Larger Than Life

We’ve probably all heard the phrase “larger than life”  when describing an individual. If you describe someone as larger than life, you mean that they have a very strong personality and behave in a way that makes people notice them.  There can hardly be a greater compliment than to call someone “larger than life.” That is why it is usually reserved for only the most noteworthy personalities, or else its impact would be somewhat lessened.

However, it does seem sometimes that life can loom very large.  It is during these times that life seems to bear down upon us, deplete our spirits, and sends us into hiding.   In the Old Testament, we read of the story of the prophet Elijah.  When life took a scary turn for Elijah, as King Ahab and Queen Jezebel wanted him dead, Elijah headed to the hills, found a cave, and went into hiding.  When God found Elijah hiding in the cave he called for him to come outside.  We read in 1 Kings 19, God say to Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain,” the Lord replied. “I want you to see me when I pass by.” All at once, a strong wind shook the mountain and shattered the rocks. But the Lord was not in the wind. Next, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. Finally, there was a gentle breeze, and when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his coat. He went out and stood at the entrance to the cave.”  You might say that God reminded Elijah that God himself is larger than life.

This is a good message for us to be reminded of as well.  I know there are times in my own life when life looms big that I find myself wanting to escape from the pressures around me.  When life comes at you from all sides, then it can make the strongest of us tremble in our boots.  Even in faith sometimes we can feel as though our backs are up against the wall.  For many people today it feels just like this. However, we just didn’t learn this lesson becasue of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Life has already taught us this lesson.

photo of man sitting on a cave
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Yet in faith, we are reminded that our God is larger than life.  In 1 John 4:4, we read, “Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”  Regardless of what we face in our lives, God is always greater.  In faith, we hold onto this truth even when everything else around us looks differently.  Life can loom large, but God is greater.  Indeed, God is larger than life.

Softly and Tenderly

If you grew up in the Baptist Church as I did, the hymn Softly and Tenderly was sung often.  The hymn was written by Will L. Thompson in 1880.  The familiar chorus reads:  “Come home, come home, Ye who are weary come home. Earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling, Calling, “O sinner come home”  The lyrics invite us to come home to God, especially those who are weary.

Weary.  This is a word I have heard a lot lately and have experienced myself.  After many weeks of dealing with the COVID-19 virus, if you are like me you are tired and weary and ready to come home.  For me, home is how life looked before the virus threw everything into disarray.   The dictionary defines weary as feeling or showing tiredness.  Perhaps we identify with the words of William Shakespeare, “O God, O God, how weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!”  Indeed, in our world, it is easy to find ourselves sinking into despair.

Yet, it is for the tired and weary that God sent Jesus to the world to bring home.  We remember Jesus’ words from Matthew’s Gospel:  “Come to me all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”  Rest.  God is not talking about a 15-minute power nap which I sometimes take, but rather the rest that God gives to us is one of renewal and refreshment.  That is, in our weariness, God brings new life to every situation that causes us to be weary.  When we feel like giving up, this is when God steps in to renew us with His life-giving presence.  The great Trappist monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton said, “By reading the scriptures I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed around me and with me. The sky seems to be a pure, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green. The whole world is charged with the glory of God and I feel fire and music under my feet.”

When we enter into the rest that God gives us, not only is our present renewed, but our future focus becomes one of life and abundant life.  In God’s restGirl Sits In A Depression On The Floor Near The Wall, we who are weary can come home.  In Psalm 68:6 we read, “God gives the desolate a home to live in.”  If you are like me, this pandemic journey is leaving me weary at times.  However, let each of us remember that God is softly and tenderly calling us home.  A home where weary souls are renewed, broken spirits healed, and empty hearts filled with divine love.

 

Be Still

As a child growing up, I was not one who could sit still very long.  I needed to be moving or some part of my body moving.  So to sit beside me in church worship wasScreen-Shot-2019-05-31-at-5.14.43-PM a challenge for my parents.  Even today as a pastor, sitting in pulpit furniture, my legs are in motion a lot.  Ask my wife Jennifer, how many times I have kicked her sitting beside her.  Sometimes I wonder if this why God called me to preach, so I could at least be up moving during worship.

In our modern society, which is one of ongoing motion, sitting still is not always an easy accomplishment.  There is always something to do, somewhere to go, somebody to text or email.  If the COVID-19 virus has done anything good it has caused us to slow down and sometimes even sit still.  But even now, we are growing impatient with not being able to do.

In Psalm 46:10 the writer states, “Be still and know that I am God.”  Now if you read that statement as is, without the verses around it, you then have a nice bumper sticker message, or greeting card verse, or even an online devotion.  However, when you read the verse in context, Psalm 46 describes life as spinning out of control.  The psalmist describes the situation this way, “though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”  It almost reads like a tsunami of destruction and death flooding the lives of God’s people.  The writer goes on to speak about the upheaval that wars and violence cause in our world.  The overall picture is not a good one; not good at all.  

Yet, nestled in right in the middle of this cosmic mess is the message, “Be still and know that I am God.”  While the world may be spinning wildly around, the scripture calls for us to be still and know God.  We can’t calm the wildness of our world, but we can with God’s help calm the uncertainty, fears, and anxieties of our hearts.  We can live in a stormy world when we anchor ourselves in God’s presence.  God can give us an inner peace not based on our surrounding circumstances but by God surrounding us with God’s love.

As Jesus prepared his disciples for his death and future departure, he said to them, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”  The peace that God gives can withstand the storms of our lives, the uncertainties of our days, and the fears that encamp around us.  With God, we can settle down in an unsettling world.

There is a lot of advice good out there in regards to COVID-19 as we face these uncertain days.  But the best advice is found right here in Psalm 46:  “Be still and know that I am God.”  The best way to face the daily unsettling news is to settle down in God’s presence and know that God is still in control.

Following Jesus, Yet Leaving the Church Behind

Because of the COVID-19 virus, it has been 8 weeks since my church has been able to gather together for worship or anything else.  Stay at home guidelines have been followed in order to keep the virus from spreading.  While I  hate not being able to gather with my church family, I think it is the right decision.  We’ve still conducted Sunday worship.  We tape the service early churchPNGin the week and then make it available online on Sundays for people who would like to worship.  The good thing about it being online is that people who don’t usually attend church are tuning in.  Yet, for anyone who has made church foundational for their life, a computer screen is nothing like the real thing of being present with others during worship.

I miss the faces of my church family.  I didn’t realize how much spiritual energy I drew from those around me until suddenly we could not be together.  The handshakes, hugs, smiles, and conversations with my church family are like food for the soul.  After eight weeks I find myself hungry for that steady diet of worship, prayer, study, fellowship, and ministry.  I’m glad that Jesus called us to be a part of the body of Christ, the church.  Following Jesus all by myself just doesn’t work for me.

Over my years of pastoring a church, I have had people tell me that they believe in Jesus, but that they really don’t need the church.  In one way this statement is true.  We don’t need Jesus plus the church to be saved.  A personal relationship with Jesus is what makes us a Christian.  We even get baptized. However, when we fail to be a part of the body of Christ and a local church, we are missing out on the kind of life that God intends for us to live.  I often tell people it is like falling in love, marrying the one you love, but then choosing not to live with the one you just married.  You are married, but you are missing out on the joy of the relationship.

When we enter into a relationship with Jesus, he invites us to be a part of his family.  When we bypass a relationship with the family of God, then we are out there on our own trying to live faithfully for Jesus.  I don’t want to be a Lone Ranger kind of Christian.  I need my church family.  Perhaps this what the writer of Hebrews meant in Hebrews 10: 24-25 – “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

The day is approaching when we will be able to join together as a church family.  I can’t wait to be back with those who bring so much joy and meaningful relationships to my life.  The people of my church family are just like me:  fellow pilgrims journeying through this world as a follower of Jesus while trying to do the best to live for him.

As a Christian, COVID-19 has reminded me that I don’t want to follow Jesus alone and how much I need and love the family that walks with me.

A Heavy Heart

During this time of the year, it is difficult to walk into stores such as Target and Walmart and not see huge displays of gifts for Valentine’s Day.  Everything from large stuffed animals, flowers, cards, and candy.  At one recent visit, I picked up a heart shaped box of chocolates weighing 5 pounds.  I thought to myself, that is what you call a heavy heart.

A heavy heart.  So often when we use the phrase a heavy heart it is accompanied by bad news.  For example, “it is with a heavy heart that I tell you that this person has died.”  The dictionary defines heavy heart this way: “in a sad or miserable state.” Undoubtedly, everyone has suffered from a heavy heart at some point in their lives. Hearts can become heavy for lots of reasons:  grief, fear, worry, depression, pain, uncertainty, and a host of other experiences that can weigh us down.  During these times the heaviness of our heart drains our living and leaves us wondering if we will ever feel good or happy again.  Someone once said, “When the heart is heavy and the soul is down, the eyes can only speak the language of tears.”

Every day we meet individuals who may be bearing a heavy heart.  Behind the smiles we see on people’s faces, there can be lives that are hurting and burdened by something. Sometimes that person is us.  As people of faith we are called to relate to others in ways that help relieve that heaviness.  In Proverbs 12:25  we read: “Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.”  Kindness towards others should be our response to everyone we meet.  We are called to treat people with kindness so that through our kind words and acts God’s love can be shared. God is truly the only one who can lift up our hearts when the world weighs them down.

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Jesus would say, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 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. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

The apostle Paul would write in his letter to the Ephesians, “Be kind and tender-hearted to one another.” (Ephesians 4:32)  May we follow Paul’s advice and live with kind and tender hearts in a heavy-hearted world.

A Broken Nativity

During the season of Advent there is always an emergence of people’s nativity sets in people’s homes.  These nativity displays can be very simple as well as very elaborate. Some are inexpensive and others can be quite expensive.  You also see nativity sets outside during the season; wooden ones, inflatable ones, and even live ones.

In our home, we usually display a nativity set that has been handed down by family. As a result, it has been damaged over the years.  With the set, there are a couple of three-legged sheep, a donkey with one ear, only two magi, and the rest of the figurines are chipped, or the paint is no longer where it used to be.  Yet even with the defects, it is special to our family regardless of its brokenness.

In all truthfulness however, it is probably a good example of those who gathered around the new born Jesus on the first Christmas as well as all of us who worship him today.  We all come to Jesus somewhat broken, bruised, and beaten up by life.  Some of it is a result of our sinful choices while others are just experiences that we go through that can leave us damaged.

As joyous and happy the Christmas season can be for many, there are also many who are hurting.  Over the course of the last year, their lives were disrupted by sickness or death, unemployment or financial struggles, family divisions, inner depression and despair just to name a few of the things that can break us.  In fact, there are no perfect lives at a nativity other than a newborn baby in a manger.  Perhaps this is why we are drawn towards Jesus.  Jesus represents hope for lives that have been damaged by life.  The Psalmist would confess, “The Lord is near the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.”  (Psalm 24:18) In Jesus God came to us to save us, free us, heal us, and lead us into a greater story.

The nativity tells a story.  It tells the story of how God loved us so much that he gave us his son as a gift to everyone who has been broken and beaten down by life.  We are all welcome to gather around the manger child who would one day die beaten and broken so that we might not ever have to suffer alone.  The coming of Jesus is our hope in our world, even in all its brokenness.

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Coming and Going

I think most people of faith have their favorite Bible verses that they turn to often for guidance, direction, and comfort.  For different reasons, a verse stands out to us, resonates with us, and speaks to us.  We may underline or highlight the verse or commit it to memory.

Psalm 121 speaks about God’s presence and help in our lives.  It teaches us that God never dozes off like we may in a Sunday sermon. One of my favorite verses is found in the last line of Psalm 121.  The writer confesses:

The Lord will keep your going out and your coming from this time on and for evermore.

Most of life is spent coming and going.  Now we may take long trips and vacations or see the world, but most of life is journeying simply from here to there.  We leave home and go to work, school, or church.  We stop by the grocery store to pick up a few things.  A trip to the doctor or the bank may find its way on our daily calendar. And if you are like me, you enjoy walking down your driveway to check for mail at your mailbox.  Yes, we spend a lot of time coming and going.

Then there are those times in which life gets chaotic.  There is too much to do or some unexpected event sends our lives into a whirlwind.  Often in such experiences we may remark to another person, “I don’t know if I am coming or going.”  Our lives are in such a state of disruption that our sense of direction is simply off.

The good news is that in all of our coming and going that the Lord keeps us.  The word keep literally means “to guard” in the Hebrew.  Regardless of what is going in our lives God is on guard duty.  God is watching over us with eyes of love and grace. John Newton who gave to us the words to the classic hymn Amazing Grace also once wrote, “If the Lord be with us, we have no cause of fear. His eye is upon us, His arm over us, His ear open to our prayer – His grace sufficient. His promise unchangeable.”

So today in our coming and going, God is with us.  When we don’t know if we are coming or going, God is with us.  And when we are simply stuck in place, God is with us.  God is on guard duty.  We are always and forever in God’s keep. going and coming sign 363.jpg-550x0