Riding along the highway on a Sunday afternoon, we passed, every mile or so, a church. Some had eye-catching signs, such as "A church alive is worth the drive" or "Our lifeguard walks on water." Some had traditional names and/or denominations, but others were more obscure. One had a name I had to 'google' before I could figure it out. But all were closed at that mid-afternoon hour; if we had not been aware that it was a Sunday, those buildings would not have let us know that Sunday was different from any other day of the week.
We don't often make a distinction between the buildings that we call 'church' and the people of God who are the real 'church'--the body of Christ. But riding past those closed buildings made me realize the difference, and also make me hope and pray that those of us who are the voice, the hands, the feet, the heart of that 'real' church are being 'the church' when we are away from the building. Because if we are not, then those buildings might as well never open their doors.
Frederick Buechner, in his book ''A Room Called Remember'', says:
The power that stirs the heart must become the power that stirs the hands and feet because it is the places your feet take you to and the work you find for your hands that finally proclaims who you are and who Christ is.
of the Spirit
Our community sprouts scarecrows each October and we are impressed with the creativity of the individuals, businesses and churches that participate. This year one of the churches has a fruit/veggie stand with lots of pumpkins, a vendor and three stacks of the ''Fruits of the Spirit.'' It is clever and eye-catching. But it bothers me.
It bothers me first because the scripture speaks of the fruit (not plural) of the Spirit. In other words it's not as if you produce one and then another or pick and choose which you want.
The second reason the clever display bothers me is that you can't buy the fruit of the Spirit because the cost has already been paid at a price no money could match. The fruit of the Spirit is produced in our lives as we allow the Holy Spirit to change us from within as we seek to become more of what God would have us to be.
If the church's scarecrow causes even one person to pause and think about God's Spirit and what that Presence in our lives can produce, it will have served a good purpose. It certainly got me to thinking!
''But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, faith, meekness, temperance; against such there is no law.'' (Galatians 5:22-23, KJV)
There is a sign along a road we often take that advertises itself as a 'Sharpening Shop.' I am assuming that it is a place where knives and scissors can be taken to be honed, but as we drove past, it made me think of the scripture that reads, 'God means what he says. What he says goes. His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon's scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one is impervious to God's Word. We can't get away from it—no matter what.' (Hebrews 4:12-13, The Message)
As I thought about it, God's Word, for most us, needs to be dusted off, not sharpened, as it is eternally sharp. We, on the other hand, need to be constantly sharpened.
When we spend time studying God's Word, it's as if we have gone to the Sharpening Shop. Our love for God is enhanced, our sins are bared and our spirits are honed to follow the leadership of the Spirit. Then we are more useful in God's kingdom, more sensitive to the needs around us, and more prone to 'do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.' (Micah 6:8, KJV)
Duty and Responsibility
I have been blessed with the ability to sing and also blessed to participate in church choirs for many years. During that time I have sung under a number of choir directors. Some of these ministers of music have been extraordinary in their use of their talents in service to God and singing under their leadership has made worshipping (and even practicing for worship) a wonderful and inspiring experience.
However during these many years of singing there have been several directors that were not so gifted. Under the tenure of these latter directors, singing in the choir became a chore. I continued to sing in the choir only out of a sense of duty. I was still able to concentrate on the words and the notes and constrained to offer the music in worship to honor the God Who graced me with the ability to sing. But…the loss of joy in being a part of the choir was tangible.
In thinking back about those more difficult times, it is easy to relate some of the problems to personalities that didn't mesh. Some of the time it had to do with a lack of sensitivity to the needs of the particular choir members or the choice of music. Once or twice it had to do with the lack of skills in directing and sometimes it was a style that was abrasive or challenging.
Presumably all of these latter men and women, since they were in Christian ministry even if they were part-time, felt at least some sense of call. They were also willing to offer that ministry to the choirs they were leading. Honoring those thoughts, however, didn't mitigate the challenge of remaining a part of the choir.
I, too, feel a sense of responsibility to the commitment I have made to be a part of a choir and also to the leadership of the Spirit to the churches we have joined in the various places we have lived. Thus it behooved me to continue to participate.
And so it is in life: there are times when our days and walk with God shine with joy and pleasure, but then there are times when we are obedient to the Spirit's leadership just because we know it is what we are supposed to do…it is our duty. On the joy-filled days, it is easier to speak a word in love and reach out with compassion. On the more trying days it is much harder to love the unlovable, minister to the mean-spirited, and pray for my enemies.
Our commission from the Savior to go into all the world (starting with our next door neighbors) is not dependent on our feelings about singing in the choir or other forms of ministry, but meshes with the verses in Micah: 'But He's already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don't take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.' (6:8, The Message)
(used on www.ethicsdaily.com)
Our interim pastor used the light of a lighthouse as an illustration this morning, talking about a man in despair who noticed that there were 18 seconds of darkness and then three seconds of light. The continuing reappearance of the light reminded the saddened man of God's presence even in his darkest days. I kept waiting for our pastor to refer to the fact that during the periods of darkness, the light did not go out; it was just visible to others as it revolved in its circuit.
Most of us, especially during the difficult days that occur in each of our lives, those periods of darkness, need to be reminded that we are not the only ones in need of the Light of God's presence. Our focus tends to be solely on our own needs, our own hurt, our own grief, our own loss. But the revolving Light that touches us also needs to ‘lighten' the days of others. The Light never stops burning for us as long as it is tended with care, fueled with commitment, and kept polished by the forgiveness of sin. And the lack of those things only blocks our view of the Light…not the Light itself.
'Jesus once again addressed them: I am the world's Light. No one who follows me stumbles around in the darkness. I provide plenty of light to live in.' John 8:12 (The Message)
BARBECUE: AN ALLEGORY
My husband went to one of our favorite barbecue places and picked up supper for us. He came home with a sampler platter, containing ribs, pulled pork, chicken, slaw, Brunswick stew, bread, chips and some extra ribs. We dug in, ate up and licked our fingers. Good eating with leftovers for the next day.
Now barbecue is an interesting thing: folks have definite opinions on what it is, how it is cooked, sauced and so on. In some parts of the world when you say you are going to have a barbecue, you are understood to mean that you are going to be cooking something, usually meat, on a grill. If you saying you're going to have barbecue (minus the ‘a'), that shifts the meaning to something else again.
Depending on where you live and prefer, having barbecue could mean cooking and/or eating pork, beef, chicken or goat. And various parts of those animals might be used: brisket, ribs, shoulders, wings, burnt ends and more.
Also depending on where you live or grew up, that meat could be embellished in various ways: tomato-based sauce, mustard-based sauce, vinegar-based sauce, dry-rubbed with herbs and/or spices, marinated, basted, and the list continues.
Brunswick stew brings in another whole range of options for ingredients and preferences. One person's view of the ‘best' can differ sharply from his or her best friend's. And the ubiquitous slaw that often accompanies barbecue also has its variety of recipes and partialities.
Cooking the barbecue in sundry ways has proponents, too. In addition to the many options for grills, their accouterments, fuels and manners of cooking that are available for use in private homes, there are several commercial choices. Some barbecue providers may cook over a slow-burning fire with a preferred wood or coals. Others have enormous stainless steel cookers that are portable and can be easily trailered to fairs and festivals. Specialty ovens in stationary restaurants are featured drawing cards for their customers.
In our town, the distinctive aroma of barbecue wafts through the air, letting everyone know that good eating is just around the corner. Or, in our case, around several corners, and aficionados of this or that restaurant will proclaim, loudly, their fondness for their favorite place and its stew, ribs or pulled pork or...
Trying to convince someone from Kansas that Memphis barbecue is more ‘authentic', or someone from North Carolina that tomato-based sauce trumps their mustard-based one and you will soon have quite a contretemps. To someone who has never tried barbecued goat, the dish sounds unappetizing and ‘strange'. Texas brisket cooks are adamant that their style is without question, by far, the best. Those who prefer slow wood-fired cooking turn their noses up at stainless steel ‘contraptions' that are new-fangled shortcuts.
Sound familiar? Substitute ‘faith' for ‘barbecue', and go from there.
Vultures on the Steeple
Bill stopped recently to take a photograph of our church, festively decorated for Christmas. When he downloaded the image to our computer at home, he noticed that there were two black blobs on the cross that tops the steeple of the church. Closer inspection revealed two vultures perched on the cross. Bill carefully used his tools and cloned the offending birds out of what then became a lovely picture.
Knowing that I often get inspirations out of such incidents, Bill said he was sure there was a meditation there. Several thoughts came to mind, but nothing that I had written down. A couple of days later Bill said he had been thinking about those vultures and had decided that perhaps the thought to be gleaned was that the vultures were God's creatures, too, and that the lesson to be learned was that all of God's creatures were welcome at the cross. I cocked an eyebrow and asked, 'So why did you clone them out?'
Bill's response: 'To make a perfect picture.'
I said, 'I believe that is the message.'
How often do we want to ‘clone' out all that makes our worship, our churches, our way of serving God, less than ‘perfect'. Our judgment calls of what is acceptable or preferable may well exclude those whom God has created for a specific purpose, such as those vultures. Our perfect picture may not be God's picture at all.
The sanctuary at our church has recently been refurbished and is now equipped with state-of-the-art technology, including screens. Running this equipment is a group of dedicated volunteers who have had a very steep learning curve. Consequently, on occasion, instead of the carefully prepared visual, we see only the name of the manufacturer of the equipment with the terse words underneath: no input is detected.
Those of us who seek to follow God's plan for our lives, who pray to be instruments of the love demonstrated for us in the life and death of Jesus Christ, sometimes are in the same shape. Anyone looking for evidence of the grace of God in our lives is likely to find the same cryptic message: no input is detected. Just as the volunteers running our audio/visual equipment at church will learn how to do so, we, too, have the assurance that, even in trying circumstances, we can be strengthened through the indwelling power of God's Spirit.
'Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.'
A JOINT EFFORT
I played a handbell solo Sunday morning that was received very graciously by the congregation. Many folks took the time to stop and share their appreciation with me. Even though I spent several hours practicing, I am not the only one who was a part of that performance. Julia and Debbi both spent time looking through their music to find the arrangements of the song that Julia and I could play as a duet. Julia spent time adapting the piano arrangement for the organ, practicing it on her own and with me. Tribble set up (and subsequently took down) a table for me to use in the sanctuary. Years ago someone contributed the bells to the church, the pads and covers had been purchased with music budget money and so on.
Jesus said: "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." John 16:33 (NIV)
At a handbell festival, our choir learned and performed a composition by Arnold Sherman entitled, "Song of Peace." It was composed in commemoration of the Oklahoma City bombing and was finished on 9/12/2001, so it has great significance, especially in the United States. The piece opens with six or seven pages of clashing chords and dissonances, then resolves into a perfectly beautiful setting of "Dona Nobis Pacem" that is written for voices to sing as the notes are rung by the bells. At the festival, we sang it in rounds, which gave an additional impact to a very powerful piece of music.
As I discussed the piece with a friend whose musical knowledge and training is much greater than mine, he said that he thought the 'war' section went on much too long, and if he had been doing it, he would have cut a sizable portion of the 'war' section. Pondering on our conversation, I realized that what my friend thought of the song is also true in our lives. For most of us, the 'war' part goes on far too long. If we had our 'druthers' we would shorten the conflict, find the new job, have the illness healed, and all of the problems solved. Even if we are talking about actual war, the same thing applies—when the actual fighting is over, the clean-up operation seems to go on endlessly and can be just as dangerous for the troops involved.
But the peace comes, whether it is God's peace that can come to us even in the midst of unsettled times, the brokered peace that comes at the end of a stalemate, or the final peace that will only come in God's time. We can weather the storms, both literal and figurative, when we walk with assurance by the side of the One Who has "overcome."
In St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland, is displayed a 500-year-old door with a hole in it. The door is hung so that it can be seen from both sides and there is a plaque that identifies it as the Door of Reconciliation. It seems that all those years ago there were two Irish earls who had been at war with one another for so many years that it had become an entrenched feud between them and their followers. At some point, one of the earls had taken refuge in the chapter house of the cathedral as it was a traditional place of sanctuary. The other earl, realizing that the feud had gone on far too long and needed to be ended, came to the door that shielded his enemy and knocked. The first earl, afraid for his life, refused entrance to the second, so the second earl took his sword and cut the hole in the wooden door, then extended his sword arm through the door, thus putting himself at the mercy of his enemy. The first earl was so moved by the daring gesture that he opened the door and was reconciled to his enemy. And the door hangs all these many years later, in strife-torn Ireland, as a strong message.
In the notes about the door at the cathedral is a reminder that Jesus Christ is God's Arm of Reconciliation that reaches through the barrier of our sin. In addition to that powerful application, I believe there is a lesson we can learn from that door about how we are to end the enmity between those with whom we disagree, whether the disagreement is large or small, whether we are the wronged or the one who has caused offense to someone else, whether we are the one extending the arm or whether we are the one to whom the arm is extended. Jesus said, "You're blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That's when you discover who you really are, and your place in God's family." (Matt. 5:9 [The Message])
BOOK OF KELLS
While in Dublin, Ireland, we had the privilege of going to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells, an ancient Latin manuscript of the four Gospels that is magnificently decorated. Painstakingly produced by monks living at the Kells Monastery in the ninth century, the book is now carefully preserved in a darkened room with strict temperature controls, tight security, and limited crowds.
The real treasure, far more precious than a beautiful book, is what is contained inside: the message of God's love in the person of Jesus Christ. That message has been handed down through the centuries from one generation to another, as has the Book of Kells, and just as that book is now being carefully preserved for future generations, so must we pass along the message of salvation to those who come after us.
The Book of Kells, in order to survive, must be kept in a closely guarded display case, seen by only a few people at a time, but in order for the beauty of God's love for us to be seen, that Love has to be displayed in our lives, by what we do and what we say. The Book of Kells is seen by many as a lovely work of art, but it is meaningless as God's word unless its truth is taken out of a sterile room and integrated into all that we are so that our very lives become God's works of art.
"But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us." II Cor. 4:7 (NIV)
Our minister of music asked me to sing the song, "This is Holy Ground" for the Sunday morning service. It was a very moving experience for me to sing it in the sanctuary that day. But in the previous week I had practiced it at home. I had not sung it before, so I practiced it at the piano, and then as I became more comfortable with it, I sang it as I went about my various activities—doing the laundry, cooking meals, making the bed and so on. At some point I realized that even though the sanctuary was certainly holy ground (because, as the song said, of the presence of God), so, too, were the other places of my life.
And the very next day, we went to New York on a mission trip. As we assisted the victims of 9/11, we were on holy ground, too. Then, on the last night of the mission trip, our team celebrated communion in a crowded hotel room—sitting on beds, in the window sills, on the floor—the presence of the Lord was with us as one of the ministers on the team broke the bread and led us through the rites of that service—we were on holy ground once more.
As we walk down the highways and byways of our lives, if we have committed ourselves to the lordship of Christ, we can know that all of those places are holy ground—of service, worship, fellowship, growth and work.
"The mystery in a nutshell is just this: Christ is in you, therefore you can look forward to sharing in God's glory." Colossians 1:27 (The Message)
FORTH AND BACK
"[Jesus] went on, 'No one cuts up a fine silk scarf to patch old work clothes; you want fabrics that match. And you don't put your wine in cracked bottles.'" (Mt. 9:17 TM)
Have you noticed how often we get in the habit of saying certain phrases in a certain order? Examples: back and forth, in and out, come and go, etc. And when we say them in the reverse order, such as forth and back, they don't ring true to our ears. Because we have said the phrases in a particular order over and over, that order becomes the 'right' way to say them and we shy away from saying them in any other way.
Even so, many of the things that we do in worship (or in other parts of our lives as well) are cultural conventions. We have done them so long in a particular way that they have become, for us, the 'right' way to do them. We once heard a preacher say that eleven a.m. on Sunday morning was the "universal hour for worship." There is certainly nothing wrong with doing things in the ways we're comfortable with—UNLESS—that way stands as a substitute for changes that would make our churches and our faith more winsome to those who do not know our God.
We had the opportunity to visit some churches in another country where the members, many of them quite elderly, would rather see their churches die than see them adapt to any 'new' ways. What a sad commentary on our insistence to use our old wine bottles to contain the new wine of the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives and faith organizations.
THE WELCOME MAT
"Come unto me…" Matthew 11:28a (KJ)
Some years ago we were at an elderly aunt's home for another aunt's funeral. Suddenly we were aware of a number of neighborhood children who had swarmed through the back gate and were playing, noisily, in the yard. I sent one of my daughters, who has a gift for talking and working with children, to explain that it was not an appropriate time for their intrusion. Most of the children scampered away when they saw our daughter coming, but one little girl lingered, and in response to the request to leave, said, "But it said 'Welcome' on the gate."
Later I thought about how often the welcome mats in our churches are out, but if those who enter do not conform to our ideas of how things ought to be done, we tell them, either in word or deed, to find somewhere else to play. We sometimes prefer not to have our sacred halls echo with new ideas or what we consider to be inappropriate intrusions into what we think of as our private preserve. May God give us the grace to live out the words on our welcome mats.
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
"Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful…" I Corinthians 12:6,7 (The Message)
Not too long ago I sat in the balcony at church—my usual spot is on the back seat of the choir loft—and I was impressed with how different the perspective of the service was from one back row seat to the other! The sounds, sights and perceptions were totally different—I even got to see the front side of the preacher!
All of us are gifted differently by our Lord and we bring to our Christian service the variety and diversity of who we are and how we worship and serve God. Not everyone is excited about being a part of the choir; some folks would rather listen. But all of us contribute to the worship experience. If the perspective for you is from the pew, you have a responsibility to participate just as much as those whose perspective is from the platform. If we come to the service prepared to be touched by the Spirit of God, we will leave renewed, challenged, convicted of sin, uplifted, and/or something else, depending on where we are in our walk with the Lord, prepared to use all that we are and have in the service of our God.
A GRAMMAR ERROR
"Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way." Colossians 3:17(The Message)
As we drive down the road, our attention is often caught by the clever, thought-provoking sayings many churches have displayed on their signs. Often the signs use humor or a play on words to drive home a truth. Occasionally, one of those signs will have a misspelled word or a grammatical error. As a former English teacher, I usually notice the mistake without even trying to, and the message of the sign is marred. The truth of the message is not affected, but its effectiveness is diluted, at least for me.
Many times in our Christian lives we have an opportunity to speak a message of love, encouragement or forgiveness. There may, however, be something in our lives that keeps us from being clearly heard. All of us know of ministers and other Christian leaders whose ministries have been destroyed by a character lapse. But we are all fallible (even typos seem to get the best of the most careful of us at times), and we need to ask the Lord to sensitize us to the things in our lives that might distract from what we seek to do or say in the name of God.
The four teen-aged girls sat close to one another near the back of the balcony in the sanctuary. The service had started some time before. Then a newcomer arrived. There appeared to be room for her further down the pew, but the occupants of the pew would neither move down nor allow her to get past them. Finally she sat in a vacant pew in front of them. She tried to take one of the other girls' bulletins, but a small tug of war was the only result of that attempt. When I bowed my head as the pastor led us in prayer, the newcomer was crouched in the corner of her pew, looking very sad and alone. When I raised my eyes again at the end of the prayer, another girl, not one of the original four, had moved to the pew beside the newcomer.
I do not know what prompted the actions of any of those girls, but the scenario I observed reminded me of how often and how easily we exclude someone who comes late to our group, our church, our community. We are very comfortable with the arrangements we have made for worship; we are satisfied with the status quo. Someone who 'intrudes' is often shunted off to one side, made to feel very uncomfortable and unwanted. I expect it took a great deal of courage for the last girl to move up and take a place alongside the newcomer, but, from my point of view, she was epitomizing the words of our Lord, who said that we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Mark 12:31). She left her 'comfort zone' to make another feel less ostracized. Her act of inclusiveness and welcome is what we should all emulate.
A STAINED SUIT
Many years ago my mother and I were sitting together in a church where my father was the guest speaker for the day. Mother was dressed in a beautiful pale yellow linen suit. At some point in the service, communion was served. As the wine or grape juice was passed, I tried to assist my mother with the tray (as I was too young to participate) and, in so doing, I knocked Mother's hand, and red wine or grape juice went all over the skirt of her suit. As I recall, the stain was permanent and Mother was never able to wear her suit again. Even though it was an accident, there was no way to undo the damage I had done.
Most of our lives are stained with sins of commission and omission—things that we have done that have injured others or opportunities we have missed to minister to others. Sometimes those stains are things that can be remedied; others are not. Unlike my mother's damaged outfit, we are salvageable—as strange as it may seem, the stains in our lives can be removed when we are washed in the blood of the Lamb of God. As Isaiah 53:5 says, "But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed." (NIV)
AN APT WORD
"A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver." Proverbs 25:11(NIV)
After singing a solo as a young teenager, I was approached by a man who had heard me sing before. He complimented me on my voice, then remarked that I had slipped, perhaps unknowingly, into a singing style which, though it certainly had validity, was not appropriate for the hymn I had sung that Sunday evening, for my voice, or for me. Thinking back, I realized that I had imitated a singing style that I had heard someone else use. I don't remember who that man was or exactly what it was about his constructive criticism that made it easy for me to accept it without offense, but I expect he was someone for whom I had respect. I also do not know if he ever realized what an impact his simple statement had on me.
We rarely know what effect we have on the lives of others. Having a sensitivity to the direction of the Holy Spirit is something most of us need to cultivate, prayerfully, in our lives. Knowing when to speak (and when not to) requires an attentive inner ear to the guidance we receive, a tactfulness graced with love, and a deep sense of caring for others. When we are obedient to those 'nudgings' from the Holy Spirit, we can be used of God to be a word in the ear of God's children, whether we know the outcome or not.
"…and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain." Isaiah 40:4b (KJ)
The lovely notes of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" began to fill the sanctuary as a guest pianist played the offertory. At first I closed my eyes to be enveloped by the glorious sounds, then I began to watch from my vantage point in the choir. The pianist was playing those beautiful strains with hands that were stiffened and bent with arthritis. She may have missed a note or two, but if so, I didn't notice. Instead my heart was moved by how the Lord was using her to touch us with uplifting sacred music in spite of the inroads of arthritis.
As we left the service, I was reminded of how flawed each of us is in our service for the Lord. Sins of omission and commission stiffen our testimonies and gnarl our good intentions. But it is still our hands that the Lord wants to use to touch those in need. Even though God may not physically straighten our arthritic hands, they can be straightened figuratively as we are used to reach out in love to others.
"Woe to them that are at ease in Zion…" Amos 6:1a (KJ)
While driving through our town, we saw a couple sitting on the newly finished front porch of the house they are in the process of remodeling, relaxing in the inviting rocking chairs framed by fresh new siding and enhanced by hanging fern baskets. Theirs has been a long project of restoration, involving adding a room, enclosing a garage and putting new siding and trim around the entire outside, apparently with most of the work done themselves—a daunting prospect for me. From one side and the front, the project looks complete, and riding past, the people appeared to be enjoying their well-won ease. A glimpse along the far side of the house where bare boards and patchwork abound, however, shows that there is still considerable work to be done before the job is truly finished. Their rest is only temporary.
How often we sit in our comfortable churches, content and absorbed in the beauty and joy of worship, apparently unconcerned and unaware of the needs and hurts of those around us, untouched by the unfinished work in those whose lives touch ours, perhaps only obliquely. As we rock in our chairs of ease and comfort, just around the corner can be seen the despair and sickness, whether of body or soul, of those to whom we are called to minister in the name of the One who gave His all for us. Taking a break for renewal and restoration is both necessary and valuable, as long as we remember to return from that rest to the work at hand.
"And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us." Psalm 90:17a(KJ)
In response to a case of mistaken identity in Sunday School, a friend of mine said, "Oh, but I'm not pretty like she is!"
My friend's comment got me to thinking about beauty and how artificial our culture's standards of beauty are. Many of us are too short or too tall, too heavy or too skinny, too this or too that to fit those cultural standards, but all of us have a beauty that is unique to ourselves.
God made each of us beautiful, with gifts, talents and abilities that enable us to be useful in God's service. The Lord also tossed in a cowlick here, or a mole there, a dimple here, or an eye twinkle there. We have been given distinctive body types, skin color, personality, needs and desires, but all of us who love God have been given the Holy Spirit, and the beauty of the Lord.
DAMPING THE BELLS
"A time to keep silence, and a time to speak." Ecclesiastes 3:7b(KJ)
Directing and ringing handbells bring great joy into my life. As I teach various ringing techniques to folks, it is often difficult to communicate to them that as important as it is to ring bells correctly, it is just as important to stop the sound (damp the bells). Practicing damping is just as time consuming and vital as ringing because if the sound of one bell continues beyond its note value, the sound bleeds over on top of the next note. Sometimes the lack of damping just creates a 'muddy' sound, but often it causes a dissonance unintended by the composer or arranger of the piece of music.
The old saying that silence is golden is true in handbell ringing, and it is true in life. Sometimes we need to be silent to give someone else a chance to speak—we might learn something. Sometimes we need to be silent to hear vital instructions—they might save our lives. Sometimes we need to be quiet in order to hear the still, small voice of God—it might change our lives. There is an appropriate place in the music for us to ring our bell and, for the appropriate length of time, that sound needs to ring out. Then the sound needs to be dampened so the beauty of the music may be realized.
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles..." Hebrews 12:1(NIV)
After I played a handbell solo at our church, many people came up to me with kind words of appreciation and encouragement. One friend, who has a severe hearing loss, however, approached me and said that he had only been able to hear the two highest bells that I rang, and those particular bells only rang a few times. Because of his disability, my friend was unable to appreciate something that I had prepared, practiced and had presented with a prayer that it would be used in the worship service to honor and glorify God.
I wonder how often we come to a worship service with a disability that interferes with our ability to fully receive what the Lord has in store for us. Some of us may have a physical impairment such as my friend's, but I expect most of us have a spiritual impairment; perhaps we are still angry with our spouse over some incident, or maybe it has been such a hassle to get to church (when our children were small, my husband used to say that by the time we got to church, we certainly needed it!), or maybe we don't like the music, or it is too cold or too hot, or we disagree with something the preacher has said, or maybe we have wronged our neighbor, or vice versa.
The bell music I played that Sunday morning was heard by many in the service, and my friend was cognizant of the commitment of time and talent required to play and present the music, but he was unable to appreciate what I had done in the same way as others. Even so, our disabilities of heart and spirit can deter us from the reception of the full measure of what the Lord has for us when we come to the house of worship.
'GETTING TO KNOW YOU'
"You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand." Psalm 16:11(NIV)
When we were part-timers in Hartwell, we visited church frequently; although we knew a few people, almost everyone was a stranger. As we went again and again, particular faces began to be more familiar and some people began to recognize us and smile and speak to us. But it was not until we moved to Hartwell full-time and joined and started to become active in the church that we could really get to know the church and its people (and we still have a long way to go in getting to know folks). Particularly in our Sunday School class, we have found a group of very special, caring, committed friends whom we have come to know by spending time with them.
By spending time in the presence of our Lord on our knees (either literally or figuratively) we learn to trust Who God is, even when we don't understand what is happening in our lives. Just as we get to know people by spending time with them, when we spend time seeking the face of God, we are comforted, assured, rewarded with His wisdom, and wrapped in His love. And because of the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, when we leave a church or any other place of prayer, we take the presence of the Lord with us, to be instruments in His service.
HAPPINESS AND JOY
"…You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at Your right hand." Psalm 16:11(NIV)
"Happy are the people whose God is the Lord." Psalm 144:15(NIV)
In the midst of a discussion in our Sunday School class, I asked the difference between happiness and joy. To my astonishment, the first response was diametrically opposed to what I expected, and to what my opinion was. As we talked about that reply, it was evident that the class was divided almost in half—half in agreement with me and the other half in agreement with the other idea. We finally resolved the matter by agreeing that whenever I said 'joy', they could just think 'happiness,' and vice versa, and went on with the lesson because that particular discussion was not central to what we were concerned with.
As I have pondered that incident, it has occurred to me that very often our differences are ones of semantics—when one person says something, the other person hears and/or perceives something quite different. If we concentrate only on those distinctions, we miss the opportunity to fellowship, work and pray together on the things that we have in common—our love for the Lord and the Lord's love for us. So whether you think happiness and joy have different shades of meaning and whatever shades you happen to think they are, let us join hands together with one heart to serve the Lord.
HOPE WE DID YOU PROUD
"We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives." II Corinthians 4:7(The Message)
Our minister of music asked me to write a script for a Christmas drama to weave together the anthems the choir was singing. I worked on it for a couple of months, writing and rewriting, asking for and incorporating suggestions, adding in stage directions. Then it was time to turn the script over to the family who would be doing the acting. Although they would be saying the words I had written, the little drama now became theirs. It was time for me to step back out of the picture and entrust the work to their hands, voices and hearts, and to the direction of the minister of music. The feeling was very strange, but the results were heartwarming. As that family put voice to the words I had written, they became more than just something written on paper. Afterwards, the mother in the family came to me and said, "I hope we did you proud." Indeed, they had.
When Jesus ascended to heaven after the resurrection, He left the message of the gospel of salvation in our hands. The living out of the Sermon on the Mount was left to us. The transmission of the words of faith and the way to eternal life was, and is, up to us. We are the hands, voices, feet and expressions of the love of God on the earth. We have been given words far more powerful and meaningful than any I could write; we have been given a task of much greater significance than my script; we have been entrusted with loving and forgiving in the name of the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings. We should seek to 'do God proud.'
INERT WORD OF GOD
In reading the responses to a church questionnaire, I was startled to read one that referred to the 'inert Word of God.' I assume that the church member intended to say 'inerrant' (free from error) and, either through a transcription mistake, or a misunderstanding, the word, 'inert,' (lacking the power to move) was used. However, if we are honest about it, a lot of us can probably relate to God's word being 'inert.'
Most of our Bibles lie unused a good part of the time. But even when the scriptures are picked up off the shelf and read, if we do not apply the truths to our lives, then the Word of God is still inert. God's "powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon's scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey." (Hebrews 4:12 [The Message]) The words of Scripture cannot be used in our lives until we prayerfully open our hearts to them, asking God's Holy Spirit to guide, teach and direct us.
LIFE IN THE MUNDANE
The worship service had been memorable, the music had been beautiful, the drama meaningful; those of us who had been privileged to be a part of the service were humbled and moved. The congregation had been very gracious in their comments. It had been a very special experience. And now, here we were, an hour later, back in the sanctuary for a nitty-gritty handbell practice—we were playing in the service the following Sunday and this rehearsal was too vital to miss.
As the ringers worked hard to put the finishing touches on the pieces we were to ring the next Sunday, we were reminded of how often after an experience that touches our lives, we want to remain on that 'mountaintop' (as did Peter after the transfiguration) and bask in the glow of that wonderful feeling. But ordinary, everyday events await our attention; needs remain to be met; the living of our lives, our daily walk with the Lord—all of these things call us back to the rehearsal tables of our lives to do the work that needs to be done in order to honor the Lord every day. As grand as it is to have glorious, deeply moving experiences, most of our lives, both spiritual and otherwise, are lived in the ordinary, the mundane.
"In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." Matthew 5:16(NIV)
One Sunday, our pastor referred to the lights in the chandeliers in the sanctuary. When we looked up, it was easy to see that there were several bulbs not burning in each of the fixtures. The room was certainly bright enough with the light given by the remaining bulbs, but I wondered how much brighter the room would be if all the bulbs were on and also how many bulbs would have to go out before there was a noticeable difference in the quality of the light.
I have a feeling that most of our churches are just like those chandeliers—lots of folks who are present, but who don't contribute their time, talents or money. Perhaps they just assume that 'someone else' will do what needs to be done. The work of the church apparently continues without diminishment, but you have to wonder how much richer and vibrant the life of the church would be if everyone were contributing a portion of his or her gifts, both monetary and spiritual. Fortunately, we, unlike those light bulbs, need only breathe a prayer of forgiveness and renewed commitment to God's work to begin burning brightly again.
OUT OF BREATH
"And with that he [Jesus] breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'" John 20:22(NIV)
One Sunday I was asked to sing a solo as part of an anthem at church. Everything went well until the very last note, when I ran out of breath, and, instead of sounding musical, that last note sounded harsh and raspy. As I have thought about that since, I have realized that the same thing often happens to us as Christians.
Just as Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit (Breath) into His disciples, so, too, do we have the power of the Holy Spirit available to enable us to do what God would have us to do. We sometimes fail to take a deep enough breath to carry through as the Lord would have us. The failure is not because of a lack of God's resource of power, but of our lack of utilization of it.
SINGING IN UNISON
"…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you." John 17:21a(NIV)
Choral anthems are written for many reasons and offer many different styles of music that contain all kinds of musical motifs and directions. Often within a single anthem there are passages that the choir sings in unison and others that the choir sings in harmony for two, four, six or more parts (and our minister of music delights in choosing music that involves 'clashing' chords that, when sung correctly, are also in harmony). Even when we are singing in unison, though, we are not all singing the same note because some of us may be singing in a different octave. But when we have all learned the music under the leadership of the one directing the choir, we present, for the Lord's glory, using our different voices, singing different notes, a unified offering of music.
In our Christian lives (and churches) we are not always singing the same notes—sometimes we disagree on church polity, worship styles, or interpretations of Scripture. But when we allow the Holy Spirit to be in control of all we are about, those different strains come together so that, even if we are in different octaves, or singing 'clashing' chords, we can honor the Lord. Just as in choir, some of us will learn the way more quickly than others of us, some of us will learn by hearing the notes, others by reading the notes, others by the rote practice of going over and over a particular passage—the same things apply in the non-musical parts of our lives. But again, if we individually submit ourselves to the leadership of our God, our lives will be anthems of praise.
"The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part." I Corinthians 12:24a,25 (The Message)
Although I have never been trained in engineering or construction, I have always heard about walls that are load-bearing and those that are not. Some of the walls within a building are vital to its structural integrity. There are some walls that can be moved around; others have to be in place for the structure to stand.
God's plan for His church seems to be that all of us are to be load-bearing walls, but unfortunately some of us have the idea that 'someone else' will do what needs to be done within our churches. There always seem to be a few folks who are considered to be the 'pillars of the church' and the rest of us tend to sit back and let them bear the burden. How much more effective our work for the Lord would be if all of us were bearing our share of the load—in the giving of tithes and offerings, time, talent, prayer, worship and witness.
THE NAME OF JESUS
"…that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Philippians 2:10,11(KJ)
We live in a time of great profanity. It is difficult to find a movie, book or television program that is not laced with profanity and vulgarity. The name of Jesus, outside of our churches, is used more as a curse word or an exclamation than it is in reverence. Children and others in a position of weakness are more likely to cower in fear when they hear the name of Jesus than they are to bow in adoration or praise to God. We heard about a 14-year-old boy, living in London, who, upon hearing the Christmas story for the first time, asked two questions. The first was why, at 14, he had never heard the story before; the second was why that baby's parents had given Him a curse word for a name. What an indictment of our society!
One day, when all wrongs are righted, when war has finally ceased, and the Lord has returned in glory, the name of Jesus will have a universal meaning. It will be a call for everyone to kneel in adoration, in acknowledgement that the babe of Bethlehem, the crucified Messiah, the risen Savior, is the Lord of all. In the meantime, we are given the responsibility to share the story with those who have not heard.