Psalm 118: Meditation 3

Psalm 118 (NRSV)

By Chuck Griffin

Psalms have a timelessness to them—while they are clearly rooted in a particular era, they also evoke situations that remain very current.

The timing of my reading of Psalm 118 came right on the heels of my looking at the Reuters news site, where there were photo essays on the devastation in Ukraine, particularly in the destroyed city of Mariupol. As you might expect, these words from the psalm leaped out:

All nations surrounded me;
    in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side;
    in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
They surrounded me like bees;
    they blazed like a fire of thorns;
    in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
    but the Lord helped me.
The Lord is my strength and my might;
    he has become my salvation.

The analogy is not perfect, of course. Ukraine faces an evil attack by just one nation, although the military strength of Russia exceeds what the psalmist was imagining by an order of magnitude I cannot begin to calculate.

And yet, the Ukrainians thus far have managed, while incurring terrible losses, to cut their attackers off. Looking at the photos of their funeral scenes, there is little doubt they have rooted themselves in their faith as they suffer. Of course, the great irony is that their attackers try to justify their acts through the pronouncements of their very nationalized church, which has managed to destroy its credibility in just a few weeks, in the midst of the holiest days in the Christian year.

As psalms often do, these words guide us to a prayer, this one for the Ukrainians: “Lord, be their strength and might; Lord, be their salvation.”

As the psalm continues, there is a victory song, and we certainly pray that all people under siege will be able to sing it one day soon. This can, however, also be a very personal moment for the reader of this psalm.

We all find ourselves under siege from time to time because of temptation. Again, we must rely on the Lord’s strength and might, on God’s freely given salvation.

When we overcome that temptation—when we move toward righteousness not through our own strength, but through what God has granted us—we should sing those glad songs of victory.

Lord, may your strength and might be more readily observable in this world. Move us toward a time when right clearly is seen as right and wrong vanishes because we have lost all desire for it. Amen.

Psalm 118: Meditation 1

Psalm 118 (NRSV)

By Chuck Griffin

During this first week of Easter, John Grimm and I want to focus on Psalm 118. Please be sure to take time to read this psalm.

I find these prophetic words beautiful and uplifting, and I must not be alone, as portions of this psalm have inspired prayers, hymns and even modern songs.

The story of Easter provides the “how” to the psalmist’s declaration that the Lord’s “steadfast love endures forever!” It’s a cry that moves among the tribes and priests of Israel and on through time through Jesus, our high priest who imparts this love generation after generation.

As we are told in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” What an enduring love! And all we have to do is believe it to receive it.

The psalmist also shows us how we can use distress in this life as motivation to call upon the one who loves us so. It helps to already know God, of course; it’s painful to be in distress while also groping for truth about God. But even then, we may hear with greater clarity God’s call on our lives and move toward truth.

Life is a process of learning where the real refuge is. We waste our time turning to princes and presidents, in those who spring up like a flower and wither away (Job 14:1-2).

We find refuge in one who is mysteriously fully human and fully divine, the Christ who suffered and died for us, and now lives forever, inviting us along!

Dear Lord, help us in this Easter season to embrace you as our Savior and guide for life. Amen.

Those Dirty Feet

By Chuck Griffin

Let’s keep this simple today, as simple as dirty feet.

On this Holy Thursday, called Maundy Thursday in some circles, I mostly want to be sure we take time to read the pertinent story in the Gospel of John. It is available in full for you below.

As you read, focus on the part about Christ washing his disciples’ feet. Try to imagine the full sensory experience of being near these feet, with the grit and grime and smell. Remember, these people walked about in sandals on unpaved streets, where the animals also trod and did what animals do—and where the storm water and sewage sometimes ran.

There was a reason only the lowest slaves were required to wash guests’ feet. And yet, in today’s story, the Savior of All stripped down, toweled up, and went to work washing, not long before he went to work suffering and dying.

If you’re not fully grasping the lesson—well, pay close attention to the last line of the story.

John 13:1-35 (NRSV)

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”

After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Lord, help us to better understand how low we should go in loving service to others. Amen.

On a Sunday Morning Sidewalk

Matthew 28:16-20 (NRSV)

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

By Chuck Griffin

As we make our way through Holy Week, I’m struck by how often I’ve returned to a theme in my preaching during Lent. I have hoped that we are all reflecting on how well we fulfill the Great Commission, that basic duty all Christians have.

It’s always important that we find winsome ways to tell people about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Every new generation needs to hear this truth from a previous generation. The task seems especially relevant now, as we begin to consider how a post-pandemic Christian life should look.

Most of the folks who read these LifeTalk devotions on Methodist Life are traditional Methodists, and right now, these people are probably at least a little interested in a big change that is coming, the launch of a new Methodist denomination that will adhere to traditional Christian doctrines. The preservation of these basic Christian concepts is important.

I will make a prediction, however. If we don’t resume fulfilling the Great Commission in a powerful way, a new denomination will prove to be irrelevant! All it does is give us a solid foundation as we begin to fix our biggest problem, which is the unwillingness of most American Christians to find ways to share their faith with others. A huge shift in our attitudes still has to occur.

It is my sense that a lot of us simply don’t know where to start. Having existed with Christianity as our cultural baseline for so long, even elderly Christians have lived most of their lives without having to think much about what it means to share the gospel—to evangelize. Up into the late 20th century, you could build a church building, and people tended to come. Talking about Jesus Christ as Savior was the province of the preacher and a few talented Sunday school teachers.

I want to offer Christians a simple target audience for our message of love and hope. These people are unlikely to enter our buildings on their own. But they are lost, spiritually crushed and confused, and thanks to God’s unrelenting grace, they are beginning to sense they need a change.

We can find them in all sorts of places. It helps to have a guide to go by, however, a way to imagine them so they are easier to see when we are out in the world. I think I’ve found such a guide in an old song.

Back in the late 1960s, Kris Kristofferson wrote a song called “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” A lot of people have recorded it over the years, but Johnny Cash took it to No. 1 in 1970, winning the Country Music Association’s award for Song of the Year.

I’ll simply offer you a chance to listen to it:

It’s raw, of course, and in it I hear the cry of a person who feels the stirring of a vague memory of what is righteous, along with a poorly understood desire to return to it. In a sermon a few weeks ago, I compared the moment to the pigpen revelation the wayward boy has in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Hurting people today may be in superficially different situations than they were in 1970, but I’m guessing their unspoken desire for caring people to come out on the sidewalk and lead them home hasn’t changed.

Let’s learn to be those caring people again.

Lord, as we pray so often, give us eyes to see and ears to hear. We also could use a dose of courage, the kind that allows us to leave our comfortable circles and go to the places where we can offer hope to those in need. Amen.

Scapegoats

By Chuck Griffin

Few Christians think much about the Jewish Day of Atonement, when the ancient Israelites would fast and reflect on their sins as the priests worked to expunge those sins through animal sacrifices.

The season of Lent preceding Easter may be the closest similar experience Christians now have. (Many Jews, of course, still observe the Day of Atonement, or “Yom Kippur,” but without the associated animal sacrifices.) During Lent, and especially Holy Week, we are similarly called to reflect and repent so that we may better appreciate and accept the forgiveness offered to us by Jesus Christ via the cross.

One unusual aspect of the Day of Atonement is recorded in Leviticus 16:20-26. Here, the high priest symbolically placed the people’s sins on a live goat, which was then led into the wilderness and set loose.

This “scapegoat” was one of two goats involved in the ritual. The other goat was sacrificed.

The goats, of course, were a foreshadowing of Christ. Jesus is the one who came as the final sacrifice for our sins. He is the one who bears away our sins forever.

And yet, despite the coming of Christ, people continue to lay the burden of their sins on other creatures. In modern times, we seem to prefer to use people instead of goats.

For example, troubled families often feel better if they can single out one person to label as particularly “bad.” Focus on the scapegoat, and no one has to examine his or her own problems too closely.

Of course, the scapegoat suffers much damage in such a family, particularly if the scapegoat tag is attached in childhood. These people often grow up to be what some call “volunteer victims,” deliberately entering relationships where they wind up the recipients of abuse, the role to which they’ve grown accustomed.

The search for sin is primarily an inward search, and we all have sin from which we should repent. Fortunately, Jesus is big enough and strong enough to bear all our sins away. He’s a very different goat than what we were expecting, though. He’s the Greatest of All Time.

No other scapegoats are needed. In fact, even modern-day scapegoats can find peace through Christ.

Lord, thank you for relieving us of the burden of sin in an eternal way. Help us to surrender more and more of ourselves to you each day. Amen.

Repairs Underway

“Ruth in Boaz’s Field,” Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1828.

By Chuck Griffin

In this season of Lent, we spend a lot of time considering spiritual brokenness. That can lead to a basic question: How can a good, loving God leave this world in its broken condition?

The Bible actually works hard to answer that question. First, there’s the understanding that the brokenness is not what God desires. It is a result of sin, rebellion against God.

We also see, however, that God is in the process of repairing the damage, and he often uses what is broken to make repairs. I’m reminded of a man I met who made very good knives and other tools out of worn-out files.

As an example from “The Book of Judges,” take the story of Jepthah, found in chapter 11. His mother was a prostitute, causing his half-brothers to chase him away from his father’s lands to keep him from claiming any inheritance.

Jepthah did what many disenfranchised people do: He became a rebel, organizing a powerful guerrilla operation. But when God’s people came under attack, Jepthah used his forces to rescue them. The brokenness in his life actually positioned him to do God’s work.

Or look to the story in “The Book of Ruth.” Here, the widow Naomi lost both of her sons, leaving her in a precarious, life-threatening position. She was a Hebrew woman in a foreign country where she and her husband had moved, Moab.

She tried to send her childless Moabite daughters-in-law away to find husbands for themselves, but one of them, Ruth, refused. Instead, they journeyed back to Naomi’s homeland, where Ruth won the love of a man who ensured both she and Naomi would have a future.

In fact, what seems to be a simple story proves to be critically important to the story of Israel and the salvation of the world. When we see this story in the context of the Bible as a whole, we realize it’s about much more than the love between a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law or the love between a lonely man and a needy woman.

Ultimately, Ruth and her new husband, Boaz, had sons, one of whom was a direct ancestor of King David. And that of course means they also are listed in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, who saves the world from sin.

When we see such stories in the Bible, we’re called to ask ourselves how God might be working through the brokenness around us today. We’re encouraged to understand that God sees the pain and says, “That’s terrible, but I’ll use it to my advantage.”

And of course, we’re also reminded that pain and suffering are not eternal. If God is working to repair the world, then an end to brokenness lies somewhere in our future.

Dear Lord, as we are confronted with our own brokenness, may we also be granted a glimpse of how you will transform it to your glory. Amen.

Recognizing the Resurrection

By Chuck Griffin

Once again, I so need Easter. I remember saying something along those lines last year and rejoicing in Easter’s arrival, and I’m doubling down this year.

It’s easy to let the world distract us from our core beliefs. Fear often is the driver behind the distractions. Fear for our health, fear for our financial futures, fear that our lives, or even our churches, won’t be exactly the way we’ve spent years imagining them. So we spend our time working, saving and planning, hoping to manipulate circumstances as best we can. What little time we have to spare we devote to “recreation,” except we seldom spend that time actually re-creating our frantic selves.

The resurrection is the cure. The resurrected Jesus was able to say “fear not” repeatedly for a reason.

Blessedly, April arrives tomorrow, and Easter Sunday is April 17, starting a season of celebration built around the resurrection. Here’s a basic challenge for us all: Let’s once again recognize the resurrection as a very real and powerful event, one that changes everything else.

Try this each morning until we reach April 17. When you first arise, say out loud, “Easter is coming, and I have hope.”

Not all in church have fully absorbed the reality of the resurrection. In a prior appointment, I once had a woman enter my office to tell me she and her husband were resigning their memberships. Naturally, I asked why.

“It’s because of the way you preach about the resurrection,” she said. I pressed further, and she went on to say that they saw the resurrection as a sort of fable (my word, not hers), one designed to help people understand they have hope. “You talk about it as if it really happened!”

All I could say was, “Well, yeah! Christ’s resurrection is the foundation for what we believe. If Jesus Christ didn’t defeat death and come out of the tomb remade, our faith is meaningless.” Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians 15:14.

They didn’t stay in that local church, but a sound definition of the resurrection remained, and people who joined after the couple’s departure said they appreciated clear words about this key event impacting our lives.

This year, let’s recommit ourselves to a solid understanding of the transformative power of a very real resurrection. Now, I’m not saying we should rush early into Easter. First, we need to experience the remainder of Lent, Holy Week, and especially Good Friday, so we appreciate the sacrifice that makes Christ’s resurrection, and our own, possible.

Let’s be sure, however, that we all play a part in making Easter 2022 very real and very glorious, celebrating like a people full of hope and eternal life.

Lord, lead us through the dark and somber days remaining in Lent, and show us the great light of Easter.

Empty Space

By Chuck Griffin

In this season of Lent, the word “repent” comes up on a regular basis. Repentance requires more commitment than we may realize.

In the third chapter of Luke, we see how crowds of people responded to John the Baptist’s call to repent and prepare the way for Jesus’ coming. But when they showed up to be baptized, he called them a “brood of vipers.”

Clearly, there’s a little more to repentance than just showing up. As we read on in Luke, we see more clearly what the hairy, locust-chomping prophet was expecting: a true change of heart, the kind of transformation that results in a change of behavior.

The crowd asked, “What then should we do?”

John the Baptist’s answer was simple. If you’ve got plenty, and the poor around you have none, share! Stop being so greedy. He must have sensed there were a few folks in the crowd who planned to keep their extra cloaks and food despite being baptized.

If you have a job, particularly one where you have power over others, then perform your duties honestly, he went on. The soldiers and tax collectors whom he addressed directly were notorious for abusing their power to commit theft and extortion. Again, he must have seen the desire for sinful gain still glimmering in their eyes.

These were just examples. His main point was, you cannot say “I repent” but then go on with your old, sinful ways. “Repent” means that you regret your past actions and put them aside. Without true repentance, all the water in the Jordan River won’t help you.

Salvation is simple. All you have to do is believe that Jesus’ death on the cross is sufficient to pay for your sins. True belief by its very nature requires a repentant heart, however. If you don’t think the concept of sin, and in particular, your individual sins, are a problem, how can you take seriously the need for the cross?

Think of it this way: Ongoing sin fills up places in you where God needs to be. True repentance creates empty spaces, allowing God to rush in.

Anyone in church knows that we still have much to repent. Sadly, even the really obvious sins—murderous anger, adultery, theft, deception—go on among Christians, within what we call the body of Christ.

And then there’s the more subtle stuff—gossip, slander, greed and refusals to forgive, just to name a few—that can do as much damage long-term as murder can do short-term.

Yes there’s always plenty of repentance needed, even among those who have submitted to the water and taken on the name of Christ. I won’t go so far as to call us a “brood of vipers,” but I wonder if John the Baptist might.

Fortunately, we worship a patient, loving God, one who will grant us the power to change, if only we repent and ask for God’s help.

Lord, as we open ourselves to you, search us and show us what needs to be surrendered. Amen.

Every Generation

2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NRSV)

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

By Chuck Griffin

America and many parts of the rest of the world have embedded in their culture a love of youthfulness. In the media and elsewhere, we often glorify the young people of our world, even as we get older on average.

As Christians, we of course value young people deeply. Every new generation is in danger of missing out on the precious message of Jesus Christ as Savior, so we want to do all we can to reach the children and young adults around us. Sadly, American Christians as a group have not done a very good job of transmitting the message to younger people the past few decades.

As we realize our failure, some among us panic, and that can cause church leaders to fall into a kind of ageism. While wishing for more young people among us, they also begin to disdain all that white and silver hair that still arrives every Sunday.

It’s as if some church leaders are thinking, “These old people are the problem, and without them, everything would be okay.” This, of course, is silly—a lot of churches would end up with a mostly empty building.

As Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” (Matthew 9:37.) And certainly, we shouldn’t chase away the workers we already have.

We do slow down some as “our outer nature is wasting away.” Older people, however, have an advantage, particularly if they have been in the faith a long time. Many have a deep sense of inner renewal—what we might call spiritual depth—and the life experiences they bring to a church’s outreach can be invaluable.

These people not only know how to plan and execute, they also often have more free time than your typical young adult! We also have to acknowledge that with medical advances and a better understanding of lifestyle choices, there are people in their seventies who can run circles around some people in their thirties when it comes to work.

Church leaders, don’t push these active older people away, even if they seem a little disengaged at times. Have you drawn them into the heart of your plans? Do you treat their worldview as something that remains relevant?

Once these experienced Christians are equipped with a proper understanding of the Great Commission (something lost on so many churchgoers for too long now), they can be a tremendous force for the kingdom.

Several years ago, I was doing ministry work in the Czech Republic. Senior Christians there were unusual because Soviet-enforced atheism had dominated their society and their minds for so long. The young Czechs proved to be more open to the gospel shortly after the Iron Curtain fell.

One Sunday, I worshiped with a small church made up mostly of families with young children. There was a white-haired exception among them, however. After the service, she asked me through an interpreter, “In your country, are there many older Christians, people like me?”

I suppressed a smile as I replied, “Oh, yes—most of the people in our churches are about your age.”

“Ah,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful!”

It is wonderful. Let’s never stop valuing what we have, and let’s get all the folks we have with us recommitted to the mission.

Lord, you work in our lives from the womb to beyond the grave, and every person is precious in your sight while here in this world, young or old. Give us the vision and the energy we need to grow your kingdom now. Amen.

An Honest Searching

Psalm 39
For Jeduthun, the choir director: A psalm of David.
I said to myself, “I will watch what I do
    and not sin in what I say.
I will hold my tongue
    when the ungodly are around me.”
But as I stood there in silence—
    not even speaking of good things—
    the turmoil within me grew worse.
The more I thought about it,
    the hotter I got,
    igniting a fire of words:
“Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be.
    Remind me that my days are numbered—
    how fleeting my life is.
You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand.
    My entire lifetime is just a moment to you;
    at best, each of us is but a breath.”        Interlude

We are merely moving shadows,
    and all our busy rushing ends in nothing.
We heap up wealth,
    not knowing who will spend it.
And so, Lord, where do I put my hope?
    My only hope is in you.
Rescue me from my rebellion.
    Do not let fools mock me.
I am silent before you; I won’t say a word,
    for my punishment is from you.
But please stop striking me!
    I am exhausted by the blows from your hand.
When you discipline us for our sins,
    you consume like a moth what is precious to us.
    Each of us is but a breath.        Interlude

Hear my prayer, O Lord!
    Listen to my cries for help!
    Don’t ignore my tears.
For I am your guest—
    a traveler passing through,
    as my ancestors were before me.
Leave me alone so I can smile again
    before I am gone and exist no more.

By Chuck Griffin

This season of Lent is, again, a time for spiritual searching. Today’s psalm is a powerful example of how that search can whip one to and fro, triggering a range of emotions including stoicism, anger, despair and humility.

If you just skimmed over the psalm, please, slow down, or wait until you have time to slow down, and read it carefully. When you reach the words translated as “Interlude,” take time to breathe and to ponder what has been said thus far.

We also could say that the psalmist moves from an effort at self-control to something more valuable—willing surrender to God, to God’s majesty and undeniable power.

And remember, God does not ignore our tears. In fact, he refuses to ignore us, even if we plead with him to do so. Christ came not to ignore us, but to rescue us. There is no reason to fear that we will be gone, that we will exist no more.

Lord, this is a somber time in the Christian year, but we also feel ourselves being pulled toward hope. In our humility and despair, help us to anticipate the freedom to come. Amen.