Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is the King over all the earth. Praise him with a psalm. [Psalm 47:6-7 (NLT)]

O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer! Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged, Take it to the Lord in prayer. [“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” by Joseph Scriven]

ZINNIA“That’s more like it!” I thought as I read Psalm 47; I certainly preferred it to the curses of the previous set of Psalms I’d read. I’m reading the Bible in chronological rather than in canonical order which means that the various books and chapters have been divided and rearranged. As a result, the psalms of lament and complaint were grouped together during David’s trials and the praise psalms were placed after the chapters outlining the duties in the Temple. These psalms of worship, adoration and thanksgiving seem more appropriate for Israel’s book of hymns than the earlier ones about wickedness, treachery, calamity and vengeance.

Although I prefer the joyful psalms, there is a reason Israel’s prayer book has lasted over 3,000 years and continues to be our prayer book today. Rather than a sappy feel-good book of poetry, Psalms reflects the gamut of human experience and emotions. When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, I’m surprised He didn’t tell them they already knew and direct them to the Psalms for guidance. The Psalms’ words are intense, raw and honest; they conceal nothing. If the Psalmist is suffering, fearful, angry, depressed, or exhausted, he says so as readily as when he expresses his elation, adoration and thanksgiving. Never pretending that all is well when it isn’t, he fearlessly lays out his emotions before God. Wretchedness and joy, pain and jubilation, wickedness and virtue, despair and hope, grief and thanksgiving, fear and confidence: all are articulated. It is in that depth of personal expression and experience that we find words of consolation, faith, trust, and hope.

When I seriously evaluate my own prayer life, I’m nowhere near as honest and bold as the psalmists. Of course, God knows my personal struggles but, unlike David and the rest of the psalmists, I’m not as willing to lay them so passionately or openly at His feet. When Joseph Scriven wrote the words, “Take it to the Lord in prayer,” he meant all of it, not just the pretty stuff. I’m sure God would prefer honest words of grievance to false words of praise any day.

A human heart is like a ship on a wild sea, driven by the storm-winds from the four quarters of the world. Here it is struck with fear, and worry about coming disaster; there comes grief and sadness because of present evil. Here breathes a breeze of hope and of expectation of happiness to come; there blows security and joy in present blessings. These storm-winds teach us to speak with earnestness, and open the heart, and pour out what lies at the bottom of it. … What is the greatest thing in the Psalter but this earnest speaking amid these storm-winds of every kind? Where does one find such words of joy as in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving? … On the other hand, where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? … And, as was said, it is the best thing of all that they speak these words to God and with God. [Martin Luther, Preface to the Psalter]

The Lord is close to all who call on him, yes, to all who call on him in truth. [Psalm 145:18 (NLT)]

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When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, for he taught with real authority—quite unlike their teachers of religious law. [Matthew 7:28-29 (NLT)]

southern fleabaneA friend sent me a meditation written by a well-known Christian writer and asked me what I thought. Unfortunately, I couldn’t say because I couldn’t understand it. As I struggled to make sense of the author’s words, I remembered a gifted gentleman at our northern church who would occasionally give the sermon when our pastor was absent. Every time he spoke, I vowed to pay close attention so I could decipher his message. With his vast vocabulary, immense Biblical knowledge, and deep faith, one would think I could have taken something away from his sermons. Sadly, I never did—he always left me bewildered and confused! Why, I wonder, do some pastors, theologians and Christian writers make faith and our relationship with God so incredibly mysterious and difficult to understand?

During worship last week, the soloist sang “Yes, my Jesus Loves Me,” a beautiful song based on the well-known children’s hymn. Before starting her sermon, the pastor thanked the singer and then told the congregation that if we took nothing away from the service other than the knowledge that Jesus loves us, we will have taken away all that we needed to know! Now, there’s a preacher who knows how to put her message in words we all can understand!

When I couldn’t comprehend a sermon or a Christian writer’s words, I used to think something was wrong with me—my faith wasn’t deep enough or I was stupid. Just because we’re not as learned, philosophical or pensive as others, however, doesn’t mean we have less faith and it certainly doesn’t mean we’re stupid! Being a follower of Christ doesn’t require some secret knowledge and there’s nothing wrong with us if we don’t always understand what a pastor says or a theologian writes. God didn’t make all of us deep thinkers; then again, He didn’t have to! His message isn’t intended for a select few religious scholars and intellectuals. When Jesus gave His “Sermon on the Mount,” He wasn’t speaking to the priests, Pharisees and sages; he was speaking to a crowd of Jews and Gentiles who were ordinary people like you and me. His message was simple, straightforward, heartfelt, and God-breathed. What is known as the “mystery of God” is His plan of salvation through Jesus and there is nothing mysterious, baffling or cryptic about it.

Let us never disparage our faith because we’re not learned or academically trained. Moreover, let us never allow our amateur status keep us from sharing the gospel message. Jesus spent His time with common people, not religious scholars and intellectuals. Peter, the rock on which the Christian church is built, was a fisherman, as were most of the disciples. The Apostle Paul, as a Pharisee, was the only theologian in the group! What mattered was that they loved Jesus and spread His message far and wide. If all anyone knows after speaking with us is that Jesus loves them, they’ve taken away a powerful message, indeed!

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. [John 3:16-17 (NLT)]

I want them to be encouraged and knit together by strong ties of love. I want them to have complete confidence that they understand God’s mysterious plan, which is Christ himself. In him lie hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. [Colossians 2:2-3 (NLT)]

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I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings. [Hosea 6:6 (NLT)]

And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” [Matthew 25:40 (NLT)]

little blue heronA 2013 United Healthcare Group study found that volunteering is linked to better physical, mental and emotional health. Apparently it reduces stress, brings people together, promotes personal growth and self-esteem, strengthens our sense of community, and helps us learn new skills. Something their study did not mention is that volunteering is an act of worship and sacrifice. A sacrifice is an offering to God and every time we sacrifice time, talents, or resources by doing for His Kingdom, we are worshipping Him.

Because Jesus was the perfect and final sacrifice when He died for our sins, we no longer bring pigeons or sheep to God’s altar. Rather than dead animal sacrifices, we offer ourselves as living sacrifices, not to atone for sins but to worship our Lord. When we drop that envelope in the offering plate, give a dollar to a street person, write a check to a charity, or bring groceries to the food pantry, we’re really not giving to the church, homeless, Red Cross, or the hungry; we’re giving to God. When we lift a hammer at a Habitat home, sort clothes at the charity resale shop, pack lunches for the migrant workers, give someone a ride to church, visit the ill or assist at Sunday school, we are worshipping God with our service. Our sacrifice of resources, time, and talent is as much an act of worship as singing hymns or offering prayers of praise and thanksgiving.

The Old Testament often spoke of God being pleased with the aroma of a sacrifice. While our New Testament sacrifices are not burned on an altar and have no aroma, I think God finds them just as pleasing to His senses. When those ancient sacrifices were not the first and best or were accompanied by a bad attitude, God found a stench to them. It would seem to follow that when our Christian sacrifices are offered begrudgingly or we fail to give the best we can, our hypocrisy will cause them to stink, as well.

Let us worship the Lord with our hearts and hands as well as our voices! Let us joyfully worship Him with service as well as with song!

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. [Romans 12:1 (NLT)]

Therefore, let us offer through Jesus a continual sacrifice of praise to God, proclaiming our allegiance to his name. And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God. [Hebrews 13:15-16 (NLT)]

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You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something. [Matthew 23:25-26 (MSG)]

bronw pelican - maleWhen I put my mug under the coffee maker, I saw the stain. Fresh from the dishwasher, it was clean on the outside but had a dark tea stain inside. As I applied some elbow grease and scouring powder, I thought of Jesus’s criticism of the Pharisees. Like my mug, their exterior looked good but the interior was soiled. Unlike my tea-stained mug, they were tainted by a host of sins starting with hypocrisy and moving right through to pride, jealousy, self-righteousness, and more.

The Pharisees were conspicuous in their devotion to religious observance and made an extravagant display of their religious observances. They gloried in external righteousness rather than God’s holiness. By making a show of their piety, they made a good impression and, like my coffee mug, looked good on the outside. But, since their religion was external, like the inside of my mug, their hearts were soiled.

While scouring the mug, I wondered if I, too, had some stains that needed removing. Like the Pharisees, am I ever easily offended or overly critical of others in small matters? Do I nitpick about things of no consequence? Do I ever assume the worst about other people or pass judgment on them? The Pharisees did. Have I been known to profess knowledge of God’s law without practicing obedience to it? Do I ever justify my behavior while condemning the same thing in others? Do I ever think of myself as better than someone else? Are other people’s opinions of me ever more important than God’s? Are the hands I raise in worship or the prayers I offer in public ever done as much for show as for God? Do I ever boast of my accomplishments or diminish those of others? Am I spiritually blind when it comes to my faults but the possessor of 20/20 vision when it comes to the faults of others? Am I ever more interested in looking good than doing good? Rather than seeking honor, glory and praise for God, do I ever seek it for me? Guilty on all counts! Clearly, I’ve got some work to do that has nothing to do with scouring powder!

Just because we’re not ancient Pharisees who enlarged the phylacteries on their arms, lengthened the tassels on their robes, and stopped in the middle of the road to make a show of bowing low during their prayers doesn’t mean we’re not like them. It’s time to take a good hard look at the inside of our cups and bowls (and not the ones we use for coffee and cereal)! For the Pharisees of yesterday and today, godliness, like beauty, is only skin deep. True godliness, however, should go through and through into our innermost being.

Sometimes we emulate the Pharisees more than we imitate Christ. [R.C. Sproul]

A Pharisee is hard on others and easy on himself, but a spiritual man is easy on others and hard on himself. [A.W. Tozer]

You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds. [Matthew 23:27-28 (MSG)]

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One-tenth of the produce of the land, whether grain from the fields or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord and must be set apart to him as holy. [Leviticus 27:30 (NLT)]

HibiscusTithe means ten percent and the Jews were required to give ten percent of all they earned or grew as part of their worship. Because there were three required tithes, the actual percentage given was more like 23%. One tithe went to the Levites, another was for the use of the temple and religious festivals, and a third one, required every third year, was for the poor. Although no tithes were collected from the land on the seventh (Sabbath) and 50th (Jubilee) years or when there was drought or famine, tithing was mandatory at any other time and the Israelites got in trouble with God when they didn’t fulfill this obligation.

With His sacrifice on the cross, Jesus fulfilled all of the requirements of the old law. As Christians, we’re no longer obliged to visit Jerusalem for the festivals of Passover, Shavuot, or Sukkot nor do we observe Yom Kippur. We don’t keep the Jewish dietary and butchering regulations, light Shabbat candles, refrain from work on the Sabbath, or require circumcision. Like tithing, those are the laws of the Old Covenant and Jesus brought us a New Covenant. Nevertheless, there are some Christian pastors who think that one specific Old Testament law remains: tithing.

In effect, the Old Testament tithe was an involuntary tax and no one I know cheerfully pays his or her taxes. Searching for every loophole, they may even employ some “creative accounting” to lessen their payment. When we think “tithe,” we can easily start nit picking and hair splitting like the Pharisees. Are we talking before or after income taxes? Can we take off tuition for a Christian school, medical expenses, property taxes or business expenditures? What about mileage to and from church? Is the tithe for our parish or the church at large? What about faith-based causes like World Vision, the Gideons or Samaritan’s Purse—are they part of the tithe? Can good causes that aren’t faith based, like the local food pantry or homeless shelter, qualify? Perhaps the greatest problem with tithing is that we begin to think that only 10% of our money is God’s when, in fact, it all belongs to Him! Moreover, He also owns our time and talents and how do we measure ten percent of those? The tithe can become what Randy Alcorn calls the “finish line” instead of the “starting block” for our giving.

If we don’t tithe, how do we decide how much to give? A pastor friend gives the perfect answer: we pray! We simply ask God exactly how much He wants us to give and how and where He wants us to give it. In obedience to Him, we then commit our resources—our finances, time, and talent—as He directs. What we don’t do is base our giving on feelings, recognition we may be given, or the entertainment value of the pastor’s sermons. Offering our first fruits rather than our leftovers, we don’t give thoughtlessly, randomly, or grudgingly. We base our giving on God’s principles of stewardship and use His gifts wisely to expand His kingdom. Whatever He tells us to give, we give joyfully and with thanks—remember, it’s all His!

You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.” [2 Corinthians 9:7 (NLT)]

Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. [Matthew 6:21 (NLT)]

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water lilies You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. [Psalm 23:5 (HCSB)]

The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? [1 Corinthians 10:16 (HCSB)]

In my younger and more energetic days, I often entertained with large formal dinner parties. I’d start days in advance to prepare the table by getting out the extra leaves and pads to extend the table full length, gathering up the extra chairs, and ironing out the creases in the damask tablecloth before laying it on the table. From the storage cupboard in the basement, I’d haul up the crystal salad plates and Lenox china that were my mother’s and the hand-painted Bavarian service plates and Czechoslovakian dessert plates that had belonged to her mother. I’d spend hours polishing the silverware and serving pieces. The service plates were set out, the silverware laid, the crystal wine and water goblets carefully placed at each setting, and the napkins artfully folded. I’d polish up the candlesticks, put in fresh candles, get flowers from the florist, and create what I hoped would be the perfect centerpiece. All of that preparation was just for the table; there was plenty more work to do in the kitchen. I’d spend days perusing recipes, planning the menu, making lists, purchasing food and preparing it all. I loved doing it because I loved the people for whom I did it. Nevertheless, as nice as my guests were and as much as they enjoyed themselves, I’m not sure they truly appreciated how much effort went into everything that went on that table.

Yesterday was Communion Sunday at our northern church. As I approached the Lord’s Table, I wondered if I genuinely appreciate all that He did to prepare that table of blessings for me. Do I truly value His gift of body and blood? It cost Him far more than a few days of work. The price He paid was far greater than any I ever paid for lobster, prime rib, artisan cheese, imported olive oil, chestnuts, or exotic mushrooms. I thought of Him washing the feet of the disciples and of His anguish as he prayed alone in the garden. I thought of His disappointment at Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, and the disciples’ desertion. I thought of His silence in front of Caiaphas and Pilate, His flogging and mocking at the hands of the Roman soldiers, His arduous walk to Golgotha, and His suffering on Calvary. He may have been God but He was in a man’s body and suffered and died as a man for you and for me. Yet, Jesus welcomes us, sinners all, to come to His table and share in His gifts.

I’d like to think my guests never left my table hungry; nevertheless, I know they were hungry by the next morning. When we come to the table Jesus set for us, we will never again be hungry. Thank you, Jesus.

Jesus Christ, host of this meal, you have given us not only this bread and cup, but your very self, that we may feast on your great love. Filled again by these signs of your grace, may we hunger for your reign of justice, may we thirst for your way of peace, for you are Lord forevermore. Amen. [Lutheran Book of Worship]

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them. “No one who comes to Me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in Me will ever be thirsty again. … I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” [John 6:35,51 (HCSB)]

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