THE HALLEL

Praise the Lord! Yes, give praise, O servants of the Lord. Praise the name of the Lord! Blessed be the name of the Lord now and forever. Everywhere—from east to west—praise the name of the Lord. [Psalm 113:1-3 (NLT)

Southern MockingbirdSeveral years ago, our mountain church hosted a concert sponsored by the small Jewish congregation in town. I vividly remember the end of the program as Jews and Gentiles sang Hava Nagila, joined hands, and danced the hora around our large sanctuary. Impressed by the performer’s energy, passion, and love of God, I purchased one of his recordings. Yesterday, after sorting through some old books and CDs, I listened to it for the first time in over 10 years. The music was composed and performed by a man who still performs today but the Hebrew words he sang were those of the Hallel and over 2,000 years old.

Hallel means “praise” and the Hallel is a liturgical prayer found in Jewish prayer books today that consists of all or parts of Psalms 113 through 118. Considered the cornerstone of Jewish liturgy, it testifies to the glorious miracles performed by God. Except for the solemn days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the jubilant Hallel is said or sung on all major Jewish holidays.

The author or authors of the six psalms of the Hallel are unknown but the psalms share a common theme: the events surrounding the exodus, God’s covenant with Israel, and the people’s obligation of praise and thanksgiving for God’s loving-kindness and sovereignty over Israel and all nations.

It opens with the simple song of praise found in Psalm 113 which begins and ends with “Hallelu yah” meaning “Praise the Lord.” Psalm 114 follows with a poetic description of the exodus and all of nature reacting in dance to God’s great work. Psalm 115 is an appeal for God’s assistance, not for Israel’s sake, but to bring honor and glory to God’s name among the pagan nations. The next psalm is one of gratitude by someone who, in a time of trouble, called upon God and was saved. Ending with a commitment to serve the Lord, it is followed by the shortest of all the psalms with a call for all nations to praise the Lord. The final psalm, 118, begins with thanksgiving followed by recounting God’s salvation in troubled times. It echoes the words Moses and the people sang after crossing the Red Sea: “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has given me victory.” [Exodus 15:2] This last psalm ends as it began—with thanksgiving.

Until now, I don’t think I appreciated the psalms as what they are: an ancient hymnbook. Reciting or singing the Hallel was a well-established part of the Jewish Passover, Pentecost, and Sukkoth celebrations by the first century. When I’ve sung or spoken the psalms in unison at church, I didn’t think about Jesus singing or saying those very same words (in Hebrew, of course). That Jews continue to sing the same hymns of praise sung by Jesus and the disciples when they worshiped—the same songs they sang together during the seder on the night He was betrayed—is mind boggling. That we still have those beautiful words of praise and thanksgiving, words we can say or sing any time, is a blessing. Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord, all you nations. Praise him, all you people of the earth. For his unfailing love for us is powerful; the Lord’s faithfulness endures forever. Praise the Lord! [Psalm 117]

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IT’S ABOUT TODAY

The thief only comes to steal, and kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life – yes, and have it full to overflowing. [John 10:10 (NTE)]

When I wrote about my friend Pat yesterday, I didn’t want to imply that the only thing non-believers miss is eternal life. The saddest part of being a non-believer (or waiting until the eleventh hour to believe), is foregoing the abundance of life promised by Jesus while we live on this side of the grass.

When we choose to believe in Jesus, our lives are transformed, renewed, and healed; they become “full to overflowing” right now! Sometimes, we overlook that point when we share our faith. Not being a Christian is more than missing the assurance that we’ll dwell in the house of the Lord forever; it means not having Christ live in our house today!

Evangelism messages concentrating on hellfire, brimstone, and the afterlife miss the point that failing to believe in Jesus means we forego the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in this lifetime. We don’t experience salvation when our soul leaves our body; it comes when the Holy Spirit enters our soul! Not following Jesus isn’t just losing the assurance of God’s forgiveness of our sins; it’s passing up the Spirit’s power that enables us to forgive the sins of others.

Whether believer or not, most of us can resist the temptation to steal or kill but we desperately need God’s power when it comes to resisting those everyday temptations of negativity, envy, pride, arrogance, stubbornness, laziness, impatience, anger, and fear. When God moves in, we experience the Fruit of the Spirit and, with His love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, we’re not helpless when it comes to temptation. While we’re far from perfect, we’re far better people than we were before Christ entered our lives!

The non-believer doesn’t have the stability that comes from faith in God and His plan. Christ’s followers are never at the mercy of their circumstances. When the storms come and the waves toss our boat, we know Jesus is there with us and will calm the storm (or teach us to swim). Like the Apostle Paul, Christ’s followers can find joy in all circumstances. We have confidence that God will provide our everyday needs—whether it is strength, courage, wisdom, or just our daily bread. Sadly, a non-believer foregoes the fullness that comes from being part of a faith community: the joy of corporate worship and having meaningful relationships with other believers. Being a Christ follower brings us a sense of purpose because, in God’s world, there’s always something to do! All of that, along with eternal life, is missed by the non-believer.

Following Jesus isn’t just about going to live with God some day in the future; it’s about God coming to live in us right now! It’s about experiencing the peace and joy that comes with the assurance that our loving God is at large and in charge! Let us remember to speak of the here and now as well as the hereafter when we speak to others about following Jesus.

Celebrate joyfully in the Lord, all the time. I’ll say it again: celebrate! Let everybody know how gentle and gracious you are. The Lord is near. Don’t worry about anything. Rather, in every area of life let God know what you want, as you pray and make requests, and give thanks as well. And God’s peace, which is greater than we can ever understand, will keep guard over your hearts and minds in King Jesus. [Philippians 4:4-7 (NTE)]

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NECESSITIES

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! [Galatians 5:22-23 (NLT)]

fireweedGames seem to be a requirement at wedding and baby showers and one such game is a purse scavenger hunt. Guests are given a list of items and the woman whose handbag contains the most of them is the winner. After playing it, I was amazed at the variety of articles beyond wallet, lipstick, tissues, and gum women pack into their purses.

Out of curiosity, I Googled what the well-packed purse should contain to be prepared for every situation. Combining the lists from the first two sites consulted, I’d need to carry 26 items. If I packed all of that in my purse, I’d need the recommended three zippered pouches to keep everything organized!

Even without handbags, men manage to carry things like handkerchiefs, pill cases, toothpicks, combs, Swiss Army knives, keys, cell phones, and overstuffed wallets. When researching what are considered a man’s necessities, the first site listed ten items and the next added six additional ones. Perhaps that’s why I’m seeing so many men carrying messenger bags and backpacks.

Looking at all the essentials these various sites listed, I wondered about the items a Christian brings with him or her when starting the day. More important than all the things we cram into our handbags or pockets, we need to remember the Fruit of the Spirit. I’d rather lose an earring because I don’t have an extra earring back than lose my temper because I forgot to bring along self-control! In a pinch, we’re more likely to need patience than a flask or stain-erasing pen. Faithfulness is more important that having a bit of shine on one’s nose, joy makes us more attractive than any lipstick, and a gentle word may save the day better than a safety pin. While I’d rather not have to choose, I’d prefer being a good person with bad breath or a kind one with body odor than a cold-hearted or unkind person who smells like cinnamon gum, peppermint or rose petal deodorant. An atmosphere of love is far more pleasant than the aroma from perfume or after shave and the peace of God is far more essential than even a flashlight or Ibuprofen!

God’s wisdom and the Holy Spirit’s guidance take less room and cover more situations than the multitask key ring that includes a pry bar and both flat-head and Phillips-head screwdrivers. We don’t need ear buds to hear God’s voice or a flash drive to keep His word in our hearts. People shouldn’t need our business card to know we are Christ’s followers and, unless we’re hiking in the back woods or expecting to light birthday candles soon, there is no need for a lighter or matches; we carry the light of Christ!

What we have in our hearts is far more important than what we carry in our purses or pack in our pockets. What are your essentials for the day?

Jesus spoke to them again. “I am the light of the world,” he said. “People who follow me won’t go around in the dark; they’ll have the light of life!” [John 8:12 (NTE)]

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IT’S NOT FOUND UNDER THE SUN

I observed everything going on under the sun, and really, it is all meaningless—like chasing the wind. … So I came to hate life because everything done here under the sun is so troubling. Everything is meaningless—like chasing the wind. [Ecclesiastes 1:14, 2:17 (NLT)]

queen butterfly

The story is told of a great king who ruled a large prosperous kingdom. Rich, powerful and considered wise, he lived in a splendid castle, was attended to by many servants, and surrounded by nobles and beautiful women. Lacking nothing, he drank only the most exquisite wine and ate only the most delectable food. The king, however, never felt content. Even though he kept his servants busy searching for more gorgeous flowers for his garden, better chefs for his kitchen, finer tailors for his robes, faster horses for his stable, and larger rubies for his crown, true happiness and peace escaped him.

Despairing of ever feeling content, the king finally sent his servants in search of the happiest man in the kingdom whose coat they were to bring back to the castle. The discontented monarch was sure that, by possessing the coat of that happy man, he finally would find peace and contentment. Although the royal servants searched high and low, they returned empty-handed to the king. When he asked why they couldn’t find the happiest man, one servant hesitantly admitted to finding him. When the angry king demanded, “Then why didn’t you bring me his coat?” the servant meekly replied, “Because he has no coat!”

Although God gave Solomon the gift of wisdom early in his kingship, that wisdom didn’t prevent him from ignoring the advice of his father (David), making poor choices, filling his life with worldly goods, and disobeying God. Like burn ointment or hand sanitizer, even Solomon’s wisdom was useless when not applied! Filled with regret at the end of his life, Solomon used the word “meaningless” at least forty times in Ecclesiastes. With its message, Solomon wanted to spare future generations the bitter lesson that life only lived “under the sun” is meaningless and empty; the meaning of life cannot be found apart from God.

If the king in my story had read Ecclesiastes, he would have known that security, contentment, and happiness will never be found by wearing the coat of a happy man. They can’t be found in wealth like Solomon’s, possessions, achievements, learning, power or pleasure. The last chapter of Ecclesiastes, however, tells us how they can be found: by seeking our fulfillment “above the sun” in God. We don’t need the wisdom of Solomon to know that true contentment, peace and even joy can be found only in a relationship with God.

We must learn to live on the heavenly side and look at things from above. To contemplate all things as God sees them, as Christ beholds them, overcomes sin, defies Satan, dissolves perplexities, lifts us above trials, separates us from the world and conquers fear of death. [A.B. Simpson]

Remember your Creator now while you are young, before the cord of life snaps and the golden bowl is broken. … Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. [Ecclesiastes 12:6a,13 (NLT)]

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PERPETUAL

I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life. [John 5:24 (NLT)]

monarch - caterpillar - butterflyDeath is the consequence of sin—of living in a fallen world—but Jesus promised that all believers have eternal life. In the Apostles’ Creed, we affirm our belief in this “life everlasting.” Eternal life, life in perpetuity, life forever and ever: how can that be? For centuries thousands of inventors have attempted to make a perpetual motion machine that will run indefinitely with no input of energy and have failed every time. Apparently perpetual motion violates the first and second laws of thermodynamics. If perpetual motion is an impossibility, perpetual life seems improbable, as well. It seems to violate all sorts of natural laws let alone human logic. God, however, isn’t limited by thermodynamics, any other law of nature, or human understanding; after all, He’s the author of them all!

The Greek word translated as “eternal” is aiónios which means eternal, forever, everlasting or perpetual. When combined with the Greek zoe (meaning life), it focuses not just on quantity of time but also on the quality of that time! The eternal life promised in the gospel isn’t just about the number of years; it is about the fullness of that unending life. Independent of time as we know it, eternal life is not something for which we need to hope. Jesus didn’t promise eternal life at some point in the future. Using the present tense, He said that “anyone who believes has eternal life” [John 6:47] For Christians, eternal life starts when we first believe in Christ. It has begun!

When our heart stops beating, our brain ceases functioning, and life has ebbed out of our body, we won’t stop existing. We will, however, change form. The caterpillar that wriggles along leaves and branches with its sixteen legs looks nothing like the butterfly whose beautiful wings enable it to flit from flower to flower. Nevertheless, they are the same creature with the same DNA. It will be much like that for us when we leave this dimension and enter into the next. While our bodies as we knew them will cease to exist in this world, our spirit or soul will continue into the next and (unlike a butterfly) last forever!

As a believer who is closer to the end of her years than the beginning, I find comfort in knowing that Jesus has already made good on His promise of eternal life. It’s mine already! When the time comes for my last breath, it simply will be like going to sleep as a caterpillar and awakening as a perpetual butterfly.

For you have been born again, but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God. [1 Peter 1:23 (NLT)]

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A TERRIBLE TEMPTATION

O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? [Psalm 13:1-2 (NLT)]

The BadlandsWhile some of us may have become couch-potatoes during his time of sheltering in place, that’s not truly the sin of sloth. Thought of as one of the seven “deadly sins,” sloth originally was two sins: acedia (meaning absence of care) and trisitia (meaning sorrow). A 4th century monk, Evagrius of Ponticus, listed them (along with gluttony, lust, greed, anger, vainglory, and pride) as the “terrible temptations” of life. Acedia and sadness were seen as particularly dangerous threats to the ascetic life of a monk living in the Egyptian desert, as was Evagrius. The monks easily could grow despondent, lonely, weary or discontented as they prayed, fasted, and labored in their harsh and isolated setting.

While not in a desert monastery, the new normal of COVID-19 can seem as desolate as one and tempt us with sloth’s spiritual lethargy. With the pandemic’s disruption of routine—the unstructured time, depressing news, monotony, isolation, financial challenges, uncertainty, and loss of purpose and community—acedia and tristia can set in as it did for those ancient monks. We may experience worry or fear, dullness to our prayers, emptiness in our hearts, unproductive study, an inability to give thanks in all things, and even apathy toward God’s word. Joy can seem but a distant memory.

Unlike wrath, lust or greed, sloth is subtle and difficult to spot until it has taken hold. During a dark time several years ago I struggled with sloth. Calling it compassion fatigue, I was emotionally spent and felt hopeless, discouraged, and despondent. I imagine I’m not the only person facing this “terrible temptation” again today.

Jesus told us the most important commandment was to love God but sloth keeps us from doing that. It makes us focus on ourselves and our emptiness rather than God and His abundance. When discussing this sin, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “spiritual sloth goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God.” Sloth’s rejection of God’s gift is like a slap in His face—it’s no wonder Evagrius called it a “terrible temptation.”

David’s psalms indicate that he frequently experienced spiritual emptiness. In Psalm 13, we find him asking God, “How long?” not once, but four times in a row! Having lost the sense that God was there, life felt like an endless struggle; troubled and discouraged, he’d begun to doubt God’s plan. Yet, after asking God to “restore the sparkle to my eyes,” [13:4] he finished the psalm with words of trust and even joy.

In times like these, the enemy tries to steal our zeal, keep us from experiencing the joy of the Lord, and sabotage our sense of purpose with spiritual lethargy and inner emptiness. Whether or not sloth will be allowed to linger, however, is our choice. Like David, let us trust in God (even when it seems He isn’t there) and persevere in praying for relief from our emptiness and despair. He will restore the sparkle to our eyes!

But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me. I will sing to the Lord because he is good to me. [Psalm 13:5-6 (NLT)]

The Lord is my strength and shield. I trust him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. [Psalm 28:7 (NLT)]

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