On the Verge

Elijah_and_the_Angel


Devotional for Monday, March 23

1 Kings 19:1-8: Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.


Particularly in stressful times like these, we sometimes are going to feel down. We may get so down that we think we cannot get back up. If we recognize that reality, our chances of coping will improve dramatically.

Our verses above are just a small part of a long story in 1 Kings about a struggle between God’s prophet Elijah and the idolatrous Queen Jezebel. Here’s the irony: Elijah’s fear and ultimate collapse occurred right after a great victory over the Jezebel-sponsored prophets of Baal.

It’s not as strange as it sounds. Elijah had been caught up in what was, for all practical purposes, a war. There was a ritual battle to call down fire from the sky. That, and the slaughter that followed, left him as vulnerable as any soldier who has just experienced combat.

“The greatest danger is the moment of victory,” said Napoleon Bonaparte of the mental fatigue and malaise that occur when soldiers have fought and then suddenly stop. Even winning doesn’t counter the collapse that can follow.

Overwhelmed by mere threats, Elijah ran, but in running, he did one thing right. He cried out to God. The prayer was as simple and inappropriate as “take away my life,” but at least the prophet knew to call on God. And instead of death, he received grace in the form of angel cake and water, allowing him to be restored and continue his ministry.

If you find yourself down, even collapsed, cry out to God with whatever is on your heart. Grace will come—after all, we worship the God who poured out saving grace, the kind of grace that allows us to keep going for all eternity.

Lord, we are a broken people, but restore us our lives so we may serve you well. Amen.

 

Be Still …

crow


Devotional for Saturday, March 21

Jeremiah 17:7-8: Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.

A familiar morning blesses us in ways that barely can be captured in words. But I’ll try.

I awake this morning in the same neighborhood where I spent most of my childhood, just one house away from the home where my father still lives. The sky is gray and misty, but the air is alive with sound. The same old crow caws just before sunrise. As the sky lightens, the same doves make their rain song, and their little songbird friends join them.

They cannot be the same. I remember birds from 40 years ago. At best, they are the oh-so-great grandchildren of what was there before. And yet, they are the same, as is the train passing in the distance, pulling the hill toward downtown Jonesborough, rumbling and blowing its low horn.

There is great comfort in the familiar. For those of us raised in church, we find a similar comfort in the stories we first learned from flannel board cutout characters clinging to their fuzzy backgrounds: Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, David and Goliath, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Jesus in the Manger, Jesus on the Cross, the Stone Rolled Away.

On any morning, wherever we are, whatever the situation, we have familiar places we can go simply by revisiting those stories. And if those stories are new to you—well, trust me, regardless of your age, they and all the stories surrounding them can become as familiar as any home place. 

In them, we are reminded God’s love is unchanging, even as the world seems to shift under our feet. May we all seek the Lord and find many good mornings to come.

Lord, thank you for the moments of blessed peace you continually offer us.


Image courtesy Ninel S, Pixabay

Let’s Make a Prayer

list


Devotional for Friday, March 20

Philippians 4:4-7: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

We’ve all experienced worry at some point in our lives, but I think it is safe to say more of us than usual are feeling an extended kind of anxiety right now. Isolation is hitting many of us hard. Many of our businesses and investments seem in jeopardy, and we fear any light we see in the tunnel is an oncoming train.

God has a lot to say about worry, of course. The Big Guy, with his big-picture, outside-time-and-creation view, tells us repeatedly through prophets, disciples and even the Messiah to fear not, to stop worrying. And when we grasp the big picture, we see why God is able to say this. The hard work is done—Jesus has died on the cross for our sins, and his resurrection is a foretaste of what we will experience.

None of that is to deny, however, that we are little people who perceive our lives to be lived out in one tiny brush stroke on God’s vast canvas. And we worry. So God gave us ways to seek comfort.

Let’s not simply talk today about the greatest tool God has given us, prayer. As a church, let’s join together in prayer. Let’s build a prayer list, and let’s pray over it as we see it grow.

If you’re reading this on the website, at the bottom of this devotional you’ll see either a link saying “Leave a comment,” or an actual comment box. If you’re reading from the automated email that went out, you’ll see a comment button at the bottom.

However you get to the comment section, enter your prayer requests there. We will see those build through the day. FYI, you may not see your prayer appear right away; I have to approve comments before they go on the site. I’ll check regularly for new comments, though.

You check back regularly to read them, too. And throughout the day, pray about what you see!

Lord, as we pray, may our anxieties be transformed to hope and joy. Amen.

A Time to …

Devotional for Thursday, March 19

Hear these words from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, verses 1 through 8:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

 

Or maybe you prefer to hear it from the Byrds:



“A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing” particularly leaps out.  Remember the bigger message: time passes, and the times do change.

Praise God for joining us in time and space through Jesus Christ, saving us from sin for all eternity and sustaining us through the Holy Spirit in whatever time we find ourselves.

Lord, as we move through our day today, may your Spirit lead us so we turn others’ lives toward what is better. Amen.

 

Homebound Simulator

goggles


Devotional for Wednesday, March 18

Matthew 25:37-40: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

In 2018, as my father’s wife experienced a deeper slide into dementia, I had the opportunity to participate in an “Alzheimer’s simulator,” along with my dad and daughter.

We wore goggles to distort our vision and headphones playing multiple radio tracks to simulate auditory hallucinations. We slipped on rubber gloves filled with birdseed to replicate tactile difficulties, and we also had birdseed in our shoes. We took turns entering a room, where we were given a short list of simple tasks.

My dad went in with my daughter. A stranger—pity the poor woman—had to go in with me.

Once she and I were properly attired and inside, the instructor gave us a list of simple tasks to perform. Mine involved finding a t-shirt and a tie and putting them in their proper places, among other activities I would quickly forget. The instructor then turned out the light and closed the door.

My first goal was to obtain some light, so I could at least use my impaired vision a little. I fumbled around the room, trying to approximate where a light switch would be. I found it and flipped it.

“You’re not supposed to turn on the light!” the woman cried.

“She didn’t say we couldn’t turn on the light. A person with Alzheimer’s might try to turn on the light!” I replied. I was surprised at how quickly we raised our voices; of course, we were already hearing voices, so who was saying what quickly got confusing.

“You’re not supposed to turn on the light!” she repeated, this time more staccato. She yanked open the door, having found it a lot faster than I had found the light switch. “Are we supposed to turn on the light?” she called out.

The instructor came in. “Don’t turn on the light,” she said, turning it off. I did not find even one item, and I was—let’s see, what’s a really polite word—peeved. I blame my exaggerated response on the stress of the simulator, but I fear I am going to be a really grumpy old man.

It’s one thing to try to care for chronically suffering people. It’s another thing entirely to experience even a little of what they deal with all day.

When Jesus ties our judgment to how we have cared for the suffering, two of the needy types in the scene he creates, the prisoners and the sick, have something in common. They are physically trapped, unable to go anywhere.

As we restrict our movements more and more during this COVID-19 crisis, I feel like I am in a simulator again. I will not call it a good experience, but for those of us trying to live the Christian life, it could prove to be an important experience, one that generates new levels of empathy.

I eventually got to leave the room, take off the goggles, headphones and gloves, and shake the birdseed out of my shoes. We eventually will resume normal lives, going where we want and doing what we want.

Others will remain bound to a place, however, possibly for the rest of their lives. Having simulated what they face every day, perhaps we will find ourselves more mindful about reaching out to them.

Lord, keep the prisoners and the chronically homebound in our thoughts, and help us use the tools we have available to us to offer them your love and comfort. Amen.

Decisions Made in Love

Devotional for Tuesday, March 17

Matthew 7:12: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

In my nearly 18 years of pastoral ministry, I have sat and prayed with families making life-and-death decisions, the kind of decisions for which there are no clear answers. Often, they have turned to me for guidance.

Should we remove the ventilator or the feeding tube? Should we have the doctors start the ventilator or feeding tube? How far should we go in treating our grandfather’s cancer when he already has dementia?

I’ve boiled my answer down as much as possible. In these gray areas, whatever decision you make in love for that person is the right decision. There’s no doubt Jesus established the Golden Rule with love as its context. He rooted this maxim in “the law and the prophets,” and then later, in Matthew 22:34-40, he used the same phrase in this conversation:

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

As I’ve watched (on social media) and listened to debates about whether churches should be closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has struck me that we should be applying Golden Rule principles to this decision-making process.

Reading Bishop Virginia Taylor’s recent letter, there is no doubt in my mind that she made her initial decision to mandate temporary church building closures out of love for people she has, for the most part, never met.

I should also note that before our bishop made it clear she was mandating and not simply recommending closure, the leadership of Luminary UMC decided we should close our building. I know these good people were acting in love, too. During my nearly six-year tenure, I have seen love is their primary motivation in most everything they do.

Confusion and even hostility around the subject of church closure have arisen because the current situation forces us to be counterintuitive. In our normal world, Christians best express love in person, in a handshake and a hug, in kind words closely spoken, and in the fellowship of worship.

COVID-19 weirdly inverts what we call normal. Right now, there’s even a possibility the virus is spread by people who show no symptoms, meaning it is very difficult for people at risk to tell which people in their vicinity might be a danger. Out of love, a lot of us have decided that in addition to prayer, it is a good idea to practice social distancing to parry this particular weapon of the devil.

I’ll not criticize those who lovingly decide to gather in person for worship. To close or not to close is a complicated decision. Simultaneously, I expect Christian courtesy and respect to be shown to those who shut down their facilities for a while.

I will repeat a point I’ve been making already: Church is more than a building where people meet at a particular time on a particular day. Properly understood, a church is a holy force in the community. I already see the people of Luminary rallying to serve the at-risk in our community without endangering them.

They are loving their neighbors as they would hope to be loved if the situation were reversed. And I am quite proud of them.

Lord, may we pause throughout the day and pray, “Are my decisions motivated by love?”

Survival Plans

survival-bible


Devotional for Monday, March 16

Matthew 24:1-2: Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

We’re not yet sure how seriously this COVID-19 virus will impact us in Tennessee, but there’s no doubt it has triggered our survival instincts.

There are a couple of ways to respond to serious threats in the world. There’s always the stereotypical “lone wolf” approach: Stock up on food and ammo (and apparently, toilet paper) and hunker down for a fight. But today, I want us to consider how a healthy church community serves as a key part of any survival plan.

With COVID-19 affecting everyday life so drastically, planning for worst-case scenarios doesn’t seem so kooky right now. We don’t like to think about disasters that very well may never happen in our lifetimes, particularly when we live in a relatively secure environment with easy access to water, food and heat. Serious events do happen, though.

Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve volunteered or even been employed to work in the aftermath of a natural disaster, and you’ve seen how quickly modern urban areas like New Orleans and San Francisco can spend days, weeks or even months without basic necessities.

Human-caused disasters can wreak even more long-term havoc. For example, in 1984, Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, was modern and peaceful enough to host the Winter Olympic Games. By 1992, however, the Bosnian War was underway, and the city came under siege for four years. Its residents went from being model citizens of eastern Europe to constant targets of sniper fire as they ran about trying to buy a little bread.

And of course, we will never forget Sept. 11, 2001.

I’m not trying to make us feel more scared. It’s just a reality that the brokenness of the world can intrude anywhere, and people can be left struggling in the wake of such events.

Jesus was very open about what a hard place the world can be, and near the end of the Gospel of Matthew, in chapter 24, he is quoted as speaking in apocalyptic tones.

“And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars,” Jesus said. “See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.” (Matthew 24:6-8)

Hearing Jesus’ words as a child must have affected me. Since I was a boy, I have enjoyed reading books and magazines on survival skills. I suppose there’s something comforting in thinking you might know how to start a fire and make water clean enough to drink under difficult circumstances.

I ran across an interesting magazine, “Living Ready,” a few years ago. Within was one of the best survival articles I’ve ever read, mostly because the author went in a different direction than what you usually find in such a magazine.

In the article, Dr. Kyle Ver Steeg contrasted the stereotype of the lone survivalist in the “Army Guy” costume to the reality of how people actually survive difficult situations. He drew heavily on his experience working in Haiti shortly after the massive earthquake that struck there in 2010.

To prepare for a long-term survival situation, “I am of the opinion that the single most important thing you can do is to build a network of trustworthy, capable and likable people,” Ver Steeg wrote. “I would add that you should also work on becoming a part of your community and to develop skills that will be useful to your particular group.”

Later in the article, he made this particularly pertinent point: “If you are a churchgoing person you already have such a network in place. Think about it for a second. Churches already have leaders and a community of like-minded people with varied skills. They are used to working together to accomplish goals. Many churches already do mission work in desolate areas of the world. These people have knowledge and experience that some of the most survival-minded people do not.”

It makes sense, doesn’t it? In a crisis, relying on the relationships and shared skills we’ve been developing for years in church should be a natural response. Think what we have at Luminary alone: medically trained people, soldiers, scientists, engineers, food-handling experts, logistical experts—that’s just a quick start to a very long list. And in the midst of all that, we have Scripture as our guide and the Holy Spirit to sustain us.

As disruptive as COVID-19 is, perhaps there’s an opportunity here. By the time we get through all of this, we may have a better understanding of just how valuable our community of Christians is, and perhaps we will be better equipped to work in this sin-broken world.

Lord, may we sense how we are part of something bigger than ourselves when we gather as a church. Amen.