God in Art

Today, LifeTalk introduces a new feature. Occasionally, rather than a written devotion, you will receive a work of art depicting a story from the Bible or some other aspect of our relationship with God.

If you’ve ever read Henri J.M. Nouwen’s “Return of the Prodigal Son,” a meditation on Rembrandt’s depiction of the moment of reunion, you will understand how to approach this opportunity. In fact, we will begin with that same work of art, based on the story found in Luke 15:11-32. Starting here seems appropriate on the heels of ‘Debo Onabanjo’s recent efforts to explore this parable.

The art you receive will be in the public domain or used with the permission of the artist. Submissions of original art are welcome, by the way. Send them in a large format to chuck@methodist.life.

Lord, reveal new truths to us as your holy word inspires the artists around us. Amen.

Open Up!

This Sunday’s sermon at Holston View UMC in Weber City, Va., will be “Demons and Deafness.” It will be based on Mark 7:24-37. If you want to view the sermon but cannot be present, the entire worship service will be available through Holston View UMC’s web page.

Today’s preparatory text: Mark 7:32-35 (NRSV)

A deaf man with a speech impediment was brought to him, and the people begged Jesus to lay his hands on the man to heal him.

Jesus led him away from the crowd so they could be alone. He put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then, spitting on his own fingers, he touched the man’s tongue. Looking up to heaven, he sighed and said, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened!” Instantly the man could hear perfectly, and his tongue was freed so he could speak plainly!


By Chuck Griffin

You’re most likely reading this on the internet in some fashion, through Facebook, email or directly on the Methodist Life site. If you’re like me, this is not always the most conducive environment for slowing down and spending time with God.

A computer or smartphone can buzz with activity. Other windows, apps or browser tabs may be open, streaming music or television. Little pop-ups may be appearing and disappearing, telling you “important email” or alerting you to an incoming text or instant message.

Try something before you read any further. What you’ll experience is really important as we look at today’s text. Find a way to sit in silence, even if just briefly—say, five minutes. It helps to take some deep breaths.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

My premise today is a simple one. We are like the deaf man in our story in Mark. We’re just deaf for a different reason. He had a physical problem. We have an environmental problem that causes spiritual deafness.

Something had stopped up his ears. Perhaps it was a disease. Perhaps it was a head injury. He began to speak as soon as he was healed, so he apparently remembered sound and speech. But at some point in his life, the sound had no longer come in and intelligible words had stopped coming out.

The cure was not a simple one, not even for Jesus the miracle worker. This was no time for a spectacle. Jesus pulled the man aside to a private place. (It strikes me that the deaf man must have had little understanding of what was going on; he had to trust Jesus.)

Put your pandemic-induced anxieties aside for a moment and imagine what it would feel like to have Jesus stick his fingers in your ears. Imagine what it would be like to have him take his spit and put it on your tongue.

Imagine what it would be like to have Jesus pray for you in the common Aramaic his very common followers spoke, a prayer so deep that it comes out in a groaning command: Ephphatha. Open up!

When it comes to hearing Jesus, to really hearing what God has to say to us, we’re stopped up, too. The world is in our ears. We’re clogged with work, sport and school schedules, with plans, with worries, with diversions like television and video games. We’re so stopped up that we’re in danger of remaining deaf to God’s continuing call on our lives until the day we die.

This deafness also makes us spiritually mute. How can we declare what we have not recently heard?

May we go to private places with Jesus long enough that our ears be unstopped. May we hear his message well. And may we declare the message of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior with great excitement.

Dear Lord, give us the same healing command: Ephphatha!

Living Stones

1 Peter 2:4-5 (NRSV): Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.


These two verses serve as a meditation point regarding our role in Christ’s church. I’m going to raise some questions, and we can each seek our own answers.

What does it mean to be a “living stone”?

What sort of usefulness do I provide to Christ’s spiritual house?

How do living stones work together, and how well am I working with the ones around me to support and build the house?

What does it mean to think of Jesus Christ as the cornerstone? How does that truth define my role?

The metaphor shifts to that of “priesthood.” What does it take for a group of people to act as priests to the world, and how does that concept tie to the “spiritual house”?

What spiritual sacrifices have we made, and must we still make?

Lord, may the answers we find today move us toward holy action. Amen.

Fight My Enemies

“The Angel Michael Binding Satan,” W. Blake, circa 1805

Psalm 35:1-10

I hope you’ll take time to read these verses from Psalm 35, which can be found by clicking the above link. You can examine the psalm in different translations, if you want.

If you are someone who believes others are working against you, acting as your enemies, this psalm makes an excellent prayer to God for assistance. It creates a stirring mental picture when read; imagine the eternally powerful and wise Lord of All arming himself for battle and coming to your aid.

A word of caution, though. Praying this psalm is no magic trick, no casual incantation. Our God cannot be trapped and contained the way people believed (and still believe) pagan, little “g” gods can be controlled.

There are some serious actions that must accompany such a prayer. First and foremost, people who would lift it need to do some deep soul-searching, examining whether they have aligned themselves with the Lord. Scripture would be their best source of guidance, of course. Is what they desire precisely what God desires?

Do their tormentors, as unrighteous as they may seem, have anything resembling a valid point to make? Might they, too, be in at least partial agreement with God, and might that mean there is a place for reconciliation, for middle ground?

As Paul reminds us in Romans 3:10-12, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.”

We are all dependent on Jesus Christ and his sacrifice on the cross for salvation. Any righteousness we have flows from our belief in the cross. Any success we might have in praying this Psalm 35 prayer would be rooted in our faith, and a willingness to also pray for our enemies, just as Jesus taught us.

Dear Lord, as we meditate on our relationship with you, may we find ways to escape hostility and be rejoined to our enemies, seeking peace. Amen.

Silence

Psalm 62:5-12  (NRSV)
For God alone my soul waits in silence,
    for my hope is from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
    my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honor;
    my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
Trust in him at all times, O people;
    pour out your heart before him;
    God is a refuge for us. Selah
Those of low estate are but a breath,
    those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
    they are together lighter than a breath.
Put no confidence in extortion,
    and set no vain hopes on robbery;
    if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.
Once God has spoken;
    twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
     and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.
For you repay to all
    according to their work.

Silence.  

It is possible to have silence during worship.  After hearing the joys and concerns of the congregation, I like to begin the pastoral prayer with silence.  There is something about a congregation quieting themselves before God.  When our week has been hectic and uncertain, waiting together to hear from the Lord is beneficial.

No matter whether we are of low or high estate, it is helpful to be silent before God.  To know the power and steadfast love that belongs to God, is for us to know that God is our rock and salvation.  We take a “Selah,” an interlude.  Humbling ourselves, examining our lives, or taking a moment to pause, are what can happen in the silence we have before the God.  Maybe in the silence, we can hear God, again.

God, we know you as our refuge.  The psalmist knew setting aside time in silence was good.  We are learning to be in silence.  As we turn to you, may we once again hear you speak to us.  Thank you for being our rock and salvation.  It is in the name of Jesus that we hope to be found when you repay all of us according to our work.  Amen.

Bedtime Meditation

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 63:6-8
I lie awake thinking of you,
    meditating on you through the night.
Because you are my helper,
    I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
    your strong right hand holds me securely.

Let’s continue with our meditation on Psalm 63, along the lines of what we did yesterday.

Where do we find our minds going as we drift toward sleep, or even as we sleep? There has been a lot of talk about difficulty sleeping and about “Covid-19 dreams,” those nighttime expressions of our heightened anxiety.

I’ve had my struggles at night. In the midst of the pandemic, I moved from one church appointment to another. As you might expect, I couldn’t say goodbye to the former church people the way I wanted, and I have not been able to say hello to the new church people the way I want.

I’ve had this recurring dream where I’m in the sanctuary at my new appointment. As I walk into the narthex, I see a set of stairs that don’t exist in real life, and I go up them. Upstairs, I find I’m in the sanctuary of my former church.

You don’t have to be a psychologist to figure that one out. It’s not a scary dream, just startlingly vivid, but clearly I’m lacking a sense of complete transition.

That dream is nothing compared with what a lot of you are experiencing. Maybe you have illness in your immediate family, or perhaps your ability to make a living has been impaired. The situation is enough to keep you awake at night.

Try this—I will try it too. Read just a little Scripture before falling asleep. Read something positive, like one of the resurrection stories in the gospels, or something else that gives you joy.

As you fall asleep, think about the goodness of God. Think of the great gift of salvation we have been given.

God is our helper. God does give us joy. And God will carry us through the night.

Lord, as we sleep, may we encounter you and grow in our understanding of your love. Amen.

The Power of Stories

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 78:1-4

O my people, listen to my instructions.
    Open your ears to what I am saying,
    for I will speak to you in a parable.
I will teach you hidden lessons from our past—
    stories we have heard and known,
    stories our ancestors handed down to us.
We will not hide these truths from our children;
    we will tell the next generation
about the glorious deeds of the Lord,
    about his power and his mighty wonders.

Biblical truth often is communicated in less-than-obvious ways. This piece of Psalm 78 reminds us of the power of stories and our need to wrestle with what we hear in them.

The psalmist says, “I will speak to you in parable.” Christians tend to associate “parable” with the stories Jesus told to reveal an astonishing truth. In today’s psalm, the word has a slightly different meaning, in that the psalmist is referencing historical stories passed from one generation to the next.

The underlying principle is the same, however. We should take those stories, turning them round and round and upside down. We should peer inside of them as deeply as we can. We meditate on them, we chew on them. Our goal is to discover something deeper about God and what God wants for his creation.

I get the sense that average Americans struggle with defining “truth” today. We confuse the search for truth with the acquisition of undisputed facts. As hard as it is these days to come up with an undisputed fact, it is still a much greater challenge to seek truth.

Searching for meaning in the stories of the Israelites and in the stories of Jesus is, I believe, the best way to fathom God and his mysterious love for very sinful humanity.

I can tell you God is merciful, but you’ll remember this truth better if you dwell on the story of the fall in Genesis. Focus in particular on the pause God takes while doling out punishment to show pity for the shivering, terrified, naked humans

I can tell you God loves you and longs for you to return to him, but you’re going to better grasp how deeply God loves you if you spend significant time meditating on the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Look at the story through the eyes of father, son and brother and consider what they feel and why.

I know, this involves us slowing down and truly absorbing a story, a skill we’re losing rapidly in our modern cultural rush. But if you want to deepen your ability to search for truth in Bible stories, I can recommend a couple of books to get you started.

Fairly Simple: Any of the “Parables from the Backside” books by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Dr. Kalas was one of my preaching professors, and he was the master of shifting to an unusual perspective within a familiar story so we can see truth in a new way.

A little more challenging: Henri J.M. Nouwen’s “Return of the Prodigal Son.” Nouwen offers his meditations on a Rembrandt painting depicting the moment the son returns home. This book is considered a modern Christian classic.

Whatever age you are, whatever education you may have, there’s more to be found in the Bible.

Lord, as we explore what you have revealed to us through stories in your holy word, may we find joy, excitement and a deeper sense of purpose. And give us the opportunity to pass on these truths to a new generation. Amen.


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Under Water

Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 107:28-30 (NRSV)
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he brought them out from their distress;
he made the storm be still,
    and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
    and he brought them to their desired haven.

In yesterday’s devotional, I explored how to breathe during prayer, particularly when we find ourselves anxious. Today, I’m going to teach you a particular visualization technique to enhance your connection with God.

Put the two techniques together, and you have a kind of meditative prayer, something a lot of people in our culture don’t practice regularly. Our other, more familiar ways of praying—where we speak our praises, thanks and petitions to God, perhaps focusing on Scripture or a devotional as part of the process—remain critically important to our prayer lives. You may find, however, that meditative prayer techniques are particularly helpful in developing a sense of God’s constant presence.

There are uncountable ways to enter a state of meditative prayer. This is just one I like. I do not remember where I first learned it.

Imagine yourself sitting (or standing or lying, depending on your preferred posture) at the bottom of a deep, clear pool of water. Here’s the good news: God has granted you the ability to breathe comfortably and freely while there. Remember to breathe as discussed yesterday.

If this were a class in Zen meditation, someone might tell you to empty your mind. We’re doing the opposite. We want to be filled with God, and only with God.

As you begin, it helps to think of a word representing what you seek in that holy relationship. I’ve heard people make all sorts of choices: “peace,” “love,” “forgiveness” or “discernment,” for example. I’ve even heard people choose “Jesus” as their word, apparently as they tried to better fathom what it means to be in a personal relationship with God through Christ.

Go ahead and accept that worries and random thoughts will intrude on this time. We’re not going to fight them. Instead, take hold of them, examine them for a brief moment, and then release them, allowing them to float to the surface, far above you. Say your chosen word as part of the next exhale, and settle back into experiencing God.

That’s the technique. Simple, huh?

By the way, the more you do this, the longer you will spend in this state before deciding to surface. In just a few tries, you may have a meditative prayer session where you are surprised at how long you’ve been “under”—half an hour or even an hour might feel like 15 or 20 minutes.

What’s important is that you find yourself deeply aware of God’s presence.

Lord, thank you for the way you meet us in the midst of storms and in quiet places. Amen.

Means of Grace, Day 2

By Chuck Griffin
Editor, LifeTalk

Philippians 4:6 (NLT): Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.

Like Scripture, prayer is an extremely broad subject. Again, we are talking about a many-layered discipline, one with more depth to it than we can hope to explore in a lifetime.

Prayer takes time, and that causes us to shy away from a deep commitment to it. And yet, prayer also seems to interact with time in mysterious ways, making other moments more fruitful.

In one of his great sermons, “Degrees of Power Attending the Gospel,” C.H. Spurgeon spoke in 1865  of how important the “spirit of prayerfulness” was in his church, Metropolitan Tabernacle in London.

“Let me entreat you never to lose it,” he said. Later in the sermon, Spurgeon exhorted his congregation this way: “Let us increase our praying as we increase our doing. I like that of Martin Luther, when he says, ‘I have so much business to do today, that I shall not be able to get through it with less than three hours’ prayer.’ Now most people would say, ‘I have so much business to do today, that I must only have three minutes’ prayer—I cannot afford the time.’ But Luther thought that the more he had to do the more he must pray, or else he could not get through it. That is a blessed kind of logic—may we understand it!”

Like so many spiritual activities, the only way we can understand prayer is to actually pray. If we over-intellectualize the process, seeking to understand everything before we begin, we will never give this work of piety the time it deserves.

Prayer is very much about submitting ourselves to the will of God. Too often, we see prayer as our effort to get God to do what we want, when instead we first need to be sure we are aligned with what God wants. For me, anyway, it has been important to get to a place where I’m allowing the Spirit to enter.

I am far from being an expert on prayer. All I can do is offer what has helped me as a person who has struggled with sustained prayer through the years. I certainly make sure to praise God in prayer and lift up petitions, but I have become more comfortable with prayer as I’ve combined it with Christian meditation, a deliberate effort to set my shallow desires aside so God can shape me.

I will not go into great detail about this meditative aspect of prayer—your details may differ from mine. I will say that location, posture and breathing are important. The place of prayer must be quiet and feel connected to God. The posture needs to be reverent and submissive, but also comfortable enough to not be distracting. The breathing needs to be slow, deep and deliberate.

If you feel the need to be led through prayer, there are all sorts of guides, ancient and modern, and many of them build in time for meditation or reflection. “A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God,” by Norman Shawchuck and Rueben P. Job, is one of my favorites. Combining prayer with Scripture, which go together like ice cream and hot fudge, this particular guide keeps me in the flow of the lectionary, used in particular by some preachers as they work their way through the church season.

As you commit to a deeper prayer life, promise me this: Expect something big to happen. You may find yourself shaken into a bold new life—for an example, see Acts 4:23-31.

That’s the kind of prayer experience that changes not just us, but the world around us.

Lord, bless us with a deep desire to pray, and bless us continually as we pray. Amen.