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Thursday, January 14, 2021

Telling the Story Again

 "As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, 

the people urged them to speak about these things again on the next Sabbath.”

Acts 13:42 (Common English Bible)

 

            Tom Tewell shared with me that some years ago, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, PA preached a sermon that so captured the hearts and minds of the congregation that the governing board passed a resolution that on the anniversary of that sermon each year, the pastor was to preach it again. Some time ago I heard an interview with Robin Roberts, a host of the morning show, Good Morning America. She spoke candidly of her Christian faith and her morning time with God before going to work. She mentioned a favorite devotional guide that she used each morning – one that provided a meditation for each day of the year. On January 1 of the following year, she started through the same devotional again.

 

            During my ministry in Bucks County, PA I was asked in one week to preach a Christian message of hope for two different families who were burying a loved one. Neither family had a church home or a pastor. Each service was in a different funeral home. A dear friend of mine, Bill, was close to both families and attended both services. In each service I preached the same sermon. Though both families expressed gratitude to me for my message, each saying that the message was precisely what they needed to hear, Bill shared his disappointment with me following the second service. Bill’s complaint was that he had already heard that sermon earlier in the week. I simply reminded him that I was not preaching for him.

 

            It has never been my practice to preach the same Sunday morning message twice in the same congregation. Yet, often I will reuse an illustration in other sermons. This is for two reasons: I believe that no other illustration has the same force to advance the message I wish to convey, and, the illustration embodies such truth within itself that I wish to impact more lives with its use. Worshipping communities are like streams – you never step into the same stream twice. The water from the first experience has now moved on. The second experience is always into new water. Likewise, the second telling of the illustration nearly always reaches persons not in attendance during the earlier usage. I’m not preaching to those who have already heard the illustration.

 

            It is natural to grow tired of hearing most stories over and over again. But stories that capture some truth; stories that instructs and inspires do not grow old. That is because they stir something in us each time. Much as some who read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol each Christmas, the Bible and illustrations that open the truths of the Bible clearly and powerfully are not ones we grow tired of. Inspiration for living in difficult times leak and must be refreshed. Reading a strong book of meditations that strengthen in one year can do the same the next year, just as Robin Roberts has experienced.  So, as Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people urged them to speak about these things again on the next Sabbath.

 

Joy,

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Throwing Away Self-Pity


The following is from Doug Hood's upcoming book, 

Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ, vol. 2


 “Awake, awake, put on your strength, Zion!”

Isaiah 52:1a (Common English Bible)

Captivity for Israel has ended. God has defeated the powers of Babylon and has authorized Israel to depart and head for home to Jerusalem. A new day, with a strong future, now rises for God’s people. “Awake, awake!” is God’s double imperative to Israel. “Put on your strength, Zion!” The call sounds strangely familiar. “Up and Adam! Let’s get going!” is the more common usage today. These, or similar, words have been uttered by most parents summoning their children awake from their sleep. The image of sleepy children, resisting the call to leave the comfort of a warm bed, is sharp and crisp. The parent can wake the child with a shout, can summon the child from the bed, but it must be the child’s own strength that moves them from slumber to a fresh engagement with a new day.

God’s present difficulty is that Israel doesn’t want to get out of bed. During their captivity in Babylon, Israel has become dulled, inattentive, hopeless, and grief-stricken.[i] Israel has been humiliated by Babylon and has spiraled into such despair and self-pity that they no longer want to live. No longer did life offer a driving purpose, only a memory of brighter days. Absent was a radiant hope, only a fading dream. A captivating vision has fled from their sight. What remained was a history. “Awake, awake!” is God’s response to Israel’s self-pity. “Put on your strength, Zion!” God is reminding Israel that there is still strength in the people and is here urging them to summon that strength and toss-off that negative attitude that has consumed them.

Psychotherapist and author, Amy Morin writes that feeling sorry for yourself is self-destructive.[ii] Though we all experience pain and sorrow in life, dwelling on your sorrow and misfortune can consume you until it eventually changes your thoughts and behaviors. Morin contends that any of us can choose to take control. “Even when you can’t alter your circumstances, you can alter your attitude.”[iii] This is the clear declaration of God to Israel; the clear call to shake off their indulgence in self-pity, claim the strength that remains in them, and move positively forward toward the future God has prepared for them. God’s strength comes alongside our own. It does not do for us what we can do for ourselves.

After Victor Hugo was exiled from his beloved France, he spent 18 years in the Channel Islands. Hugo once described this exile from the nation he loved as worse than death. Each afternoon, at sunset, Victor Hugo would climb to a cliff overlooking a small harbor and look longingly out over the water toward France. Legend tells us that each day, following his meditations, Hugo would pick up a pebble and throw it into the sea. One day the children who developed an affection for him asked why he threw a stone in the sea each day. “Not stones, children, not stones. I am throwing my self-pity into the sea.” Little wonder that during those 18 years of struggle, Victor Hugo gave the world his best and most profound work of literature.

Joy,
      


[i] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) 136.
[ii] Amy Morin, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. (New York: William Morrow, 2014) 20.
[iii] Morin, 18.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

God's Hope For Us In the New Year

 "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever! Don't be misled by the many strange teachings out there. It's a good thing for the heart to be strengthened by grace rather than by food. Food doesn't help those who live in this context."

Hebrews 13:8, 9 (Common English Bible)


God’s aim for all people is that our hearts be strengthen. Not hardened, unyielding, unwilling to settle differences. This past year has produced many such hearts; hearts that are embittered by unkind political rhetoric, economic uncertainty, and fear of a virus that seems unstoppable. That is a heart that is incapable of civil, respectful discussion – only monologues, bouncing off others as though they were a hard surface. And often times they are! Hard surfaces that lack the humility to listen deeply to others, which lacks the capacity or willingness to harness disagreement for the advancement of personal thought. What God desires are hearts that are strengthen in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

 

Hearts strengthened by God’s grace, strengthen by a daily decision to learn of Jesus Christ and allow that instruction to direct the course of our thoughts and behavior results in a milder, more temperate, more compassionate nature! As someone once wrote, in Jesus Christ we have, “Before each of us an image of what we ought to be.”[i] In a very practical course, what this means is that the image of Jesus Christ should become a living reality within each person. That is not a person who clings to rules or some interpretation of moral conduct that is foisted upon another. It is a person that recognizes that fallibility marks each one of us and moves toward another with compassion and acceptance.

 

Often resolutions are made at the beginning of a New Year. Many times they are broken – and broken early – and some are kept, even if feebly. Yet, according to our lesson this morning from Hebrews, there is one desire that God has for everyone. That is the desire that we are not led in the wrong direction this New Year by any other voice or authority than what is found in the Bible, “Don’t be misled by the many strange teachings out there.” A heart that is centered, and continually strengthened, in Jesus Christ is God’s aim, God’s hope for each of us. After all, any other desire or hope we may have will end in disillusionment if not deeply rooted in a relationship with our creator. 

 

God’s hope for us does not depend upon our own strength of resolve, our ability to exercise absolute discipline in the course of our daily lives. We are not strong enough. This is precisely why so many resolutions in the New Year fail. Our intention is sincere and strong. Our discipline stumbles. What God promises is an uncommon strength that comes from God that helps us make Jesus Christ the pillar of our thoughts and actions. Only one thing is needed – that we say to Jesus Christ today, and each day this year, “Here I am, do with me according to your will!” God’s promise is that our heart will be strengthened. It is then that our lives will exhibit God’s commandment – the commandment of love.

 

Joy,

 



[i] Source unknown


Thursday, December 24, 2020

Fear at Christmas

From Doug Hood’s book,

Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk With Christ


 “Don’t fear, Zion. Don’t let your hands fall. The Lord your God is in your midst.”

Zephaniah 3:16, 17 (Common English Bible)

 Often today you hear Christians express dismay that Christ is frequently left out of Christmas. While that may be true, there is something that is more surprising – there is a noticeable absence of fear during this season. Not the everyday fears we all wrestle with, the fear of spending far more than our resources permit, the fear that holiday guests will misbehave toward one another when they gather and fear what the New Year holds for aging parents. Naturally, these are important, but not the fears that keep popping up in the Bible around the Christmas story. No, the fears that ripple out from the pages of the Bible have to do with what God is up to and what that means for our lives.

 The fear spoken of here in this passage from Zephaniah has to do with the fear of being punished. The people had no illusion that they were guilt-free. They had broken promises with one another and with God. Simply, they were not the people God called them to be. So when God suddenly shows up, there is apprehension over God’s response. The prophet Zephaniah announces that God has forgiven the people their sins and totally removed their guilt. More, Zephaniah shares a little later in this verse that God comes rejoicing and singing from the depths of God’s love for us.

 Then there is the fear by nearly every member of the original Christmas cast; the fear that God appearing means a disruption of their lives. Pay attention to the Christmas story in Matthew’s Gospel and you see an angel telling Joseph not to be afraid. Read the Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel and an angel tells Mary not to be afraid. Later in Luke’s Gospel, an angel appears to shepherds and they were terrified. There is fear all over the Christmas story. Where is that fear today during the holiday season?

 Seldom is the hardness of the life we have with Jesus frankly acknowledged anymore. Many have conveniently forgotten – or ignored – that the coming of Jesus means that God intends to disrupt our little life plans. Christmas very simply means that we are not on our own anymore to do with our lives as we please. The birth of Christ means that we are called to embark upon a hazardous and straining enterprise, one where absolutely nothing is going to be the same anymore. If this is properly understood, there would be considerably more fear at Christmas throughout the Church. Such fear would demonstrate that the Church really understands what is going on. Perhaps the reason the Church has so few experiences with angels appearing is because there is so little fear. 

Joy,


Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Spirit of Christmas

From Doug Hood’s upcoming book,

Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk With Christ, Vol. 2. 


“Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

Luke 2:14 (Common English Bible)

There is a Christmas song that ponders in a rather wistful manner, why the world is
unable to embrace the spirit of Christmas all year long. At Christmas, we crawl out from our
hard shell of self-concern, our eyes sparkle with wonder, and we behave with an
uncharacteristic charity toward all people. We slog through eleven months of drudging effort,
eyes squarely focused upon survival in a competitive marketplace with little attention to
others, and then Christmas comes. We throw off the heavy coat of selfishness for a time.
Kindness permeates the places of our soul made callous by fear of scarcity and generosity
flows from hidden springs in our heart. We play, we laugh, and we are amiable to the stranger
and friend equally. That Christmas song is on to something. Why can’t we have the spirit of
Christmas all year long?

Bethlehem is a divine interruption. The world today is little different from the world that
welcomed the birth of Jesus. Enemies are everywhere and national security continues to be a
pressing concern. Inequity of wealth among people of every nation conveniently ignores the
apostle Paul’s call that those who have much shouldn’t have too much and those who have
little shouldn’t have too little (2 Corinthians 8:13-15). But Bethlehem invites the world to a
fresh imagination; to imagine a world where instruments of war are repurposed into farming
instruments and people impulsively and joyfully share from their abundance so that others
may simply have enough. Bethlehem asks that we look at the world differently, asks that we
live differently. 

The spirit of Christmas is a deep and persistent call to pay attention to God. It is a call to
see and participate in the creation of a new world where peace and good will abounds.
Bethlehem is not an occasional indulgence – an occasion where we lay aside for a moment
careful attention to our health and consume copious quantities of Christmas cookies and
eggnog. Bethlehem asks that we care about the world of which we are a part. Bethlehem
invites us to join the angels in announcing that God has unleashed upon the world a new
order where all people may find carefree rest in God. Bethlehem is not a charming dream. It is
not an aspirational goal. Bethlehem is a confident and certain reality. God has come into this
world and nothing is going to be the same.

Go to Bethlehem this year. Go and bow down before this magnificent birth of a new world
order. Discover in Bethlehem God’s divine intention for each of us; discover that peace and
good will is not for one month of the year but God’s gift to be embraced and shared all year.
But if you go to Bethlehem, recognize that Bethlehem makes demands upon all who visit.
Bethlehem asks that you dedicate your life to speeding up the tempo of good will in all your
relationships. Bethlehem will ask you to guard your speech and exercise restraint in the use of
acrimony, harsh, and mean criticism. Bethlehem will demand civility, humility, and respect of
others, particularly of those you disagree with. And Bethlehem will ask of you uncommon
generosity toward others. Bethlehem asks a good deal from all who visit. But Bethlehem gives
in return God’s peace. That is the spirit of Christmas. 

Joy,

Monday, December 14, 2020

Christmas Confidence

  The following is from Doug Hood's 

Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ


“But right now, we don’t see everything under their control yet. However, we do see the one who was made lower in order than the angels for a little while – it’s Jesus!”
 Portions of Hebrews 2:8, 9 (Common English Bible)

     This Christmas season finds us rather bewildered, facing confusion, uncertainty and fear. The world seems dangerously out of control and political leaders have failed to offer a neat formula that can solve our problems or allay our anxiety. We seem a long way from the promise of Isaiah that instruments of war will become farming equipment. But as Christmas draws near, Hebrews reminds us of a man who lived in a world not unlike our own, and yet, carried with him hope and confidence – Jesus Christ. Specifically, Hebrews tells us that we may not yet see everything “under control” but we do see Jesus!

     Harry Emerson Fosdick once commented that in pointing to Jesus, Hebrews does not seek to distract us from realistic facts to a beautiful ideal; Hebrews is simply turning our attention from one set of facts to another fact. Jesus is a fact. He lived and his life left an indelible imprint upon the world. Some may question the nature of Jesus, may question the identity of Jesus as anything more than a mortal, but few question that Jesus lived. Yet, women and men of faith accept Jesus as more; accept, as fact, that Jesus is God’s decisive interruption in history to bring all things “under control”. Jesus is a towering, challenging, revealing fact that casts a whole new outlook on the present groaning of life today.

     In this season of Advent – a season of anticipation – those faithful to the Lordship of Jesus see something tremendous occurring in the midst of the daily news: they see the emergence of a disruptive force that will overcome the wild, uncivilized and uncontrolled powers that tear at the world. In the birth of Jesus, God announces that the forces of darkness now have reason to tremble. No, we do not yet see all things “under control” – far from it – but we do see Jesus! And that means that God is on the move.

     Our world today is one where fear seems to grow unchecked and uncertainty enlarges upon our consciousness. But God has come in Jesus to change the whole complexion of the world. What is required is that we open ourselves to Jesus in a manner that he can get at us and live in us so that he shapes our thoughts and behavior. One person of faith after another, opening their hearts and minds to receive the transforming power of God, makes all the difference in the world. That is our Christmas confidence.

Joy,



Thursday, December 3, 2020

Dissatisfaction With the Ordinary

“Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”

1 Peter 1:13-16 (NRSV)

 

              Ralph Waldo Emerson shared in a lecture, “We plant trees, we build stone houses, we redeem the waste, we make prospective laws, we found colleges and hospitals, for remote generations. We should be mortified to learn that the little benefit we chanced in our own person to receive was the utmost they would yield.”[i] Emerson decried the tendency of people to live below their true capacity – to chance little of their enormous potential. The life they make for themselves is not what it could be, not what it should to be. Living below the capacity available to them, they should not experience surprise that what they receive in return is little. In fact, such people should be “mortified.”

 

              This is Peter’s concern for the one who follows Christ: “Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves.” The encouragement from Peter is that the Christian strive forward, stretching personal ability and gifts for maximum benefit. The “hope” Peter speaks of is not wishful thinking. Rather, it is certain expectation, which follows personal effort – expectation lodged firmly in the promises of Jesus. Careful preparation of the mind, that is, clear and focused thought, is demanded followed by intentional participation in God’s work in the world. Discipline will be required less the Christian once again is conformed to former ways that are largely unproductive.

 

              Success in any organization is determined by the quality of organization and effort. Similarly, the success or failure of a person depends on the way he or she manages himself or herself. We all produce things, behaviors, and attitudes that reflect our management, or lack of discipline and personal management. As such, we should gauge the quality and the importance of who we are becoming in each area of our lives – our personal growth, relational growth with family, friends, and colleagues, professional contribution, and spiritual growth.  Without determined, intentional action, we ease back into ordinariness.

 

              Peter asks that we claim our identity as God’s chosen people. Accordingly, God’s people are to live “holy” lives – that is, we are to separate ourselves from ordinariness and live distinctly as those who follow Jesus Christ. “Holy” does not presume that we will live perfectly, without stumbles, difficulty, and occasional rebellion and disobedience to God. It does suggest that when we stumble, it matters to us, that we expect more from ourselves, and rise and struggle forward in obedience once again. It is the intention of the heart that leads believers to behave in ways that seem strange to those who have not answered the call to be “holy” – to live into an extraordinary life as God desires for us.



[i] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Young American”, Emerson: Essays and Lectures (New York, N.Y.: The Library of America, 1983) 219.