Mothers Day…

She may be called mom or mama or mother or by a host of other names.
It is a name she was given, and one she has earned.
Through sleepless nights and seemingly endless days,
She poured out her love without reserve, even when her reserves ran low.

She may have given birth to her child, adopted him, or welcomed her through marriage,
Still she opened her heart and her arms and received them as hers,
And she followed them to school plays, ball games, dance recitals, and doctor’s visits.
She changed smelly diapers, wiped snotty noses, kissed skinned knees, and mended broken hearts.
She is under appreciated and wholly underrated, yet she is a gift from God to children.
She prayed and prayer, even when prayers seemed to be all she had left.

One day is set aside to give her honor, though one day is surely not enough.
She is not perfect in all her ways, and she feels the heavy weight of her failures,
Yet she rises again on each new day to give of herself, her heart, her life
To that little baby, that tottering toddler, that mischievous child, that moody teen, that adult
Who may or may not carry her genes but who carries a piece of her soul.

On this day, we celebrate the gift of mothers, 
And seek to encourage them in their vital calling.
Some children mourn the absence of mothers, 
And some mothers mourn the absence of children.
It is a day of mixed emotions, of tears and laughter and memories.
It is Mothers Day – a small way we say “Thank you,
Another chance to say, “I love you.”
One day out of 365 to praise the woman who is one in a million. 
Happy Mothers Day.

[Photo by Larry Crayton on Unsplash]

Whoever Comes to Me I Will Never Cast Out…

The following is an excerpt from Dane Ortland’s book “Gentle and Lowly.” I don’t think I could say it better, so I’ll let the book speak for itself. Speaking as a struggling Christian, he writes –

Fallen, anxious sinners are limitless in their capacity to perceive reasons for Jesus to cast them out. We are factories of fresh resistances to Christ’s love. Even when we run out of tangible reasons to be cast out, such as specific sins or failures, we tend to retain a vague sense that, given enough time, Jesus will finally grow tired of us and hold us at arm’s length. Bunyan [referring to John Bunyan’s writing Come and Welcome to Jesus] understands us. He knows we tend to deflect Christ’s assurances.

“No, wait” – we say, cautiously approaching Jesus – “you don’t understand. I’ve really messed up, in all kinds of ways.”
I know, he responds.
“You know most of it, sure. Certainly more than what others see. But there’s perversity down inside me that is hidden from everyone.
I know it all.
“Well – the things is, it isn’t just my past. It’s my present too.”
I understand.
“But I don’t know if I can break free of this any time soon.”
That’s the only kind of person I’m here to help.
“The burden is heavy – and heavier all the time.”
Then let me carry it.
“It’s too much to bear.”
Not for me.
“You don’t get it. My offenses aren’t directed toward others. They’re against you.”
Then I am the one most suited to forgive them.
“But the more of the ugliness in me you discover, the sooner you’ll get fed up with me.”
Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.

Dane Ortland, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers, Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois, 2020, pp 63-64.

He concludes chapter 6 in this way –

For those united to him, the heart of Jesus is not a rental; it is your new permanent residence. You are not a tenant; you are a child, His heart is not a ticking time bomb; his heart is the green pastures and still waters of endless reassurances of his presence and comfort, whatever our present spiritual accomplishments. It is who he is.

Ibid, p 66.

If you struggle with sin and struggle with believing God could love you, then perhaps your faith is in yourself rather than a faithful God. Paul wrote to the young Timothy, “…if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.” (2 Timothy 2:13)

Your performance fluctuates. There are days when you walk more closely with the Lord and days you feel you are far, far from Him. The reality is, He has never moved. His love does not rise or fall with the tides of your obedience. He is the constant we need in our lives but are perhaps desperately afraid to truly desire. The is the rock upon which we can stand. He is the calm in the midst of our turbulent lives. Even if everyone else forsakes you, there is one who “sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” (John 6:37)

When we fail, when we fall, our tendency is to follow our ancient ancestors Adam and Eve into the bushes where we foolishly believe we can hide our sin and ourselves from God, when our response should be the exact opposite. We should RUN TO God bringing with us our sin and remorse. He was not shocked at your behavior. He was not stunned by the words that came from your mouth. He was not surprised at all by the thoughts running through your mind. He was grieved over the sin, but He has dealt with that on Calvary’s cross. What He wants is not to banish you but to embrace you, to correct you, to discipline you, to bring you back in line with His will for you, and to walk with you in this journey of life.

My fellow believers, let us leave the bushes. Even more, let us abandon the notion that our God is ready to push us away like some fickle friend. He is the father who waits longingly for the prodigal to return, his eyes fixed on the very same roadway that child took when he left home with pockets full of money and a heart full of pride and self-sufficiency. Though we have hidden ourselves behind a thick, steel door, Jesus stands at that door and knocks. Is not today the day we should move from the darkness of our guilt and self-pity and open ourselves up to the embrace of Him who died for those very sins?

[Photo by Gadiel Lazcano on Unsplash]

Thomas Jefferson and the K&W Cafeteria…

In college, one of my jobs was working at the K&W Cafeteria in Chapel Hill. The procedure at the K&W and other similar restaurants is pretty much the same as the school lunchroom many of you remember. You get your tray, then you go down the line getting whatever food was on the menu. Unlike the school lunchroom, at a cafeteria-style restaurant you get to pick and choose what you want, meaning you don’t have to get a spoonful of diced carrots and peas!

For many in the church, Christianity has morphed into something resembling the cafeteria line. We want to fill our theological tray with things that appeal to us. The harder teachings of Scripture, we pass by with a nod much as we do to the mystery meat in a pool of coagulated gravy. We load up on God’s love, pile on the mercy, and top it off with a generous helping of everybody getting angel wings… and everyone lived happily ever after.

One of our Founding Fathers was Thomas Jefferson. He is remembered for many things, but perhaps he is most well-known as the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was a learned man, and we can find much about his life that is worthy of celebration.

In 1820, Jefferson published a book entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. This was not an original work on his part. He pieced it together by cutting out the teachings of Jesus from the gospels and glueing them onto pages which were bound in his little book. All the miracles were removed, including the resurrection. The teachings that remained were true, but it was missing anything that was supernatural. Jesus is presented as a wise teacher, but His divinity was removed.

Most of us would not be so bold as to physically edit our Bibles with scissors and glue, but we may be guilty of trimming the Bible’s teachings in how we receive its truth and apply it to our lives. Often we are performing our edits when we read and passage and respond, “Well, what this passage means to me is…”

This cafeteria approach feels good in the moment – we take what we want from God’s Word and leave the rest – but it comes at a cost. For Jefferson, he removed the divinity of Jesus seemingly preferring to rely only on his moral teachings. He both robbed Jesus of His majesty and robbed Himself of the wonder that God would physically come to us, die for us, and rise again in victory! We’d do well to put away our X-acto knives and Elmer’s glue and allow God to speak for Himself about Himself to us.

One thing about the cafeteria – Once you loaded up your tray and pushed it to the end of the line, there was someone waiting there at a cash register. That’s right; it was time to pay up. There is a price to pay for selectively taking of God what we want and leaving the rest behind. That price can be awfully high. It can cost you joy, peace, and hope. Even more, it can cost you an eternity in heaven.

Perhaps an even higher cost is that it can keep your children and grandchildren from knowing God and His truth. If you can pick and choose, why should they not do the same?

Think deeply. Pray fervently. Choose wisely.

Leaving a Legacy…

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

My wife’s mother passed away early on Monday morning one week ago. It began a long week of making arrangements, gathering family, sharing memories, and wrestling with the loss of one who was dearly loved and who dearly loved us. She was a very special woman with a huge heart that was evident in her life.

I had the privilege of delivering the eulogy at her service on Friday and singing “Because He Lives” with our daughter – Grana’s first grandchild. It was, to put it mildly, an emotional day. The grief was only tempered by the hope that we have that she is now with Jesus experiencing all-surpassing joy.

Carole left a legacy of faith and faithfulness. She lived in such a way as to set the pace for her children and grandchildren. As we continue to process the loss, I also want to remember the life-lessons she taught us all.

Love Children.
Carole worked in the nursery’s in two churches for over 50 years. She has rocked generations of babies, giving parents a sense of security as they left their little ones in her arms. When she was caring for little children, she was in her sweet spot. She modeled the heart of Jesus who said, “Let the little children come to me (Matthew 19:14). She saw just how precious every child was and loved them with such a genuine love that each child felt secure in her arms.

Love the Church.
The church was not just a place to attend for Carole; it was a place to belong. She invested herself in the life of the church. She supported it with her presence, her prayers, her service, and her heart. She raised her family in the church and was able to see them raise their families in the church. She could agree with the Apostle John who wrote: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” (3 John 1:4)

Love Your Family.
Carole had not greater joy that to spend time with her family. Her home was always open and welcoming. She loved it when family gathered for holidays or birthdays. Whether it was putting together a puzzle, watching the Braves, or going shopping, it was always better with family. In never felt like a son-in-law, because in Carole’s eyes I was family. And as the grandchildren became adults with their own lives and eventually their own spouses, she found such joy in just listening to them tell her every detail of their ever-changing lives. Her love was limitless, and she showed it in countless ways.

Love Jesus.
Carole came to Christ at an early age. She had faithful parents who loved the Lord and taught and modeled for her what it meant to love Jesus. She sought teach and model the same for her children. Hers was a deep and genuine faith that guided her through life, and her love for Jesus was expressed in quiet humility and faithful service. She never sought attention. She put the needs of others ahead of herself. She was a source of love and comfort to so many, because she had experienced the love and comfort of Jesus. And now she is able to both give to Jesus and receive from Jesus a love without limits.

The loss of Carole is bittersweet at the moment, but I know for her family the bitterness of the loss will be lessened by the sweetness of the memories that only increases. The hope of eternal life for her and all who trust in Jesus sustains us, as it has so many who have experienced such loss. With the memories we also have a legacy, and may we both cherish those memories and continue that legacy of faith and faithfulness.

Where Is Your Treasure?

In Mark 10, a rich young ruler came up to Jesus wanting to know how to have eternal life. Jesus knew what was most precious to the man, so He told him to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. Here it’s that young man’s reaction –
“Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” (Mark‬ ‭10:22‬)

He chose his wealth and lifestyle over eternal life. He chose temporary comfort and abundance over eternal peace and joy. We may marvel at his foolish choice, but how often do we make foolish choices – choosing what feels good now over what lasts forever?

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” ‭‭(Matthew‬ ‭6:19-21‬ )‬‬

Choose wisely today…

Behold…

“Behold” is not one of those words we use everyday. The only person who might use that word regularly would be someone like a magician dramatically declaring, “Behold!” after some card trick.

We do find “behold” on the pages of our Bibles, depending upon translations, of course. One of the first to come to mind is the declaration of John the Baptist about Jesus – “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Up to that point, all eyes were on John as he preached in his camel’s hair clothing accessorized with a leather belt. He must have been a sight to behold both in his looks and because of his powerful message.

When we say, “behold,” we are diverting people’s attention to something or someone else. It is very similar to calling out, “Look!” and pointing a finger at something in the distance. We are saying with one simple word, “Stop what you are doing. Shift you focus over there.”

John understood his mission. He had drawn great crowds filled with people from every walk of Jewish society. Even the religious leaders found their way into the wilderness to catch sight of this unusual man and hear his provocative message that had made so many people leave their daily routine to go and hear him.

The apostle John records the instance when Jesus was nearby and John the Baptist catches sight of Him. You can almost visualize John preaching his heart out, then suddenly stopping and staring above the heads of the crowds, perhaps shielding his eyes from the sun to make sure he saw who it was clearly. And once he was certain, a childlike excitement comes to his face and he shouts with a strange combination of enthusiasm and desperation – “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

Everything that John had said and done was leading to this point in time. A radical shift would take place as people began to look less to John and more to Jesus. John’s crowds became smaller. More and more people were drawn to Jesus. And when John’s disciples saw the change, they were concerned. John’s answer shows he was at peace with God’s plan – “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)

There are two lessons we might learn from John the Baptist:
(1) Its not about us.
The world wants us to believe otherwise. Here in the United States we have been indoctrinated to have a consumer mentality. We are constantly reminded to follow our hearts. Parents tells their children, “I just want you to be happy.” This kind of mindset stands in stark contrast to the attitude of John and the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus. Jesus made it clear – “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44)

(2) We are to point people to Jesus.
It’s not enough to be humble in our attitude. Our humility might inspire someone, but it will never save anyone. John made it clear both who Jesus was and why Jesus came. He is the Lamb of God, and what that means is that Jesus is the Savior of the world. He shed His blood on the cross for our guilt, not for His. Just as the Passover lamb was to be without spot or blemish, Jesus was clean, pure, sinless, perfect. He did for us what we could never do for ourselves. When we place our faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord, He has taken our sin and given us His righteousness enabling us to be accepted in the presence of the Father.

We are now the ones who say to the people around us, “Behold! The Lamb of God.” We don’t have to wear camel’s hair clothing or eat locusts for breakfast to do this. Jesus called us (you and me) to be witnesses to the world (Acts 1:8) and to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20).

$3 Worth of God…

A number of years ago, I stumbled upon a poem. Whether this the original version or not, I’m not sure, but it’s close. It is found in a book by Wilbur Rees entitled “Three Dollars Worth of God.”

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

When I think about some of my brothers and sisters living in endless poverty or facing merciless persecution, this poem hits hard. Having grown up where and when I have, my life has been relatively easy. I’ve never had to wonder if I could eat tomorrow or had a place to sleep. I have been allowed to go to church whenever and wherever I want to with little concern that I would be harassed or be in danger. This reality can create a false sense of self-sufficiency.

Think about it – when we are in crisis, it is at those times that we draw closest to God. We cry out to Him in our desperation and helplessness. When we have no where else to turn, we know that we can turn to God. He is both faithful and He is present.

The Beatitudes recorded in Luke’s gospel declare:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.

(Luke 6:20-23)

Most of us who live in first world countries can have a hard time with passages like this. They make us squirm a bit in our seats. How can the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, and the reviled and persecuted be considered blessed? Don’t I consider myself to be blessed when these things aren’t part of my life?

Perhaps the answer is not found in the physical state of a person but in their spiritual state. In fact, Matthew shares that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). In other words, a person may have possessions and yet be impoverished in spirit. They see themselves not as owners of abundance, but as people who have been entrusted by God with wealth for a time AND who know God can call for that wealth at any time. The poor in spirit do not gain their sense of worth by their net worth. They are dependent upon God not on a regular paycheck or long-term investments.

Thinking back to the Rees’ poem and the reason it is so impactful, I am struck by the truth that sometimes all we feel we really need is about $3 worth of God – or perhaps a bit more due to inflation. We seem to be well enough on our own. God is a kind of add-on to life rather than being central to it. A couple of verses read in the morning and a quick prayer before we are out the door, and we’ve pretty much got what we want from God.

May the Lord make us wholly discontent with the things of this world. May He birth within us an unquenchable thirst to know Him more. May we open ourselves up to knowing God’s richest blessing by becoming poor in spirit, hungry for Him, grieved over sin and rebellion in our own lives, and willing to pay whatever price there may be to remain faithful to our calling. May we declare with the psalmist –
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. (Psalm 42:1)

Hard-Headed & Hard-Hearted…

This morning in my devotional reading in Ezekiel, I came across God’s declaration about people of Israel. In Ezekiel 3:7, God says of them that they have “a hard forehead and a stubborn heart.” In short, they were hard-headed and hard-hearted. When Ezekiel went to them with God’s Word, he should be surprised if they don’t listen and don’t obey; in fact, he should expect them to do that very thing.

As I reflected on God’s description of His own people, it led me to a thought and a question:
(1) What a terrible way to live your life – hard-headed and hard-hearted. It seems that it would simply make for a miserable existence, a life of trouble, and a lifestyle that would create chaos in a person’s relationships.
(2) Does that description of the people of Israel ever fit me? If I’m honest, I’ve got to admit that sometimes it does. And when it does, it should lead to confession and repentance before God, and it can often lead to apologizing to someone I’ve hurt and seeking to make things right.

It can be way too easy to simply read over the words on the pages of the Bible in the rush of the day, but it does us good to slow down and read thoughtfully and prayerfully. God’s Word can be a mirror for us, and when He show us our sin and exposes the rebellion in our own lives, it is His invitation to confession, repentance, and renewed fellowship with Him and others.

How have you been hard-headed and hard-hearted recently?
If so, how will you respond that that realization?

Walking through the Dark Valleys…

In over 30 years of being a pastor, I have officiated countless funerals. I have prayed with families grieving the loss of someone dearly loved. I have held mourners as their sobs shook their entire bodies. I have spoken the final words at a graveside. This is, for me, an awesome responsibility and high privilege. It can also be a great and heavy weight.

The Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 that we do not grieve as those who have no hope. This does not mean that Christians do not grieve. We do, most surely. Our tears are no less real. The sense of loss is no less painful. Separation, even though we know it is temporary, breaks our hearts and disrupts our lives in unimaginable ways. We grieve, but In our grief we are buoyed by hope and the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

With all this heavy on my heart, I write. Writing is therapeutic for me. It gives me a space to clearly communicate my heart and mind. Admittedly, it also exposes me a bit. I never want to be fake or to pretend I am someone I am not, but I also understand that my church family and the community look to me to express my confidence in God’s love and sovereignty.

When I meet with people for counseling or comfort, I open my heart to share their burdens. I cannot carry their burdens for them, but I can come alongside and help shoulder some of the crushing weight for a time. Their burdens, at least in small part, become my burdens. I am called and compelled to take their hands and walk with them at least part way through their dark valleys. As I stand before my congregation each week, I look at the faces, and I know the burdens and hurts that many carry. And I share just a little piece of them.

Here comes my exposure, my confession –
Sometimes, it is overwhelming.
Sometimes, there are too many dark valleys in so short a period of time.
Sometimes, the little mound of burdens becomes a mountain.
Sometimes, I am filled with an intense sadness, and a well of tears pours out even from my dry eyes.
Sometimes, I simply want to curl up in a dark and quiet space and grieve over all the pain, all the loss, all the empty desks, chairs, beds, cribs, and arms.

I am not looking for pity, nor have I yield to depression. God is faithful. He enters into that dark place, into my grieving… and He whispers to me, “I am here. You are not alone. Death is not final. Loneliness is not forever. You don’t have to walk this valley or carry this burden alone. As you have held the hands of others and walked with them, let me walk with you now. Lean on me. Let me carry that burden for you.” And as I rise to my feet, with every step the weight becomes less and the darkness becomes light.

Peter’s words to Cornelius are my words today, “I, too, am a man” (Acts 10:26). If I have ever given you the impression that I am something more, I truly apologize. I am a fellow traveler with each of you through this life. We share alike in the joys and the pains of being human.

We grieve, but I know that our grief is tempered by hope. We hurt, but God binds up our wounds. The King of glory has promised to never leave us or turn His back on us (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:5). And He has graciously filled our lives with His children who become His arms wrapped around us, His hands drying our tears, and His feet walking with us through the dark valleys. We are the body of Christ, and we are in this together. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Corinthians 12:6)

Before signing off, let me reiterate that this is not a cry for sympathy nor an invitation to a pity party. I’m okay. My Lord strengthens me moment by moment, and His people lift my up and minister to me, and He has given me a family that energizes and encourages me. What I am doing is taking the risk of opening up my emotions to you with the hope that it may somehow encourage you.

You don’t have to be a rock all the time. You don’t have to carry your burdens alone. You don’t have to act as if you are invulnerable to the pains and losses of life. You can be honest about your struggles. You can lean on those who love you. You can be real and vulnerable and weak, for that simply opens us up to find strength beyond measure, love overflowing, and peace that is beyond all understanding.

“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10)

Leaving a Legacy…

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

I’ve contemplated what it means to leave a legacy a lot lately. In the span of eight days, I had three funerals and a wedding, so thinking about what really matters in life was often at the front of my mind.

In the funeral service of my dear brother Earl Smith, I shared some thoughts on what it looks like to be intentional about leaving a legacy for the generations to come. These observations were not limited to Earl’s life, but were certainly reflected in it. So, here they are:

Be faithful followers of Jesus, not just on Sunday, but every hour of every day.

Show integrity in your words and your deeds and let your word be your bond.

Take the Great Commandment and the Great Commission with equal seriousness.

Consistently read your Bible and persistently be in prayer.

Give love even when it isn’t returned.

Hold loosely to earthly treasures and live in expectation for a heavenly kingdom.

Teach your children and grandchildren to love Jesus just as you do.

May we learn from the lives of faithful men and women who live out their faith before our eyes, and may we be committed to living faith-filled lives in the eyes of those around us and in doing so both bring glory to God and leave a legacy worthy of following.