Enduring Love

Psalm 118:1-2 (NLT)

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!
    His faithful love endures forever.

Let all Israel repeat:
    “His faithful love endures forever.”

By Chuck Griffin

The opening to Psalm 118 asserts a truth that some people find difficult. Perhaps that’s why it is worth repeating.

In the midst of life’s problems, we can feel God has forsaken us. Those dark times can be deeply frustrating, at least until the moment when God does break through to remind us of his grace.

The Easter season is a good time to remember just how powerfully God has broken through and will continue to break through. For no clear reason, other than the fact God is eternally loving, our savior came among us in flesh to die for our sins, making eternal life for us possible.

While dying, Jesus Christ also felt that loneliness we sometimes feel: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His cry from the cross was a quote from Psalm 22, another place in Scripture we can go when we feel forgotten.

Yes, Jesus died, but always remember, the stone was rolled back. Morning light made its way into the tomb, and the resurrected Jesus stepped forth. The resurrection proves Christ defeated the darkness that sometimes seems to surround us, including what can seem like the deep darkness of death.

Remember this, too: Until Christ is seen in full, we are to be voices in the darkness, offering hope to those who think they will never see light again.

Lord, in difficult times, give us unique signs of your presence to carry us through. Amen.

Faith Made Effective

Galatians 5:2-6 (NRSV)

Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.  Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law.  You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.


What is my claim in Christ Jesus?  It is not my vocation as an elder in the United Methodist Church that counts for anything.

What is my claim in Christ Jesus?  It is not that I grew up in the United Methodist Church, baptized as an infant; confirmed in middle school; and a member of the global United Methodist Church that counts for anything.

What is my claim in Christ Jesus?  The only claim I have in Christ Jesus is himself.  It is the hope of righteousness that is in Christ that counts for everything.  The importance of Christ in my life is to be found in faith.  Both the faith that God gives through Christ and the faith that I have toward Christ counts for anything and everything.  By faith Jesus is known in my life as I love as Christ first and continually loves me.

For what Jesus did for me by taking away my sins and giving me the Holy Spirit, I am able to have faith being made effective through love.  Yes, a translation of “working through love” is being “made effective through love.”  This faith in Jesus is what counts for everything.  For by faith in Jesus, I can be a Christian, even a United Methodist.  For by faith in Jesus, I can be an elder in the United Methodist Church.  It is through these expressions of faith that faith made effective through love is lived.

What about you, what counts for anything in your life?  May we be found to have righteous lives, marked by faith that is made effective through love.

Almighty God, thank you for Jesus.  By his work on the cross, we can live.   It is faith in Jesus, enabled by the Spirit, that prepares us for all righteousness in this world and the world to come.  During our days on this world, our faith in Christ Jesus accounts for everything.  Thank you for preparing good works to do that show our faith is working through love.  All praise and glory are given to you, the Righteous One who makes us righteous.  Amen.

Psalm 30 People

This is the last LifeTalk devotional for January, so I thought I would be forward-thinking and mention a couple of opportunities we have to focus on the power of love in February.

The first is obvious. Feb. 14 is, of course, Valentine’s Day. It falls on a Sunday this year, so don’t let it creep up on you. Guys, we never want to be part of that sad sight at the pharmacy on a Feb. 13 evening, desperately picking through the cards and candy no one else wanted.

The second opportunity comes three days later. Feb. 17 may not bring immediate images of love to mind, but this year, it is the date for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, which prepares us for the Good News of Easter April 4.

Ash Wednesday is somber, of course, a time for remembering how we have sinned, failing our creator. We traditionally have ashes smeared on our foreheads in the shape of a cross as a sign of our sorrow.

In remembering our brokenness and mortality, however, we also are encouraged to repent, and repentance from sin and restoration to God are possible only because of the most dramatic expression of love the world has ever seen. God loves us first, and through Jesus Christ, God has saved us from the eternal death we deserve.

Christ’s death on the cross makes it possible for us to be Psalm 30 people:

I cried out to you, O Lord.
    I begged the Lord for mercy, saying,
“What will you gain if I die,
    if I sink into the grave?
Can my dust praise you?
    Can it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear me, Lord, and have mercy on me.
    Help me, O Lord.”

You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.
    You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy,
that I might sing praises to you and not be silent.
    O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever!

We can repent of sin and turn back toward God at any time, accepting the love continually offered. We’re approaching a special time, though, a season when the liturgies and Scripture readings will call us repeatedly to put sin behind us and embrace what lies ahead.

Lord, search us and show us what is not of you. Help us to be aligned with your will, revealed powerfully and clearly in Scripture. In the coming Lent, may we experience an awakening that changes everything. Amen.

Love

The last of the four Advent themes is love. If we were detectives, we might say, “Now we’ve found the motive!”

The motive, that is, for everything God does. The principle is laid out for us in 1 John 4:7-11:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

Why would God unilaterally decide to come among us and save us from our sins, suffering as Christ to give us hope, peace and joy? It was an act of undeserved, unreserved love. Love exists because God exists, and love is integral to God’s being, God’s nature.

The circumstances could be different. We’ve imagined gods completely lacking in love, disinterested, dismissive or even hostile toward human beings. But the One True God is driven by love.

Even when God chastises us, it is a loving act, one designed to bring us into alignment with our creator. When we walk with God, we walk toward life. When we walk away from God, we walk toward death.

God loves us so much he wants to dwell among us. God did this in flesh, as Jesus Christ, carrying out the work necessary to save us from our sins. He resides in us and among us now, as the Holy Spirit. And he will dwell among us in full.

I think I’m about ready to celebrate the incarnation—Christmas!

Lord, sometimes we simply need to stop and give thanks for who you are. We are blessed to be the creation of a loving being, one who looks out for us eternally. Thank you for the love shown to us on the cross. Amen.

Hope

For the rest of this week, let’s consider the four themes of the Advent season—hope, peace, joy and love—which are usually captured in readings during the lighting of candles on the Advent wreath each Sunday.

As odd as it might seem, Romans 5:1-4 ties hope among the believers to suffering:

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

I find it helpful to realize that suffering can have a point, so long as we continue in our faith that God’s promises have come true and will continue to come true.

Whatever we are experiencing, we learn to say in stronger and more authoritative ways, “Yes, this situation is bad, but it is temporary. God has promised that evil and all of its effects will be overcome.”

The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a train. There’s no trick in store for us. The light of Christ is bearing down on us, coming to our rescue.

Hope also serves as a great evangelism tool. When people look at a Christian and say, “I want what that person has,” odds are the believer is exhibiting hope. People long to know that there is a potential happy ending to every story, and they particularly want to know how to ensure they can take part in that ending.

It is the basic role of every Christian to project hope where people may find themselves in despair. Where will we demonstrate hope today?

Lord, we don’t like to suffer, but thank you for being there in the midst of suffering, helping us to turn it into something good on behalf of your kingdom. 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.

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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Stop Shoving

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Ezekiel 34:17-23 (NLT)

“And as for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign Lord says to his people: I will judge between one animal of the flock and another, separating the sheep from the goats. Isn’t it enough for you to keep the best of the pastures for yourselves? Must you also trample down the rest? Isn’t it enough for you to drink clear water for yourselves? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Why must my flock eat what you have trampled down and drink water you have fouled?

“Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will surely judge between the fat sheep and the scrawny sheep. For you fat sheep pushed and butted and crowded my sick and hungry flock until you scattered them to distant lands. So I will rescue my flock, and they will no longer be abused. I will judge between one animal of the flock and another. And I will set over them one shepherd, my servant David. He will feed them and be a shepherd to them.”


I am guessing that when most of us think of judgment, sheep and goats, we think of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus, however, was expanding on words spoken by a prophet 600 years earlier.

At this point in Ezekiel’s prophecy, God already had condemned the callous “shepherds,” the Israelite kings who failed to care for their people. He then went on with the metaphor, issuing an internal warning to the flock regarding how its members treated one another.

In short, they were shoving and grasping, the strong taking from the weak. There was no care being taken to ensure those most in need had their share of the basics.

All that shuffling and stomping during the hoarding of resources did a lot of damage, too. Where there is hoarding, there often is spoilage, and what could have benefitted others is wasted.

The message is pretty straightforward: Stop shoving and grasping, thinking only of yourself. Look around. To draw from a story in John 5: Who needs help reaching the pool of Bethesda?

In both the Ezekiel prophecy and in Jesus’ teaching, the concern is for the people on the margins of society, the “least of these,” the ones most damaged by the brokenness of the world. And remember, these images are all presented in “last days” judgment style—in Matthew, the lesson is conveyed by the one who will do the judging!

How we treat people pushed to the margins becomes a very serious litmus test for how effectively we have absorbed the idea that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. In response to this idea, people have devised a lot of schemes through the centuries regarding what governments should do. Some of those might even be worthwhile strategies.

None of that planning, however, eliminates our responsibility to look around and assess what we need to do as individual Christians. As God says through Ezekiel, “I will judge between one animal of the flock and another.”

Lord, give us eyes to see, ears to hear and a willingness to provide. Amen.

Small Groups, Day 4

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

James 5:16-20 (NLT)

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops.

My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.


No guts, no glory.

That’s what I tell myself as I contemplate the most difficult part of being in a small group, the mutual Christian accountability that should develop over time. As Christians grow in love and trust for each other, they also find themselves better equipped to talk about really important, personal stuff, sins included.

When it happens, it happens in a fairly natural way. No one has to force this new level of spiritual intimacy. Someone in the group is in pain, and finds she or he loves and trusts the others enough to courageously speak about the details of the ongoing struggle.

The other group members, in turn, hear this beloved individual’s words without judgment, offering to do what they can to draw God’s healing, forgiving grace into the situation.

Once the group becomes comfortable with such moments happening, it also is time to take more seriously what has formally driven accountability in small groups for centuries, the asking of agreed-upon questions. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, provided recommended lists of questions throughout his ministry. There were 22 accountability questions in the “Holy Club” he and his brother Charles established in 1729.

These questions remain useful, and modern lists abound, too. One of my favorite accountability questions is at the end of Chuck Swindoll’s list of seven for male clergy: “Have you just lied to me?” Apparently pastors might hedge or lie in answering the first six, but surrender on the seventh.

If you don’t understand the level of trust and love that develops in a healthy small group, questions and accountability probably sound terrifying. Just remember, you won’t be drawn into mutual accountability until the group is ready and willing, and when that happens, the moment will be a joy, not a burden.

As I mentioned in Day 2 of this series, the level of closeness that develops, improperly understood, can cause a group to stop drawing new people in. Properly understood, these bonds should be the great motivator for reaching out to others.

God’s healing, forgiving love, transmitted via the Holy Spirit within the group, is the great gift we are called to share!

Lord, give us deep Christian relationships, the kind where we can grow into the people you would have us be. Amen.


Note: It has come to my attention that some people don’t fully understand how links work within an online article. You can click on places where the text changes color, and another window will open, giving you more details.

The Lovers

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Song of Songs 2:8-13 (NLT)

Preachers and theologians have struggled through the centuries to interpret the biblical book Song of Songs, sometimes called Song of Solomon. Why is the book even in the Bible?

If you read it in a straightforward manner, there is very little instruction about God or humanity’s relationship to God. Traditionally, preachers have “allegorized” Song of Songs, reading it as if it is all symbolic of God’s love for humanity and humanity’s pursuit of God.

Some modern preachers, myself included, struggle with that approach, however. While I respect my predecessors’ efforts, I find it a huge leap to consistently turn what is sometimes very sexual imagery into allegory. When we do so, we dodge the direct meaning of the text.

And then there are all those unanswered questions about the lovers. Who are they? (Traditionally, one of them is King Solomon, but that seems a bit of a stretch, too, as we’ll see shortly.) Why do they speak so boldly of their passionate desire for each other? Did they or didn’t they? (Yes, I’m talking about sex.) And if they did, were they married? (There’s no clear evidence in the text.)

I’m going to offer you my conclusion about how to read Song of Songs. It’s an opinion I formed after marking up the text, making some observations about speakers, characters, and the nature of Hebrew poetry, and then consulting the writings of a lot of scholars I respect. Your eternal salvation is not dependent on your agreeing with me—I just want to share with you what I think.

First of all, I doubt Song of Songs was ever intended to be read as a cohesive story. Instead, it’s a collection of sexually charged love poems. Think of Song of Songs like a box of snapshots from a relationship. The pictures tell us much about the relationship, but they’re likely not in chronological order, and there are lots of details missing.

That’s not a radical idea; it simply makes Song of Songs more like the collections of psalms, proverbs and other wisdom literature preceding it in the Bible.

We also can glean a few interesting-if-vague details. In at least some of the poems, the woman is a working girl. She makes it clear her family has forced her to work in the fields, the sun tanning her so deeply that she describes herself as very dark. Her beloved is fairer-skinned and described as her “king-lover,” but that may just be poetic language, a deliberate effort to juxtapose him with King Solomon rather than make him out to be King Solomon.

Of course, I still haven’t made it clear why Song of Songs belongs in the Bible. Again, I’m having to trust the research of better-trained scholars.

What’s particularly helpful is that in modern times, researchers have found that Song of Songs is not unique. There were lots of similar collections of sexually charged love poetry in the cultures that surrounded the Israelites. The major difference is the polytheistic approach to sex these cultures took. (Polytheists worship many gods; monotheists, like the Israelites, worship one all-powerful God.)

Sex in polytheistic cultures tended to be about control. All sorts of sexual rituals evolved in these cultures to encourage the rain to fall, the crops to grow, and the livestock to multiply. Sex often was ritualized at temples with prostitutes in some of these cultures, and it certainly served as a way for men to control women.

The Israelites were radically different from their neighbors because they officially followed the One True God. Song of Songs is a good indicator of how the Israelites’ understanding of God affected their attitudes about sex.

The poems here consistently talk about passionate, long-term love between one man and one woman. They seek each other not for control, but for mutual satisfaction and ultimately, procreation. (The woman speaks of mandrakes in 7:13, a plant associated with fertility.) Sex is not to control a god; sex is a gift from God.

Marriage may not be a definable event in these poems, but it is easily assumed considering the deep commitments the lovers are making to each other. Their love takes us back to the creation story in Genesis, where one man and one woman are depicted as dependent on each other, inseparable.

King Solomon may even appear in these poems now and then as a kind of literary foil, present to make the lovers’ commitment to each other more commendable. We cannot forget King Solomon’s downfall in the eyes of God. In 1 Kings 11, Solomon is condemned for his many foreign wives and his willingness to introduce their polytheistic worship to the Israelites.

Song of Songs reminds us that proper worship of the One True God changes our relationships for the better. This includes our sexual relationships, the most joyous physical gift God has given us, a gift that is celebrated in Jewish tradition and now Christian tradition.

Lord, may we live out all our relationships as reflections of holiness and in appreciation of the tremendous grace we are given. Amen.