From Lament to Joy

Book of Lamentations

By Chuck Griffin

No doubt, we’ve been experiencing tough times. It’s not much consolation, but we do need to remember that times have been tougher.

In the Book of Lamentations, the Promised Land is depicted as smoking ruins, and we are told that starving mothers ate their children. Never forget that the Bible can be a grisly book.

As Lamentations notes, at least the destruction of sinful Sodom and Gomorrah was quick. Jerusalem’s punishment for disobeying God was slow and agonizing, creating scenes that even the seedier side of Hollywood might hesitate to depict.

Jewish tradition holds that this series of poems was written by the prophet Jeremiah, who warned the people of Judah that God’s punishment was coming and then watched invasion, destruction and exile unfold through his long life.

I cannot fully capture for you the somber beauty of these poems in a short article. If the imagery were not crafted with elegant conciseness, most readers would quickly turn away from the dark subject matter.

In these poems, the author twists in pain as he struggles to reconcile God’s obvious anger with God’s faithful love.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness,” says the writer in chapter 3. He later says of God, “Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.”

Yes, when God removes his protective hand from a disobedient people, terrible things happen. Existence without God is hellish. In fact, the best way to define hell is as a place separated from God.

But in the midst of all this horror, the author senses one important fact about God. His love for humanity, even for each individual human, remains, and somehow, somewhere, there must be an ultimate solution to the pain sin causes.

Once again, we find the Old Testament pointing toward the New Testament, that record of the ultimate solution found in Jesus Christ. We are reminded in the midst of suffering that God finally chose to suffer with us, in the process using the cross to solve the dilemma of human disobedience. Through simple belief, our sin is erased, and we receive the promise that the horrible effects of sin will be wiped from the world one day.

At the close of Lamentations, the author prays that his people be restored to God, “unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure.”

In Christ, we find that God loves us beyond measure. With Christ in our lives, we can walk through tough times with confidence and even joy, knowing God is eternally faithful.

Lord, whatever our circumstances, restore our joy. Amen.

Malevojoy

The Book of Obadiah

By Chuck Griffin

The little prophetic book of Obadiah contains a description of an emotion so nasty that God promised to destroy those who felt it.

Oddly, as powerful an emotion as it is, we don’t have a word for it in English. The Germans call it schadenfreude. The Greeks call it epichairekakia.

It is the joy we sometimes feel when someone else experiences trouble. Usually, that someone else is a rival or enemy, and we are reminded in Obadiah that we can treat people quite close to us as rivals or enemies.

Obadiah, a prophet we know little about, described in 21 tight verses why God would destroy the Edomites. The Edomites, you may recall, were the descendants of Esau, twin brother of Jacob. Jacob, of course, was a progenitor of the Israelites.

In other words, the Israelites and the Edomites were cousins. They considered themselves the killing kind rather than the kissing kind, however, keeping alive some very old grudges going back to their twin forefathers.

While we don’t know the exact time frame for Obadiah, his prophecy clearly came after the Israelites had suffered terrible defeat and destruction. The Edomites were guilty not so much of committing violence, but of reveling in what they witnessed.

“You should not have gloated over your brother on the day of his misfortune; you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah on the day of their ruin; you should not have boasted on the day of their distress,” God said to the Edomites through Obadiah.

The desire to grin at a rival’s pain is such a common emotion that I’m surprised we don’t have a word for it in English. Perhaps we need one; it’s hard to identify and repent from a sin when you cannot name it. “Malevojoy,” a fusion of “malevolence” and “joy,” might work.

We see such perverse emotion displayed again in the New Testament, as Jesus is hanging on the cross. The chief priests, scribes and elders watch their rival bleeding and dying and mock him, no doubt with grins on their faces.

“And the people stood by watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!'” (Luke 23:35.)

The potential result of their malevojoy seems much different in the New Testament, however. We are told in Luke how Jesus dealt with such people before they so much as spoke, knowing full well the judgment his enemies might face one day. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Even at his death, Jesus felt only love and pity for his rivals.

Dear Lord, forgive us for the nameless sins we commit. Amen.

Preparing for Joy

Psalm 126. A Song of Ascents.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
    and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
    like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
    reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
    carrying their sheaves.

By John Grimm

Grief takes time to work through.

Tears will arrive when they are least expected.

Misfortune can zap our dreams.

Yet the Lord has his means of restoring us.  If we have not given up, if we have not succumbed to the weeping, and if we have not been swallowed up in tragedy, then we can know how the Lord can restore us.  Some of us are cynical.  Some of us have cut ourselves off from any good because we have experienced much tragedy in our lives.  Some of us have stopped dreaming.

It is good to dream.  How can we have our fortunes restored?  How will God give us joy for which we can shout? Throughout the generations, people have paid attention to the Lord. When people pay attention to the Lord, then we see God restoring us.  That brings us joy!

We need not only have joy during Advent and Christmas.  There are more weeks to the year than the weeks of Advent.  Joy can be our shout every week of the year!  For we can notice the great things God has done for us, even if times are bad. 

Lord, we know people who have stopped dreaming.  We know that you can restore joy to each person and each nation.  May we know joy in our lives as we see you restoring us and our fortunes that are found in you alone.  Fill our lungs so we may give shouts of joy, even today!  In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray.  Amen.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Devotions from Methodist Life will return next week.

Psalm 34:1-8

I will bless the Lord at all times;
    his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
    let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me,
    and let us exalt his name together.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
    and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
    so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
    and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the Lord encamps
    around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
    happy are those who take refuge in him.

Praise

Psalm 113       (NRSV)

Praise the Lord!
Praise, O servants of the Lord;
    praise the name of the Lord.

Blessed be the name of the Lord
    from this time on and forevermore.
From the rising of the sun to its setting
    the name of the Lord is to be praised.
The Lord is high above all nations,
    and his glory above the heavens.

Who is like the Lord our God,
    who is seated on high,
who looks far down
    on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust,
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
    with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home,
    making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the Lord!

By John Grimm

We can praise the Lord.  This psalm from the Hebrew people is not only for the Jews.  It is for all people!  Learning to have joy in our lives, as Paul instructs, comes from praising the Lord.  Thankfully, the first Church Council in Jerusalem, as described in Acts, has extraordinarily little limiting Gentiles who place faith in Jesus Christ.  Thankfully, as we read this psalm, we can see no infringement upon the Jewish law, ceremonial or otherwise. 

It is knowing the Lord is our God that gives us the ability and the insight to praise him.  No one else is seated on high, for this life is not about who is the king of the mountain.  The Lord our God not only looks down from heaven, but he is also involved in life on earth by removing the poor and needy from squalor.  Do we remember the times we were poor, and the Lord raised us up?  Do we remember the times we were needy, and God removed us from the ash heap?  These are reasons we praise God.

Maybe we do not have those memories.  Maybe we are the princes of God’s people.  Knowing and seeing the Lord lift others from squalor gives us reason to praise.  Thanking God for the changed welfare of another person is appropriate.  It is then that we see God has expanded our lives to include those who are not like us.

There are barren women, and barren couples, today.  Knowing the Lord can and does place children in the lives of barren people is a praise.  Even though someone is barren does not mean others bar them from participating in life.  It is a joy for barren women, and couples, to lovingly teach and encourage children to know the Lord.  Again, this opportunity is reason to praise the Lord.

Yes, we can praise the Lord.  He is our God.  Who knows, maybe someone who hears us giving praise to the Lord will make the Lord their God!

We praise God, for you have worked in our lives.  You can see from heaven and can assist us here on earth.  Thank you for lifting us from squalor.  Thank you for allowing even the princes of the earth to see your work on earth.  It is through the name of Jesus Christ that we know you as our God.  Amen.

A Vessel of Grace

This Sunday’s sermon will be a reflection on deep brokenness and the power of God’s grace, based on both 2 Samuel 11:1-15 and John 6:1-14. If you want to watch the sermon but cannot attend Holston View United Methodist Church, it will be available online.

Today’s text: Matthew 14:13-21 (NRSV)


By Chuck Griffin

Today’s Bible passage is one of those accounts of Jesus feeding the multitudes. These feedings communicate a very important message about God: His grace is abundant beyond human comprehension.

Sometimes that grace is so abundant that it pours through others in surprising ways. Let me tell you about an old friend of mine named Bob Loy, a fellow I really look forward to seeing again one day.

Bob had every reason to feel crushed by the world. He had lived for decades with about 30 percent lung capacity after an accident that nearly killed him. By the time I knew him, he was elderly. His wife became very ill; while staying with her at the hospital, Bob slipped and fell, breaking his leg near the hip.

While Bob was laid up, his wife died. He couldn’t go to the funeral. His sister also died about the same time. Again, he couldn’t go to the funeral. This was a man who had every reason to surrender to despair.

But not Bob. Through a haze of pain, he kept studying the people in what had become a very tiny world for him, a hospital room. He was certain every day somebody near him needed God’s grace, and he was going to be God’s vessel for that grace. I know for a fact that he brought at least one nurse to a belief in Jesus Christ while flat on his back in that hospital bed.

He also showed me a lot of grace. I was a new pastor, and he constantly was encouraging me, even as pneumonia took over those weak lungs and he had to keep pulling at his oxygen mask to speak.

There was a secret that explained his attitude, a secret he had shared with me not long after we became friends. When he was injured in that accident decades earlier, he saw a vision of an entryway to heaven.

His had been the classic case of dying on the table and being brought back. He said his experience was indescribably beautiful, a vision of a stream, a vast plain, and the most glorious mountain he had ever seen. He knew that God was there, and if he crossed the stream, he could not go back. He also knew he had a choice. A young man at the time, he chose to return to his family, he told me.

But he did not forget the vision. He had seen what eternal victory in Christ looks like, if only briefly, and from then on that vision shaped his life, even as he had intermittent struggles.

Again, I knew Bob only late in his life; when it came time to preside at his funeral, I heard story after story of the lives he changed through the decades as he shared his joyous version of Christ’s redeeming power.

I don’t think we are required to have a near-death experience to understand what Bob understood. We have embraced the truth of a Savior who shows us repeatedly that when it comes to the things that matter—love, hope, joy—there is eternal abundance. We simply need to learn to dwell in that abundance, and offer it to everyone around us.

Lord, fill us with your love so we may pour it out on a hurting world. We declare today that we have no fear of running out of the grace you offer us. Amen.

Drink Up!

Note: The LifeTalk devotions from Methodist Life will be on hiatus for two weeks so the regular author can take some vacation. Regular devotions will resume Monday, June 7. John Grimm, an occasional author for LifeTalk, likely will be posting on his personal blog during this time.

John 7:37-39 (NRSV)

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.


By Chuck Griffin

I offer you this reading from John as a prelude to this coming Sunday, when most of us will celebrate Pentecost and the presence of the Holy Spirit within the church.

Too often, we allow the presence of the Holy Spirit to seem so mysterious that we miss the outpouring of grace and joy available to us.

Are you thirsty? By that, I mean are you fading spiritually, declining in such a way that you’re receiving signals of impending spiritual death? Belief in Jesus Christ opens a spiritual tap, and we can be so filled with the presence of God that we begin to sustain others.

If you’re thirsty, open the tap now. Remember your belief in what Christ has done for us on the cross—dwell on what it means to believe. Engage with God in all those ways God loves to be engaged: in Scripture, in prayer, in fellowship with other believers.

Certainly, seek the Spirit in worship somewhere this Sunday.

Be blessed!

Lord, thank you for your constant presence. Help us to shake off the blinders this world places on us and let us see you once again. Amen.

What Might Be Lost

Deuteronomy 11:13-17 (NRSV)

If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul—then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill. Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them, for then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.


By Chuck Griffin

When I was in college, I learned an important concept in economics class: “opportunity cost.”

Essentially, when we make decisions, we need to account for more than just the gain we believe we will experience by going in a particular direction. We also need to assess what we lose by not making an alternate choice.

As Forbes magazine once wrote, “It’s a core concept for both investing and life in general.”

It’s easy to analyze opportunity costs with hindsight. For example, a lot of us may have spent $10,000 or so on a nice little car or truck in 1997. We probably enjoyed driving our little cars and trucks.

We had another option, however—we could have instead bought $10,000 worth of Amazon stock in May of that year, when it was first publicly offered. In May of 2020, according to Investopedia, that stock would have been worth $12 million.

The problem, of course, is that none of us has clear information about the future, so it’s hard to guess what our opportunity cost for a particular decision is going to be. Don’t ask me for a loan. I bought the little car.

As we see in our Deuteronomy text, God did the Israelites a real favor. He laid out what would happen if they chose to love the Lord with all their hearts and souls, and what would happen if they chose to turn away from God and sin.

One choice promised a sort of paradise on earth. The other offered a miserable existence and widespread death. The opportunity cost of each choice was made clear. But even with all that clarity, they chose poorly.

God is gracious, of course. He presents the lesson in new ways. Now he presents it to us through Jesus Christ. Choosing to reconcile with God through Jesus actually offers us peace and joy in this life, and ultimately eternal life in the presence of God!

Sin often is attractive in the short-term, offering what we think we cannot live without. To combat sin, it helps to measure the opportunity cost of straying from God’s love and guidance. Ongoing joy and eternal life are a lot to lose.

Lord, may your Holy Spirit grant us a fuller and more complete picture of where our decisions lead us. Amen.

Confident Hope

Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying.

—Romans 12:12 (NLT)


By Chuck Griffin

If we are able to understand what our confident hope is, this becomes a simple verse to live by.

Paul wrote these words in a chapter of Romans where he also talked about making our bodies a living and holy sacrifice. Paul regularly spoke of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as the central message of Christianity, and it is clear he wants us completely “sold out” on the idea, committed to its meaning in good times and bad.

The cross, of course, means freedom for us. Think of your sins for a moment; briefly experience them as the crushing weight they should be. (I feel a slight shudder when I do this.) Now remember, that weight has been lifted by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross! Sin should lead to death, but both have been defeated by Christ.

Thus, the resurrection, the Easter event. It is our proof the cross is effective, and a promise of what is in store for us.

The cross also is the source of our confidence. We certainly will experience negative and even frightening moments in this life, but the fear they are somehow terminal, a full-stop end, is unjustified. We will pass through—life goes on, even after our bodily deaths.

This great truth of Christianity should shape every moment of our lives. Even in sorrow, joy lingers nearby because the truth of our salvation is constant.

Romans 12:12 is a simple Bible verse worth memorizing.

Lord, keep the cross before us in all circumstances. Amen.

In the Thicket

Micah 7:14 (NLT)

O Lord, protect your people with your shepherd’s staff;

    lead your flock, your special possession.

Though they live alone in a thicket

    on the heights of Mount Carmel,

let them graze in the fertile pastures of Bashan and Gilead

    as they did long ago.


By Chuck Griffin

This particular verse in Micah arises as part of a lament over sin and a longing for better days.

We can process this desire to be led back to the good life on so many levels. As a people, we can always look to aspects of a national past we believe to be better, the good old days, although we do have to be careful. People have a tendency to remember the good and forget the bad.

My wife and I like movies from the 1950s and early 1960s, the ones that fill the screen with images just a little too early for us to have seen with our own eyes. Think of the New York City street scenes in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” or Doris Day at the Automat, or Cary Grant in a finely tailored suit. How nice it would be to go back in time and experience all that—without polio, the Korean and Vietnam wars, racism, sexism bordering on misogyny, and those ever-present clouds of cigarette smoke, of course.

We can have similar longings on an individual level, too, desiring that “better time,” whenever that might have been—maybe when we were in high school, or first married, or when the kids were little. If we get stuck in that longing, the here-and-now can seem very much like a briar-filled thicket.

We cannot go back in time, and we probably would not want to do so, were we to think it through. What we can do is take the best of our past experiences, as a people or as a person, and find a way to carry what we learn from them forward. That’s where this verse from Micah becomes useful.

Followers of God know that the best of times always happen in conjunction with a deep relationship with God. When we are with God, we are tapping into promises of eternal joy, timeless truths that color any present moment for the better.

Whatever thicket we find ourselves in, God can lead us out, usually through fellowship with others who follow God. The Great Shepherd has even gone to the cross so we can forever escape the deadly consequences of sin.

Lord, as we walk with you, give us great optimism for the future, knowing you are leading us toward fertile pastures. Amen.