REMEMBERING

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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AT ALL TIMES, IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES (Thanksgiving Day)

Praise the Lord! I will thank the Lord with all my heart as I meet with his godly people. How amazing are the deeds of the Lord! All who delight in him should ponder them. Everything he does reveals his glory and majesty. His righteousness never fails. [Psalm 111:1-3 (NLT)]

Great Blue Heron
As we gathered for worship that Saturday night, it was just ten days after Hurricane Ian devastated our part of Florida and the mood was somber at best. Many of the regulars were missing and, for every story of hope, there were two more of unspeakable pain and unbelievable loss. Nevertheless, the pastor announced the theme of our service was gratitude and we began our worship singing Now Thank We All Our God, a hymn more associated with Thanksgiving Day than natural disasters. Indeed, as we thanked God “with heart and hands and voices,” my husband and I were thankful; for us, Ian was little more than an inconvenience in our lives. Most people, however, were not so blessed and I wondered how thankful they were.

The gratitude theme continued in the day’s Scripture starting with Psalm 111 and the words, “Praise the Lord,” followed by the miraculous healing of Naaman, the master’s lavish grace and mercy seen in the Parable of the Vineyard Workers, and Jesus’ healing of ten lepers, a story familiar to most of us. Although ten lepers were healed, only one returned to thank Jesus. Naturally, we laud the example of the one who expressed his gratitude and find fault with the nine who didn’t. Nevertheless, as soon as the ten saw their clean skin, there’s no doubt they all were incredibly thankful. As lepers, they’d been pariahs from society and literally untouchable but Jesus gave them a new lease on life. Although only one returned to express his gratitude, can we honestly fault the other nine? The lepers were desperate to return to their families, friends, homes, and trades but that couldn’t happen until the priests declared them clean! Like children who want to play with their new toys before thanking the grandma who gave them their presents, they were so focused on reclaiming their lives that they lost sight of the One who restored them!

Are we that much different from those nine? Do we ever get so caught up in the here and now— hurrying hither and yon, coping with our challenges, pursuing our goals, attempting to make do with what seems like not enough, dealing with difficult situations and even more difficult people—that we fail to express gratitude to the Giver of All Gifts? Do we let life’s trials or tasks keep us from giving thanks?

I’m reminded of a story told by Ann Voskamp in her book, One Thousand Gifts. As a farmer’s wife and mother of six (now seven) children (all of them homeschooled), she clearly knows the chaos, turmoil, and busyness of everyday life that so often overwhelms us and takes our focus off God. One morning, she unknowingly stepped into a war zone between siblings and the boys she loves behaved in a distinctly unlovable way. A tossed piece of toast became the proverbial straw that broke this mother’s back and, as she slammed her hands on the table, the exasperated woman asked herself, “How do I see grace, give thanks, find joy in this sin-stinking place?”

Remembering how Jesus gave thanks that night in the upper room, she took a deep breath and, focusing on God, gave thanks out loud. She thanked the Lord for her boys, toast, the hope of forgiveness, and for being a God who wouldn’t leave any of them in their ugly mess. Like the one leper who returned to thank Jesus, she paused in the midst of all that was happening and offered thanks to the Giver of all things who was there with her in that kitchen.

Whether we’re dealing with a child’s temper tantrum, undergoing chemo, straining to make ends meet, burying a loved one, laboring in the kitchen to get the turkey on the table, tarping a leaky roof, or shoveling mud out of a flooded house, we must never be too busy, too intent on our task, too angry, too tired, too broken-hearted, too exhausted, or too focused on our circumstances to turn to God and express our gratitude for His blessings! The only way any of us can see grace, give thanks, or find joy in this “sin-stinking place” of hurricanes, war, rage, disease, and loss is with the eyes of gratitude. Even in the worst of circumstances, there always is something or someone for which to be grateful.

Nothing comes close to God’s gifts of unconditional love, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life and there is no way we can thank Him enough for those gifts. Thanksgiving shouldn’t be limited to the fourth Thursday in November; regardless of the circumstances, every moment of each day should be one of gratitude and giving thanks!

Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and praise his name.  For the Lord is good.  His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation. [Psalm 100:4-5 (NLT)]

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HIDDEN BLESSINGS

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

great blue heronAs Christians, we know everything that touches us has first passed through our sovereign (and loving) God’s hands. While it is our faith in Him that enables us to accept difficult (even tragic) events, acceptance is easier said than done. Along with faith, Pollyanna, the fictional heroine in Eleanor Porter’s book by the same name, found that the correct mind set helped.

When Pollyanna was disappointed to find crutches instead of the doll she wanted in the package sent by the Ladies Aid Society, her missionary father taught her the “glad game.” Telling her to look at the good side of things, he pointed out they could be glad because she didn’t need the crutches! Pollyanna continued to play the glad game until she was sorely tested by paralysis. Admitting the game wasn’t as much fun to play when it got so challenging, she eventually found some good in her plight—she still had her legs! Indeed, the “glad game” is much harder when the issues are greater; nevertheless, it is a game worth playing.

At the age of 96, my lively and alert father-in-law died, but not of natural causes; he died within an hour of being in a car accident. As my mother-in-law rehabbed in a nursing home from the same accident, I was shocked when she said, “I’m so glad he went that way!” Fortunately, she explained, “He would have hated being in a place like this.” While I would have preferred God taking Grandpa while he napped in his easy chair, she had a point. Like a cat with nine lives, he had several amazing recoveries from earlier strokes and other health problems and still had a good quality of life. In reality, however, he was just a fall or another stroke away from becoming an infirm resident in a nursing home. This energetic and active man of faith was ready for his heavenly home and would have hated waiting for his departure as an invalid. Rather than being angry at the driver who caused the accident, I joined my mother-in-law in the glad game and chose to look at that accident as one of God’s blessings in disguise.

Sometimes, it takes time and the gift of hindsight before we recognize hidden blessings. I was fifteen and the only child still at home when my mother died within a few months of her cancer diagnosis. My emotionally detached and workaholic father was left with a teenager he barely knew while I was left with a man who was more a presence than a parent to me. He knew next to nothing about parenting and I resented his coldness and dogmatic ways. In an odd way, as much as we both mourned my mother, we were blessed by her absence because her death threw us together in a way that demanded change. Out of necessity, he gradually became a loving father and a far better man while the angry troubled teen I was became a loving responsible daughter and a far more compassionate woman. My father died less than five years later but several more years passed before I became aware of my older siblings’ continued resentment, anger, and bitterness toward him. It was only then that I realized how my mother’s death was a blessing in disguise because it gave my father and me an opportunity to build a relationship and to change for the better.

God often conceals blessings in our challenges, disappointments, and heartbreak; it is our task to seek them out. Playing our own version of the “glad game” by looking for God’s loving hand in our lives is the way we can have joy, not in spite of our troubles and sorrow, but because of them.

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

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RELIGIOUS PRIVILEGES

But it is no shame to suffer for being a Christian. Praise God for the privilege of being called by his name! [1 Peter 4:16 (NLT)]


Before my evening prayers, I often reflect on a prayer from The Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan prayers edited by Arthur Bennett. In a recent selection, the prayer’s author asked the Lord to let him know his “need of renovation as well as of forgiveness,” and confessed, “I am often straying, often knowingly opposing thy authority, often abusing thy goodness….” He went on to admit, “Much of my guilt arises from my religious privileges, my low estimation of them, and my failure to use them to my advantage.” His words gave me pause.

Since a privilege is a special right, advantage, benefit, exemption, or legal immunity granted only to a particular person or group, I pondered the “religious privileges” we enjoy as Christians. The obvious is that even though we remain sinners, our belief in Jesus gives us God’s forgiveness; because Jesus paid the price for our sins, we are exempt from an eternity in Hell. That, however, was God who willingly gave up His absolute power and privilege to take on mankind’s limitations and die a criminal’s torturous death for us! Do we truly appreciate what He did or do we take that privilege for granted and fail to do the spiritual renovation necessary to show our appreciation for His sacrifice and blood? Do we thank the Lord each and every day for what He did on the cross?

Aside from a Christian’s destiny of having a home in heaven and sharing in the glory of God, what other religious benefits do we have? As Christ’s followers, we have the advantages of the peace that surpasses all understanding and the ability to find joy in all circumstances. We have the blessings of His continual presence, guidance, and protection from the enemy. We have the privilege of sharing the Gospel message and even that of suffering in His name!

Do we value the privilege of direct access to God and the advantage of two intercessors: the Holy Spirit who intercedes within us and puts our concerns into words along with Jesus Christ who intercedes for us in heaven? The Holy Spirit, however, is more than an intercessor. He corrects, teaches, sanctifies, strengthens, comforts, protects, and enables us to recognize the truth and obey God. He gives us one or more spiritual gifts and produces His fruit in us. Do we fully appreciate and use the many privileges and benefits that only Christ followers can enjoy or do we ignore and possibly abuse them?

A Christian’s “religious privileges” are offered to all but accepted by few. May we never be unappreciative, neglectful, or careless with God’s gifts or favor by disregarding the privilege of being one of His adopted children.

It is our privilege to know that we are saved. [ D.L. Moody]

Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.[Romans 5:2 (NLT)]

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SHOUT WITH JOY

Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth! Worship the Lord with gladness. Come before him, singing with joy. Acknowledge that the Lord is God! He made us, and we are his. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. [Psalm 100:1-3 (NLT)]

water lily
For those who wondered—I weathered Hurricane Ian with nothing more than minor inconveniences and some yard work. Sadly, most of Southwest Florida was not so fortunate. Frankly, it’s even worse here than the photos you’ve seen and the stories you’ve heard. The death toll is rising, rivers still are flooding, more damage is being revealed, the loss is astounding, people’s lives are shattered, nerves are frayed, and medical staff, first responders, repair crews, and volunteers are exhausted. Sunday morning, in spite of the day’s sunshine, things looked dark.

Even though my church meets outside at a beachfront park, like many other churches, we lost our place of worship. Park facilities were destroyed, the beach was decimated, and the area is closed because of hazardous conditions. In a return to Covid days, our Sunday service was online.

Early Sunday morning, however, I read Psalm 100. Perhaps because there is nothing somber or vengeful in this psalm, it is one of my favorites. Chanted by Jews on their way to the Temple thousands of years ago, this call to know and worship God is a perfect psalm for Sunday mornings. After reading its words to shout with joy, worship with gladness, and come into God’s presence, I felt a desperate need to worship with others. Wanting to make a loud and joyful noise to the Lord, we skipped the online service and came into His presence at a nearby church.

As the organist began with J.S. Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, I knew we made the right decision. When the trumpet joined the organ in this beautiful composition, tears of joy filled my eyes even though my heart cried for the hundreds of thousands affected by this horrific storm. Bach’s familiar melody reminded me that we have a God who loved us so much that He gave us His only son to die for us so that we could be saved—not from hurricanes, ruined homes, and flood waters, but from sin and death.

His Name is Wonderful was the first hymn we sang and, with its words, “His Name is Wonderful; His Name is Counselor; His Name The Mighty God, Jesus my Lord,” we accepted Psalm 100’s call to worship with gladness. Our joyful noise continued as we acknowledged the goodness of our God with the familiar words of How Great Thou Art: ”Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee: How great thou art! How great thou art!” We offered thanksgiving as we shared His body and blood during Communion. We acknowledged His magnificence, unfailing love, and faithfulness when we closed the service with the hymn Majesty singing, “So exalt, lift up on high, the name of Jesus. Magnify, come glorify Christ Jesus the King. Majesty, worship His majesty. Jesus who died, now glorified, King of all kings!” My heart was lighter and the day much brighter after entering His gates with thanksgiving!

Curious about the inspiring music that opened the service, I learned that the composition we know as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is a chorale in a much larger work called Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life). Bach took the text for this song from two stanzas of a hymn by Martin Janus called Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne (Jesus, My Soul’s Bliss). It was only when Dame Myra Hess transcribed this portion of the cantata for solo piano in 1926, that we came to know this beautiful melody as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. You might find a hymn by the same name in your church’s hymnal. It’s words, however, were written by Robert Bridges who, rather than translating the original nineteen-stanza hymn, wrote a much shorter version.

I’m closing today with a translation of the two stanzas Bach chose to include in his awe-inspiring music. Indeed, even if we’re sick or sad, homeless or heart-broken, despairing or discouraged, frustrated or frightened, drained or disheartened, bewildered or broken—even then, we are blessed because we have Jesus! No matter the circumstances, may we always enter His gates with thanksgiving and His court with praise!

Blest am I, that I have Jesus! O how tightly I cling to Him,
So that He delights my heart when I am sick and sad.
I have Jesus, who loves me and gives Himself to me as my own;
Ah, therefore I will not let go of Jesus, even if my heart is breaking.

Jesus shall remain my joy, my heart’s comfort and sap;
Jesus shall fend off all sorrow. He is the strength of my life,
The delight and sun of my eyes, the treasure and wonder of my soul;
Therefore I will not let Jesus go out of my heart and sight.
[Martin Janus (1661)]

Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good. His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation. [Psalm 100:4-5 (NLT)]

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ONE OUT OF TEN

ducks
Jesus asked, “Didn’t I heal ten men? Where are the other nine?” [Luke 17:17 (NLT)]

In the Old and New Testaments, the Hebrew word tsara’ath and its Greek equivalent of aphe lepras are translated as leprosy. In Biblical times, however, leprosy had a much broader meaning than the condition we now call Hansen’s disease. It included any skin condition that spread over the body. Along with Hansen’s, it could have been anything from psoriasis and dermatitis to impetigo, scabies, or alopecia and, unlike other ailments, it was believed to have been caused by sin. Anyone considered a leper was shunned as an outcast and required to live in camps outside the city. Lepers had to tear their clothing, leave their hair uncombed, cover their mouths, and warn people of their presence by shouting out “Unclean! Unclean!”

On His way to Jerusalem, Jesus was passing between Galilee and Samaria when, rather than shouting, “Unclean!” ten lepers called out, “Master, have mercy on us!” In response to the lepers’ pleas, Jesus simply told them to go and show themselves to the priests. While this seems odd to us in the 21st century, it made perfect sense to the lepers. It was the priests who inspected afflictions and decided whether someone was diseased or healed and could return to society. Being told to see the priests meant they were cured of their affliction. The healing, however, only began when the lepers showed enough faith in Jesus to depart and head into town.

All ten obeyed Jesus by starting out for the priests and they were blessed for their obedience by  healing. Unlike blocked arteries or diabetes, skin conditions like leprosy are recognizable so these men didn’t need to see the priest to know they’d been healed. Imagine their conversation as they walked down the road. After glancing at a fellow leper, one might have exclaimed, “Hey, Uri, wasn’t there a big abscess on your leg? I don’t see it now.” Perhaps Uri responded, “You’re right! And I can feel my toes again and my nose is no longer bleeding. Look at your arm, Asa, what happened to those scabs? Jacob, your eyes are clear and you no longer limp!” Although they needed a priest to officially declare them clean, their clear skin and strong limbs told them they’d been miraculously healed.

Nevertheless, before they could return to their community, they needed a priest to declare them clean and the process, described in Leviticus 13 and 14, would take over a week’s time. After the priests examined the men outside of town, an elaborate ritual involving two birds, a cedar rod, scarlet string, hyssop, a sacrifice, and the sprinkling of blood would be performed. Still not officially clean, the men needed to wash their clothes, bathe, shave, and stay away from their homes for seven more days. It was not until the eighth day, when they made five different offerings and were anointed with oil on the right earlobe, thumb, and big toe that the lepers would be declared clean!

The lepers had several days of rituals ahead of them before returning to society but Jesus and the disciples were just passing through the area. Jesus wouldn’t be around in eight days to receive their thanks. Instead of rushing to the priests, the healed lepers should have turned around and rushed back to thank their healer. It was only one leper, a Samaritan, who thought to return to Jesus and thank the rabbi from Nazareth who showed mercy on him. Anxious to enjoy their return to health and community, the other nine thought first of themselves and kept going.

I don’t know to what the nine attributed their miraculous recovery but the tenth rightly attributed it to God. Shouting “Praise God!” he threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked Him. Nine congratulated themselves on their clear skin but one gave all the glory to God. The Samaritan didn’t need a priest to declare him clean—Jesus did that when he said, “Stand up and go. Your faith has healed you.” Moreover, it wasn’t just his leprous body that was restored to health—so was his very soul!

When our lives are blessed, do we thank God or do we just move on with our lives? Are we in such a rush to enjoy our blessings that we fail to thank the Giver of All Gifts? My mother never let me play with any of my birthday or Christmas gifts until I’d written a thank you note to the giver. What if God did the same thing?

What if you woke up today with only the things you thanked God for yesterday? [attributed to Max Lucado]

Give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness. Let the whole world know what he has done. Sing to him; yes, sing his praises. Tell everyone about his wonderful deeds. Exult in his holy name; rejoice, you who worship the Lord. [1 Chronicles 16:8-10 (NLT)]

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