God is always there…

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Psalm 139: 7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. 

There are two things that strike me about this passage. First, there are the theological implications of the text. Here’s a note I wrote about this text some years ago:

There is no where we go where God is not. Even in the dark places, God is there. This is exceptional because in ancient days it was often understood that gods only had power in the geographical area where they were worshipped. Hence, when one went far from the place where a god was worshipped, the god would have little or no power. Our God is different in that his power extends to all places. Geographical distance is of no consequence to the God who created heaven and earth.

This is one way of articulating how our God is above all gods on earth and in heaven, for there is only one true God.

The second thing that strikes me is more pastoral than theological. It is comforting to know that our God is always present, even in the dark places, even in the dark times when I feel utterly alone. I am never truly alone. Ever. Nor are you, brothers and sisters in Christ. We would do well to remember that today.

Heavenly Father thank you for your presence with us now and always. Give us grace that we might discern your presence somehow, in a tangible way. Let that be a comfort to those struggling with a sense of loneliness of abandonment. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Finding God’s purpose for you…

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Psalm 138:8 The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.

There are promises mentioned here which the psalmist clings to. There is the refrain “your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever”. God’s love can be counted upon, in good times and bad times. It “endures forever”, which means it’s not even limited to this life but carries into eternity. What I find interesting is the particular way God’s love is expressed in the psalm, “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me”.

It strikes me how specific this statement is. The purpose to be fulfilled is God’s purpose, not my purpose or yours. We were not created to serve ourselves, to fulfill our own desires, to achieve our own objectives. Over a lifetime I’ve learned not to confuse the two.

I was talking with a good friend the other day and was telling this person all the plans I had for myself when I was a young man. In high school I thought I would be an engineer like my dad. I was pretty good at math and science, so why not? Then before high school graduation I changed to the pursuit of a medical career like my mom. Hence, as a college freshman my major was biology, thinking I would eventually go to med school. After a year of this I realized I wasn’t cut out to be like my mother or father. I needed to find my own way rather than imitate others.

I’d been working part-time for a couple of years in a small business and realized I liked business a lot. It was interesting. I was pretty good at it, so I changed my major to marketing, which is what my undergraduate degree is in. However, as a college junior I got the idea of going into law. I’m not sure where that idea came from, but it stuck so I prepared to enter law school after undergraduate studies. Took the entrance exams and such and was admitted to law school my last semester as an undergrad. Okay, fine.

But in the end that didn’t feel right either. So I went to work in business instead. 

As you can tell I was all over the map, unsure of what I was supposed to do with my life. About the time I graduated from college, beginning work in corporate America, I was starting to get connected to the church for the first time as an adult. The more time I spent in the church the more it became apparent this was God’s purpose for me. Not engineering or medicine or law or business, but ministry as a vocation. So in my late 20’s I entered seminary and have never looked back. I’ve never doubted if this is my purpose because it so clearly is. God’s grace has been in evidence.

I think a lot of us spend years trying to fulfill our own purposes only to be disappointed. Today’s passage may give us a reason why it doesn’t work out. God created us with his purposes in mind. When we align our pursuits with God’s purposes for us things fall into place. Doesn’t mean life becomes easy, quite the opposite. God often calls us to do really hard things. But there is grace in it. There is satisfaction and peace which can only come from God.

Question: What are God’s purposes for you? Are you living into them? Why or why not?

Heavenly Father, give us grace to discern your purposes for us. Then give us obedience to follow where you lead. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Hanging in there when you want to give up…

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Psalm 139: 1 I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise; 2 I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness; for you have exalted your name and your word above everything. 3 On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.

This psalm begins like many psalms of Thanksgiving. The writer was in need and God responded. What interests me this morning is HOW God responded. Look again at v.3:

“On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.”

Usually, when God responds to a cry for help, there is a visible/material outcome that results. Enemies are defeated in battle. Sick people are healed. Drought or famine are broken. In this case, however, the results were more internal than external “you increased my strength of soul”. The writer experienced a change, a strengthening… on the inside. In his soul. In the deepest most intimate part of his being. Even if nothing on the outside changed, this internal change… changes everything. There is hope and peace and perseverance to carry on.

Most of you know I’ve been a pastor for many years now. It’s interesting to me the connection between a person’s internal strength and one’s capacity to recover from illness. Over the years I’ve encountered people whose diagnosis was grim, yet they survived because they fought. They prayed. By the grace of God, they practically willed themselves to survive.

On the other hand I’ve known people whose illness was not nearly as serious, yet they didn’t last long because they had no strength, no will to live. One’s internal state can make a huge difference in the outcomes of life, particularly in times of crisis and loss.

My sense about the author of this psalm is that he was at the end of his rope. His strength was waning. His capacity to fight back almost gone – but then God did something. God increased his “strength of soul” and he survived the ordeal. It’s as if God lifted him onto his back and carried him to life.

In closing I’ll share the words of a poem called “Footprints in the Sand”, which many of you will find familiar. Some of you feel like you’re walking alone right now during some of the most difficult days ever. You find yourself running out of strength to keep up the fight, to hang in there during a tough time. You find yourself wanting to give up. Let the words of today’s psalm and this poem minister to you today:

One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the LORD. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene he noticed two sets of
footprints in the sand: one belonging to him, and the other to the LORD. When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand.

He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life. This really bothered him and he questioned the LORD about it:

“LORD, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why when I needed you most you would leave me.”

The LORD replied: “My son, my precious child, I love you and I would never leave you.
During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints,
it was then that I carried you.”

Amen.

Footprints author: Carolyn Joyce Carty

For his steadfast love endures forever…

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Psalm 136:1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. 2 O give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever… 10 who struck Egypt through their firstborn, for his steadfast love endures forever; 11 and brought Israel out from among them, for his steadfast love endures forever; 12 with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, for his steadfast love endures forever… 16 who led his people through the wilderness, for his steadfast love endures forever… 21 and gave their land as a heritage, for his steadfast love endures forever…

This is such a lovely psalm extolling God with the refrain “for his steadfast love endures forever”. I edited the passage above to communicate the gist of the entire psalm but if you have time you should go back and read the entire thing. What strikes me about this psalm is the sanitized version of history it presents to the hearer.

If you’ve read the book of Exodus (and Leviticus and Numbers and so on) you know the story is much messier than this psalm. As God was liberating the Israelites from Egypt, leading them through the wilderness, and helping them occupy a new homeland – there was death and misery and chaos and conflict between God and the people. There were times when God considered killing every one of them – man, woman, and child! It got ugly. People suffered and died by the thousands. But, yes, eventually God delivered on the promise to bring the Israelites to a new home.

But this is how the human mind often works, isn’t it? With the passing of time, the memories of pain and loss and suffering diminish to be replaced with a longer term view of events including more of the good than bad. Well, that’s what we often hope for. But for some people that is very difficult indeed.

For some people the pain and loss of the past is so significant, and the hurt so deeply felt, the heaviness of it all never leaves. It’s there like a millstone around peoples necks holding them back from happiness in the present or future. This is never more true than during the holiday season, perhaps the most difficult time of year for people who are in a time of struggle. Seems like the holidays bring into sharp relief the shortcomings and deficiencies in our relationships. Estrangement from family and friends is hard to ignore. Trust me when I say there are plenty of broken places in my relationships as I expect is true of you. It’s part of the human condition.

That said, I’m praying that maybe I can take the posture of the psalmist this holiday season, letting the pain and loss recede to be replaced with celebration and gratitude for our God… for his steadfast love endures forever. Amen.

What’s with the white stone?

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Revelation 2:12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword: 13 “I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives… To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it. 

Sometimes there are things in scripture I do not understand. Like today. What’s with the “white stone” at the end of the passage? I had to look that up.

Apparently in ancient times one way an accused was notified of a verdict was via the giving of a stone. A black stone indicated guilt, but a white stone indicated innocence. What the passage for today is telling us is that persons who endure persecution or hardship in Jesus’ name will be given a white stone. They will be found innocent on the day of judgment.

That’s one of the key promises of the gospel. We, who are sinful people, will be found innocent on the day of judgment – not because of our own righteousness but because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross. If you’re like me and are very aware of your sin and brokenness, let this be a word of encouragement today.

 

Oh Lord, who can stand?

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Psalm 130:1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. 2 Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! 3 If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? 4 But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.

This morning my mind goes to verse 3. It’s a simple truth. If the Lord would deal with people according to their righteousness or iniquity, we’d all be toast. No one is righteous, not even one.

As you can imagine, given recent events at a church in south Texas, there’s been heightened interest in church security. We’ve organized a team of people to look into the matter and bring recommendations back to the church council for action. The fact that we’re having this conversation in the first place is really sad. I’m not sure if the world around us is really more violent than before or if we’re just hearing about it more readily, but perhaps it’s both. In any event there are definitely people who are bent on death and destruction. They are “bad” people in many of our eyes.

I think the psalmist reminds us of an important truth. We’re all bad people. We all bear iniquities, sins, shortcomings, areas of our lives not submitted to God. But then there’s the hope of verse 4 “But there is forgiveness with you…”. Thanks be to God, for Jesus’ sake, we may be cleansed from all unrighteousness.

Lord, let it be so.

Amen.