The heartfelt counsel of a friend is as sweet as perfume and incense. Never abandon a friend—either yours or your father’s. When disaster strikes, you won’t have to ask your brother for assistance. It’s better to go to a neighbor than to a brother who lives far away. [Proverbs 27:9-10 (NLT)]

Novelist Salman Rushdie said, “In the cookie of life, friends are the chocolate chips.” I agree. Granted, life can be as pleasant as a plain sugar cookie but, when you add chocolate chips to the batter or friends to the mix, it becomes something extra special.

Today happens to be National Chocolate Chip Day. (We can celebrate again on August 4—the official National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day.) Although she didn’t invent friendship, Ruth Wakefield invented both chocolate chips and chocolate chip cookies when she added pieces of a Nestlé chocolate bar to her “Butter Do Drop” cookie recipe in 1930. It wasn’t until 1939, however, that Nestlé actually started manufacturing those beautiful teardrop-shaped morsels.

Fortunately, God didn’t wait until 1939 to invent friends! Knowing it wasn’t good for “man to be alone,” He created us for connection and gave us friends. He blessed Adam with Eve, Lot with Abraham, Moses with Aaron, and Joshua with Caleb.

When Satan took away Job’s family, wealth, and health, Job’s friends remained. Even though their theology was flawed, they kept Job company and tried to comfort him in his pain and sorrow. When Joseph was imprisoned, he was blessed by friendships with the warden and Pharaoh’s cup-bearer and baker. David was blessed by good friends like Jonathon, Nathan, and even the loyal Philistine Ittai. Naomi was blessed by Ruth’s friendship as was Elijah by Elisha’s. During the Babylonian exile, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were united in their friendship and faith. Matthew invited his friends for dinner with Jesus and Martha, Mary, and Lazarus welcomed their friend Jesus into their home. Even though they didn’t always agree, Paul’s good friends included Barnabas, John Mark, Silas, Epaphroditus, Timothy, Priscilla, and Aquila.

“Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, the other is gold,” goes the old song. Indeed, old friends are as precious as gold and, next week, we hope to spend a little time with some golden ones. We met 45 years ago while skiing in Michigan and continued our friendship on the mountains of Colorado. Although 2,000 miles separate us and we no longer ski, our friendship remains. Love, laughter, faith, and a heap of great memories connect us. We’ll treasure our brief reunion as we thank God for the chocolate chips He scattered through our lives.

Heavenly Father, thank you for the people who befriended us—the ones who taught and inspired us, encouraged and challenged us, laughed and cried with us, and taught us how to laugh at ourselves and life’s uncertainties. Thank you for the friends who daily provide examples of how life should be lived and for the friends who answer our questions and question our answers. Thank you for those who sought us when we were lost, provided directions, and welcomed us back when we finally returned. Thank you for those who recognized what was wrong in our lives (even when we didn’t) and gently opened our eyes to what we needed to see. Thank you for blessing us with friends who have openly shared their lives and who, in turn, have listened and loved and prayed for us. Thank you for the friends who continue to walk with us, steady us when we stumble, lift us when we fall, and carry us when we think we can go no further. Thank you, Lord, for the best friend you have given each and every one of us: your son Jesus Christ.

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom. [Marcel Proust]

This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. [John 15:12-14 (NLT)]

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Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord! [Psalm 117 (ESV)]

giant swallowtail vbutterflyAs a way of emphasizing the penitential nature of Lent, hymns with alleluia or hallelujah were not sung at our church during Lent’s forty days.  With the exception of Palm Sunday’s All Glory, Laud, and Honor, the hymns for the last six weeks were rather slow, somber, and introspective and I missed the more joyful upbeat hymns I enjoy. Easter service, however, opened with Christ the Lord is Risen Today and the twenty “Alleluias” we sang in five verses made up for their long absence.

If you’re not familiar with this beautiful hymn, check it out. YouTube has an outstanding rendition done by the Tabernacle Choir accompanied by full orchestra, a trumpet ensemble, and bell choir. This hymn’s alleluias are Easter’s version of the cascading of glorias in Christmas’ Angels We Have Heard on High. Regardless of your musical talent (or lack of it), you can’t help but join in singing them! Without benefit of choir, bells, or orchestra, our congregation’s joyful alleluias (some of which were off key) weren’t on a par with those of the Tabernacle. Nevertheless, because they were heartfelt, they were welcome music to God’s ears!

Having enjoyed singing those alleluias, I wondered what exactly was meant by the word. “Alleluia” comes from an ancient Hebrew word combining hālal, which means to praise or glorify, and yâ, a contraction for God’s name of Yahweh. When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, ”hallelujah” was derived from the Hebrew spelling of the word; ”alleluia” simply is the Latin transliteration of the Greek. In Scripture, we usually find the original Hebrew of hālal yâ translated as “Praise the Lord,” which isn’t entirely accurate. In Hebrew, hālal  is an imperative command (rather than a suggestion) and the more accurate translation would be “You must praise the Lord!”

Since we are commanded to praise the Lord, what exactly is praise? While praise and thanks are closely linked, they are not quite the same thing. Thanks is gratitude for what has been done or given while praise exalts the doer or giver. Thanks is when it finally rains after weeks of drought and praise is for a God who holds the incredible power of wind, rain, thunder, and lightning in His almighty hands. Thanks is for the newborn baby and praise is for the God who miraculously packed all the makings of a human being (including a soul) into two small cells! I’m thankful when I see a beautiful sunrise but praise is when I silently sing the old hymn’s words, “When morning gilds the skies, My heart awaking cries: May Jesus Christ be praised!” Praise is an acknowledgement of the excellence, goodness, capability, power, authority, and perfection of God’s character, traits, and works. It is thanking, honoring, exalting, magnifying, applauding, proclaiming, and celebrating Him. We praise God not just by singing alleluias, but in our everyday words, actions, and thoughts.

While praise usually comes from a grateful heart, there are no qualifiers in Scripture’s “hallelujahs.” The call to praise is not dependent upon circumstances. We must praise the Lord, not because He is good to us (or those we love); we are to praise the Lord because He is a good God!

Perhaps, because there isn’t a better word encompassing the meaning of hallelujah in any other language, people from all over the world have borrowed hallelujah/alleluia from the original Hebrew. While it may be spelled differently, “hallelujah” sounds very much the same in almost every language.

“Hallelujah” appears twenty-four times in Psalms and four in Revelation. In Psalms, those hallelujahs come from earth but, in Revelation, they come from heaven. Someday, we will join a heavenly chorus of believers from every nation and the unified sound of our heavenly hallelujahs will be even louder and more beautiful than those of the Tabernacle Choir!

Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. [Revelation 19:6 (ESV)]

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Rejoice, O people of Zion! Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—riding on a donkey’s colt. I will remove the battle chariots from Israel and the warhorses from Jerusalem. I will destroy all the weapons used in battle, and your king will bring peace to the nations. His realm will stretch from sea to sea and from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth. [Zechariah 9:9-10 (NLT)]

lambAs one of three pilgrimage feasts requiring every Jewish man’s attendance in Jerusalem, Jesus and the disciples joined other pilgrims on their journey toward the city for the Passover celebration. By the time they passed through Jericho (where He healed the blind Bartimaeus and ate dinner with Zacchaeus), a large crowd was following Jesus. It was on a Sunday that He and His disciples left Bethany for the two-mile walk into Jerusalem. The roads would have been crowded as pilgrims streamed into the city in preparation for the festival. Having heard of Jesus’ miracles and the way He brought Lazarus out of the grave, many of those in the streets were anxious to see Him. ”Could this be the long-awaited Messiah?” they wondered.

Although Jesus seemed to have walked everywhere, when He was less than a mile from the city, He sent two disciples to fetch a donkey’s colt that would be waiting for them. When Jesus deliberately rode that colt into Jerusalem, He was presenting Himself as Israel’s promised king. The animal’s significance was not lost on the people and their questions about His identity were answered. Solomon rode a donkey when he was presented to Israel as David’s rightful heir and successor and Zechariah prophesied that the promised Davidic king—the Messiah—would come on a donkey, as well! Thinking this king would save them from Rome, rather than Satan, people called out “Hosanna,” a combination of two Hebrew words, yasha (meaning save) and na (meaning now). Although Jesus brought salvation, it wasn’t from Rome!

Believing Jesus was the promised heir to David’s throne, the people recited from Psalm 118: “Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hail to the King of Israel.” Traditionally, people honored a new king by throwing their coats where he would sit or walk and palm branches were considered symbols of joy, victory, and triumph. The crowd’s reaction to seeing Jesus on the colt was to cut palm branches from the trees and to lay both palms and their coats across the road in Jesus’ path. Others, thinking they were celebrating victory over Rome, waved branches of palms as He passed. They didn’t know the victory they were celebrating was Christ’s victory over sin and death!

While Jesus was entering Jerusalem from the east, it’s likely that Pontius Pilate (governor of Judea) was entering the city from the west and King Herod from the north. In contrast to Jesus’ humble but joyous procession, their entrances would have been solemn and regal. Jesus rode a donkey and was accompanied by twelve disciples. Pilate and Herod would have ridden in chariots and been accompanied by legions of soldiers and warhorses. Jesus and his followers were weaponless but the soldiers wore armor and carried swords. While the procession from the east was led by the Prince of Peace, the processions of Herod and Pilate, men known for their violence and cruelty, would have been a show of force to quell any thoughts of a rebellion during the Passover.

Of course, only Jesus knew that the crowd exclaiming, “Hail to the king!” would soon turn on Him—that the cries of blessings upon Him would become shouts to crucify Him! Only He knew that His royal welcome would end with His dying a criminal’s death on a cross. It wouldn’t be until after His resurrection that His Jewish followers would understand the full significance of His entry into Jerusalem on that Sunday, the 10th day of Nisan.

According to Exodus 12, the 10th of Nisan was the specific day on which people were to select their Passover lamb (a male without any defect or blemish). The family was to keep the lamb until twilight on the 14th day when it would be killed and eaten. Jesus, the Lamb of God, entered Jerusalem on Lamb Selection Day. When He and His disciples ate their Passover meal that Thursday evening, Jesus broke the bread and gave it to His disciples saying, “This is my body.” He then passed the cup saying, “This is my blood.” It wasn’t until later that the disciples understood the full meaning of Christ’s words. While they may have consumed leg of lamb that night as they commemorated Israel’s deliverance from bondage to Egypt, the bread and wine made it clear that the sinless Jesus was the true Passover lamb. He was the perfect sacrifice who would deliver all who believed in Him from their bondage to sin!

On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he took the cup of wine after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood. Do this in remembrance of me as often as you drink it.” For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are announcing the Lord’s death until he comes again. [1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (NLT)]

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Give us this day our daily bread… Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? [Matthew 6:11,26 (RSV)]

A pastor friend told me about returning from a service project with some of his SK8 church youth including Brian, a young man new to the faith. When they stopped for lunch at a taco stand, a street person asked Brian for money. Trying to do what Jesus would want done, the new Christian offered to buy the hard-up man a burrito. It was when Brian ordered two bean burritos that his dining guest loudly complained, “I ain’t eatin’ no $%2#!* bean burrito—I want a steak one!” Brian had little money to spare but, since the man was getting vociferous, he ordered the steak burrito for his guest and a bean one for himself. Apparently, the vagrant wasn’t familiar with the proverbs about beggars not being choosers, half a loaf being better than none, and not looking a gift horse in the mouth!

When I came across a cartoon done by Mark Lynch about Jesus feeding the multitude, I remembered my pastor friend’s story. In Lynch’s cartoon, Jesus is standing in front of a large group. Behind Him are piles of loaves and fish. With the caption “IF IT HAD BEEN TODAY,” the various speech balloons show members of the crowd asking if the fish contains mercury and if there’s a vegan option. Others want to know if the bread is gluten-free, baked locally, or has nuts. Another one complains, “I’m lactose intolerant.” While it is just a comic, I think Lynch isn’t far off. Human nature being what it is, the day Jesus fed a multitude of hungry people, I suspect there were some who grumbled about the lack of things like honey, olives, grapes or figs. Perhaps others asked, “Is this the best He can do?”

Shortly after teaching us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” Jesus reassured us that, since God cares for the birds, He surely will care for us. His miracle of feeding the multitude shows us that God cares for His people. God, however, isn’t like Burger King and never promised us, “Have it your way!” He certainly never told us (as the hamburger chain now does), “You Rule.”

God is concerned about meeting our necessities but, like the homeless man and the comic’s multitude, our vision of a necessity often differs from His. Our daily bread probably isn’t brioche, a gluten-free all-natural blueberry muffin, a $10 loaf of artisanal sourdough from the farmer’s market, or even that $3.79 orange scone from Panera. It definitely isn’t the Gold Leaf Bread from Algatocin, Spain, that’s made with 250 mg of gold dust! It may not even be a whole loaf and it probably won’t include extras like Nutella, honey, fruit preserves, pate or avocado spread. Daily bread is what’s necessary and nothing more—anything else is like frosting on a cake or peanut butter on toast!

“We are beggars; this is true,” was written on a scrap of paper found in Martin Luther’s pocket when he died. How easily we forget that. In truth, we are not that different from the panhandler at the taco stand or Lynch’s multitude gathered on a hillside—more often than not we are unappreciative of the gifts we’re given. Perhaps, after asking God for our daily bread, we might want to add another prayer: “Help me recognize my needs and appreciate your provision.” With thanksgiving, let us reach out and gladly accept God’s love, forgiveness, mercy, Holy Spirit, and daily provision on His terms, not ours. Let us remember that beggars can’t be choosers.

And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:19 (RSV)]

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“I am the resurrection and the life,” replied Jesus. “Anyone who believes in me will live, even if they die. And anyone who lives and believes in me will never, ever die.” [John 11: 25-26 (NTE)]

Matterhorn Memorial - Zermatt

Courtesy of technology, we recently attended an Illinois church service while sitting at our computers in Florida. The choir, accompanied by pipe organ and trumpet, began with Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and ended with Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee. The trumpet’s bright piercing sound and the organ’s lilting accompaniment in the first song and the uplifting words in the final one makes them popular choices for joyful occasions like weddings, Christmas, and Easter. Although we were rejoicing, we weren’t celebrating nuptials, Christ’s birth, or His resurrection. Instead, we were rejoicing in a life well lived and celebrating the life of a friend who recently went home to God.

During the service, several people spoke of this Christian man’s faith, character, modesty, generosity, humility, compassion, honesty, reliability, thoughtfulness, wisdom, and curiosity. A leader both in his community and church, he built consensus rather than caused discord, bore the fruit of the Spirit, and truly lived his life as a follower of Christ. Although he played the trumpet in college, he never blew his own horn or called attention to himself. Nevertheless, he was a shining light in a world filled with darkness. Our lives were blessed by his presence and he will be deeply missed by all who knew him.

As much as his family and friends mourn his absence, the service was one of unparalleled joy because, while here on earth, he followed Jesus with his heart, soul, body, and mind. We could be joyful because we know death is not the end of our lives—just of our lives in these perishable bodies. As Christians, we have hope of something greater that goes far beyond life and death.

In contrast, I can’t feel joy at any funeral or memorial service for a non-believer. While songs may be sung, they’re more likely to be My Way or Over the Rainbow than Abide with Me or It is Well with My Soul. After sharing memories and listing accomplishments, the person giving the eulogy will say reassuring things about the deceased being in a better place, with the angels, or watching over us—none of which are based in reality. Unbelievers are not going home or into the arms of God, they won’t be “looking down” at their loved ones, and there won’t be a happy reunion in heaven with friends and family. The only way an unbeliever lives on is in photographs and people’s memories; sadly, even those will fade and be lost over time. There is little comfort in the passing of a non-believer.

While there are different opinions in Christ’s church about what happens immediately after death, there is unanimity in His church about what eventually happens—we will come face to face with God and our entire lives will be examined. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection mean that His followers aren’t afraid of God’s judgment on the day. Regardless of our failures and sins, we are recipients of God’s grace and forgiven for our wrongs. Because of God’s mercy and grace, all of His adopted children have a confirmed reservation waiting for them in heaven.

Because the only way to heaven is faith in Jesus and there is no return from the depths of hell, there is no comfort or joy in the passing of a non-believer. On the other hand, in spite of our sorrow, we can rejoice when Christ’s followers depart this world because we know their destination, that our separation is only temporary, and that we will meet again in God’s good time. That’s why, at their passing, we can raise our voices and joyfully sing, “Joyful, joyful, we adore You, God of glory, Lord of love; Hearts unfold like flowers before You, Opening to the sun above.”

Morality may keep you out of jail, but it takes the blood of Jesus Christ to keep you out of hell. [Charles Spurgeon]

I’m telling you the solemn truth: anyone who hears my word, and believes in the one who sent me, has the life of God’s coming age. Such a person won’t come into judgment; they will have passed out of death into life. [John 5:24 (NTE)]

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Let all that I am praise the Lord; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name. Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me. [Psalm 103:1-2 (NLT)]

Any other Thanksgiving, we would have travelled to be with family or entertained friends and family here but my recent surgery meant neither of those options were feasible, so it was just the two of us. Thanksgiving, of course, really isn’t about a bountiful feast of turkey and the trimmings or even about family and friends (although it’s a blessing when we can share it with them). Thanksgiving simply is about giving thanks—and we can do that regardless of where we are, what we’re eating, or who we’re with!

My husband and I spent most of the day looking through old photo albums. Having been married over 55 years, there were decades of memories packed into those old pictures and, with every memory, came a reason to be thankful. From pictures of our first date to our family gathering this year, we had countless reasons for gratitude. We were most grateful for the many years we had with his parents (who lived to 96 and 102) and the years we continue to enjoy with our children and grands; many are not so blessed. Pictures of every holiday and celebration seemed to include our family around a table laden with food and we thanked God that we never went hungry or homeless. Seeing photos of friends who became family, many of whom are gone, made us thankful that God brought them into our lives. As we recalled the trips we took, the places we visited, the houses we owned, the amazing people we met, and the adventures we had, we were filled with gratitude for those opportunities. Red-letter days like graduations, birthdays, baptisms, weddings, and anniversaries were memorialized in photos and we were thankful for the arrival of so many milestones. There also were countless photos of unremarkable times—everything from playing euchre with Grandpa, carving pumpkins for Halloween, walking in the woods with a little one, grilling burgers, and playing house with the grands to snow ball fights, baking cookies, shooting hoops, children running under the sprinkler, and enjoying s’more around the campfire. In retrospect, those ordinary moments were extraordinary and we were thankful for each one!

Of course, we laughed at many of the outfits, hairdos, silly expressions, and crazy situations we saw in those photos. When we weren’t laughing, there were sweet tears of nostalgia leaking from our eyes. All in all, our quiet day of Thanksgiving was a joyful day of giving thanks as we remembered how blessed we have been every moment of every day of our lives. Granted, we didn’t have any photos memorializing the tears, anguish, pain, affliction, hospitalizations, and grief of over 55 years. Nevertheless, evidence that God’s powerful hand was with us in both the good times and bad was in those pictures. They gave witness to answered prayers of things like healing, sobriety, health, achievement, provision, forgiveness, restored relationships, safety, protection, guidance, and success—and we gave thanks.

God told the Israelites to remember His word and commandments, His judgement, the ways He dealt with sin, and the way He tested them while safely leading them through the wilderness. God also told the Israelites to remember His goodness, all He did for them, His wondrous works, and His abundant provision! Yet, when it came time to claim Canaan—a land where they’d eat crops they hadn’t planted and live in cities they hadn’t built—the Israelites forgot God’s wondrous ways, grew fearful, and wanted to return to slavery in Egypt!

It’s in remembering God’s past faithfulness and bountiful provision that we learn to trust God with our unknown futures. Remembering God’s many blessings also leads to thanksgiving and it is the act of giving thanks that leads to us to joy. Indeed, in spite of missing our loved ones, our quiet Thanksgiving was one of the most joyful holidays we’ve experienced!

This way of seeing our Father in everything makes life one long thanksgiving and gives a rest of heart, and, more than that, a gayety of spirit, that is unspeakable. [Hannah Whitall Smith]

But watch out! Be careful never to forget what you yourself have seen. Do not let these memories escape from your mind as long as you live! And be sure to pass them on to your children and grandchildren. [Deuteronomy 4:9 (NLT)]

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