Friday, December 11, 2015

Words of Comfort

Christmas music is playing everywhere now. It’s on the radio, in the stores, and in our Sunday morning worship gatherings. Some are new songs, and some have been around for decades. Do you ever really listen to and think about the meaning of the lyrics to any of them, especially the ones you have sung since you were a child, or do you just sing along out of familiarity without thinking about what they mean? This week, a friend and I were discussing one such old Christmas carol.

Have you ever thought much about the phrase “tidings of comfort and joy” that we sing at the end of each verse of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”? The phrase “tidings of joy” is easy.  At the birth of Jesus, the angel announces, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luke 2:10 KJV). I see tidings of joy, but where are the tidings of comfort? Are we even promised comfort? Are we ever promised a time when we can put up our feet and experience a life of ease?

Jesus seems to promise just the opposite. He says we must carry a cross in order to be His disciple (Luke 9:23), we must be a servant (Matt 20:26-28), and we must give up everything to follow Him (Luke 14:25-35). So where are the words of comfort and ease…the tidings of comfort? Is "tidings of comfort" an appropriate phrase for this Christmas carol? I thought I would investigate this dilemma.

To quote my favorite movie, The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”[1] That seems to be the case here with the word comfort. I found a blog entry from December 2005 entitled “Tidings of Comfort and Joy,” written by an Episcopal priest. He references Isaiah 40:1-2, “Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins,” and explains the word comfort this way:

The original meaning of comfort is “to make strong” –to fortify. It is about taking heart and being encouraged, being strengthened with resolve and given hope that there is better to come. Comfort is not about feeling warm and cozy, it is about facing the future with trust in God and hope in one’s heart, no matter how bad things might have been in the past, or how they might appear at the present. It is a call to be prepared and strong for the good of the days to come…

That makes much more sense than tidings of ease, prosperity, and warm fuzzy blankets! I looked up what he said about the history of the word comfort and he is right. The Oxford Dictionary says comfort is “from late Latin confortare ‘strengthen’, from com- (expressing intensive force) + Latin fortis ‘strong’. The sense ‘something producing physical ease’ arose in the mid 17th century.”[2]

I love this old/new definition of “tidings of comfort.” Words of strength and encouragement for the days to come are certainly “tidings of comfort” that many of us can use because we are not living in a world of ease and luxury. There are so many among us who are suffering physically or emotionally, or who have to endure days of uncertainty, grief, or darkness.

The birth of Jesus…the arrival of God incarnate…the presence of Immanuel, brings us not only “tidings of joy,” but also “tidings of comfort” – not the warm fuzzy kind but the strengthening, encouraging, fortifying kind of comfort. He may not have us living in the lap of luxury here, but He does want us to be strong and courageous. He wants us to live in faith, not fear. Be encouraged by these tidings of comfort.

Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up. You will increase my honor and comfort me once more. I will praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, my God” (Psalm 71:20-22a NIV).

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Stay with Me

While I was in a store today, a very frightened little girl who couldn't find her grandmother came up to the cashiers for help. The poor little girl was very upset until her grandmother showed up because she thought she was left all alone. When the grandmother arrived, she asked her little granddaughter, “What did I tell you? Didn’t I tell you to stay with me?” This scenario reminded me of a passage I read this week in the gospel of John.

After His Last Supper with His disciples, Jesus spoke words of comfort to them prior to all that was about to transpire. He told them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27 NIV). Just a few verses later, He continued, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you…If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing ... If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:4-7 NIV).

I had never seen a connection between the two commands “Do not be afraid” and “Remain in me” before, but remember the little girl? Her grandmother did not want her to be afraid, so she told the girl "stay with me." If the little girl had obeyed her grandmother and had stayed with her, she wouldn’t have been alone, and she wouldn’t have been afraid.

I don’t know about you, but I often struggle with the oft-repeated command not to be afraid. It might be a difficult command to obey, but I think it would be much easier to obey “Do not be afraid” if we did a better job of obeying “Remain with me.”

I saw the little girl a little while later and there was no trace of fear anymore because she was with her grandmother. When we are struggling with fear, maybe we should assess whether or not we are where we are supposed to be. Are we obeying Jesus’ instructions to “Stay with me”?  

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Glory of God

I’ve been slowly making my way through the gospel of John, and this week, I came to chapter 11. John 11 is likely a familiar chapter if you grew up going to Sunday School. You might remember that John 11:35 is the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept,” so you might also remember that John 11 is about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. 

Before I read this familiar chapter again, I wondered what practical application could possibly be found in this chapter other than an assurance that Jesus has power over life and death or that we will rise "at the last day" (vs 24). Let's be real -- no one expects to visit a cemetery four days after a loved one was buried and expects to see them walking out of the grave. 

As I read through John chapter 11 this time, I was struck by the very similar comments directed at Jesus by Martha, Mary, and the crowd.
  • Martha said: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (vs 21-22).
  • Mary said: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (vs 32).
  • The crowd asked: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (vs 37). 

Their statements all communicate a belief that:
  • Jesus was not there. He had abandoned them in their time of need.
  • Jesus had the power to do something, but for some reason He refused and now it is too late.
  • The situation was all Jesus’ fault. He could have prevented it if He wanted to.
  • They were confused as to why Jesus didn’t use the miraculous power they had seen Him use in the past.

Martha communicates a tiny spark of hope when she says, “but I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (vs 22). I think she wants to believe this, but she is struggling to do so because when Jesus asks them to move the gravestone away, she says, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days” (vs 39). In the span of a few verses, it seems that she decided that it was too late --even for Jesus.

One study Bible note says that “In Jewish tradition, the tomb was typically closed permanently on the fourth day –after three days of mourning. According to rabbinic tradition, a three-day period assured the person was actually dead.”[1] Martha’s warning is essentially telling Jesus, ‘This is an impossible situation. I believe that you could have done something earlier, but now it is way too late. Even for you.’

Jesus’ response to her was: “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (vs 40).

Mary and Martha wanted (and expected) Jesus to heal Lazarus while he was still alive. That would have been a great miracle and a demonstration of Jesus’ love for them as well as His power over sickness and physical health.

But He didn’t do what they expected. He did something even greater. He brought Lazarus back to life after he was dead, the grave had been sealed, and he was beginning to decompose. By delaying action and not meeting their expectations, Jesus performed an even greater miracle than what they expected and they saw the glory of God through their pain.

Do you have anything in your life that is seemingly dead and buried in the tomb that makes you want say, like Mary and Martha, to Jesus: “You weren’t here. You could have prevented this if you wanted to, but now it’s too late. This is all your fault”? I know I do.

As some of you may know, after being called into ministry, trained for ministry at seminary, serving in ministry for several years, and being ordained into ministry, that all ceased last fall when we moved to Colorado. I expected Jesus to open a door here so I could continue in worship ministry, just like Mary and Martha expected Jesus to come heal their brother.

But He hasn’t come, and He hasn’t open any doors. After a year, that calling into vocational ministry seems to be buried in the grave and I’m left staring at a sealed gravestone, telling Jesus ‘it’s impossible even for you now –it’s been so much time now that it is beginning to decompose and stink.’

I wish this blog was a story of victory that is on the other side of Jesus' pronouncement of “Lazarus, come out! [And] the dead man came out…” (vs 43-44). I wish I could testify to a story of dreams and callings brought back from the impossible and from the dead. But I’m not there yet. I’m still standing in front of the grave looking at the sealed stone. You may still be there too.

However, those of us who are still standing in front of the grave prior to a miracle can hold on to Jesus' words: “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (John 11:40). Maybe Jesus is going to do something even greater that will bring God even more glory than what any of us have planned or expected. Let’s hold on to faith in Jesus and to the hope and anticipation of seeing the glory of God in a way we could never imagine (Eph 3:20).

[1] Kent Dobson, “Study Notes on John 11:17,” NIV First Century Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 1360.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Whose Voice are You Going to Listen to?

On her Unguarded CD from 1985, Amy Grant recorded a song that says, “You gotta know who to and not to listen to.” These lyrics pretty much sum of the theme of Steven Furtick’s book, Crashing the Chatterbox.

The book’s subtitle, “Hearing God’s Voice Above All Others,” is what intrigued me, but this book does not contain a list of the top ten ways to be able to better hear from God. It is more of a discussion on how to know which voice in your head to listen to, and how to recognize and listen to the voice of God rather than the voice of the enemy, or the “chatterbox.” Or as the Amy Grant song says, “who to and not to listen to.”

Are you familiar with the tricks of the chatterbox? Do you battle a constant barrage of destructive, self-condemning, accusing, hope-crushing, fear-inducing, faith-shattering chatter? I know that I do, and from this book, it seems that the author does as well.

Throughout the book, Furtick is very transparent about the struggles in his own life and the chatter that goes on inside his own head. He acknowledges that sometimes the condemning, discouraging voice of the enemy sounds so loud that it can be difficult to hear anything or anyone else, and he makes this observation about the differences in volume:

“If God wants us to hear and know and obey His voice, why does He whisper? I don’t know all the reasons, because God has never consulted me in His methods of communication. But here’s how I’ve come to understand it. He whispers because He’s close. The enemy has to shout his threats because, although he can distract and disarm you, he knows he ultimately can’t destroy you. He can’t get to you…He can only forecast fear into your future” (pp. 106-107).

He addresses a number of the enemy’s tactics, including his propensity for attacking us with unfounded fear and lies. Because of this, we must be able to distinguish between these lies and the truth of God. Similar to a bank teller’s training on recognizing counterfeit bills, “…maturity in Christ is largely about becoming familiar enough with what is true to see through what’s false” (pg. 128).

Near the end of the book, Furtick delivers the news that we must have a strategy to tune out the chatterbox because the chatterbox is not going to go away on its on. There is no secret way to completely crash the chatterbox so that it will cease talking to us. As long as we continue to follow Jesus, we will never reach a point in our lives when the enemy is going to give up and move on. Furtick says, “…the chatter will keep coming. Every day of our lives for the rest of our lives…The more you grow in Christ and the closer you get to fulfilling the things He put you on the earth to do, the more intense the battle with your chatter becomes” (pg. 157).

While this sounds like bad news, we don’t have to listen to the chatterbox if we focus on listening to God. I think the bottom line of this book is that “Every Christian has a calling. And the chatterbox is assigned to interrupt that calling. The ability to overcome discouragement is driven by our intentional decision to reassure ourselves: God says I can” (pg. 171). So who’s voice are you going to listen to?

I received this book from "Blogging for Books" for this review. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Crashing Family Reunions

I thought I'd tell you about our family’s hobby for the past 11 months or so…actually, I guess it’s not so much a hobby, because we don’t really enjoy it…it’s more of a weekly activity that we continue to participate in for some reason. Maybe you've engaged in this hobby before as well...
We crash family reunions. Sometimes more than once. I thought maybe some of you might be able to relate.
We have crashed over fifteen family reunions in the past year or so, and we have experienced very little variety in the reactions of the families that we have encountered. The good news is that no one has gotten angry or kicked us out of their event. To their credit, a couple of groups have actually been very welcoming –speaking to us and inviting us to their next reunion. However, the most reaction when we crash a family reunion is that the family members there don’t even seem to notice that we’re there at all. It’s like we’re invisible to everyone.
What’s even worse than being an invisible bystander at one of these family reunions is to listen to someone from the platform gushing over what a friendly and engaging family they are and how good they are at warmly greeting the strangers that in their midst. It almost makes me want to interrupt the person speaking and tell them that while they may be warm and friendly with each other, they are not warm and friendly to strangers. 
I truly wish that this was not our weekly family activity. I really wish we were plugged into a family. I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that I’m talking about being a part of a church family. If you are a part of a church family, I just want to give you a few reminders about the strangers that may be in your midst from week to week.

  1. Please be aware of everyone around you, not just your close friends. I realize it is impossible to know everyone in a large church. However, this does not give you an excuse to ignore people around you that you don't know. You're right, they may not be visitors looking for a church home. They may be members that you just don’t know yet. Greet them either way. You may make a new friend in the process.
  2. First time visitors (those crashing your family reunion) are generally fairly easy to spot. We look around quite a bit because we don’t know where anything is. Offer to help us find what we’re looking for. We are usually sitting alone, not engaged in conversation with anyone. Please just say hello. It doesn’t have to be an in-depth conversation, just let us know that you see us and that you’re glad we are there (unless you aren’t glad we’re there, but that’s a different problem and a different blog post).
  3. Don’t leave the task of welcoming guests to the staff or those on the “greeter ministry.” Being greeted by the paid staff is nice, and receiving a quick “hello” from the person who hands you the bulletin is nice, but neither of these demonstrates genuine friendliness of a church family if no one else bothers to say anything or even look at you.
  4. Be very thankful for your church family. Thank God that you have a community of faith around you to encourage you, and to pray with you and for you. Some do not have that. The visitors that come to your church gatherings on Sunday are likely looking for a community, not just something to do with their spare time on Sunday mornings. Be a blessing to them by inviting them into your church family.

Has anyone else had this type of experience while looking for a church home? What suggestions would you offer? What suggestions would you offer to those who need to be welcoming to strangers who crash their Sunday morning family reunion?
One final reminder on being hospitable and welcoming --not only in your home, but in your church home:
"Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you...We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth." (3 John vs 5, 8 NIV)