets in on the discussion when he writes about dying to self and the flesh that probably gives us more trouble than any evil thing that can be flung our way. Remember the old saying that a corpse doesn’t respond to good or ill? That’s not exactly what God is doing with us, but as we become our true self, Jesus increases and we decrease. We are becoming.
God gives us that tricky power of will so that we can either choose to cooperate with his process or resist and find it’s not comfortable “kicking against the pricks.” God is constantly working in us “to will and do of his good pleasure,” and as he works in us, those parts of us that are not our true self are chipped away. Yes, it can sometimes be painful, but the result is pure beauty.
In “Let Go” Fenelon reminds us that we shouldn’t be surprised at what God reveals in us—sensitivity, impatience, haughtiness, self-will. That’s just our “natural disposition, and without God’s grace, [we] will never be anything different.”
So what are we to do? Rest. We simply rest and cooperate with the chipping that God is doing. He won’t remove anything but those extraneous things that have leeched onto us as we’ve bumbled along in our independent search for piety. God doesn’t need our help to make us saints; he just wants our cooperation, and he asks us to trust him and be still while he’s working.

 

Father, we love seeing your handiwork in others but don’t always appreciate your methods as you work in us. Thank you for patiently bearing our protests. Please keep up the good work. In Jesus’ name. AMEN.

FRESH START

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us… Hebrews 12:1

Happy New Year. I’m again sharing this “handwritten party invitation sent to their friends” by George and Louisa Macdonald, Dec. 31st, 1885. (Bonfire at 7 p.m., dancing at 8)

Please come on Monday
The day after Sunday,
And mind that you start with
Something to part with;
A fire shall be ready
Glowing and steady
To receive it and burn it
And never return it.
Books that are silly,
Clothes outworn and chilly,
Hats, umbrellas or bonnets,
Dull letters, bad sonnets,
Whate’er to the furnace
By nature calls “Burn us!”
An ancient, bad temper
Will be noted no damper—
The fire will not scorn it
But glory to burn it!
Here every bad picture
Finds refuge from stricture;
Or any old grudge
That refuses to budge,
We’ll make it the tomb
For all sorts of gloom,
The out-of-door path
For every man’s wrath.
All lying and hinting,
All jealous squinting,
All unkind talking
And each other balking,
Let the fire’s holy actions
Turn to ghostly abstractions.
All antimacassars,
All moth-egg amassers,
Old gloves and old feathers,
Old shoes and old leathers,
Greasy or tar-ry,
Bring all you can carry!
We would not deceive you:
The fire shall relieve you,
The world will feel better,
And so be your debtor.
Be welcome then—very—
And come and be merry!

Yes, Lord, there’s a lot we need to burn as we begin this new year.  We determine to let go.  AMEN.