The Value of Life

Psalm 139:13-15 (New Living Translation)

You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
    and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
    Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
    as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.

By Chuck Griffin

The U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, sending the regulation of abortion back to the states, has generated plenty of news the past few days.

For me, it seems like the news has come full circle. In the late 1980s, I spent some of my earliest days as a reporter covering Operation Rescue blockades of abortion clinics. These events seldom became violent, but they certainly were tense and sometimes loud, with a heavy police presence always nearby.

Even then, it wasn’t hard to grasp that the two sides were at an impasse. One group passionately argued for women’s rights, while the other group, equally passionate, argued for the rights of the unborn child. Two opposing worldviews were present, each with a very different emphasis on which life to value, the mother or the infant inside of her.

As Christians, we do not have Scripture overtly telling us, “Thou shall not abort babies.” Those of us who see life as being present and worthy of protection from the moment of conception have to rely on a broader view of what God has revealed about life.

The above verses from Psalm 139 are clearly poetic, but Scripture in all of its forms reveals truth, and these words reveal something important about God’s love for life. The God who knows when a sparrow falls also is aware of even deeper, tinier matters—the complex, rapid division of cells that align to make reality from a unique, microscopic DNA blueprint.

Even in our brokenness, with our bodies and souls damaged by sin from the start, God sees enormous potential in us as we are being made. I am glad Roe v. Wade was overturned simply because there now are new conversations to be had about the power of what is happening in those wombs.

I also need to remind myself, however, that a court cannot resolve the real problem of abortion, and state legislatures will not resolve it either, regardless of the direction they go in their lawmaking. Women mostly seek abortions because they perceive their circumstances as being  desperate. Right or wrong, they fear the future, believing the birth of the babies they carry within will irreparably harm their lives, or that the children’s lives will not be worth living.

As we go about properly fulfilling the mission of the church, we promote hope over fear. When we are effective, we move beyond words to actions very quickly. More churches need to do a better job of offering desperate women both the spiritual guidance and the resources they need, helping them to incorporate their children’s existence into a bright vision of the future.

Abortions will not end in our lifetimes. Sadly, some occur as part of a culture of callous convenience, and the hearts of those women will be much harder to reach.

We can prevent many abortions, however, simply by being the people who look at the frightened woman and the child inside her and say, “You both count. You both are valuable—you both are children of God.” And then we take action to prove what we say.

Lord, there’s so much to do in regard to abortion and many other difficult matters troubling our society. May every living Christian find his or her niche in the kingdom, going to work on your behalf. Amen.

For Such a Time as This, Pt. 2

2 Corinthians 13:5-10

By Chuck Griffin

Tuesday, I began moving toward Sunday’s sermon with an exhortation: Theologically conservative Methodists positioned by God to lead should do just that in our current environment, employing a little creativity and a lot of grace in the process.

I am not naïve. Once people become entrenched in institutional power and lucrative privilege, they very often will place their own interests above scriptural principles. (Another exhortation in Philippians 2:4-5 comes to mind.) So I exhort with only faint hope of a real response from anyone already positioned to make a difference.

That failure at the top continues to reverberate throughout the United Methodist Church, as it has done for decades now. Basic biblical concepts long preached and taught by Methodists have fallen by the wayside as the people once most able to encourage them grew silent in the face of secular pressure.

You can test how heavily your particular church has been affected by all of this. Look at today’s text from 2 Corinthians and ask yourself if it sounds like something anyone has taught or preached there.

The church at Corinth had very modern problems, the people immersed in “impurity, sexual immorality, and eagerness for lustful pleasure.” Paul expected that when he arrived, he would find quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorderly behavior among them, too. (Read chapter 12 for the context I am citing here.)

Paul did not dance around those problems. He did not accommodate the social trends of the day. Instead, he relied on his humble subservience to God, letting God speak through him, employing the Scripture of his day and his direct encounters with the Holy Spirit to define right and wrong.

“Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith.”

If you’re unfamiliar with such language in church, you are in a congregation that has lost sight of what once was a basic Methodist concept, the pursuit of holiness. In church, this is a group effort to create an environment where people can, with the help of God, find their actions more closely aligned with God’s will each passing day.

Missing that in your church? Well, here’s the good news. Unworthy leaders can be ignored and even replaced. Paul ultimately aimed his message at all the Christians in the Corinthian church, giving everyone an opportunity to respond, and we can consider his words a message to us, too.

Know God’s word. Seek the presence of God’s Spirit through prayer, fasting and worship. As more of us do so, we will begin to recover what was once a bright, vibrant form of Methodism, a kind of Christianity that changed lives for the better.

Lord, we give thanks for the leaders who will arise among us, and we pray that they be graced with a double portion of your Spirit. Amen.

For Such a Time as This, Pt. 1

Esther 4 (NLT)

By Chuck Griffin

I am moving toward a sermon this Sunday that has been stirring in my heart for some time. It will be based on Luke 9:51-62, the story of Jesus resolutely heading toward Jerusalem to do what must be done.

I want to focus my two Methodist Life devotions this week on ideas that will come out in the sermon. Today, I want to go back to a particular moment in the story of Esther—I hope you’ve already taken time to click the above link and read the fourth chapter of that Old Testament book.

In short, the Jews seemed doomed, destined for slaughter by a powerful enemy. But through a miraculous set of what humans call coincidences, a Jewish woman became queen of the dominant Persian empire. In terms of power, she was not much more than a crowned concubine, but she did have direct access to the king—assuming he was agreeable to her presence.

Her uncle told her she must do something to save her people, but her hesitancy and fear were obvious. Then she heard the obvious question, the words that stirred her to action: “If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?”

Most of us have a hard time imagining ourselves in such a situation, but I think these moments arise for us more often than we might guess—perhaps at least once in a lifetime?

We find ourselves comfortable and content. We don’t want to be bothered by what looks to be a massive personal complication. And yet, we are where we are because God has been preparing us and positioning us for an important moment.

The moment arrives. Do we lie back as if our God-granted situation is a comfortable hammock, or do we stand alert and ready, saying to God, “I am in place. What would you have me do now so that your will is done?”

None of this is theoretical right now for Methodists. Certainly not as Scripture is being compromised, and certainly not as ministry assets developed by our very orthodox-minded Methodist ancestors are threatened.

I am not speaking to so-called progressives. They are who they are, and it’s unlikely that anything I might say would move them.

I do speak to conservative, scripturally sound thinkers in the United Methodist Church, particularly those who have risen to comfortable, well-paying positions of power and influence—people prepared by God for particular tasks.

With courage, a little creative thinking and the proper application of grace, you could quickly end the conflict we are experiencing. I have no doubt God placed you where you are for such a time as this.

Lord, move the hearts of the right people. May the great gift of the scriptural movement we call Methodism once again bless your kingdom in its unique ways. Amen.

The Righteous Heart

Romans 2:17-29 (NLT)

By Chuck Griffin

The early church in Rome was a mix of Jews and Gentiles, and sometimes they had trouble combining their world views. In today’s text, Paul clearly addresses the Jewish portion of his audience.

Paul begins with a call for an attitude adjustment, upholding the value of the law but emphasizing how knowing the law was supposed to move the Jews toward something greater.

I suppose I should pause and make sure we have a basic understanding of what Paul means by “the law.” Certainly, Paul is talking about the laws spoken by God to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai, what we call “The Ten Commandments.” He references three of those commandments, ones related to stealing, adultery and idolatry, when he accuses the Jewish Christians of hypocrisy.

He also may have been thinking of additional, more culturally specific rules God gave Moses to establish a covenant with the Israelites. He may even have been referencing the interpretations of the laws developed by rabbis over the centuries.

To a good Jew, the Mosaic law was everything. How well you followed every jot and tittle of the law served as evidence of your righteousness to God and the people around you. Let’s not forget Paul himself had once been a Pharisee, a sect of Jews known for their rigorous adherence to the law.

And yet, Paul had seen the true purpose of the law through his encounter with Jesus Christ. He wanted to be sure these early Jewish Christians saw it, too.

It helps to think about the law in a big-picture way. You may recall that a lawyer once tried to trap Jesus by asking him to name the most important commandment.

Jesus replied: “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Jesus took the law and explained it as a matter of the heart. He then lived out that truth in how he lived and died. In Romans, Paul developed his message along the same lines.

The Jewish mistake was simple enough; it even seemed noble and holy. God gave the Israelites the law to live by, and those who wanted to be obedient saw the law as a call to action.

There were rituals, sacrifices and festivals to be performed. There were specific actions to be avoided, the “thou shalt nots” that were always to be kept in mind. The pursuit of obedience seemed paramount, and we can tell from Paul’s writings in Romans and elsewhere that Jews who followed Jesus as their promised Messiah continued to emphasize obedience to rules.

In the fifteenth chapter of the book of Acts, we see this problem reach a crisis point. At this point in the life of the church, there was a lot of friction between the Gentile followers of Christ, who were drawn to a message of universally available salvation and grace, and certain Jewish followers of Christ, who essentially believed all converts needed to follow Jewish law as well as Jesus. Perhaps the harshest requirement: The Jewish Christians said the Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved.

In what is now called the Council of Jerusalem, the early church leaders, including Peter and Paul, decided Gentiles did not need to be burdened with rituals and behaviors that had never been part of their culture. Instead, they simply asked that the Gentiles abstain from sexual immorality, food offered to idols, and from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals. The ones related to food may have been simple measures of politeness, as Jews found such consumption detestable, making it difficult for the community to eat together. Acts tells us the Gentile Christians rejoiced greatly when they received word of this lenient decision.

Paul and the other early church leaders understood the law was intended to be more than just a call to “head knowledge” or a series of repeated actions. The law was a call to transformation. Understanding the law was supposed to change the heart, bringing a person into a full relationship with God and a proper relationship with others.

This is the full meaning of the word we translate as “righteous.” It’s not just getting certain actions right—it’s having our innermost being aligned with God’s will.

Lord, may your Spirit help us pursue that true, scripturally sound heart righteousness, knowing that once we have that, our actions will fall into alignment with your will. Amen.

An Unpopular Notion

Ephesians 5:15-20 (NLT)

So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

By Chuck Griffin

How we respond to verses like these says a lot about where we are in our walk with God.

Boring! Killjoys. Squares. Only the good die young! People caught up in the glittery side of life find it easy to roll their eyes at such sober Christian advice.

A lot of us who call ourselves Christian are all too familiar with this worldly stage of life, having passed through it in our younger days. I’ve known a few Christians who will tell you how they stayed in their “younger days” well into their sixties and beyond, discovering a better way only late in life.

We need to remember that it’s not always the wine that makes people drunk. The anxiety-inducing desires of this world—do I have enough, am I successful enough—can stun us into a spiritual stupor as powerfully as a big bottle of the finest red. 

To those who have yet to absorb Paul’s message, the part about being filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns, sounds intolerably boring. It’s because they have yet to taste the peace, the joy and the overwhelming sense of love that comes from stopping for a moment, taking a real accounting of our lives, and then stepping fully into a life with Christ.

Here’s the challenge for us who have already stumbled into that better way. How do we communicate what we are experiencing so others might be open to it, too? We all need to dwell on that question for a while and see if we can answer it creatively.

It helps me that I spend time with very old Christians who happily discuss what their walk with Christ means to them.  They see death as an ever-present possibility, but their joy and peace remain.

When with them, I often realize it would do me good to slow down and engage with the Holy Spirit even more. In that relationship, there is nothing to lose and glimpses of eternity to gain. Surely, if I engage enough, people will see the joy in me.

Sweet Spirit of God, continue to whisper to our souls, showing us the better way. As a people, may we once again grasp these truths at an early age. Amen.

Too Much to Comprehend

By Chuck Griffin

Today’s psalter reading is Psalm 104:24-35b. Every now and then, it is good to stop and meditate on the greatness of God, a spiritual exercise that should be humbling, if nothing else.

O Lord, what a variety of things you have made!
    In wisdom you have made them all.
    The earth is full of your creatures.
Here is the ocean, vast and wide,
    teeming with life of every kind,
    both large and small.
See the ships sailing along,
    and Leviathan, which you made to play in the sea.

Our increased ability to study creation deep beneath the sea and across vast expanses of sky should leave us not smugly astonished at our own abilities, but instead even more dumbfounded by what God has wrought. The more we see, the more we grow puzzled, with an always deepening set of mysteries before us.

The ocean in places remains unfathomably deep, and if the human mind were for a second to truly comprehend the vastness of the universe, it might not survive the experience. The scale of it all is far beyond what we can grasp with our senses, and yet, we know it is all within the grasp of God.

They all depend on you
    to give them food as they need it.
When you supply it, they gather it.
    You open your hand to feed them,
    and they are richly satisfied.
But if you turn away from them, they panic.
    When you take away their breath,
    they die and turn again to dust.
When you give them your breath, life is created,
    and you renew the face of the earth.

What’s truly remarkable is that a God so great would care for the minuscule components of what He has created. We are told that He takes note of every sparrow that falls. We begin to at least glimpse the power of an eternal being, one who can take as long as He wants to contemplate every conscious experience made possible by the creative act.

And in having made us, God loves us, so much so that He granted us freedom to choose and then rescued us when we did not choose well.

May the glory of the Lord continue forever!
    The Lord takes pleasure in all he has made!
The earth trembles at his glance;
    the mountains smoke at his touch.

The relationship between creation and Creator brings joy to all involved! Of course, the created, properly understanding our place, also must carry within a deep sense of humility, the first step toward proper worship of the one who has made all things.

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live.
    I will praise my God to my last breath!
May all my thoughts be pleasing to him,
    for I rejoice in the Lord.

True worship fully incorporates body and mind, requiring the assistance of the one who is worshiped. We cannot achieve such worship on our own. Remember this as we move toward Pentecost Sunday; the Creator’s Spirit must be within us and among us if we are to worship Him well.

Lord, grant us what we need so that our worship of you may be full and complete. Amen.

The Counter to Evil

We know that we are God’s children and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.—1 John 5:19.

By Chuck Griffin

Another terrible mass murder has occurred, this time at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. The horror of it all is difficult to shake off, and we certainly should not be quick to discard such feelings.

We become numb to these events, I think, because there seems to be nothing immediate we can do beyond praying for these devastated families and communities. Let’s remember that prayer is real and effective, despite what the vulgar Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona has to say about Christians who offered prayers. (Even in a fit of anger, people need to avoid blasphemy.) If anything, more and deeper prayer is needed in the face of such terrible evil.

And yes, we need prayer-guided action, too—effective action. Politicians and pundits are quick to pull out rehearsed talking points, many of them rooted in a humanist view that somehow, with the right restrictions in place, we can all be made good enough to stop killing each other.

I have yet to see a plan that has stopped such violence in the past or would stop it in the future. The day after this shooting, I read a story about the deadliest school massacre in U.S. history. It occurred May 18, 1927, in East Lansing, Mich., killing 45 people, 38 of them children. A local farmer angry about taxes carried out the plot using dynamite.

We can keep going back through history to find such horrible events. Don’t forget that in an attempt to stop the Christ child from growing to manhood, Herod sent his soldiers to slaughter infants, a massacre in the midst of one of our favorite stories of joy and hope.

Caught up in the world, Christians sometimes forget to root their response in an important part of our basic, very ancient worldview. There is evil, terrible evil, in the world, and we are called to short-circuit its work by fulfilling the mission Christ gave us. We work alongside God to convert broken people, bringing them into lives filled with peace and hope.

Somehow, we missed that young man who became a killer in Texas, and others like him. I don’t know his history; maybe our increasingly secular culture walled him off from the gospel message, or maybe many Christians tried to reach him. But at times like this, reality hits us square in the face. Whenever we miss someone, for whatever reason, evil takes root, just as it tried to take root in each of us before we genuinely found Jesus Christ.

Christians, it’s safe to say that evil will persist until Christ returns, but do you want to keep at least some of these events from happening? First consider who is in your circle of influence, and then do all you can to reach those who seem to be drifting toward evil. See their pain; see their needs and try to show them God’s love flowing through you.

More than anything else, these efforts require time, something so few are willing to give these days. If nothing else, let the Uvalde massacre and events like it be a call for us to evaluate how we spend our time as people who claim to follow Christ.

Dear Lord, we so look forward to the day when evil is cast aside as this world is remade. In the meantime, help us to bring your dawning kingdom’s light to the dark places we encounter. Amen.

The True Temple

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.—Revelation 21:22.

By Chuck Griffin

This single verse is part of a much longer passage near the end of the Bible regarding the New Jerusalem, the holy city that is part of the remade heaven and earth. We see the fulfillment of God’s desire to reunite with humanity.

I want to focus on this one verse because it reminds us of worship in its purest form, a kind of worship that is possible now, even before the events that will close the era of broken creation and begin eternal life with God for the redeemed. It is a form of worship many Christians have experienced at least briefly, and it has a kind of power in it that can sustain us for a lifetime.

I am talking of worship that is not dependent on a particular time or place. It may happen as part of a scheduled event, inside a building made for the purpose, but if any of those elements are present, they are merely conduits for the real experience.

Those of you who have had this experience instinctively know what I’m talking about. Place and time seem to dissolve, and what remains before us is God, certainly felt and for a very blessed few even seen. We better understand what it means to describe Christianity as “mystical.”

While the conduits—the steeples, the sanctuaries, the altars, the pulpits, the stained glass, the paraments, the instruments and more—can be very helpful, there also is a danger in their use. We can become dependent on them, even in love with them, in the process forgetting about who it is we actually pursue in worship.

Few Christians would walk away from the buildings they often call “the church.” And often, there is good reason. I call it the “holy ground” problem. So much has happened in the space. Baptisms, weddings and funerals, all with their associated memories, are just the obvious events.

The solution, I think, is to be careful about how we walk toward worship. Have we arrived to visit a place or a memory, or are we moving expectantly into an encounter with God?

The right mindset can help us worship God in full now.

Dear Lord, give us deeper and even unexpected encounters with you in worship. Amen.

Fan the Flame

By Chuck Griffin

One of my favorite movies is “Jeremiah Johnson,” the story of a man in the mid-19th century who sets out to be a trapper in the Rocky Mountains. His first winter is bitterly cold, with knee-deep snow his constant environment.

Early on, he attempts to start a fire in a driving snowstorm, his only shelter some bent pine boughs. With nearly frozen hands, he gets the fire going using flint, steel and tinder. Then he fans the flames with his hat, creating enough of a blaze that he can begin to add larger pieces of wood.

   It is of course at this moment that a chunk of snow breaks loose from the trees above, smothering the flame.

   The scene reminds me a lot of the Christian life. The flame inside us rises. It even burns brightly!

   And then out of nowhere, something in the world turns it all into a steaming, hissing mess. Despite the old saying about a snowball’s chance, there must be giant snowballs in hell, because the devil seems to throw a lot of them.

   I thought of the scene as I read some words the Apostle Paul wrote to a young pastor named Timothy.

   “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline,” Paul writes in the first chapter of his second letter to Timothy.

   Scholars debate this, but I think it’s pretty clear that Timothy received his letter because Paul got word that the young church leader was not standing up for the truth about Christ as strongly as he should. The letter states plainly that there were troublemakers in the midst of Timothy’s church, people who got others upset with their “profane chatter” about their improper notions regarding the resurrection.

   Paul simply was reminding his protege that while God gives us the fire within—our salvation and the ensuing gifts from the Holy Spirit that empower us—we are responsible for fanning the flames so they burn fiercely. We fan those flames by staying close to God and using whatever gifts we are given to fulfill the roles God assigns us.

   Paul’s message tells us to have a little grit, some gumption, when facing people and a spiritual realm opposed to God. What do you do day-by-day in your own special way to challenge that snowball-tossing Satan and his minions?

   By the way, Jeremiah Johnson, while frustrated, brushes away the snow and begins the fire-making process again. He knows he has the spark and tinder in hand; he also has the fortitude to keep using it, fanning the flames.

   That’s why he survives, and later even thrives.

Dear Lord, source of all real strength, may your Spirit lift us up and empower us when faced with adversity. Amen.

After the Word Is Heard

By Chuck Griffin

Parables, those little stories Jesus used to illustrate how God works in the world, are not always intended to provide immediate answers. They are more like mental Juicy Fruit, designed to keep us chewing on an idea until it makes sense.

Jesus does, however, explain his first parable in Matthew, the story of a sower who liberally scatters his seeds in different places: a path, rocky ground, thorns, and fertile soil. The seeds represent “word of the kingdom.” The landing places and the fate of their seeds stand for responses to Christ’s message.

When Jesus speaks of the “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” in Scripture, he describes something that is here but that will later arrive in full, like a train that has just nosed into the station but is still moving.

The coming of the kingdom of heaven has an individual effect. We each accept Christ’s work and allow the Holy Spirit to transform us in unique ways. But the kingdom also is having a universal effect, changing creation as a whole and moving us toward a time when evil, sickness and death are no longer a part of the world.

That is really good news, the kind of news that should cause us to reconsider every aspect of our lives. When we first believe the news, we are reunited with God through Christ. As we understand the news on deeper and deeper levels, we further incorporate its meaning into our lives.

Not everyone reacts the same way to this news, however. That’s the point of the rest of the parable.

First, there are the “path” people. Jesus reminds us that the “evil one” will do all he can to pull back into his deadly grasp people who don’t initially understand the message. Those of us who want to help them are called to engage in very real spiritual warfare, relying on the Christ-sent Holy Spirit to overcome the work of Satan.

Second, there are the “rocky ground” people. You’ve seen them—they are energetic and enthused about their new faith, until they face trouble for the first time after their conversions. These people remind us why discipleship is so important to a new Christian’s life.

Third, there are the “thorn” people. They find the temporary baubles of the world attractive, so much so that their desire for these riches keeps them from appreciating the word of the kingdom. What they need is a big-picture understanding of their own lives and the lives of people around them.

The “good soil” people are of course what all believers want to be, Christians who let God work through them to bring along the full arrival of the kingdom.

One of the great gifts of the kingdom is that we can move from being one kind of soil to another. The God who made the earth remakes us, at least as much as we allow.

Lord, may your word take deep root in us and flourish to the benefit of others. Amen.