IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES – THANKSGIVING 2020

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)] 

turkeyWhen an irrevocable law was signed that prohibited praying to anyone but King Darius, Daniel prayed! Knowing he’d be thrown into a den of lions for doing so, the devout man went home, opened the windows, and prayed to God just as he always had done. Rather than starting with a fervent plea for God’s help, however, Daniel began with a prayer of thanks. His prayer of thanksgiving showed Daniel’s faith in a good God who was present in all circumstances!

Back in the 1630s, in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War when all of Europe was in turmoil, a Lutheran minister named Martin Rinckart also understood the importance of thanking God in all circumstances. Life seemed hopeless, especially in the walled city of Eilenburg where Rinckart lived. Refugees overcrowded the city, people were starving, and the city was surrounded by enemy soldiers. Poverty, famine and disease reigned. Mercenary soldiers committed atrocities, looted, and extorted tribute. Rinckart had to quarter soldiers in his house and endure their plundering of his possessions and stocks of grain. Diseases like typhus, dysentery, and scurvy already were widespread when the plague took control and devastated the population in 1637. And we think we have it tough in 2020!

Rinkart faithfully served the sick and dying. As the last living pastor in town, he performed as many as fifty funerals a day and buried over 4,400 townspeople, including his own wife. It was during this horrific time, one of the darkest in Europe’s history, that Rinckart counted his blessings and wrote a beautiful family prayer of thanksgiving. We know that joyful prayer as the popular Thanksgiving hymn Now Thank We All Our God. Martin Rinckart, like Daniel, offered thanks to God in the midst of challenging circumstances. Can we do anything less?

I saw a cartoon in which the heavy-set husband, after looking down at his skimpy plate of dieter’s salad, looked up at his wife and said, “You better say grace this time. If I do it, God will know I’m lying.” Unlike Daniel and Martin Rinckart, most of us are like him: blind to the blessings of life and deficient in our thanks to God for those blessings, however great or small. Today, as we celebrate our national day of thanks, let us remember that every day should be a day of giving thanks—even if, instead of sweet potatoes, stuffing, turkey, and pumpkin pie, our plates have only lettuce, carrots and celery!

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices;
who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
and keep us still in grace, and guide us when perplexed;
and free us from all ills, in this world and the next.
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
the Son, and him who reigns with them in highest heaven;
the one eternal God, whom earth and heaven adore;
for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore. [Martin Rinckart)]

Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NLT)]

Come, let us sing to the Lord! Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come to him with thanksgiving. Let us sing psalms of praise to him. [Psalm 95:1-2 (NLT)]

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STORIES

Just make sure you stay alert. Keep close watch over yourselves. Don’t forget anything of what you’ve seen. Don’t let your heart wander off. Stay vigilant as long as you live. Teach what you’ve seen and heard to your children and grandchildren. [Deuteronomy 4:9 (MSG)]

Generation after generation stands in awe of your work; each one tells stories of your mighty acts. [Psalm 145:4 (MSG)]

Hedge bindweedStories—everyone loves a good one and we all have stories to tell. My children loved hearing their Grandpa tell stories of boyish pranks like stealing watermelons and tipping over outhouses but it wasn’t just his tales of mischief they enjoyed. They relished hearing about him working on the farm, playing basketball and wrestling, working his way through college, having a victory garden, and starting a business. The stories we never heard, however, are the ones I wish he had shared: the stories of his faith journey. He was a Christian, yet I don’t know how he came to be such a man of faith. I know he met his wife at a church social and they both attended the Lutheran church in our town, but that doesn’t tell me when and how the Holy Spirit truly entered his life. It doesn’t tell me about the times he might have doubted or been afraid or the times he knew without question that God was holding his hand or had answered his prayers.

Accounts of faith journeys are some of the best stories we’ll ever hear. It’s not just from pulpits or lecterns that I’ve heard people chronicle their faith journeys. These stories came from people just like you and me: people who openly shared their wounds and scars and the way God changed their lives. They spoke of mental illness, alcoholism or physical abuse or told of losing a loved one, their health or even their faith. I’ve heard a Gideon tell how the Bible guided him to Jesus, an addict tell how a 12-step program brought him to Jesus, and a minister tell about his time in prison. I’ve heard people tell of reaching the depths of despair when they thought life was impossible and others tell of miraculous healing. These stories had little or nothing to do with what church they attended; they had everything to do with what God did with, for and to them. They were the testimonies that came from their tests and the messages that came from their messes and I am thankful to those who shared their lives so openly.

After ridding him of demons in Gerasenes, Jesus told the once possessed man to return home and tell his story. Can you imagine what it was like to hear his testimony or the testimony of Paul when he told of meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus? Can you picture what it was it like to hear Peter speak of walking on water or Bartimaeus tell of regaining his sight? The woman caught in adultery would have had a powerful testimony to the forgiveness of Jesus and Mary Magdalene to His resurrection. Granted, not all of us have stories as remarkable as theirs, but we all have stories about the way Jesus has touched our lives and we don’t have to be missionaries, ministers, or Biblical scholars to share them. We are, after all, disciples of Christ!

What’s your story? Who should you tell?

I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love. …
I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.
[A. Katherine Hankey]

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the demon-delivered man begged to go along, but he wouldn’t let him. Jesus said, “Go home to your own people. Tell them your story—what the Master did, how he had mercy on you.” The man went back and began to preach in the Ten Towns area about what Jesus had done for him. He was the talk of the town. [Mark 5:18-20 (MSG)]

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NEVER OBSOLETE

I will be your God throughout your lifetime—until your hair is white with age. I made you, and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you. [Isaiah 46:4 (NLT)]

If I’d known I was going to live so long, I’d have taken better care of myself. [Anonymous]

Grandpa J

Several years ago, a friend’s spry 94-year old mother emailed the family about having forgotten her elbow brace on the way to the exercise room in her senior residence. After returning to her apartment and donning the brace, the woman took an inventory of the other pieces of hardware she needed to get through each day. Along with the elbow brace, she wore bi-focal glasses, two hearing aids, a knee brace, two sets of dentures, two orthopedic shoe inserts, and one doe-skin support for three toes. Even without inventorying the number of medications that were part of her daily regimen, she observed that “it’s not a simple management situation” to keep track of it all. Feeling blessed that she didn’t need a cane and walker as did many her age, she closed her message by reminding the younger family members to take care of themselves. She continued her optimistic outlook and daily exercise routine until she went home to the Lord just a few months before her 100th birthday. Her light-hearted email remains a serious reminder that time takes a toll on our bodies.

Within my circle, many have reached the age when God has started to recall some of their parts. A few are nearly  bionic with their titanium plates, pacemakers, implanted cardioverter defibrillators, replacement heart valves, intraocular lenses, artificial hips and knees, or portable oxygen concentrators. As my mother-in-law observed in her 102nd year, “Old age is not for sissies!” Indeed, it presents a fair number of challenges. Nevertheless, as long as we’re still breathing, we should be in good spirits and thankful. Old age is a gift from God and one denied to far too many of our friends and family. It is a privilege not a punishment, an opportunity rather than a misfortune, and a blessing not a curse.

Even though we slow down and start wearing out as the years progress, God (who is older than time itself) remains the same and is constant in His care for us. He doesn’t stop working in our lives because parts of our bodies have ceased to function properly. He doesn’t put us out to pasture because we can no longer carry a load, consign us to the trash heap because we have some broken parts, or scrap us because we’re out of date. In God’s eyes, no matter how old or run-down His children are, no one is considered unusable or obsolete! He is as close to us now as when we took our first breath and He’ll be right beside us when we take our last one. God carried us as children and He will continue to carry us until He recalls our worn out bodies and takes us on our final trip home.

Before we take that last journey, however, there is still work to be done in God’s earthly kingdom. As long as we are breathing (even if we need an oxygen concentrator to do it), there is someone somewhere with whom we can share God’s love and good news. Just don’t forget your elbow brace or cane on the way out the door!

But the godly will flourish like palm trees and grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon. For they are transplanted to the Lord’s own house. They flourish in the courts of our God. Even in old age they will still produce fruit; they will remain vital and green. They will declare, “The Lord is just! He is my rock! There is no evil in him!” [Psalm 92:12-15 (NLT)]

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. [2 Corinthians 4:16 (NLT)]

Today’s picture is of my father-in-law—a man who never grew obsolete. Even though his physical strength waned, his spiritual strength never did and he continued to bear fruit until he went home at age 96.

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FAIRY TALE ENDINGS

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?. [Romans 8:35,38-39 (NLT)]

blue flag irisAs a child, I loved the way fairy tales always ended with these words: “and they lived happily ever after.” Real life, however, is anything but a fairy tale. I suspect that after Cinderella and the Prince had two kids, she went right back to cooking and cleaning all day and never went to another ball. Prince Eric’s fondness for ahi tuna sushi and sashimi led to his divorce from Ariel for irreconcilable differences. Snow White ended up under arrest for dwarf exploitation and trafficking in blood diamonds while Barbie, who turned 60 last year, keeps undergoing plastic surgery in an unsuccessful attempt to regain her youth. Because of Ken’s bad investments, their dream house went into foreclosure and their dream cars, boat and motor home were repossessed. In real life, no fairy godmother shows up with a magic wand to turn pumpkins into carriages, mice into horses, and our sweetest dreams into reality.

The “grown-up” life we expected at age ten probably bears little resemblance to our present reality. Naively, we were sure that life would be easy for us. We envisioned a life that went according to plan, never expecting that circumstances beyond our control could leave a loved one dead or take away our business. If we anticipated marriage, we didn’t picture things like infidelity or “irreconcilable differences.” We certainly didn’t consider the possibilities of job loss, unpaid bills, or bankruptcy. Piles of laundry, dirty dishes, or having to work two jobs never entered our thoughts. If we imagined children, they didn’t have cerebral palsy, autism, Down’s or an addiction. If we even visualized ourselves as senior citizens, we’d be athletic, slender, healthy and as attractive as we were at twenty. We never imagined being alone, needing a walker, artificial hips or cardiac rehab. Nor did our mental picture have age spots, wrinkles, a bald spot or dementia.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from this pandemic, it’s that life doesn’t go according to our plan. It isn’t like a private train ride in which we set the destination, map the route, and schedule the stops. It’s more like we’re hitch-hiking across the country with all of the delays, detours, rejections, good and bad encounters, and unscheduled stops that come with thumbing a ride. Life is filled with the unexpected and, like a successful hitch-hiker, we just have to make the most of what comes our way.

Rest assured that we are never alone on this journey. Life doesn’t go according to our perfect plan but it does go according to God’s! As the Apostle Paul told the Romans: “Nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.“ Rest assured, as a believer in Jesus, there really is a “happily ever after!”

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NLT)]

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IT’S YOUR MOVE

If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. [Matthew 5:41 (NLT)]

To feel sorry for the needy is not a mark of a Christian—to help them is. [Frank A. Clark]

white powderpuff

In His “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus gave four illustrations from everyday life about the Christian heart and non-retaliation in the areas of personal attack, legal disputes, forced labor, and financial requests. Although His examples were hyperbolic, His point was abundantly clear—rather than get even, we are to have a generous and compassionate heart toward others.

While personal attack, legal disputes, and people asking for money remain common occurrences today, most of us haven’t encountered an issue of forced labor (although my children might have disputed that back when I made them do chores around the house.) In the 1st century, however, a Roman soldier could commandeer a Jew to carry his armor or other burden for a Roman “mile” consisting of one thousand paces (about 4,854 feet—just a little less than our modern mile). This sort of impressment is what happened to Simon of Cyrene when he was forced to carry Jesus’ cross.

Since we’re not likely to be forcibly impressed into duty, what does Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 5:41 mean to us today? The idiom “go the extra mile” is rooted in His words and has come to mean making an extra effort or going above and beyond what is necessary or expected. What’s missing in the idiom is the completely voluntary, almost sacrificial nature, of Jesus’s directive. Although a Jew could not refuse to carry a Roman’s load those first thousand steps, he could not legally be made to take one step more. Yet, Jesus instructed him to freely offer that second mile without being asked.

I found the perfect example of Jesus’ directive in two letters recently written to our local newspaper. The first was written by a woman well into her eighties who’d gone to the community center to vote. Turnout for early voting has been enormous and more than 75% of the eligible voters in our county had cast their votes by last Friday. All of that early voting (along with social distancing and sanitizing between voters) meant for some very long lines at the polling places. Having arrived fifteen minutes before the polls opened, this woman hadn’t anticipated a long line and, at first glance, it didn’t look too bad. After parking, she walked toward the line’s end but was stopped by a man near the front of the line. Seeing her cane, he inquired if she was in pain and able to make the walk and endure the wait. Assuring him she was fine, she continued toward what she believed was the end of the line only to see that it extended further than she’d originally thought. Realizing she couldn’t stand that long, the woman turned around and started back toward her car. The same gentleman stepped out of the line, approached, and asked if she was leaving because of the line. Acknowledging it was too long a wait, she said she’d try again the next day but the man insisted she take his place. After walking her to his spot near the front of the line, he went “the extra mile” and took his place at the end of it. The second letter was from another elderly woman who uses a walker. She told how a young man walked across the parking lot just to help her fold and stow her walker in the car after she’d voted. I don’t know whether these men were followers of Christ, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they were. They certainly understood the real meaning of going the extra mile.

Jesus summed up all of his exhortations about a Christian’s heart with what we know as “The Golden Rule.” Dr. Frank Crane, an early 20th century Presbyterian minister, had this to say about that golden rule: “The golden rule is of no use whatsoever unless you realize that it is your move.” Like those men at the polling places, let us remember—it’s always our move to take that extra mile!

He who sees a need and waits to be asked for help is as unkind as if he had refused it. [Dante Alighieri]

Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets. [Matthew 7:12 (NLT)]

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HAPPINESS STARTS WITH A SMILE

We were filled with laughter, and we sang for joy. And the other nations said, “What amazing things the Lord has done for them.” Yes, the Lord has done amazing things for us! What joy! [Psalm 126:2-3 (NLT)]

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy. [Thich Nhat Hanh]

clownIn the Pearls Before Swine comic drawn by Stephen Pastis, Pig may be a little naïve but, sometimes, the sweet fellow has the right idea. In a recent strip, when asked why he was wearing an enormous hat decorated with a smiley face, he explained it was “the hat o’ great happiness” and he wore it as a way of sending happiness to others. I thought of Pig’s silly hat of happiness while viewing an ad made by Coca-Cola as part of their 2015 Belgian “Choose happiness” campaign.

It began with people walking into a subway tram. Among the commuters was a man who stood in the middle of a crowded car. Wearing ear buds and looking at his tablet, he suddenly erupted in laughter. Ignoring the stares of the people around him, he continued to laugh—not polite little giggles but loud and unembarrassed guffaws. Hidden cameras filmed the reactions of his fellow commuters. As his laughter increased, they began to smile and then their smiles turned into laughter. A promotional team from Coke revealed themselves and handed out cans of Coke with a leaflet linking laughter and happiness. The ad closed with the words, “Happiness starts with a smile, what are you waiting for?” followed by the hashtag “choosehappiness.” Filmed over two days on 17 trains and six different metro lines, the commercial brought laughter to over 4,000 commuters! Millions more have caught themselves laughing as they’ve viewed the video since it first aired. (You can find it on YouTube.)

Scientific studies actually have found that actions like yawning, smiles, and laughter are contagious. Because of a primitive reflex in the cortex of our brains, the urge to mirror another person is triggered by something called echophenomena: the automatic imitation of another’s words (echolalia) or actions (echopraxia). Moreover, other studies have found that a smile brings hidden blessings by releasing a cocktail of body chemicals that relax the body, lower the heart rate and blood pressure, decrease stress levels, and serve as antidepressants and mood lifters!

The joy we have in Jesus should be obvious and as contagious as any yawn, smile, laugh, or virus. Like Pig, we need to find ways to send happiness to others and we don’t need a silly hat or a fit of laughter on a train to do that. Just as the Lord smiles upon us, we must smile upon all who cross our path (even if that smile is hidden by a mask). We have to make that smile pass into the rest of our body: our face, eyes, voice, hands, and heart. Like Pig, let us find ways to send happiness and joy to those around us; we just might find our spirits lifting as we do!

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. [Leo Buscaglia]

They longed for me to speak as people long for rain. They drank my words like a refreshing spring rain. When they were discouraged, I smiled at them. My look of approval was precious to them. [Job 29:23-24 (NLT)]

A cheerful look brings joy to the heart; good news makes for good health. [Proverbs 15:30 (NLT)]

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