The Limits of Anger


Devotional for Wednesday, June 3

Ephesians 4:25-29 (NRSV)
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

Anger is a common emotion, and as the Bible makes clear, it also is a dangerous emotion. In and of itself anger is not sin, but anger can carry us to the edge of sinning.

I won’t even bother to try to tie this Scripture to current events—if you don’t make the connection on your own, you just awoke from a very long nap.

Implicit in Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus is the notion of righteous anger, the emotion we feel when we witness or experience the violation of basic truths. In a biblical context, righteous anger arises when God’s holiness is disregarded (think of Jesus flipping tables in the Temple), or when God’s creation is not respected for what it is (think of Jesus healing the man with the withered hand in Mark 3:4-6).

Like all of our emotions, anger has the potential to create good. It can spur action where there was apathy. The problem is when anger consumes us, causing us to lose focus and stray from behaving like the children of God we are.

Breathe! Remember the early breathing lesson in this devotional series, first inspired by the COVID-19 crisis? Breathe, and slow down enough to examine what you’re feeling and why.

From there, get back on mission. Note that Paul affirmed constructive behavior. For Christians, this is largely a matter of showing and sharing the biblical truth of who Jesus Christ is. He calls us to build up the world with love, not hate.

Let the fire inside propel you toward kingdom work!

Lord, slow us down a little today. Let us examine what we feel, what we have done, and what we plan to do, and help us to bring all of that into alignment with your will. Amen.

Childlike Awe

Devotional for Tuesday, June 2

Exodus 20:1-20

A church I used to pastor had a preschool program. It was my job (and my joy) to lead chapel for three-year-olds on Tuesdays and four-year-olds on Wednesdays.

Preparing for that 10 or 15 minutes of teaching time really took some thought. It was intimidating when I realized I was being asked to formally introduce those children to God.

Certainly, some of them had heard of God from their parents, but it also quickly became obvious that many of them were hearing about God’s attributes for the first time. And as I was trying to explain God to little people who were only beginning to learn their colors and letters, I had to keep our chapel time really simple and straightforward.

I see some parallels between that chapel time and the story in Exodus 20:1-21, the account of God revealing himself to the Israelites by way of the Ten Commandments. In many ways, it was as if God’s chosen people were in preschool, discovering the attributes of God for the first time.

Indeed, the Israelites were a people who had forgotten who their God was. The God who spoke to them from atop Mount Sinai was a mysterious stranger, a great being who had freed them from Egyptian slavery and led them into the desert for reasons not immediately clear.

God kept his reintroduction to the Israelites simple and straightforward. There were signs to inspire awe, mostly in the form of thick smoke and fire on the mountain. There was a repeating trumpet blast. There was an audible voice like thunder.

And then there was The Lesson, spoken directly by God. Four of the commandments tell us how to relate to God, honoring the Creator’s unique, perfect holiness. Here, God set himself apart, identifying himself as The One, the source of everything else.

The other six commandments serve as a starting point for how to treat one another. Implicit in them is the idea that we each are God’s creation, and that we should treat each other as such. There’s a basic lesson we need to re-learn right now!

I am fascinated by the Israelites’ response to the lesson. The phrase “cringing fear” comes to mind. Moses, they said, you talk to God—we’ll listen to you. “But don’t let God speak directly to us, or we will die!”

They were, of course, living at least 13 centuries before the advent of Jesus, who gave us the advanced course on the nature of God. They were seeing God’s love only indirectly, first learning respect for and obedience to a being beyond imagination.Thank God for the deeper revelations that were to come, and especially for Jesus, who as God among us made our Creator more easily understood as accessible and loving.

But we never want to forget how big God is, how awe-inspiring he is, how incomprehensible the full nature of an eternal Creator should be. It is proper to tremble at God’s holy majesty while at the same time feeling God is our friend.

As Moses told the Israelites: “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”

Lord, thank you for the progressive revelations of yourself granted to us. May we live fully into your Great Laws, all of which are rooted in love. Amen.

Sin in All Its Forms

Devotional for Monday, June 1

Romans 8:18-24 (NLT)

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it.)

These past few days have, at times, left me in a state of despair.

In the COVID-19 crisis, we already were seeing nature’s brokenness, more proof that the world does not work as it should. The natural world is always in this condition, but the brokenness is particularly evident as a pandemic disrupts our lives.

Nature’s brokenness is indirect evidence of the devastating power of human sin. I speak as one who trusts what Scripture says about human disobedience to God being the cause of all that is not right in the world. Sadly, over the last few days we also have had to suffer direct evidence of how human beings, made in the image of God, can flagrantly violate God’s will, continually renewing the curse that has been the bane of our existence.

I speak primarily of the slow murder of George Floyd, the man who died after a now-disgraced police officer named Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for about nine minutes. When I worked decades ago as a crime reporter, I saw several events I would like to forget. But in an effort to better understand what happened to Mr. Floyd—surely, I thought, there has to be a plausible explanation—I watched the video of a handcuffed man begging for his life but receiving no mercy. I am left with another image I cannot and should not forget.

People rightfully and righteously have taken to the streets to protest Mr. Floyd’s death and other police abuses they have experienced. In this killing, we have found something we should universally condemn.

To quote Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy after watching the video, “If you have a badge and don’t have an issue with this … turn it in.” I would add that if you are a human being and don’t have an issue with Mr. Floyd’s death, you need to spend some time in serious reflection and self-examination.

As the ensuing events play out, we also are seeing how sin begets sin. In the midst of those well-founded and important protests, opportunists have slipped in. These are people who think violence and looting are the proper path to fulfill warped political strategies or a greedy desire for things of this world. Buildings have burned, people have been injured, fear has spread, and more lives have been lost.

I experienced something like this during Atlanta’s version of the Rodney King riots in 1992. Many of you are old enough to remember the ongoing civil unrest of 1968. These opportunists have no idea what a hackneyed example of sin they are, a kind of people who have been present since the earliest days of recorded history.

As Christians, there are three basic actions we can take to counter them.

First, we must hear and respond to the cries of oppressed people.

Second, we have to share the message of Jesus Christ, a message of “glorious freedom from death and decay.” In a world filled with evil, it takes some boldness to do this, but we are called to be bold! People need to understand there is hope, even as the world writhes in pain. Let’s remember that every generation has to hear the message anew.

Third, we need to closely follow Christ’s admonition in John 5 and John 8 to stop sinning—go and sin no more. Yes, it’s difficult to get there. If perfect alignment with God’s will comes in a person’s lifetime, it likely happens after a long and painful struggle against temptation, and only through empowerment from the Holy Spirit.

We have to try with all our abilities, though. We have to break the cycle of sin, helping the Spirit move us toward that day when “future glory” becomes our present.

Lord, on this day, we again lift up prayers for the soul of George Floyd, a man who called you Savior, and for his family and friends. We pray that Derek Chauvin is able to seek forgiveness and experience your grace as he faces the worldly repercussions of his actions. And keep us from the evil one. Amen.

Four Parts of Worship: Sending Forth

Devotional for Saturday, May 30

Matthew 28:1-10

At the end of each worship service, I “send us forth,” to use the language of fourfold worship. The obvious question is, “Send us forth to what?”

The answer, of course, lies in the word of God.

The Matthew text linked above is typically used as an Easter reading. Easter—the day we celebrate the resurrection of Christ—also is the key to understanding “sending forth.” We’re going to use Matthew’s story of Christ’s resurrection to help us better understand what we’re sent forth to do.

Jesus doesn’t appear until late in the story, but as he is the starting point for all things, we’ll begin with him. Even if you’ve heard this core story of Christianity a thousand times before, try to hear it with fresh ears today.

In the resurrection, Jesus is revealed fully as the Christ, the son of God, the promised gift of God sent to redeem the world. As we understand the resurrection more fully in the context of other holy writings, we see he is God in flesh, God among us.

The human characters in Matthew’s version of the resurrection are two Marys, soldiers assigned to guard the tomb, and Jesus’ disciples.

The two Marys. One is clearly identified as Mary Magdalene, a woman Jesus freed from demon possession. She was clearly devoted to Jesus. The “other Mary” is less easily identified; Matthew would never have referred to Jesus’ mother in such a way. She was likely the “mother of James and Joseph,” identified as being at the cross. Obviously, Mary (Miriam in Hebrew) was a very common female name in Jesus’ day and place.

What I take away from their part in the story is faithfulness, combined with an expectancy that something more was to happen. Unlike the other gospels, Matthew says the Marys merely went “to see the tomb,” rather than going with a specific purpose, such as to anoint Jesus’ body more thoroughly. I think that unlike many of the male disciples, the women had fully heard Jesus’ words about what was to come after his death, and hope remained in their hearts.

Through their faithful attendance to Christ, even when all seemed lost, they became important witnesses to mighty events surrounding the resurrection, standing at an intersection of heaven and earth. They also became the first humans to declare the truth about the remarkable event that changed the world.

The Guards. These likely were Roman soldiers, part of the toughest fighting force on the planet. They represent worldly power, a kind of power that seemed insurmountable to the people they had conquered. But when faced with just one of God’s angels, they collapsed into a quivering mass. The word translated as “shook” in relation to these soldiers has the same root as the word used to describe the earthquake that occurred when the angel rolled the stone away. All that was worldly trembled at the resurrection.

The Disciples. Just as they were Jesus’ primary audience in his three years of ministry, they seem to be his primary audience immediately after the resurrection. The angel told the two Marys to go to the disciples with word of the resurrection. Jesus repeated this instruction when he appeared to the women suddenly, as they ran to the disciples.

Later in Matthew, we’re told something interesting about the 11 remaining key disciples—despite seeing Jesus, some doubted. I wonder if they muttered in Aramaic, “It’s just too good to be true.” Jesus told them to go forth and spread the news of the resurrection, however, baptizing believers in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It’s clear they finally did believe. After all, we are here on the other side of the planet, worshiping Christ as Savior.

As people who gather to worship Christ, we have the potential to fulfill some of these roles today. Where do you fit in the story?

We obviously don’t want to be worldly and reduced to a quivering mass in the face of the resurrection. At a minimum, I pray we’re like the disciples, following Jesus, even enamored with Jesus.

And yet—doubt creeps in. Can we be more like the Marys? Can we declare what has been revealed to us through God’s word? Can we live as if we expect greater things to happen?

That is what we’re sent forth each week to do. One way or another, we’ve gathered in worship week after week and equipped ourselves through the word. We’ve celebrated what has been declared.

Now, like excited, unhesitating Marys, let’s go share the good news about Jesus Christ with those who so desperately need to hear it!

Lord, regardless of how we worship, may we always leave worship declaring Christ as Savior to all who need to hear. Amen.

Four Parts of Worship: Celebrate!

Devotional for Friday, May 29

So, we’ve considered what it means to gather ourselves in search of God, and we’ve examined how God is consistently present through Scripture. What is an appropriate response to God’s presence?

A celebration! The third part of worship is like a thank-you, praise-you party thrown for God, where we declare the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer to be worthy of honor.

I think a lot of people struggle with worship because we don’t spend enough time rejoicing. When we fail to celebrate in worship, we miss out on the joy of being Christian.

I know—we may not always feel like rejoicing. We may have walked into church lonely, financially troubled, disturbed by sickness or death, broken by our sins or victimized by another’s sins.

Those aren’t ideal situations, but our circumstances can brighten considerably when we put them in the light of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. The temporary nature of this life becomes obvious when the Holy Spirit begins to work in us through God’s word, giving us a taste of what it means to be citizens of an eternal kingdom.

You see such celebratory worship in the Old Testament. One example would be the story in 1 Chronicles 16:1-6, when David returned the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. And before these more formal acts in the story, there were exuberant acts on the way to Jerusalem: sacrifices, singing, dancing and music.

Celebratory worship continues in the New Testament, particularly after the victorious nature of Christ’s work on the cross is made clear in the resurrection. We’re told in Colossians 3:16-17, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

God’s word begets gratitude, and with gratitude in our hearts, we sing and direct our celebration toward our audience, God. 

I know not everyone rejoices and celebrates in the same way, just as people will enjoy a party in different ways. I’ve always been more of a wallflower at a party. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy parties; it just means I’m not necessarily going to put a lampshade on my head.

You may be a fairly laid-back person in worship. A lot of people feel awkward jumping up and shouting “Amen!” while holding their hands up in the air. (Thank God for the worshipers who do such things; they are a great help to worship in general.)

If you’re reserved in nature, ask yourself this: Am I celebrating? Does that joy regarding Christ’s gift wash over my soul, at least as a quiet, tender experience?

Do I let the music take me back to the revelation of God I’ve just heard, connecting my emotions to my logic? Do I understand that the prayers we lift up corporately are an open door to heaven? When I come to the table for communion, am I expecting to meet the one who will feed me for all eternity?

God calls us to such celebratory experiences whenever we stand before him in worship.

Lord, our loss of exuberant celebration is perhaps the greatest denial we suffer right now. Help us to better celebrate you in our private time and family time, and assure us of our return to a celebratory congregation soon. Amen.

Four Parts of Worship: Word

Devotional for Thursday, May 28

People who learned to worship in other eras and places might be surprised at where modern American worship leaders locate the reading of Scripture and the sermon in a service.

In the ancient fourfold worship structure, “Word” follows “Gathering.” Let’s be certain Scripture is fully present and driving our worship once we’ve gathered!

Hearing God’s word is the best way to encounter God routinely in a group setting. When a direct encounter with God occurs early in worship, the rest of worship happens in a highly focused manner.

Rearranging a church’s long-standing order of worship is usually a battle not worth fighting. But I do try to get worship leaders to think creatively about getting people’s minds on Scripture early in a service. Particular Bible stories, verses or themes should be the basis for each worship service, shaping its decorations, music and prayers.

Use of God’s written word to reveal God’s truth goes back to the earliest days of the Christian church, when the words we translate as “scripture” or “word of God” were references to the Jewish Bible, the writings we now group under the Old Testament.

Consider these references from letters that later became part of the New Testament:

2 Timothy 3:14-17: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

Hebrews 4:12-13: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

James 1:21-22: “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

In these verses, we see God’s word as living and powerful, something that flows through the pages of a Bible and into a reader. Open the Bible, use what is there, and you’ll find yourself equipped in new ways. God’s word will dissect you, exposing what is of God and not of God.

It will even implant itself in your soul, bringing you face to face with salvation through Jesus Christ. It’s no surprise that God’s word has long been the driving force behind worship.

Root worship in Scripture, and we encounter the Holy Spirit as a group, an experience that should always strengthen us.

Fail to root worship in Scripture, and I think it is safe to say we have not worshiped at all.

Lord, as we find ourselves denied worship in the way we most enjoy, help us to remain deep in your word, committing ourselves to it now and for the worship days to come. Amen.

Four Parts of Worship: Gathering

Devotional for Wednesday, May 27

We still don’t know when we will return to worship in our building, but I thought we could use the rest of this week to consider worship’s four big “parts.” Regardless of when and where we worship, we should have these stages in mind as we go before God.

Worship experts use different terms for these four parts of worship, but I like these: Gathering, Word, Celebration, and Sending Forth. We’ll begin today with gathering, of course.

The gathering time is perhaps the most confusing of the four, simply because many Christians don’t consider it part of worship at all. Much of it happens before we’ve officially “started.” When we neglect it, however, we’re like a traveler who begins a journey by tripping in the first few steps and cracking a kneecap. The rest of the journey will be painful, and the traveler may never reach the destination.

At the latest, the gathering should begin somewhere near the church lawn, before we ever enter the building. It begins as we ready ourselves for why we have come to this place—to encounter God, and join with others seeking to do the same.

Even in our current online environment, we need to ready ourselves for what we are doing. I turn on the technology about 20 minutes before our official start time for a reason. It helps us to see each other’s faces, greet each other, and know we remain a church.

If you’ll pause outside a church building for a moment and breathe, you’ll see there is so much designed to put you in the right frame of mind. The exterior design of Luminary UMC and many other church buildings is intended to point you toward God, to say to you, “Lift up your eyes! Look up!” We’re granted a moment of perspective, remembering  where we stand in relation to God.

If you’re blessed with church bells, as we are, the ringing is a call to the faithful and a reminder to the lost that something special is about to happen. And we’re particularly blessed at Luminary with beautiful grounds and a view. I’m often able to center myself before a worship service by walking outside.

You may have noticed that I said the gathering begins near the church lawn “at the latest.” I’m probably stretching the concept of gathering a little, but I would argue it begins long before we cross the church property line. Are you preparing yourself for worship through encounters with God during the week? Was your Saturday night an appropriate prelude to an encounter with God, including plenty of rest?

Once inside the sanctuary, the gathering continues as the service formally begins. Our individual readiness becomes a group readiness, and when we gather correctly, great things begin to happen. We feel it in the recitations and the singing. The prayers bind us together.

And we should expect great things. Just look at Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:19-20, words given to us very clearly in the context of church life: “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

God is present when we gather. Not only that, the holy decisions we make as a church align us with events in heaven.

When worship is properly understood, the question regarding church attendance should never be, “Am I going today?” Instead, it should be, “How will I prepare, and how will I ever leave?”

Lord, as we find ourselves denied worship in the way we most enjoy, help us to consider what it means to gather in your name. Amen.