Devotionals, Faith, Life, Time

Don’t Put Your Pen Away Just Yet

One of the best habits I’ve developed in the last few years is that of journaling. I still struggle to keep track of to-do lists and reminders, but I’ve gotten good at journaling my devotions or quiet time with God. It usually goes like this: I get a fresh cup of coffee, my journal, Bible, colored pencils for marking passages, and my ink pen. If a verse sticks out to me, or a prayer forms in my mind, I try to make note of it. Each day, I fill 3/4 to a page of notes from my devotions.

But this morning, as I was finishing filling up the page (lots of good stuff this morning!), something clicked in my brain. You see, as I was finishing, I closed my eyes for a time of reflective prayer and I instinctively clicked my ink pen. After all, I was finished, I was done. I had written a whole page! I said all that I needed to say.

But what about what God wanted to say? No, I don’t hear voices and I don’t think I’ve ever heard an audible voice from God. Yet here I was, closing out the time of communication with my creator, having read his words back to him, adding my own petitions along the way, without bothering to ask if he had anything more to add.

Lest some of you more seasoned theologians worry about my beliefs concerning continuing special revelation, rest assured I don’t mean God has some massive revelation for me that I must tell the world. No book deal, no prophecy conference… But what if the Lord has something to remind me of? Have I “been still and [known] that [he] is God”? Or have I finished my prayer time, checking one more thing off the list that I have to do today? God help us when we come to the point that he is just one more item on the list.

Henri Nouwen said about time with God, “Pressing my eyes against my hands is not praying, and reading about your presence is not living in it.” How true! Simply calling my morning routine “devotions” does not make my morning devoted to Christ. It doesn’t mean that I have listened for the leading of the Holy Spirit. In fact, if I put away my ink pen and journal, I might just be closing the door on a great blessing of the Lord showing me some grace or giving me needed assurance. It is one thing for me to tell myself that I am a child of God. It is another thing altogether to hear it from him.

So today, Christian, spend some time in God’s Word. Underline it. Mark it up. Journal. But don’t put your pen away until you’ve listened for the Master’s voice.

Henri Nouwen said about time with God, “Pressing my eyes against my hands is not praying, and reading about your presence is not living in it.”

Faith, Life, Ministry, Uncategorized, writings

Manure and Church Bells

The US is not the only country with a “cultural Christianity” problem…

From Christianity Today news article:

The French government has passed a law protecting the “sensory heritage” of the nation’s countryside. Vacationers and tourists will no longer be allowed to file official complaints or sue over crowing roosters, manure smells, or early-morning church bells. In 2018 a visitor to the village of Jettingen complained about a 5:40 a.m. bell. The villagers voted 427-73 to continue ringing it, though mass no longer takes place at that time. In 2019, someone sued Saint-Chartres in Vienne over the volume of the 7 a.m. bell. An estimated 5 percent of French people attend church regularly.”

Christianity Today, April 2021 Issue

Okay, so several things are going through my mind as I read this gleaning of worldwide religious news. First off, who goes on vacation to the French countryside and does not want to smell manure, hear the roosters, and wake up to church bells. That is the whole point of escaping there in the first place, n’est pas?

Who goes on vacation to the French countryside and does not want to smell manure, hear the roosters, and wake up to church bells. That is the whole point of escaping there in the first place n’est pas?

But the main thing that gets me is the last sentence. “An estimated 5 percent of French people attend church regularly.” Now, taken by itself, that is not such a surprising statistic if you know much about the religious habits of Western Europe. It is increasingly secular in most aspects, though it retains a good deal of religious customs and traditions. Western Europe in many ways has what I would call a “secular Christian” culture, but little “Christian” practice. What’s amazing to me is that the government, from the national level all the way down to the ity-bity villages, would pass laws to protect this religious heritage when many fail to practice that religion.

In the US, we have some similar trends. The percentage of those who observance of religious traditions, particularly Christian ones, has been declining gradually for the last several decades. It began accelerating before COVID and early indications are that church attendance will decline by around 15% nationwide as we (hopefully) emerge from the pandemic.

But there remains a cultural tug, especially for those of us of white European ancestry to keep certain cultural aspects in place. Especially in rural, white America, there is a religious element to much of what we do, even on a secular level. Folks who have never darkened the door of a local church building complain about sporting events on Sunday, even as those events are often led by otherwise church-attending people. There is the drumming up of support for the “culture wars” every major holiday season over whether the local municipality should be allowed to have a manger scene or not.

And my question, as a Christian Minister, is, “Why?”

I think there are several reasons, and to each their own, but what I have noticed over the years is how people are satisfied with a Christian veneer to culture if it makes no significant demands on their lives or challenges their choices. We will endure, even cherish, the 5:40 a.m. church bells if it means we are not actually expected to attend an early morning church service.

It reminds me of the religious Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Now while these Pharisees would be the ones who got up for the early service, they would also neglect matters of the heart. Jesus compared them to beautiful tombs; they seem great, but inside there is spiritual death. That is what happens when we settle for a veneer, an outer appearance, rather than the real deal.

So as a history buff I say, “Good for France!” But as a follower of Jesus, I say “Get your butt to Church!”

Devotionals, Faith, Life, writings

How Thirsty Are You?

How much water do you drink everyday? Probably not enough, right?

For years, I’ve struggled with dizzy spells off and on with no known cause. I’ve been through a battery tests, from thyroid to cardiac and everything in between. Some days, after breakfast I will feel so icky, so dizzy, that I have to lay down. Maybe a nap would help, maybe it wouldn’t. Because of being overweight I was afraid I was developing type 2 diabetes and maybe it was my blood sugar. But nothing seemed to help.

Then a couple of weeks ago, I tried an experiment. I would drink large amounts of water, interspaced with a coffee or two, within the first hour of waking. I wasn’t thirsty. My mouth wasn’t dry. But I made myself drink. Guess what? It’s lessened the amount of dizzy spells I have dramatically. Yep, good ol’ H2O.

Sometimes in life we get confused, dizzy if you will. With no known cause, we feel out of it. Life seems topsy-turvy and to be spinning out of control. And I wonder… I wonder if it’s because deep down we’re dehydrated and don’t even realize it. Our souls are parched and yet, we think there is some other cause. Maybe we convince ourselves it’s because we aren’t happy or need a new car, spouse, or career. Or we tell ourselves that what we really need is to just do what makes us happy, all the while the world seems to keep spinning out of control.

God, the creator of our very personhood, knows the problem, and it’s remedy. He calls us to come to him and find rest and satisfaction. He says this in Isaiah 55:1-2:

“Come, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.

Today, you might not even feel that thirsty, but take some time to drink from the fountain of God’s presence and His word. Filling up will make all the difference in the world.

Devotionals, Faith, Family, Life, Ministry, writings

Secret Pain

One of the themes that I’ve often connected to in God’s Word is the idea that eventually secrets will be made know. It’s something we often relish when we’ve been wounded by others: the idea that the truth will eventually come to light, either in this life or the next.

As a pastor, I’ve used the verses that back this idea. Numbers 32:23 says “be sure your sin will find you out.” Luke 8:17 says, “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.” Luke 12:2 says, “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” Never mind the context for most of these verses refer to the judgement at the end of time or the mysteries of the Gospel (that God would use those considered foolish by the world and accept those deemed “unacceptable”), part of us relishes the idea that right will prevail and what is wicked will come to light and be punished.

And while I at times find that comforting, I also find it incredibly disconcerting. You see, just as others have done things in secret, so have I. God is causing me to relish the thought less and less. God has been dealing with my heart that my desire for the “truth” to come to light is dangerously close to seeking revenge or a misguided belief in “karma” which is a totally wicked concept fully foreign to the Christian life.

The truth is, we all do or have struggled with secret sins. Sometimes when we hear that phrase, “secret sins”, we easily think of some salacious sin or social taboo. But in reality, any sin or temptation we don’t share with others is by definition a secret. That temptation to tell your boss what you really think… The second look you take at someone who’s not your spouse… Hating your neighbor… All of those can be secret sins. So the next time you wish for someone to get their just desserts, remember how that can cut both ways.

But there is another kind of secret that God knows about… Pain. And that’s what I really want to focus on.

God sees your secret hurts as well. David says this in Psalm 56:8, “You have kept count of my tossings (or wanderings); put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” David recognizes that God is keeping track of David’s sufferings and sorrows. He knows the pain that David experiences.

God knows the pain you carry as well. The shame you struggle with from enduring abuse. The miscarriage that no one knows about. The struggle of same-sex attraction that you felt you could never open up about with your Christian brothers and sisters. The pain you carry from hearing what people “really thought” of you. The accusations that were false. The broken heart that you never even journaled about. The pain of unfulfilled dreams. The sorrow over a wayward friend or loved one. God sees this. He knows. He cares.

And someday, he will deal with not only secret sins, but he will deal with secret pains. Those apart from Christ will have their secrets made known at the judgement. But those who are in Christ have the promise that is found in Revelation 21:4, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall their be mourning, nor crying, not pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

So, friends, let’s take comfort in that God sees our pain, he knows our hurts. Jesus, who lived among us, sympathizes with us and has experienced much of the same pain we have. And someday, he will make all things new and there will be no more pain.

Faith, Life, Uncategorized, writings

Surviving

Note: This is a bit darker than some of the things I normally write or share. It’s not a happy piece. But it’s not supposed to be.

This past week I had to submit some annual reports for my church. Yes, I know, it’s late.

Anyways, one of the questions for me personally was along the lines of “What is something that you are celebrating from 2020. My answer? We survived.

I mean, think about it: Since the COVID Pandemic began more than 500,000 people in the USA have died from the virus. And yes, many may have been older or have had underlying health conditions, the fact is that some of those people would surely not have died if they didn’t contract the virus. I think of the people that I know who have passed away from either COVID or COVID complications. Some of them were older, several were residents of long-term care facilities where others passed away. Some, however, were relatively young and would have otherwise been considered healthy people.

In what was considered a few weeks ago, a study came out that showed the average life expectancy in the US declined by a full year. A full year! And it is three times that bad for people of color. It’s not just the novel coronavirus that has been killing us though.

In the middle of the COVID outbreak, the US had experienced the highest number of drug overdose deaths in a 12 month period, with some jurisdictions seeing a 98% increase in synthetic drug overdoses. Suicide statistics normally lag by 2-3 years, but modeling has suggested the suicide rate in Western European and North American countries could rise as much as 14% or more because of the effects of the pandemic. And on top of this is the valid concern of many that some mitigation efforts and lockdowns may have done more harm to emotional, developmental, and economic health than we can track.

I’m not trying to paint a bleak picture. The picture is bleak enough, it doesn’t need any embellishments or exaggerations. 2020 and 2021 have brought a season of life that 95% of us have never experienced. We weren’t prepared for it and everyone has made mistakes in responding to the multifaceted crises we’ve faced.

That’s why I am serious when I say that something to celebrate is survival. We’ve been spoiled in the United States in that for a long time we haven’t had to face a deadly pandemic. We’ve taken for granted that if we die before normal life expectancy it’s due to diet, cancer, or accidents. But this? This has threatened our sense of invincibility. It has forced us, quite violently, to realize that we’re not in control as much as we think we are. I think that is why some reacted so negatively to mask mandates because it was at least some measure of control they could maintain in a world that was looking very quickly different than the world we thought we had understood or even conquered.

Education has been a challenge for EVERYONE. Work looks different for many people. Nothing is the same right now. I’ll leave it for the clairvoyants to predict how much of it will ever go back to the same. But all of the mental health professionals I’ve talked to and those who work in social work and related professions are identifying 2020-2021 as a traumatic event. I don’t think we have come to grasp with that yet. A good deal of the people I interact with are like a person still in shock at the scene of an accident. They almost seem in denial of the pain they have experienced or are still experiencing.

We are hurting. We are traumatized. Jobs lost. Friends dead. Loved ones separated. Marriages broken up. Addictions on the rise. The sooner we come to grips with the pain, the better. And part of that is realizing all the difficulties we’ve been through. And then remembering, we’re getting through them. You may have heard this quote by Winston Churchill or maybe not, but it’s a great reminder for where we find ourselves—

“If you’re going through hell, keep going!”

Obviously, the point is here, we keep going until we get through it. So let’s keep going.

Acknowledge the pain. It may mean crying. It might mean a long drive on back-country roads with the radio on blast, or it might just mean looking into a flickering candle, remembering what we’ve lost and yet observing that we’ve survived.

And that is worth celebrating.