Words to Strengthen

Revelation 2:8-11 (NLT)

“Write this letter to the angel of the church in Smyrna. This is the message from the one who is the First and the Last, who was dead but is now alive:

“I know about your suffering and your poverty—but you are rich! I know the blasphemy of those opposing you. They say they are Jews, but they are not, because their synagogue belongs to Satan. Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. The devil will throw some of you into prison to test you. You will suffer for ten days. But if you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life.

“Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. Whoever is victorious will not be harmed by the second death.”

By Chuck Griffin

The Book of Revelation features messages from our risen Christ to seven churches in various states of spiritual formation or decline. The church at Smyrna, located in what is now Turkey, was spiritually strong but heavily persecuted.

As I read this, my mind goes to the power of supportive words. Imagine a direct word from Jesus telling you to persevere—stick with it—hold fast to your beliefs! Even a tortured soul could weather any storm, knowing the promise of eternal life.

It’s amazing how God shows up in the small places, too. I was grumpy (again) on a recent Sunday morning. There’s no need to go into what made me grumpy, as it was silly, certainly nothing along the lines of the big threats the Christians at Smyrna were facing. But I do know this: It’s not good for a pastor to be grumpy right before preaching time.

Words from God snapped me out of it. Not words from the Bible, but words on the side of a black pencil, one I had snatched up in haste from a random spot to mark my pulpit Bible. As I laid it down, these words, printed in gold, stared up at me: “REMEMBER: GOD LOVES YOU!”

I took a deep breath, and I knew things were going to be okay.

I am grateful for that little pencil, and the person who had the wisdom to order that phrase to go on it and its No. 2 box mates.

A couple of days later, I was again feeling stressed, this time over a critically important meeting. While waiting, I picked up the mail from the day before, and among the bills and advertisements was a note from two friends offering me words of encouragement.

During that meeting, the note was in my shirt pocket, a token of God’s love passed along by others.

The Bible is full of encouragement, sometimes carried into the world by angels. But don’t be surprised if a pencil or a friend steps in to deliver the message of God’s love when you need it the most.

Lord, thank you for the way grace flows into our lives in surprising ways. Keep us mindful of our role in channeling your love to those in need. Amen.

Thanksgiving

Psalm 63:5-9 (NRSV)

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
    and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
    and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
    and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
    your right hand upholds me.

By John Grimm

We are ready!  We have our minds set on turkey and fixings.  We are looking forward to the pie—whether it be pumpkin, pecan, apple, or mincemeat!  We are glad it is time to feast. 

Why are we ready to feast?  God has been providing for us!  We are satisfied by God in our waking—whatever time we are awake.  For when we awaken in the middle of the night and can not get back to sleep, it is prime time to concentrate on the Lord.  This time is when we have a rich feast, and our mouths are full of praise.

I believe the hymn title is: “Count Your Blessings.”  God shelters us, and that’s a blessing we can count multiple times!  We cling to God by noticing how much the Lord does for us.  There is nothing like knowing God’s right hand upholds us!

Lord God, thank you satisfying our souls.  Lying in bed, thinking of you and your work in our lives brings joy to us.  As we know you, may our friends and family notice our contentment in you.  May we have more reasons to be thankful as friends and family find satisfaction in you.  In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray for joy for our friends and family this Thanksgiving.  Amen.

God in Art: The Widow

This Sunday at Holston View United Methodist Church, the sermon will draw from Mark 12:38-44, where Jesus again causes us to think about our spiritual relationship with money. If you cannot join us in person, join us online at 11 a.m., or watch a recording later.


As we prepare for Sunday, James Tissot’s “The Widow’s Mite” is offered for your consideration. Much of the artwork developed around this story shows the widow with a child in her arms. While the addition of the child is an elaboration, going beyond what we find in the text, these depictions do remind us of the basic call to care for “widows and orphans,” the most vulnerable people in Jesus’ day. Note in particular the expression captured on the widow’s face.

Tissot, circa 1890, courtesy Brooklyn Museum through Wikipedia

Lord, keep us mindful that in your eyes, treasure is stored in the heart. Amen.

Wrist Holds and Grace

1 Peter 5:1-5 (NLT)

And now, a word to you who are elders in the churches. I, too, am an elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ. And I, too, will share in his glory when he is revealed to the whole world. As a fellow elder, I appeal to you: Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor.

In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders. And all of you, dress yourselves in humility as you relate to one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”


By Chuck Griffin

Today’s Bible passage from the daily lectionary was written by a church leader to leaders, encouraging care of the flock through suspension of self-interest and a focus on humility. The timing is most excellent.

More than anything today, I wanted to be sure readers of this LifeTalk blog have had an opportunity to read an April 23 article by the Rev. Carolyn Moore, a Georgia pastor and one of the leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Entitled “There Is a Simple Solution,” Rev. Moore makes a gentle, grace-filled appeal to United Methodist bishops, saying they have the power to end the painful struggle we find ourselves in, allowing churches wanting to leave the denomination to do so with their property and without punitive costs.

I’ll let her article make her appeal. I can add to it only by way of analogy.

I have practiced martial arts for four decades as of this year. As part of that practice, we spend time learning various ways to escape all sorts of grabs and holds.

One of the most basic holds we learn to deal with is the wrist hold, where someone grabs your wrist to prevent you from escaping whatever attack might follow. There are lots of ways, some simple, some elaborate, to free yourself from a wrist hold.

For example, if you raise your grasped wrist high, turning your palm in, it’s easy to use your other hand to take hold of the back of the attacker’s hand, free yourself, and then use both your hands to apply painful pressure to the attacker’s wrist. If you’re standing, you can use your own body weight to drive your opponent backward into the ground.

If the attack proves to be ongoing and powerful, the defensive responses inflict higher levels of pain and violence. For example, if the attacker locks down really hard, making it difficult to get loose, a swift kick or stomp will allow the release to work, a technique known as “loosening.”

Here’s what we don’t bother practicing in a martial arts class: Always presuming we prepare for violence, we don’t waste time looking at the opponent and saying, “Would you please let go of my wrist?”

Reading Rev. Moore’s article, I had a realization. Progressives, institutionalists and traditionalists in the United Methodist Church have been circling each other as if we are presuming violent intent. We strategize, we project ideal outcomes, and we take defensive or offensive postures over the issue of church property. 

Church is not a martial arts class, however. As peaceful, grace-filled Christians, we should be able to look at each other and say, “Please, let go of my wrist,” and receive a graceful response.

That’s what Rev. Moore asks in her article. The trust clause, which the bishops control, has become the wrist hold binding traditional Methodists to a system they want to escape.

It’s a simple request. Please, let go of our wrists.

Lord, in times of strife, let grace and mercy among brothers and sisters in Christ reign. Amen.

Scrubbed of Hypocrisy

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Matthew 15:1-9 (NRSV)

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:

‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”

I had been wondering when this text would come up during the pandemic. I figured someone would have something to say about Jesus defending his disciples’ lack of handwashing.

Except this story is not really about handwashing, is it? Instead, it’s about empty rituals, and even worse, rituals used in a mean-spirited way.

The Pharisees and other Jews did have a long tradition of ritual washing before eating, although the act had little to do with modern hygiene. It’s questionable whether they even had soap as we think of soap today.

The ritual, rooted in God-given instructions to priests, was intended to put a holy act between any inadvertent unclean contact and the act of eating. For example, you never know when you might have brushed against a person or object considered unclean under the law.

As Jesus often did when he realized a strategic effort to discredit him was underway, he in a theological sense returned fire, revealing the hearts of those who piously invoked the handwashing tradition.

Specifically, he pointed out the Pharisees’ tendency to use the letter of the law they had defined to overcome the spirit of the law given by God. Jesus picked an ugly example: the ritual neglect of needy parents.

If you know your Ten Commandments, you know that caring for your mother and father is very important. These Jewish leaders, however, had designed a way to shield their assets by dedicating their property to the temple, even though they continued using their possessions for their own benefit. “Sorry Mom, sorry Dad—it’s all set aside for God’s work, can’t help you.”

Maybe Mom and Dad weren’t so great, having been neglectful or abusive. Who knows what could harden a child’s heart in such a way. None of that really goes to the point Jesus was making, however.

God in his greater wisdom ordained a system of relationships that holds godly society together. When a parent and a child are properly bound by unconditional love, or a man and a woman are joined in the marriage covenant, or a neighbor cares for a neighbor, we are seeing God’s system at work. We may not understand it in full, but we honor the fact that love undergirds what God has established.

Love also is why we should not let today’s Bible passage create in us a disdain for rituals. Ritual religion should be a powerful and beautiful part of our lives. Appropriately performed, rituals allow us to receive love from God, return love to God, and share God’s love with each other.

Let’s keep the good rituals, and if we run across one that fails to transmit love in one of these ways, let’s ditch it.

Lord, where we find ourselves working hard to avoid loving as we should, help us to pause and consider what you would have us do. Amen.