Every once in a while, someone will ask me, “What’s your favorite Bible verse?” I guess a pastor is expected to have a “favorite” verse of Scripture. But I never know how to answer that question. There are so many! And a lot of them are nestled inside marvelous passages of the Bible, such as the promises of God found in Psalm 139. The last time someone asked me about a favorite Bible verse, I thought about which verses I quote most often in conversation. That brought a few chuckles. I think the verses of Scripture we latch onto say something about our personal struggles. Because I grew up being taught and preached to from the King James Bible, that’s the version I most often hear in my head when I’m thinking about an oft-quoted verse.
One verse I’ll often say to myself and others is: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil, thereof.” That’s from the 6th chapter of Matthew, where Jesus teaches his followers to lay up treasures in heaven, rather than on earth. In other words, we should put our greatest energy into efforts that matter for eternity. Jesus reminds his followers that God’s care for nature indicates that we also will be cared for by God, as we seek his righteousness. The lesson then concludes: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought of the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:34, KJV) Translation? Don’t borrow worry from the future. I tend to do that, a lot. Do you? I think that’s why it’s one of my favorite verses from the Bible.
Another verse I’ll often quote comes immediately after the one above in Matthew, though I don’t usually think of them, together. Jesus says: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” I used to have a friend who would quote that verse right before sharing some bit of gossip! It was kind of funny, but certainly contradictory. Verses 1 and 2 of Matthew 7 say: “Judge not that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (Matthew 7:1-2, KJV) Translation? Being judgmental of people is like a boomerang – it comes back to us in the form of judgment from others. While we must at times make discernments about the actions of others for the sake of the public good, we’re to leave the judgment of other people in God’s hands as much as possible.
One other verse that often comes to my mind is not from Scripture, but from an ancient Christian prayer called Phos Hilaron (“O Gracious Light’): "You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices, O Son of God, O Giver of Life, and to be glorified through all the worlds.” This is a vesper prayer, and I think of it nearly every time I see a sunset. I also think of it when I hear happy voices in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. We are so blessed to be loved by a God who promises to care for us so that we don’t have to borrow worries from tomorrow; a God who takes on the burden of judging and who promises to judge rightly (better than we ever could!); and a God who calls us to look for his gracious light, so that we might share that Light with the world.
With prayers for your journey,
One of the fun things I did with our children when they were younger was to make up stories together. Our oldest son, Nathan, seemed to enjoy it the most. It started one night when he was a preschooler, and he asked for a bedtime story. I was all for reading books with our kids, but Nathan preferred books that weren’t really “stories.” He liked books about how things worked (trucks, helicopters) or about nature (a great topic, unless it was one of his favorites about parasites…). I longed to share actual stories with him. So, one night as I lay down with him at bedtime, I explained that we were going to make up a story together; I’d say one sentence, then he could say the next. We’d take turns until we’d created a whole story, together. Let me tell you, it was a wild ride. That child had an imagination. This became part of his bedtime routine, and some nights we laughed so hard I had tears streaming down my face.
In order for this team storytelling to work, a couple of things were required of us. We each had to be willing for the next sentence in the story to be different than we would have expected. In other words, we had to take the sentence offered by the other and figure out how to run with it; no arguing or contradiction that the next line was not what we would have wanted or predicted. Secondly, we each had to relinquish control over the final outcome of the story. By agreeing to tell the story together, we were allowing for the fact that the end would be something neither of us could have predicted. In reality, these stories Nathan and I made up together rarely actually came to an end. Most nights, I finally had to say, “Enough! Bedtime!” as we both looked forward to starting a new story together the following evening.
It occurs to me that this is a lot like what we do together as a church. We share in creating the story of our congregation, as we seek to be part of the Greatest Story. Sometimes we get bogged down in the “mechanics” of how things work, and we have to find new ways to be creative and to tell new stories. No one of us can create or dictate the best “story” of our congregation. We have to enter into that work together, each one of us contributing, and taking what is offered by the other and figuring out how to “run with it” and move our story forward. By sharing in the creative work, each of us gives up a certain measure of control over the final outcome of our story. In reality, the story of Hebron Church and its place in the life of the larger Church of Jesus Christ never truly ends. Each generation takes up the task, creating and moving our congregation’s story into the future, as we seek to be faithful to the call of our loving Lord.
With prayers for your journey,
I am a big fan of preparation. When I was younger, I used to procrastinate. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I wanted things that I did to be “perfect” and so whatever task I faced seemed intimidating. Perhaps you know what that feels like. But through the years of various work experiences and child-rearing, I learned how much better it felt to tackle things quickly, to break larger tasks down into smaller jobs in order to get things done, and to allow for “good enough” instead of “perfect.” Even though life brings unexpected events that require thinking-on-the-spot, the more prepared we are for other aspects of our lives, the better and more calmly we can respond to surprises.
Sometimes life is just really full, though, isn’t it? We pass through weeks and months when there is so much to do, that we struggle to meet all the demands we face. Even with our best efforts, we may come up short and find ourselves with little time to prepare for something important. I’ve found in those moments, that if I’ve been faithful with my time to the best of my ability, God is faithful to meet me with help in those moments of need, if I ask. God sometimes surprises me with moments of unusual clarity and unexpected assistance when I am forced to work “on the fly.”
One of the most memorable children’s sermons I ever heard was one that was created “on the fly.” It was given by a busy college student who had responsibility for the children’s sermon one morning at a church I served, and who had not had time to prepare. He came to church that morning without any ideas. I don’t recommend being in this position! Being habitually unprepared for important responsibilities is not honoring to God or to those we serve. But in this case, it was an emergency. He asked God for help. Then he took a piece of paper, drew a large stick man, and grabbed a flashlight.
When the children gathered at the front of the church, he talked to them about the light of God that comes to us through Jesus Christ. He held up the picture of the stick man on the piece of paper and said, “This is me.” Then he switched on the flashlight behind the paper, so that the light shone through the stick man. He said, “This is the light of God in me.” It was brilliant, and the kids got it. So did the grown-ups. He turned off the flashlight and said, “Without Jesus, there’s no light in me.” Then he turned the flashlight back on and said, “With Jesus, there’s light in me that shines on others.”
I’ve never forgotten that children’s sermon. Sometimes when life and faith seem complicated and difficult, I remember that simple message, and I ask myself, “Is my flashlight on?” Of course, if the Holy Spirit dwells inside of us, then the “flashlight” is always “on.” But we often block the light by our attitudes or our behavior, particularly during times of stress. We need to ask, in the midst of the planning and the doing of busy times, “Can people see the light of God shining through me?” If they can’t, then how can I clear the way? It may be as simple as showing grace to a spouse or a child or a parent, or extending kindness to a harried store clerk, or even just stopping to appreciate what’s right in front of us at that moment.
As we enter this Advent season, I hope you will pause from time to time to ask yourself, “Is my flashlight on?” “Can people see the light of God shining through me?” Then let God help you clear the way for His light. You may be surprised at what He will do.
With prayers for your journey,
As I'm writing this, we are just a month away from the beginning of Advent. It won’t be long before we’ll be seeing Christmas greenery on our neighbors’ doors, holiday commercials and movies on television, and Christmas cards in our mailboxes. Are you ready? Neither am I! But it will be here, just the same. One of the challenges we face as people of Christian faith is keeping our focus in the right place during the Advent season. The word “advent” connotes the coming of something important. In the case of our Christian Advent season, we are anticipating the arrival of God incarnated – God, made flesh – in the person of a tiny baby whose name was Jesus. Rather than a time of pre-celebration of Christmas, Advent is meant to be a time of waiting and preparation. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters even undertake a “nativity fast” during Advent, abstaining from much of the food and drink that we take for granted as part of our celebrations leading up to Christmas Day.
Years ago, I heard a story about a little boy who is now a young man. This boy had learned from someone at church that because Advent is a time of waiting and preparation, the baby Jesus should not be placed in the family’s creche or nativity scene until Christmas Day. So, he went home and took the baby Jesus out of his family’s manger scene and hid it. He hid it so well that no one could find it, and he refused to divulge its location until Christmas morning, when he returned the baby Jesus to his place in the manger. I can’t think about “looking for Jesus” or “seeking Jesus” without remembering this story, which always makes me smile. Sometimes it is the youngest among us who actually “gets” what the Advent season is all about.
During worship in the month of November, we’ll be looking at three gospel stories about people who wanted to see, touch or know Jesus. The first is from Luke’s gospel; the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector despised by his peers but loved and called into repentance by Jesus. The second is Mark’s telling of the woman who sought merely to touch the garment of Jesus to receive healing, but who was called out and recognized and blessed by Jesus. The third story is from John’s gospel, about a Pharisee who comes under cover of darkness to have a conversation with Jesus. Then on the last Sunday in November, which is Christ the King Sunday, we’ll look at a parable of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel often referred to as “the judgment of the nations,” in which Jesus makes clear what it really means to love and serve him.
It’s my hope that as we consider these stories of real people who sought and encountered the Jesus who walked among them as God-made-flesh, our hearts will be made more ready for the season of waiting called Advent.
With prayers for your journey,