FILL THE TANK

Hungry and thirsty, they nearly died. “Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble, and he rescued them from their distress. … Let them praise the Lord for his great love and for the wonderful things he has done for them. For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. [Psalm 107:5-6,8-9 (NLT)]

Trumbull cemetery - OhioMy father had what’s often described as a Type-A personality. An impatient workaholic, he always took on more than he could handle. Life, for him, was one crucial task after another, none of which anyone else could do, at least not correctly. Always in a hurry, he never wanted to stop for anything, even when his gas gauge read precariously close to empty. Something more pressing always took precedence over a brief stop for gas. As a result, his car was often left on the roadside while he trudged off with a gas can to find the nearest service station. Instead of saving time, his refusal to stop cost him time. Living that way actually cost him his life; he died of a massive coronary at the age of fifty-six. It’s often been said that your in-box still will be full when you die and, indeed, his was. None of us can accomplish everything on our to-do list and we may well destroy both our relationships and ourselves while trying.

Unlike my father, most of us will stop at a gas station when our cars need fuel. Having spent hours stranded on country roads waiting for my father to return with a can of gasoline, my gas tank is never less than half full. But, like my father, I’m not always so careful about keeping my spiritual tank full. No matter how organized I try to be, my to-do list seems to get longer while the days remaining get shorter. Sometimes, I feel like I’m just running on fumes and I don’t think I’m the only one!

Unfortunately, just as my father ignored his gas gauge, we often ignore signs like anger, worry, sadness, impatience, and temper that tell us our supply of spiritual fruit is dangerously low. It often takes a squabble, blow-up or crisis before we finally stop and refuel with God. Of course, the wiser choice is to top off our tanks with daily prayer and meditation so we never run low!

When asked about his plans for the following day, it’s been said that theologian, professor, author, Bible translator, reformer, pastor, husband and father Martin Luther replied: “Work, work from early until late. In fact, I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” If we’re too busy to stop for gas, we’re busier than we should be. Martin Luther knew that, if we’re too busy to pray, we’re busier than God wants us to be.

Heavenly Father, sometimes we allow the challenges of everyday life to keep us from spending time with you and we run precariously low of the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control your Spirit so graciously provides. Help us accept that we can’t do it all and that there will always be another task waiting right around the corner. Guide our priorities, Lord so that you’re on the top of our to-do list every day. Remind us that you are all we really need and help us see a brighter tomorrow in your promises. Lead us to that peaceful place of your presence. Refresh and renew us and let your Holy Spirit fill us up again.

No one ever said at the end of his days, “I have read my Bible too much, I have thought of God too much, I have prayed too much, I have been too careful with my soul. [J.C. Ryle]

The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name. [Psalm 23:1-3 (NLT)]

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:13 (NLT)]

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THE LAMPLIGHTER

You light a lamp for me. The Lord, my God, lights up my darkness. [Psalm 18:28 (NLT)]

moonflowerWhen Robert Louis Stevenson was just a boy, he was gazing out the window one evening and saw the lamplighter lighting the street lights. The future poet is reported to have said, “Look, Nanny! That man is putting holes in the darkness.” While it makes for a good sermon illustration, a more accurate version of his words is found in an essay he wrote in 1878, “A Plea for Gas Lamps,” in which the man expressed his opposition to the “ugly blinding glare” of the electric lights that were beginning to replace the gas lamps of Edinburgh. After asking God to bless the lamplighter, the poet described him as “speeding up the street and, at measured intervals, knocking another luminous hole into the dusk.” The lamplighter, said Stevenson, “distributed starlight, and, as soon as the need was over, re-collected it.”

The first gas lighting systems in Edinburgh were installed in 1819. At dusk, teams of lamplighters called “Leeries” would stream through the city. Using long poles, they’d ignite the gas in every lamp, whether on street corners, in front of businesses, or on people’s porches. After turning the city from darkness to light at dusk, the men would return in the morning to extinguish the lights. Responsible for trimming wicks along with cleaning and repairing the lamps, theirs was an important job until automation and electricity eventually eliminated the need for them.

A few years after his plea to keep the gas lamps, Stevenson published his poem “The Lamplighter.” In it, the speaker is a boy who says, “My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky; it’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by.” Picture the boy looking out into the dark and, even before he can see the lamplighter, he sees the lamps Leerie illuminates as he approaches. Once past the boy, the lamplighter will have left a trail of lights behind him that will be visible long after he’s disappeared into the dark.

Before gas lamps became common, the streets were dark and dangerous. Pick-pockets and robbers roamed freely and people were afraid to go out at night. Although they could pay a “link boy” to guide them with a torch, there was a real risk the fellow might lead them into an alley to be robbed. When gas lamps were first introduced, The Westminster Review reported that they would do more to eliminate immorality and criminality on the streets than any number of church sermons.

Our pastor frequently closes services with the reminder to be light into darkness. Indeed, we are to be like the lamplighters who illuminated the darkened streets of the 19th century. Turning night into day, we are to put “holes in the darkness” of the world and let God’s light through. As Christians, it’s not enough that we bring the light. Like the Leeries of old, ours is an important job—we must light the lamps of others and help to keep them lit. As we point their way to Jesus, people should be able to trace the course of where we’ve been by the light we’ve left behind us. Like the lamplighters, our actions will speak louder about the light of Christ than any number of church sermons.

Unlike lamplighters who snuffed out the street lights in the morning, we must never extinguish the light of Christ or the flame of God’s love. With the advent of automation and electricity, there was no more need for lamplighters and they disappeared, except for a few whose job has more to do with tourism than bringing light into darkness. Our job as bringers of light, as the people who distribute God’s light by knocking luminous holes into the dusk, will never end. Like the lamplighter of old, let us poke holes into the darkness of the world and leave a trail of light and love wherever we’ve walked.

You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father. [Matthew 5:14-16 (NLT)]

For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true. … So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. [Ephesians 5:8-9,15-16 (NLT)]

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IDLE WORDS

For whatever is in your heart determines what you say. A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you. [Matthew 12:34-37 (NLT)]

sanfoin - Onobrychis viciifoliaSince we’ll be held accountable for our words, I wondered how many words that might be. In 1984, Gyles Brandreth claimed that by the time a typical American dies, he (or she) will have uttered more than 860 million words. Since Brandreth is an actor, writer, and Scrabble fanatic rather than a scientist, his number seems questionable. In 2006, Louann Brizendine claimed that women speak an average of 20,000 words per day while men speak a mere 7,000. Based on her numbers, in a lifetime of seventy years, women would have to account for over 511 million words while men would answer for about 179 million. While Brizendine’s qualifications as a neuro-psychiatrist lend credence to her statements, she provided no source for her statistics. Skeptical of her lopsided numbers, psychology professor James Pennebaker conducted a systematic study in 2007 that recorded the daily conversational word output of both men and women. He found that women averaged 16,215 words a day and men 15,669. Based on his numbers, both men and women will speak well over 400 million words in a seventy-year lifetime.

It’s no surprise that the biggest difference between sexes was the way they used their words: women used more pronouns and talked about relationships while men used more numbers and talked about gadgets and sports. Common among both sexes was that most of the words spoken were mundane and seemingly unimportant.

Nevertheless, come Judgment Day, we’ll be held accountable for all of our words simply because they reveal what’s in our hearts. Jesus’ warning wasn’t about blasphemy, a sin well covered elsewhere in Scripture; He specifically spoke of “idle” words. The original Greek phrase is rhema argon meaning unproductive, unprofitable, ineffective, empty, or careless words. Jesus seems to be speaking of the words that spill out: the spur-of-the-moment utterances, the unrehearsed speech, the words that reveal what we’re truly thinking, and the ones said under our breath so no one will hear. He’s speaking of the offhand remarks, insensitive comments, slips of the tongue, little digs, snide asides, thoughtless words, sarcasm, spite, and insult that come from our mouths. Remember—words have tremendous power. After all, God spoke the world into existence!

Our whole lives will come under review on Judgment Day—including those over 400 million spoken words along with the millions of written ones. How have we used our words? Have they wounded or healed, cut down or built up, disparaged or encouraged, cursed or blessed, rebuffed or embraced, insulted or honored? There are consequences to our careless and thoughtless words because our words reveal the true state of our heart! If what comes out of our mouths is faulty, our hearts are equally flawed.

Whether we speak 150 or 15,000 words today, may all of them be worthy of a Christ follower!

His heart cannot be pure whose tongue is not clean. [D.L. Moody]

But no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring. [James 3:8-12 (NLT)]

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FEEDING HIS SHEEP

“Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.” [John 21:17b (NLT)]

skateboarding steamboat SK8When we spent our winters in the mountains, we often provided dinners for a local skateboard ministry. Offering a safe and sober refuge (along with the love of Jesus) to the area’s teens and young adults, this SK8 church defies definition. It’s an amazing combination of indoor skatepark/teen rec center and non-denomination Christian ministry where unconditional love mixes with rad skate ramps, both grip tape and Bibles are plentiful, conversations range from ollies and railslides to John 3:16, 360s and service projects are regular events, and, while you may hear some Christian rap or metal you’ll not hear bad language.

If the Christian church is a hospital for wretched souls, then SK8 church, with its goal of reaching “the lost, broken, and addicted with the love of Jesus,” is a MASH unit for them! Most of the youth have troubled pasts and few come from faith-based homes or with any knowledge of the Bible. Many, however, have transformed their lives as they have come to know Jesus through this ministry.

Last week, after receiving their year-end update, I thought back to our experiences with these youngsters as we dished up pulled pork or sliced ham on Thursday nights. The ministry began almost sixteen years ago when a young couple brought burgers and hot dogs to the local skatepark and shared both bread and the Bread of Life with kids who were desperately hungry for both. When winter’s snow made skating impossible, they opened their home for those dinners and the Word. Within five years, they had a building and built an indoor skate park. SK8 church now offers after school open skating, tutoring programs, counseling, recovery meetings, weekly Bible study, and five mission trips a year, along with middle school and high school/college/adult ministries that include weekly dinners (and God’s word). They recently expanded their ministry with a satellite skatepark/rec center/skate shop in a nearby town.

Three times, Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him and three times Peter said he did. After each affirmation, Jesus either told Peter to feed or to care for his sheep. Feeding the sheep literally meant to take them to pasture and caring for the sheep meant to act as would a shepherd. That charge, however, wasn’t literal nor was it meant just for Peter. It applies to every one of us who claim to love the Lord. Rather than pasturing and shepherding sheep, we are called to feed God’s children His word and to care for them by guarding, guiding, nurturing, and restoring them along with seeking the lost and bringing back those who’ve strayed.

When they started SK8 church, that young couple’s only qualification was their love for Jesus. Nevertheless, they took Jesus’ words to heart and literally fed those youngsters dinner along with God’s word. Granted, feeding and caring for His sheep won’t always lead to a major ministry and 501c3 standing as it did for them but it should lead to some action on our part.

Sometimes, feeding His sheep is as simple as a platter of sliced ham or a tray of brownies! Our pastor tells of a woman at a previous church where he was the youth pastor. Well into her eighties, she faithfully appeared at the weekly youth meetings wearing noise reduction ear muffs (because of the loud Christian rock) and bearing a huge tray of home-made brownies. She may not have liked the music, but she loved Jesus and His lambs. The teens knew the special ingredient in her brownies wasn’t chocolate; it was love!

As we begin this new year, let us think of ways that we, too, can feed and care for His sheep.

Now may the God of peace—who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. [Hebrews 13:20-21 (NLT)]

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LIKE A NEWCOMER

“Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them. [Mark 10:14b-16 (NLT)]

pipevine swallowtail butterflyWhen we moved to southwest Florida several years ago, everything was new and strange—we didn’t know which farmer’s market had the finest produce, the best routes to avoid traffic, the amenities of each beach, the fun activities available, or where to hike or bike. Rather than be confused and discouraged, we got out the guidebooks and maps and enthusiastically started exploring—churches, parks, theaters, markets, beaches, and museums. Every day became an adventure and, as we got to know our community, we came to love it.

I continue to be amazed at the number of people we meet who’ve lived here for decades or more who haven’t been to the Conservancy, zoo, or free band concerts in the park. They’ve never gone to the county museum or walked the boardwalk through the mangroves, visited the nearby state parks, wandered the old town alleys, or hiked any of the land trust trails. They’ve missed seeing the orchids and butterflies at the Botanic Gardens, the spoonbills at the bird sanctuary, and the giant gingerbread house at the Ritz. Taking the local attractions for granted, many old-time residents have ignored the beauty and opportunities right in their front yard.

It’s not just our surroundings about which we can get jaded; it also can be our faith. While new believers are usually enthusiastic about prayer and Bible study and excited about getting to know Jesus, old believers may get blasé and lax in exercising their faith. Our Bible study can get humdrum, prayer time repetitive, meditation wearisome, and worship unexciting. Familiarity may not breed contempt but it can breed boredom. Jesus, however, is anything but dull and uninspiring

I’ve encouraged my neighbors to look at our town with the fresh eyes of a tourist or newcomer. Perhaps we should do the same with our faith and look at Jesus with the heart and mind of a new believer. Could that be what receiving the Kingdom of God “like a child” means—coming to Jesus with the unbridled enthusiasm of a youngster? Children, like newcomers to town, are fully aware of how little they actually know. Inquisitive and eager to learn, they want to discover all there is to see; they seek so that they can find!

When Mrs. Zebedee asked her boys about their day, I doubt that John and James responded with a bored, “Same old, same old—a big picnic lunch, several healings, and some parables.” Eager to learn more about Jesus, every day was an adventure in faith for them. It can be for us, as well.

If our faith has become lackluster or monotonous, it’s not God’s fault. We’ve just become unaware of His presence, blind to His works, and deaf to His voice. It’s time to open our hearts and minds, renew our acquaintance with Jesus, and experience His glory the way a child or new believer would. We wouldn’t want boredom or indifference to cause us to miss experiencing all that Jesus offers: direction, strength, peace, joy, redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness, salvation, an abundant life today and an eternal life tomorrow.

I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. [Ephesians 3:16-19 (NLT)]

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HOLIDAY GATHERINGS

zebras - serengettiAvoid foolish controversies, arguments about genealogies, quarrels, and fights about Moses’ Teachings. This is useless and worthless. [Titus 3:9 (GW)]

Four years ago, our Thanksgiving weekend was a busy one, in large part to the celebration of my mother-in-law’s 100th birthday. While the results of the presidential election weren’t disputed four years ago, the political mood that November was just as divisive as it is today, making for some awkward and challenging gatherings. Today’s contentious political climate can be problematic at holiday get-togethers this year, as well. With the rhetoric even more heated, conspiracy theories running wild, and the prevalence of vicious postings on social media, even Zoom calls with family could be challenging!

Recognizing that the next several weeks will require diplomacy, tact, restraint, and a great deal of love, I thought I’d repeat the following devotion that was first published on Thanksgiving eve, 2016.

“Our days are few, and far better spent in doing good than in disputing over matters which are, at best, of minor importance,” were the words in my morning’s devotion by Charles Spurgeon. Although they were in reference to Paul’s words to Titus regarding divisive arguments in the early church, they are words to remember as we gather with family and friends at our tables tomorrow. Let’s face it, for the next several weeks, we’ll be thrown together with a wide assortment of people, all of whom will have at least one opinion that differs from ours. Moreover, while we share genealogy and genes with family members, we often have little else in common. Some people say Thanksgiving dinner without an argument or two is like turkey with no stuffing or Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade without helium balloons. Nevertheless, I’m not so sure acrimony has to ruin our day of national thanks. Remembering Paul’s words to Titus can help us through tomorrow and the rest of the holiday season.

All of us have dropped our anchors on certain issues and we’re not about to change our opinions on those. Let’s honor the rights of others to drop anchor on their beliefs, as well. There are, however, far more issues where, rather than dropping anchor, we could tie up to the pier and quietly listen to the person berthed across the dock; we just might have more in common than we realize. Fearless listening occurs when we’re not afraid to truly hear another person’s point of view.

Keep in mind that holiday get-togethers are not debate stages or battle grounds and a friendly discussion should remain amicable. Although a friendly discussion is never about winning, I have one friend who actually prepares for disputes by packing news articles supporting her viewpoints in her purse and suitcase. Although out-of-tune pianos can be tuned, some minds can’t be changed and it is foolish to even try. Moreover, even when people have well-founded opinions, many differences will never be reconciled. Wisdom is knowing when to stop a discussion and true wisdom is knowing enough not to start!

We will gather with twenty-eight people tomorrow and seventy-five the following day. In spite of the old saying never to talk about religion or politics, considering the recent election, there is sure to be discussion of at least one of those topics. In addition to people with diverse (and strong) opinions, any holiday gathering has its share of conspiracy theorists, whiners, complainers, nitpickers, and over-indulgers. Getting through a holiday dinner can be like traversing a mine field!

Being a vegetarian, I’m used to politely saying, “Thank you, no,” when the shrimp, turkey, gravy and sausage stuffing are urged on me. Being a follower of Christ, I’ll silently say, “Thank you, no!” every time an opportunity for dissension, anger, criticism, pettiness, or insult comes passing my way. I’ll also pray a lot! Personally, I’ve found, “Please, God, put your arm around my shoulder and your hand over my mouth!” to serve me well.

Blessings, peace, and joy to you tomorrow!

Our business is neither to ask nor answer foolish questions, but to avoid them altogether. [Charles Spurgeon]

Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments. You know they cause quarrels. A servant of the Lord must not quarrel. Instead, he must be kind to everyone. He must be a good teacher. He must be willing to suffer wrong. [2 Timothy 2:23-24 (GW)]

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