Wednesday, July 10, 2024

WARNING: OFFERING PLATES ARE MENTIONED

“Everyone should give whatever they have decided in their heart. They shouldn’t give with hesitation or because of pressure. God loves a cheerful giver.” – 2 Corinthians 9:7

You may have heard that last line before: “God loves a cheerful giver.” In context, Paul’s trying to convince the Corinthians to support a collection for needy believers in Jerusalem, but today you’re likely to hear it quoted in a church stewardship campaign or right before the plates get passed on a Sunday morning.

I was reminded of that line recently. During the summer months, when a lot of our normal ushers are in and out with vacations and other trips, the church I serve will often just set the offering plates on tables near the sanctuary doors, where you can place a donation as you’re coming or going. There’s also a musical interlude in the service when anyone could carry an offering over to a plate.

And my girls just love that.

Emily will hand them each a bill, to get them used to the idea of giving to the church, and they’ll scurry over to deposit it in the plate. But then they skip back to the pew and demand more. So, she scrapes the bottom of her wallet for any more cash or any coins she can find (we’re Millennials—we don’t carry physical money around!), and then they dash to the plate again. One time, they returned to the pew elated, pleading for more, and make a third run. Buzzing around the sanctuary, participating in the service, handling real, grown-up money, they just eat all of that up.

They’re the most cheerful givers I’ve ever seen. And I have no doubt God loves it as much as they do.

Once, Jesus was asked who was greatest in his Kingdom. The disciples were often jockeying for glory like that. But when Jesus answered them, he didn’t pick one of the disciples. Instead, he called over some little kid, and he said, “I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you’ll never enter the kingdom.” (Matt 18:3) Then he answered their question: “anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom.” (18:4) It sounds to me like Jesus is saying that we could learn a lot about how to serve the Lord and follow him from kids.

Like, say, the sheer joy of participating in a service of worship and the overflowing cheer of giving.

In Christ’s eyes, that’s a truly great thing. God just loves it. And some of us in Pascagoula got to witness a sermon on it from two cute little experts this summer.

May we all have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Listen to the devotional right here! 

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

When Christians Fight

I heard a wise pastor say once that the problem is not that Christians fight—it’s that we don’t fight like Christians.

There’s a passage from Colossians chapter 3 that I like to read at weddings:

As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (3:12-14)

I like to read this at weddings because you will never share a happy, fulfilling lifetime with another person without compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and love. And in any relationship, humility about our own mistakes, compassion for the other person’s position, love that’s willing to take the L for someone else—these heart habits can always take the edge off of times of tension and conflict.

But when Christians crash into some point of bitter disagreement, whether it’s over interpretations of scripture, church finances, things going on in the nation, or divisive public figures, do we respond to each other with gentleness? How about patience? Humility?

When we fight, do we fight like Christians?

Or think about another popular scripture reading for weddings services, from 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. (13:4-5)

When there’s a conflict between Christians or within a congregation, are we easily angered? Do we keep a record of all the ways someone has wronged us? (You know, all those grievances you air when you’re in the car by yourself?)

Of course, even though Paul is writing about Christians living together in the Church, these words apply just as well to our lives together outside of church: with our friends, co-workers, parents, spouses, kids. (That’s why we read them at weddings!) Disagreement and conflict are unavoidable. However, you and I can dramatically alter the outcome of a dispute by changing our behavior in the middle of it. The key is approaching those moments committed, above anything else, to the kind of Christlike love Paul’s talking about here.

Because the real problem isn’t that Christians fight: it’s that we don’t fight like Christians.

We fight just like the rest of the world.

You can listen to this week's devotional below:

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Informed... or Opinionated?

Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

Do you check the news every day?

Maybe you keep cable news on in the background while you’re at home, or watch the videos your friends share on Facebook, or just scan some headlines on your phone or in the paper each morning.

Staying informed is good. We need to know about things happening in our local community, the actions of our elected officials at the state and national levels, and situations happening around Mississippi, the US, and the world where Christians could be a blessing. The news is important.

But, if you’re like me, staying informed isn’t the only thing—or maybe even the biggest thing—that you get from the news.

Because so much of what passes for news today is really pundits’ commentary, it’s easy to come away with just a little more information but a lot more opinions. Opinions about who’s right (us), who’s wrong (them), about what to celebrate (our thing), what to be furious about (their thing), about who’s telling the truth (our side), and who's lying (their side). The talking heads don’t always do a great job of informing us, but they are great at telling us who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys.” And we can come away more entrenched, more suspicious, angrier, and more smug.

That is dangerous stuff for Christians.

It’s dangerous, for starters, because none of that is going to help you love your neighbors more. But it’s also dangerous because that whole us-versus-them outlook will have you courageously and passionately fighting the wrong battles.

The commentators will tell us that certain people are our enemies, yet scripture tells us that, “We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens.” (Eph 6:12) The enemies that we should be focused on aren’t our neighbors—they are the powers of darkness out to separate us from God and destroy our souls. (Think the devil and demons, though the Bible mentions others, too.) These spiritual forces are also out to get those very neighbors you’re butting heads with. In fact, sometimes conflicts with Christians are what they will use to push people farther away from God.

Don’t allow the worldly squabbles that the pundits are so preoccupied with to consume you and distract you from the real enemies and the real battle. It’s not a coincidence that the very next verse in Ephesians 6 says to “put on the full armor of God” (6:13). Truth, righteousness, faith—we’re going to need it all to overcome the temptations, lies, and challenges being hurled at us.

But your neighbors, whom Jesus has called you to love and be a witness to, they desperately need you to overcome.

Listen to this week's devotional right here:

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Old Man Caleb and the Giants

In Joshua 14, the Israelites have taken over the Promised Land, Canaan, and are beginning to divide it up among the 12 tribes. In the midst of all that, an 85-year-old man by the name of Caleb asks Israel’s leader, Joshua, to grant him some land in the hill country. He says it was promised to him by the Lord. (14:12)

If Caleb’s name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because he was one of the twelve spies that Moses sent to do reconnaissance in Canaan after the Exodus from Egypt. When most of the spies warned against invading the land, saying “We can’t go up against them! They are stronger than we are!”, Caleb insisted, “Let’s go at once to take the land! We can certainly conquer it!” (Numbers 13:30-31) Joshua and Caleb, because of their confidence in the Lord in that moment, end up being the only two Israelites in their generation who survive the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and eventually enter the Promised Land. And, because of Caleb’s faith, the Lord tells Moses, “I will give to him and his descendants some of the very land he explored during his scouting mission.” (Deut 1:36)

Forty-five years later, this is the promise Caleb is reminding his old friend of.

There’s just one problem: the last time Caleb and Joshua visited that region, it was occupied by giants living in fortified cities. Remember the spies who didn’t want to invade Canaan? This is why. Back in Numbers 13, they reported that “the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak! …Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought, too!” (13:28-33)

But, for his part, Caleb never has seen giants in walled cities as much of a problem. He had counseled Moses to attack a generation earlier, and now he tells Joshua,

Today I am eighty-five years old. I am as strong now as I was when Moses sent me on that journey, and I can still travel and fight as well as I could then… You will remember that as scouts we found the descendants of Anak living there in great, walled towns. But if the Lord is with me, I will drive them out of the land, just as the Lord said. (14:10-12)

At 85, Caleb still has the same faith he did in his prime. Now, maybe he really is still as strong as he was then, but that’s not why he’s so confident here. He’s so confident because his faith is not in himself and his abilities.

It’s in the Lord. “If the Lord is with me,” he said, “I will drive them out of the land.”

For Caleb, the question is never “Can I do this?” The question is always “Can God do this?”

And the answer is always “Yes.”

Whether you’re 85 or 40, stay close to the Lord through today’s challenges. God can do this. And, if the Lord is with you, you can do this, too.

You can listen to this week's devotional right here:

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Embracing Interruptions

I said in a sermon recently that Jesus’s love made him open to constant interruptions from the people around him. I didn’t mention any specific examples of that, but it wasn’t because I couldn’t come up with any.

Think about the story of Jairus and his daughter in Mark 5:21-43. Jesus has just gotten off a boat when a man falls at his feet pleading for help, because his 12-year-old is sick and at death’s door. So, Jesus immediately goes with him (interruption #1). On the way to Jairus’s house, a woman who’s been bleeding for over a decade pushes through a crowd to touch Jesus’s clothes, and she’s healed. Jesus can sense that something happened, and he stops to talk with the woman (interruption #2). After this delay, a messenger brings word that the girl has died—but Jesus goes on with Jairus anyways, and restores his daughter to life.

Or take this story in Mark 10: “One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could touch and bless them. But the disciples scolded the parents for bothering him. When Jesus saw what was happening, he was angry with his disciples. He said to them, ‘Let the children come to me…’ Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them.” (10:13-14, 16) He was more than happy to pause his plans for those kids.

Another time, Jesus was traveling to Jericho, and a blind beggar beside the road started shouting “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Christ’s entourage yelled at the man to be quiet, but when Jesus heard him, he stopped. He had the man brought over and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Luke 18:35-43) Jesus's knee-jerk reaction wasn't "I'm busy," but "How can I help?"

In all of these scenes, Jesus isn’t bothered by the people looking for his time and attention. He came here to give people his time and attention! The disciples might have seen these things as interruptions, but Jesus just saw people—and he loves people. He embraced the interruptions.

Embracing interruptions may be the secret sauce of loving your neighbor well. Other people will always make demands on you. Whether a driver cuts you off on the road, a friend asks for a ride to a doctor’s appointment on a hectic week, or your kid needs a few minutes of attention when you’re in a hurry, people are constantly interrupting our plans, our mood, and our busyness. Those are the moments when your love can be most easily extinguished, or when it can shine most brightly.

For me, parenting has been like one long bootcamp for learning to embrace interruptions. A child reminds you, relentlessly, that your time is not your own—it belongs to others. That was a hard pill for me to swallow at first (and still is, sometimes), but I’m learning to share myself. I’m learning to love.

Where do you struggle to embrace the interruptions? With a co-worker, or a parent? With a sibling who’s struggling, a neighbor who’s alone and aging, a customer who’s demanding? Who are you still learning to love?

Whenever you’re having trouble reacting to something in a Christlike way in the heat of the moment, all you can do is try to prepare yourself ahead of time. Some preparation is slow and gradual, years of growing in patience and understanding. But some preparation can happen right before you walk in the room. Maybe you need to adjust your expectations. Maybe you need to remember that you're dealing with real people, who have real needs and feelings, whom Jesus really expects you to love.

What has worked for you? Or how might you start anticipating and preparing yourself for today’s interruptions? 

You can listen to this week's devotional right here!

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Come, Holy Ghost

The Pentecost window at Duke Divinity School.

Back in the 1700s, Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns for the early Methodists, some of which we’re still singing three hundred years later, like “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” and “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” One of his less well-known hymns is “Come, Holy Ghost, Our Hearts Inspire.” It was written to be sung before the reading of scripture in worship, but it also makes a great text to ponder around Pentecost.

One of my favorite verses is:

Expand thy wing, celestial Dove,

brood o’er our nature’s night;

on our disordered spirits move,

and let there now be light.

Wesley’s bringing together the image of the Holy Spirit appearing like a dove at Jesus’s baptism and the creation scene in Genesis 1. In the very first words in the Bible, Genesis says,

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

The Spirit, it says, was “hovering over” the waters, the way a bird hovers over its young (see Deut 32:11) or broods over a clutch of eggs. God’s Spirit was incubating new life out of this formless, empty world. But in the hymn, it’s not the earth that’s dark and empty: it’s your and my nature, our spirits. Wesley combines the bird-terminology in Genesis with the dove in the gospels, and asks the Holy Spirit to work in our lives like the Spirit worked at the beginning of the world. Brood over us, incubating new life in us. Start creating in us, heavenly Dove, speak to the dark places in our hearts: “Let there be light!”

The song calls on the Holy Spirit to recreate our hearts and lives, to make us new. When you sing it, you’re praying that Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 5 will be fulfilled: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” (5:17) Genesis 1 all over again, but in your life.

Everybody faces that darkness somehow.

Maybe you’re plagued by attitudes and feelings that smother your faith and your hope: anxiety over your finances, as that bank balance hovers around zero; depression brought on by a death, an empty nest, a lost job, or your own brain chemicals; bitterness from the divorce, or over all the years and hard work that haven’t brought the life you expected.

Or you’re caught in some bad habits—constantly, automatically hitting that “Buy Now” button on Amazon; the “innocent” flirtations with a married co-worker; those knee-jerk criticisms that your child, your spouse, or your employee won’t ever forget; time hidden away gorging your eyes and mind with pornography.

And you want to be made new. You want God to “create in me a clean heart… and renew a right spirit within me.” (Ps 51:10) You want to be a new creation.

So, invite the Holy Spirit to come in and make something new in your life. Invite the Spirit to “let there be light” in the dark in your heart and your head. Make time when the Spirit has your attention and you’re open to challenges and change. And make that your prayer: “Come, Holy Ghost, my heart inspire. Expand your wing, celestial Dove, brood over my nature’s night. On my disordered spirit move, and let there now be light.”

 Listen to this week's devotional right here:

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

More Harm than Good

In 1 Corinthians 11, the apostle Paul offers the Corinthians some instructions on how to practice the Lord’s Supper together, but he opens with a blunt accusation: “Now I don’t praise you as I give the following instruction because when you meet together, it does more harm than good.” (11:17)

What was going on in Corinth?

In Paul’s day, there were no church buildings like we see on every corner. Believers gathered in homes. Wealthy Christians with larger homes would have hosted the gatherings. And, apparently, these hosts treated church gatherings the same way they would a dinner party in that culture: your closest friends and most important guests received more and better food than everyone else, while those at the bottom of the totem pole, like slaves or freedmen, would receive even less than others, maybe nothing at all. So, the way the Corinthians shared this meal together amplified the social and economic divides in the church and embarrassed the needy members of the congregation (11:22). That’s what had Paul so upset with them. What should have been a unifying experience of encountering Jesus together (10:16-17) was instead tearing the Body limb from limb. “When you meet together, it does more harm than good.”

As I read this chapter recently, I couldn’t help wondering: when do our meetings “do more harm than good”? What do we do together that can weaken faith and fuel division rather than connect us to Christ and spur us on to love and good deeds? (Heb 10:24)

I came up with a few culprits, though maybe you can think of some more:

  • When the things we say in our gatherings are incongruent with the things we do in our lives, our meetings reek of hypocrisy and do more harm than good.
  • When individuals or groups get the impression that they are unwanted, unwelcome, or unworthy to be there—because of a cold reception or a rigid insistence on conformity—our meetings do more harm than good.
  • When our gatherings form us in the wrong direction, making us more suspicious, angrier, more inward-focused, more polarized and combative, or when they reinforce a desire to be served rather than to serve, to be entertained instead of transformed, our meetings do more harm than good.
  • When we think that our gatherings are enough—that we don’t need to do the individual work of drawing near to Jesus, because we dutifully assembled once or twice a week, or that we don’t need to meet needs and bandage wounds in the world because we’re already fulfilling our Christian responsibility on Sunday mornings, then our meetings do more harm than good.

If you read the rest of the chapter, Paul’s instructions for the Lord’s Supper paint a picture of proper Christian worship. It’s a gathering of the church of God where no one is forgotten or ignored, all are honored, the gospel is recounted, and the presence of Jesus is anticipated.

Again, I can’t help but wonder… when do our meetings look like that? I don’t ask that cynically. Sometimes, that is what church looks like. So how can we emphasize and amplify those aspects of our gatherings, to give everyone an edifying, life-changing experience of the presence of Christ in God’s Church?

You can listen to this devotional right here: