Psalm 23: Eternal Feast

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Our devotionals for Wednesday, Thursday and today are all from the 23rd Psalm, “A Psalm of David,” considered in small meditative bites.

Verse 5
You prepare a feast for me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
    My cup overflows with blessings.

Remember a couple of days ago, when we meditated on contentment? The shepherd who cares for our needs will also fulfill our holy wants. There is great reward in following him!

It does not matter if the world sneers at the shepherd’s flock. The worldly people, even their leaders, will have to watch in envy as the sheep receive far more than the world could ever offer.

The humble, the poor in spirit, the ones counted as irrelevant—these people will prove to be the ultimate insiders. The contentment of the sheep will turn to deep satisfaction and even irrepressible joy.

The one to whom all honor and glory must be given will honor us as his own. We hear it in the language of feasting and anointing, the latter a practice we have largely lost. The point is, there will be a public celebration of those who stood with the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and we likely will be shocked at who are and are not among the honored.

And if God wants to pour oil over our heads, rejoice! Feasting and anointing are just the first of many eternal blessings to follow.

Verse 6
Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
    all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord

Now and forever. All that we’ve been promised as we’ve heard the 23rd Psalm these past few days lasts for now and forever.

In the “now,” we may not always feel we’re experiencing in full what is promised. We have to remember that the journey for the sheep can be a long one.

The world is a broken place. That’s why the shepherd needs his rod and staff. There are spiritual battles to be fought and rescues to be launched.

But we do have God’s goodness and unfailing love trailing us like a couple of sheepdogs, encouraging and guiding us. That’s enough for now.

And as astonishing as it is, we know where we are headed! Who ever heard of stinky sheep being allowed in the grand mansion of the master? The God we worship thinks it’s a good idea, though. He is determined to make us more than the wandering sinners we are.

The shepherd king gathers us, disciplines us and cleans us up, making us fit to be in the presence of royalty, forever.

Thank you, Lord, thank you. Thank you for the Great Shepherd who makes these promises possible. Thank you for what we do not deserve. Amen.

Psalm 23: Holy and Fearless

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Our devotionals yesterday, today and tomorrow are all from the 23rd Psalm, “A Psalm of David,” considered in small meditative bites.

Verse 3b
He guides me along right paths,
    bringing honor to his name.

As his sheep, we follow his lead, behaving as the shepherd would have us behave. Sometimes the concept of Christian holiness is made to sound complicated, but it really is that simple.

We are known as his flock, and we do not want to embarrass him by wandering down paths not leading to eternity. For thousands of years, he has shown us his will through his word, recorded in the Holy Bible. This is how he tells us left or right, stop or go.

Yes, the noise of the world sometimes makes his call a little harder to discern, but if we take time to focus on Scripture in a thoughtful and prayerful way, we will know what to do.

And when we follow the right paths, people do notice. They are astonished when the harm they were expecting from us does not occur, or when they receive unexpected goodness.

And when they seek to know why we behave in such an unworldly way, we earn the right to tell them, “Because I stay in love with God—you can too!”

Verse 4
Even when I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
    for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
    protect and comfort me.

Our shepherd is so loving, we can forget how strong he is. He has all the tools and weapons he needs to fend off the most terrifying threats.

The rod, a type of club worn at the belt for quick access, proves our shepherd’s willingness to go on offense when we are threatened. Evil will be crushed. The staff can be used with devastating effect in a fight, too. It also is a tool of rescue, capable of lifting lost sheep out of the most difficult circumstances.

We are reminded of the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ. The truth he spoke acted like a bludgeon against the lies and deceptions of the world, and the day will come when Christ’s truth shreds evil like the keenest of blades. The cross became his tool for lifting us out of despair and death and into eternal life.

With a shepherd like that, why would we ever be afraid?

Lord, guard us in this life and lift us into the next, and may anxiety never keep us from heeding your call. Amen.

Psalm 23: Content and Rested

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

This Sunday, Lord willing, I will preach on the 23rd Psalm at Holston View United Methodist Church. I want to invite you to spend the rest of our week meditating on this “Psalm of David.” To jolt our thought processes a little, I’m using a less-familiar translation, the New Living Translation.

These meditations are based on devotionals I wrote for Luminary UMC in April, during the early days of the pandemic continuing to affect us. If you want, you can split each day into two devotionals, one for morning and one for evening.

Verse 1
The Lord is my shepherd;
    I have all that I need.

What a beautiful opening. But is this what we really believe?

One of the most difficult mindsets to achieve in this life is contentment, the ability to say, “My needs are covered.” And as the psalmist is trying to tell us, there is but one place to find contentment.

By calling the Lord “shepherd,” we say we trust God to care for our needs. We declare that what he gives us will be enough.

We understand the folly of listening to other voices, worldly shepherds telling us, “It’s really better over here. Happiness is on my side of the fence.”

False shepherds call to us for their own selfish reasons. Perhaps they need our votes or they need us to consume for their own profit, regardless of whether our consumption is good for us. Follow them, and in the end we likely find ourselves used up and alone.

It is best to be content in the care of the one who loves us so much that he will seek us out wherever we are.

Verses 2-3a
He lets me rest in green meadows;
    he leads me beside peaceful streams.
    He renews my strength.

Certainly, the shepherd urges us forward from time to time, for our own benefit and for the larger benefit of the kingdom. (Never forget, our shepherd is also a king!) Following him, we can grow tired. But there always is rest.

The need for contemplative rest—Sabbath—is built into the very fabric of the universe. And if we trust God’s plan, we can gain much from the times of rest we are offered.

There is sustenance in God’s word, as rich and spiritually nutritious to us as green meadows are to the sheep. By consuming what we find there, we grow. We also drink from the stream of life when we open ourselves to his grace, poured out through a variety of openings. Our prayers, our time in communion, and our fellowship with one another are just a few examples, and enough grace pours forth through these encounters to soak us thoroughly.

In the right cycle of service and rest, we grow spiritually stronger over time, even as our physical vigor fades. God always is willing to give us more than we have given. We simply must remember to stop and receive.

Lord, help me to recognize when you place opportunities for contentment and rest before me, and allow me to grow in my delight of you through the influence of your Spirit. Amen.

Renewed and Ready

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

2 Corinthians 5:17-21 (NLT)

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.

Just prior to these words in 2 Corinthians, Paul has been laying out what is sometimes called his “doctrine of reconciliation,” where he says that Christ’s selfless sacrifice on the cross for all people transmits a powerful kind of love.

This love is so powerful that believers find themselves transformed, made into people they could not have been otherwise. I see it as an early stage of resurrection, a beginning of the transformation we are to receive in full one day.

With the transformation comes a shift in perspective. Thanks to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we see the big picture of what God is doing. Jesus came for all the world! It should astonish each of us individually that God cares enough to draw us into his plan.

Our astonishment should be so great that we joyously take on the task of helping others understand what God is doing. “Come back to God!” we should cry to others, in whatever manner we believe to be most effective.

Are we at least thinking about how we lovingly make this offer to those around us? Once we’ve thought about this awhile, are we willing to act?

Do we trust that the new people we have become have a new kind of power—do we trust that we have nothing to fear?

The vitality of Christ’s kingdom around us depends on how we answer these questions.

Lord, renew our sense of wonder about what has been done for us, and may others see you in us. Amen.

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Peaceful Warriors

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 144:1-2
A psalm of David.
Praise the Lord, who is my rock.
    He trains my hands for war
    and gives my fingers skill for battle.
He is my loving ally and my fortress,
    my tower of safety, my rescuer.
He is my shield, and I take refuge in him.
    He makes the nations submit to me.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we should have a deep aversion to violence. Our savior and teacher had a lot to say about radical forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and forgiveness for enemies.

And yet, evil remains in the world. Since the days when the church and institutional power first began to blend, Christians have struggled with how to  follow Jesus’ teachings when confronted with the potential for great violence.

There are two basic paths thoughtful Christians have promoted through the years. The first is pacifism, where Christians say violence is unacceptable under any circumstances. True Christian pacifists are relatively few in number, although that doesn’t necessarily make them wrong—I have enormous respect for the creative ways they will try to confront violence with nonviolent countermeasures.

The second involves something called Just War Theory. Essentially, war is never good, but sometimes it is necessary in a broken world. There are, however, principles that should never be violated in deciding to go to war or during its prosecution.

I pray there are no more wars in my lifetime for Americans to justify, but if one arises, we likely will hear a leader at some point describe the cause as “just.” He or she will be trying to convince the public that principles of a just war have been considered.

We should always be dubious, by the way. Just wars inherently should be rare events, far more rare than what we have experienced since the end of World War II.

By the way, some of these just war principles can be applied to the “when and how” of Christians individually defending themselves. It has been my experience that martial arts training will cause people to back into these ethical debates without realizing they’re touching on Just War Theory.

For most Christians, it is a reality that some will train their hands for war, trusting God to give their fingers skill for battle. Certainly, soldiers should train, as should our police and others willing to protect innocent lives.

We need to pray for those who train, asking that they also maintain their humanity and their connection to God. Indeed, let’s pray they feel guided by God if forced into action.

Simultaneously, we need to pray for political leaders who will not abuse how they make use of these willing warriors.

I look forward to the day when Jesus’ sword of truth has overcome all evil, and violence is part of a former world.

Lord, grant us creative solutions to ancient problems, and may we all learn to think of violent solutions as acts of last resort. Amen.

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Psalm 19: Look Within

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Let’s continue our meditation on Psalm 19. Yesterday, we considered the first six verses.

After contemplating the heavens, the psalmist makes what initially seems like a sudden turn, talking about how God instructs us. In particular, he references the law given to the Israelites. The two subjects are more connected than we might initially think.

The order and beauty of the heavens partially reveal God. A fuller understanding of God’s nature is found in contemplating God’s law, the psalmist is saying.

Because of sin, we are too broken to intuit such truths on our own. We need a direct revelation from the mind of God, a conduit Scripture offers us every day.

Even then, we are not strong enough to remain aligned with God—to remain holy—unless God helps us. Thus, we hear the petition at the end of the psalm to be kept and cleansed from sins committed deliberately or unknowingly.

The psalmist did not know the details of how God ultimately would respond to this prayer, benefitting all of humanity, but we know. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross makes it possible for all people to be cleansed of sin.

When we believe in Jesus and the effectiveness of his sacrifice, God’s Holy Spirit rushes in to engage with us and strengthen us, if only we let him.

Lord, may the words from our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, our rock and redeemer. Amen.

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Psalm 19: Look Up

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Let’s finish out the work week contemplating some key portions of Psalm 19. These words could easily inspire us for the weekend.

The first six verses speak of how God is revealed in the heavens above—what the psalmist would have seen as a mysterious but usually predictable dance of lights in the sky. As I’ve mentioned before, we now know so much more about the universe beyond earth, but simultaneously we have deepened the mystery as we find new questions to ask.

I encourage you to do something simple, particularly as the weather grows cooler and the night sky becomes more still and clear. Take time to look up. Maybe even go to a place where you can better see the brilliant show above, a place away from the electric lighting interfering with our view.

Simply revel in the wonder of it all. I will always remember a night in the Arizona desert many years ago, far from any towns. I was able to kick back and gaze upward on a cool, clear evening.

I saw the majesty of the night sky as the Israelites must have seen it on any clear night. The Milky Way looked like the backbone of the sky; Jupiter’s brightness was piercing.

The heavens don’t reveal God in full, of course, but they can restore a sense of wonder, which we need if we are to approach God like a child.

Lord, as we gaze upward, give us a sense of your presence and power, and help us translate all of that into a deeper appreciation of the revelations we receive here on earth. Amen.

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Pick Up Your Mat

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Matthew 9:2-8 (NLT)

Some people brought to him a paralyzed man on a mat. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralyzed man, “Be encouraged, my child! Your sins are forgiven.”

But some of the teachers of religious law said to themselves, “That’s blasphemy! Does he think he’s God?”

Jesus knew what they were thinking, so he asked them, “Why do you have such evil thoughts in your hearts? Is it easier to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Stand up and walk’? So I will prove to you that the Son of Man has the authority on earth to forgive sins.” Then Jesus turned to the paralyzed man and said, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and go home!”

And the man jumped up and went home! Fear swept through the crowd as they saw this happen. And they praised God for giving humans such authority.

If you’re a Christian, you already accept what the religious leaders in this story could not: Jesus is divine, God in flesh. He has the authority to forgive sins.

We see God’s love shown in two different ways here. The man brought to Jesus is paralyzed. His physical impediment has caused his friends to carry him before Jesus, known mostly at this point as a healer and a prophet. But Jesus doesn’t heal him right away, probably to trigger the religious leaders’ indignation and set up a powerful revelatory moment about who Jesus is.

“Your sins are forgiven.” If these words truly have meaning, how powerful they are! Regardless of our worldly circumstances, regardless of what we may suffer in this life, they are the most powerful words we will ever hear.

And we do hear them still today. Lord willing, we will have communion at Holston View UMC this Sunday. Because of Covid-19, we will handle communion differently, but we will engage with God in this sacrament of cleansing and forgiveness.

Following the liturgy’s call to reflection and confession, I will have the tremendous privilege of saying, “Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!”

Acknowledging that I am just as much in need of forgiveness, those present will respond, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

Beyond that moment, we will be wise to watch for signs of God’s power at work in our lives, in particular evidence of healing. In the Bible story, as a sign of God’s presence in Jesus, the paralyzed man is able to pick up his mat and walk.

Perhaps we too will see physical healing—if we do, we should declare to others what we have seen. Miraculous healings continue to happen to encourage a world needing to know God is present.

More importantly, there will be spiritual healing. The sins that burden us will be shaken off. We can pick up our lives as people who walk fearlessly with God, thanks be to Jesus Christ!

Lord, we are so grateful that Jesus came among us filled with your power and Spirit, and that your Holy Spirit remains among us today. Amen.

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Toward Solid Food

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

1 Corinthians 3:1-3

Hebrews 5:12-14

1 Peter 2:1-3

Yes, we are saved by simple faith, but yes, Christianity also calls us to a lifetime of learning. Peter, Paul and the author of Hebrews give us similar clues about what progress should look like.

Much like when we are learning to eat, our faith journey begins with “spiritual milk.” Literally, these apostolic fathers mean we have to begin with the basic core truth of Christianity, the idea that “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

To grasp that earliest of Christian creeds, you have to understand what the name Jesus means historically—how Jesus’ existence was the fulfillment of promises made over thousands of years to the people of Israel. You understand that calling him “Christ” roots Jesus in promises of a messiah to come, that this little creed is in present tense for a reason, and that the term “Lord” places Jesus over all creation.

As all three of our Scripture selections affirm, some people cannot get past their reliance on milk, or even learn to handle milk in a sustained way. That’s sad, because there is so much more for Christians to consume, a lifetime of ever-increasing richness.

In my mind, this all translates into a structured system of learning in the church, something to sustain us from cradle to grave, assuming we are so blessed as to be born into a Christian family.

Our educational programs are suffering mightily right now. The pandemic has shut down many of our traditional means of Christian learning. But this is a good time to consider which efforts were working before the pandemic, and which weren’t working so well.

I like to think about Christian education in three tiers, which are age-related for people carried into church as babies. Adult converts have to go through similar steps, although obviously they would be guided through them in a different setting using adult education techniques.

Tier 1 (from birth through about age 12): Learn the stories! Not only that, learn them in a way where they become beloved stories.

The broad themes in these stories teach us about the nature of God, how humans become broken by sin, and what God wants to do in love to restore creation to a holy state. The story of Jesus Christ is the climax of the great story told in the books of the Bible.

Tier 2 (from adolescence to young adulthood): Consider in a deeper way how those stories apply to life, in particular, life’s difficulties. Any teacher of this group should welcome questions, and be mature enough to handle the challenging ones.

It’s important at this stage to acknowledge that we sometimes do not have easy answers before us—occasional debate, rooted in Scripture, should be encouraged. This can be an exciting phase as students discover that salvation is initially easy to grasp, but becomes an intriguing mystery to explore as we go deeper.

Tier 3 (adulthood): Here, we should enter a stage I call “relational learning.” Small groups and mentoring arrangements become important in the life of the Christian. Someone who has grown up in the church should, by this point, have a scripturally inspired sense of right and wrong.

Such a person also should be ready to humbly submit to God’s calling, which easily can lead to a servant leadership role based on the gifts God has placed in that person.

In all three tiers, a lot of detailed planning is required, of course. But here’s a simple question for any church: Are we moving a significant number of people into mature Christian leadership roles?

I have no doubt that churches answering “yes” are doing great work for the kingdom.

Lord, may your Spirit guide us toward an honest assessment of what’s happening in our churches. Where we need to adjust, may we have the courage to do so. Amen.

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Thankful for Each Other

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Philippians 1:3-14 (NLT)

People who have not read Paul closely like to label him as severe, but I get the sense he had a warm, fuzzy feeling when he wrote today’s text.

I get what he’s saying. Short of gaining eternal life, the biggest reward of being a Christian is developing close relationships with sisters and brothers in Christ. Sometimes we want to pause, think for a minute about who has been with us along the journey, and say thanks.

Thanks to the guys my age who created space for me to be the more relaxed version of myself, and not just “Pastor Chuck.” I never want to be unholy, but it’s nice when I don’t have to be on guard.

I’ve had people tell me they think pastors shouldn’t have friends in the church. Bull-oney. Maybe if you want the pastor to die a premature death.

Thanks to those of you who walked into my office with puzzled looks on your faces and said, “I was praying, and felt I was supposed to say something to you.” I can count all of you on one hand.

My particular favorite is the fellow who had a very direct word from God, and when he finished, he loudly declared, “I have no idea what that means.”

I heard with great clarity what God was saying through each of you, even if you did not understand your words. Some of you encouraged me, some of you brought discernment, and Mr. I Have No Idea pulled me back from the precipice of a bad decision about to be made in frustration.

Unwitting prophets are in this world, and I remain astonished.

Thanks to all of you who spent so much time teaching my children about Jesus and walking with them through difficult times, times where they needed to be able to talk frankly with someone other than Mom and Pastor Dad.

Thanks to all of you who are mindful about showing kindness—gifts from the garden, precious notes, and acts of service to make life easier, for example.

To borrow from Paul, you have a special place in my heart, and I pray that the Holy Spirit fills you and sanctifies you more each day. I know that word of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior spreads because of you.

Lord, give us eyes to see what life would be like without you and the community of Christians where we reside. Having seen, let us rejoice in what we have. Amen.

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