The Bluest Skies

My friend Mary reminded me of that old song that includes the line that the bluest skies you’ll ever see are in Seattle. These October days show clearly why someone might have that thought. It is rare for Seattle to have such a string of beautiful, clear, vivid days like we have been having.

In such a stretch as this, it is easy to forget the unending days of rain, the relentless gray that once made Seattle the suicide capital of the nation, and the storms of winter that are escalating in recent years with more ice and snow than the locals (not to mention the thousands of new folks) know quite how to deal with, considering the seven hills on which Seattle was built.

It is easy to give thanks on days like this, when we feel blessed by the warm sun and the gorgeousness of the changing colors of autumn.

But the days will return when we simply have to know that the blue skies are up there somewhere, when we have to have faith that warm days will be with us again, when we will give thanks even though there appears to be less reason to do so. And the reason we will do that is because the Bible is clear:  “… in every situation [no matter what the circumstances] be thankful and continually give thanks to God; for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (AMP).

           

Read It Again

Part of the joy of re-reading a book you loved in the past is getting to notice elements of writing craft that you cannot see the first time through.

For example, in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, there is early-on (Chapter 6) a very short scene in which the main character is being badgered by a reporter. His friend and protector “went through the door low and fast. The momentum of his drive slammed the intruder into a wall…” We as readers are told that this incident is “literally nightmarish” for our lead, but we have no idea why, nor do we know we’ve just had a bit of foreshadowing. That gift awaits us only if we revisit those early pages after reading the whole book.

In our age, many of us find it hard enough to finish a good book the first time through, let alone to tackle a second reading. But the second reading is where we find meanings impossible to see without the repeated exposure.

The same is true of Bible study. So much is there, waiting for us to find it, but we are best served by repeated readings. Our patient study and revisiting of Scripture grant us insights and blessings we rarely are able to see the first time through.

           

Praising and Giving

I’ve been thinking about the connection between praising and giving. There must be a strong, direct connection because congregations all over the nation, if not the planet, routinely close the “giving” portion of the worship service with the Doxology: “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.”

It seems to me that the relationship might look like a chain of links. The first link would be praise—the starting place of all things good. We praise God, from Whom all blessings flow. Those blessings give us the power, ability, and inclination to be givers ourselves. That’s the second link: us in the role of givers.

The third link is composed of all those individuals, causes, church functions, etc., who are the recipients or beneficiaries of our giving. Every gift has the potential of reaching an ever-widening circle in its impact.

I believe that something mystical happens in the second and third links. That is, the Presence of God is there.

The benefits received in the third link are cause for new praise, the fourth link, as people give thanks for the good that has come into their lives.

Praise is the beginning and end of every circumstance of giving.

 

           

Blessed Characterizations

A blog entry here two and a half years ago (January 2016) discussed a phase I was in of reading Marilynn Robinson books. The phase is currently being revisited because my reading buddy, Linda, and I have taken up Gilead—we’re both reading it and will spend some time talking about it.

Robinson’s gift as an author is not plot, nor setting, nor pacing, but rather characterization. Her key characters are deeply drawn to the extent that they become unforgettable. This is true mostly of the characters who actually appear on the page as part of the story (the pastor John Ames and his wife, Lila, for example), but also of a few who appear only in the memories of the key players.

Through John Ames’s memories, we come to know his grandfather pretty well, a difficult man long gone from the world but one who left his mark on his family and his church. No matter how dire a situation the old man faced—including the loss of an eye in wartime—he was inclined to remark: “I am confident that I will find great blessing in it.” How can you not love a character who makes such a statement his approach to life?

Gilead is a love story, of sorts, but much more it is a working out of one man’s theology and fortunately he is quite ready to admit when he’s in over his head. One of a great many lines I’ve marked is this one: “… there are certain attributes our faith assigns to God: omniscience, omnipotence, justice, and grace. We human beings have such a slight acquaintance with power and knowledge, so little conception of justice, and so slight a capacity for grace, that the workings of these great attributes together is a mystery we cannot hope to penetrate.”

           

An Answer to Spiritual Darkness

Several months ago, a friend and I read and discussed Jacqueline Winspear’s Pardonable Lies, third in the Maisie Dobbs novel series. Maisie is a survivor of World War I in which she served as a nurse providing aid and relief to the most seriously wounded soldiers in France. Ten years later, she makes her living as a psychologist and investigator. But she is not without her own psychological challenges and areas of spiritual darkness.

When those challenges become disruptive, Maisie is wise enough to take those matters to her spiritual guide, a man named Dr. Basil Khan, who had taught her early-on that “seeing was not necessarily something we did with the eyes; there was a depth of vision to be gained from stillness.”

That practice of stillness gets Maisie through most of what comes to her in her daily life, but there are still times of serious challenge. Khan’s counsel to Maisie is: “. . . when a mountain appears on the journey, we try to go to the left, then to the right; we try to find the easy way to navigate our way back to the easier path. But the mountain is there to be crossed. It is on that pilgrimage, as we climb higher, that we are forced to shed the layers upon layers we have carried for so long. Then we find that our load is lighter and we have come to know something of ourselves in the perilous climb.”

           

Choose Joy

We’ve heard them preached on … some of us have even memorized the whole list of them … but often some confusion lingers about the “fruit of the Spirit” written about in the fifth chapter of Galatians. The first eight in the list are accepted readily: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness. We all see the value and blessing of these. But then there is that ninth one—that’s the one that gives us trouble: self-control.

We get uncomfortable when we think self-control is required of us, because we worry that maybe we don’t practice as much self-control as we should. Leaping to our minds are occasions from our history when self-control wasn’t uppermost in our minds.

But this line of thinking leads us completely off track. The whole point is that these are fruit of the Spirit; these are the result of the Spirit’s residence in our lives. The Amplified Bible defines the fruit of the Spirit as “the work which His presence within accomplishes.” Rather than convicting us for something we lack, the list is our assurance that we have full right and access to all of these.

When I find myself coming up short—perhaps in patience, perhaps in peace—I can remind myself that the patience and the peace are already there within me where the Spirit resides; I simply have to choose to live in it.

Last week the shortage seemed to be joy, so I made a sign for the corner of my bathroom mirror. It says “Choose Joy.” Every time I see it, I am reminded that the joy is already within me, accomplished by the presence of the Spirit.

           

Two More Extraordinary Promises

I heard recently that there are 7,000 promises in the Bible, and admit that I have no idea how that number was determined. Maybe it’s just a nice, round number with a 7 in it. But whether they total 7,000 or not, there are too-many-to-count extraordinary promises in the Bible. Every few weeks, this blog looks at some of them.

Today I want to point out Psalm 32:8 and Psalm 34:7–10. If you were trapped in a wilderness and had no other promises but these two, I think you could live happily.

Psalm 32:8 (NIV) reads: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.” In less than two dozen words, we are given the promise that we don’t have to sort out our way all by ourselves, but divine help—from one who loves us—is available to us.

Psalm 34:7–10 (NIV) expounds on a theme: “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” This is covenant language: you agree to do this, and I agree to do that. Your part is to fear [regard with reverence and awe] the Lord, to experience the Lord directly, to seek the Lord. In return, the Lord ensures that (1) His angels will settle in around you to protect you, and (2) you will lack nothing good that you need.

Words to live by.

           

How Is Lent Going for You?

We’re now a couple of weeks into Lent, which started with Ash Wednesday, February 14. Did you “give something up”? If you made that commitment, how is it going for you? Maybe you are fasting from a particular food or a certain behavior. Maybe you are keeping a commitment to focus on your spirituality every day. Or maybe you’re beginning to think of other ways you might honor this season.

If you still have a longing to participate in the religious tradition of fasting during this 40-day period before Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, you might consider the following suggestions from Pope Francis:

  • Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
  • Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
  • Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
  • Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
  • Fast from worries and trust in God.
  • Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
  • Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
  • Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.
  • Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
  • Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
  • Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.

(source: http://kingscourtparish.ie/2017/02/a-thought-from-pope-francis-for-lent/)

My favorite thing to give up for Lent is resentment. It really does make a difference. God be with you.

           

The Reverend Billy Graham, 1918–2018

Today the world lost a spiritual giant whose ministry was shared around the world in some 90 countries, and here in the United States with huge crowds of people and with every US President from Harry Truman to George W. Bush.

He still has wisdom to teach us.

Years ago when Billy Graham was perhaps in his 80s, he was asked by Trinity Broadcasting Network founder Paul Crouch, “If you had your life to live all over again, would you do anything different?”

Billy Graham replied, “Yes, I would study more, read the Bible more, and pray more. I’ve let other things interfere with that too much.” If such a man as he could make such a statement, how much could every one of the rest of us learn from it.

In sermons, he also stated that the whole Bible could be summed up in one verse: John 3:16.—  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

 

           

Keep Your Church Alive

A friend recently lent me a fascinating and reader-friendly book entitled Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom S. Rainer. Without her recommendation, I would never have picked up this book because the title clearly emphasizes churches that die out. She advised focusing on the subtitle, which, of course, is the opposite emphasis—how to prevent the dieout.

This 2014 book, by the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, grew out of a desire to understand why so many churches that were once vibrant congregations have in recent years seriously declined and ultimately closed their doors and sold off their properties.

Whether your church is seeing a decline in its numbers of worshippers as the Sundays go by, or is still in the upswing of its church life cycle, this is a book that offers valuable insight into what keeps a church alive. Even though the choir and music ministers are still working hard and serving up beautiful music, even though the pastor still works hard on his/her sermon each week, there may be shifts occurring that don’t bode well for the future.

Rainer writes: “The decline is in the vibrant ministries that once existed. The decline is in the prayer lives of the members who remain. The decline is in the outward focus of the church. The decline is in the connection with the community. The decline is in the hopes and dreams of those who remain.”

That’s a lot of decline, but the problem is that each shift may be subtle and quite easy to overlook, even when it’s building on previous overlooked changes.

“More than any one item,” writes Rainer, “these dying churches focused on their own needs instead of others. They looked inwardly instead of outwardly. Their highest priorities were the way they’ve always done it, and that which made them the most comfortable.”

Two fundamentals of critical importance are meaningful prayer (both individual and corporate), and actively caring for the surrounding community. No matter whether the church is on the upswing or the downswing, these two fundamentals make all the difference in whether the church is Christ-centered, likely to remain strong, and able to continue long-term to provide a healthy place of worship.