January 29, 2012

Peace of God

We have seen that Paul gives advice on living a holy life in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22 and Philippians 4:4-9. He says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” (download the citations here) As we look to the Lord in joy, prayer and thanksgiving something amazing happens. We find that the Spirit of the Lord gives us peace.

Paul says we will “not quench the Spirit” when we look to God in prayer and joy (1 Thessalonians 5:9) and that the “God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:9). Isn’t peace a wonderful thing to seek? And even better to obtain? But how…? We seek God-with prayer, thanksgiving, and rejoicing.

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘peace’? Does a dove, like the one in this blog pop into your head? Is it the absence of violence or a calm, quiet place? Certainly peace can be like that, but I am almost always reminded of the hymn “They cast their nets in Galilee” by William Alexander Percy. It gives a different picture of what the ‘peace of God’ really is.

They cast their nets in Galilee
Just off the hills of brown
Such happy simple fisherfolk
Before the Lord came down

Contented peaceful fishermen
Before they ever knew
The peace of God That fill'd their hearts
Brimful and broke them too.
Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
Homeless, in Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
Head-down was crucified.
The peace of God, it is no peace,
But strife closed in the sod,
Yet, brothers, pray for but one thing -
The marvelous peace of God.

The hymn is a reminder that the Peace of God is active and calls us to step out of our comfort zone, like the disciples did. The result may not be what we anticipate but God is with us if we just look around for His presence. Sometimes it is our very hurts that put us face to face with God. And then we find peace.

When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-38) she was a seeker. Because of her lifestyle, she was ostracized from the townsfolk of Sychar. Yet, it was that very shunning that put her in a position to meet Jesus. She came to draw water at an unusual time of day (the 6th hour), separate from the other women. Getting water at noon was unusual. Most women came early in the morning so they could do their daily chores. The Samaritan woman comes later, when the gossips were busy in their homes. I imagine she was hurt by their contempt and so she avoided them.

Jesus tells her “whoever drinks of the water that I shall give will never thirst…the water…will become a spring of water welling up for eternal life” and she responds, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst.” (John 4:14-15) I am reminded of the image of an artesian well, which is basically a spring bubbling up from the ground and not needing a pump because the pressure below pushes the water out. God’s peace is like that, bubbling up and giving drink to our souls in good times and bad. Sometimes the droplets are lovely things like sunsets and kittens, at others the drops contain sorrow or pain. God is in all the water drops-offering and providing peace.

The Samaritan Woman might add another verse to the hymn:

She came seeking water that day
A woman wanting peace of heart.
Jesus offered living water,
And peace she raced to impart.

The peace of God is living water refreshing our souls in the ups and downs of life. Each day offers a new start, a new chance to find God in each event. With the hymnist, we should “pray for but one thing - The marvelous peace of God.”

Next week we’ll look at ways to practice all that Paul suggests-the prayer, rejoicing, thanksgiving and seeking the peace of God.

January 22, 2012

Thanks in all things

We are in the time between Christmas and Lent, sometimes called 'ordinary time,' because there aren't any great big church feasts. We are looking and praying through 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22 and the similar citation from Philippians 4:4-9. The Apostle Paul gives the churches at Thessalonica and Philippi directions for living a holy life. You can download them here for easy reference.

This week we come to the third of Paul’s instructions: “give thanks in all circumstances”. Like “rejoice always” and “pray without ceasing”, this doesn’t seem like an easy thing to do. How can we be thankful when bad things happen?
Another author notes that Paul says to “give thanks IN all circumstances” not FOR all circumstances. The letter to the Philippians makes it even clearer. “IN everything, by prayer and petition, WITH THANKSGIVING, present your requests to God.” Prayer, rejoicing, and thanksgiving all work together to give us confidence that “all things work for God for those who love God” (Romans 8:28)
However, when disaster strikes or the diagnosis comes back with bad news, it is difficult to “give thanks”. Yet, if we can look for God within the situation, it transforms both you and the situation. God is greater than anything we face. Time and again we see stories on the news about men and women triumphing over their situation or sickness because of their thankful attitude.

Psalm 56 is a recitation of a faithful person who, although he is beset by enemies, can say “I put my trust in thee.” Verse 8 says “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” God does not forget our sorrows, but because we are love, God transforms them so that we can say “God is for me.” (Ps. 56:9b)

Pollyanna, in the 1913 book of the same name (and assorted subsequent movies), makes it a game to find things to be thankful for. She calls it the “Glad Game” and looks for something to be thankful about in each situation. It is the same with the disasters in life, we can still find something, however small, to be thankful for!

An old hymn reminds us of one way to move past the seeming disasters of life.
When upon life's billows
You are tempest tossed;
When you are discouraged,
Thinking all is lost;
Count your many blessings,
Name them one by one
And it will surprise you
What the Lord has done.

An exercise that can help is to start a “Thankfulness Diary.” Each day write down one, two, three, or more things you were thankful for through the day. Sometimes if your day is really tough, it can be hard to remember the good things from the morning. Another idea is to take a pad of sticky notes with you throughout the day and jot down the things that you are thankful for as the day goes along. Maybe it’s a parking space when you need it. Maybe you got a nice phone call or an unexpected message from a friend. Perhaps just seeing a beautiful scene is enough to make you give thanks.  

Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” Next week, we will see that the result of the Joy, Prayer, and Thanksgiving is Peace.

January 15, 2012

Pray without Ceasing

Last week we started looking and praying through 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22 and the similar citation from Philippians 4:4-9. Paul wrote both the letters to separate churches and about a decade apart, yet his encouragement and advice is the same. He starts by urging everyone to Rejoice Always-yet how are we to do that? The next verse gives a clue. We are to “pray without ceasing” and “in everything, by prayer and petition…present your requests to God.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17 and Philippians 4:6)

Praying without ceasing seems almost as difficult as rejoicing no matter what happens. Is Paul asking us to do the impossible in these citations? Not really.

C.H. Spurgeon in a sermon delivered in 1872 noted that rejoicing and prayer are tied together. “The more praying the more rejoicing. Prayer gives a channel to the pent-up sorrows of the soul, they flow away, and in their stead streams of sacred delight pour into the heart. At the same time the more rejoicing the more praying; when the heart is in a quiet condition, and full of joy in the Lord, then also will it be sure to draw nigh unto the Lord in worship. Holy joy and prayer act and react upon each other.”

But how do we constantly pray? How can we continually “present [our] requests to God”? I don’t know about you, but I am easily distracted from an attitude of prayer, but referring again to the Contented Little Pussy Cat, we hear Abner say “No good thing was ever learned without practicing.” There are many ways and styles of prayer. I came across this nice long collection of ideas for praying.  

Of course the basic model for our prayer is the one Jesus taught that starts “Our Father…” (Luke 11:2f and Matthew 6:9f) Jesus himself went away from his disciples on more than one occasion to pray. The photo of a child and dog is cute and captures our cultural concept of what prayer involves. We get on our knees beside our bed, or in church, close our eyes and say a nice prayer.

Prayer doesn’t have to be on our knees in church, though. Paul is saying we can and should pray wherever we are and whatever we are doing. It might be a quick prayer on the phone with a friend, a silent prayer for understanding in a difficult situation, “Thank you, God” when seeing something beautiful or getting through something. Simply pausing in awe of a sunset or child’s joy can be a prayer.

A wise priest once told me that ‘arrow prayers’ can be used at any time we feel the need to offer petitions or praise to God. Turns out, the term has been around a long time (since St. Augustine of Hippo ca 4th century). It is a short prayer relevant to the current situation. Sometimes it is something like “Thank you for the beauty of this sunset.” More often it is a call for help, “Give me patience with this person or event.”

Another fast reminder to pray is your own hand. The thumb reminds you of those far away who need prayer. Your pointer finger is for those who lead us (pastors, teachers, etc.) and your second finger is those who have responsibility or power. Your ring finger is a reminder of those we love and the little finger is for the weak, ill, helpless, etc. Lastly, your whole hand is for yourself as a way to be aware that we are His hands to all we meet.

There are many other aids to prayer-music, Bible verses, candles…the list goes on and on. Perhaps you’d like to share your own as a comment. The verses we are studying during this Epiphany season can be used as prayers and prayer aids, too. Whatever inspires and reminds you to turn to God in prayer is something to treasure and use. Take Abner’s advice and practice a little bit of prayer each day until you will find you are praying without ceasing!

Next week we’ll look at how Thanksgiving ties in with Rejoicing and with Prayer.

January 8, 2012


During Advent we looked at how various people in the Nativity saga responded to God’s call on their lives and how their response can help us say with Mary, ‘behold the servant of the Lord.’ How do you keep alive the fire of your first call, your first love of the Lord? As time passes, it is easy to forget the joy and delight you felt when you were sure that God had singled you out for some ministry-big or small.

From now until Lent we’ll be looking at two parallel passages from Paul’s letters as ways to help us live and remain faithful to our life in Christ. The first is 1 Thessalonians 5:16-20. Scholars believe this was written to the young church in Thessalonica soon after Paul established it (50-55 AD). He moved on to Corinth in his missionary journeys and wrote back to the church to encourage them. The second passage is Philippians 4:4-9, written it seems after Paul was in prison (61-63 AD) and nearing the end of his life. The church in Philippi was the first church in what is now Europe. When Paul established the church in Philippi he was stepping way outside his comfort zone by leaving Israel and Asia Minor. (This blog explored Paul's journeys in Acts during Pentecost.)

Interestingly, the passages are very similar in tone and advice though separated by about a decade of ministry, travel, and travail. The two churches and believers through the centuries have been encouraged to Rejoice-Pray-Give Thanks-Be at Peace-Practice Faith-Do Good-Fulfill the Will of God. Download them both here.

I encourage you to read through one or both of the 2 citations daily over these next few weeks. Each week we’ll look at one part of this advice, starting this week with the admonition to “Rejoice in the Lord always”. This line is very special to me because when I was confirmed the Bishop gave each ‘class’ a memory verse. This one has stuck with me for these many years since the day I made an adult commitment to my Lord as a High School senior.

As you read the citations you’ll notice a little difference. To the Thessalonians, Paul says simply, “Rejoice always”. Years later when writing to the church in Philippi, he expands it, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” 

What does “rejoice” mean? The root is the Latin word gaudere (be glad), becoming the Anglo-French rejois or to welcome and enjoy again. If we are trying to rekindle our first love of the Lord, welcoming [God] again is a good way to start. If we are just feeling a bit down, welcoming gladness is also helpful in turning the depression around. It’s not an easy admonition to follow though.  Too often we let circumstances remove our joy. How do we “rejoice always”? There are so many things to cause us to worry and not rejoice. Isn't it interesting that Paul repeats "Rejoice" when he is in prison and facing death. If anyone had reason to be fearful and not rejoice, you would think it would be someone in prison for his faith.

A long time ago my favorite book was called “The Contented Little Pussy Cat” (by Frances Ruth Keller). In it, Abner was the contented kitten who never seemed to worry. All the animals come to ask him why he is “so happy and contented all the time.” At first he cannot tell them, but eventually comes up with an answer: “I never feel sorry about what happened yesterday nor do I worry about what might happen tomorrow.” His friends are struck by the wisdom and vow to practice it.

Jesus says the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount. “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body…your heavenly Father knows you need them all.” (Matthew 7:25-32)

Jesus tells us that God will take care of all our needs, so we don’t have to worry ‘that it might rain tomorrow and I’ll get my white fur all spotted’ as Mr. White Bunny told Abner. In the letter to the Philippians, Paul says that we are to “Rejoice IN THE LORD.” It is not in our own power that we can succeed in rejoicing. When we focus on God’s provision, though, we are more able to let God take over the things we worry about.

You may remember a Sunday School song-Rejoice in the Lord Always. It will stick in your head and help you remember to rejoice. You can find it on YouTube if you want to sing along.

Next week we will consider how Prayer helps us live into our life in Christ.

January 1, 2012

New Directions

We’ve reached the end of this six-week blog-study of the story of the Nativity with reference to scripture (the Gospel of Luke) and snippets from Mary, My Love by Cynthia Davis. For Mary, Joseph and all the others called by God to be partners in the Nativity saga, the event meant a huge change in their plans. When we follow the One whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Day, our carefully laid ambitions and goals will probably change, too.

Ministry often takes new direction, whether we expect it to or not. It evolves and we must evolve with it. At the beginning, Mary and Joseph did all the ‘proper’ things for a newborn. At 8 days old, he was circumcised, “and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21) The image by Bartolo di Fredi is only one of many representations of this event. (January 1 is not just New Year’s Day, it is Holy Name Day, when many churches commemorate this event.) A month later, Mary and Joseph travel to the Temple for her purification and to present him “as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’” (Luke 2:23) Again their faith and calling are affirmed by Simeon and Anna, two elderly prophets living in the Temple precincts.

It is 12 years later that they are confronted with the fact that their part in Jesus’ life and indeed their call to ministry is changing. “Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” (Luke 2:41-52)

The young man’s question “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” must have caused Mary and Joseph to rethink their part in his life and what their call was going to be in the future. Luke tells us that again, “His mother treasured all these things in her heart.” Another translation says “she pondered them in her heart.” Part of her thinking must have been what direction her ministry would take, now that her son was growing up.

In Mary, My Love, Joseph comes to a sense of peace after they find Jesus in the Temple. The Temple leaders offer to allow Jesus to stay and learn from them. Joseph refuses (that’s not in the Bible, just in my book) and the family leaves together.

My heart was at peace. I knew that Jeshua was not called to the priesthood, but to something different.
“God will show you the way, my son,” I whispered, watching the young man laughing with his mother. “God will be with you. When the time is right, you will hear the call of your Father and know what to do.”
I felt surrounded by love and assurance that could only be from God. I no longer had any doubts that the Holy One of Israel was in control of my life and of my son’s destiny. He would grow up as the son of a simple carpenter until God made known to him the path of his life.
“God you did not steal my wife nor will you take my son. Your actions are hidden from men, but I believe you seek relationship with all people. Into your hands I commend my life.”
The boy and his mother walked ahead of me. I was overwhelmed with love for them. I hurried to join them.
“In the morning we will head for Nazareth,” I stated.
Mary smiled and hugged her son around the waist. “It will be nice to be home.”
Jeshua looked at his mother and then at me. “I will be glad to see my brothers and sisters. There will be work for us to do in the shop, won’t there Abba?”
I nodded and we walked together to Zechariah’s home.

Our call to ministry is organic. It is ever changing and growing and renewing. If we fight to keep it static, it will die and so will our call. The Old Testament Joseph (son of Jacob) tries to explain this to his brothers after Jacob’s death. “You meant evil against me; but God meant if for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive…” (Genesis 50:20) He understood that his youthful ambition to ‘lord it over’ his brothers was fulfilled, but in a way he never would have expected. In looking back Joseph could clearly see God’s hand at work in his life, even through the time as a slave and in prison.

Mary and Joseph must have finally understood that their part in Jesus’ life would change, too. “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.” Jesus also “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” They watched him grow and mature into the man who would fulfill his own call as Messiah.

Has your ministry taken a new direction? How have you responded? Can you look objectively at the ministry and see that what seems a complete change, is really a natural outgrowth of the current ministry?

As the secular new year begins, I plan to take a minute (or longer) to consider where my ministry is and where my relationship with God is. Too often the busyness of the season and family and even work can get in the way of evaluating our call and our ministry. There is a saying the God can heal the most broken heart-but we have to give him the pieces. The poem by Ben Hildner* below (and right) reminds me of this.

Living Lord, Messiah, help me to be open to change and growth in my call and ministry. Let me not fear to go in new directions and to trust you to bring to fulfillment that which you start. AMEN
Next week, I’ll have a new series of meditations for Epiphany-which in the liturgical cycle is the season when we look at the ‘manifestation’ of Christ to the world.

*Broken Toys

As children bring their broken toys, with tears, for me to mend
I brought my broken dreams to God because he was my friend.
But then, instead of leaving Him in peace to work alone
I hung around and tried to help . . . with ways that were my own.
At last I snatched them back and cried, "How can You be so slow?"
"My child," He said. "What could I do? You never did let go."
--By Ben Hildner--