Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Breaking the Engagement

Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Look here, you rich people:  Weep and groan with anguish because of all the terrible troubles ahead of you.  Your wealth is rotting away, and your fine clothes are moth-eaten rags.  Your gold and silver are corroded.  The very wealth you were counting on will eat away your flesh like fire.  This corroded treasure you have hoarded will testify against you on the day of judgment.  James 5:1-3(NLT)
The Kingdom of God is populated with people who voluntarily place themselves near the King.  It means we love what the King loves, do what the King wants; we love the King.  It’s the picture of an engagement; Christ is the bridegroom and the Church is the bride-to-be, complete with a ring of promise (being sealed by the Spirit of God[2]).

In addition to the promise, God has given us many engagement gifts.  He spoke the universe into existence - along with the cattle on a thousand hills, and told us to enjoy it.  Our correct response, as His created beings, is to worship the Creator, and enjoy what He has given us. 

But sometimes the bride becomes more concerned with what the Bridegroom has given than the relationship.  

A young woman confided to a friend, I've broken-up with Jerry; the engagement is offMy feelings have changed toward him

The friend asked, did you give the ring back? 

Oh no, she replied, my feelings about the ring haven't changed at all!

When we break the engagement with God we place ourselves outside of the Kingdom; we wander away from our beloved. 

James sounds like the Old Testament prophets, calling-down judgment and woes on rich people.  And it’s hard to argue with what’s written; riches can cause one to break many engagements.

So much for the Prosperity Gospel!

But note that riches alone are not what breaks the engagement of the bride-to-be and her lover – it is the love of riches that is the root of much evil. (1 Timothy 6:10)  Possessions are only inanimate objects, not intrinsically good or bad.  They are totally without moral significance until we, by the way we think about and use money, create either good or evil intentions or acts.

So, there’s nothing wrong with being rich, but what a tremendous responsibility comes with abundance.  What we do with possessions and power of any kind determines whether we keep or break the engagement with God.

For You Today

A couple of good questions can help us any time:

#1.  Have you counted your blessings lately?

#2.  Have you intentionally used those blessings to create good or evil?

#3.  What will you do with today’s blessings?

[1] Title image:  By Jim Harper (Pixel23), via Wikimedia Commons
[2] Ephesians 1:13

Monday, June 29, 2015

Great Is Thy Faithfulness

The faithful love of the Lord never ends!  His mercies never cease.  Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning.  I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!”  The Lord is good to those who depend on him, to those who search for him.  So it is good to wait quietly for salvation from the Lord.  And it is good for people to submit at an early age to the yoke of his discipline:  Let them sit alone in silence beneath the Lord’s demands.  Let them lie face down in the dust, for there may be hope at last.  Let them turn the other cheek to those who strike them and accept the insults of their enemies.  For no one is abandoned by the Lord forever.  Though he brings grief, he also shows compassion because of the greatness of his unfailing love.  For he does not enjoy hurting people or causing them sorrow.   Lamantations 3:22-33 (NLT)
For the second half of last week I woke up to the sights and sounds of Lake Junaluska, sometimes known as Methodist Holy Land!  The serene backdrop of mountains, lake and God’s wonderful creation is a blessing.  It always leads me to reflect on the goodness of God in sharing this beauty with his created beings.  I am always strongly moved to worship.

There is something about worship that demands we should have our entire beings focused on God, thankful to God, and submitted fully to whatever God wants to do with us in this moment and for a lifetime.

I believe Great Is Thy Faithfulness[1] is one of those worship songs that truly helps us move in that direction.  The words and heart-reaching music reflect the thankful heart of one who is ready to surrender to the God of Heaven, and serve Him forever.
As we sing this hymn today, place your worries and thoughts of all you have to do this week on hold; give yourself fully to the worship of our covenant God who died for us that we might be the redeemed people of His flock.

This, after all, is the God whose mercies are new every morning, and has provided everything you’ve needed since before you were born. 

And isn’t that part of the “Great” in Great is thy Faithfulness?
Stanza 1. The Eternal and Unchanging God

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.

Shadow of turning is a phrase that speaks of the passing of time.  Our God is eternal; He is above time.  As Creator, God would have to be greater than what is created.  The one who created time, space, and every molecule in the universe has no time passing Him or before Him – there is no shadow of turning.

Our God holds eternity in His hand…unchangingly.
“For I, the Lord, do not change.  Malachi 3:6a(NLT)

God is the only one whose character and actions are entirely and eternally consistent.  It is not so with us – or the things we “create”.  We change, come unglued, and eventually come apart altogether.  So does our stuff.

Our air-conditioner coughed, sputtered and gave up the ghost a week ago.  That’s not a good thing when the temperatures are nudging towards 100°!  It’s also not very fair; the warrantee was supposed to be for 15 years. 

But the one thing that I can say was right on schedule with that machine is that it was entirely predictable; a machine will break down and disappoint you at the moment you need it most!  It’s that way with cars, boats, and certainly air conditioners.

But it is never that way with God.  His character, love, and promises are faithful to us…eternally and unchangeably! 
Stanza 2. The Sovereign and Omnipotent God

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon and stars in their courses above,
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.

To be “sovereign” means nobody else is in charge; “omnipotence” means one possesses all power.  Frankly, not everyone is pleased that only God is sovereign and has the power to back it up.

A Sunday school teacher was examining her pupils after a series of lessons on God’s omnipotence.  She asked, “Is there anything God cannot do?”  There was silence.  Finally, one little guy held up his hand.  The teacher, disappointed that the lesson’s point had been missed, asked resignedly, “Well, just what is it that God cannot do?”  “Well,” replied the boy, “He can’t please everybody.”[2]

The reality is that not everybody needs to be pleased.  Every aspect of nature is witness to the sovereignty and ultimate power of God.  Consider the examples

     ·        The Creation testifies of God’s control and power.  Psalm 90 declares that before the mountains were created, God is sovereign.

     ·        The Exodus: Egypt’s ruler, Pharaoh was the most powerful man on earth, keeping God’s children in captivity; God declared through Moses, let my people go.  Pharaoh objected, but in so doing brought judgment down on his own head.  The people left anyway!

     ·        The Cross displayed the ultimate power of God’s sovereignty as Christ claimed in resurrection victory over death for all who believe!

The Apostle Paul’s doxology as he signed off his letter to the Ephesian church brings together glory and power, the sovereign God’s character and omnipotent power:

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.  Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever!  Amen.   Ephesians 3:20-21(NLT)
Stanza 3. The Gracious and Present God

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!

Can you imagine a life with the very presence of God cheering and guiding you, providing strength as the day demands, and hope for your tomorrow that is bright?  That should give anyone a disposition to grin from east to west! 

But that’s not a reality for everyone!  Some people (even quite a few Christians) go through life with a sour look that announces they were raised on lemon juice and never got over it.

There was a Peanuts cartoon with Lucy saying to Charlie Brown, I hate everything. I hate everybody. I hate the whole wide world!
Charlie says, But I thought you had inner peace.
Lucy replies, I do have inner peace. But I still have outer obnoxiousness[3]

A peace that endures…lasting peace, strong peace, an indestructible peace that passes all understanding…how rare is that?

It may seem rare, but it is readily available in Christ.  Genuine inner peace comes from being forgiven of our sin, and having the assurance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

The cross provides a pardon for sin; that’s grace.

God’s presence is His promise to us because, when we’re forgiven, we are also received into the daily relationship that is the reality of the Kingdom of God on earth. 

He walks with us, and talks with us, and tells us we are His own!

What this all means

When you consider what Thomas Chisholm, a Methodist Minister was thinking in 1923 when he wrote the words to this song describing an eternal, unchanging, sovereign, omnipotent, gracious and ever-present God, you can only come to the understanding that Rev. Chisholm had a picture in his mind of God’s Kingdom here on earth – and an unconquerable God who reigns in love and desires fellowship with every one of His creatures.

He sees God as the critical missing piece in our hearts and souls; that which fills-up our longing and emptiness, and makes us whole and complete.

He sees the great faithfulness of God as the assurance Mr. Wesley met on May 24th at Aldersgate, when God broke into a questioning, seeking heart that needed God-arms wrapped around him for comfort and strength.

This is that great faithfulness – God promises us…Himself!

And when we have HIM….we need nothing else.

Dr. Tom Dooley was a young missionary who organized hospitals, raised money, and literally poured out his life in the service of the afflicted peoples of Southeast Asia in the mid part of the last century.  

Here was a man whose deep relationship with God motivated him to abandon a soft career in the United States for a desperately difficult ministry overseas.  In the end that relationship [with God] enabled him to die victoriously at the age of thirty-four.

Here is the letter which on December 1, 1960, he wrote to the president of Notre Dame, his alma mater:

Dear Father Hesburgh:

They’ve got me down.  Flat on the back, with plaster, sand bags, and hot water bottles.  I’ve contrived a way of pumping the bed up a bit so that, with a long reach, I can get to my typewriter.…

Two things prompt this note to you.  The first is that whenever my cancer acts up a bit, and it is certainly “acting up” now, I turn inward.  Less do I think of my hospitals around the world, or of 94 doctors, fund-raisers, and the like.  More do I think of one Divine Doctor and my personal fund of grace.

It has become pretty definite that the cancer has spread to the lumbar vertebra, accounting for all the back problems over the last two months.  I have monstrous phantoms; all men do. And inside and outside the wind blows.

But when the time comes, like now, then the storm around me does not matter.  
The winds within me do not matter.  
Nothing human or earthly can touch me.  
A peace gathers in my heart.  
What seems unpossessable, I can possess.
What seems unfathomable, I can fathom.
What is unutterable, I can utter.
Because I can pray. I can communicate.

How do people endure anything on earth if they cannot have God?[4]

This is the gracious and present God, Sovereign, omnipotent, eternal and unchanging in His love and promises.

“Great is Thy faithfulness!” “Great is Thy faithfulness!”
  Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
    “Great is Thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!

Great is His faithfulness.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen!

[1] Thomas O. Chisholm, ©1923, renewed 1951 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.  United Methodist Hymnal #140
[2] Omnipotence Questioned, A Treasury of Bible Illustrations © 1995 AMG INTERNATIONAL, INC. (adapted)
[3] Barbara Brokhoff, New and Improved Jesus? C.S.S. 1991, p. 53).
[4] COURAGE IN THE STORM, Illustrations Unlimited © 1988 James S. Hewett. All Rights Reserved. (adapted)


Monday, June 29, 2015
“What is the price of five sparrows—two copper coins?  Yet God does not forget a single one of them.  And the very hairs on your head are all numbered.  So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.  Luke 12:6-7(NLT)
If you have a Facebook account you have participated in facial recognition technology!  Every time you upload a picture with a person’s face as part of the image, those little boxes show up and encourage you to “tag” (identify) the person.  With the number of “selfies” taken and uploaded these days, Facebook alone must have a database of images, names and what color eyeshade sells best about as big as three universes!

According to a report on the website of Interesting Engineering, facial recognition technology is a favorite of marketing firms.  Retailers want to track your information so they can send you offers on special deals (as well as identifying potential criminals!).

Privacy issues are a big concern with some groups who understand that the private information of people ought to be kept that way, unless you give your permission.  Some of the possible abuses of information are suggested by the article:

One of the biggest worries of the privacy groups against the technology is that people could be profiled and targeted. One company who has used facial recognition is Facebook and they have used it for categorizing and identifying pictures. Therefore they know which products people look at when they are online as they scan the cookies which come from the websites of retailers. They then use this information to send you product ads.  Another worry is hacking. Passwords and credit card numbers can easily be changed but you cannot change your face if it has been scanned. The privacy groups say that categorizing people based on their face is invasive, even if that person isn’t named.

I’m a little uneasy with giving out too much personal information.  I tend to make my passwords and personal identification numbers long and complicated to protect against hackers and other bad guys. 

The “point” of all this security and watchdog guard duty over the big bad marketers and government intrusion into our privacy, is because we want to protect our property; we want to hold onto that which belongs to us!

Which brings me to the point of today’s devotion:  so does God!

Jesus said God knows the hair count on your head, and that suggests our God is into much more than facial recognition technology; it tells us He knows all about us, and cares what happens. 

And He cares for a reason bigger than that he wants to know what shampoo we use, or what kind of car we want to drive.  God is not into selling us anything; He cares that we should get to enjoy eternity living in His eternal paradise called heaven. 

And he cares that we have a fulfilled and meaningful life with purpose during these few short years we walk here on the dust of planet earth.

He cares, and he has tagged us as friends.

I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me.  John 15:15(NLT)

For You Today

So the question today isn’t what’s in your wallet from the marketers at Capital One™.

The question today is Who’s in your heart, from the God, Creator and Sustainer and Lover of your soul!

[1] Title image:  By Jimmy_answering_questions.jpg: Wikimania2009 Beatrice Murch derivative work: via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 26, 2015


Friday, June 26, 2015
I walk in the early mornings; it’s a great way to step-up the rhythm of my heart and keep the joints lubricated.  This Tuesday’s jaunt took me to a familiar intersection where my Mom and Dad lived for a brief time. 

As I was approaching their place from a parallel road, I noticed the crepe myrtle tree-brothers.  They stand side-by-side, and are taller than the house‘s roofline.  But the sheer height of both trees wasn’t what caught my eye; it was rather the stark difference that one tree was (by comparison) puny and under-developed, while the other was robust, shouting “hello” with healthy branches, and showing off magnificent blooms.


Why one, and not the other?  Why do two plants, placed in the same home, exposed to the same nurture and opportunities turn out so differently?

Now I know there are probably some scientific answers that would include soil conditions, root disease and bugs…but I’ll leave that for the local genius horticulturalists; I just felt sorry for the puny tree.

The question still looms large in more than just tree-talk.  More than a few parents know that question turns painful when they consider two children, raised in the same home, one with magnificent results, the other tragic.


Why.....is a question with which we all grapple.  And if you can answer one round, there’s always the next set of “whys” to confront.

For instance, where did the crepe myrtles come from…and all that other stuff on planet Earth, and its moon, and the Sun, and all those other planets and stars?  How did the space between all that matter get here?  Why are there black holes in space?  Why do babies’ eyes twinkle and grab your heart like they do?

And my friend Anna’s question on Facebook™ yesterday:

I was at a stoplight this morning (in the left turn only lane). Beside me was a car with four elderly people in it. Beside that car was a young guy in a new Dodge Challenger. When the light turned, the guy floored his car, squealed his tires and moved over toward the other car as he laughed. They stopped for a moment, obviously shaken and allowing him to fly by. Why in the world does anyone think that is funny?

If you can answer that question, you can probably answer the one about Cain’s motive for killing his brother, Abel.

We are all philosophers to one degree or another, and it is the curiosity that lies within which asks that question, why! 

And the plain truth is, as much as we speculate on the answers to all the “whys” rumbling-around inside our minds and hearts, some things are just unknowable.

God created it that way:

For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.  Isaiah 55:9(NLT)

And God also has assured us that someday the answers to all the “whys” we’ve ever pondered will be ours to understand:

Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is.   1 John 3:2(NLT)

For You Today

Got questions?

Me too, but I’m leaving some of my deepest “whys” to God’s keeping.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Avoiding Conversation is No Way to Advance the Debate

Thursday, June 25, 2015
Today’s Rocky Road Devotion welcomes fellow clergy and friend, Rev. Drew McIntyre, a United Methodist pastor who blogs at “Uniting Grace”.  What follows is what Rev. McIntyre posted on June 24, 2015.[2]


How [to] have the conversations that matter most? Like many things in life, most of it is just showing up.

We United Methodists just came through Annual Conference season; this is the yearly gathering of United Methodists in a given region, represented by clergy and laity, where budgets are set, legislation debated, and an array of training, lectures, studies, worship, and mission opportunities are offered. Here in Western North Carolina, we had an interesting afternoon at Annual Conference (AC) last Friday. Let me explain.

We voted on two pieces of legislation on that afternoon. The first of these, from our Justice & Reconciliation team, asked the Bishop to form a team to begin a series of holy conversations around controversial topics in the UMC (the unstated chief of which centers around questions of sexuality). A couple of laity spoke against this measure, trotting out some pretty unsophisticated arguments for why this should be a settled question, but all in all it passed easily.

Next up was a proposal that has been attempted at all of our recent Annual Conferences in recent memory: a petition to ask the General Conference to change the language about sexuality in our denominational rules, the collection of which is called the Book of Discipline. Over a dozen ACs passed similar petitions this year, none of which are binding, because only the General Conference (meeting every four years) speaks for the whole church.

Here’s where things got interesting. As soon as this petition was introduced, a pastor from one of our Reconciling Ministries Network (a caucus that advocates for changes in UM policy) churches asked for a suspension of the rules to move toward an immediate vote. This was approved, and we began the painstaking process of voting, which took a while because we had to be counted by hand as we stood to either vote for, against, or abstain.

A friend of mine, afterwards, asked a question to the Bishop which I had myself wondered (and tweeted): 

I’m still not sure of the motivations behind the motion to go straight to a vote. It may have been that the sponsors thought they had a better chance of ‘winning’ without the debate, or that the discussion would be offensive (most of my friends’ responses to my tweet indicated the latter concern). But regardless, it was a strange juxtaposition. Conversations do not become easier by avoiding them. Even unpleasant comments (of which we hear too many at AC, as we did last year) are helpful, in that they tell us how much more work remains in advancing the conversation. This general trend towards avoiding difficult or painful dialogue is troubling. Our society has become so dominated by the therapeutic mindset that sometimes it seems that even hearing an alternative or critical view of something is considered damaging. Should we be concerned about the prevalence of such rhetorical moves?

Hanna Rosin argued in The Atlantic,

“A proper argument takes intellectual vigor, nimbleness, and sustained attention. If carried on long enough, it can push both parties to a deeper level of understanding. Oxford debaters hack away at each other for something like two hours. Socrates could sometimes go on for weeks. But who has that kind of time anymore? Better to just shut things down quickly, using one of a new array of trump cards.

Want to avoid a debate? Just tell your opponent to check his privilege. Or tell him he’s slutshaming or victimblaming, or racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic, or Islamophobic, or cisphobic, or some other creative term conveying that you are simply too outraged by the argument to actually engage it. Or, on the other side of the coin, accuse him of being the PC thought police and then snap your laptop smugly.

In the art of debate avoidance, each political camp has honed a particular style. Conservatives generally aim for the prenup approach, to preempt any messy showdowns. If you want to join the club, then you have to sign a contract or make a pledge—no new taxes, no abortions, no gay marriage—and thereafter recite from a common script. Progressives indulge a shouting match of competing identities that resembles an argument but is in fact the opposite, because its real aim is to rule certain debates out of bounds.”

I recall an interview (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpQHGPGejKs) with N.T. Wright, the retired Anglican bishop and eminent New Testament scholar, in which he was asked about the samesex marriage debate. His comment was telling: “Our problem at the moment is that we aren’t having the debate, we are simply having bits and pieces of a shouting match.”

Too often we are content with “bits and pieces of a shouting match” rather than deep engagement. Whether it is about sexuality, doctrine, race, liturgics, immigration, or creation care, too often we Christians fall into the world’s ways of doing – or, in this case, avoiding – things. We can do better. But it requires a commitment on all parties to a) a hermeneutic of charity, b) arguing against ideas and not people, and c) dedicating ourselves to hearing the best version of the opposing view, and not merely extreme examples or straw men easily dismissed.

In the church and in our national conversation, it is always easier to retreat into echochambers, eschewing critics and alternative viewpoints. The gnostic church of our own imaginations is always a neater, less challenging place than the fleshandblood church of Jesus Christ. But maturity doesn’t come by disengagement. I’ll let Rosin have the last word – a word of warning about this cultural malaise:

“The tactic has lately proved surprisingly effective, but it comes with a high cost…empathy, or humility, or actually hearing out your opponents.”

For You Today

Advance the conversation….listen!