Tie That Shoe

Throughout life, I think each person can identify times they have been tripped up. Some of these occurrences may be pretty dramatic and life changing, others are smaller in nature. A conversation taking a wrong turn may cause a person to stumble on their journey. It might be a financial decision which derails plans and goals. There are all types of ways to be tripped up in life.

Just as our plans and journey in life can include ways we trip up, our spiritual journey in life can also include times when we have been tripped up. As you read the stories and accounts in Scripture, you hear of individuals experiencing these encounters. David, who was to be the greatest king of Israel, was tripped up when he saw a beautiful woman bathing one day (see 2 Samuel 11). Jonah thought he knew what was right and what God should do about Nineveh (see the Book of Jonah). Looking out for one’s personal welfare while trying to give to others became the life plan for Ananias and Sapphira but was not right for the community of faith (see Acts 5). Even Jesus was tempted to trip up (see Matthew 4:1-11). There are many other examples throughout Scripture.

With all these ways to be tripped up, how do we protect ourselves from them? Whether it is financially, physically, relational, or spiritual, the untied shoes in life can cause us to stumble in small and large ways. Referring back to Jesus’ temptation mentioned above, I think we are given examples of ways to avoid those stumbling dangers. In addition to that, I think it is vital for us to have someone in our lives who can serve as guide and sounding board. Someone who we can discuss our triumphs, temptations, struggles, and falls.

What trips you up in life? How have you attempted to mediate those situations? Do you have someone who can help you avoid those trips?

The Struggle

I saw a person wearing a t-shirt which read, “The struggle is real.” After reading the words on the shirt, I began to ponder some questions. What is the struggle? Is it life? Is it a specific situation? Is it a project or task upon which effort is being made? Is it something spiritual? Is this in reference to an addiction? What exactly are we talking about here? Then I came to realize that the specifics are not what matters, what matters is the acknowledgment that for this person the struggle is real.

The truth is that all of us have struggles whether we declare it by wearing a t-shirt or if we keep them to ourselves. For some of us the struggles change over time. Others have a constant struggle like those dealing with addictions. There are times the struggle seems overwhelming. At different times we may even be able to manage the struggle and even overcome it. While facing whatever struggle is in our life, that struggle is completely real to us.

During his ministry, Jesus encountered many individuals who faced struggles. In the Bible, these struggles at times are verbalized in a spiritual sense using words which conjure up images of demons. An example of this is the man who is found naked in the graveyards outside of Gerasenes. Different stories of struggle are shared using words which create the idea of physical abnormalities. The man who was blind is an example of this imagery. In every one of the stories about Jesus encountering people with struggles, Jesus demonstrates a loving response. Jesus does not minimize their struggles but instead shows compassion, a willingness to listen, and provides for their needs. This example is one which can be very important as we strive to understand how to respond to the struggles of those around us.

Jesus also encountered struggles of his own. Stories of Jesus struggling to continuously minister to those around him are numerous throughout the Gospels. Jesus also struggles with the frustration of his message not being heard and understood by those with whom he speaks. The most poignant display of Jesus’ struggle is when he is in the olive trees on the Mount of Olives, the night of his arrest. The struggle is so intense that the author of Luke shares, “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:44) Again, Jesus gives us an example of what to do when our struggle seems so real, every time he would go to the Father in prayer.

Yes, the struggle is real, but Jesus provides examples of how to handle the struggle. Whether the struggle is someone else’s or our own, Jesus shows us the way.

The Chains

One of my favorite Christmas movies is A Christmas Carol. I prefer the version with George C Scott playing Scrooge. For me to feel like it is Christmas time, I have to watch this movie. I think the reason is this adaptation of Charles Dickens story speaks to the heart of Christmas, the attitude of giving and being set free from those chains which bind us from appreciating life.

As a Christian, this movie also reminds me of the breaking of chains which accompanied the work of the Lord. Jesus shared the love which God has for every person and gave us the opportunity to be free from the chains which prevents us from appreciating life. In his teachings and actions during his ministry, he worked at destroying the chains which society placed on people. He held leadership accountable for putting burdens of rules and expectations on the people. Jesus taught that love, not oppression, was the intention of God. He redefined social norms. He confronted boundaries established by the world. Jesus taught and demonstrated that God’s love provides freedom.

Every year when I see Marley come to warn Ebeneezer about the chains which he is forging in his life, I wonder about my chains. What is it that is forging the chain which I wear? How am I contributing to the forging of someone else’s chain? This can be a very humbling self-reflection. I always think of the lessons Scrooge learned from the three visitors as I am reflecting on how I live my life and the comparisons.

Then after some self-reflection and recommitting myself to work at providing a better reflection of God’s love, then I am reminded of the promise which I have received. The Lord has promised to remove those chains which bind me. I am set free in the Lord’s love and grace. All I have to do is reach out and accept it. Then my reflection of God’s love is a response and not a requirement. In order for Scrooge to reduce his chains, he had to change his life, his view of Christmas, and the way he treated others. The Lord takes away my chains even before I change my life.

What chains are you forging in your life? Have you allowed the Lord to remove those chains or are you still clinging to them? Are you responding to what the Lord has already done for you or do you think you still have to earn the removal of your chains?

Let the Lord remove your chains forever and enjoy the happiness of life and love!

Remove the Clog

Sometimes in life we encounter clogs. Drains and toilets clog for a variety of reasons. If you have dogs who shed, like we do, you often find that you have to deal with a vacuum which clogs because of all the dog hair it is picking up. Whatever the cause, clogs can be very frustrating and may require a large amount of effort to remove. As long as the clog is there, the flow of water, air, or other materials will be impeded.

Times in life occur when we are clogged. I had a pretty wicked cold at the end of the year and for a couple of weeks my breathing was hampered because of a clogged nose. The experience is actually what started my thought process around clogs. Realizing that I was continuously blowing my nose in an attempt to remove the clog, I began to think about how at times I can become spiritually clogged, congested so that nothing is flowing through me.

I have heard others express what I have felt at times. A person might talk about not being able to feel connected to the Lord. The individual may mention that there does not seem to be a sense of spiritual energy flowing through them at a given time. When I preached regularly and led worship, I would have times when I felt disconnected from the Lord and disengaged in some ways. There existed a hindrance of some sort.

During these periods of time, I had to pause myself to do some examination. Much like with a clogged drain, I had to determine what was the source of the clog. Only by understanding the source could I go about the task of unclogging it. After discovering the source and taking the proper action(s) to remove the clog, then I felt the Spirit flowing through me once again. I think this is vital for everyone. Self-examination done on a regular basis is necessary to discover and remove whatever may clog our lives and prevent the Spirit from freely flowing through us.

Have you ever felt that you might be spiritually clogged? Do you regularly check to determine if a clog, or even the start of a clog, exists in your life? Is the Spirit flowing through you unimpeded?

Cravings

I was in Starbucks the other day and on one of their signs said, “Feed your cravings.” The sign caused me to pause to consider the implications of what was written. Of course Starbucks was encouraging me to buy one of their specialty drinks but I began to think about other cravings and how they are fed.

One type of craving is for some specific food or flavor. Times occur when I have a craving for salty food. I want a snack that has salt detectably in it or on it. It might be popcorn or chips or peanuts. I go rummaging through cupboards at the house until I find an item which will take care of what I strongly desire. Other times I may crave not just a specific flavor but a specific food. I may be wanting a grilled hamburger with all the toppings. These cravings are pretty easily identified and often easily fed.

Another craving which may present itself but may not be as quickly satisfied has to do with human interaction. This may be a desire to have someone to hug and with whom you have physical contact. Or it could be the strong need to have an individual with whom you can talk. This craving usually requires more time to satisfy since it involves some level of relationship being established.

I am sure that you could list many other cravings that may need fed. Cravings for wealth. Cravings for fame. A craving to be noticed. All cravings require some level of effort to be satisfied. They may also require involvement of other individuals. If I followed what was on the Starbuck sign, after I made the decision to feed my special latte desire, I would still need a barista to prepare the drink so my craving could be fed.

There is one craving which we have been born with but is not always acknowledged. Each person has been born with a craving to find someone or something bigger than self. It is as if there is a hole inside us that needs something beyond us to fill it. I consider this to be our craving for God. We were designed to be integrated with God. The hunger for the divine nature is real. Many people attempt to feed this craving with aspects of this world but find that the fulfillment is not lasting and soon the craving returns. I think this is what often drives individuals to want something bigger or better than what they currently possess. The feeding of this craving with anything less than God is futile.

So yes Starbucks, I will feed my craving. I will feed it through daily conversation with the Lord. My feeding will include time spent reading Scripture and the writings of other Christians. Quiet times to reflect upon my relationship with God will be part of my effort to feed my craving.

How do you feed your craving for God? Are you even aware of this craving in your life? When have you attempted to feed the craving with something other than God?

The Force

Like many others over the last month, we went to Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker. I vividly remember seeing the very first Star Wars movie, “A New Hope,” when it came out. I saw it twice in the same week. Once was at a drive-in with my sister, brother-in-law and nephew. The other time was in a regular theater with my brother-in-law. I definitely have some favorites in the series which now spans over forty years.

As I have gotten older, I am amazed at how many correlations there are between the movie plot lines and theology. One of the most profound is in regard to the force. For anyone who for some strange reason does not know to what I am referring, the force exists throughout all creation and through this invisible entity the Jedi’s obtain the power to overcome evil and work good in the universe. This seems clear to me what I refer to in my faith as the Spirit.

In the very first movie, Luke Skywalker must be trained by Obi-Wan Knobi to sense the force and to use its power to achieve the missions which he is given. Throughout the first three movies, which are actually chapters four through six in the story, Luke learns more and more about who he is and how to benefit from the force. I see a correlation with the journey of a Christian. We need an experienced mentor like Obi-Wan to first introduce us to the Spirit and then guide us as we tap into the power and strength of the Spirit. This is a journey and along the journey we come to realize who we are and whose we are.

One significant difference between the storylines of the Star Wars series and our experience with the Spirit is that only select individuals seem to be able to fully harness the benefits of the force while the Spirit’s benefits are available to all people. There appears to be a hereditary connection among those who are able to utilize the force in full capacity. This is partly true when it comes to the Spirit also because we are heirs with Christ because all are children of God.

So let me recap the connections which I see between Star Wars and what I believe:

  • the force = the Holy Spirit
  • the need for a mentor/guide
  • the power and strength to achieve our mission in life
  • the benefits are linked to inheritance
  • family lineage = heirs with Christ

I encourage you to look for other connections between Star Wars story lines and Christian beliefs. In a galaxy far, far away, I may even share some other connections which I have found.

MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU

Achievement and Kindness

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

This quote comes from Jesus’ teaching which we have come to know as the Sermon on the Mount. The section of Matthew’s Gospel from chapter 5 through chapter 7 is usually considered to be the sermon which Jesus gave on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee. These verses are considered to be the underlying foundation for all of Jesus’ teaching. Included here are the “blessed” statements referred to as the Beatitudes, teachings on attitudes leading to actions, love for enemies, prayer (words of the Lord’s prayer found here), material possessions, worrying, judgment, and cautions regarding pitfalls. In the midst of all this we see guidance about what we should seek in life.

I began thinking about this passage after having read an article asking if showing kindness is a hindrance or aid to achievement. The author of the article cited some studies which were conducted to help determine the role of kindness in achievement. Many people view kindness as a hindrance to personal achievement because it shows weakness and a willingness to give versus striving to obtain. However, what the studies found was exactly the opposite. Those individuals who demonstrated kindness in their professional and personal lives, tended to reach a higher level of achievement.

My theory is that by extending kindness towards others, those who receive from your acts of kindness are more supportive of you reaching a goal, or set of goals, which you have set for yourself. They may even work to help you in obtaining what you seek. While those who view a person focused solely on themselves and not expressing kindness through words and actions, are less likely to attempt to support and work for the success of the individual.

This brings me back to the passage from Matthew 6. Here we are called by Jesus to seek those behaviors and attitudes which are within the character of God. From my reading of Scripture, it is clear to me that God intends for us to show kindness to one another. In the Old and New Testament, we are exhorted multiple times to show kindness to those who are oppressed, orphaned, or otherwise in a difficult situation in life. Jesus teaches that we are to show kindness not only to those who are similar to us and whom we like but also to our enemies. Kindness is definitely a component of the kingdom of God. Therefore, kindness is something which we should seek to demonstrate.

I am led to see the findings reported in the article which I read to be in coherence with the verse from Jesus’ sermon. By seeking God’s kingdom, through kindness, a person can obtain a higher level of achievement than using whatever methods will bring others down.

Spiritual Library

Every day when I take my daily walk, I walk past a playground area near my home. On one side of this playground is a little lender library which seem to be appearing throughout neighborhoods all across the country. These are a great addition to our neighborhoods. If you are not familiar with this concept, they are small wooden boxes with a door which has a glass inset and shelves. People place books they have already read into these and if a child or adult is looking for a book to read, they can go pick out one and take it home to read. People are encouraged to add a book if they take one and/or return the book after they are finished reading it. Some of these can be very creative in the size and shape which they take.

As I was walking today, I glanced over at the little lender library. A question came into my mind. If I were to create a lender library for someone wanting to grow in faith, what would I include?

When I designed curriculum for young individuals wishing to confirm their faith and be commissioned as members of the congregation, I had a list of items which I felt were important for them to know. I have never been a huge proponent on memorizing Bible verses or other faith documents but I thought there were a few vital pieces which required memorization. My goal was that if the person was ever in a situation where they needed guidance, one of these items might surface in their mind and be a tool which could be beneficial.

So here are the items which I found to be important and which I would include in my spiritual lender library:

  • A copy of the Lord’s Prayer – This prayer provides a template for those new to, or struggling with, prayer. It provides the basic focus of prayer and can be a launching pad to our own prayers.
  • A copy of the Apostles’ Creed – Like the Lord’s Prayer, this creed is a template for articulating a person’s faith. This can also serve as a summation of the beliefs which underlines the faith which has existed for centuries. Someone exploring what Christians believe can look at this creed for a basic understanding and a basis to start creating questions which can be explored with other believers and on their own.
  • A copy of Matthew 6 – So the person can understand where the basis for the Lord’s Prayer originates and place it in context.
  • A copy of Exodus 20 – Here a person can gain insight into what has come to be known as the Ten Commandments. These words provide a basis for how we are to respond to God and our relationship with God. Contained here also is the understanding we are to have regarding our relationships with other people in our lives.
  • A copy of Luke 15 – This chapter from Luke’s gospel contains the story of the prodigal son. This is a story of selfishness, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love. I find this story important enough to be one that if a person cannot remember anything else, this story is the one that remains. My reasoning is that we all experience times of wanting to break out on our own and explore possibilities. We make mistakes and choices that are not beneficial for us. We eventually realize that we need to return “home” and hopefully in a more humbled state than when we left. This story reminds us that our Lord stands waiting for that return. When we do return there is not judgment but instead an outpouring of love and reconciliation which is like attending a magnificent banquet in our honor.
  • A copy of Matthew 28 with verses 16 through 20 highlighted – For anyone wishing to know what a believer in Christ is supposed to do with their life, this passage answers the question. Frequently known as the Great Commission, this passage tells every person that in whatever way fits their skills and abilities, they are called to go and share their story along with what they have learned in their faith so far.
  • A copy of 1 Corinthians 11 with verses 23 through 26 highlighted – Here we find one copy of the words used in the institution of holy communion. Holy communion is one of the key sacraments in the Christian Church. Realizing that words used for this portion of a worship service were randomly chosen but have their basis in Scripture helps to strengthen their meaning.
  • A copy of Matthew 22 with verses 24 through 40 highlighted – Jesus’ response to the question of “what is the greatest commandment?” is found in these verses. Christianity is often given the same criticism which is applied to Judaism – it is just about rules. In Jesus’ response, it is made clear that our faith is not about following rules as much as it is about loving God and loving one another.

This would be the start of my spiritual lender library. What would you place in yours?

The Valley

Recently I was considering a very familiar psalm, Psalm 23. Like many others, I memorized this psalm as part of my Christian education when I was young. I will admit that I did not understand, or even think about the words in this psalm when I memorized it. Also like many, I came to know it as the psalm which had a sole purpose of being used when someone died. As I grew older and became better educated regarding this psalm, I have found that it serves more of a purpose than being a funeral psalm. I am considering writing a series of posts which explore the words of Psalm 23. However, my recent focus is on this phrase — “the valley of the shadow of death.”

Usually when we hear this phrase as the psalm is read, we associate it with the act of dying. For many of us this means a physical death. I do not disagree with this interpretation. I do think that there is more which can be considered here than solely physical death. One additional interpretation which I have been pondering is applying this phrase to periods of depression. The word which leads me to this interpretation is “shadow.” Depression can impact a person in similar ways to death.

Depression is a very real aspect of life. There is not one individual who has not experienced depression in some form over their lifetime. These experiences usually come and go at various times. From my own experience, I would say that when I have been in a period of depression, I felt as if my very life was being sucked out of me. I have no energy, no joy, no motivation. I felt like I am living in a shadow. I view these time periods as living in a valley, a valley which is dark and gloomy.

I am fortunate that I am able to climb out of the valley, out of the period of depression. This happens due to my having an excellent support system, especially my husband. Unfortunately, many individuals do not have a strong support system. Others have an outstanding support system but out of fear do not reach out and honestly share their depression with members of that group. Sometimes living in the valley of the shadow of death leads them to view physical death as the best way out of the valley. They feel alone and isolated even when they are surrounded by loving and supportive individuals. This is not because they are weak or selfish, in fact, they are usually the opposite of these traits.

One of my truths which has been a comfort and provides assistance during these times of depression is found in the words of the psalm following the above phrase: “I will fear no evil for you are with me, your rod and staff comfort me.” I am reminded that I am never alone. I am not alone when life is going smoothly, and I am not alone when the shadow overwhelms me in the valley. The strength of the Lord (rod and staff) sustains me when I am feeling weak.

Depression is very real. Depression is not a sign of weakness or inability, it is an emotion in life that accompanies difficult situations as a person perceives them. The psalmist knew and understood this, in fact, probably was experiencing this. My message for anyone experiencing depression is to realize a few truths:

  • You are not the only one to experience this.
  • You are not the only one who has ever gone through what you are currently going through.
  • You are never alone because the Lord is in the valley with you.
  • You have people around you who are desiring more than anything to be supportive and present without judgment.
  • The valley is not the whole but a part and there will be times that you can stand atop the nearby mountain which has formed part of the valley.

If you think someone might be struggling with depression, the most important thing that you can do is to be present in a nonjudgmental way. Listen without giving advice. Love without expecting anything. Show them how the Lord is with you in whatever you are experiencing.

Maybe you will look at Psalm 23 a little differently today.

Joining Together

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

This poem speaks of our connectedness as humans. When we were created, humans were created to be social creatures. We are intended to interact with one another. We build each other up, support each other, challenge each other, and strengthen each other. We are also capable of tearing each other down, abandoning each other, attacking each other, and weakening each other. The reality is what Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” and “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (See Matthew 25)

I thought of this poem and our interconnectedness when I was pondering the value of Christian fellowship. Often when we hear this term, our minds go to that designated time before or after a worship service when individuals gather for coffee, snacks and possibly some conversation. While these are important social gatherings, this does not fully present the concept of Christian fellowship.

Christian fellowship is about interconnectedness among those who follow Christ. In actuality, it extends beyond just followers of Christ but for this post I wish to focus on the concept in regard to a group of followers. Being in fellowship with one another is paramount to faith formation and growth.

A person can believe in God and the revelation of God in Jesus Christ without being engaged in a Christian fellowship. A person can also worship God without being engaged in Christian fellowship. I am sure you have heard individuals say, “I can worship God on the golf course, lake, or hiking down a trail.” That is a very true statement and should be encouraged. A person can be a Christian without ever becoming actively involved in fellowship. However, a person cannot experience the full potential of faith formation and growth without being actively involved. I would also say that the person who chooses not to be engaged in this manner, loses the opportunity to experience the fullness of Christ while sojourning on earth.

Spiritual matters are difficult for us to understand. The truth is that we never fully understand all the intricacies of our spiritual self and our spiritual beliefs. Attempting to sort through these weighty aspects alone can lead to disappointment and discouragement. God never intended us to do this alone. As social beings, we were expected to engage with difficult spiritual matters along with others. We see this expectation established throughout the Old and New Testaments shared with us from the beginning with Adam, through the diaspora, and throughout the ministry of Jesus. This pattern is continued in the stories of Acts and in the letters of Paul along with letters from other spiritual leaders in the early church. We NEED one another to wade through our questions, trod through the muck of life, and determine what we truly believe.

In addition to seeking out answers to our questions, Christian fellowship provides a support system. Life is not easy. There are times when we experience difficulties which can seem impossible to overcome alone. As Christians, we come to believe that during those difficult times, Christ remains beside us and walks along the path with us. The physical manifestation of that belief is found in the fellowship of Christians. When a fellow believer provides a listening ear, a shoulder to cry upon, or other type of support, it is Christ reaching into our lives. I personally have experienced this truth multiple times in my own life. I have also witnessed the challenges which individuals who are not engaged in Christian fellowship experience during their difficult times. These challenges seem to multiply whatever struggles they are experiencing. The opposite exists when a person is part of the Christian fellowship. While the difficulties do not go away, the burden is easier to manage.

We were created to be connected, not an island. As followers of Christ, we were intended to be in fellowship with one another. While at times it is necessary to take a sabbath from Christian fellowship, it should never be a regular state of being for us. Christian fellowship is vital to a healthy faith.