Give Thanks

Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors. Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.

Observe the commands of the Lord your God, walking in obedience to him and revering him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.

10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.

Deuteronomy 8:1-10

Today our nation pauses to give thanks for all the abundance and positive aspects of our lives, This particular year has been a very difficult one for our nation and our world. The global pandemic has touched every one of us in some manner. In addition to the effects of the virus, we have witnessed all forms of disasters. The economy has taken a heavy hit with a record number of unemployed and hundreds of small businesses, and even some long-existing corporations, closing or declaring bankruptcy. Our country has experienced violence, protests, and a very contentious election cycle. This year’s events could easily cause people to ask what there is to be thankful for as we reflect. Yet we are not the first group to encounter a year of significant hardship and pain. Folklore indicates that after a year of death and great hardships in the New World, a surviving group of Puritan settlers held a festival of thanksgiving in their new land. The story even includes an invitation to Native Americans who had provided the newcomers with skills that aided in their survival. These settlers gave thanks for what they had been given which allowed them to live.

In today’s  passage, the Israelites are preparing to arrive in a land which God had promised them. Moses speaks to them about their journey through the wilderness. He reminds them of all which God had done for them during this leg of their journey. He tells them to keep God’s commands as a response of thanks to God. Then Moses speaks to the people about their entrance into a land full of abundance. Again, he tells them to keep God’s commands in this new land. He instructs them to offer praise to God for this land of abundance once they have been filled. They had experienced many years of hardship and God provided during those years. They would experience a land of great abundance which God has provided now. Moses makes it clear that God’s giving in both situations should give reason for the people to offer thanks both in praise and in action.

Now we pause for one day, like many generations before us in this land and others throughout the world. During this year’s hardships, God has provided. Through people reaching out to assist during a natural disaster, God provides. In the dedicated service of healthcare workers, emergency responders, teachers, grocery store employees, delivery drivers, restaurant employees, and countless others, God provides. The hundreds of researchers and health science departments who have worked tirelessly for answers, God provides. This is when we must take time to reflect on God’s abundance and offer our thanks in praise and action.  We have even more reason to do so when life is difficult. 

Be Careful

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.[a] A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.

When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 11 How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Matthew 16:1-12 (NIV)

One of the blessings and curses of the time in which we live is the internet. With the introduction of the worldwide web and search engines, we have all types of information available to us almost instantaneously. Being able to search for answers to our questions and having access to all kinds of news from throughout the globe is indeed a blessing. The curses with this are the overload of information bombarding us every second of the day, and the accuracy of the information and news we receive. Human bias and interpretation are always at play. Even media outlets which used to be reliable sources of information insert opinion and slants to all of their reporting these days. But as we see in the verses from Matthew today, this danger is nothing new.

Jesus has another exchange with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They are clamoring for a sign which they hope to use against him. He refuses because he tells them they cannot even understand the signs which are now before them. Then leaving in a boat with his closest disciples, Jesus gives a warning to the disciples to be careful of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The disciples misinterpret Jesus’s warning because they are focused on the bread which they forgot. After Jesus addresses their worry, he reiterates his warning. Now the disciples understand that the yeast which Jesus mentioned in his warning was actually the teachings and information. The ability of this information to change and inflate a person’s thinking can be a problematic influence.

There is a lot of information readily available in the world today. In the midst of all that information is truth and lies. The warning which Jesus gave the disciples is even more important for us today. We have witnessed how information can impact the way people think and act. When this information is designed to mislead or misinterpret, it can have a damaging result. Jesus’s warning reminds us to be cautious when receiving information. Know the source of the information. Crosscheck what you read or hear. Discuss the information with others, especially some who have a different point of view. If what you are receiving is in regard to faith and theology, make sure that it is in agreement with what you understand to be the nature of the Lord. Heed Jesus’s warning today and take the time to be cautious.

Citizenship

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

15 All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Philippians 3:12-21

Election Day has arrived in the United States. Many voters have cast their votes prior to today through absentee, mail-in, or early voting. Today is when those votes, along with the ones from people who go to the polls today, are added together to determine who has been elected. This year we vote not only for senators, representatives, county officials, judges, and city officials but also for the President of the United States. There is uncertainty this year if we will know the winner of the election or not tonight. No matter what, it is the duty and responsibility of every citizen to participate in the election by voting. If you are reading this when the polls are still open in your area and you have not cast your ballot, stop reading and go do so right now. If you have already voted, thank you.

In the passage today from Philippians, Paul speaks of being citizens of heaven. He tells us that this citizenship has been obtained through Christ.  Paul reminds us that we should turn our heads from what is behind us. Our faces should be toward what lies ahead. We should set the goal of striving after Christ’s example. Some will focus on what they can obtain now, on earth. Paul encourages us to reach for what is obtainable with our heavenly citizenship.

On this day when our citizenship in the United States is front and center, Paul’s words speak important ideas to us. Being reminded that we have citizenship in heaven puts our earthly one in proper perspective. With citizenship comes responsibility. Our citizenship in the United States carries a core responsibility as well, exercising our right to vote. Our heavenly citizenship gives us the responsibility to follow the example of Christ.  As we complete the election cycle, Paul’s reminder to look ahead is important. We cannot change the past nor can we change the results of the election so we need to move forward. In our moving forward we can work on changing opinions as God guides us, this may result in changing our own opinions at times. No matter if the election goes the way you desire or not, never forget that we are all citizens of the United States and more importantly, citizens of heaven.

No Division

22 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

29 “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

30 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

Matthew 12:22-32

On June 16, 1838 after accepting the nomination to be the Republican candidate for the United States Senator from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech addressing slavery. Lincoln said in the speech, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” The speech became known as the “House Divided” speech which would later be published and quoted often. Lincoln lost that particular election.

It is clear that Abraham Lincoln knew his Bible. The words he used as part of his speech were the exact words Jesus used in his response to the Pharisees. The Pharisees were accusing Jesus of using the power of Beelzebul to cast out demons. Jesus points out the absurdity of that claim because if true, Satan’s house would be divided against itself. He even goes on to imply that the Pharisees words could be seen as blasphemy against the Spirit which is the only unforgivable sin.

Today we live in a world of great division, especially in the United States. We are in the process of electing the leadership of our nation. I think that all current and potential leaders in the government and in our churches would benefit from examining Jesus’s and Lincoln’s words once again, or maybe for the first time. A divided house, country, or church cannot stand long. Division breeds hate and hate leads to destruction. As absurd as the claim of the Pharisees which would mean division in evil’s house, division in our homes, nation and churches is equally absurd. Division breeds all things contrary to the love of God. We need to commit to healing the divide and demand it of our leaders.

Like a Child

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:25-30 (NIV)

This year our country was reminded that even though it has been 157 years since President Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation, the issue of race equality in the United States is not resolved. We have witnessed a season of civil unrest unlike many others since the 1960s. During this time I have seen many memes and videos on social media utilizing the images and actions of children as a lesson. The lesson being taught is hate and discrimination are not something we do from birth but something we are taught to do.

Throughout Jesus’s teaching moments, he would also use children to teach lessons. (See Matthew 18:3, Matthew 19:4, Luke 18:16, Mark 9:36-37) In the passage from Matthew 11, we get to hear Jesus praying to the Father. He points out that in order to see the true nature of him, and therefore the Father, we need not an approach of academia but one of a child. Children come at life with great curiosity and an openness that is accepting instead of closed and discrediting. For those who approach Jesus as a child, Jesus offers rest from the weariness of the world and a promise of helping carry the burdens.

The lesson here is our approach to discovering the nature of our Lord is key to what will be revealed to us. If we come to the Lord with all our learned views of the world and life, we will miss the true Jesus. But if we adopt the curiosity and openness of a child, we will find a Jesus who offers rest for our souls.

The Wind

Yesterday, my home state was devastated by a storm which they are now calling a derecho. I had no idea that there was even a storm classification such as this one but my understanding is that it is like an inland hurricane. Wind gusts in the city from which we moved were 100 mph or higher. The pictures which people are posting of the damage is amazing. I am used to tornadoes having lived a large portion of my life in Iowa and the damage seems to me to be as bad as a tornado. Many people continue to be without power and limited cellular service. The power of wind is truly amazing.

Even before yesterday’s storm and the impact it has had on my friends and family, I had thought about writing a post on the wind and the Holy Spirit. Yesterday’s news seemed to make such a post even more relevant. There are many characteristics which wind and the Spirit share. It is little wonder that in both the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible the word used for Spirit is the same word used for wind or breath.

In the story of the creation found in Genesis. The second verse in the first chapter states that, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The Hebrew word here translated as Spirit of God is ruha which is the same Hebrew word for wind, breath, and life. In the story of Pentecost found in Acts 2, it states in the fourth verse, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” The word translated here as Spirit is pneuma the original Greek. Again, this Greek word can also mean wind or breath. Clearly, both the Hebrews and the Greeks saw the Holy Spirit as having the characteristics of the wind.

Our experience with the Spirit can be as varied as our experience with the wind. Currently in Texas, we are in our hot period of the year. We typically are very dry in August and our temperatures quickly reach the high 90s and low 100s. Wind is a positive when it arrives on days such as these. We cherish the movement of the air which provides relief from the relentless heat. We see the wind as a blessing and our experience with it is very positive. The Spirit can be the same way in our lives. We can find refreshment and relief from the heat of life through the Spirit.

Sometimes the wind is just a quiet breeze which provides movement of the trees creating a beauty for us to enjoy. Other times the wind can be violent and life changing as the people of Iowa and other Midwestern states have experienced this week. The Spirit is the same. At times in our lives we experience the Spirit to be gentle and our eyes are opened to the beauty which surrounds us. Another time in our life the Spirit can be overpowering, almost violent, and bring about a radical change in our lives.

I am sure you can find other examples of how the wind and the Holy Spirit share characteristics. I encourage you to think about those experiences in your life which you have had with both. Like humanity has attempted to do with the wind in harnessing its power to generate energy, I challenge you to harness the power of the Spirit in your life to generate life itself.

Please keep all those affected by the wind in Iowa and other states in your prayers this week. May this life changing experience offer opportunities of new life and growth. May your experience of the Spirit also create life changing results.

Shining

I am sure that every generation feels like they are living in dark times. We even named a whole era in human history as the Dark Ages. Right now we can feel like there is a lot of dark around us with all the changes in our lives which have accompanied the Corona-19 virus. The numbers of deaths and hospitalizations continue to rise. In addition, we have been living in a very volatile political environment for years as human decency has left most civic discussions and legislative debate. Truly feels like a dark time in so many ways.

As a believer in Jesus Christ, I have wondered how to respond to the surrounding events during this dark time. I have followed all the practical advice of the medical community regarding the virus. I have listened to the conversations in the political spectrum and attempted to avoid engaging in hostile debates. But there seems to be something more which I can, must, do. Then I am reminded of a song which I sang in Sunday School in my small church while growing up, This Little Light of Mine. The song is a reminder of Jesus’ words, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16, NIV) Jesus tells us that we are to be lights in the world. The question this begs is how do we go about being lights?

Clearly for me, being an example is the way I can be a light in the world. I can wear a mask when I am in an indoor public setting or one where social distancing is a challenge. I can listen to others who have a point of view which is different from my own and not judge that viewpoint. Taking the time to educate myself on the experiences of other individuals will be an example.

Another important way for me to be a light in the world is by sharing compassion and hope with others. Jesus showed compassion even to those who were engaged in his crucifixion. Compassion is not attempting to better others. Using words that build up and not tear down another’s self is compassion. Being present with others even when you do not understand what they are experiencing is compassion.

Sharing hope is reminding each other that we do not walk alone but together and with the Lord. Identifying the positive of each day shares hope. Putting the events of our lives in perspective with the history of humanity and God’s children can produce hope. Sharing the promises of God as identified in Scripture leads to hope.

We are called to share our light with a world experiencing darkness. How are you choosing to shine your light? Let your light shine and do not let anything blow it out!

Trust Needed

We live in a time when it seems very difficult to trust anyone. Over the years, trust has been eroded in some key institutions in our lives. People have lost trust in government officials and elected leaders. As we have recently become very aware, there is limited if no trust in our law enforcement and judicial systems. The trust which people used to have in the Church and religious leaders has broken down. Our neighborhoods are no longer considered safe, so we do not even have trust in our neighbors and this is not only in large cities but also small, rural communities. Trust is a very precious commodity which appears to have become extremely rare.

One reason that this is a major issue for society is that trust is at the foundation of relationships. No relationship can survive if trust is not present. Interaction between individuals at any level requires some amount of trust. If this does not exist, then exchanges will be only on the surface and not have any depth or true meaning. Once trust is destroyed, it takes twice as much work to re-establish it, and may not even occur.

The Church has a lot of trust building to do. The distrust began with the revelations of sexual abuse occurring too often at the hands of faith leaders. However, long before that, the Church had failed to live out God’s love to everyone. For individuals who grew up realizing they were part of an unnamed group now known as LGBTQ, they were shunned by the Church, told to repent their sinful ways, and excluded from active participation in the practices and fellowship of faith. If a person was of a different ethnicity than the majority within the congregation, they were often distrusted and marginalized at best. Asking questions was seen as a lack of faith. Instead of being a safe haven for all people, a place to grow and explore faith, and a demonstration of God’s love for ALL people, the Church became judgmental, ostracizing, and a place of abuse. The Church broke the trust of numerous people and only represented pain.

It is time within our society to openly acknowledge our active role in planting seeds of distrust. The Church has the opportunity to be a leader here. Through its own acknowledgment of actions and words leading to people no longer trusting the Church and its leadership, the Church can show the first step in trying to rebuild the trust. Some individual congregations are doing that and shifts are starting to slowly begin at a greater level. This is going to take time and require a much greater effort. Some will never reclaim a trust in the Church but others can be given an opportunity to share their heart and begin healing. Then if the Church becomes a light and example to the world (as it was created to be) we may see changes happen in other institutions and among groups of people.

We need trust because we need relationships and relationships are only possible if there is trust. Let us take the first step in building trust.

Where Is Hope

For me, a benefit of believing in Jesus Christ is that I have hope. Hope is truly an interesting word. Much like the word love, hope has such a varied number of meanings depending on the context in which it is used. I can hope that the Hawkeyes will win their football game. Right now, rain is something I hope for in the area in which I live. I have hope that I will stay healthy and active for many years into the future. I am confident in the hope of Jesus’ promises. Each example is a different understanding of hope since the focus of that hope changes.

Having hope does not mean there are not times of discouragement, disappointment, and a level of despair. A person who has hope does not experience any fewer hardships in life than one who lacks hope. The difference is that a person who leans upon hope responds to the hardships much differently.

I recall a situation during my ministry when I was called to the emergency room of a hospital. A person in the community had been found hanging by a belt in his garage. Upon arriving at a local hospital, the medical staff attempted to revive the man but were not successful and pronounced him dead. The partner refused to leave the body so the staff requested I talk with him and convince him to leave in order for them to finish preparing the body to be transported. After much conversation, I was able to get the partner to leave the room. In talking with him and the family of the victim, I quickly realized that the issue which was causing problems was they lacked hope. This became clear again after the funeral service which they asked me to officiate. They would not leave the room where we had the service because they were convinced that this would be the last time any of them would ever see the dead man again. They had no hope in Jesus Christ, no hope in the resurrection, and no hope in life beyond death.

Hope is not always an easy thing to maintain. There are times in which I need others to remind me of the reason to hope. I need to hear words of reassurance. I need prompted by the Spirit to read passages of Scripture which speaks of the hope found in Jesus Christ. Rereading the promises which Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles set before us is a great way for me to replenish hope in my life.

Faith and hope are strongly linked. Being able to hope in the promises of God requires having faith in God. A person must believe that what we read in Scripture regarding the love and the sustaining presence of the Lord is true. This requires us to have faith in not a physical reality but in a spiritual truth. This faith is the source of our hope.

Looking around the events in our world today, or even specific times in our own lives, it can become easy to lose touch with hope. Life can have some very depressing realities. Difficulties can mount and appear insurmountable. Messages which we often hear can lead a person to despair, grief, and a sense of abandonment. For some, this all piles upon each other to lead the individual in believing that there is no hope. Yet, let me declare to you that there is always hope. This hope is not sustainable in trusting of any human or human institution. This unfailing hope can only be found in Jesus, the Christ.

Hope in the Lord. It has never failed me yet.